Sheaar Yashuv A Remnant Returns – Searching for Brazilian Marranos

By Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn with Robert H. Lande

February 16, 1997


After 500 years the Marranos surely must belong only to history. Their descendants cannot have maintained any secret Jewish practices during all these centuries. The possibility that some might be interested in returning to the Jewish faith is too romantic an idea to be anything but a fantasy. But then I discovered one of the most amazing Jewish phenomena of our times.

I was born in Brazil and grew up as part of the large and well established Sao Paulo Ashkenazic community. During my childhood I had often heard intriguing, even fantastic stories of vestigial Jewish practices among people who claim to be descendants of the Jews who were forced to convert to Catholicism during the 1490s. But, to my knowledge, no reliable, scientific investigation had ever been made concerning these claims. Was there any way to verify that these claims were authentic? Could the assertions have been concocted to romanticize relatively routine family histories or for any number of other reasons? Were the stories isolated anecdotes, or were they systematic in character and indicative of an important aspect of Jewish history? Most importantly, could any sparks of Jewish souls still be smoldering after all these years?

I enrolled at Hebrew Union College in 1989 to study for Rabbinical ordination. One of the requirements was to write a thesis consisting of original research on a Jewish topic. This was my chance to investigate the legends from a disinterested perspective. This article is in large part drawn from some of the material contained in that thesis. I started studying Jews who were forced to become Christians. I ended up studying Christians who are choosing to return to their Jewish roots.

Origins of The Brazilian Marrano Community

The Marranos are a very well know, very tragic part of Jewish history. Forced conversions of Jews started in Spain in the late 1300s and climaxed with the Inquisition in the 1490s in both Spain and Portugal. Many of the Jews came to genuinely embrace Christianity. Others outwardly became Christians but secretly continued to practice Judaism. These became known under a variety of names, including secret Jews, crypto-Jews, New Christians, conversaos, and Marranos.

Less well known is the subsequent history of many of these Marranos and their descendants. Because the inquisition was strongest in Spain and Portugal it is unsurprising that many who wished to practice Judaism secretly emigrated to the new world. In 1496, just before they were given the choice of conversion of expulsion, an estimated one third of the population of Portugal was Jewish. Although the exact figure is unknown, it is likely that an even higher percentage of emigrants to the New World were of Jewish descent.

Brazil was discovered by the Portuguese in 1500 and became its colony. Portuguese Marranos were among its earliest settlers. In Brazil the crypto-Jews prospered. There were tremendous economic opportunities for hard working immigrants, who entered practically every field in Brazil. Moreover, there was relatively little danger they would be accused of secretly practicing Judaism since the colony was so remote and sparsely settled.

In 1591, however, the first Inquisitor was sent to Brazil to deal with the “problem” of hidden Jewish practices. During the 17th century these visitations became increasingly frequent, especially in the northeastern provinces. The Inquisition tended to concentrate on the major settlements and to ignore the more sparsely populated areas.

The remote area of northeastern Brazil known as Rio Grande do Norte was settled by the Portuguese starting in the 1720s. This is the same time that the most intense Inquisitorial activity was occurring in the Brazilian northeast. This region was noted for its poor soil, dry climate, and hostile Indian population. It seems likely that a major reason it was settled was that it was remote and difficult for the Inquisitorial authorities to reach. It also seems likely that an extremely high percentage of these early settlers were secret Jews.

The Town of Venhaver in Rio Grands do Norte

In 1992 I spent a considerable period of time visiting small towns in parts of the northeastern state of Rio Grande do Norte. I interviewed a large number of people about their traditions, history and way of life. Many were unwilling to talk candidly about their ancestry and customs with a stranger who spoke Portuguese with a Sao Paulo accent. Some that did refused to be tape recorded and few would allow me to use my camera or video camera. Many others had no interest in their family traditions. I nevertheless was able to obtain a great deal of fascinating information.

The town of Venhaver was founded in 1750. It is 12 miles from the small city of Sao Miguel and 230 miles from the city of Natal, the state capital. It is extremely poor, has no running water, and possesses only the most basic educational and health services. Only the main road is paved.

The origin of the town’s name is uncertain. One explanation, however, is intriguing. Secret Jews sometimes used key words or expressions to identify each other, such as calling each other “members of the nation” or “chaver” (friend in Hebrew). A legend says that “Venhaver” is a corrupt form of “vem chaver” which, since “vem” in Portuguese means “come,” translates as “come friend.” This would signify that the secret Jews of the area, having found a safe haven, were inviting others to join them.

