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Nineteenth-century Caribbean circumcisions: an analysis of the journal of births and circumcisions performed by Moises Frois Ricardo.

During April and May of 2002, a journal of circumcisions performed by Moises Frois Ricardo, a Sephardic Jew, was displayed in an exhibit sponsored by the Museo Sefardi of Caracas, Venezuela. The original manuscript, entitled "Record of Birth and Circumcision Beginning from The 26th January 1840 corresponding to the 21st Sebat 5600, Kingston, Jamaica--M.E Ricardo," belongs to Ricardo's great grandson, Ricardo de Sola of Caracas. The author of this analysis was fortunate to receive a copy of these birth and circumcision entries, which adds to our understanding of the Jewish communities in the Caribbean region during the nineteenth century.

Moises Frois Ricardo was born on September 21, 1812, to Mordechay Ricardo and Esther Frois d'Andrade on the Dutch Caribbean island of Curacao. At the age of twenty, he was still living in Curacao, where his father was a well-known and respected individual, friend to the Latin American liberator, Simon Bolivar, and an active member of the Jewish community. By the early 1840s, Moises Frois Ricardo was living in Jamaica, where he married Henriette Tavares in 1841, It is there that he started recording information for 199 religious circumcisions performed by him between 1840 and 1878, when he served as a model (circumciser) throughout the Caribbean. Ricardo's journal of circumcisions begins with entries pertaining to ceremonies performed in Jamaica, but by the end of 1843, Ricardo, his wife, and their first-born son moved to Curacao, where Ricardo continued to live for most of his life. From there, he traveled to destinations where his circumcision services were needed. Toward the end of the journal, from 1871 through 1878, there appears to have been another move, this time to Venezuela, where, by that time, most of his children were living. The journal shows a significantly reduced volume of circumcisions during this period, leading us to believe that Ricardo was semi-retired at that point. He died at the age of 67 on February 18, 1880, and is buried in Curacao. His wife died in Caracas, Venezuela, in 1905.

In the mid-nineteenth century, the largest Jewish community in the Caribbean was on the Dutch island of Curacao. Communities of significant size existed in St. Thomas and Jamaica as well, while smaller groups of recent Jewish immigrants, many of whom had originally lived in Curacao, had begun to spring up in Latin American countries, where independence from Spain had made life more palatable for Jews. By the middle of the nineteenth century, Curacao's Sephardic Jews had spread themselves throughout the Caribbean region in search of better economic opportunities. These Jews appear to have considered the region as one big country, and Moises Frois Ricardo was most representative of this way of viewing the Caribbean Basin. He traveled very frequently to many different locations to perform circumcisions, as indicated by a summary of these travels taken from his journal:
Location No. of Circumcisions

Curacao 127
Barcelona, Venezuela 10
Caracas, Venezuela 9
Coro, Venezuela 10
La Guaira, Venezuela 4
Maracaibo, Venezuela 3
Puerto Cabello, Venezuela 8
Barranquilla, Colombia 10
Cartagena, Colombia 4
Santa Marta, Colombia 1
Kingston, Jamaica 3
Spanish Town, Jamaica 3
Santo Domingo, D.R. 8

Total 199


Although it is logical that most of the circumcisions (64 percent) were performed in Curacao, which had the largest Jewish community among the places listed, and which was, of course, the mohel's main place of residence, it is important to reflect on how often this man traveled during the 1850s and 1860s.

Between 1850 and 1870, Ricardo averaged about eight circumcisions each year, his busiest being 1865, when he offered his services fifteen times. Below, we show his itinerary for that year:
Month Location

January 1865 Curacao
February 1865 Coro, Venezuela
March 1865 Maracaibo, Venezuela
April 1865 Curacao
May 1865 Barranquilla and Santa Marta, Colombia
June 1865 Curacao
August 1865 Coro, Venezuela
September 1865 Curacao
December 1865 Barranquilla, Colombia


While he lived in Curacao, he traveled to Venezuela on at least twenty-eight different occasions, to Colombia nine different times, and to the Dominican Republic seven times. It is likely that he visited these places socially on other occasions as well, but even without such travels he was off-island more frequently than many a Curacaoan of the twenty-first century.

We have tried to estimate how long Ricardo remained away from Curacao during his busy year of 1865. In order to do so we have made the following assumptions: (1)
Length of Sea Voyage: Curacao--La Guaira, Venezuela 3 to 5 days
 La Guaira, Venezuela--Curacao 2 to 3 days
 Curacao--Maracaibo, Venezuela 3 to 4 days
 Maracaibo, Venezuela--Curacao 4 to 6 days
 Curacao--Coro, Venezuela 1 day
 Coro, Venezuela--Curacao 1 to 2 days
 Curacao--Barranquilla, Colombia 8 to 12 days
 Barranquilla, Colombia--Curacao 10 to 14 days


Length of Stay on Land: We assume that Ricardo arrived at least a day before performing the circumcision and departed a day after the last circumcision ceremony in that location.

