Everyone's surely heard of Carnival in Rio and its wild street parades that bring on the somber time of Lent. And, of course, Brazilian cities are much influenced in many ways by their Catholic heritage — Rio's Corcovado and its iconic statue of Christ the Redeemer, known worldwide, attest to that.
And yet, although the Jewish community in Brazil numbers less than 150,000 residents — compared to the total population of 185 million — it has always played an important role in Brazilian life.
Professor Anita Novinsky, a specialist on Jewish culture at the University of Sao Paulo, says proudly, "Brazil was made by the Jews."
The association of the Jewish people and Brazil began in the late 1500s. During the voyages of Christopher Columbus, Gaspar de Gama (who was Jewish by birth) accompanied Portuguese Adm. Pedro Alvares Cabral to Brazil. Soon after, a 500-year Jewish presence in Brazil began, adding greatly to the history of the New World.
Many Jews fleeing the Portuguese inquisition went to Brazil, many as conversos, people forcibly converted to Christianity but who still practiced their Jewish faith in secret. Colonization started on agricultural land in Brazil around this time, and the Jewish communities were heavily involved in the building of sugar mills and sugar plantations. By 1646, there were more than 50,000 European Jews in Brazil, most of them conversos.
The Dutch took over Northeastern Brazil and tolerated Jewish migration to the area, and the open practice of the Jewish faith. The first synagogue in the Americas was built at Kahal Zur in the province of Racife in 1636. In the Dutch-controlled provinces, the Jewish community prospered, being heavily involved in the sugar plantations, farming and slavery; often, Jews earned money from the lucrative reselling of slaves.
By 1645, the Dutch Jewish population numbered more than 1,500 people. It was a well-organized community, with a Talmud Torah, a tzedakah fund and an executive committee.
Other Jews, who were fleeing the Portuguese Inquisition, went to Sao Paulo but quickly disappeared. It was originally assumed that they were assimilated into the population, though recent evidence shows the existence of jungle tribes who reside near the Amazon River, and follow Jewish traditions and rituals.
In 1647, the Portuguese authorities in Brazil arrested Isaac de Castro for teaching Jewish customs and rites, and sent him back to Portugal to be burned at the stake.
The Portuguese began a nine-year war that drove the Dutch out of Brazil in 1654. Many of the Jews immigrated to nearby Curaçao, and to further areas such as New York and Europe. Those who remained fled to the interior lands of Brazil, with many becoming cowboys and ranch hands.
In 1655, the Portuguese closed the main symbol of Portuguese Jewry, the synagogue at Kahal Zur. It was finally reopened in 2002, thanks to the generosity of the Safra banking family. It is now the oldest synagogue in the Americas and a popular cultural center.
The Portuguese abolished discrimination against the Jews by Royal Decree in 1773. By 1822, Brazil had gained independence from Portugal. Small Jewish communities started establishing themselves in areas other than Sao Paulo and Dutch northeastern Brazil.
Belem, in northern Brazil, saw its first synagogue opened in 1824 by the Moroccan Jews. It was called the Porta Do Ceu ("Gate of Heaven") synagogue, and Manaus, a city on the Amazon River, had a Sephardic community by the beginning of World War I.
The Jewish Colonization Association formed the first agricultural settlement in Santa Maria, in southern Brazil, in 1902.
A second settlement followed in 1903, when 37 families colonized 13,500 acres of land in Bessarabia.
A third settlement was established at Quatra Irmaos. All were later sold off as the Jewish settlers found it too difficult to get established.
By the beginning of World War I, there were 7,000 Jews in Brazil; these were joined by more than 30,000 Western European Jews around 1920. There were 20 Jewish schools in operation at this time. The numbers were later increased by the arrival of another 3,500 North African Jews.
As for government: In 1967, six Jews were elected to the Brazilian Parliament, with many more serving as state legislators and on municipal councils. There were 140,000 Jews in Brazil, mostly in Rio de Janeiro (50,000); Sao Paolo (55,000); Porto Alegre (12,000); Belo Horizonte (3,000) ; Recife (1,600); and Relem (1,200).
There was minor anti-Semitic activity in the 1970s, with some graffiti-painting, in addition to the distribution of propagandist literature by the right-wing Tradicao, Familia e Propriedade group.
In 2005, there was an upsurge in anti-Semitism with floods of posters and leaflets of Palestinian and Islamic propaganda. It culminated in a group of Jewish youths being attacked with a knife, with one seriously wounded as a result.
The Jewish community of Brazil has been in a constant state of high alert for terrorist attacks since the 1994 bombing of the Jewish community headquarters in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Modern-day Brazil has Jewish newspapers and periodicals, as well as a Jewish television station called Mosaico. A center for Jewish studies operates at the University of Sao Paulo.
Brazil is such a large country that it's really best to examine its Jewish history through a tour guide. For that, go online to: www.JewishBrazil.com, which offers some wonderful tours of the nation, including visits to shuls, kosher restaurants, museums — even a Jewish samba club!
For information about the country in general, visit: www.braziltourism. org.