University of São Paulo: Dossier reconstructs the history of Jewish communities in the Amazon

Coming mainly from Morocco, North Africa, at the time ravaged by diseases, wars, poverty and persecution, the Sephardic Jews arrived in Manaus and Belém do Pará, since the first decades of the 19th century. Some families went to live on the banks of the Amazon rivers, living on stilts and sleeping in hammocks, and other groups went to large urban centers. The history of more than 200 years of Jewish immigration to the Amazon region was described in articles published in Arquivo Maaravi , a Digital Journal of Jewish Studies at the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG).

“Sephardim is the term used to refer to the descendants of Jews originating in Portugal and Spain, from where they were expelled and persecuted by the Inquisition. Most of them fled to Mediterranean countries, such as Italy, North Africa and Greece”, explains to Jornal da USP the historian and novelist Maria Luiza Tucci Carneiro, professor at the Laboratory of Studies on Ethnicity, Racism and Discrimination (LEER), of the Department of History at the Faculty of Philosophy, Letters and Human Sciences (FFLCH) at USP, and one of the columnists for the dossier.

In his article, Tucci Carneiro speaks of the “contribution of the Jewish people in the historical and cultural construction of the Amazon region. To this day, Jewish-owned business houses, synagogues and tombs can be seen amid the local buildings. Jewish rites and the cuisine itself are also expressions present in the daily life of the population”.

In another article, exile literature specialist, Professor Karina Marques, from the Department of Portuguese and Brazilian Studies at the Faculty of Arts, University of Poitiers, France, and also a LEER researcher, analyzes a novel by the writer Paulo Jacob. A descendant of a Jewish family, Jacob got to know the Amazonian caboclo life in depth. The work recounts the saga of exile lived in the tropics by Salomão (the protagonist of the novel) who, like the author, was also the son of a Jewish immigrant.

The research was based on historiography, documentary analysis (inquisitorial and naturalization processes, photographs, passenger lists, newspaper articles, etc.) and analyzes of literary and artistic works.

Karina Marques, research professor at the Dept. of Portuguese and Brazilian Studies at LEER/USP
Karina Marques, research professor at the Dept. of Portuguese and Brazilian Studies at LEER/USP
Cultural assimilation and religious syncretism
The adaptation of Jews to foreign lands was a huge challenge. In addition to the tropical weather, such as fighting diseases typical of the region, initially, religious services could only be held in domestic environments. “Although they sought to maintain their traditions, celebrating festivals such as Passover ( Pesach ), the Great Fast ( Yom Kippur ) and the Jewish New Year ( Rosh Hashanah ), the immigrants sought to integrate with the local people, without losing their identities of origin”, reports the article.

In the absence of the religious leader of the Jewish community (the rabbi) and the Torah (the holy book of the Jews), the head of the house performed the functions of the liturgical singer ( hazan ). The historian says that, over time, they began to cultivate Catholic and indigenous beliefs, even showing a predisposition to mixing cults or religious doctrines to (re)create a new Judaism. Jewish cuisine was also altered and adapted to local conditions. The spices and seasonings commonly used in Jewish foods were exchanged for fruits, tropical aromas and fish from local rivers.

Another article, “Two Jewish plastic artists in the Amazon”, also published in this issue of the Arquivo Maaravi magazine , authored by Alessandra Conde da Silva and Joel Cardoso da Silva, both from the Federal University of Pará (UFPA), shows this dialogue between myths and legends of the Jewish-Amazonian culture, through the analysis of works by plastic artists of Jewish descent.

Immigration encouraged in Brazil
Professor Tucci recalls that the arrival of the royal family of D. João VI to Brazil, in 1808, and the signing of several immigration treaties between countries, in 1810 and 1926, guaranteed business opportunities and freedom of religion for immigrants. At that time, foreigners could get involved in the export and import trade, with the possibility of obtaining Brazilian citizenship.

With the independence of Brazil from Portugal, in 1822, and the promulgation of the Constitution of 1824, Jewish immigrants had no religious restrictions, as long as they exercised their creeds in domestic environments. Article 5 established that the Roman Catholic religion would continue to be the religion of the Empire, however, all other religions would be allowed, in private worship. In 1866, the liberation of the Amazon River for navigation and river traffic, in addition to the promise of economic growth, reinforced the thesis that immigrants were welcome to the country.

Manaus in the golden times of rubber
Professor Tucci says that the first wave of Moroccan Jews living in the Amazon came from North Africa, whose Iberian roots date back to the expulsion of Jews from Spain (1492) and Portugal (1496). Most of them, here in Brazil, were involved with the export and import trade.

In the second wave of immigration, after the 1850s, in the cocoa, spice and rubber cycles, foreigners of various nationalities invested in latex extractive activity. At that time, Manaus lived through the heyday of rubber. It became the capital of consumption, luxury and leisure. Even today it is possible to see expressive buildings built at that time inspired by the architecture of Portuguese mansions and French palaces.

