Arts & Culture Documentary Looks at Brazilians Rediscovering Their Jewish Roots

A new Brazilian documentary film tells the story of Catholics in the country’s northeast who practice some Jewish traditions — whether or not they know it. Those customs were handed down to them by their ancestors, Portuguese Jews who were forced by a 1497 royal edict, and the Inquisition that followed, to convert to Catholicism, and who later fled the land of their birth.

The film is “The Star Hidden in the Backlands,” and the star in question is the Star of David.

The first group of Portuguese Jews arrived in Brazil around 1500, with the first wave of colonizers, but even in the New World they had to keep their ancestry secret. The Inquisition, which lasted for 300 years, followed them to Brazil: Many secret Jews were sent back to Lisbon for trial.

Elaine Eiger, a Jewish photographer, and Luize Valente, a journalist, are the film’s co-directors. The two interviewed the descendants of these “New Christians,” mostly in small towns in Brazil’s three northeastern states.

Some of the people they interviewed know about their Jewish roots and some do not; some have returned to Judaism and others have not. All of them talk about the customs and rituals that link them to the first Jews who came to Brazil.

Death-related rituals are the most widespread. They include washing a dead body and cutting the nails; wrapping it in a white linen shroud and burying it without a casket; discarding water left in jugs and washbowls during the preburial mourning period; and putting stones on graves.

Other customs include not eating pork, circumcising baby boys, praying during the first day of a new moon, and sweeping house dust out the back door instead of the front — an act thought to bring bad luck.

Some of the New Christians’ descendants perform the rituals and customs of their Jewish ancestors, but don’t know that those ancestors weren’t Catholic.

Dona Cabocla, 74, is a devout Catholic from a small town in northern Rio Grande do Sul state. Her walls are covered with pictures of Catholic saints.

She won’t be buried in a casket, she said in an onscreen interview, because “we are for the earth to eat.”

Other descendants of New Christians, particularly those who live in cities, are more aware of their Jewish roots. Joao Medeiros, 70, a retired civil engineer from the northeastern city of Natal, was raised as a Catholic; his parents made him keep his Jewish ancestry secret.

Medeiros told JTA that was because of “the social pressure to conform, or be considered community outcasts.”

Nevertheless, Medeiros became a practicing Jew when he was 40. He doesn’t eat pork, lights Sabbath candles and celebrates Jewish holidays with other descendants of New Christians who have returned to Judaism.

The documentary includes scenes of Medeiros’ wife, Marlene, and their 12-year-old granddaughter lighting Shabbat candles.

“I have refused to convert to Judaism — something Brazilian rabbis insist upon — because I am already Jewish,” Medeiros told JTA. “And I have helped create a religious community in Natal that is keeping our Jewish traditions alive.”

The documentary also includes an interview with University of Sao Paulo historian Anita Novinsky, who used historical records to estimate that 30 percent of the Portuguese who came to Brazil with the first wave of colonists were New Christians. Some 120,000 Jews now live in Brazil, and it’s likely that a far greater number of Brazilians have Jewish ancestors.

The film’s second half traces the trip taken by Dr. Luciano Oliveira, 27, from the northeastern city of Campina Grande. The descendant of New Christians, Oliveira got in touch with relatives who grew up with customs similar to those practiced in his home.

Oliveira, once a practicing Catholic, returned to Judaism at 17 when he underwent circumcision.

The film also traces Oliveira’s journey to Sao Paulo as he searches for an Orthodox rabbi to advise New Catholics about how to get official recognition of their return to Judaism. He’s looking for such affirmation both from the local Orthodox rabbinate and the rabbinic establishment in Israel.

Like Medeiros, Oliveira refuses to convert to Judaism, saying that he already is a Jew.

In on-camera encounters, the rabbis tell Oliveira that to be recognized as a Jew under Jewish law, he must provide proof that his mother was Jewish and obtain the consent of Israeli rabbinate.

“The Sao Paulo rabbis I met created lots of obstacles for my being officially recognized as a Jew because they don’t want to — or have the power to — go against the Israeli rabbinate,” Oliveira told JTA. “Still I have returned to my religion in my heart, and now I have a connection with God as Jews see him.”

That connection, he said, “is direct, intimate and not intermediated.”

Sao Paulo Rabbi Samy Pinto, who took part in one of those filmed encounters, told JTA, “As a rabbi, I don’t consider Luciano Oliveira Jewish because he hasn’t complied with the requirement of Jewish law.”

The film will not be screened commercially in Brazil, but in late April it was shown in a Jewish cultural center in Sao Paulo. It will be shown in cultural centers in northwestern cities and at the Jewish film festival in Sao Paolo in August.

The filmmakers hope the movie will be shown in San Francisco’s Jewish film festival this summer as well.

“We want as many people to see the film as possible because it presents a part of Jewish history in Brazil that a large part of the public is completely unaware of,” Eiger said.

NEXT STORY