Brazilian Jewry — A concise history
By Marc Raizman (not dated) (Excerpted)
If you are here just to learn whether Jews know how to samba, let me assure you that they do. During carnival time in Brazil, the Brazilian TV stations generally show scenes from Israel of Brazilian Jews dancing samba on the streets of Tel Aviv.
Let me tell you about my credentials for this presentation. I was born in Porto Alegre, in the southernmost Brazilian state. In addition to my knowledge of Brazilian Jewish history, this presentation is based partially on the writings of my late father who in 1937 wrote a well-respected book entitled “Historia dos Israelitas no Brasil“. [The History of the Jews in Brazil). He wrote this book both in Portuguese and Yiddish. My dad was a journalist, edited a number of Brazilian Yiddish newspapers and was a part-time correspondent for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA).
One important comment is needed here. The word “Israelitas”, meaning Jews who are descendants of the tribe of Israel, is preferred to the word “Judeu” or “Judio,” meaning Jews in Portuguese and Spanish, respectively. In both languages, the word has bad connotations. “Judiar” means to hurt or to make someone suffer, to mock or abuse. Judeu means to be dishonest when dealing with others. (There is a similar usage in English, “to jew someone down.”)
The Brazilian Deputy Chamber a few years ago voted to eliminate these negative definitions from national dictionaries, and the publishers of dictionaries did so. But that doesn’t mean that the words have disappeared from common usage. On the other hand, I must say that most Brazilians who use these words often don’t realize the origin of the word.
There is yet another problem. Some people in Latin America are confused as to who is an Israelita and who is an Israeli, and what that difference is.
Discovery – 1500
To begin, a Jewish presence in the Western Hemisphere goes back to its discovery by Columbus. On his first trip, with three ships and 88 sailors, Columbus’ crew had six Jews who had converted to Christianity, the so-called conversos in Spanish, also called cristão novos in Portuguese. In addition, there were six practicing Jews among the crew. Historians claim that the first man to set foot on the new continent was Luis de Torres, a converso. In one of his letters, Columbus refers to de Torres as “one who had been a Jew and knows Hebrew and some Arabic.”
In the 1400s and 1500s, Spain and Portugal were the major maritime powers of the world. By the late 1400s, Portuguese navigators had set foot in every corner of Western Africa. It was then that the Portuguese crown directed Vasco da Gama to follow the African coast to the end and see where it might lead him and his ships.
Da Gama was successful in reaching the Cape of Good Hope, where he turned northward into the Indian Ocean and reached Madagascar, Ceylon, and India. Da Gama’s was surprised to find a “white” man serving as an advisor to one of the local potentates. His reaction was to assume that this man was a spy, and the Portuguese proceed to torture him. Da Gama then decided that he could use someone who spoke the local languages and knew his way around, so he decided to take this man back with him to Lisbon. This man was a Jew whom historians believe came from what is now Yugoslavia.
If such was the case, he was probably a sephardic Jew. He had first converted to Islam and in da Gama’s hand, he became a Catholic, adopting the name of Gaspar da Gama as homage to his new boss. In Lisbon, Gaspar was a success. Being a great story teller, he is said to have entranced the King of Portugal. He could go on at length describing the riches of the new lands discovered by Vasco da Gama.
By 1500, the Portuguese and the Spaniards realized that the world was indeed round, but they had no idea of the distances involved. They never gave up the idea that it might be easier and faster to reach the so-called Indies by going west, instead of traveling around South Africa. The Portuguese sailor who finally proved this dream a reality in 1520 was Fernão de Magalhaes. In the English world we know him as Magellan.
In 1500, the Portuguese crown told Pedro Alvares Cabral to take his ships as far west as he could to see if they would find a route to India. Accompanying Cabral on this trip as the interpreter was Gaspar da Gama. When they reached the land that would eventually be called Brazil, the Portuguese thought they had landed on a huge island. The first man to set foot on this new land was Gaspar, but alas, his knowledge of Indian dialects – from India – was of no value in trying to talk to Brazilian “Indians.” Gaspar had played a significant role in setting up commercial treaties with Asian potentates, treaties that turned out to be extremely profitable to the Portuguese.
