The lost Jews

Claiming to be descendants of Jews forced to convert to Christianity, a group in Brazil is trying to reclaim its Jewish identity.

rav shul 88 298 (photo credit: Irin Carmon)
rav shul 88 298
(photo credit: Irin Carmon)
Odmar Braga knows who he is."I'm the generation of the desert," he says. "I'm not in Egypt, but I'm not in the Promised Land." He has more than the biblical exodus in mind. Braga, 53, claims he is descended from Dutch Sephardic Jews who sailed to religious freedom in northeastern Brazil around 400 years ago. He is a Marrano, a Jew whose family converted to Christianity to escape persecution but then continued to secretly practice Judaism. And for Marranos like Braga, or bnei anousim, there have been many Egypts. There are the dry, unforgiving stretches in the interior, where so many Jews fled after the Portuguese reclaimed the Brazilian state of Pernambuco for Inquisition-style suppression. There are the tiny villages where, for over three centuries, Marranos silently maintained a version of Jewish tradition. The transitional desert is where some Marranos who have abandoned the isolation of their childhoods to seek opportunity - and sometimes their Jewish roots - find themselves now. Marrano lawyer Ricardo Trigueiro, 38, uses a similar metaphor to describe discovering Judaism: "Imagine a person in the desert, very thirsty, finding water at last," he says. Suspended between the hermetic Marrano heartland and the mainstream Jewish communities of the coast, some northeast Brazilian Marranos are even looking towards the very same Promised Land Moses had in mind. But for now they have Recife, Brazil's fourth-largest city, home to the first synagogue in the Americas and close to the northeastern states where many Brazilian Marranos are concentrated. A year and a half ago, Shavei Israel, a Jerusalem-based organization that reaches out to lost Jews, recognized it as the natural staging ground for their Brazilian outreach when they endowed the community with its very own rabbi. "I view our efforts as an attempt to right the historical injustice that was perpetrated on Spanish and Portuguese Jewry by the Inquisition centuries ago," said Michael Freund, Shavei Israel's president. "We have an opportunity to restore some of their descendants to the Jewish people." In an often fractious community, this is by no means simple; those who call themselves Marranos in Recife are sharply divided. Behind the sectarian squabbling are other, thornier questions: Now that people who practiced Jewish traditions without ever hearing the word "Judaism" have been invited into synagogues, what place do they have inside them? Who is counted as a Marrano and who is not? And, perhaps most importantly, who gets to decide? ONE SHABBAT evening in the twilight of the Brazilian summer highlighted two very different observances. In the city's historic quarter, the much-publicized 2001 restoration of the Kahal Zur Israel synagogue, originally built by Dutch Jews in 1636, had come to fruition: the recreated sanctuary of beautiful hardwood floors and exposed brick walls was hosting a Shabbat service. Some worshipers were Marranos from the interior who had formally converted, "hai" necklaces dangling around their necks; others owed their presence in Brazil to immigration from Eastern Europe a century ago. Presiding over it all was Avraham Amitai, the rabbi co-sponsored by Shavei Israel, who had pushed to revive the sanctuary's use shortly after arriving. In the slightly fraying middle-class neighborhood of Boa Vista, a ground floor apartment hosted a humbler - though possibly more impassioned - service directed by Isaac Essoudry. This controversial, Moroccan-born Jew has become a guru of sorts to a particular segment of Marranos, as well as to a smattering of Jews and assorted hopefuls. Plastic chairs and an Israeli flag were the only accessories, and action centered around a single rectangular table. With a small-scale fervor akin to the "home churches" of the American evangelical tradition, attendants clutched their prayer books and sang with gusto. Despite the contrasts, both services represent the face of the Marrano "return" to Judaism. "I never had any doubt, and I never felt strange at synagogue," says Heloisa Fonseca-Santos, a 52-year-old Marrana who attends services at Kahal Zur. "I know that I'm a Jew. There is simply no way to think otherwise." THE FACADE of Kahal Zur bears a cornerstone reminding passerby that from 1636 to 1654, it was known as Rua Dos Judeus (Street of the Jews). That was when Dutch Sephardim joined a community of Portuguese crypto-Jews, who hoped the Inquisition that had forced their conversion might weaken in the colonies. But when the Portuguese prevailed in 1654, the Jews faced a ruling power that would ultimately keep the Inquisition going for two more centuries, and the street was renamed Rua Bom Jesus (Street of Good Jesus), as it has been called ever since. Some Jews fled to the Caribbean and, it is believed, to the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam, where they were America's first Jews. Other Jews went inland, where they established the quiet, mystical outposts that in recent years