Curaçao? Where is Curaçao? Better yet, how do you pronounce Curaçao? Curaçao (cur-a-sow) is a small but beautiful island in the Caribbean Sea off the coast of Venezuela. Curaçao is one of three Leeward Islands which use to form part of the former Netherland Antilles. The Netherlands Antilles was made up of six Caribbean islands namely Aruba, Bonaire, Curacao in the south, St. Maarten, St. Eustatius and Saba in the central Caribbean region. In 1986, Aruba left the Antillean constitution to become an autonomous island nation within the Kingdom of the Netherlands. On October 10, 2010, Curaçao and Saint Maarten followed suit by also becoming autonomous island nations within the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Bonaire, Saba and St. Eustatius opted to become special municipalities of the Netherlands.
Curaçao was discovered in 1499 by members of a Spanish expedition, and the island became a stopover for Spanish and Portuguese explorers. Legend has it that a number of sailors on Alonso de Ojeda’s ship contracted scurvy. These hapless souls were left on Curaçao, while the ship continued on its way to South America. Upon the ship’s return, the sailors were found to be alive and well, presumably cured by eating the island’s fruit containing Vitamin C. The name Curaçao means ‘the island of healing’. A more accepted explanation is that Curaçao is shaped like a heart, known in Portuguese as “curacao”, and it was considered the ‘heart’ of the Spanish, Portuguese and Dutch trades.
In 1634, the Dutch conquered Curaçao from Spain. On board the fleet was the first Jew to set foot on the islands; his name was Samuel Cohen. By this time, Jews who had fled The Inquisition from Spain and Portugal in the late 15th century had established a thriving and influential Sephardic Jewish community in the Netherlands. The first successful settlement of Jews on the island of Curaçao came in 1659, when a group of 70 Sephardic Jews from the Portuguese congregation of Amsterdam came under a charter of the Dutch West India Company. They granted the Jews freedom of religion, free land, freedom from taxation and protection from the authorities. This group brought with them the first Sefer Torah, which according to tradition is still part of the collection of Torah scrolls held by the Synagogue Mikve Israel Emanuel, which was built in 1732. The beautiful natural harbor of Willemstad, Curaçao became a center for commerce, shipping and trade. Commercial success and the liberal attitude of the Dutch government towards the Jews allowed the Jewish community to flourish. Due to The Inquisition’s expulsion of the Jewish community of Brazil in that country, Curaçao became a natural lure for Yidden seeking shelter, livelihood and adventure. Believe it or not, just around the same time in 1662, Curaçao became the center of a brisk slave trade where slaves were brought from Africa and sold throughout the New World.
Mikve Israel-Emanuel became the oldest congregation in the Western Hemisphere, and Bet Hayim the Jewish cemetery of the Mikve Israel-Emanuel community, may be the oldest Jewish cemetery in the Western Hemisphere rivaling the Jewish cemetery in Kingston, Jamaica. What differentiates the two communities is the forgotten remnant of Kingston’s short lived and all but forgotten Jewish community, and Bet Hayim, which holds the key to a remarkable history of a Jewish kehilla that actually flourished.
In 2005, I received an e-mail from Rabbi Ariel Yeshurun, Rav of the much newer Orthodox Ashkenazi congregation Shaarei Tzedek, whose in-laws happen to live in Baltimore. The email stated that there was a famous liqueur company in Curaçao that was seeking kosher certification. This request seemed to be no different from those that the STAR-K receives daily. Usually when such a request arrives, depending upon the product or the location, any one of the staff will handle the process. No question about it, everyone would want to handle a request from Curaçao; however, since I am the “liquor” administrator in the STAR-K office, I got the nod. We typically send a company a data form, basically a feasibility study, to see whether or how a product can be certified. At first, the company did not respond. In 2010, Mrs. Loes van der Woude, new managing director of Senior & Company, faithfully returned the form stating that they were seeking certification of their Curaçao of Curaçao liqueur to help expand their market, as well as the marketability of their internationally acclaimed product. Liqueurs are different from liquor, beer, or wine even though they are all alcoholic beverages. Liqueurs do not require a fermentation process like wine, beer, or whisky; they may go through a distillation process. Liqueurs do not have rigid protocol and regulations and can obtain their alcohol from many sources. Ethyl alcohol that is used in the manufacturing of liqueurs can come from natural or synthetic sources. It can be derived from grain and could present possible chometz issues, or it can be derived from wine and present kashrus issues. Liqueurs use flavoring and colorants that require reliable kosher certification. Furthermore, glycerin can be used to emulsify the ingredients and can be derived from animal, vegetable and/or synthetic sources. Unquestionably, if Senior & Company was to be kosher certified, all of their raw materials would need to bear reliable kosher certification. The quest for kosher certification began.
One key question that has to be raised with any company seeking kosher certification, especially companies that potentially use grain or grain derived ingredients, is whether or not the ownership of the company is Jewish. Rabbi Yeshurun answered that question in his initial e-mail; the company was founded by Jews and has Jewish ownership to this day. Therefore, Senior & Company’s source of alcohol had to be limited to ethyl alcohol that was not derived from a chometz grain source , to avoid any potential issues of chometz sheavar alav haPesach.1 Fortunately, Senior & Company has always used sugar derived ethyl alcohol. Other suppliers had to be changed and kosher letters of certification for their raw materials were requested. Finally it was time for the initial inspection. Kosher certification is a blend of “P” and “P”, Products and Process. I always say that ingredients don’t tell the whole story, and in the case of Senior & Company’s Curaçao of Curaçao it didn’t even tell half of it.
