The Crypto-Jews of Brazil
500 years after Jewish conversos reached Brazil, their descendants begin reclaiming their birthright.
BRAZIL - In the middle of the night, as the non-Jews slept, David de Andrada and his grandfather would sneak out to the sidewalk in front of their home. By the light of a small bonfire, the grandfather would read to his young grandson from a large book.
De Andrada thus learned about Abraham and the twelve tribes who were enslaved in Egypt. When de Andrada would ask his grandfather about the book, he was told that “it’s a book with stories of ancient people.”
De Andrada was raised in a village in northern Brazil, where life revolved around the church. No one dared mentioned the word “Jew” out loud. In fact, de Andrada says that he had never even heard of the Jews until he was 19 years old. Even he was fooled by his family’s efforts at disguising their origins.
Outside the home, the de Andrada family would read the New Testament; the Jewish Bible was reserved for late nights at home. Although the de Andradas made sure to eat ham and pork in the presence of others, at home, they attempted to keep the laws of kashrut. Furthermore, on Christian holidays, they would wear their best clothes and attend church, so as not to raise suspicions.
The de Andrada family was far from unique. Joao Mederos grew up during the 1940’s and 1950’s in a village in Brazil’s Interior and first heard about the Jews when he left for Rio de Janeiro during the seventies.
When Mederos and his classmates learned about the Holocaust, they were told that the victims were Lutherans with Jewish roots. Nevertheless, Mederos claims that something didn’t add up. “When we went to church on Sunday, we used the back door. This way we didn’t have to cross ourselves in front of the church’s altar,” he recalls.
It is June, 2006, and Leonore Mederos is crying in a Recife coffeehouse. When she speaks of the shattering discovery that changed her life – she is descended from Jewish conversos – even the World Cup escapes her notice.
She stumbled across her Jewish roots accidentally, when an Israeli Internet correspondent of hers noted that Fonseca, Mederos’ mother’s maiden name, is of Jewish origin.
The revelation explained many things for Mederos: Her family’s strange insistence on maintaining a chapel in their home, their custom of marrying within the family in order to “maintain the bloodline”, their disinclination to baptize the children, and much more.
The de Andrada and the Mederos families are typical of many Brazilians who, after several hundred years, are slowly reclaiming their Jewish roots.
The search for freedom
The first Crypto-Jews reached Brazil, which was then a Portuguese colony, over five hundred years ago. Fleeing the Inquisition, they sought religious freedom as well as economic opportunities. In Europe, they had been derogatorily referred to as “Marannos”, which means “pigs” or “fettered ones”.
Upon their arrival in Brazil, the Crypto-Jews exported wood and raised sugar cane; their initial success attracted many other conversos from Spain. The community’s Jewish roots were an open secret; they were known as “new Christians.” In Recife, the largest city in northeastern Brazil, the Crypto-Jews prospered significantly. According to official records, during the 15th century, they comprised 2/3 of the area’s white residents.
In 1630, Holland captured the Portuguese colony, and, for the next 24 years, Recife enjoyed a Jewish Renaissance. The first American synagogue was founded; a street was named after the “good Jews”; and many conversos openly returned to Judaism.
However, the good times did not last. Brazil’s Jews had become so powerful that the Catholic Church pressured Portugal to reconquer its former colony from “the Jewish conversos who now operate their synagogues to the Church’s great humiliation.”
Thus, in 1654, Portugal once again gained control of Brazil, and an expulsion edict was issued ordering the Jews to leave within three months. Most of the community scattered, but a portion chose to hide in the Interior by mingling among the local residents.
How many converse descendants are there? Estimates range from thousands to millions.
“We don’t know how many descendants of the Jews remain throughout Brazil, mainly because we haven’t been to many places,” observes Professor Anita Novinsky, a historian at the University of Sao Paolo.
“We are certain about three things. The first one is that in Brazil, there are many Jews at assorted levels of awareness. The second is that modern Brazil was founded by Jews, and the third – that there has been an incredible momentum of returning to Judaism in recent years.”