Based on these assumptions, Ricardo spent at a minimum 51 days away from home in 1865 on trips to the sites indicated below:
Coro, Venezuela 2/13/1865--2/17/1865 5 days
Maracaibo, Venezuela and 3/25/1865--4/1/1865 8 days
Barranquilla, Colombia 4/29/1865--5/17/1865 19 days
Coro, Venezuela 8/13/1865--8/17/1865 5 days
Barranquilla, Colombia 12/18/1865--1/15/1866 14 days in 1865 and
 15 days in 1866


If we assume the maximum traveling time by sea, these circumcisions could have kept him away from home for as many as 72 days in 1865. Since we have been extremely conservative in our assumptions regarding the number of days the mohel remained at each location during each of his visits, we believe it is safe to say that in this particular year Moises Frois Ricardo spent at least two months in various Venezuelan and Colombian towns.

Jewish law requires a Jewish baby boy to be circumcised on the eighth day after his birth. With no mohel available in many of the Caribbean locations at which Sephardic Jews resided in the nineteenth century, it naturally took time to get a message to the nearest mohel informing him that his services were needed. The circumciser would show up as soon as he possibly could, taking into account his other obligations. It must be noted that most people who perform religious circumcisions have an alternate, more lucrative source of income. Moises Ricardo was no exception. Upon his return to Curacao in 1844, he had joined the National Guard as a second lieutenant, and each time in the subsequent fifteen years when he had to leave the island to perform ritual circumcisions elsewhere, he had to obtain permission from his military superiors to do so. In 1860, he retired with the rank of Captain.

There is no doubt about Ricardo's dedication to his duties as mohel. Local demand for a circumcision a week after a child's birth were usually met without any delays, but sometimes months would elapse before the mohel arrived in faraway locations to perform the necessary operation and religious ritual.

While most circumcisions in Curacao generally occurred in a timely fashion as required on the eighth day, a small number seem to have been done at greater intervals after the time of birth. Conceivably, prematurity of the newborn or other health issues may have necessitated such postponement. On occasion, Ricardo may have been away from the island as well. This may have been the case at the end of 1850 and early 1851, when he was in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, for the circumcision of Solomon Edward Pereira on January 16, 1851. This trip may have caused a delay in the circumcision of Benjamin Leon, born in Curacao on the 21st of December, 1850. His berit mila (circumcision ceremony) did not take place until February 3rd of 1851. In those days a trip from Curacao to Santo Domingo could take anywhere from five to twelve days, and to go from Santo Domingo to Curacao could take as many as ten days. Further discussion of this case is provided below.

It is known that Ricardo was a religious and observant man. He left behind several prayer books, including a book of prayers for fast days, which would have been a fairly esoteric possession among the Jews of Curacao. His deference to rabbinic authorities, in spite of his disagreement with the guidance offered on at least one occasion, is also indicative of his respect for those who were more learned than he in Jewish law, and on whom he relied to explain the letter of the law.

There are several unusual cases that caught our attention while reviewing the circumcision records in Ricardo's journal. Some require one to read between the lines, while others are quite explicit. Among the latter is an entry at the end of the journal where Ricardo wrote the following remarks:
 Not entered in my Books fls. 120 to 121
 Born in the island of Curacao on Sunday the 9th of January
 1864--correspdg to the 1st of Shebat 5624--Jeosuah Naar
 Son of Mordechay & Rachel Henriquez
 I the undersign[ed] declare that no circumcision has taken
 place for I have not said the Blessing of the mila, but to
 please the Revd Haham Aron Mendes
 Chumaceiro--praes [prayers] has been said.
 I do hereby certify that this child is not atol have been
 circumcised, but as the revd Chumaceiro said since the child
 has been born circumcised, he is free from suffering the
 operation. I would have donit without any danger, but I
 have submit[ted] religesly.
 MFR


The handwriting for this entry is markedly less neat than that which appears in the rest of the journal, and the English is less accurate as well, leading us to believe that Ricardo was not at all happy with this decision by Haham Chumaceiro. From the sloppy handwriting and the lack of care in his use of the English language it would almost appear that Ricardo was venting his displeasure in his journal, and that this otherwise very precise mohel was in a very distraught state of mind when he wrote down his thoughts on the matter. Consultation with Rabbi Gershon Segal of Newton, Massachusetts, confirms that, according to Orthodox Jewish tradition, Ricardo was correct in this particular case. The learned haham (rabbi) should have allowed the mohel to perform a minor procedure on this baby boy, even though he was born without a foreskin.