Of the 3,200 people who live there approximately half are descended from the original settlers. The rest arrived during the last 50 years. The settler descendants are all Caucasian, unlike the newcomers who are a mixture of black and white. The settlers said that they almost always married among themselves. I shall refer to the descendants of the original settlers as the Venhaver community.

The newcomers consider the Venhaver community to be a separate group, and call them “os Judeus” – the Jews – or “os descendants dos Judeus” -the descendants of the Jews. This is consistent with what the descendants call themselves; either “Judeus” or “”Gente da Nacao” – people of the nation.” Interestingly, the Venhaver community did not accept that I was a “Jew.” For them, being a Jew meant simply to have been descended from their ancestors.

The Venhaver community are all devout Christians. Yet, they today continue distinct traditions that can only be Jewish in origin. When I first arrived at their town they refused to discuss these practices. Only after they got to know me did they invite me into their homes and begin to talk more openly. Even then they said that they had no knowledge of the origin of their distinctive practices. They also had no knowledge of what these practices indicate about the community’s history.

I was able to discover a fascinating array of customs and behavior. I will discuss three categories:

  1. eating habits;
  2. religious practices;
  3. funeral rites.

Eating Habits

The Venhaver keep a form of Kashrut. They do not eat meat from pigs, meat from hunted animals, or seafood. They do not eat meat and dairy in the same meal. They do not, however, have separate meat and dairy dishes.

They only eat meat that they have themselves slaughtered. Their slaughtering technique also is distinctively evocative of Kashrut. They slaughter chickens, for example, by cutting their throats with a very sharp knife. They also drain the blood, wash the chickens thoroughly, salt them, and wash them again. They explained their refusal to eat meat containing blood because such meat was “carregado” (charged). No one could explain exactly what charged meant, but it seemed to have some kind of spiritual meaning.

Another noteworthy custom they related to me is that they do not eat bread during the first week of April. This is, of course, evocative of the Jewish practice of not eating leaven during Passover. Yet, they have no association between their practice and the Jewish holiday. Nor is there in any other way in which they celebrate Passover. The only explanation I could get is that the bread becomes “charged” during the first week of April.

Religious Practices

Every Friday night, before sundown, the Venhaver woman light two candles. The candles are lit in their homes, but not where they can be seen publicly. When asked about this practice they say that they are doing it so the “good spirits” will take care of the house.

Although the Venhaver community are practicing Catholics they refuse to kneel in Church. Their houses often contain pictures of Catholic Saints, but crosses are rare. Hanging on a few of the right doorposts at the fronts of their houses are small bags of earth. People touch or kiss this vestigial mezuzah when they enter or leave the house. Many front doors also have a Star of David or Psalm on their back. The motivations for both traditions is to “protect” the house from evil spirits that otherwise might haunt it.

In Church they recite the regular Catholic prayers. They also say private prayers in their homes that were handed down from their ancestors. The issue of prayer seems to be a sensitive one, and they refused to tell me the content of these private prayers even though I begged them repeatedly.

I was told they also have an alternative house of worship besides the local church. The place, which was called “snoga,” was said to be a prayer hall and pilgrimage place up in the mountains.

Since the word “snoga” sounds like it came from the Portuguese word “sinagoga,” I attempted to persuade them to take me there, but in vain. Its location is remote and secret. The Venhaver people say that they go there only during certain times of the year. They said they go for vigils that can last for an entire day, but refused to disclose the prayers that they used during these times.

They have one other custom that finds no Christian parallel. While a parent is blessing a child, they lay their hands on the child’s head or shoulders. This resembles the same Jewish practice to an extraordinary degree.

Funeral Rituals

The Venhaver funeral rituals are another sign of their Jewish origin. The Venhaver people start making funeral arrangements as soon after death as possible. The corpse is washed and wrapped in a white linen shroud but no casket is used. An elderly woman explained that they do this because Jesus Christ was buried in a shroud.

The wrapped body is briefly placed in the middle of the deceased’s house’s main room, with its feet towards the door. No viewing of the body is permitted. This is the opposite of the local Catholic custom of open viewing of the body in its casket.

I was told that both before and during the burial a number of prayers handed down from their ancestors are offered. They would not reveal the contents of any of these prayers.During the actual burial the deceased’s family and friends help to bury the corpse by throwing handfuls of dirt inside the grave.

After the funeral the deceased’s immediate family gathers at their home for seven days. During this period they do not work. They light a candle which lasts for this period.

