This article was taken from our archives. It first appeared in the June 2005 issue of The Bermudian and is the first in a series of four. It appears here exactly as it did in print originally.
She was an American Jew living in colonial Bermuda in the I950s. Deborah Levine’s childhood memories provide a unique perspective on a bygone era. Her intimate and insightful story invites us back in time and explores the conflicting heritage of a Jewish girl growing up in Bermuda.
In the nineties, I make my first trip to Bermuda in 15 years. The first whiff of airy 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 where my grandfather, Myer Malloy, waved from the open door while a friendly customs agent went through our luggage. A porter, needing no direction, appeared magically by my grandfather’s side, gathered my bag and took them out to our car. My grandmother, Ida, was waiting, ready to discus the important issues of lunch, weather and clothes. I breezed by the tourists waiting for the intermittent hotel taxis. Today I’m one of those tourists, but a herd of taxis greet us after customs, their eager drivers standing ready at their sides. Most of the taxis are minivans, an animal totally unsuited to the Bermuda roads I remember.
Our taxi heads toward Hamilton, Bermuda’s capital city, a somewhat tongue-in-cheek description, since the “cities” on the island never deemed like “urban centres” to me. The town 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 road , defying en masse the peed limit of 20 miles per hour. Pink and white oleander bushes lining the road brush against the car. Other roads are walled on both sides, cut out of island limestone as rough as coral and a potent danger to elbows resting 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 of Hamilton, the family piled into our Studebaker on a Sunday afternoon to watch the traffic light change. We lost track of time, sitting at the light with no other cars in sight. Then we drove to the post office; there was no delivery service.
Occasionally, we took the ferry from town back to Warwick; sometimes we walked home. Today, I want to relive taking the ferry from town to Warwick and walking to Longford Hill. I haven’t quite adjusted to traffic realities, and I terrorize my family, with my insistence. The experience reminds me that as a child I saw, a truck run over a horsedrawn vegetable 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 Gibbon s Gramp’s favourite was a powderblue, cusomised, 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 fortunately they were 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 apologised 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. When I arrived for vacation as a high schooler, I was immediately outlined and coiled. My pleated skirt and baggy grey sweater were relegated to the back of a cedar closet, and I was marched to Smith’s and Trimingham’s immediately. In my teens, my grandmother outfitted me in chiffons and brocades with matching shoes and a “wrap.” Gramp excused himself until the shaggy locks that bespoke 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, they 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 went to the produce section, picked an apple and ate it. When I fussed about paying for it first, she pointed to the sign “Help yourself, please” and stated how she had done precisely as directed.
For some mysterious reason, we called our grandmother “Banner.” Banner lived to be 89, surviving Gramp by more than 20 years. Never remarrying but surrounded by admirers, friends, visitors, family and various assorted fans, she was indomitable or scary, depending on your point of view. My mother had nightmares that Banner had rearranged all the furniture and the silverware drawer while we were out grocery shopping. This was no nightmare, just reality; you got used to it and looked on it with affection.
At our last Bermuda seder, my grandmother was 84, unwell and a pale imitation of herself. We declined the excitement of the communal seder, which our family helped establish during World War II, and celebrated a sombre Passover seder by ourselves.
Passover in Bermuda had always been a rollicking affair. More than a hundred Jews sat at the seder table-a gathering of the clan from around the world since few Jews lived on the island- some military personnel, tourists and occasional government officials.
The ritual and liturgy of the seder were not its chief attractions. The really serious business of the seder was romance. We preteens hid in the bushes and giggled as couple kissed in the dark corner of the garden. Later, I didn’t find the pairing of quite off quite so amusing. Banner’s determined recruitment of eligible sailors and marines would have shamed many a military campaign. Despite hiding in a quiet corner, I inevitably found myself surrounded at the seder table by half a dozen handpicked Jewish males.
A daughter of the prominent Swig family originally from Boston, Banner had embellished her Yankee forthrightness with Bermuda’s southern charm and colonial manner. The conversation flowed easily and excluded any topic of substance. The pedigree and education of these young men were extracted ruthlessly, although with great finesse. Those with slovenly dress or manner 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.
Card and poker are second nature to me. I taught my toddler to play poker with those same mother-of-pearl poker chips. For Roslyn’s secondgrade science project, we made a study of probability by playing more than 100 hands of poker. Only when I saw the look of disbelief on the suburban parents’ faces at Roslyn’s science-fair display did I remember that not everyone wants their little angel to calculate the odd of a straight flush or four of a kind.