have stunned observers with their present-day preservation of Jewish traditions. "I think most people don't realize that the bnei anousim aren't something taken out of the pages of the history books," Freund says. "They are living and breathing human beings, and they are still among us, wanting to reconnect with us." Even the academic establishment was long unaware of their existence. "This is a chapter of Jewish history that has mostly been forgotten," says Anita Novinsky, a professor at the University of S o Paulo and the self-styled grande dame of the nascent field of the Brazilian crypto-Jewry. Though secret Jewish traditions were discovered in Portugal as early as 1925, she says, it was thought that Brazil's bnei anousim had either escaped or assimilated. "In the '60s, we didn't know there were still Marranos in Brazil. We simply didn't know they existed," admits Novinsky. She herself says she only discovered their survival in her own country when a letter arrived from a so-called "Jewish priest," an ordained Catholic cleric who calls himself a "Diaspora Jew," apparently without incurring the wrath of the church brass. About two decades ago, he invited her to visit his remote northeastern parish, which he claimed was entirely Jewish. THIS PRIEST is one character featured in a dazzling recent documentary, A Estrela Oculta do Sert o (The Hidden Star of the Backlands), by Elaine Eiger and Luize Valente. It's a rare window into a world where women light candles on Friday nights without knowing why, where the dead are buried sans casket after secretive rituals and where pork is inexplicably taboo. Marranos had maintained these traditions in part by practicing endogamy, the intermarriage of close relations. "It was an isolated family nucleus, with a lot of intermarriage," recalls Tony Rabelo Pereira, 34, who was raised in one such enclave in the state of Para ba, 500 km. from the coast. Like most Marranos interviewed, his parents were cousins, though his wife Claudia is a Marrana from a different region. Where Marranos did interact with conventional Catholics, their differences did not go unnoticed. "The neighbors said we had dealings with the devil and didn't have Christ in our hearts," says Fonseca-Santos. Marrano children who asked their parents why they were different were often told that was just the way it was. Many have found these discoveries inspiring. "Seeing what has survived, you cannot believe that the Jews can be abolished in the world," states Novinsky, who has since actively compiled archives and overseen academic work on contemporary as well as historical crypto-Jews. Though modernity has begun to chip away at their seclusion, Brazil's massive size and underdevelopment ensures that its arrival is slow. Still, between communication and migration, one of the world's fundamental mysteries is under serious threat. Not all Marranos want to be Jewish per se; in fact, Novinsky thinks a majority will continue living "a double life." Still, filmmaker Eiger remembers what happened when she and Valente first dug into the Jewish roots of their country. "Something emerged that we weren't prepared for," Eiger says, "and that was that the Marranos wanted to be recognized as Jews." IT IS NOW believed that Brazil has the world's largest concentration of Marranos, estimated to be a hundred thousand or more. Amitai's arrival as emissary marked a historical acknowledgment of their presence, and represented a prong in the overall strategy of Shavei Israel honed among Marranos in Spain and Portugal. "The rabbi serves the local Jewish community and then uses that as a base from which to do outreach work with bnei anousim," explains Freund. Amitai, a lanky Bnei Brak native of 31, was trained at the modern Orthodox Machon Amiel in Jerusalem, which nurtured in him a particular interest in reaching out to far-flung communities. Years before moving here with his Argentine-born wife and their two young children, he did a brief stint in Rio de Janeiro. "When I got here, all I knew was the Carnival," he jokes. The rare moment of flippancy belies the seriousness with which Amitai has taken his role in the community. Juggling roles as rabbi to a shrinking Jewish community, emissary to long-remote Marranos and teacher at the struggling Jewish school can make life hectic. Our conversations often take place as he races to fulfill one responsibility or another, be it inspecting the new kosher bakery he established at the school or setting up for the Shabbat services. He has his work cut out for him. Among an estimated 400 Jewish families in Recife, or about 1,500 people, Amitai estimates that 90 percent of the younger generation marries non-Jews. The Jewish school of about 100 students that houses his office is chronically cash-strapped. His support of a formal Marrano "return" to Judaism, should they wish to undertake one, is firm. "Of course, from an objective perspective, there are still things that need to be proven," he admits. "But we certainly do not regard them in the same way as a non-Jew who comes and wants to understand Judaism." They are, he adds, "a part of our people that we had previously lost." Amitai's presence has undoubtedly helped