11 October 2007

Brazil: Jews of the Amazon

Here's a Jewish Exponent (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) story on the Jewish history of Brazil and the first synagogue in the New World - Kahal Zur in Recife - in 1646.

And yet, although the Jewish community in Brazil numbers less than 150,000 residents -- compared to the total population of 185 million -- it has always played an important role in Brazilian life.

Professor Anita Novinsky, a specialist on Jewish culture at the University of Sao Paulo, says proudly, "Brazil was made by the Jews."

The association of the Jewish people and Brazil began in the late 1500s. During the voyages of Christopher Columbus, Gaspar de Gama (who was Jewish by birth) accompanied Portuguese Adm. Pedro Alvares Cabral to Brazil. Soon after, a 500-year Jewish presence in Brazil began, adding greatly to the history of the New World.

In 1645, there were some 1,500 Jews in the Dutch-controlled northeastern areas. By 1646, there were some 50,000 European Jews - mostly conversos. Many were involved in sugar mills and plantations. The Dutch had no problem with Jewish migration or the public practice of Judaism, and the community prospered economically and religiously with a school, charity fund and executive committee.

In the Portuguese area, Isaac de Castro was arrested in 1647 for Judaizing, deported to Portugal to be burned at the stake. In 1654, the Portuguese nine-year war began, eventually driving out the Dutch to Curacao, New York and Europe. The Recife synagogue closed in 1655.

Not until 1773 did the Portuguese abolish Jewish discrimination, and in 1822, Brazil became independent and more Jewish communities were established:

Belem, in northern Brazil, saw its first synagogue opened in 1824 by the Moroccan Jews. It was called the Porta Do Ceu ("Gate of Heaven") synagogue, and Manaus, a city on the Amazon River, had a Sephardic community by the beginning of World War I.

In southern Brazil, the Jewish Colonization Association formed the Santa Maria agricultural settlement in 1902, followed by other settlements; all were sold because of various difficulties.

By the beginning of World War I, there were 7,000 Jews in Brazil; these were joined by more than 30,000 Western European Jews around 1920. There were 20 Jewish schools in operation at this time. The numbers were later increased by the arrival of another 3,500 North African Jews.

The story brings Jewish history in Brazil up to the current day.

Read the entire story here.

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