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A History of the Jews in Pernambuco

March 18, 2009

First Sinagogue in the Americas

The First Synagogue in the Americas

The Jews have had a very strong influence in Brazil from the days soon after the first foreign settlements.  They came as New Christians with the Portuguese, and more arrived later with the Dutch, who gave them religious freedom.  They were mostly professionals: doctors, engineers, lawyers, scientists and navigators.  They were also wealthy and acted as financiers.  These features of the Jewish community gave them influence, and they were able to play a significant role in the early development of what is now Brazil.

The story of the Jews in Brazilian history is long and runs deep.

The Jews in Portugal

Prior to the Portuguese Inquisition in 1536, the Jews in Portugal lived side-by-side with Christians, Arabs and those of other cultures in an age of prosperity and peace.  Their influence on the Portuguese in Europe was great in the 15th & 16th century.  The well-educated Jews expanded Portuguese horizons and knowledge of the world.  Their knowledge helped in the design of better ships, and their understanding of astronomy and mathematics lead to improvements in marine navigation. These advances allowed the Portuguese to explore the new world.

The Portuguese Inquisition came long after the Spanish started theirs in 1470.  The Spanish version promoted religious intolerance and the idea of Catholic orthodoxy, which demanded conversion of faith or expulsion, but initially the Portuguese resisted pressure to adopt similar policies.  Instead, they tolerated those who added such wealth and value to their country.  Royal marriages between the Portuguese and Spanish put an end to this, and in December 1496 the the expulsion of Moors and Jews from Portuguese territory began.

The loss of labor and capital drained the Portuguese economy.  Eventually, the King stopped the exodus and chose instead forced baptism to ensure the religious conversion of the Jews to New Christians, and they were prohibited from leaving the kingdom.  Forced to stay, they were isolated and persecuted, and in 1506 many in Lisbon were massacred.  Soon after, the King used the law to declare equality between new and old Christians since they were all of the same religion.  The Jews were allowed to leave ghettos and integrate.

When the King asked the Pope for the Inquisition for Portugal in 1515, under pressure from the clergy and from Spain, the Jews had little to fear.  By then they were Christians.  The first Inquisitor was not in place until 1531.  He immediately mistrusted the convictions of the New Christians and prohibited them from leaving the Kingdom until 1538.  It was during these years that the Portuguese discovered and began occupying the Brazilian territory.

The First Jews in Brazil

Given that the Jews were not allowed to leave the Kingdom of Portugal during the early years of the Portuguese occupancy of Brazil, how can we explain the presence of New Christians in Brazil at this time?  In fact, the explanation is simple; Portugal and Brazil were considered the same kingdom.  Some came with Duarte Coelho, the first captaincy of Brazil.  Coelho himself gave land grants for the construction of sugar mills to New Christians.

In the early years, and for almost half a century, Brazil was something of a haven for the New Christians.  The wealth and competency of the Jews mattered more to the early colonizers than faith.  In a short time they got rich and were well integrated in society.  In Olinda, one of the first urban settlements of the New World, Christians and Jews, passing for Christians, lived together.

When the Inquisition finally came to Brazil in 1593, and the accompanying denunciations began, the time of living in close proximity with each other resulted in great problems for many Jews.  They fact that everyone knew the details of each others’ lives turned out to be a curse.  Fear and mistrust soon gripped the city, dividing those who had lived in relative peace.

The Inquisition came and went, but fear and mistrust between old and new Christians lingered.

The Second Wave of Jewish Settlers

In 1630 the heavily-armed, Dutch-owned West Indies Company came to Pernambuco.  With it came many Jews, a number of which were the relatives of those who had fled Spain and Portugal for Amsterdam over a century earlier.  The Dutch abandoned and burnt Olinda in 1631, settling instead in Recife, believing the port to be of greater strategic and commercial importance.  The Jews at that time settled in Goat Street, also known as Jew Street.  The street was almost entirely occupied by Jews, and a synagogue was established, the first in the Americas. The Dutch, being far more tolerant, permitted the freedom of religious worship.

Freedom Lost

With the departure of the Dutch Governor Mauricio Nassau in 1644, the freedoms enjoyed by the Jews began to diminish immediately. This happened as the Portuguese fought many battles to regain control.  During this time starvation was a real problem, but greater problems faced the Jews in 1654 when the Portuguese-Brazilians won the battle, and Jews were given three months to leave, unless they pledged allegiance to Portugal.  The dream of freedom and a good life was over.

Of the city’s 600-plus Dutch Jews, most decided to return to Holland despite large financial losses from the hasty sale or abandonment of property.  Sixteen Dutch and Portuguese ships were used to resport them back to Holland.  Of these, fifteen made the crossing safely, but one had difficulty. It was captured by Spanish pirates before being set free by a French ship which took them to New Amsterdam, now New York.  The refugees, 23 men women and children arrived in Manhattan in the first week of September 1654 after a nine-month journey.

The Jews in New York

The new land was no paradise for those first settlers.  They did not win their freedom easily.  They arrived when Peter Stuyvesant, the last Dutch governor, was in power.  Being anti-Semitic, he did all in his power to make life difficult for the refugees.  They were ordered to pay the French captain that got them to New Amsterdam the price of their journey within four days.  Being unable to do so, their property was auctioned.  Money raised in the auction was insufficient, and they were then arrested until the debt was paid.

Stuyvesant was not alone.  He was supported by the Calvinist reverend John Megapolensis, who questioned the religious freedom of the Jews.  Stuyvesant was relentless, banning them from the Guard of the Volunteer House, which excluded them from community life, then charging them a special tax to pay for their replacement in the guard.

Asher Levy fought for Jewish rights and won concessions from the Dutch, but swore allegiance to the English following the conquest by them in 1664.

The Jews in Brazil Today

It was not until 1773 that Jews began to slowly return to Brazil, with a large settlement in Belém, further north of Recife.  In the ensuing years there was a steady stream of Jewish immigrants, the first of which tried to make a go of it in agriculture in the southern part of Brazil, but that never really got off the ground.  The principal benefit was the removing of all restrictions on Jews immigrating to Brazil.

During the late 1800s and early 1900’s, Jews continued to immigrate and settle in Brazil primarily in Porto Allegre and other southern cities.  Today, it is estimated that there are around 100,000 Jews in Brazil, and they are active in politics, sports, academia, trade and industry, and are integrated into all aspects of Brazilian life. The largest number live in San Paulo, and there is a Jewish section of the city where even shop signs and other identifying markers are in Hebrew and Portuguese.  Other significant communities of Jews exist in Rio de Janeiro, Rio Grande do Sul, Minas Gerais and Paraná.  At the present time, there are about 2000 Jews who live in the Recife area.

Recife Guide will soon offer a New Tour: The Jews in Pernambuco. It will visit the important sights in Recife and Olinda which will bring to life the story of the Jews described above, and in far greater detail. For more information about this tour, e-mail

6 Comments leave one →
  1. March 13, 2013 07:15

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  1. An Introduction to Recife «
  2. An Introduction to Olinda «
  3. The Jews from Recife Remembered in New York «

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