establish their legitimacy among a sometimes hesitant mainstream community. Freund noted the gesture's "great symbolic value to the bnei anousim themselves. For the first time, a Jewish organization was actively reaching out to them and sending personnel to their locales in order to help them." With an eye to the sensitivity of the situation, Amitai has established a center in a nearby apartment where Marranos can comfortably congregate. "I'm not just the rabbi of the Jews," he declares. "I'm the rabbi of the community." IN THE SUMMER bake of Recife, Isaac Essoudry, 70, deigns to put on a shirt at the arrival of a visitor, but his effort dissipates after one button. Life carried him from Casablanca to the Israeli army in the 1950s. Finding kibbutz life less than his forte, Essoudry says, he worked on a German boat in the early '60s until landing in the Amazonian city of Bel m, with its established Moroccan Jewish community. The semi-retired Essoudry deals in Judaica, some of which he makes himself in a back room here; on Sundays, he sets up a stand to sell his wares in front of Kahal Zur. In the dusty, sparsely furnished front room of his studio, Portuguese, Hebrew, English and French are mixed with equal ease. Across a tiled path slowly being conquered by weeds lies the apartment-cum-synagogue he leads, used for services and twice-weekly Hebrew and Judaism classes. Essoudry bought both apartments as an investment in 1975. Saying he moonlighted as a self-taught Jewish scholar, Essoudry began attending services in Recife at the synagogue on Martins Junior Street, built by Ashkenazi Jews in 1926. Heloisa Fonseca-Santos was probably the first Marrana to show up there. "When I was 21 years old, my mother came to me and said we are descendants of Jews," she recalls in a story she has told many times before; Recife's Marranos are used to explaining themselves. "I had thought that what had gone on in my house was normal for everyone. I began to search. I found a citizen on the street in the center of Recife whom I recognized as perhaps being Jewish and asked him where I could go." He sent her to the synagogue on Martins Junior Street, where a Russian rabbi opened the door. "I said, 'My mother told me that we are descendants of the Jews.' He said, 'What is the name of your mother?' I said, 'Yona Castro de Fonseca.' He said, 'Isaac Castro was a Jew denounced by the Inquisition, and the first rabbi of the Americas was called Isaac Aboab de Fonseca.'" But the Marranos faced uncertain acceptance by the community. "In the original days, when the Marranos would show up, particularly for High Holy Days, the Ashkenazim would keep them out," says James Ross, a professor at Northeastern University who visited in 2000 to research a book. "Essoudry refused in the early days to instruct them. He told them at first that if they wanted to learn they had to convert. They just kept showing up. They're persistent folks." Whatever some Marranos think of Essoudry now, his eventual role in welcoming the first group is undisputed. "Twenty years ago, Isaac opened the doors of the synagogue to the Marranos," says Odmar Braga, who walked in those doors until he began distancing himself from Essoudry. Other Marranos followed, desperate for answers about where their heritage could lead them. "What I learn from the books, I teach," Essoudry explains. "Everyone knows who I am and wants to learn from me - not Hebrew. Judaism. What I know, I give to them." Around that time, a schism developed between Essoudry and some Marranos for reasons few will discuss. Braga and Fonseca-Santos were among those to leave Essoudry; today, both actively work with Amitai. Essoudry clearly resents Amitai's presence. "He doesn't know how to speak to the Marranos." he complains. "He's learning, but it's difficult for him. He doesn't have experience." As for himself and the Marranos, Essoudry claims, "I know them. I know their language, I think what they think and know what they want. I learned, day by day, working with them." ALLIES OF the rabbi allege that Essoudry has allowed frauds into his circle, including evangelicals posing as Marranos but secretly intending on proselytizing Christianity. "We may have been Catholic in the past, but we were only Catholic on the outside and Jewish on the inside. They're Jewish on the outside, but inside, they're evangelicals," remarks Braga. In a country where miscegenation trumps cultural separateness and few know their exact lineage, Braga believes the popularity of Eiger and Valente's film has also inadvertently encouraged poseurs who are simply searching for roots. "Lots of people saw the film and said, 'I'm Jewish too!'" he explains. "And then they went to study with Isaac." Fonseca-Santos calls them "birds - people who have already flown to everything, evangelical Christianity, Islam, Candombl . It's as if Judaism was a novelty for them." Often called upon to defend their own Jewish roots, longtime members of the Marrano community are particularly indignant when it comes to authenticity, partly because of the uncertainty that comes with defining whose arcane traditions point to Jewish heritage. "How do you define, after 500 years, who is a ben