Bermuda Jews Part 1: Returning for Passover – by Deborah Levine

(The Bermuda Jews History Series was originally published in The Bermudian Magazine)

BermudaIn the 1990s, I made my first trip to Bermuda in fifteen years. My family, once the mainstay of Bermuda Jews, were long gone from the island. The first whiff of salty sea air hasn’t changed but the airport is a jumble of construction. A short jog across the tarmac should end in a hushed wait for the appearance of a customs agent, sitting patiently on the dark wood furniture of the terminal’s old-fashioned waiting room. Today, official greeters wave us through a temporary cordoned maze to a terminal with a second story, a food court, and customs agents encased in glass booths. An electronically-enhanced steel band strikes an earnest rendition of “Island in the Sun” where a portrait of a young Queen Elizabeth once hung.

I miss the days when my grandfather, Myer Malloy, would wave from the open door while a friendly the customs agent went through our luggage. A porter, needing no direction, appeared magically by my grandfather’s side, gathered my bags and took them out to our car. My grandmother, Ida, was waiting, ready to discuss the important issues of lunch, weather and clothes. I would breeze by the tourists waiting for the intermittent hotel taxis. Today I’m one of those tourists, but a herd of taxis greets us after customs, their eager drivers standing ready at their sides. Most of the taxis were mini-vans, an animal totally unsuited to the Bermuda roads I remembered.

Our taxi heads towards Hamilton, Bermuda’s capital city, a somewhat tongue-in-cheek description, since there is the other “cities” on the island never seemed like “urban centers” to me. The village of St. George, is a lovely “living museum” and I’ve always thought that the village of Somerset resembled a glorified, but pleasant crossroads. Several Hamilton shops built outlets in Somerset, but they seemed more like outposts than branches.

Despite the diminutive cities, our driver’s style is worthy of a large metropolis and he has plenty of company. Cars and buses careen along the narrow winding roads, defying en masse the speed limit of 20 miles per hour. Pink and white oleander bushes lining the roads brush against the cars. Other roads are walled on both sides; cut out of island limestone as rough as coral and a potent danger to elbows rested on open windows. We end up bumper-to-bumper at a series of traffic lights in downtown Hamilton, slowed to a crawl with vans, cars, and a large cement truck.

Cars for civilians were only made legal in 1947, primarily for use by doctors. My grandfather delighted in technology and he finagled one of the early cars. When, the first traffic light was installed in the early fifties at the entrance to Hamilton, the family would pile into our Studebaker on a Sunday afternoon to watch the traffic light change. We’d lose track of time sitting at the light with no other cars in sight. Then we’d drive to the post office; there was no delivery service.

Occasionally we’d take the ferry from town back to Warwick or even walk home. Today, I wanted to relive taking the ferry from town to Warwick and walking to Longford Hill. I haven’t quite adjusted to traffic realities and I terrorized my family with my insistence. The experience reminded me that as a child, I saw a truck run over a vegetable horse-drawn cart. The horse had to be shot; a memorable lesson about progress.

My grandfather ordered cars from England until he sold property for a local car dealership to Edmund Gibbons. Gramp’s favorite was a powder blue, customized four-door sedan with a tortoise-shell look-alike dashboard, leather seats, and his initials, MMM, embossed on the door. His cars were often stolen but unfortunately returned by the police since there was nowhere to hide the car, no garages and no carports. Gramp was a hair-raising driver who blustered through narrow roads, putt-putting tourists, and horse-drawn buggies. The military police once pulled him over for speeding on the military base. Terrified, I sobbed my four-year-old heart out while Gramp chewed out the young officer for scaring me. The poor soldier apologized profusely and offered Gramp free tickets to an upcoming military bash before we sped off again.

As the only granddaughter I was both protected and paraded about as the latest female offspring of Bermuda Jews.  When I arrived for vacation as a high schooler, I was immediately outfitted and coifed. My pleated skirt and baggy gray sweater were relegated to the back of a cedar closet and I was marched to Smith’s and Trimmingham’s, immediately. In my teens my grandmother would outfit me in chiffons and brocades, with matching shoes and “wrap.” Gramp excused himself until the shaggy locks that bespoke of my geekhood were styled. My grandfather adored introducing me at a Lions Club luncheon or promenading me by every couple on the dance floor at the Elbow Beach Hotel, another of his real estate arrangements. But it was my worst teenage nightmare.

I was a little brown wren next to the peacocks that were my grandparents. Extroverts, both of them, who loved to entertain and knew everybody. They were at home everywhere. I steeled myself to go grocery shopping with my grandmother. Not one to stand on ceremony unless she felt like it, she’d go to the produce section, pick an apple and eat it. When I fussed about paying for it first, she’d point to the sign “Help yourself, please” and state how she had done precisely as directed.

Banner, our grandmother, lived to be eight-nine, surviving Gramp by more than twenty years. Never remarrying, but surrounded by admirers, friends, visitors, family, and various assorted fans, Banner was indomitable or scary, depending on your point of view. My mother had nightmares that Banner rearranged all the furniture and the silverware drawer while we were out grocery shopping. This was no nightmare, just reality and you got used to it, looked on it with affection.

At our last Bermuda Seder together, Banner was eighty-four and a pale imitation of herself. We declined the excitement of the communal Seder, which our family had helped establish during WW II, and celebrated a somber Passover Seder by ourselves. Passover in Bermuda had always been a rollicking affair. More than a hundred Jews sat at the Seder table. It was a gathering of the tribe from around the world plus the handful of Bermuda Jews, some military personnel, and an occasional government official.

