RIO DE JANEIRO — This city lives up to its reputation. It is an in-your-face, joyous, vibrant party town that looks askance at straitlaced North American values, a place where the beach is considered as important as any office and almost as sacred as any house of worship.
Jews here, on the other hand, are said to be quiet and low key. They are reminded daily that this is a profoundly Catholic society, thanks to the city’s iconic landmark, the massive statue of Christ the Redeemer peering down on his flock with outstretched arms from his mountaintop perch. Our guide, Celso Rubinstein, shrugs. “Yes, Brazil is very Catholic,” he says. “But the Jews have done very well here.”
This is Brazil’s second-largest Jewish community, the biggest found in teeming Sao Paulo (which twinned with Tel Aviv in 2004). Rio boasts 30 synagogues, five day schools, youth movements, Zionist groups, sports and cultural associations and a handful of kosher eateries. The community numbers about 30,000 (of a total population of six million), with most Jews residing in the comfortable neighbourhoods of Copacabana, Ipanema, Botafogo and Leblon.
Tourism is key, especially during Carnaval, the Lenten festival marked by huge and boisterous parades, outlandish costumes and public merriment, all to the throb of Samba. In 2008, the tourist-guide union here launched its first official Jewish-themed itinerary in response to demand from Jews visiting from North America, many via cruise ships.
As is the case across South America, security is tight at all community institutions. Memories of the bombings of Israel’s embassy in 1992 and of the central community centre in 1994, both in Buenos Aires, translate into iron gates and burly guards at Rio’s larger synagogues and day schools.
Rubinstein, who is 58 and speaks fluent English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Yiddish and Hebrew, laments that levels of Jewish observance in Rio are low and assimilation is climbing. Many Jewish men divorce and remarry non-Jews, he says. “I’m the only one of my generation who can make matzah balls, kishke and cholent,” he says with a combination of pride and wistfulness. “At Passover, my phone rings off the hook.”
Rio’s Ashkenazi population now outnumbers its earlier Sephardi settlers, descendants of Jews who fled the Inquisition. Brazil’s generous post-World War II immigration policy meant a large influx of Jews from eastern Europe. Rubinstein’s own parents arrived in 1948 from Lithuania and Poland. “They saw the Carnaval parade and said, ‘This is heaven.’ They never mentioned Poland and Lithuania again.”
The most prominent Jewish families here are the Sterns (of jewelry fame) and the Safrans. Rubinstein says common Jewish surnames mimic those in North America, with plenty ending in “berg” or “stein.” Jewish occupations revolve around clothing, jewelry and construction.
We opted for a combination city/Jewish tour, which took us to the main synagogue, the Grande Templo do Rio de Janeiro at 8 Rue Tenente Possolo. Protected by the National Registry of Historical Buildings, it was begun in 1928 when a Catholic Italian architect, Mario Vodret, won a contest. Trouble is, he had never designed a synagogue, so he looked toward the grand shuls of Florence and Trieste for inspiration.
The result, completed in 1932, is a slightly muted but still grand building with a tasteful interior marked by mahogany pews and a colourful bimah. For decades, the synagogue was the centre of Jewish life and culture in Rio. Today, there is no daily minyan, and it is used on Shabbat and holidays only.
Brazil’s first female rabbi, Sandra Kochmann, was installed at the nearby Associação Religiosa Israelita synagogue a few years ago. Chabad is active here, as it seems to be everywhere. Observance, says Rubinstein, is either Orthodox or Reform.
A few blocks away is a dignified monument to the late Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. It is a granite bust in a small hilltop park with a postcard view of Sugarloaf Mountain. Rabin’s widow, Leah, attended the memorial’s dedication in 2000.
Politically, Jews have played an important role in Brazil. In 1979, Jewish industrialist Israel Klabin became the mayor of Rio. In 1994, Jaime Lerner became the country’s first Jewish governor when he was elected head of Parana, a major industrial state. And in 1998, Eva Alterman Bay became the first Jewish woman to serve in Brazil’s senate.
Jews lead an open religious life in Brazil, says Rubinstein, and there are rarely any reported cases of antisemitism. Asked about relations with the Catholic Church, he gives a cryptic smile. “They are friendly but not familiar.” Still, political and economic upheavals, including a military dictatorship from 1964 to 1985, have sent more than 8,000 Brazilian Jews to Israel since 1948.]