Sunday, July 21, 2013

Jewish Skeleton in Brazil From days of Inquisition Opens Up Sepharic American History

Nadene Goldfoot                                                                    
                                             Kahal Zur Israel Synagogue in Recife, Brazil
There is a synagogue, Shearith Israel,  in New York City that was started by Sephardic Jews from Recife, Brazil.

Back in Recife, we find another synagogue that turns out to be the first known synagogue built in the New World in 1636. Jews had moved there from Portugal  when the Spanish Inquisition of 1492 insisted that their Jews either convert to Catholicism or get out of the country. Spain expelled 180,000 Jews.  50,000 converted to Christianity in order to remain in Spain and kept Jewish rituals.  They came to be known as Hidden Jews.   From 1146 and again in 1391 Jews of Spain were forcibly converted to Christianity.   In 1355 there were 12,000 Jews that were massacred by a mob in Toledo, Spain.   Many moved next door to Portugal.  They were able to be there a few years until the same thing happened to them.  They were forced to convert to Christianity but did so begrudgedly and kept their Judaism a secret.  Moses Seixas was living in Recife with his family.

The archaeologists declared that the skeleton they found during their work of digging a tunnel was Jewish and had been there since the 16th Century.  The skeleton's arms and hands were down at his sides.  This is not how Christians bury people.  They cross the arms over their chest, so this skeleton was a Jewish male adult.  He was buried in a shroud, which is the Jewish form of burial,  even today.  Nothing was buried with him.  There wasn't even a casket for him.  Today Jews bury their deceased in a simple wooden coffin.  In Israel, because of the lack of wood supplies, the body is buried just like this man was.  The grave digger only managed to dig a hole 5 feet in depth instead of the American tradition of 6 feet.  His tomb is about 1 1/2 miles east of the Kahal Zur Synagogue which is the Recife synagogue that the Jews had built.  Perhaps this was start of a Jewish cemetery.

Marcos Albuquerque of the Federal University of Pernambuco oversaw the dig around the skeleton.  He explained that to find out exactly when he died would require a piece of the bone for carbon dating.  He said that for religious reasons they did not touch the body but left it where it was found.  It would have been so nice if they had taken bone for not only carbon dating but for DNA profiling.  It would have been a boon for geneticists to see what haplogroup these Jews carried from Israel.
Brazil's Jewish history goes back to Fernando de Noronha (1503) , the Brazilian pioneer  who was thought to be a Hidden Jew.  Later, Hidden Jewish immigrants came from Portugal and fostered the sugar and tobacco industries and developed rice and cotton plantations.  The Inquisition didn't leave them alone, however.  They came over to find them and hunt them down in 1591 to 1595 so that by 1618, many decided to emigrate.  Some of the Hidden Jews went to Bahia from Holland during its brief period of Dutch rule in 1624 and 1625.  when the Dutch conquered the Pernambuco region in 1631, the Hidden Jews returned openly to Judaism, and numerous immigrants came from Holland.

Communities flourished in Itamaraca and Recife, where Isaac Aboab served as rabbi.  The Portuguese captured Recife in 1654 and the Jews had to leave.  Some returned to Holland and other established Jewish communities through the West Indies and in New York.

In 1822, Brazil declared their independence.  Some of the Hidden Jews reverted back to Judaism.  Next, European Jews began to immigrate and communities were established in Belem, Sao Paolo, Recife, Bahia, Manaos, and Rio de Janeiro.

"During a visit to Newport, R.I., in 1790, a year before the Bill of Rights was ratified, President George Washington received a letter from Moses Seixas, warden of the Touro Synagogue."

Moses Seixas (1708-1780) came from a Sephardi family founded by Isaac Mendes Seixas and Rachel Levy, daughter of Moses Levy, an early New York City merchant  who emigrated to America from Portugal in 1730. His son, Gershom Mendes Seixas (1745-1816),  was the Reverend of Congregation Shearith Israel in New York for some 50 years. He was married to Elkalah Cohen in 1775 and then after her death to Hannah Manual in 1789.   Moses was the warden of the Touro Synagogue.  Here is part of a letter he wrote to George Washington from Newport, Rhode Island. on August 17, 1790.  Fifteen Sephardic families had started this synagogue in 1657.  

Permit the children of the stock of Abraham to approach you with the most cordial affection and esteem for your person and merits -- and to join with our fellow citizens in welcoming you to Newport.

With pleasure we reflect on those days -- those days of difficulty, and danger, when the God of Israel, who delivered David from the peril of the sword -- shielded Your head in the day of battle: and we rejoice to think, that the same Spirit, who rested in the Bosom of the greatly beloved Daniel enabling him to preside over the Provinces of the Babylonish Empire, rests and ever will rest, upon you, enabling you to discharge the arduous duties of Chief Magistrate in these States"

The British had occupied New York City in 1776.  Gershom took the scrolls and other religious objects from the synagogue and went to Stratford, Connecticut and then to Philadelphia where he helped found the first Jewish congregation in 1780.

After the British left New York City, he returned to his duties there.  He was one of 13 clergymen to participate in George Washington's first  inauguration.  Seixas was the trustee of Columbia College from 1787 to 1815.  One of his sons, David C. Seixas (1788-1880) achieved prominence as an educator of the deaf and introduced the daguerreotype into America.  Benjamin Mendes Seixas (1747-1817) was a founder of the New York stock exchange!

Whose skeleton was buried 500 years ago so close to the Brazilian synagogue?  Could it have been the rabbi of the synagogue?  Either that or it was one of the parishioners.  Was it somebody evading the inquisition authorities?

Resource: forwarded from Ana.
The New Standard Jewish Encyclopedia
facts about israel, Division of Information, Ministry for for Foreign Affairs, Jerusalem


  1. That was interesting, Nadene! - Revis

  2. Thanks, Revis. I was fascinated with this information, myself.