It was also at that time, in 1896, that the Teatro Amazonas was inaugurated, a noble space in which lyrical companies of Italian operettas offered exclusive seasons for a select and enriched audience, reports the historian.

According to Tucci Carneiro, among the Jews who brokered the purchase of mosaics for the Teatro Amazonas was the owner of the firm Marius & Levy, a Jewish rubber tapper, exporter of rubber and works of art, who also built the tallest building in Manaus, four floors, with an English steel structure and tiles imported from France. In 1914, the building was sold to the Post and Telegraphs and, more recently, listed as a historical heritage.

Synagogues, graves and commercial houses: symbols that remain to this day
With the rubber crisis, some of these Jews returned to Europe and many followed their trajectory in Brazil. They became prosperous merchants, industrialists and/or farmers and their children became doctors. The historian explains that, currently, Manaus is home to about 200 Jewish families and many vestiges attest to their presence in the region.

In Belém, for example, there are two important synagogues, the Shaar Hashamaim, from 1826, considered the oldest in independent Brazil, and the Essel Abraham, from 1889-92; in addition to 28 tombs erected next to the cemetery of Soledade (Bethlehem). Some Jewish tombs were also found in Cametá, Macapá, Santarém, Itaituba, Parintins, among other places.

A piece of moon fell in the woods
In the article “Amazonian Jewish identity in Paulo Jacob: the third bank of the river”, researcher Karina Marques analyzes the autobiographical novel A piece of the moon fell in the woods (1990), by the Jewish writer Paulo Jacob. He lived and worked as a judge and judge in the Amazon for ten years, when he also made other explorations, such as living for three months in Yanomami villages to better understand the physical and human landscape of the region. In 1971, he became an immortal of the Academia Amazonense de Letras. Jacob’s proximity to the Amazonian caboclo culture was such that he was even compared to Guimarães Rosa by the writer Jorge Amado, in the 1960s, in a contest in which Jacob participated.

Professor Karina explains that Jacob recreates an Amazonian identity language in his works. “His narrations of him bring not only the specific vocabulary of the region, but also the Amazonian diction: a way of speaking caboclo, slower and ambiguous, with little clarity and difficult to decipher”, she says.

In A piece of the moon fell in the woods , Jacob combines Jewish mysticism with Amazonian folklore through the exile journey of the protagonist Salomão, a Moroccan Jewish immigrant, who settled as a merchant in Parintins, an Amazonian municipality located on the right bank of the Amazon River. In the 46 chapters of the novel, the content presents identity references to Jewish festivals and rituals, sentences from the Torah (sacred book for Jews) and Hebrew phrases, as well as caboclo cultural references from the Amazon people.

Beloved Janoca, khol brother-in-law
In one of the chapters, Jacob describes confrontations of racial segregation that are difficult to resolve. Salomão, when he was young, felt firsthand the anti-Semitism uttered by the father of his beloved, the cabocla Janoca:

“Janoca, brother-in-law khol. Shiny, black, narrowed eyes. They looked a lot like guarana seeds. […] If it wasn’t for her father’s annoyance, she would marry Janoca. […] My daughter does not marry a Jew. People who killed Christ, nailed him to the cross. […] The eyes are blotchy, the body brown.”

According to the researcher, when describing Janoca in the novel, Jacob uses the Hebrew adjective khol , which means beautiful, associated with the Tupi-Guarani term ( cuntã , girl) and shows his desire for integration into the new Brazilian land. The comparison of the body of the beloved woman with the fruits of the Amazon ( eyes equal to guarana seeds and chestnut body ) represents, in a symbolic sense, the land of welcome, happiness and abundance.

In this aspect, Professor Tucci Carneiro describes that, over the centuries, the myth of “the Jews killed Christ” was reaffirmed and renewed by other myths and, from the twelfth century onwards, contributed to strengthen the idea of ​​Jewish danger and generate prejudiced popular beliefs. According to the historian, the height of these hostilities was after the Crusades and after the Iberian Inquisition, when the Catholic Church strengthened its discourse of unity in Christianity.

USP Institute holds part of Aracy de Carvalho’s history
Later in the narrative, Solomon continues his life and marries Sarah (a Jewish woman) with whom he had two children, “a moment in which the protagonist’s life returns to its Jewish origins”. The novel continues with Salomão demonstrating a deep interest in hybrid caboclo culture, in its materiality and immateriality. According to the researcher, the invisible beings are named throughout the novel with words, many of them regional: “aparition”, “spell”, “omen”, “mandinga”, “visage”, “puçanga”, etc. “Paulo Jacob’s narrative is syncretic because it is made up of the heritage of the various peoples who occupied the Amazon region over time”, says the researcher.

Professor Karina reports that the importance of the novel lies in its contribution as a cultural and aesthetic representation of an Amazonian Jewish identity, present in its uniqueness as a product of an ethnic-cultural encounter located in the Amazon, she concludes.