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Glimpses Into American Jewish History (Part 3)

By Dr. Yitzchok Levine Jewish Press August 3, 2005

Recife – The First Jewish Community In The New World

Many people know that on September 7, 1654, twenty-three Jews arrived in
New Amsterdam (renamed New York after the Dutch left). Most are not, however,
aware of the fact that these Jews came to America from Recife, Brazil. Recife,
now the capital of the state of Pernambuco, is located on the northeastern
shore of Brazil. It has a fascinating Jewish history of its own.

Brazil was originally under Portuguese rule, and Jews first arrived there
some time after the year 1500. They were active in making Recife a prosperous
center for the production of sugar in the sixteenth and seventeenth
centuries. Many if not all of the Jews who came to Recife before 1630 were “New
Christians,” that is, Jews forced to convert to Christianity during the
Inquisition. These Jews were also known as Marranos. They most likely came to the New
World for two reasons. First, there were attractive economic opportunities in
Brazil that were not available in Europe. Second, and at least as important
to these Jews who secretly clung to the faith of their ancestors, is the fact
that until 1580 the Inquisition was not as prevalent in Brazil as it was in
countries that Spain controlled.

With the unification of Portugal and Spain in 1580, the Inquisition spread
with full force to Portugal and to the areas controlled by it in the New
World.

Though the Inquisition was never established in Brazil, it had its
“familiars” in that country, who spied upon secret Jews, and, in case of detection,
seized them and sent them to Lisbon to be tried by the tribunal there. On the
other hand, a favorite method of punishment by the Inquisition of Lisbon was
to transport convicted relapsed Jews to the colony of Brazil, it is said,
twice every year. The earliest notice of Jews in the country refers to some who
had been thus banished in 1548. In the same year, however, several
Portuguese Jews transplanted sugar-cane from Madeira to Brazil, and Jews were
connected with the sugar industry of the country for the following two centuries.
During the twenty years following the arrival of the first Jewish settlers they
were joined by many volunteer exiles of the same faith, until their
prominence in trade became noticeable; and edicts were issued by Don Henrique, regent
of Portugal, on June 20, 1567, and March 15, 1568, forbidding Marranos to
settle in Brazil. This edict, however, was repealed for the sum of 1,700,000
crusados ($714,000) given by the Marranos of Lisbon and Brazil, and the
privileges of residence and free commerce were granted to Neo-Christians by an
edict of May 21, 1577.[1]

New Christian Jews, while forced to practice Christianity publicly, did
whatever they could to maintain their Judaism secretly. They attended Catholic
mass regularly and did their best to appear as “loyal” Christians to their
neighbors. However, whenever possible, they clandestinely gathered to daven. In
order to avoid the ever watchful eye of the Inquisition, the servants of New
Christians often did not work on either Saturday or Sunday. The simple act
of bathing on Fridays or wearing nicer clothes on Shabbos could be construed
as “a lapse into Judaism,” possibly setting in motion an inquest certain to
end badly for the accused. We should keep in mind that the simplest and safest
thing for New Christians to do would have been to forsake Judaism entirely.
Yet, despite the risk of barbaric punishments and even a horrible death, many
tenaciously clung to as many Jewish practices as they could.

In 1630 the Dutch occupied Pernambuco. Holland had a tradition of granting
Jews a good deal of religious freedom, and this same freedom was now extended
to Recife and its environs. So promising was the position of the Jews in
Brazil that Ephraim Sueiro, brother-in-law of Manasseh ben Israel, emigrated to
that country in 1638, and was to have been followed by Manasseh himself, who
dedicated the second part of his “Conciliador” to the community at Recife
(1640). Two years later no less than 600 Jews from Amsterdam embarked for
Recife. Included in this number were Rabbi Isaac Aboab da Fonseca, a well-known
Amsterdam rabbi, and scholar Moses Raphael d`Aguilar. They came to Brazil as
spiritual leaders to assist the congregations of Kahal Kodesh Tzur Yisroel in
Recife and Magen Abraham in Mauricia. By 1645, the Dutch Jewish population of
Recife was about 1,500, approximately half of its European population.

Synagogue records show a well-organized Jewish community with a high level
of participation by Jews as well as New Christians, who were finally able to
openly return to the practice of Judaism. There was an elementary level
Talmud Torah and an upper level yeshiva in which Gemara was taught. These records
also indicate the existence of a tzedaka fund and an overseeing executive
committee. The community was, not surprisingly, in general observant. Each
adult male was required to stand guard on a regular basis. There are documents
that show that Jews were exempt from doing guard duty on Shabbos. They were,
however, required to hire gentiles who served in their stead.