The ritual and liturgy of the Seder were not its chief attractions. The really serious business of the Seder was Romance. We pre-teens would hide in the bushes and giggle as couples kissed in the dark corners of the garden. Later, I didn’t find the pairing off quite so amusing. Banner’s determined recruitment of eligible sailors and marines could shame many a military campaign. Despite hiding in a quiet corner, I inevitably found myself surrounded at the Seder table by half-a-dozen hand-picked Jewish males.

A daughter of the prominent Swig family originally from Boston, Banner had embellished her Yankee forthrightness with years of Bermuda’s southern charm and colonial manners. The Malloy home served as a hub for Bermuda Jews during WW II and the unofficial USO center. The conversation flowed easily and excluded any topic of substance. since my adolescent flowering, the pedigree and education of these young men was extracted ruthlessly, although with great finesse. Those with slovenly dress or manners were quickly disqualified.

My grandmother genuinely enjoyed the company of these young Jewish men. I was always amused when Banner suggested a game of poker and pulled out our set of mother-of-pearl poker chips. Cards were one of her great passions and she rarely lost a hand. One sailor stormed out of the house after losing repeatedly. I found him pacing up and down in the garden muttering about deceptive old ladies who had probably trained in Las Vegas to entrap innocent, unsuspecting souls. In truth, Banner was kind and never played for more than pennies. But having “cards sense” was an innate gift that Banner felt should be exercised regularly.

Growing up, there was no cultural disconnect between poker-playing and colonial etiquette. It felt natural for quirky, eccentric characters to lurk beneath well-schooled exteriors. My brother and I discovered that the combination of outward civility and colorful interiors is not common in America where we were both beaten up on school playgrounds. I learned to gather strength for my American life from Bermuda’s beauty and the sounds of the sea. I spent hours staring across the harbor to make sure I could summon the picture at will.

My peace of mind was sorely tried this trip. For the first time in all these years, I am returning for an island Passover with no loving family to pile us into their car and take us home. The picture-perfect house built by my grandfather in the nineteen forties is owned by strangers and today’s destination is a hotel. I do take comfort in the sight of the familiar hibiscus lining the roads, the whitewashed ridged rooftops, and the closely woven Bermuda grass. I drift back to the late night when my mother woke me up to see us driving through the night blooming cirrus; a huge, luminous, white flower that blossoms only once a year.

When I left Bermuda after that last Seder, the flowers barely registered. The long-existing economic and social disparity between Black and White had suddenly come to a head. The Black community which provided much of the island’s infrastructure virtually closed down the harbor, schools, and the local hospital. Garbage collections, buses, taxis and ferries ground to a halt.

To get us to the airport, my grandmother called in a favor from her friend, Sheila, a Black woman who owned a taxicab. My grandfather had established ties between the ties island’s black community and the Bermuda Jews and the connections remained.  Sheila drove us through the empty streets lined with piles of uncollected garbage set on fire by protestors. Stunned into total silent during the half-hour solitary drive, I held my baby in a tight death grip as we dashed through customs and onto the tarmac to the waiting plane. The smoke from burning garbage was visible from the plane window as the island faded from sight.

The noises of excited children at this Seder brought me back to the present. It was obvious that the communal Seder still drew an eclectic crowd. There were hotel personnel, government workers, some with children and some without. I met tourists from the US, England, Canada, Europe, Australia, and one young man from Israel who was sailing around the world. Long-time residents were out in full force, their backgrounds as varied as the tourists.

The service was a do-it-yourself affair and everyone, including the children, took a turn at the Passover liturgy. For the more traditional Jews, we read in Hebrew. For others, everything was repeated in English. Hours passed as we read the Exodus story, joined in prayer and song, and ate the Passover meal imported from the States. Ever the social occasion, small groups talked throughout the service. People wandered around greeting friends; children ran in and out of the room. To me it was like coming home; to my family it was pandemonium.

My grandfather, great uncle, father and their military friends had created the communal Seder during the Second World War when there finally enough Bermuda Jews to hold one. Little is known about the early Bermuda Jewish community although there are tantalizing glimpses of a Jewish presence. Bermuda’s first survey in 1622 by Richard Norwood carved the island into plats and assigned their ownership. In his 1663 revised survey, Norwood designated “Jewes Bay” on parcel #17 but no evidence of Jewish ownership. My father claimed, but could not prove, that there were Jewish privateers, swashbuckling, legalized pirates. It seems that there was a silent Jewish presence in the forty-one years between the two surveys, a silence that continued given that Bermuda taxed Jews and “reputed Jews” until 1790.

The best source of Bermuda’s Jewish history may be my own family, our diaries, letters, and photographs. Yet, none of us knew Hebrew and there was no synagogue. I knew I was Jewish but my mother taught Latin at the Bermuda High School for Girls which she had attended as did I. When I am old and memory fades, I will still remember how to sing the Anglican hymn “All Things Bright and Beautiful.”

The past overwhelms me. I stand transfixed in front of a building but not sure why. Gradually, I remember this is the “Old Vallis Building” where Gramp had his real estate office. Wandering further up the hill, we pass through a split in the limestone off the main road. “Between-the-Walls” is a magical mini-community whose houses, Weber and Shaumeefe, were once home to my parents and grandparents. Maintained in pristine condition, Between-the-Walls is sunny and inviting by day, but at night, the Pride of India trees are home to trolls and brownies. Fairies dance in the garden when there’s a ring around the moon like sprites from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. On the light sea breeze are my loved ones, defying death and time to whisper stories of the only Jewish family whose lives in Bermuda spanned four generations.

Jewish in Bermuda Series © Deborah Levine
originally published in The Bermudian Magazine

CLICK for…

Part 2: The Immigrants
Part 3: The Jewish Question

Part 4: Love, War, and Beyond

Graphic by Ivaya Valchev courtesy of unsplash


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