“Are there Jews in Brazil?” I am sometimes asked.
The answer is yes.
Since late 19th century Jews arrived in Brazil from Eastern Europe, settling mostly in fast-growing cities such as São Paulo, Rio, Porto Alegre and Recife. A few were engaged in an agricultural project in the southernmost state of Brazil, Rio Grande do Sul. Sepharadic Jews went to Manaus, the capital of a large Amazonian state. German Jews fleeing persecution and war survivors came as well, followed by Egyptians a decade later.
That accounts for the roughly 200 thousand people, a number that would be increased manifold if we add the number of Brazilians with Jewish ancestry. Brazil was a favored destiny for Iberian Jews fleeing the Inquisition. Far from the Portuguese metropolis, which was not among the worst enforcers of religious dictates anyway, many Jews came to Brazil, performing various roles: pioneers in São Paulo, sugar plantation owners in the Northeast, and even among Jesuits you find Portuguese of Jewish descent.
Today, some of their descendants try to recover a long lost heritage, identifying customs passed from generation to generation, doing historical research and searching for religious affiliations. Also, there has been growing academic research on this subject crucial to understanding the foundations as Brazil as a country. Could it be that we are rather a “New Christian” nation than a Catholic one? Is our ingrained suspicion of government and the State related to the lies forced upon us in the past? Is our culture of forgetfulness and impunity—which horrifies international courts—a lingering tribute to the broad “don’t ask, don’t tell” culture established in colonial times?
I wish I knew. Is the feijoada, the black bean stew we eat on Saturdays, a true symbol of Brazilian identity, actually a Shabbat meal to which Jews pretended to add some pork? We will never know for sure; Brazil was a mostly illiterate country—by design, through censorship and repression—until at least the transfer of the Portuguese court to Rio de Janeiro in 1808. What is impressive, in anyway, is the unique capacity of Brazilian institutions and society to accommodate and repress dissent and difference. Where else have Jews lost their heritage so completely—or maybe it’s the opposite—where else has their heritage became so much part of the fabric of society?
So that is the short answer I usually give, repressing my disdain for people who know nothing about what happens south of Mexico. Well, should I really blame them? Not even the Jewish community here in Brazil is that certain about the answer: are there Jewish in Brazil? Deep inside, we might think we are so few, in a country of almost 200 millions, that we don’t even count. Our Jewish community tends to pay respect to German physicists, Polish poets or Russian generals rather than to the many Brazilian writers, scientists, democracy activists, painters, etc., etc., of our own when naming its institutions and places of meeting.
The impressive Jewish hospital in São Paulo is named after Albert Einstein, among whose many qualities was not having a deep appreciation for this country (unlike his American counterpart Richard Feynman, who remembered his days in Rio with affectionate criticism). Meanwhile, the physicist César Lattes in honored by Brazilian research institutions of which, of course, Jews are also part. There is almost a cult around writer Clarice Lispector in Brazilian society, but I know of no Jewish building, school or program named after her. The Jewish community pays tribute to Anne Frank, a victim of Nazi persecution, but we do nothing to remember Vladimir Herzog, a Jewish journalist whose murder triggered the transition to democracy in the 1970s.
I really don’t know why that is. Is it because the name of David Ben-Gurion makes us feel strong and proud? Do we need to affiliate ourselves with the work of Albert Einstein to realize, against stereotypes, that we don’t live on the top of trees? Do we want to forget the torture endured by Herzog?
Clarice, Herzog and Lattes, like the São Paulo pioneers of the 17th century, were somehow Brazilianized, for lack of a better expression. For Brazilian Jews and Brazilian society as a whole, they lost their abstract and exclusive Jewishness. Was this process necessary so they would become the national heroes they are? I think the answer is more complex, and more profound.
They were, I believe, transformed into a modern version of “New Christians”, into something that is neither here nor there; as more than one Brazilian thinker argued, ambiguity is Brazil’s middle name. These amazing people are like a delicious fake feijoada, with pieces of meat pretending to be pork parts. Or, better still, a fake Shabbat meal, vaguely claiming its kosher quality. The famous Brazilians didn’t exactly lose their Jewishness; they have just become part of the complicated stew that is one of the pillars of Brazilian society.
Paying tribute to one of these brave men or women—the list is immense, believe me, we are a small buy noisy group—would be thorny for Brazilian Jewish institutions: it would be the equivalent of paying tribute to Jesus Christ himself, this hybrid figure of our Western history. Instead, community leaders preferred the safer iconic names of international Judaism. Meanwhile, as individuals, like any other Brazilian, we are damn proud of everything we’ve done below the Equator line.
And I’ll still answer: “Yes, there are a few Jews in Brazil. Take my great-great-grandparents, who came just after the proclamation of the Republic,” and I’ll give them dates, numbers, places, and a few comic stories of our little Jewish Brazilian journey. Like when my great-grandfather died in a brothel and his sons couldn’t bring themselves to take him from there. But that’s for another time...