The graves of the Venhaver community are different from those of their neighbors since most do not have crosses. Those that do have crosses that are quite distinct. When members of the community visit graves they leave stones behind. Sometimes they leave one stone, but sometimes they leave six in the form of a Star of David. No one was able to explain the origin of this custom.

Results Mixed With Regrets

My visits were in part a success. After all, I was able to verify many of the legends I had heard about and read about. The evidence is overwhelming that these people’s ancestors once were practicing Jews.

But there is so much more that I would like to know. I came away with the feeling that it would be extremely difficult for any outsider to completely understand their beliefs and practices. A final anecdote illustrates some of the problems that any outsider faces when they attempt to get the Venhaver community to talk openly.

I had wondered from the beginning why so many members of the community were reluctant to tell me that they were “Judeus,” to discuss their ancestors, or the origins of their rituals. Others would talk but would only open up to me to a limited extent. For a long time I attributed this only to a normal distrust of outsiders and a long term habit that had served them well over the centuries.

To my great surprise, however, I was told by my closest friend in the community that many people there were afraid of me. From the media they knew that there had been or were Nazis outside of Brazil. They also knew that Nazis hated Jews and in the past had killed Jews. When an outsider, who spoke Portuguese with a different accent, came and started asking a lot of questions about Jews, and who observed Jewish customs, what were they to think? Many thought that I might be a Nazi looking to persecute them.

I left with a feeling of regret and sadness that the people in the Venhaver community know essentially nothing about their Jewish past. They have clung to remnants of Jewish practices for centuries but apparently do not know why they have done so. They either do not think about why they engage in particular customs or rituals or rationalize them in terms of Christianity or otherwise.

There was a part of me that ached to be able to tell them that their ancestors had, for 500 years, clung to certain practices because they had a desperate desire to be Jewish and to pass this Jewishness on to their children. Part of me wanted to help them to vindicate their ancestors’ faith and memory and stubbornness. Part of me wanted to be able to help them become truly and unambiguously Jewish.

The Emerging Jewish Marrano Community of Natal

Natal is the capital city of the state of Rio Grande do Norte. It was established in 1599 and has a population of well over half a million people.

Only a handful of practicing Jews lived there until just after World War I, when a small synagogue was founded. The community grew until just after World War II. It started to decline as the Jews left for Israel or larger centers of Brazilian Jewish life. There are now only five families left that qualify as Jews under traditional definitions of this term.

In the 1970s a group of Marranos started to gather. Every member of the group grew up hearing family stories and observing family practices similar to those discussed above. The tiny group grew by word of mouth as members recruited others with similar backgrounds and interests. Eventually it turned into a Jewish havurah (prayer group) that met for member-conducted services in members’ homes.

When I heard about this group I started to correspond with them. But I wanted to see for myself whether the stories they wrote – of their Jewish heritage, of the passing of Jewish traditions from generation to generation (albeit ever more weakly) and, most of all, of their return to Judaism – were real. If so, it would be a phenomena unique in Brazilian history. In 1992 and 1993 I journeyed to Natal, stayed with them, and observed them.

I found a havurah consisting of the five traditionally defined Jewish families and twelve Marrano families. It met for religious services regularly and observed all the major holidays, although without a Rabbi. During the weeks I stayed there I functioned as their Rabbi, and conducted extensive seminars and lectures on a great many facets of Judaism.

During my visits I interviewed every member of the Marrano community. My purpose was to gauge for myself their sincerity and Jewish convictions. I found an incredible thirst for Jewish knowledge that my lectures could not in any way diminish. I found a vibrant, spiritually Jewish community. I do not want to romanticize this havurah – it has had its share of troubles and internal strife. Like almost every Jewish community it has gone through cycles of decline followed by further growth.

I also began to learn some of the underpinnings of the members’ desire to return to Judaism. One of the members who has been active since almost the beginning is Mr. Joao Fernandes Medeiros Dias, who now often uses the Hebrew name of Iohanan ben Imanuel Diya. I will briefly describe his life story since it is in many ways illustrative of many of the stories I heard from Marranos in Natal (and elsewhere).

Mr. Medeiros grew up hearing many stories about his ancestors and observing many practices similar to those discussed earlier in this article. For example, he was taught not to kneel in Church, and his family observed many of the dietary habits described earlier.

He developed an intense interest in religious issues and enrolled in a Protestant seminary. He frequently got into arguments with his colleagues, however, over a number of topics. When they told him to observe the Sabbath on Sunday, for example, he would argue that the Bible clearly indicated that Saturday is the true Sabbath.

