One of the most unusual archaeological projects ever undertaken in Brazil is under way: the excavation and reconstruction in Recife of the first synagogue built in the New World.
The synagogue, Kahal Zur Israel, or Rock of Israel, flourished in the mid-1600's when the Dutch briefly controlled this part of north-eastern Brazil and the sugar and tobacco plantations that made it rich.
Evacuation began in September 1999 but because the Inquisition had done everything possible to obliterate all signs of the Jewish presence, the dig began with some doubts.
"We were certain we were in the right place when we came across a mikvah," the ritual bath used by observant Jews.
With the support of the Brazilian government and several foundations, the small Jewish community here plans to turn the site into a museum and Cultural Center of the Jewish Presence in Brazil. Reconstruction of the building's interior is to be completed this year.
Brazil's Jewish population today, around 170,000, is barely one-tenth of 1 per cent of the country's 170 million people. "There is no doubt that Jews contributed greatly to the construction of Brazil", especially in the crucial early years of Portuguese colonial rule.
The first Portuguese expedition to land in Brazil, 500 years ago included a Polish-born Jew as its chief interpreter, as well as astronomers and mapmakers who are believed to have been of Jewish origin. Early settlers included many so-called marranos, Jews from the Iberian Peninsula who had converted to Christianity under duress but were eager to escape the clutches of the Inquisition to resume openly practising their faith.
By 1590, however, the Inquisition had installed itself in Brazil and begun persecuting these "new Christians". So when the Dutch seized the colony of Pernambuco in 1630 and announced a policy of religious tolerance, those who moved to Recife included not only a Rabbi and cantor from Amsterdam but many Jewish families from territory under Portuguese control.
"At the height of the Dutch period, Recife may have had a larger Jewish presence than Amsterdam itself". "The most reliable calculations indicate about 1,400 Jews, nearly half its population of free white civilians".
But in 1654 the Portuguese drove out the Dutch, and fear of reprisals led to the dispersion of the Jews here. A group of 23 returning to Amsterdam were landed at a fledgling Dutch colony called Nieuw Amsterdam. They were the first Jews ever to enter North America.
Their difficulties did not end when they reached what is today New York City. Peter Stuyvesant, governor of the settlement, sent a letter to the Dutch West Indies Company recommending "most seriously that such hateful enemies and blasphemers of the name of Christ, be not allowed further to infest and trouble this new colony."
The response he received ordered that the newcomers be permitted "to live, trade and travel" freely and be given a burial ground of their own, which was established near what is today Chatham Square. It came to be known as the Brazilian Cemetery. But it was only after the English displaced the Dutch that the Jews from Recife were permitted to build a synagogue. The congregation, Shearith Israel, still exists, with its synagogue now at 70th Street and Central Park West, the Spanish & Portuguese Synagogue. There are still some people in Brazil's interior who believe they are Jewish because they have a menorah or prayer book handed down to their grandparents by their grandparents before them, or following family customs that fit squarely within the Sephardic tradition."
The ability of elements of faith to persist for so long in such isolation is truly an amazing thing.
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