The newly discovered land was first called Santa Cruz, Holy Cross. Later it was changed to Brazil because of the availability of Pau Brazil, a wood that provided a dye which the Portuguese crown sold at a very high profit to the textile mills of Flanders in Belgium. The key man in this operation was Fernando de Noronha, a Portuguese converso with many contacts in the Lisbon court. He leased the new land from the crown and agreed to pay royalties in the form of Pau Brazil, as well as anything precious he might find in the new land.
Some historians suggest that de Noronha’s leasing scheme was an effort on his part to help Portuguese Jews by creating a place for them to live away from the growing threats of the Catholic Church and the Inquisition. It is said that of the 300 men who sailed with Noronha to Brazil, the vast majority were Jews, both practicing and converted to Catholicism.
In 1494, the Pope in Rome, seeking to avoid a possible conflict between Spain and Portugal over the newly discovered lands, drew an imaginary line, a north-south meridian, and stated that anything east of this line would belong to Portugal and anything west of it would be Spain’s. This imaginary line, which the Pope set at 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands, became known as the Tordesillas line. It gave Portugal an area that was about 1/5th of the area Brazil currently occupies today. This meridian today falls approximately at the 50 degree longitude west.
In Brazil, the Portuguese settlers chose to ignore the Pope’s meridian. They had been living on a narrow coastal strip and couldn’t help wondering what they might find inland. Gold, silver and precious stones were what they had in mind, but failing these they considered capturing native tribes to use as slaves.
These colonizers were called Bandeirantes because they carried a bandeira, which is Portuguese for flag. The records suggest that many of them were conversos or had names that hinted at their Jewish background. At this time, the Spanish were busy with the Incas on the west coast of South America on the other side of the Andes and didn’t have the men to serve as a presence to keep the Bandeirantes off the land that the Pope had granted them. Thus, the Bandeirantes were responsible for increasing Brazil’s land mass manyfold beyond the Pope’s allocation. The Bandeirantes went as far as they could, but the Andes proved to be an unsurmountable obstacle.
By the late 1400s and early 1500s, Jews in Spain were told that they either had to convert or leave the country. Because the Portuguese crown was more liberal, many Spanish Jews opted to move to Portugal. But about that time, the daughter of the King of Spain became engaged to the son of the King of Portugal, and Queen Isabella of Spain demanded that as a condition for the wedding to take place, the Portuguese had to expel its Jews. That is intriguing because there are historians who believe that Isabella’s husband, Ferdinand, may have have been Jewish.
It was at this juncture that Portuguese Jews began leaving for other countries. A large number of them chose Holland which permitted religious freedom to its subjects. Others chose instead to remain Portuguese subjects, but decided to live as far as possible from Lisbon in the country’s far-flung colonies. Many chose Brazil while others went to Portuguese colonies in Africa and Asia.
João Ramalho is an interesting example of a Portuguese Jew who migrated to Brazil. He was shipwrecked near what is today the city and port of Santos / São Vincente. It is possible that he was a crew member of a Portuguese ship traveling to India. There are those who say that he may have reached Brazil even before it was discovered by Pedro Alvarez Cabral on April 21, 1500. Ramalho became a friend of the local native chief and married one of his daughters.
In my father’s book, there a number of Ramalho signatures from documents he “signed.” Instead of using a cross, which was the standard signature of illiterates, Ramalho chose to write what looks like a Hebrew “caf”. (My father argued that it was really a “raisch”, an “r”.) And, for example, he was always quarreling with the Jesuits who had founded the city of São Paulo, located on the plateau above Santos. The two cities competed with each other. When Ramalho was dying, he refused the final sacraments of a Catholic priest.
Dutch Occupation – 1624-1654
About 1600, the Dutch decided that they needed a West Indies Company. They had been running the very successful and profitable East Indies Company, which specialized in spices and exotic products from the Far East and Oceania, These were stock companies, meaning that shares were sold to interested investors. The records show that one-tenth of the subscribers to the West Indies Company had Portuguese Jewish names. The West Indies Company had extensive plans. Some involved exploiting New Amsterdam, now called New York, and many islands of the Carribean. Their plans also included invading the northern hump of Brazil, an area known as a major producer of sugar.
Mauritius, the prince of Nassau, was chosen to head the Dutch expedition. He was joined by about 200 Jews who saw in it a golden business opportunity. The Dutch soldiers succeeded in defeating the Portuguese and thus began the Dutch presence in what is today the state of Pernambuco in northeastern Brazil.
