Given my own background, I have, I admit, been especially curious about the Brazilian Jews. If you judge by the number of Stars of David worn around necks, or the number of mezuzahs affixed to doors, you might think Brazil is an overseas extension of New York’s Lower East Side. But there's a simple explanation. For many Brazilians the six-pointed star has no Jewish resonance at all. It's just something fascinatingly mystical. The mezuzahs? They’re considered to be good luck amulets. Take a stroll some Sunday afternoon through the hippie fair in Rio, and watch as mezuzahs and other Jewish ritual objects are snapped up at this stand or that.
But how did all these mezuzahs and menorahs and Stars of David and kiddush cups get here in the first place, before being turned into "finds" at a fair? Well, there were many, many Jews among the first Portuguese explorers to the New World (the so-called conversos, or New Christians, fleeing from the Inquisition) and they've been flourishing in Brazil since the late 15th century. Interesting to note that it’s from these conversos, like Gaspar da Gama, Fernando de Noronha, and João Ramalho (all of whom fathered countless children) that many Brazilians feel themselves descended, both in spirit and in blood. To this day there are practices among Catholic and Protestant families in the northeast of Brazil which clearly resemble Jewish traditions, though they don't know it.
|Gaspar da Gama|
|Fernando de Noronha|
|Everyone's New Year tradition|