The Shuls with Sandy Floors
February 26, 2013 10:48 AM   Subscribe

There are only five functioning Jewish synagogues with sand floors in the world, and four of them are in the Caribbean. How has the tradition been maintained for hundreds of years?

The Five

Shaare Shalom Synagogue (Kingston, Jamaica)
- Wikipedia.
- Article: Becoming Jewish in Jamaica. "The first ordained rabbi in 40 years to serve the Shaare Shalom Synagogue of Kingston, Jamaica, has attracted to his conversion classes candidates who include descendants of its once much larger and thriving population."
- Article: Jamaica's New Tourism Spiel: Beaches and Reggae and Jews

Beracha Veshalom Vegmiluth Hasidim Synagogue (St. Thomas, Virgin Islands)
- Panoramic Photos.
- Photo of the sand floor

Mikve Israel-Emanuel Synagogue (Curacao, Netherlands Antilles)
- Photos. (Also known as the Snoa, it is the oldest synagogue in continuous use in the Western Hemisphere, founded in 1651.)

Neve Shalom (Paramaribo, Republic of Suriname)
- Photos.
- Wikipedia.

Portuguese Synagogue Also known as the Esnoga. (Amsterdam, The Netherlands)
- Wikipedia.
- Panoramic Photos.
- Video embedded here.

Why Sand?
A synagogue drawn in the sand: The custom may have originated in Amsterdam, where sand was used to dry mud on people's shoes. The Esnoga synagogue was near the edge of town, where most of the streets were unpaved and, thanks to the weather, often muddy. It was, therefore, practical to line the floor in the synagogue with sand to keep it tidy. There are a number of churches and taverns in the Netherlands dating to the 17th century that likewise have sand floors.
Synagogues in the Sand: There are two theories about the origins of the synagogue’s sand floor. One is that it symbolizes the desert through which Moses and the children of Israel wandered for 40 years. The other theory, considered by experts the more likely explanation, is that the floor harkens back to when Spanish Jews had to practice their religion in secret, meeting in cellars to pray.
More: A Journey to Jewish Curaçao. And a pdf article from Frommer's: Sanctuaries in the Sand
posted by zarq (5 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Thanks to Philosopher Dirtbike, whose comment earlier today sent me down a research rabbit hole to create this post. :)
posted by zarq at 10:50 AM on February 26, 2013 [6 favorites]

I should have been a shul with sandy floors
Scuttling across the flaws of midrashim.
posted by yoink at 11:34 AM on February 26, 2013 [5 favorites]

A Jewish man is shipwrecked on a desert island. After a couple of years, he is rescued by a passing ship and gives his rescuer a tour of the island before leaving.

He shows them the house he built, his library, and the shul made entirely of palm fronds. Looking down the beach, the rescuer sees an identical shack made of palm fronds and asks what it was.

The man replies, "oh, that's the shul I USED to go to!".
posted by dr_dank at 12:24 PM on February 26, 2013 [10 favorites]

I have been to the one on Curacao. I am not usually one to feel anything for giant religious edifices filled with glass and gold, but the stripped down wood-and-sand look was unusually compelling for me.
posted by rosswald at 1:29 PM on February 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

Me: "My teacher said that she went to Curacao, and that it was boring. Just goats and beaches."
Mom: "Curacao has the oldest Synagogue in the Western Hemisphere."
posted by ovvl at 8:02 PM on February 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

« Older Gun Control might have become obsolete yesterday.   |   Not really a funyun, either Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments