The Jews of São Paulo

Have you ever heard of the man who walked the streets of São Paulo, selling pens and other items that he kept in his suit? It was best for business, he thought, and for making friends in the community. People called him the ambulatory salesman. A woman interrupts: she wants to share how her parents would shift to Yiddish when talking in front of her. Many nod in agreement; it happened to them, too. She then laughs, admitting that she and her siblings eventually learned the language.

Such are the impromptu conversations between visitors to the Memorial da Imigração Judaica—the Memorial for Jewish Immigration—in São Paulo, Brazil. Many reminisce as they examine the vitrines holding artefacts from the first wave of immigrants who settled there. The objects are often historical in nature or used for religious services, like a Meguilat Ester from 1800 or a 1558 book, Dialoghi Di Amore, by the Portuguese Jewish physician-philosopher Leone Hebreo (a descendant of the Abravanel family). But more than anything, the memorial is the place where people connect the past with the present. It is common to see older visitors with younger relatives, using the exhibited content to enrich their unique family histories. Recently, an elderly lady involved me in that dialogue, asking if I—whose job it is to oversee the historic artefacts—knew what a Ketubá is. Her parents, it turned out, had used this form of religious contract for their marriage.

Jewish emigration to São Paulo began in 1903. The migrants’ roots were as diverse as the Judaic community they eventually created, originating in places as far away as Egypt, Romania, Poland, Iraq, Hungary and Morocco. Most settled in the neighbourhood of Bom Retiro because of its proximity to the São Paulo Railway, which facilitated the development of industry. The community blossomed between the 1920s and 1960s, and with affluence many moved slightly south to the districts of Higienópolis and Jardins. However, they maintained their commerce in Bom Retiro and although the local Yiddish newspapers are gone, the neighbourhood is still known as the Jewish quarter of the metropolis—it is easy to recognise the many groceries, butchers and social clubs by their mezuzahs. Moreover, its prominence is perhaps to be expected in a city like São Paulo, which is home to 80,000 Jews—half of the total Jewish population in Brazil.

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After ten years of planning, the memorial finally opened its doors in February in what was the oldest synagogue in Bom Retiro, indeed in the entire country. The Kehilath Israel Synagogue was founded in 1912 by immigrants from Eastern Europe, specifically the region of Bessarabia, but ended its religious activities at its centenary to make room for the cultural heritage project. The purpose—to preserve and recreate the traditions of the Judaic community— was well suited to its edifice.

The basement floor explores the significant contribution of the Jewish community to life in Brazil, from literature—such as the writing of Clarice Lispector— to economic theory provided by the likes of  banker Joseph Safra. The ground floor houses the restored synagogue and the documents detailing its development, but the most fascinating aspect of the memorial is probably its top floor, where visitors can immerse themselves in experiences of Jewish traditions. Here, one can literally ‘break the glass’ as you would under a wedding chuppah or stand back and watch videos about anything from bar and bat mitzvah to a guide to every single mitzvoth. The explorative, religious and historical aspects reflect the memorial’s role as a space for the continuing unfolding of Jewish identity in São Paulo. It is both a living custodian and a testament to the challenges of immigration; to the hopefuls who journeyed to the South American continent, adapting traditions along the way but losing some, as well as a thank-you to a welcoming country. 

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