Manfred and Anne Lehmann Foundation


To most, the name "Brazil" brings home notions of the colorful Carnival, of samba rhythms, of beautiful Rio de Janeiro. But few realize how important Brazil was in the history of American Jewry. It is fair to say that without Brazil there would be no Jews, as we know them, in America today. How did this come about?

To answer this historic question we must go back a few hundred years to Portugal, the mother country of Brazil. During the 15th century—the century of navigational discoveries—Spain and Portugal were engaged in international competition for garnering colonies in all overseas continents. The Portuguese were the great navigators in Africa and the Far East. To this day, we hear echoes of these colonies in countries where Portuguese is still spoken, including Angola and Mozambique in Africa; and Goa, Timor and Macao in Asia.

Spain, on the other hand, captured most of the Americas: Florida in North America; and most countries in Central and South America, except Brazil, which by decision of one of the popes went to Portugal. Brazil had been discovered by Cabral and Ferdenando de Noronha—both Jews or Marranos—but remained undeveloped for a long time.

In 1492, the royal couple Ferdinand and Isabelle of Spain gave in to the cruel head of the Inquisition, Torquemada—himself perhaps of Jewish origin—and decreed the expulsion of the Jews from their land. The last-minute plea by Don Isaac Abarbanel, the minister of finance of Spain, and other leading Jews who offered the king and queen a huge amount of money if the decree were lifted, was brusquely brushed aside by Torquemada, who had an iron grip on the royal couple. He insisted on two choices: baptism or expulsion. We know the tragedies that followed.

The vast majority of Spanish Jews chose expulsion over baptism. Many of them migrated to nearby Portugal. But in 1497 a catastrophe hit them there. A newly crowned king, again under the diabolical influence of the Church, gave the Jews two new choices. This time they had to choose between baptism and death! That is why so many of them had to adopt Christianity as a sham, while continuing the practice of Judaism secretly. They were called "New Christians" or Marranos. They were the ones singled out by the Inquisition for barbaric tortures and auto da fé burnings.

However, a little known fact is that there was one way out of this cruel choice: any Jew who would go to Brazil and help colonize the newly won colony would be exempt for 100 years from the "Santo Oficio"—"Holy Office," the technical name given the Inquisition (some holiness!). And so a steady stream of New Christians immigrated to Brazil in the first years of the 1500s. They helped colonize the cities of Bahia, Recife and Rio de Janeiro and lived a free, undisturbed life. They must have been frightened to death when suddenly, 100 years later, the murder gangs of the Santo Oficio showed up in Brazil to carry out their cruel work.

The first recorded arrival of the Santo Oficio was in 1598 in Rio de Janeiro, followed by "visit" after "visit." The last burning of a Jew took place in 1769, when the famous Brazilian playwright, Antonio José da Silva, was burned to death for "Judaizing."

What is interesting for the history of Judaism is the study of the methods by which the agents of the Inquisition would discover who was a Jew. They would come into a community and would post on the door of the leading church a list of practices that informers were to report on their fellow citizens.

Some of these were:

  1. anyone wearing a washed shirt (camisa lavada) on Saturday
  2. anyone found fasting on March 10 or September 10 (These would be echoes of Taanit Esther and Yom Kippur. Taanit Esther was especially precious to Marranos, because Queen Esther, too, had to hide her Jewishness in the palace of King Ahashverosh. They, therefore, identified with her.)
  3. anyone pouring out water from the house where someone had died. (This is an extremely interesting leftover of a very old Jewish practice, which only rarely is found in medieval halachah—where it is explained that the Malach haMavet (Angel of Death) washes his spade in the water, which therefore is infected. This practice is found as early as the Dead Sea Scrolls—over 2,000 years ago!)

In 1624 the situation was totally changed. The Dutch won a war against the Portuguese and turned northeastern Brazil into "Nova Holanda" (New Holland). The capital was the city of Recife in the province of Pernambuco. The suffering secret Jews could now live freely. They founded a congregation called "Tzur Yisrael" (the Rock of Israel, because the name Recife—similar to the Hebrew "ritzpah"—meant "rock.") They prospered and organized their congregation along the lines of the Portuguese community in Amsterdam.

When it came to choosing a rabbi they had two eminently qualified candidates: Menasse ben Israel, the great philosopher, rabbi, book printer and merchant; and Rabbi Yitzchak Aboab da Fonseca. Brazil was an important outpost for an international Dutch trading firm. Menasse ben Israel had his sights set on doing some business with the company if he became rabbi of Recife. The Jews, however, selected da Fonseca, who later played a great role in Jewish life in Amsterdam.

Disaster struck in 1654, when the Portuguese made a comeback and defeated the Dutch, who had to evacuate their Nova Holanda. But what to do with their Jews? The Dutch Governor Mauritzio de Nassau managed to insert a clause in the Dutch version of the surrender document—which was omitted from the Portuguese version—allowing the Jews 90 days to leave the country without molestation by the Inquisition.

The Jews, after so much suffering for hundreds of years, had to pick up the staff of the wanderer again. This time their wandering took part of them to neighboring Surinam—a blessed choice as later history would prove—while the bulk sailed, along with their rabbis, either to Amsterdam or north to the Caribbean Islands and when one of the ships lost its course in a storm—to New Amsterdam (later called New York). The Caribbean Islands benefiting most from these migrations were Barbados, Curaqao, St. Nevis, Martinique and a few lesser islands.

The Jews who sailed to Amsterdam took with them the pinqasim—communal archives—and some rare mahogany wood, which Rabbi da Fonseca installed in the Holy Ark of the magnificent Etz Hayim synagogue in Amsterdam, until today one of the most sought-out Jewish tourist attractions in Europe.

The migration of ex-Brazilian Jews thus populated the early Americas and set the stage for all Jewish immigration to the colonies. At first the Portuguese-Brazilian congregations of the Caribbean Islands were economically and spiritually much more important than the North American colonies. In Surinam alone, there were outstanding rabbis and Talmudic authorities over 100 years before any rabbinical per-sonalities worth mentioning arose in North America. And it was money from the affluent and pious Jews of Surinam that financed the building of the famous synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, and the Spanish-Portuguese congregation, Sheerith Israel, in New York.

What a marvel Jewish history is, and how unfathomable are G-d's manifestations in our history: The expulsion of the Jews from Spain and Portugal helped establish and enlarge the Jewish communities in North Africa and the Middle East, including Eretz Yisrael. At the same time, the same Sefardic families who emigrated from the South to North America helped establish the important Jewish communities in North America. Both these centers of Jewish population and scholarship were essential in assuring the survival of Judaism and the Jewish people—ultimately leading to the re-establishment of the Jewish State in Eretz Yisrael.

Brazil thus played a pivotal role in the history of the Jewish people, especially in the Americas. But what is even more important is that Brazil today has a very active Jewish life, with Jewish day schools and yeshivot in various places, and that Ashkenazim as well as Sefardim work together for the good of Jewish continuity and survival. The early colonizers would never have imagined that their dream would come true! But that is the imponderable secret of Jewish history.




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