The Jews who came with the invading expedition and on subsequent trips, established business in New Holland, which is what the Dutch called their new territory. Many became owners of sugar mills. However, sugar cane harvesting is very intensive labor and Brazilian tribes turned out to be unreliable workers. To find the necessary workers, the mill owners turned to Africa for enslaved people.
The West Indies Company controlled the shipment of enslaved Africans because it owned the ships. But once on the ground in Brazil, Jews were responsible for the selling and buying enslaved Africans, often at prices that were four and five times what they had paid the West Indies Company for them.
The Dutch in New Holland continued to allow religious freedom, as in Holland. As a result of this policy, many Portuguese conversos who lived in the Portuguese controlled areas of Brazil moved to New Holland and dropped their forced conversion.
One Dutch survey during those years listed the New Holland population as 12,703. Of these, 2,890 were white and half of them were said to be Jews in the city of Recife. Most of the Jews who were (‘slave’) merchants could be found on the Rua dos Judeus – street of the Jews. It was on this street that the first synagogue in the Western Hemisphere was built in 1630. It was called Kahal sur Israel, the rock of Israel. Its first rabbi was Isaac Aboab da Fonseca who came from Amsterdam to lead this congregation.
The location of this synagogue was vaguely known, a historian employed by the Municipality of Recife, found the synagogue where it was supposed to be, except that the street name had been changed to Rua do Bom Jesus, the street of the Good Jesus. His research also established that the building next to the synagogue included a mikve, the ceremonial bath. In olden times, when piped water did not exist, mikves had to be established where there was running water, namely by a river. This was no problem in Recife. Seven rivers crossed the city before reaching the ocean. Recife is still known as the Venice of Brazil.
For years the Dutch enclave prospered, but then the West Indies Company lost interest in the Pernambuco colony. One reason was that the Dutch were at war with the English. The other reason was that Pernambuco’s New Holland wasn’t as profitable as other areas under the West Indies Company control. Promised shipments of goods and new soldiers failed to materialize, and eventually the Portuguese were able to defeat the Dutch and reconquer the territory.
The Dutch occupation lasted 30 years, from 1624 to 1654. In the Treaty of Guararapes following this war, the defeated Dutch were allowed to go home. While some 150 Jewish families chose to return to Amsterdam, many chose instead to move to other Dutch-controlled areas of the Western Hemisphere. They moved to Curacao, Dutch Guyana, Barbados, Bermuda and other islands of the Caribbean.
Some 23 of the Pernambuco Jews chose to travel to the then New Amsterdam, today’s New York. Peter Stuyvesant was governor of New Amsterdam at the time of the arrival of the 23. He didn’t like Jews and asked permission from the West Indies Company to expel them. He was, after all, an employee of the West Indies Company. He got back a letter from Amsterdam telling him to treat “our shareholders” with consideration. The English captured New Amsterdam in 1664. When this happened, these families swore allegiance to the British crown.
In the Guararapes treaty, the Portuguese promised to respect the religious freedom of those who chose to remain in Pernambuco under Portuguese control. The Portuguese went back on their word, however, and Jews who stayed on were later charged with heresy.
It has always been assumed that all Jews who had lived under the Dutch had been accounted for. In more recent times, however, historians have come across populations in Brazil’s interior that have “quaint” habits or practices. These small and often isolated groups can’t explain why they light candles on Friday, why they read only the Old Testament, why they do not eat pork or shellfish, and refrain from eating bread during Easter. In the village of Cairó, in the state of Rio Grande do Norte, the residents do all these things and claim it is tradition. While Cairó’s practices do not prove that they are Jewish, it certainly makes one wonder where they learned them.
The Portuguese Inquisition – 1700
The Portuguese Inquisition never established an office in Brazil but its long arm reached there. If one person didn’t happen to like another for whatever reason, he could always denounce him or her as “judaizante,” meaning someone who maintained Jewish practices while converted to Catholicism.
Antonio José da Silva was a law student living in Rio de Janeiro. Da Silva was becoming a major Brazilian playwriter when he was denounced to the Inquisition as someone who still practiced the Jewish faith. He was arrested and sent to Portugal. Given the opportunity to recant, he refused to do so and was burned on a pyre on October 19, 1739. His courage has always intrigued, and his story has been made into a Brazilian film called O Judeu.