Another entry worthy of attention is that of the circumcision of Samuel de Casseres, who was born on October 2, 1856, "corresponding to the 3rd of Tishree 5617 (fast of Guedalyah)," and circumcised on "the 9 October 1856 correponding to 10 Tishree (On the Holy Kipur day)." Here the requirement to circumcise a Jewish child on the eighth day, if he is born by natural childbirth, is considered so important, that it obligates the mohel to take time, even on the Day of Atonement, the "Sabbath of Sabbaths," to perform the necessary procedure in a timely fashion.

In addition to these entries that show full awareness of Jewish authority and traditional Jewish observance, there are some entries that provide insight as to the level of increased interaction with non-Jews by the Sephardic communities served by Ricardo.

First there is the case, mentioned earlier, of Benjamin Leon. Benjamin's mother was Rachel Leon, but the record of his circumcision and that of his brother Mordechay Leon two years earlier are the only two in the journal that list no father. Only the mother's name is shown, implying that the father was not Jewish. Children with a Jewish mother are automatically considered Jewish, and as such the two boys were properly circumcised and additionally given very Jewish names. Mordechay's circumcision was performed on the ritually correct eighth day and it is therefore almost certain that the delay that occurred at the time of Benjamin's circumcision was either due to Ricardo's absence from the island at the time or due to health considerations. Most likely, the delay did not reflect any parental conflict about performing the ritual.

There are two cases where circumcision occurred at unusually late dates. In the first, the child was circumcised when he was five years old, and the author believes that the mother's religion may have been in question. In the other case, the person was eighteen years old at the time of circumcision. This child had been born in Leeds, England, to a non-Jewish mother and a Sephardic father, and the circumcision must have been part of his conversion ceremony.

Of great interest are the cases of two brothers born out of wedlock in 1863 and 1865, respectively, in Barranquilla, Colombia. They were both sons of a non-Jewish woman and a Jew. The boys were given Jewish and Spanish names and circumcised. The only difference in their record is that Ricardo very subtly put the name of the mother first and then added "Recognise[d] child of," followed by the Jewish father's name.

Today's Orthodox Jewish approach to such a situation is that the child may be circumcised if there is a reasonable expectation that the child will be brought up in the Jewish faith. In such cases, the berit (circumcision) takes place leshem gerut, which means "for the sake of conversion." In other words, it is anticipated that the boy will complete the conversion process as an adult at a future date, at which time he will not have to undergo circumcision. Ricardo had a written request from the children's Catholic mother to circumcise them, in which she promised that her two sons would be brought up in the Jewish religion. The letter was witnessed by four individuals, and Ricardo kept this document as if to confirm the legitimacy of his actions.

It is of interest to note that these two circumcisions did not enjoy the attendance of a godmother. Every entry in Ricardo's register indicates a godfather and a godmother for the child. This was a very common practice among the Sephardim of the Caribbean, and, most often, beloved relatives or friends were given such honor. In the cases of these children born out of wedlock a godfather is recorded, but no name is provided for a godmother. It is most likely that Jewish women of good social standing were not allowed by their fathers or spouses to be associated in any way with such a blatant defiance of the institution of marriage.

At the end of his journal, Ricardo provided yet another entry that differs from the aforementioned two circumcisions of sons of a non-Jewish mother. This entry is a record of a non-religious circumcision:
 Born in Barranquilla 3 of May 1865-Israel
 Emmanuel--Son
 of M[ ... ] A[ ... ]
 Circumcised on the 21 Febr 1866 at Barranquilla
 (without any of our religion ceremony) being 8
 months and 28 days old. (Son of D[ ... ] H[ ... ] S[ ... ])
 Barranquilla 1865


Here, the circumciser identified the name of the non-Jewish mother and the Jewish father, but did not indicate that the father had recognized the son by giving him his name, or that the mother had offered to encourage her son to be a Jew. Scribbled at the bottom of this page, the mohel wrote "he notado solamente por la curiosidad"--only noted as a curiosity. Ricardo, quite properly, did not say any of the Jewish prayers on this occasion, since there appeared to be no indication that this child would live a Jewish life. The circumcision in this case was merely a surgical procedure, which he apparently performed as a favor, since he happened to have been in Barranquilla, Colombia, that month for the ritual circumcision of another child, Abraham Haim Rois Mendez.

Finally, there appears to be one case of a medical nature. It involved a child born in Barbados to the Lindo family in 1838 and circumcised on that island as required eight days after birth. Nine years later, Ricardo, assisted by "S.M. Lansberg, Chief doctor of His Majesty's Dutch corvette the Ayay," re-circumcised the boy in Curacao. An additional remark at the bottom of this entry is made practically illegible by having been scratched out. It appears to be some sort of praise by the mohel for the young boy's endurance, and ends with "God bless him. Amen."

