The First Synagogue in the New World

My kids hate museums, or so they claim. My daughter, 15, says she doesn’t like the way the objects are taken out of context, isolated and pinned to white walls like butterfly specimens.

So on our trip to Brazil last month, I only dragged them through one museum: the Kahal Zur Israel Synagogue in Recife, commemorating the site where the first synagogue in the Americas was built around 1636. As an interfaith parent, I could not resist the opportunity to weave this thread of Jewish history into our lives.

When we lived in Brazil in the 1990’s, archaeologists had just uncovered evidence of the synagogue’s location—a mikvah, or ritual bath, made of stone. My children were less than four and one when we left the city of Recife after living there for three years.  By the time we returned last month, twelve years had gone by and a museum had grown up around the mikvah, which is now covered with clear plastic so that you can walk over it and peer down in.

The museum chronicles how Jews arrived in northeastern Brazil with the Portuguese explorers and played a key role in the thriving colonial sugarcane plantations in northeastern Brazil under Dutch rule, until the Portuguese regained control of Recife in 1654 and imposed the Inquisition. Some Jews fleeing Recife ended up in New York, where they founded the first congregation in the city, Shearith Israel.

The museum is modest–the mikvah is about all that is left from the original building. A new synagogue now crowns the building, and I felt the deep satisfaction of connecting my children to another synagogue that plays a role, no matter how small, in our family chronicle. For an hour, they absorbed another segment of the entwined histories of Judaism and Christianity. And I was satisfied to inject an hour of thinking about Judaism into our celebration of the boisterous pagan and Catholic Sao Joao (Saint John) festival–two weeks filled with bonfires, fireworks and dancing.

After patiently touring the Synagogue and Museum, my children stepped back out onto the street, beneath a canopy of fluttering Sao Joao flags and lanterns. On the map of Recife, this street is marked the Rua do Bom Jesus: the Street of Good Jesus. But I know, and now my children will never forget, that the first name for this street was the Rua dos Judeus: the Street of Jews.

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2 Comments on “The First Synagogue in the New World”

  1. John Tierney Says:

    A very interesting piece, thank you. I look forward to reading more.

  2. Doug Greener Says:

    Call me cynical, but I rankle at the cheer this parent brings to the child’s absorbing “another segment of the entwined histories of Judaism and Christianity.” The Portuguese in Brazil burned Jews at the stake, and the Jews fled to New Amsterdam. Seems like a great reason to celebrate our “entwined histories,” doesn’t it? If you want to marry a Jew, fine. No one’s going to stop you. But at least be honest to yourself and stop trying to prove your saving the world or something.


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