Until now, most Brazilians probably wouldn’t have guessed that the sexy and popular MTV Brazil VJ Didi Wagner is Jewish. But there she is, eyeing passers-by through a Star of David. The words on the sign’s bottom leave little room for doubt: “Judaísmo Faz Bem” (“Judaism Feels Good”).
Wagner is one of five well-known faces plastered throughout this Brazilian city of 18 million as part of a four-month publicity campaign launched by the São Paulo State Jewish Federation. Each of the celebrities is pictured with a Jewish emblem.
“The vast majority of the Brazilian population has no idea about who is Jewish, or what Judaism is,” said Eduardo Chalabi, a 27-year-old Jewish architect based in São Paulo. “Judaísmo Faz Bem e Faz o Bem” (“Judaism Feels Good and Does Good”) is trying to change that.
In one ad, popular social columnist Joyce Pascowitch is pictured with a prayer book. In another, stylist Tufi Duek wears a tallit, or prayer shawl. Other ads feature businesswoman Mary Nigri with a Seder tray and TV presenter Luciano Huck holding a shofar.
These images are meant to underscore the integral role Jews play in the city. “The lack of awareness is not due to antisemitism, but rather a lack of education,” said Chalabi, who himself had not known that two of the people in the campaign are Jewish.
Paulo Silveira, a teacher with no religious affiliations, said, “It didn’t occur to me that any of them were Jewish.” He added, “Some of the surnames are unusual, but Brazil is so mixed racially that we tend just to accept such difference without inquiring further.”
The campaign, which is raising funds for community projects, should help make Judaism less abstract, Chalabi speculated. And the recent Jewish Brazilian multicultural cycle marked a first of its kind in the city. The festival, which featured films, discussions and more, should contribute to making the Jewish community more accessible for the non-Jewish community, said Alessandra Casolata, a spokeswoman for the Centro da Cultura Judaica, which helped organize the event.
Such events mark what Ayala Kalnicki Band, former executive secretary of the Confederação Israelita do Brasil, calls a growing interest in learning about the Jewish community, from within and from without. Band said that she and her family pay more attention to rituals than they used to. “We try to reunite the family at least once a week for Shabbat with the five [grand]children,” she said.
The Judaísmo Faz Bem campaign seems to be hitting home. “That’s what my mother used to say!” Silveira said, laughing about her sentimentality for the slogan.
The 60,000-plus Jews of São Paulo often seem hidden, mainly because of assimilation — not antisemitism. Yeuda Baruch, who moved to Brazil from Israel 15 years ago and now runs the Adi Shoshi Deli Shop in São Paulo’s old Jewish quarter, Bom Retiro (which means “good rest”), said he has never felt as welcome as he has in Brazil. Clara Garcia (nee Maltchik), a Jew of Russian descent, reiterates this, adding, “We live completely peacefully with the Arab community, too.” She gestures from Z Deli where she works to the Lebanese restaurant across the street.
That said, one foot through the door of the bustling Casa Zilana emporium and no one could deny that Judaism lives in this city. Matzo boxes are piled high, and there are ample quantities of herring, fish balls, salmon, bagels, kosher meats and cheeses.
But for some, acceptance is a mixed blessing. “What is good for Jews is not always good for Judaism,” said Rabbi Henry Sobel of Congregação Israelita Paulista. Francisco Gotthilf, producer of the country’s longest-running television program, “Mosaico na TV,” which focuses on Judaism, Israel and Jewish issues, criticizes assimilation. He cites the high intermarriage rate in Brazil as cause for concern, especially for the younger generation. “We need to preserve our religion,” he said.
Sobel, whose 2,000-family congregation (with around 10,000 members) is the largest congregation in all of Latin America, speculates that 65% of the city’s Jews are not affiliated with any religious institution. The Associação Brasileira A Hebraica, which has 28,000 members and recently celebrated its 50th anniversary, is the only Jewish institution with which many Jews have any contact, Sobel said.
“While there is broader interest [within the community], there is less depth of knowledge,” Band said. “I think my children know less about Judaism than my generation,” she added.
If intermarriage is a sign of assimilation, so too arguably is the physical dispersion of the community. Ashkenazi Jews who arrived from Eastern and Central Europe between World War I and World War II, notably from Poland and Russia, tended to settle in the commercial district of Bom Retiro, near the Estação da Lux train station.
Today, Bom Retiro is home to the Brazilian Jewish Historical Archives and several Jewish restaurants, but now it is known better for its sweatshops than for Jewish establishments. The predominantly Sephardic Jews who immigrated to São Paulo in the 1950s — from countries such as Egypt, Syria and Lebanon — did not tend to settle in Bom Retiro as previous generations had done.
If, as Baruch says, change and assimilation are part of all large cities, few examples are as striking as that of the recent introduction of kosher feijoada. The quintessential Brazilian dish — created hundreds of years ago by slaves, who made use of the pork leftovers and black beans — is now being sold by O Bolinha, one the city’s most famous restaurants, under the supervision of Beit Chabad Itaim. In this kosher version of what is now a common dish eaten during celebrations and on weekends, beef replaces pork.
The recent inauguration in Rio de Janeiro of Brazil’s second Hillel, which will house a large Jewish library, multimedia center and conference rooms, is surely an example of how the community is establishing itself in a modern context.
“I have a principle that is [based on] marketing: If you create options [it is] more likely Jews will chose one of them,” Sobel said. Raising the awareness of the Jewish community to the population at large can’t be a bad start.
Clare Davidson is a freelance journalist based in São Paulo.