First synagogue in New World built in Recife in 1640 for Portuguese and Dutch Jews
In the heart of Old Recife is a street sign that hints at the remarkable history of one of Brazil’s oldest neighbourhoods. Painted onto tiles in the Portuguese style, the tourist is informed that Holy Jesus Street was formally known as the Street of the Jews.
The explanation can be found halfway down the block inside a modest two-storey building. It was here around 1640 that the first synagogue in the New World was erected when Recife was, for a brief moment, the centre of Jewish life in the recently discovered Americas.
Jews were prominent among the first Portuguese to colonise Brazil. But because of Portugal’s forced conversion of its Jewish population in 1497 they were known as New Christians. Many still practised their old faith but secretly, lest they attract the attentions of the authorities, or worse, the Inquisition.
But all that changed when in 1629 a Dutch armada, coveting the lucrative sugar trade that New Christians had done so much to develop, conquered northeastern Brazil. The Calvinist Dutch immediately declared freedom of belief in their new territory and its capital of Recife gained a Jewish population as many New Christians dropped the pretence of conversion.
These were soon joined by more Portuguese Jews, this time coming from liberal Amsterdam, which had become a refuge for those who fled Iberia rather than submit to conversion.
The Kahal Zur Israel Synagogue was built to cater to this growing community, which clearly needed some rabbinical authority to help it adapt to life in the southern hemisphere. In 1638 they had sent the New World’s first rabbinic consultation to a rabbi in Salonika, inquiring if they should pray for rain according to the old Jewish calendar or instead ahead of the rainy season in their strange new home.
First rabbi of Americas
The synagogue was ready in time for the arrival in 1642 from Amsterdam of Isaac Aboab da Fonseca, the first rabbi of the Americas. Such was the success of his Jewish community that by the middle of the 17th century it is estimated that half of the 3,000 whites in Recife were Jews.
But the Portuguese further south had never reconciled themselves to the loss of their richest sugar fields. They counterattacked and by 1654 the Dutch were forced to abandon Recife and Nieuw Holland came to an end.
The Jewish community fled with the Dutch, most back to Amsterdam. But 23 made their way to the nascent Dutch colony of New Amsterdam on the island of Manhattan. It was this group of Portuguese Jews who founded Shearith Israel, the first and oldest Jewish congregation in what is today the US, home to the largest and most influential Jewish community outside of Israel.
For 350 years this history was lost on Brazil, a country that has long had a shaky relationship with its own past. It was only in 1999 that an international rabbinic commission confirmed the building on Rua Bom Jesus did indeed stand on the foundations of the Kahal Zur Israel Synagogue, after they identified its mikva, a ritual purification bath.
Since then the site has been turned into a memorial to those forgotten Sephardic pioneers and the city’s present Jewish community, most of whom are descendants of Ashkenazim who started arriving at the end of the 19th century.
Open up history
This revival of interest in Recife’s Jewish past is part of a still emerging change in Brazil since the return of democracy in the 1980s, which has seen greater efforts made to engage with the country’s past, and to open up history beyond that of official Brazil to include the long neglected story of its poor and marginalised – Jewish emigration to Brazil faced restrictions during the Nazi terror.
Just a short walk from Kahal Zur Israel is another example of this new emphasis on real as opposed to official history. On the quays looking out at the reef that gives Recife its name, the Cais do Sertão museum celebrates the culture of the semi-arid backlands of Brazil’s northeast. For centuries Brazilians were taught that the sertão was a poor, violent, backward region. The state treated it something like enemy territory, often sending in the army to put down any manifestation of popular tumult among its inhabitants.
But now the museum teaches the schoolchildren piling through its doors to see the region as both a forge and repository of Brazilian culture, a place to be celebrated rather than to be ashamed of. Given that many of these kids have a familial foot in the sertão so to speak it is a powerful message in a country still battling the prejudices born of its cruel inequalities.