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Around the Jewish World Laid-back Brazilian Tourist Port Cozy Attraction for Hebrew Speakers

April 11, 2003
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You sit at a chair in an Internet cafe and find yourself before a Microsoft Windows screen in Hebrew.

You take a glance at the computers to your sides — and find the same.

Welcome to Arraial D’Ajuda, Brazil’s most Israeli town.

The town, on the southern coast of the northeastern state of Bahia, has just 10,000 inhabitants, but receives some 300,000 tourists every summer.

It also gets crowds of Israeli tourists, mainly during Carnival, which was held last month.

The unpaved streets of the town are lined with small, rustic inns and charming restaurants that blend perfectly with the town’s carefree ambience. It’s as easy to find a Japanese sushi as it is to sample one of Bahia’s famous seafood stews, known as moquecas.

You’ll also find juicy falafel and humus. And you won’t have to learn Portuguese to ask a local for information: Signs in Hebrew are spread all over the town, whether for falafel stands, water-pipe rooms, restaurants or sightseeing tours.

This tropical paradise was discovered in the early 1970s by a post-Woodstock generation of hippies who had traveled the world and found in Arraial an alternative way of living.

Today they own the inns that are so common in town, many of them built as extensions of the owners’ homes.

Most Israeli tourists seems comfortable with the daily routine: Shops open only at the end of the afternoon and close at about midnight.

People dress informally, and it’s not unusual to go shopping in a bikini or even to a nightclub in swim wear.

Lunch in Arraial feels a lot like dinner, and when you think the town is settling down for the night the festivities are in fact beginning, with luaus on the beach and dancing until the early hours of the morning.

A pedestrian district known as Broadway features many bars and restaurants where tables are set up on the sidewalk.

Israeli hotelier Asaf Kfir, 25, came to Brazil in July 2002 for what he thought would be a month-long vacation.

But he stayed on and eventually he opened a restaurant in Arraial called Ashkara, which has become a kind of information center and central meeting point for Israeli tourists.

Kfir has traveled throughout Brazil and keeps several travel guides, books and magazines in the restaurant.

He listed the major Israeli interests in Bahia state: “Beautiful landscape, beaches and women. Secondly, the several parties,” he said.

For example, noted Kfir’s business partner Noam Gaber, a recent flight from Bahia was crowded with sun-tanned Israelis going to Sao Paulo for a seven-day rave party.

Standing on the porch of Ashkara, Kfir’s Brazilian Jewish girlfriend, Glauce Brit points out who is Israeli and who is not:

“It’s easy to recognize. Just look at their feet and check the typical rubber sandals tied by stripes,” she says.

Some locals don’t like the Israelis, Brit said — “but they live on the money they spend here,” she noted angrily.

One saleswoman on the street called Israelis “difficult people” because they bargain for everything, Sao Paulo designer Henry Lederfeind said.

For Israeli Galit Friedman, 22, from Netanya, the preponderance of Israeli culture isn’t so good.

“It takes away the mystery and the magic of the place,” she said.

Yael Artzi, also 22 and from Netanya, disagrees. After traveling around South America, the best thing about Arraial is being able to eat some good Israeli food.

“The food connects us to home,” she said.

But the tourist wave has led to at least one long-term romance: Brazilian-born publicist Liora Rubin, 24, met Israeli Roni Kitai in Bahia last year, and made aliyah in November.

At the time they met, Rubin was just one more tourist from Rio de Janeiro who was spending the 2002 Carnival holidays in Bahia.

“I never thought it would be possible, a summer love, a Carnival love. But then Roni went to Brazil and we spent two months together,” she said. “I have always liked to meet Israelis; they’re great for tourism and adventures.”

For Rubin, whose father is Swiss and mother Israeli, the decision to make aliyah was influenced by Kitai.

“Actually I had always thought about it but I was never courageous enough. Now I came because of him, and it was a great decision,” she told JTA by Internet from her new home in Nahariya on Israel’s northern coast. The couple intends to get married soon, she said.

For Kitai, 32, the visit last year was his first to Bahia.

“I’d heard from friends that it was the best Carnival in the world, full of pretty women, beautiful beaches, simple people and good food,” he said.

Bahia’s state capital, Salvador, some 430 miles north of Arraial D’Ajuda, is another major Israeli destination.

“There’s an invasion of Israelis in Bahia in the summer,” Miguel Kertzman, president of the Bahia Israelite Society, told JTA.

He estimated that some 5,000 Israeli tourists disembark in Salvador from December until Carnival, which usually is held in late February or early March.

“The large majority are youths who have just finished the army in Israel and come to Brazil on vacation,” he explained. “I believe that they really need to do it by this time, to have a good rest and just relax.”

The Israeli tourists are warmly welcomed by the local Jewish community.

“Every single Kabbalat Shabbat we receive Israelis in our synagogue, and not only in the summer, but throughout the whole year,” Kertzman said. “We’re very happy about it.”

Recent tourists have been able to meet Bahia’s new rabbi, Argentine-born Rabbi Ary Glikin, 32, the first rabbi in the state in 90 years.

The wave of Israelis into Bahia convinced El Al to offer eight chartered flights between Israel and Brazil — four to Rio and four to Salvador — between January and March.

Some 1,600 Israelis took the chartered flights, which take more than 13 hours, according to El Al Brazil’s director, Priscila Golczewski.

“The initiative came from Israeli operators and agencies and was welcomed by El Al,” she explained.

The flights were stopped because of international tensions. But Golczewski promised they would begin again soon, and perhaps become year-round.

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