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Rio's Brio

October 1, 2009 By:
Elyse Glickman, JE Feature
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Along with dance and vibrant fashion, music, food and the arts, Rio literally offers all visitors "a piece of the rock," from glorious gems offered by H. Stern and longtime competitor Amsterdam Sauer to spectacular mountainous vistas and all-night samba sessions.

Take it from guide Pedro Landsberg, who enjoys a thriving business as one of Rio's premiere Jewish tour operators.

"I have one of the best jobs in the world, because every day is different and presents itself with an adventure as I show different people and groups around the city," says Landsberg, 67, who is also one of the area's few guides fluent in Hebrew -- as well as German, Spanish and English.

Given the sprawling geography of Rio (with a population of more than 5,600,000, including a Jewish community that's 30,000 strong), a full-day guided tour of the city with Pedro or one of his peers is not just recommended, but essential.

Three days before my tour, I ran into the energetic guide and two of his U.S. visitors at Columbo Coffee House, a towering 1894 landmark restaurant that feels like a great ocean-liner of the age. Although there are no kosher restaurants in Rio, he feels that Columbo's historic value makes it an essential stop.

On the day that he squired me around the "Marvelous City," he made it a point to make the first stop at his favorite site, the Museu Casa do Pontal. As he saw it, the beguiling display of 8,000 folk-art figurines from all of Brazil's states provided a more interesting context in which to appreciate the Jewish contributions.

Pedro provided a lively, balanced narrative of Rio's Jewish history, local practices (most Rio Jews are "Liberal," which falls somewhere between Reform and Traditional) and other spots.

Rio is generally identified visually by the Sanctuary of Christ the Redeemer at Corcovado Mountain (and it is a must-visit), and party-wise by the famous Carnival ushering in Lent.

With all the reminders of the city's Catholic flavor, I marveled that the Jewish presence in Rio was so evident, from the numerous operational synagogues in Leblon, Ipanema and Copacabana to the beautifully preserved Grand Temple near downtown to public areas, such as Ben-Gurion Square, Yitzchak Rabin Memorial Park and small gardens graced with large menorahs dotting the city.

We also looked in at several Sephardic and Ashkenazi temples, as well as the Rio Jewish Museum, a lovely, pocket-sized collection displaying chanukiot from local temples and historically important artifacts from Holocaust survivors.

Pedro felt a visit to the Jewish Federation of Rio (FIERJ: Federação Israelita do Estado do Rio de Janeiro) and a meeting with its president, Lea Pustilnic-Lozinsky, was essential.

She warmly expressed her pride and involvement in activities and organizations around the city that brought the community together, including a local branch of Hillel, as well as a FIERJ magazine, television program, radio show and Web page.

Although Rio has its share of socio-economic issues, it also has its fair share of glamour. While shopping venues like Rio Design and Fashion Mall put Brazil's best designers and labels on display, the best places to experience internationally famous Rio chic are the Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon neighborhoods.

While the Sanctuary of Christ the Redeemer is Rio de Janeiro's most iconic tourist attraction, it is interesting to note the headquarters of jeweler-to-the-stars H. Stern is a mix of jewelry emporium, gemology museum and workshop.

Hans Stern laid down the roots for his business in 1945, six years after he had escaped from the Holocaust. The company is now a global powerhouse.

For information on Jewish sites, see Pedro Landsberg at: www.infohub.com/personal _guides/104.html.

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