Home / News / LocalRSS Feed
Student explores Jewish life in Recife, Brazil
February 4th, 2005
It was a little bit of research that led Marc Zemel, a 20-year old junior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, to a town in Brazil called Recife.
Zemel, a Whitefish Bay native, said he has always had an interest in Latin America and a desire “to explore Latin American culture.” Specifically, he said, “something had always appealed to me about Brazil.”
Therefore, when he began to plan his last semester abroad, he wanted to find a way to incorporate his interests into an independent study project as part of the degrees he is working on in history, Hebrew and Semitic studies and Jewish studies.
Zemel spoke about his four months in northeastern Brazil to a group of some 35 at Chai Point Senior Living Apartment Complex on Thursday, Jan. 20.
On the Internet he learned about Recife, which is the oldest Jewish community in the western hemisphere. It was also the starting point of the journey for 23 Jews who arrived in New York 350 years ago, thereby establishing the first Jewish community in North America in 1654.
Zemel decided to spend his last month abroad in Recife, where he made contacts, observations, and conducted and translated interviews, all of which he documented in a work journal.
Before the Jews left, Zemel learned, Recife was home to a thriving Jewish community. In 1640, he said, there were more Jews than Christians in Brazil.
But in 1654 the Portuguese reclaimed their lost territory, and the Jews again fell subject to oppression. The majority fled the country, while others abandoned their Judaism and assimilated. The population increased during the world wars, when Ashkenazi Jews from Europe sought refuge there.
Today, although a small group, “The Jewish community in Recife is very incorporated into Brazilian society,” Zemel said. The city of Recife is now home to approximately 400 Jewish families.
Zemel took the information he gathered during his visit and developed a thesis that “pointed out the different ways the Jewish community has changed and the way that practices have changed, education has changed, and as a result, how the definition of a Jew has changed,” he said.
During his stay, Zemel noticed the Jews in Recife gravitated towards the cultural aspects of Judaism rather than the religious ones.
The city is equipped with a Jewish school, a youth group, a Jewish federation, a social club and a dance group. They also hold an annual Jewish culture festival, which attracted over 15,000 attendees this past year.
However, “Religiosity is seen as a negative adjective,” Zemel explained.
“Everyone agrees you do not have to believe in God to be Jewish,” he said. “It’s more of a feeling and involvement in culture.”
In describing the Jewish affiliations around the city, Zemel identified an Orthodox sect, but said the sect is “ostracized” among the other Jews of Recife.
Zemel recalled a conversation with a concerned Orthodox rabbi, who reported that the assimilation rate in the Jewish community was up to 90 percent.
But then, “I realized he’s an Orthodox rabbi,” Zemel said, and attributed the rabbi’s estimate to the rising number of children practicing Judaism without Jewish mothers.
With so many mixed marriages common in Recife, Zemel points out that assimilation is a “constant threat.” But he believes “Recife will maintain a Jewish community for years to come because of the wonderful institutions and infrastructures that are in place.”
In Recife, Zemel said, “Someone who feels Jewish and maybe exercises some Judaism” is considered Jewish.
He cited the example of the director of the local Jewish federation. The director, an atheist, had a daughter who was mothered by his non-Jewish wife and wished to convert to Judaism.
After she pleaded her case to the rabbi, divulging her activity in the Jewish community, “The rabbi said, ‘Okay, you’re Jewish,’ …because they knew she was Jewish already.”
Zemel also told the story about a woman he met at Shabbat services.
“She always felt spiritually connected to Judaism,” Zemel said. The woman, who had converted to Judaism on her own, “tried to teach her daughter everything she learned,” he said
When the woman found out that Zemel was staying with a non-Jewish family, she urged him to stay with her instead.
“She told me she would love for me to stay with them,” he said. “She was very warm and open and she opened up her home to me.”