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 colourful 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 harbour to make sure I could summon the picture at will.
My peace of mind was sorely tried on my recent 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. Strangers own the picture-perfect house built by my grandfather in the 1940s, 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 one late night when my mother woke me up to see the nightblooming cirrus as we drove past; I remember that huge, luminous, white flower that blossoms only once a year.
When I left Bermuda after that last solemn seder, I barely saw the flowers and considered myself lucky to get off the island. The longexisting economic and social disparity between blacks and whites had suddenly come to a head. The black community, which provided much of the island’s infrastructure, virtually closed down the harbour, 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 favour from her friend Sheila, a black woman who owned a taxicab. Sheila drove us through the empty streets lined with piles of uncollected garbage set on fire by protestors. Stunned into total silence 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 recent seder bring me back to the present. My daughter, Roslyn, now a willowy sixteen-year-old, has found a quiet hideout. My grandmother’s hunting instincts rise in me, and although her hunting grounds, the military bases, are closed now, there are several adorable young men standing by themselves. Keeping in mind how irritating my grandmother’s aggressiveness could be, I politely ask Roslyn if she would like to be introduced. Roslyn informs me that she can find her own young men and introduces herself, thank you very much.
Announcing that she likes redheads, Roslyn makes quick work of inviting two students from the Bio Station to join us. I can almost hear my grandmother’s wonderful giggle; she liked redheads, too.
It is obvious that the communal seder still draws an eclectic crowd. There are hotel personnel and government workers, some with children and some without. I meet tourists from the U.S., England, Canada, Europe, Australia and one young man from Israel who is sailing around the world. Long-time residents are out in full force, their backgrounds as varied as the tourists.
The service is a do-it-yourself affair, and everyone, including the children, takes a turn at the Passover liturgy. The more traditional Jews read in Hebrew. For others, everything is repeated in English. Hours pass as we read the Exodus story, join in prayer and song, and eat the Passover meal imported from the States. Ever the social occasion, small groups talk throughout the service. People wander around greeting friends; children run in and out of the room. To me it is like coming home; to my family it is pandemonium.
My grandfather, great uncle, father and their military friends created the communal seder during World War II when there were finally enough Jews on the island to hold one. Little is known about the early Bermuda Jewish community, although there are tantalising glimpses of a Jewish presence. Bermuda’s first survey in 1622 by Richard Norwood carved the island into plots and assigned their ownership. In his 1663 revised survey, Norwood designated “Jewes Bay” on parcel 17, but he provided no evidence of Jewish ownership. My father claimed, but could not prove, that there were Jewish privateers, swashbuckling, legalised pirates. It seems there was a silent Jewish presence in the 41 years between the two surveys, and this silence continued, since Bermuda taxed Jews and “reputed Jews” until 1790.
The best source of Bermuda’s Jewish history may be my own family and 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 I did. When I am old and memory fades, I will still remember how to sing the Anglican hymn “All Things Bright and Beautiful.”
Despite our lack, my mother taught second grade in a synagogue when we moved to New York, and I was her teacher’s aide from age eight. She earned her Hebrew teacher’s and principal’s license; I studied the ancient Near East at Harvard. My mother discovered that she had cancer when I completed my master’s in urban planning in Chicago. I accepted an offer of a job in interreligious affairs with the American Jewish Committee (AJC) rather than in economic development projects so that I’d have more to share with her.
I was puzzled that AJC hired this novice for the delicate work of interfaith collaboration. I never dreamed that with my expertise in interreligious affairs I would serve as a consultant nationally or that I would publish my writing and win awards. One of my colleagues, a rabbi who had served as chief rabbi for Bermuda, suggested that the skills and mindset of being Jewish in Bermuda were key to dealing with America’s emerging multicultural issues.
Perhaps so, but for the moment, the past overwhelms me. I’m standing in front of a building for reasons too hazy to verbalize. Gradually, I remember this is the old Vallis Building that once housed my grandfather’s real-estate office. Wandering farther up the hill, I pass through a split in the limestone off the main road. Between The Walls is a magical minicommunity whose houses Weber and Shaumeefe were once home to my parents and grandparents. Maintained in pristine condition, Between The Walls is sunny and open by day, but the prideof-lndia trees are home to trolls and brownies at night. 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 the story of the only Jewish family whose lives in Bermuda spanned four generations.