Colonial Jerusalem – Portuguese Jews in Dutch Brazil

Andy Warhol, Before and After, 1962.


Commentary on the book by Ronaldo Vainfas

In this book Ronaldo Vainfas remains within the theme of socio-religious studies, following a vein that began with tropic of sins (1989). Since then Vainfas has studied various phenomena of religious deviations in the Portuguese Catholic world. This prism often sheds more light on dominant institutions and cultures than the studies directly dedicated to them. It is a sociological story, focused on ruptures and discontinuities, à la Foucault, which Vainfas masters with extreme sensitivity and familiarity.

Em colonial jerusalem, in addition to studying the structure and functioning of the local Sephardic community, Vainfas is no exception to the rule of highlighting heterodox characters. He is not interested in studying religious rites and ceremonies, but rather the social behavior and identity dilemmas of his characters, an issue, by the way, quite current. With all the necessary care, the author opens a window on the relationships between religion, culture, geographic origin and identity in the Portuguese world, in which these Jews were often inserted with extreme pleasure, and despite the rejection they suffered from part of the " good” Catholics.

This sociological reading of the (short) history of the Northeastern Jewish community (1636-1654) has its origins in Vainfas' own path. But it also owes much to the most recent historiographical production on the Sephardic diaspora, as he clearly points out in the introduction, especially to the works of Yosef Kaplan and his concept of the “new Jew”. Such Jews, descendants of those forcibly converted in Portugal in 1497, stigmatized by the epithet of “new Christians”, would suffer, due to their Jewish origin and a sometimes secular Catholic experience, “dramas of conscience”.

Vainfas thus makes a general history of the Jewish community on the Recife of Israel (Kahal Kadosh Tsur Israel), carefully reconstructing the course of the mother community of Amsterdam, and returning from José Antônio Gonsalves de Mello – his main inspiration – themes such as the importance of the Sephardim for the economy, above all for the commercial enterprise of the Companhia das Índias Ocidentais in Brazil, without leaving to focus on the issue of identity. He sought to avoid any broader conceptualization of a 'Jewish or Sephardic spirit', as many of his predecessors had done. Thus, he took care not to reduce the analysis of these people's religiosity to something unambiguous, deviating from the path followed by the inquisitors, and calling into question more recent authors such as Nathan Wachtel, who defend the idea of ​​a generalized "Jewish essence" of Christians- New Iberians.

Vainfas, however, succumbs, in my view, to a certain generalization, when he states that “the ambivalence of the new Jews was, therefore, inherent to the cultural – and individual – identity of most of them”. But this small note does not in the least diminish the importance of the book. He applies to the Brazilian case, in his thought-provoking and unmistakable style, the most recent historiographical interpretations of Sephardic Judaism, which until now have remained restricted to limited academic publications.

colonial jerusalem also brings news. It surprisingly reviews, among other issues (the Recife origin of Judaism in New York, the figure of the Jesuit Antônio Vieira, the divisions within the Jewish community...), the character of Isaac de Castro Tartas. Arrested in Bahia on behalf of the Inquisition in 1644, and burned alive following the Lisbon auto-da-fé of 1647, he was transformed into a true martyr of Judaism by the community of Amsterdam. Vainfas debunks the myth of the erudite and courageous young man who went to Salvador from Recife to proselytize New Christians, showing Isaac's tragic lack of identity.

The author is also able to find new and interesting readings of the social structure of the Jewish community in Dutch Pernambuco, by resuming an already shabby documentation. It shows that Tsur Israel was monopolized by men coming from Europe. He speaks first of “A new diaspora, colonial diaspora” to refer to the Pernambuco community, in view of its intrinsic connection with the Company of the West Indies. But then it shows that this coloniality can also be caught in the numerical preponderance that the “returnees” in Europe had over those who became professed Jews in Brazil.

To grow, the community depended mainly on immigration. Finally, this European preponderance was also social. “Jews converted in Recife ended up being relegated to the condition of second-rate Jews. Uncertain Jews. Colonial Jews”. This is undoubtedly what explains why some of these New Jews chose to go to Amsterdam to have themselves circumcised, instead of using the services of the mohelm locations.

The choice of a six-pointed star to illustrate the cover of the book constitutes an editorial anachronism. The so-called Star of David only became a specifically Jewish symbol during the XNUMXth century, starting from the Ashkenazi world.

* Bruno Guilherme Feitler is a professor of history at Unifesp. Author, among other books, of In the meshes of conscience: Church and Inquisition in Brazil – Northeast 1640-1750 (Avenue).

Originally published on Journal of Reviews no. 11, March 2011.


Ronaldo Vainfas. Colonial Jerusalem – Portuguese Jews in Dutch Brazil. Rio de Janeiro, Brazilian Civilization, 376 pages.


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