11 March 2013

More Lost Tribes?

We keep reading in the innumerable news stories about the Emeritus Pope and the soon-to-be-Pope that Brazil is home to the largest Catholic population in the world. I don’t doubt it, but I have seen a lot more people wearing crosses around their necks on Fifth Avenue in New York than I’ve ever seen here in Brazil. The Brazilians Mark and I cross paths with on any given day are no more likely to be Catholic than Methodist, Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, Zen Buddhist, spiritualist, atheist or Jewish, or of some made-to-order set of beliefs that takes a little from Column A and a little from Column B, and sprinkles in the stardust of the candomblé and umbanda that slaves brought with them from Africa. One thing for sure, whatever religion a Brazilian may or may not profess, there’s a universally-held belief that God is Brazilian. (Among the Catholics, there’s a glimmer of a hope that the next Pope will be, too.)

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
João Ramalho

Fernando de Noronha
For example, many years ago Mark and I were in the state of Pernambuco. We went with a friend to pay a call on a family in mourning. I was astonished to see that the mirrors had been turned to the wall, which is one of the Jewish customs observed during shivah, the period of mourning. But for this Catholic family, it was just a pernambucano custom! I've also noticed in my years here that Brazilians of all religions bury their dead fast, generally with the same speed as the Jewish custom of burial within 24 hours of death. (I confess, I don't know whether this is another leftover trace of Judaism, or merely a concession to the tropical climate.)

Everyone's New Year tradition
There are other traditions that persist in Brazil that appear to have Jewish origins. Do the Brazilians wonder, for example, why they eat pomegranate at New Year? Because the Jews have been doing that for thousands of years, specifically on the second night of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. And do the Brazilians wonder why there are a few Amazon jungle tribes that light candles on Friday night and refrain from eating pork? If that didn’t come from the Moroccan Jews who emigrated to the Amazon basin in the 1800s, where could it have come from? Anecdotal, but compelling.

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