The life story of the Rabbi Aboab is most interesting.

Rabbi Aboab da Fonseca was born in Portugal in 1605 into a family of New
Christians. After settling in Amsterdam he returned to Judaism and eventually
became a rabbi and a friend of Menashe Ben Israel. (When Rabbi) Aboab joined
the Amsterdam Jews in Recife as their hakham, (he became) the first American
rabbi.

He continued for 13 years as the spiritual mainstay of the community. After
the repulse of the Portuguese attack on the city in 1646, (Rabbi) Aboab
composed a thanksgiving narrative hymn … the first known Hebrew composition in
the New World that has been preserved.

While in Recife, Rabbi Aboab also wrote his Hebrew grammar, Melekhet
ha-Dikduk, still unpublished, and a treatise on the Thirteen Articles of Faith, now
untraceable. After the Portuguese victory in 1654, (Rabbi) Aboab and other
Jews returned to Amsterdam, where he became a prominent leader of the local
Jewish community.[2]

Held in high esteem by his former Amsterdam congregants, (Rabbi) Aboab was
reappointed as hocham in the synagogue and made teacher in the city`s talmud
torah, principal of its yeshiva and member of the city`s bet din, or rabbinic
court. He died in 1693 at the age of 88, having served the Jewish community
of Amsterdam for 50 years after his return from Recife.[3]

The bereavement of their spiritual guide was so keenly felt by Amsterdam
Jewry that for many years the name of Rabbi Aboab and the date of his death were
incorporated in the engraved border of all marriage contracts issued by the
community.[4]*

During the twenty-four years that Recife was under Dutch rule the Jews
developed a vibrant community. Recife became the first place in the New World
where Judaism was practiced openly. Its members were doctors, lawyers, peddlers,
and merchants. Many Jews prospered in the tobacco, precious gems, wood, and
sugar trades. It even had a street called the Rua dos Judeos (Street of the
Jews) on which the synagogue Tzur Yisroel was located. Indeed, in 1999
archeological investigation located the exact site of the synagogue when its bor
and mikvah were found. The site has been restored and is now a featured tourist
attraction of the Recife community.

Everything changed in 1654 when Portugal reconquered Brazil. Fearing the
reenactment of the Inquisition, the Jews of Recife either returned to Holland
or fled to Dutch, French, or English colonies in the Caribbean. Jews mainly of
Sephardic descent (collectively known as “La Nacion”) had recently
established small but flourishing economic enclaves in Parimaribo, Barbados, Curacao,
Jamaica, Hispaniola and Cayenne.

A total of sixteen ships transported both Jewish and Dutch colonists from
Recife. Fifteen arrived safely; however, the sixteenth was captured by Spanish
pirates only to be overtaken by the St. Charles, a French privateer. After
much negotiating, the master of the St. Charles agreed to bring a group of
twenty-three Jewish men, women and children from the captured ship to New
Amsterdam for 900 guilders in advance and 1,600 on arrival.[5]

These twenty-three refugees arrived in New Amsterdam in 1654. They, together
with at least two other Jews who had arrived not long before, were the
founders of the Jewish Community of New York.

*After finishing this article I discovered that Rabbi Isaac Aboab da Fonseca
was apparently a follower of Shabbtai Tzvi. (See
www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view. jsp?artid=344&letter=A#810, The Sabbatean Prophets by Matt Goldish
page 33, and Sabbatai Sevi by Gershom Scholem, pages 520-522.) To put it mildly,
I was shocked, given the greatness of Rabbi Aboab. However, it made me
realize how strong the messianic movement in the 17th century must have been to
gain adherents of Rabbi Aboab`s caliber.

[1] www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?artid=990& letter=S

[2] www.bh.org.il/Communities/Synagogue/Recife.asp

[3] www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/biography/Fonseca.html

[4] http://www.bh.org.il/Communities/Synagogue/Recife.asp

[5] www.cjh.org/about/Forward/view_Forward.cfm? Forwardid=13

Dr. Yitzchak Levine, a frequent contributor to The Jewish Press, is a
professor in the department of Mathematical Sciences Stevens Institute of
Technology, Hoboken, New Jersey. He may be contacted at _llevine@stevens-tech.edu_
(mailto:llevine@stevens-tech.edu) .

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