What does it mean to be a Brazilian Jew? The new São Paulo museum wants to show you
SÃO PAULO, Brazil (JTA) – As you stroll down Rua Martinho Prado in downtown SÃ£o Paulo, it’s hard to miss Beth-El Temple. The small hexagonal building, adorned with Hebrew scriptures on its walls, which has remained almost unchanged since its inauguration in 1932, stands out against the street lined with modern high-rise buildings.
The temple, which has remained empty since its last holiday service in 2007, has been given new life and transformed into the Jewish Museum of SÃ£o Paulo, scheduled to open on December 5. It will be the largest institution in Brazil dedicated to the history of the country’s Jewish life.
Each of the five floors of the museum has a different theme.
âThe first thing you see right when you walk into the lobby is a room that explores what it means to be Jewish,â said Sergio Simon, president of the museum.
This question, said Eduardo Lifchitz, a 34-year-old Hebrew and English teacher from Rio de Janeiro, is important in Brazil, where he said “people don’t know what it means to be Jewish.”
âOften the image that comes to people’s minds is the image of an ultra-Orthodox person, but they never think of people like [popular Brazilian TV personalities] Luciano Hulk, Silvio Santos or even Natalie Portman, âLifchitz said. âPeople need to know them. “
Although no census has taken place for over 50 years, Simon estimates that there are 120,000 Jews in Brazil, including 60,000 in SÃ£o Paulo and 30,000 in Rio de Janeiro. The rest is spread across the country. SÃ£o Paulo is home to several Jewish clubs, schools, a federation and the Israelita Albert Einstein Hospital, considered one of the best hospitals in South America.
The museum building is now in full swing for the upcoming opening, but “it was a very slow process at first,” said Simon. When he first took charge of transforming the old synagogue in 2004, rainwater had seeped in and plants had started to invade the walls.
The team’s goal was to restore the synagogue to match its original 1932 appearance and add a four-story glass extension to the side. They also made an effort to restore the stained glass windows in the synagogue, which required contacting the original manufacturer in the United States.
On the second floor, visitors arrive at an exhibit on the history of Beth-El Temple, which includes historical photos of its construction and opening in the early 1930s. In the dome overlooking the synagogue, a slide show traces the history of the Brazilian Jewish community, through photos of immigrants projected on the ceiling.
One of them is Simon’s father, who immigrated from Germany.
âIt’s like they’re looking at the people who are visiting the exhibit,â he said. “It turned out better than I expected.”
The walls of the converted synagogue are covered with explanations of Jewish holidays and life cycle events, and on what once served as the synagogue’s altar, organizers have placed Torah scrolls and books sacred, some dating from the 16th and 17th centuries. There will also be âa virtual Torah that people can use on the altar that will explain how to read the Torah and instructions on how to use the Torah. yadâ, Or a Torah reading pointer, added Simon.
This level also covers today’s Jewish issues, such as conversion, interfaith marriage, the role of sexuality and gender identity in Judaism, and B’nei Anusim – a movement of indigenous Brazilians who believe they are the descendants of European Jews forced to hide their Jewish identity during the Inquisition.
The emphasis is on the education of non-Jewish Brazilians.
âBrazil is a very Catholic country,â said Augusto Chagas, a 36-year-old non-Jewish risk analyst in SÃ£o Paulo, who expressed his wish to visit the museum once it opens. âOften we don’t know much about other religions.
Chagas said his Jewish education focused primarily on the Holocaust. Once, on a plane to New York, he saw a Jewish man putting on tefillin and did not know the reason. Chagas hopes his visit to the museum will provide an opportunity to learn more about these religious rituals and even culinary traditions.
Simon’s favorite floor is located below and is dedicated to the history of Jews in Brazil.
âA lot of people believe that the Jews came here because of World War II,â he said, âbut in reality, the Jews arrived in Brazil as early as the 1500s.â
The first immigrants to Brazil were largely crypto-Jews, also known as marranos or the New Christians – the apparent ancestors of the B’nei Anusim – who were forced during the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisition to practice Judaism in private while maintaining a Christian public image. The museum’s first two temporary exhibitions will focus on the Portuguese Inquisition in Brazil, which ended just 200 years ago. Between 1560 and 1821, many crypto-Jews were arrested and sent back to Portugal to be killed.
âThe exhibit will even include instruments of torture and clothing from the inquisitors,â said Simon, âalthough we are limiting the number of instruments of torture on display so as not to distract attention. “
Also on this floor are exhibits depicting Brazil’s first Jewish community institutions, which date back to 1910, when waves of Jewish immigrants, mostly from Russia and Ukraine, began arriving in Brazil, creating Jewish cemeteries, hospitals, schools and credit unions. At first, Jewish institutions were located in the Bom Retiro neighborhood, a 20-minute metro ride from the museum.
âIn this neighborhood, life was completely Jewish. Everything was written in Yiddish and Hebrew. Yiddish was spoken in the streets, âsaid Simon.
As the neighborhood has given way to more Korean influence over the past 30 years, a Jewish heritage lives on through several Jewish buildings and schools still present in the area.
The museum also deals with Brazil during and after the Holocaust.
âThe Brazilian government was friends with Hitler,â Simon noted. “And the biggest Nazi party outside of Germany was located here in Brazil.”
After the war, many Jews came to Brazil as refugees, as did many German Nazis. A famous example is Josef Mengele, the infamous Nazi doctor also known as the Angel of Death, who moved to South America after the war.
The last two levels are devoted to the modern State of Israel and to Jewish love for the written word, including the Hebrew language.
As opening day approaches, members of SÃ£o Paulo’s Jewish community are excited about its potential.
Ariel Lebl, a 32-year-old Jew who works in fundraising in SÃ£o Paulo, sees the museum as a chance to reach out to non-Jewish residents and build bridges between communities.
âIt will be a great place to take political leaders, academics and children from neighboring schools,â he said. âIt’s about connecting people to content they wouldn’t normally see. “
He added: “[The temple] It used to be a Jewish place, and now it’s a Jewish place for everyone.