Racife's Two Jewish Communities / Yossi Bailin

Many of the Jews exiled from Spain in 1492 went to Holland. There, no one forced them to convert to Christianity; they even felt welcome. In the middle of the 17th century, Dutch sugar merchants allowed their Jewish friends to join their journey to Recife, Brazil, the port of exit for sugar exports to Europe. Recife, like the rest of Brazil, was under Portuguese colonial control, but Portugal was struggling to control all of the giant country. Recife was one of Portugal's weakest points, so it was exploited by the Dutch and the French. Most of the Jews were skilled experts who helped build bridges in this threatening land, which facilitated the transport of sugar.

In Recife, the Dutch Jews met their Jewish brothers, the Marranos, who had been forced to convert to Christianity, and who observed Jewish commandments in secret. A moment of grace was created. The Dutch allowed the Jews to establish a synagogue and not only did the Dutch Jews pray there, but the Marranos did as well. The street on which the synagogue stood was called Jews' Street, and it seemed that the bad times had ended.

But this moment of respite passed after just seven years. In 1661, the Portuguese returned to Recife and the Dutch left, and with them, many of the Jews. Those who decided to stay were again forced to convert and join the Marranos. The synagogue was destroyed and the street was renamed Holy Cross Street. In the 19th century, Recife community leaders took pains to name the street Jesus the Benefactor Street, in an effort to erase the memory of the short years of Jewish presence on the street.

In the 1920s and 1930s, just before the Holocaust, Jews from Eastern Europe arrived in Recife, one of the few places in the world that were still open to receiving them. It wasn't a large community, but it did establish synagogues, a Yiddish theater and a school. Later, the community located the remains of the 17th century synagogue, and the local government helped establish a community center and a new synagogue on the same site. The name of this new community center was House of the Rock of Israel.

Over the years, many Jews left Recife. Some went to other places in Brazil, some to the U.S., and some currently live in Israel. Today there are about 1,000 Jews living in Recife, and here is where the actual story begins: A decade ago, a few people appeared before community leaders claiming to have recently discovered their Jewishness. They had come from Marrano families and had always practiced a number of mitzvot, which they had no idea were connected to Judaism, such as lighting Shabbat candles, eating matzot, fasting on Yom Kippur and others. This group of 120 people concluded that they were descendents of Jews and were carefully observant of their traditions. They requested that the Jewish community in Recife include them as members and allow them to pray in their synagogue.

The community leaders were mostly very liberal and their synagogue was not Orthodox. But they refused to recognize the Jewishness of the Marranos, and asked them to convert. The Marranos, of course, rejected such humiliation. Their forefathers had been forced to convert, but continued to observe Torah commandments; now they were being asked to convert in order to be Jews?

So now there are two Jewish communities in Recife: the former Marranos, who observe the commandments, and the descendants of Eastern European emigres, who do not recognize the Marranos. Could there be a more Jewish story than this one?

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