From Western States Jewish History, April 1997 Vol XXIX No. 3
Editor’s Introduction-Arthur Benveniste is a distinguished writer in the Sephardic community. What follows is a personal account by him of his Jewish adventures in Brazil. Benveniste is a close friend of the editor. Mr. Robert J. Linden of Heliotrope Production, another friend, introduced the editor to writer Judith Fein who has lectured widely on the same trip. The present article verified her statement, “The reality of Crypto-Jews today is not an easy one,” she said, “not only for 500 years have they struggled to keep their religion alive, but the resistance they encounter when they come out can be devastating.”-WK.
Helio Daniel Cordeiro has been on a quest. A quest for his Jewish roots. He found them and he has been helping other Brazilians find theirs.
In October, 1996 I traveled to Brazil with Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn and the Society For Crypto-Judaic Studies. We were interested in contacting the descendants of Spanish and-Portuguese Jews who had been forced to convert to Catholicism. Many of these Jews had maintained a Jewish identity and some Jewish practices. These Jews had been known as Marranos, Conversos, Anusim or Crypto Jews.
In 1497, five years after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, the king of Portugal forced the Jews of his country to gather in a public square where they were harangued by priests, sprinkled with holy water and “converted” to Catholicism. Soon a Portuguese Inquisition was instituted which equaled or exceeded in viciousness the Spanish Inquisition. Many Jews began practicing their religion in secret and many sought refuge in the New World.
In 1500 Pedro Alvares Cabral discovered Brazil and claimed it in the name of the King of Portugal. A colony was established and thousands of Jews settled there. Unfortunately, the Inquisition followed them. Again they went underground.
In 1630 the Dutch gained control of Recife at the far eastern edge of Brazil. Dutch rule lasted only until 1654, but in this short period an island of religious tolerance formed which allowed Jews the freedom to worship according to their traditions. Jews came out into the open and two synagogues were established. Jewish merchants traveling back and forth between Dutch and Portuguese Brazil became Jews or Catholics depending on which side of the border they were on. Many Jews moved from the Portuguese to the Dutch colony.
When the Portuguese regained control of Recife in 1654, the Jews were again subject to the Inquisition. Some left for Holland. Some went to Curacao and then to New Amsterdam where they established the first Jewish community in the colony that eventually became New York. The majority, however, went underground again. Most of them went inland to the area around Rio Grande Do Norte. Their descendants still live there and it was these Jews we sought to contact.
In some cases the awareness of a Jewish heritage was passed from generation to generation. Children were told about it when whey reached teenage. Much of their Jewish knowledge was lost in the ensuing 350 years, however many families maintained certain rituals which indicated a Jewish background: They lit candies on Friday nights; They slaughtered animals in a kosher way; They read only the “Old Testament”; They shunned pork and shellfish; They refrained from eating bread in the week before Easter; They would not cook meat in its own blood. Some found their Jewish descent by tracing their genealogy.
In his teens Helio Cordeiro became aware his Jewishness. His grandfather was a Crypto-Jew from Braganza, Portugal. The family avoided pork, kept the Sabbath, did not go to church, observed some biblical holidays, and “koshered” their meat. He sought to return to the faith of his ancestors but Orthodox rabbis of Brazil discredited accounts of a Crypto Jewish tradition in their country and they refused to accept him as a Jew. They insisted that he undergo a formal conversion. He had a better reception from liberal Rabbi Henry Sobel of Sao Paulo. Rabbi Sobel conducted a ceremony of T’shuva (return) and Cordeiro was accepted by the Reform Jewish community. Rabbi Cukierkorn, who was raised in Sao Paulo but who now practices in the Pennsylvania, was also instrumental in aiding Cordeiro in his return.
He began a study of Judaism and of the history of Portuguese Jews. He wrote of these for the press. His articles inspired other Crypto Jews to contact him for aid in returning to Judaism. They came to him asking questions which indicated that there was a tremendous lack of information about Judaism. Cordeiro formed an organization, SHEMA. The name is an acronym for the Portuguese words, “Hebrew Society for the Study of Marranism.” He also published “Sefarad Report” on the internet. SHEMA trains leaders who then go out and conduct-workshops for returning Jews. The workshops have been held in ten cities and so far more than 2000 people have attended.
Many Crypto Jewish communities have been asking for help. Rabbi Cukierkorn went to a small village of Crypto Jews. When they learned that he was coming to them, they expected that he would be there to “convert” them. All the men had themselves circumcised in preparation for his visit.
Our group traveled to Sao Paulo to meet with Helio Cordeiro and Rabbi Henry Sobel. Sobel was born in Portugal but grew up in the United States. He has spent his professional life in Brazil. He has a special sensibility to Crypto Jews. Each year he receives four or five inquires from people who suspect that they have Jewish ancestry and would like to return to Judaism. If they have documentation Sobel performs a ceremony of return. Otherwise he studies the individual case, seeks contacts and tries to establish a Jewish connection. Then he decides if he will conduct a ceremony of Return or of Conversion.
In Recife our taxi driver, when he learned of our mission, volunteered that he suspected a Jewish background in his family. His evidence: when a chicken was slaughtered only a very sharp knife was used, and the blood was drained; other people cooked a chicken in its own blood, but his family never; pork was not eaten, the reason being that the pig, since it looked down to the ground and never up to heaven, was an “enemy of God.” His family’s funeral traditions differed from those of most Brazilians: the body of the deceased was washed and in times past, it was buried in a shroud; caskets were carried by six men along with flowers and candles; there was a three day mourning period and each year candles were lit in memory of the deceased. These practices do not prove an Jewish connection, but they raise suspicions. His family does not practice circumcision. They call it “Black Magic.”
