Jewish culture amid Carnival madness


RIO DE JANEIRO, Feb. 28 (JTA) – When you think of Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, you don’t often think of Yiddishkeit.

Nevertheless, there it was, among the nearly naked women and contagious samba rhythms in the parade for Carnival, a pre-Lenten Catholic festival.

The first of the Carnival groups, which are known as samba schools, marched into the Carnival stadium dressed in the theme of Zumbi dos Palmares. Zumbi was an African slave who immigrated to Brazil and led a black rebellion.

In the samba school’s version of the story, Zumbi was influenced in North Africa by Jews and Arabs who had fled the Spanish Inquisition.

Dancers dressed as Jews and Arabs did the samba side by side, in what some interpreted not only as a historical depiction but as a contemporary message of coexistence.

Other Jewish symbols also figured in the parade. A car in the shape of a Star of David, representing Jewish immigration to Brazil, carried a lion as symbol of Judaism, a tall golden menorah and a model of the Western Wall.

Some of the school’s float was dedicated to Judaism, as participants – most of them non-Jews – came wearing peyot and tefillin, or sidelocks and phylacteries, carried small Torahs made of paperboard and wore dreidels and stars of David on their hats.

Of course, this was Carnival, and one dancer had a glittering Star of David necklace bouncing on her bare chest.

Another samba school paid homage to Silvio Santos, the wealthy Jewish owner of Brazil’s second-largest TV channel. The school described the life of Santos, mentioning his Greek background, but not the fact that he is Jewish.

After the parade ended, some participants threw pieces of their luxurious costumes into the crowd. In the past, Israeli tourists – several hundred of whom sat together at the end of the parade – have reused the souvenirs back home in Purim parties.

Carnival traditionally is a time when the world turns symbolically upside-down. The rich mix with the poor, men dress as women and the prohibited becomes permissible.

Carnival also creates an industry of costume-makers and confectioners. Since each samba school is part of a community, preparations for the celebration help get kids and the unemployed off the streets.

The Roman Catholic Church is not always happy with the way merrymakers turn the event into a celebration of nudity and promiscuity. Through the years, however, the church has been grudgingly forced to adopt Carnival into the church calendar.

The church has tried to give Carnival a religious meaning by postponing the onset of Lent – the pre-Easter period when meat cannot be eaten – until the Wednesday after Carnival. The Lenten abstinence is meant to contrast with Carnival’s abundance.

Carnival also is associated with the Greek god Dionysus – also known as Bacchus – who was famous for his orgies.

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