Culture Jews Rewriting Brazil’s History in Own Image Millions may have ancestors who fled Portugal during Inquisition.
Jayro Varella and a friend, both Orthodox Jews, were leaving a neighborhood bar one evening in September when a dozen skinheads ambushed and brutally beat them.
“They hit me, they stepped on my head, they kicked me in the ribs,” said Varella, 26.
It was his first painful encounter with anti-Semitism; he had formally converted to Judaism less than a month before. And it was a 1990s reminder of the kind of hateful persecution that probably drove a wedge between his ancestors and their Jewish faith centuries ago.
Like Varella, uncounted multitudes of Brazilians are descended from Jews who were put through hell in the name of Christianity. They suffered forced conversion, social segregation, imprisonment, torture and even burning at the stake in the long and cruel Catholic Inquisition. Understandably, most so-called New Christian families tried over the centuries to hide their Jewish heritage or forget it.
As a result, most of their Brazilian descendants today are probably unaware of their blood links to Judaism. Only now are historians beginning to discover how numerous those descendants are. A reliable estimate may never be possible, but Brazilians with Jewish ancestors could number in the millions.
As more historical information on the New Christians has emerged in recent years, hundreds of Brazilians who know or suspect that they are descended from Jews have begun searching for their roots. Some have joined in a fledgling movement aimed at aiding and encouraging the quest.
Jayro Varella’s family was one of those that knew of its Jewish roots. His parents kept such Jewish customs as shunning pork and cleaning the house on Fridays before the Jewish Sabbath. But they did not practice Judaism.
“I didn’t even know what the Torah was,” Varella said of the Jewish holy Scripture. When he was 16, he began asking an older cousin questions about their ancestors’ religion. “He said, `Look, I don’t know much about it, go find a rabbi.’ ”
Varella began frequenting an Orthodox synagogue. He studied Hebrew, the Talmud (Jewish civil and religious laws) and Scripture. His conversion by three Brazilian rabbis was authorized by the Orthodox hierarchy in Israel.
“I feel very content now,” he said. “I have returned to my roots.”
Varella was wearing a black skullcap, as were other young men sitting around tables in a kosher luncheonette named Laticinios Briut, in the Sao Paulo neighborhood of Bom Retiro. Early in the century, Bom Retiro became the center of a new community of Jewish immigrants who came to Brazil from Poland, Germany and other central European countries. Today, Brazil’s Jewish population is estimated at more than 150,000-second only to Argentina’s in Latin America.
At Laticinios Briut on a recent Thursday, most of the Jewish customers were from this century’s immigrant stock, but two were converts descended from Portuguese New Christians. Helio Daniel Cordeiro, one of the converts, recognized the other, Varella, from a picture published by a news magazine after the September skinhead attack.
Cordeiro introduced himself, and the two were soon talking about New Christians, Jewish roots and conversion.
Cordeiro, 29, heads the 2-year-old Hebraic Society for the Study of Marranismo. “Marrano,” meaning “swine” in Spanish, was a label used by Catholics for crypto-Jews, secret followers of their prohibited faith.
Through his society, Cordeiro is providing study materials and other information to about 200 people in different Brazilian cities who are interested in their Jewish ancestry. About 50 of those 200 want to practice Judaism formally, he said, adding that “others will end up wanting to.”
Cordeiro’s society serves as a liaison among groups in several Brazilian cities. In the far northeastern city of Natal, descendants of crypto-Jews have established a synagogue, although they have no rabbi.
According to Cordeiro, up to 15 million Brazilians have Jewish ancestors somewhere in the past, but he does not expect more than a small fraction of that number to ever return to the Jewish faith. If all did, he observed, it would almost “double the Jewish population in the world.”
Cordeiro officially became a Jew in 1988, adopting the ceremonial Hebrew name of Daniel Eliahu ben Ezra Hacohen. Technically, he did not convert to Judaism but returned to it. Henry Sobel, an American rabbi who is chairman of the rabbinical council in the Sao Paulo Israelite Congregation, officiated at a ceremony formalizing Cordeiro’s return, the first of its kind in Brazil.
Sobel, 49, said in an interview that he asked Cordeiro if his mother was Jewish, a requisite for returning. Cordeiro said yes, although he had no documentation to prove it.
“I gave him the benefit of the doubt,” Sobel said.