This journal is precious not only because it is an important record of the Caribbean Jews of the nineteenth century, but also because it shows a man dedicated to exercising a skill that was extremely important to this geographically extended Jewish community, far flung as it was from other Jewish centers. In doing so, he traveled frequently, requiring him to be away from his family and his business for long periods of time. At all times, he appeared to be extremely conscientious, knowledgeable, and devoted to performing all his tasks according to Jewish law.

Moises Frois Ricardo and Henriette Tavares had five sons and one daughter. Ricardo circumcised all five sons himself. His firstborn, Mortimer, was circumcised in 1842 in Kingston, Jamaica, where he began his journal, and the other four, Aaron Edward, David, Phineas, and Joseph, were all born and circumcised in Curacao. Of these children, David Ricardo was the only one to marry within the Jewish religion when he married Miriam de Jongh in 1871.

It was to David Ricardo that Moises passed on the tradition of circumciser, and David in turn taught his expertise to his son, Louis Joseph Ricardo. Louis lived most of his adult life in Curacao, where he had married Hannah Haydee Capriles in 1913. He continued for many years in his grandfather's tradition of serving the Jewish community. Louis and Haydee Ricardo had no descendants.

Of the other eight children of David Ricardo, all living in Venezuela, only two married Jews. Daughter Enriqueta married Abraham Capriles, and daughter Louise married Jacobo de Sola, whose sons are the only remaining Jewish descendants of Moises Frois Ricardo.

In a letter written on September 25, 1877, Henrique Bauder of Puerto Cabello, Venezuela, directed himself to Moises Ricardo, then living in Caracas, Venezuela, requesting permission to marry Ricardo's only daughter, Esther. No mention is made of the fact that Bauder was not Jewish, and he ended his letter: (2)
 ... ofreciendole con palabra de caballero vencer cuantas
 dificultades se presentaran y que sean motivos para impedir
 nuestra union, y verificada esta, juro hacerla eternamente feliz.
 Esperando poderle dar algun dia el dulce nombre de padre, me
 suscribo con toda consideracion Su atto. Y humilde servidor
 Q.B.S.M.
 Henrique Bauder

 ... promising my word as a gentleman to conquer whatever
 difficulties may present themselves and which would be
 reasons to impede our union, and once this is verified, I
 promise to make her eternally happy. Hoping some day to be
 able to call you by the sweet name of father, I sign
 with all consideration as
 Your faithful and humble servant
 Who kisses your hands
 Henrique Bauder


Esther Ricardo and Henrique Bauder were married in Caracas, Venezuela, all difficulties apparently having been conquered.

Moises Frois Ricardo belonged to the last generation of Caribbean Sephardic Jews who married almost exclusively within the Jewish faith. His sister Betsy, Bathseba Ricardo, married Joseph Capriles in Curacao, and the couple had seventeen children. Sister Raquel Ricardo married Joseph Capriles's brother, Abraham, and this union produced twelve offspring. (3) All the descendants of these two Jewish unions eventually moved to Venezuela, and most of their descendants continue to live in that country and today practice the Catholic faith. Moises Ricardo's brother David died in his teens, and his brother Joseph died as an infant. The Jewish descendants of Moises Frois Ricardo who are still alive today have all intermarried, and with them his Jewish line has ended. Their interest and pride in their ancestry has allowed, however, for the conservation of many manuscripts, such as this journal, providing insight into an important era in Caribbean Sephardic history. Historians, genealogists, and other researchers can consult Ricardo's journal of circumcisions at the library of the American Jewish Historical Society, where a copy has been deposited.

(3.) Between these two Ricardo-Capriles unions, Venezuela became quite populated with persons carrying the surname Capriles. This has led to the much-repeated saying that in Venezuelan towns one can always find "un jefe civil, un cura, un boticario y un Capriles"--a town official, a priest, a pharmacist, and a Capriles. See Abraham Levy-Benshimol et al., Los Sefardies--Vinculo entre Curazao y Venezuela, Museo Sefardi de Caracas (Caracas, 2002), 73.

(1.) These figures are, with some modifications, adapted from the data provided by Coomans-Eustatia et al., Breekbare Banden--Feiten en visies over Aruba, Bonaire en Curacao na da Vrede van Munster 1648-1998 (Bloemendaal, Netherlands, 1998), 149.

(2.) Taken from letter dated September 25, 1877, private archives of Ricardo de Sola Ricardo of Caracas, Venezuela.
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Author:Goldish, Josette Capriles
Publication:American Jewish History
Geographic Code:50CAR
Date:Jun 1, 2003
Words:3455
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