anous and who is not?" Freund points out, acknowledging the difficulty of establishing each individual's legitimacy, a task delegated to Amitai. "We look for people who might not just have biological background but also on top of that have sense of Jewish identity." Ironically, most of the Marranos currently practicing mainstream Judaism are far more observant than Recife's Ashkenazi community, a fact not lost on Freund. "The Marranos bring with them a real deep and sincere commitment to being Jewish, and that's something that unfortunately many Jews have lost," he comments. Essoudry says that under his watch, some 15 Marranos have undergone "liberal" conversions with visiting rabbis - including, over a decade ago, Trigueiro and Fonseca-Santos - and he says he hopes five of his "very good students" will follow shortly. His longtime student Josenildo "Menahem" Domingos is one of a few Marranos who say they are alienated by Amitai's Orthodox affiliation. Of course, few would accuse Essoudry of hewing too closely to the Halacha he teaches; he drives on the Sabbath, says he has three grown children with a non-Jewish woman and freely admits that he does not keep kosher. "It's impossible in Brazil," Essoudry says flatly. Later, Domingos agrees. "In the interior, it's easier to isolate yourself," says Domingos. "They're more zealous. They live more among their family and don't have contact with strangers. They grow what they eat and kill beasts they have raised. Daughters don't do anything without speaking to their fathers first. How are we supposed to do that here?" Trigueiro, part of the original group that attended Martins Junior, indicates several times that Amitai does not accept Marranos as real Jews, though he is reluctant to discuss it. But when asked whether he was nervous about first "coming out" as a Jew to his Christian friends, Domingos is frank. "I was more afraid of telling the Jewish community than the Christian one. I was afraid of telling another Jew that I was Jewish and to be doubted or rejected." Did that happen? He pauses. "I don't remember." WITH BOTH groups preparing for conversion or return ceremonies, Recife's Marranos find themselves at a crossroads. Many Marranos returning to Judaism have long seen no reason to convert. Some, like Trigueiro and Rabelo, already underwent conservative conversion long before Amitai's arrival, partly in order to send their children to Jewish schools. Others, like Braga, have long rejected anything labeled conversion. "We preferred not to deny our origin," he says. "I am already a Jew. Why do you have to say that I'm not a Jew in order to be converted? The liberals treat us as if we're not Jews already." He reverts to a favorite phrase of his: "Can one turn water into water?" Braga does, however, accept the concept of the "return" ceremony that will be the culmination of Amitai's instruction, because it recognizes previous Jewish roots. Rabelo and Fonseca-Santos are also set to perform it, even though they have already converted. Despite the divisions among them, nearly all of the Marranos connecting with mainstream Judaism speak fervently about making aliya, and some are already making concrete plans for it - provided they are recognized by Israel as Jews. A few Brazilian Marranos are already studying at Israeli yeshivot or doing other short-term programs, and Shavei Israel runs an absorption program for their Spanish and Portuguese counterparts. But the official rabbinical position on the Marrano return remains unclear. Freund points out that return ceremonies were performed for bnei anousim arriving in Holland's Jewish community from the Iberian peninsula. "One of the issues we have brought to the chief rabbinate is, is there any way to restore the use of a return ceremony nowadays, in the 21st century?" Nonetheless, Freund acknowledges that "with the passage of so much time, with the wanderings around the globe, it's obviously much more difficult now to determine questions of genealogy than it was in Amsterdam in the 16th century." Shavei Israel says they hope for a rabbinical ruling similar to those issued concerning the Jews in Ethiopia and India, which Freund determines "could be revolutionary" and "prove to really give this issue the push that it needs." For his part, Domingos is learning Hebrew both with Essoudry and at home, and is making inquiries to see if his specialized training in paper manufacturing might be useful to Israel. Beyond concerns that his Conservative conversion be recognized, there is the small problem of his devoutly Catholic wife. "She knows she's Jewish but she doesn't want to leave Catholicism," he explains. "She doesn't want to go to Israel, but she knows I'm going." Once his plans are set, Domingos says, he wants to take their two sons as well, whether or not his wife agrees. A soft-spoken man who hails from a city called Nazar da Mata (Nazareth of the rainforest), Domingos's eyes fill with tears at the mention of Israel. He sighs. "I know it's a problem, but I don't want to die here," he says. He knows full well that Moses was led out of the desert but did not quite reached the promised land, but his mind is made up: "I want to die in Israel."