Not all rabbis in Brazil are so open to the return of Brazilians of remote Jewish origin. Flavio Carvalho traces his ancestry to a Portuguese crypto-Jew who narrowly escaped being burned at the stake by the Inquisition in 1638, but he said Orthodox rabbis in Sao Paulo rejected his attempts to worship in a synagogue.
“They asked me not to return, because they said I wasn’t a Jew,” said Carvalho, 38. “That hurt inside.”
Although he was raised a Catholic, he now keeps kosher, celebrates Jewish holidays and has given his children Jewish names-Hannah, Itzhaac, Sarah. He hopes that some day he will be deemed worthy of acceptance as a Jew.
“I think I have a right,” he said. “Not only historically, but in my heart and my mind I feel I am part of the people of Israel.”
At the beginning of the 1980s, Carvalho began studying the history of Marranos in Brazil. He made two trips to Portugal in 1982 and 1983 to examine the archives of the Inquisition in Lisbon, and he published a book in August containing a list of thousands persecuted and punished as “Judaizing” heretics.
Since the book, “Jewish Roots in Brazil,” came out, hundreds of Brazilians have written and telephoned the author about the country’s Jewish past. “Those people often don’t know exactly why, but they feel a profound identification with the values of Judaism,” Carvalho said.
For Carvalho, those people are part of a hidden Jewish nation, a lost branch of Judaism that withered and faded “without rabbis, without Jewish schools, without Jewish books.” He accuses the Catholic Church of altering Brazilian history to obscure the role of New Christians and Marranos.
“I believe we are unleashing a process in which even the history of Brazil will have to be rewritten,” he said.
The centuries of suffering by Brazil’s New Christians were foreshadowed by the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492. About 120,000 of them moved to neighboring Portugal, swelling the already sizable Jewish community there. Some historians estimate that 20% or more of Portugal’s one million population was Jewish then.
In 1497, the Portuguese crown ordered the expulsion of Jews who refused to convert to Catholicism, but then barred them from leaving the country. Instead, in a storm of holy water and Latin, the Portuguese church baptized the Jews by force.
After the Portuguese started colonizing Brazil in 1500, many unhappy Marranos began gravitating toward the New World. A pogrom in Lisbon’s Jewish sector in 1506 left thousands dead and undoubtedly helped stimulate emigration to the colony.
But those who went to Brazil did not escape the Inquisition, which was officially installed in Portugal in 1536. For more than two centuries, the church hounded, imprisoned and tortured real and rumored Marranos in this vast new land. Hundreds were sent to Portugal for trial.
Claude Srour, a Sao Paulo importer and amateur historian who has made a hobby of studying the Portuguese-Brazilian Inquisition, called the movement to revive Jewish roots in Brazil a “rebirth” that proves the failure of the Catholic Church to extinguish the heritage of Marranos.
“Five hundred years later, the faith of the sons of Abraham remains hidden in their hearts,” Srour said.
New historical studies are turning up evidence of what few Brazilians suspect: A large percentage of the colony’s white population was of Jewish origin, and an even larger percentage of the economically prosperous class was.
“I think that more than half of the population of Brazil in the 17th Century was of Jewish origin,” said Anita Novinsky, a professor of history at the University of Sao Paulo.
Because colonial slave-owners often mixed with their female slaves, uncounted Brazilians of African origin also have Jewish ancestors.
Until the mid-1970s, conservative and repressive Portuguese governments permitted little research in the massive archives of the Portuguese Inquisition. But since the return of democracy to Portugal in 1974, several Brazilian historians have been mining the documents. Novinsky goes to Portugal every year to research the archives.
She also carries her research to Brazil’s Northeast, the most heavily populated region in early colonial times. “In the Northeast, it may be that the majority of the people are of Jewish origin,” Novinsky said.
Modern Brazil is nominally the largest Catholic country in the world, but religious pluralism is vigorous. Afro-Brazilian religions flourish, and hundreds of evangelical Protestant sects have spread through the country in recent decades. Novinsky said it would be natural for this pluralism to also include a return by many Brazilians to the Jewish spirituality of their forefathers.
Jacob Goldberg, a Sao Paulo psychologist, said the Brazilian movement to explore and revive Jewish origins is related to worldwide trends toward personal introspection and pride in cultural heritage.
“It is a movement that is being born from ashes,” Goldberg said. “I think it is very strong because it has deep roots.”