Brazil separated from Portugal and became independent in 1822. It became a republic in 1899.
Modern Times – 1850 to Today
The first large numbers of Jews, primarily German and Alsatian Jews, began arriving in Brazil around 1850. By then the Brazilian population of “conversos” had assimilated and become part of the general Brazilian population.
Brazil was not the favorite destination of Jews seeking a new life in South America. Most Europeans – and Jews – preferred the more cosmopolitan Argentina. At the beginning of the 20th century, Argentina had one of the highest standards of living in the world. Its per capita income was higher than that of Italy. Argentina had wheat, oil, and meat, and Buenos Aires was known as the Paris of Latin America.
It can be said that life in Brazil was substantially rougher than that faced by new arrivals in Argentina. It is probable that many immigrants came to Brazil because the fare was far less than steamship travel to Buenos Aires, 1,500 miles to the south.
A Forgotten Episode in Jewish History
Late in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Jews controlled the trade in white slavery, which is a polite way of saying prostitution. And they did so worldwide. Reputable historians claim Jews ran brothels in Shanghai, India, Turkey, Argentina, Brazil and New York City.
Women for the trade were procured in the following way: After the Eastern European pogroms, many young Jewish women became orphans who were without skills. As orphans they lacked dowries, which meant that arranged marriages were out of the question for them. During those years, only men received Yeshiva education, and if they were to marry and continue their education, they needed a wife with a dowry.
Men with plenty of cash, would show up in Eastern European towns and seek out a Jew women. They would connect with them through an organization and eventually offer to marry her. After the marriage had been consummated, he would excuse himself because he had business commitments in another city, and leave, but not before giving his new wife a steamship ticket to Buenos Aires and promising to meet her there. When the wife would arrive in Buenos Aires or Rio, her husband was nowhere to be seen, but someone presenting herself as his aunt would meet the woman.
Typically, these women, some not older than 18 years, without any skills, with no education and without family, were told by these “aunts” that they either become prostitutes or would starve to death. These women and their pimps were considered “impure” and were ostracized. They were not allowed to be buried in the existing Jewish cemeteries, thus they established their own cemeteries and synagogues.
In his book “Prostitution and Prejudice: the Jewish Fight against White Slavery – 1870-1939”, Edward J. Bristow quotes my father after he had visited several cemeteries where Jewish prostitutes were buried. My father reported that their average age was about 20 years. A typical tombstones might be inscribed in Yiddish or Portuguese: “Ruchelle, beloved daughter of Shmuel and Hanna O…, of (the name of the village in Eastern Europe), 1900-1920”. In recent years the Jewish community of São Paulo has allowed the reburial in its regular cemetery of Jewish prostitutes. But instead of burying them with names on their tombstones, they were given numbers.
One unfortunate result of Jewish-controlled white slavery was that in Europe the information used to paint all Jews as unworthy, criminals, and deserving of expulsion from their country. Jews rallied and worked throughout the world to stamp out this blemish. By 1960, the Jewish prostitutes in South America had all but disappeared. Most had died, as did their associates and associations.
Today’s Brazilian Jewish Population
Today’s Brazilian Jewish population totals about 130,000, although some claim 150,000. About 70,000 Jews live in São Paulo, which is the commercial and industrial heart of Brazil. Some 30,000 live in Rio, while the remaining 30,000 are distributed throughout the other towns in the country.
There is a saying in Brazil that if a town doesn’t have a Jewish and a Lebanese merchant, it doesn’t deserve to be called a town. Many Jews settled in smaller towns with few Jews. But when their children grew older and of marriageable age, the families often moved to larger towns with larger Jewish communities.
During the last century, many newly-arrived Jews began their work lives in Brazil as peddlers, unless they had skills, like a “mata-galinha” (shoichet or chicken slaughterer) or an “alfaiate” (tailor), or a teacher of Yiddish. A number of the peddlers became manufacturers of ready-to-wear clothes. Today, some of the peddlers are industrialists and even financiers. Their children maybe found in the ranks of professionals, in government, etc.