Luciano Olivera, 30, a physician from Campina Grande, was unaware of his ancestors’ Jewish roots, despite the fact that his family was always referred to as “the pigs” by their neighbors. When he was 19, his aunt told him how his great-grandfather’s household would don their dressiest clothes once a week. When the stars appeared, they would lock their doors and pray “in a different language.”
In addition, Olivera discovered his great-grandmother’s birth certificate. Instead of citing the location of her birth, the document contains the Portuguese word for “pig”. Also, Olivera was shown his uncle’s personal prayer box. The Hebrew letter “shin”, a traditional Jewish reference to God, is clearly visible on the upper portion of the box. “At that moment,” Olivera reminisces, “my life changed forever.”
Researchers have unearthed many family customs which clearly resemble Jewish traditions. For example, one family lit candles every day, so as not to arouse suspicions on Fridays. Similarly, others ate tapioca rather than bread during Lent, without knowing why they did so.
Yet, as the Crypto-Jews attempt to return to their roots, they claim that the Jewish establishment has not welcomed them back with open arms.
“I was 38 years old when I first visited a synagogue in Rio, for a Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony,” Joao Mederos reports. “When the speeches ended and the religious ceremony began, the lights dimmed, and the cantor entered. He looked to me like a priest, but on his square hat, there was Hebrew writing, and I realized that he sang in Hebrew. When the singing began, I cried hysterically.”
But Mederos is still bitter about the rabbi’s frosty attitude. “I introduced myself and said that I am descended from the Crypto-Jews of Portugal. He ignored me, and his assistant gestured dismissively,” Mederos accuses angrily. “That’s been the mentality to this day. Since then, I constantly argue with rabbis who refuse to accept us.”
In between fights, Mederos has found time to open a new synagogue in Natal, a beachfront city in northern Brazil. Although the one-room synagogue, which is furnished with plastic chairs and a miniature ark, is small, the congregants pray with emotion.
In the nearby village of Barcelona, a house is embossed with a star. The elderly Catholic resident declares that the star is called a “Star of Solomon or a Star of David. I don’t remember which.”
When asked about her rather scrawny goats, she describes how they are slaughtered. “We give a blow to the head and let the blood drip to the ground,” she details. “Afterward, the bloodstains are covered with dirt.”
'Conversion is like betraying my ancestors'
The Ashkenazi rabbis of Sao Paolo and Rio de Janeiro refuse to recognize the descendants of the conversos as Jews. For young adults like Olivera, this means that he is unable to marry according to Jewish law.
“Let’s say that I meet a nice girl, and we decide to get married,” he says. “No rabbi will agree to marry us. They demand that we convert, like non-Jews. For me, converting is humiliating. It’s like a betrayal of my ancestors.”
Olivera, who travels three times a week to the Interior in order to circumcise Crypto-Jews, is considering marrying a cousin, as his forefathers used to do.
Another issue is that conversion is no simple matter. There are no Orthodox rabbinical courts in Brazil; the Crypto-Jews would have to travel to either the US or Israel. Needless to say, most of them do not have the financial means for such a trip.
The Israeli rabbinate has not yet decided how to deal with the Brazilian Crypto-Jews. Meanwhile, however, Rabbi Avraham Amitai of Shavei Yisrael, an organization which locates and identifies long-lost Jewish communities, was sent to Recife.
Amitai, who serves as Recife’s rabbi, disputes the claim that the Israeli rabbinate will never settle for anything less than full conversion. “A person who manages to prove that he has Jewish roots going back generations – I relate to him as a descendent of the Jewish people, and I want to bring him back to us without full conversion,” he insists. “The Crypto-Jews really interest me.”
But do they interest the rabbinate?
“I think that even the rabbinate can no longer ignore the Crypto-Jews nor does it want to. It’s true that in the past, the issue was neglected, but now a new process of recognition and cooperation is beginning. The fact that they sent me here with a mandate to work with the Crypto-Jews shows that there’s an awareness that a solution must be found.
"Clearly, that doesn’t mean that tomorrow all the Crypto-Jews will be able to move to Israel. But two years ago, the rabbis would say: ‘No way; they’re not Jewish.’ Today you no longer hear that.”