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Between assimilation and otherness

Work shows Jewish immigration's contribution to Brazil

The minority of the minority exists, and wishes to be recognized: this is the key to the appreciation of the well-illustrated and edited book by Rachel Mizrahi. Right from its presentation, the author’s persistent motivation comes through, for showing, above all to the wider Jewish community, the small group of Middle Eastern Jews established in Moóca (a district in São Paulo), from which her family and others came, existed and has a history. This original motivation went on expanding little by little, to include the Sephardic Jews.

Chapter 1 sets out briefly the history of the presence of Jews in the Middle East, where for centuries they lived together in the shadow of the relative Islamic religious tolerance and afterwards of the Ottoman empire. At the end of the 19th century, when the Turkish empire was now showing signs of disaggregation, and Brazil began to attract immigrants, the author calls attention to the community of the Middle Eastern Jews, strictly speaking, and to that of the Sephardis, expelled from the Iberian Peninsular at the end of the 15th century.

Co-religionists, but bearers of distinct cultural traditions: their thousands of year living with the Arabs made the former assimilate many traits of this culture – language, music, dance, food and patriarchal traditions -, where the Sephardis differentiated themselves above all by the practice of Ladino – a separate dialect, a result of the mixture of Spanish, Portuguese, Arabic, Hebrew and Turkish. The author then lingers over the trajectories of families belonging to the two groups, in Rio de Janeiro (chapter 2) and in São Paulo (chapters 3 and 4). Supported above all by oral sources, she peruses the efforts of these communities to insert themselves economically in the new land and, above all, to maintain their religious traditions, by grouping themselves together to pray and founding synagogues, in the attempt to preserves sociabilities, rites and intonations of prayer peculiar to each region of origin.

Generally speaking, one observes greater cosmopolitanism, tolerance, liberality and integration with the Sephardis (facilitated too by the closeness of Ladino to Portuguese), contrasting with the greater religious conservatism, attachment to their original culture (regionalism), endogamy, concentration and consequent isolation of the Middle Eastern Jews. The work has the merit of letting us glimpse a complex Jewish community, permeated by different origins and traditions, themes suggested in chapters 5 – impact on the community of new Jewish immigrants from the Middle East – and 6, which deals with the strength of the regionalisms.

In São Paulo, for example, it is significant that there was greater initial proximity between the Middle Eastern Jews who moved to Moóca and the Syrians and Lebanese, who speak the same language, than with the more numerous, Yiddish speaking, Ashkenazi Jews. With the Jewish religious tradition dispensing with a centralizing hierarchy like the Christian one, this is just one example, amongst many, of the various cleavages, fed by regionalisms and mistrusts – including as to the religious pertinence of some groups – that have accompanied the history of the Jewish communities and of their synagogues. The cases also provide ample material for reflecting on the dilemmas and demands that involved the difficult equilibrium between assimilation – demanded by the welcoming country – and otherness – a condition for maintaining group identity.

In spite of the very descriptive tone and of the hesitations in drawing up in a more complete manner a comparison between the trajectories of the two groups (understandable indeed for an author whose family comes from one of them), there is in Rachel’s work the enormous merit of recovering and systematizing information that would otherwise stay confined to the memory of the family and which would, with the passing of the years, be irremediably lost. For this reason, the work denotes an indelible contribution to the record of the history of the ethnic minorities in Brazil.

Oswaldo Truzzi is a professor at the Federal University of São Carlos (UFSCar).

Jewish Immigrants from the Middle East – São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro
Rachel Mizrahi
AE Ateliê Editorial
330 pages
R$ 70.00