Jewish In Jamaica

A Spiritual Journey to Bob Marley’s Childhood Home

Something about discovering some of my Jewish roots this year led me to Mount Zion in Jamaica. I had always noticed the Jewish symbolism in Bob Marley’s music. Take a listen to the references in the songs Exodus and Jammin’ for instance. It was a connection I never really understood. Several years ago I remember reading that black Jewish Ethiopians were finally allowed to emigrate to Israel. This is one of the reasons that led my wife and I to visit Jamaica this year.

Admittedly I know more about Caribbean culture than Jewish culture. I once spent years working on a reggae CD in Scarborough with Jamaican-Canadians. I grew up in Alberta where you learn early that Judaism is not welcome. You can’t even find a decent bagel for Christsakes. But my best friend Arnold, who was born in Trinidad, was the first person to introduce me to Bob Marley. We would sit in his basement drinking rum and cokes while listening to Legend. When we were teenagers some of his older cousins would drive us around the North West of Calgary listening to Bob Marley in what can only be described as Calgarian Cheech and Chong adventures in the snow. This is what I remember about Calgary, not Boxcar Willie and cowboy hats.

What exactly is the connection between Judaism and Rastafarianism? I really needed to find out. Going to Jamaica seemed to be a logical place to start. My wife (who has Caribbean roots) and I stayed in a resort in Negril on the West Coast of Jamaica. As relaxing as that was this was not going to be the place to make these connections, although the sounds of Bob Marley were ever present.

So one morning a rickety bus arrived at the resort to take us on a spiritual journey. The only other people on the bus were a large Jamaican-British family. After only twenty minutes of driving their young child was throwing up. We stopped in a nearby town to buy a T-shirt but the mother decided it wasn’t the right size so we continued on with the mother covered in puke.

A long ride followed on the highway through Montego Bay to Runaway Bay on the Northern Coast. Our destination was a place called Nine Miles. We turned inland on a steep, winding and bumpy road. After passing through a town called Browns Town we began seeing signs for the Bob Marley Mausoleum. I thought we were almost there but I was wrong. The road became even more bumpy. We were driving on the wrong side (British side) of the road on winding roads over massive cliff drops. I flashbacked to Banff Alberta driving up the side of a mountain to get to Sunshine Village to ski before they built the gondola.The child threw up again and it was decided that after the Mausoleum we would not continue on to a Revival Church. I was disappointed but it would not ruin the day. The whole ride had taken three and a half hours so far. We also passed by huge sections of land torn apart – and ruined – by bauxite mining.

I kept trying to read my Rastafarian book where I learned that the Jewish connection goes back to Marcus Mosiah (or Moses) Garvey, the famous Black Nationalist who helped usher in the concept of Pan-Africanism. He was born in 1887 in Jamaica and the Garveyite movement used the colours of red, gold, green and black, the colours now used by the Rastafarians. In the book (The Rastafarians by Leonard E. Barrett, Sr.) the author says, “Ethiopia to the Blacks in America was like Zion or Jerusalem to the Jews.” Garvey is reported to have said, “Look to Africa for the crowning of a Black King; he shall be the redeemer.” This king would be Ras Tafari, who was crowned King of Ethiopia in 1930 and this placed him in a line of Kings dating back to King Solomon. He changed his name to Haille Selassie. The word Jah, for God, is a shortened version Jehovah – the Biblical name for God. Often when listening to reggae music you will hear someone sing, or say, Jah Ras-Tafari. So this King is believed to be the second coming and Marcus Garvey is thought to be a prophet. But this is a very short desciption of the beginning of this movement and I would encourage anyone to read this whole book if they want to know the entire story.
We soon passed a Rastafarian school which at first I thought was the Bob Marley Mausoleum.
Soon afterwards the bus climbed a hill where there was a compound. I had my window open and as we entered the large gates a Rastafarian tried to give me a very large cone shaped joint through the window. When we got off the bus we soon discovered that the herb is quite freely distributed in Nine Miles (called Nine Miles because of it’s distance to Kingston). We were warmly greeted as we stood around plentiful Ackee trees.

We went up a flight of stairs near a new section they are building where we bought T-shirts, and then to a bar which sold only vegetable patties. Even though there was alcohol in the bar I learned that Rastafarians generally shun alcohol, coffee and meat. Our tour guide was named Captain Crazy, a tall and jovial man with a great laugh and the longest dread-locks I’ve ever seen. He took an immediate interest in my wife. He said things like “You can smoke here, but if you see a police officer…(pause)…then ask him FOR A LIGHT! AHHHHH-HAAAAAA!” And then we would all laugh.

We were brought into a courtyard where several of Bob Marley’s relatives were sitting. Several of them took a keen interest in my wife. One of Bob Marley’s Uncles had a banjo and he played a few songs including One Love which Captain Crazy sang with great joy and enthusiasm.

We were then taken up the mountain called Mount Zion. I was filming everything like a tourist. Along the right side of the path were several flags of different countries. Right over the graves of several of Marley’s relatives was the flag of Israel. I was told to turn off my camera at this point and I felt like a schmuck. One of the people on the tour asked if Bob Marley’s parents were both Black. Captain Crazy said “No, his father was White and his mother was Black.” Then he paused and pointed at my wife and I, “JUST LIKE THESE TWO! AHHHH-HAAAA!”

Further up the hill we were asked to take off our shoes and socks. We then went into a tiny little house which was where Bob Marley live as a child till he was a teenager.

We all took a peak inside. Outside was a special rock which only Captain Crazy was allowed to sit on. From there you could see a magnificent view of the Jamaican countryside. I believe that Bob Marley must have received a lot of inspiration from this spot and maybe even wrote some of his early songs.
We went into a small church where his mother is buried. The inscription on the casket has four stars of David surrounding it.

Further up the hill we went into a larger church where Bob Marley himself is buried – apparently with a guitar and a large joint, “He loved to smoke.” said Captain Crazy. The room is designed so that you can walk around the casket. We all sang The Redemption Song as we walked around the prophet. Several guitars and many flowers were displayed along the short path. We had purchased some candles and we were told we could light them, make a wish, and then blow them out. It was a very serious affair and you could feel how important and religious this moment was to all of us. We also lit a special herb in his honour (if you know what I mean).

When we went back down the hill my wife was slipped a special note which had the address and phone number of one of the Marley relatives who seemed very interested in her. I know she’s an Empress but this was getting ridiculous.

Soon we were on our way back on the bumpy road and we reflected on the day. It had been a much more religious journey than I had expected. I felt more Jewish than I had ever felt before. Oddly I had to come to Jamaica to have that experience. I now listen to what is going on in Gaza and I can only wish that the Jews and Palestinians could find a connection like the special one shared between the Jews and the Rastafarians.

I should also note that the Rastafarians also believe in the New Testament. They believe in Moses and Jesus Christ. But more than anything else they believe Haille Selassie is the reincarnation of Christ and that Ethiopia is the promised land. Interestingly, one of the more modern sects of Rastafarianism is called The Twelve Tribes of Israel and it is welcome to all races and has an equal role for women. Perhaps my spiritual journey will continue down this Jamaican path in the future. One thing is for sure, the soundtrack is better than any other religion I know.

Copyright Suga Jam January 2009


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