Behind the Headlines the Jews of the Amazon

Would you believe the “Wandering Jews” have left about 50,000 descendants still living in remote river communities in the Amazon? A Brazilian sociologist-turned journalist has proof.

Henrique Veltman, a 47-year-old Sao Paula writer, has documented major participation by Morrocan Jews in the original European settlement of the Amazon. He has found that even in places where intermarriage with Indians and mestizos (Indians-Black-Portuguese-Spanish) was so extensive that Hebrew words had crept into indigenous languages, and children and grandchildren of Jewish immigrants still kept some customs intact.

The results from his explorations and investigations will be organized into a presentation of Latin American Jews by Beit Hatfusoth. The Museum of the Diaspora, in Tel Aviv. The museum concentrates its efforts on obtaining information about Jewish life outside of Israel.

A SEARCH FOR DESCENDANTS

Veltman, in an interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, said he succeeded in contacting several descendants during his month-long search, which covered 12 cities spread out in northern Brazil and the interior of the Amazon region, where encounters with monkeys, snakes and other jungle animals were a frequent reminder of just how deep the Moroccan immigrants had penetrated.

A remnant descendant hospitalized in Cameta, a city in the state of Para, asked Veltman to tell him the story of the modern State of Israel — his eyes widened,” … then it’s true, there really does exist a state of the Jews!” His father arrived in Brazil at the age of 12 from Tangier, Morocco.

Another descendant, Carlindo, born in 1915 in Cameta to Joseph Cohen and Vitoria Maria Cohen — Joseph from Tangier and Vitoria a Catholic from Cameta married Luna Ben Sabat Cohen, daughter of Jaime Ben Sabat and the granddaughter of Manesse Cohen, both from Tangier — showed Veltman magazines and calendars that he periodically receives from Beit Chabad. He can’t read Hebrew, yet he remembers his father’s hymns from the synagogue.

GUARDING JEWISH PRECEPTS

Sons of Jewish immigrants found no Jewish women to marry — the women they did find, wouldn’t convert. However, the children of the Moroccan immigrants were given a Jewish education. Their descendants today still fast on Yom Kippur, eat matzoh on Pesach, name their children Esther, Menachem, Moses … and treasure their possessions of tallitot, tefillin and siddurim brought over from Morocco.

The Jewish community of Belem, located in Para state, today comprises 250 families — more than 1,000 souls — but the acting rabbi is skeptical, noting that perhaps 660 of those 1,000 are “real” Jews.

Nevertheless, Veltman takes a social and anthropological view of the situation. He has calculated 50,000-60,000 Hebrew descendants — half of the actual Brazilian Jewish population of 110,000 in this country where 90 percent of the 120 million inhabitants profess Catholicism.

“Most importantly, in this immense majority,” Veltman emphasizes, “they are extremely aware of their origins, and a great part are guarding the Jewish precepts, or trying to return.”

The history of the Jews of the Amazon began in the past century when the Moroccan immigrants arrived from Tangier and Tetuan as a result of those cities being quartered into ghettos until 1912.

During the first half of this century in the northern states and Amazon region, the Jews prospered, and developed the regions they inhabited. For example, in Cameta, the government maintains the Jewish cemetery, regarding it as a monument to the city because the Jews were integral in the city’s development.

There is a small house in front of the cemetery which has on the wall an inscription: “Beit El. ” Veltman asked the owners if they knew what it meant — “No, but they say it brings good luck, so we always renovate it.”

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