During the Getulio Vargas early fascist days, in the late 1930s and early ’40s, no foreign publications were allowed to be printed and distributed in the country. Although during WWII, when it became evident that the Allies would win, Vargas changed sides. There were no Yiddish ABC books to be had from any source. My father, who owned a print shop, decided to publish one. But instead of printing the actual date of the publication as 1943, he listed it as 1934, so it would not appear to be printed illegally.
During WWII many Jews turned to the Vatican for help and were issued papers stating that they were Christians. That opened the immigration doors to numbers of them. Whether they chose to remain “Christians” or returned to Judaism, isn’t clear.
Brazilian Jewish Achievements
Over all, Brazilian Jews have done well. A third of them are said to own their own businesses. Another third are in liberal professions, and another 10% are said to be employed and receiving salaries. Nearly half of all the Brazilian Jews today were born in the country.
Jews have made significant contributions to all areas of Brazilian arts and culture, to business and economic life. I have a list that includes Jewish participation in banking, retail chains, metallurgical plants, magazines, etc. Brazilian Jews have been government ministers, officials, mayors, and so forth. Horacio Lafer was minister of finances a number of years ago. It is acknowledged that he was instrumental in making arrangements by which thousands of displaced Jews from Syria, Lebanon, and other Middle Eastern countries were able to settle in Brazil.
Politicians include Jaime Lerner who, as mayor of the city of Curitiba did such an exceptional job that the Government appointed him to be mayor of Rio de Janeiro. Another politician is Israel Klabin, whose family is the leading paper manufacturer in the country. Stage actors include Debora Block. Manchette is a Life Magazine-like photo magazine that is owned by the Block family publishing house. Veja is part of a chain of several Time magazine-like news publications. It is owned by the Civitas family, Jews with an Italian background.
Writers include the already mentioned Moacyr Scliar, a medical doctor, whose several books have been translated into English. Clarice Lispector, one of the leading writers in the country, who died a few years ago, came to Brazil as a young child from the Ukraine. Film makers include Jom Tob Azulay. The best known Brazilian physicist is Mario Schemberg. On the experimental side of the field of physics is Cesar Lattes. In Mathematics, there is Leopoldo Nachbin.
There is a TV personality in Brazil known as Silvio Santos. His real family name is Abravanel, and his family came from Salonika in Greece. Abravanel is an important Jewish Sephardic family that came from the Iberic peninsula and Italy in the 15th century. Santos is widely known because he conducted a four-hour long TV variety show on Sunday nights. It offered music and half-clad dancing women. Its objective was to sell merchandise. It did, and Mr. Abravanel now owns SBT, his own TV network encompassing 98 stations throughout the country. In addition, the Silvio Santos Group is now a conglomerate that operates a number of businesses, including a travel agency.
The best hospital in Brazil is the Hospital Israelita Albert Einstein in São Paulo. It is the only hospital outside the US to be accredited by the American Joint Committee on Hospital Accreditation.
Brazil’s president is Fernando Henrique Silva Cardozo. He has a seven-year-old grandchild whose family name is Zylbersztein. A picture of the boy and his grandfather as they watched the Brazilian Independence Day Parade appeared in US newspapers. The boy is the son of a Cardozo daughter who married a Jew. Incidentally, Cardozo is a common converso name.
A study in 1980 showed that the number of Jews per 1,000 population was as follows:
Argentina has 230,000 Jews. It is the largest community Spanish-speaking Jews in the world. There are ten newspapers and magazines in Buenos Aires that cover Jewish issues and concerns. In addition there is an all-Jewish radio station and one cable TV network. Finally, there are many Spanish and Portuguese language homepages on the Internet run by Jews for Jews. One of them is Shalom Online, which originates in Buenos Aires.
The Chilean Jew population, currently totaling 21,500, is one of the more intriguing among the South American countries. During the Allende socialist government, 6,000 Jews left Chile because the government was openly pro-Arab and pro-Soviet Union. It is in Santiago, the Chilean capital, that one finds the 5th Volunteer Fire Company, an all-Jewish group. It is probably the only such organization outside Israel.
If you are interested in knowing the Latin American country with the fewest Jews, it is Nicaragua. The latest count is 10 (ten) Jews. The Sandinistas expelled most and encouraged others to leave.
Text from: http://www.jewishgen .org/InfoFiles/