Curaçao is an island that is replete with beauty and character inherent in its white beaches, blue water and Dutch architecture – a true vacation paradise that rivals her sister island, Aruba. Upon viewing the sunrise over the blue expanse where horizon and water met in the background, and the white beaches and water met in the foreground, while davening neitz,2 I was overcome with the wonders of Hashem’s creations and felt compelled to recite “Ose maase breishis.”3 After davening, Mrs. Van der Woude gave me a ride from the hotel to their facility, and the audit was on.
Curaçao of Curaçao is a triple sec liqueur developed in 1886. Triple sec is an orange flavored liqueur. What sets Curaçao of Curaçao apart from all of its competitors is that it utilizes a natural orange flavor for its award winning taste. The laraha orange tree is a replanted Valencia orange tree brought from Spain in 1499 which did not successfully take to Curaçao’s salty and sandy environs. The fruit was bitter and replanting was disappointing. However, as the apocryphal story goes, at one of the family gatherings of the Senior family, a prominent Jewish family on the island with leaders in commerce and trade, it was discovered that although the fruit of the laraha orange tree was bitter, to their amazement the peel was flavorful and fragrant. In short, the laraha’s essential oils extracted from authentic laraha orange peels provided the basis for this amazing liqueur. Spices were added to the orange oil and, believe it or not, the same 125-year-old Copper Still is used to this day to produce Curaçao of Curaçao.
At this point, I realized that the company’s name, Senior & Company, was not some Spanish made up company name; it is the family name of the founders of the company. Very nice, I thought, but so is Kodak film or Bayer aspirin. However, I would soon find out that to those of us who value “Zechor yemos olam binu shnos dor v’dor,”4 the Senior name carries far more than award winning liqueur. After carefully reviewing the kosher documentation and actually seeing the process in action, examining all the raw materials, labels and lab reports, I determined that STAR-K would be able to certify their product. I then asked if I could see Jewish Curaçao, and Mrs. Van der Woulde was only too happy to oblige.
It took approximately ten minutes to get to the center of town from the quaint and historic Chobolobo Country Mansion, now home of Curaçao of Curaçao. Historic colorful buildings in Dutch motif dot the downtown area. Water and walkways give downtown Willemstad a relaxed atmosphere. We parked near the town hall and took a three minute walk into a 300-year-old time warp. In front of me stood a yellow and white trimmed building where a placard with the phrase, ‘Baruch Ata B’voecha’, was inscribed atop its outer portal. Going into the synagogue courtyard we walked across the way to the sanctuary where atop the archway the pasuk, “Yaft Elokim l’Yefes vishkon b’oholei Shem”,5 adorned the door. The letters Yud, Pay and Tav were enlarged, indicating the year the cornerstone was laid – in 1730! Mikve Israel-Emanuel has held services in this location since its dedication in 1732, making it the oldest continuously used synagogue in the Western Hemisphere. Typical of buildings in Curaçao, that get pummeled from salt and water, Mikve Israel-Emanuel was fully renovated in the 1970s to its original grandeur.6
In a cordoned off area in the synagogue courtyard, one can see the remains of the old mikva. In another wing, a museum displaying Judaica of the Curaçaon kehilla was on display. The most prized possession was a Sefer Torah, brought from the Netherlands dating back to the 1300s. It is delicate and fragile and would presumably disintegrate at one’s touch. The Torah’s atzei chaim were housed in a wood frame so that the Torah could be read upright in the Sefardic tradition. Special prized pieces such as ornate silver Torah crowns, the candelabra which was lit for Kol Nidre, and the elevated mahogany bris chairs complete with a pull-out shelf for the mohel’s equipment, send one’s memories flying. There really was Yiddishkeit in Curaçao!
And now for the telling moment. In the museum, the kehilla recreated the matzevos of the parnasium hachashuvim 7of the kehilla. It was done as a tribute to those who gave of themselves to see that Yiddishkeit was able to grow and flourish. The replication served a twofold purpose. First, it served to honor those forbearers whose names live on in Curaçao – names such as Maduro, Moreno, and de Cresto – whose progeny carry their famous surnames. Unfortunately, these replications are the only living memorials we have of those past generations. This became evident as I visited the Bet Chaim cemetery. Tragically, the chemical fumes of the Shell oil refinery built right next to the cemetery have effectively erased the writing from all the matzevos, and with it, the stories that those stones conveyed. Amongst the memories that were preserved was of one parnass who passed away in 1693. His name was Yitzchak Chaim Senior, the founder of the Senior family dynasty. In 1674, he saw the first Sefardic Chacham, Curaçao’s first Morah D’asra Horav Josiao Pardo, and in the same year saw the building of the first official building of Mikve Israel-Emanuel. Yitzchak Chaim Senior and those like him – Mordechai de Cresto, Yaakov Alvarez Correa, Avraham Daniel Moreno and Aharon Levi Maduro – were refugees who escaped religious persecution and established Yiddishkeit in a strange new world. I am sure that R’ Yitzchak Chaim Senior would be pleased to know that the work of his descendants proudly bears a STAR-K hechsher, and that thousands of brochos can now be uttered over the handiwork of his descendants. Y’hei Zichro Baruch.
3. O.C. 228:1
4. Devarim (Parshas Haazinu) 32:7
5. Breishis (Noach) 9:27
6. In 1964, Mikve Israel combined with Temple Emanuel, a Reform temple. Today, Shaarei Tzedek is the only Orthodox congregation in Curaçao.
7. Prominent members.