Gilvanci ben Shmuel Portillo traveled 2000 miles from Goiana to Natal to tell us his story. Gilvanci had a grandmother who spoke a strange language. His family also did “strange” things: They used a Christian Bible but cut out the New Testament; His father attended church but never uttered the name of Jesus and he began prayers with the words, “Baruch Atah Adonai, G-d of Abraham, Itzchak and Yaacov.” Candles were lit on Friday nights; After leaving a cemetery, his grandmother washed and changed clothes; When a baby boy was born there was a celebration on the eighth day; Baby boys were circumcised by the grandfather (Gilvanci was born after the death of his grandfather, so there was no circumcision in his case). “My grandfather was like one rabbi and he made the religious services, as well as he prepared the foods to be kosher.” His grandmother had a statue of the Madonna in the house. He often saw her kissing the Madonna’s foot. Once he saw her take a “little box” out of it while cleaning it. His grandmother often said that she wanted the family to be “living Judaism.” His father had a special love for Israel, calling it “our country.”
At the age of eleven Gilvanci began researching his family roots and found that they were descended from converses. At seventeen he spoke to a rabbi and was told that the strange practices indicated a Jewish background. The strange language was Hebrew with many words in Ladino. The rabbi showed him a mezuzah. Gilvanci recognized it as similar to the “little box” in the Madonna’s foot.
Gilvanci gathered his family and confronted them with the results of his research. They confirmed that they were Jews, but out of fear of persecution had hidden their identity. This happened in 1990. Since then “…. we have been in a process of returning to our roots.” “We are Jewish,” they said, “but we lost many parts of it. You are responsible for bringing the family back to Judaism.” Gilvanci’s brother has joined Chabad and dresses as a Chabadnik. Other relatives are not as observant. Some are not interested in returning. Most are supportive of him, some “scoff’ at him. “Brazilian Jews say, ‘we are not Jews,’ but my father says, ‘no matter, we are Jews.”‘ Some say we have to convert, but my father says, ‘I will never convert. I never will come back if I have to convert.”‘ “We follow the commandants. I came here to establish contact with other Jews.”
His people always married within their own group. His parents were betrothed to each other as infants. The grandparents recognized each other as Crypto-Jews by a secret sign that each carried. It was a small Mogen David. They agreed that if one had a boy and the other a girl they would have them marry. It happened. Some elements of the Ladino language have survived. Gilvanci found a CD of Sephardic music that contained a song that he had learned from his mother. He cried when he heard it.
Joao Madeiros grew up in Serido and rarely tasted milk. The local Catholic priest told the local dairy not to deliver milk to the family because they were Jewish. Joao left the Catholic church as a youth and studied to become a Presbyterian minister. He fell out with the Presbyterian leadership over an essay he was to write for his graduation. He was asked to write on how the Presbyterian Church had replaced the people of Israel as being “special” in the eyes of God. He wrote the opposite. Once again he broke with a Christian church.
He knew that his family was of converso origin. His father gave the children biblical names, not saints names. His grandmother used to take him outside to pray and never took a graven image (His original attraction to Protestantism was because they had no images). The local schools were dominated by the Catholic Church so his father hired a private tutor to teach the children at home. He returned to Judaism.
Madeiros moved to Natal and found an Ashkenazi Jewish center. He celebrated his return to Judaism there but there was a controversy over his return. Rabbinical authorities visited him and concluded that he had to go through a formal conversion.
“(I) was forced to conclude that we must follow our own way.” Madeiros gathered a group of former conversos and they formed their own synagogue. There are now 106 members and twenty men are eligible to be called to the Torah. Several have visited Israel. Madeiros acts at the “rabbi.” They acquired ownership of a very small building that had served as a synagogue in the last century. Some of the Ladino language remains with them. Mostly in songs sung after meals.
Controversy follows Madeiros. He decided that they would follow “Judaism of Iberia.” But he is his own judge as to what is “Judaism of Iberia.” Max Gabbay, a Moroccan Jew, is very critical of Madeiros. Gabbay met with us for more than an hour to tell how he rejects Madeiros’ Judaism. Madeiros writes his own mezuzot and is now writing his own Sefer Torah. He does not conduct Kabbalat Shabbat in the traditional way. He does not have a license to convert, marry, divorce or write a Torah. “They want to do things in their own way. They will not accept any rabbi. They want to follow what they believe is true.”
Madeiros insists that he is a Jew. “I am a returned Jew as was Moshe Rabenu. Moshe had experiences outside of Judaism, he was raised an Egyptian. He came back.” He sees himself as fulfilling the laws of Israel. “Rules of law should not prevent one from following the law.”
One must drive four hours from Recife to get to Caico’. The paved road has been there only a short time, so, until recently, Caico’ was almost isolated from the rest of the world. Outside of the town there is a castle, complete with moat and drawbridge. This is the home of the local Catholic priest, Monsignor Araujo. There is a Mogan David over the entrance of the castle. Inside there is a menorah and on the wall are pictures of Golda Meier and Theodore Herzl.
Monsignor Araujo and most of the people of Caico’ are devout Catholics, but they know that they are descended from converted Jews. A few Jewish rules have remained with them, they do not eat pork and few of them cook meat in its own blood.
We met with them at a town meeting. The people of Caico’ had been torn away from the Jewish world four and a half centuries ago and they hungered to reestablish contact with the Jewish world outside. They want to remain Catholic, but there is an inner need to know of their Jewish roots. Their excitement at being visited by a delegation of Jews was evident. They wanted to talk to us all night. At the end of the evening one of their women took the podium and asked. “We have met, but will it end here? Or will we remain in communication?”
We told them that we would.