Medeiros became an ordained minister and in 1970 moved to Rio de Janeiro. Although he was working for the Protestant Churches Council he met many Jews and began to learn about Judaism. The more he learned, the more he could not reconcile his religious beliefs and family traditions with Christianity. He found a Reform Rabbi, Henrique Lemle who performed a “Purification Ceremony” to signify his official return to the Jewish people. That ceremony was not a “conversion” ceremony since its purpose was to ratify his return to the practices of his ancestors. After his return to Judaism he decided to return to the Northeast so that he could help to bring back others who were, like him, of Marrano descent. He joined the community that was forming in Natal and, due to his religious training, was appointed its unofficial spiritual leader.

Mr. Medeiros has lived as a Jew ever since and has raised his children in the Jewish faith. One of his daughters lived in Israel for a time, but her quest to become an Israeli citizen failed since she was unable to unequivocally prove maternal descent from Jews for the last 500 years (a standard that few Jews in the United States could meet). Nor is Mr. Medeiros recognized as Jewish by the Brazilian Orthodox community.

Who Will Welcome Them Back?

In 1990 the Brazilian orthodox establishment sent a Rabbi from Sao Paulo to Natal to check the community’s status. This Rabbi went to Natal and asked one of the few Jews in the city whether the Marranos could meet the standard Orthodox test – whether they could trace their maternal line back 500 years to unquestioned Jews. When this Jew said that the Marranos could not do this the Rabbi decided that they were of no interest to him. He even refused to speak to a delegation of Marranos that came to plead their case!

The reasons for the Orthodox refusal to accept – let alone welcome or encourage – the Marranos back to the fold are complex. While Halacha plays a role, Russian and other Jews face no such barriers even though their ancestry often is problematic. Since the Brazilian Jewish community has only 175,000 members, perhaps it is in part a fear of being overwhelmed. Scholars estimate that approximately 10% of the population – 15,000,000 Brazilians – are of Marrano descent, so if even a small percentage return to Judaism they could dominate the local Jewish community.

The Natal phenomena was the first of its kind to arise in Brazil. But in recent years many similar individuals and groups have begun to emerge, especially in northeast Brazil. The details of their traditional family practices and the reasons for the individual desires to (re)embrace Judaism vary. But the overall similarities in their stories and quests are uncanny.

The Marrano groups and individuals recently have begun forming a self-help network. They are sharing information and providing mutual moral support. They are trying to help one other become Jewish in terms of knowledge, practice and spirit.

The only parts of the Brazilian Jewish community that renders any significant assistance are isolated individuals, acting alone, and also the small Reform (called “Liberal”) movement. The Reform movement makes an effort to help and welcome the Marranos by sending them some religious books and matzos during Passover. But the Reform community in Brazil is too small for the task, has many other items on its agenda, and is itself not totally in favor of assisting them.

Recently Kulanu has begun helping the Marranos of Brazil. I serve as a Rabbinic advisor to Kulanu and direct its Brazilian programs. Our activity has been limited due to budgetary considerations. We have, however, been able to help the Marrano network publish a book containing information on Judaism that is of most interest to Marranos. This book is now being distributed to interested individuals and groups. We have also sent educational material to Brazilian Marranos.

Perhaps the most important thing that Kulanu is doing for them comes from our attitude. We extend them a warm welcome back into the Jewish people. We let them know that not everyone in the Jewish community regards them with suspicion, cynicism and even hostility. If they want to rejoin us, we let them know that we need them. We truly regard them as our long lost brothers and sisters. We treat them accordingly and they know it.

Kulanu has also started to give public lectures to inform the American Jewish community about the Marrano situation. It is our hope that as we let our audiences know that these people are sincerely returning to their religion after 500 years, perhaps American Jews will stop and think that Judaism must be something really special. If these Brazilians are so eager to reclaim it, perhaps Americans will be less likely to loose it. Ultimately, by helping the Brazilian Marranos, we hope to help ourselves.

The Marranos’ Jewish claims are genuine and strong. They are the last, stubborn remnents of one of the most tragic episodes of Jewish history. Now, an amazing event – dare I say miracle – is occurring. They want to finish this horrible chapter in a positive way, in a way that will represent the triumph of the Jewish spirit over the forces that would destroy us.

How can we reject them? How dare we refuse to welcome them? If this chance to partially rewrite a horrible part of our history passes, how will we live with ourselves? We cannot stand idly by. This must be seen as an incredible opportunity for the revewal of the Jewish people.

How ironic if it turns out that they survived the forces of the Inquisition, and also 500 years of being forced to practice their Judaism secretly, only to be finally defeated by Jewish indifference.