The Roman Catholic Church bursts with saints ranging from cruel kings and charitable old women to mythical victims of blood libels. These supposed paragons of virtue officially clock in at about ten thousand and the list keeps growing. However, one saint outweighs them all. His name is not registered in any official tome and few know about him except a few close devotees. To reach his resting place, travel nine hundred miles up the giant Amazon River, turn up the Negro tributary, stop after eleven miles and you will find yourself next to the jungle town of Manaus. Jump ashore, enter the local non-Jewish cemetery and keep going until you reach a bright blue tomb emblazoned with a Magen Dovid. For a moment, you will imagine that you’ve been teleported to Morocco. Beneath the tomb lies a real tzaddik whose lack of Church sanction detracts not one iota from his admiration by the local Catholics. Who is this Jew, and what bizarre chain of events turned his final resting place into a local Catholic shrine?
The story begins with the first Jew to set foot in Brazil – a Polish Jew, Gaspar da Gama. After being sold as a slave to India, he was freed only to be kidnapped once more by the famed explorer, Vasco da Gama, who had just discovered a sea route from Portugal to India by sailing around Africa. Da Gama converted the Jew by force, generously labeling him with his own name. Gaspar then became a world explorer and immortalized himself in 5260/1500 by becoming the first Jew to tread on Brazilian soil.
The next Jews to reach Brazil were Conversos fleeing from Portugal to escape the long arm of the Inquisition – it is claimed that about ten percent of Brazil’s population is comprised of their descendants. Later, under more tolerant Dutch rule, Brazilian Jews built the Kahal Zur shul in Recife in 5396/1636. When the Portuguese recaptured Recife, in 5414/1654, twenty-three fleeing Jews were blown off-course on their way to Europe and ended up in New York instead, where they created its first kehillah.
The Kahal Zur shul was buried and forgotten until 5759/1999, when builders, excavating the grounds of a Catholic hospital, rediscovered the ancient shul and a complete Jewish street once known as “Rua dos Judeus.” The Safra banking family renovated it and today it functions as the oldest shul in the western hemisphere.
PAIS EL DORADO-LAND OF RUBBER GOLD
Although many more Jews filtered into Brazil after it gained independence in 5582/1822, the real flood started in the 5610s/1850s after United States Navy engineers discovered that the Amazon was full of natural treasures, including rubber trees. Until then, rubber was a relatively impractical product since it tended to crumble to pieces after a few days. However, the discovery of giant rubber reserves in the Amazon coincided with Charles Goodyear’s discovery that heating rubber with a special chemical process, called vulcanization, improves its resilience and durability, making it useful for a million products from car tires to door seals. Although Goodyear’s invention did not help him – he died $200,000 in debt – it sparked off a massive rubber revolution in Brazil. Millions poured into the jungles to make fortunes tapping rubber from the Para rubber tree. Rubber blinded them, driving them into uncharted wildernesses and up unnamed rivers.
According to some estimates, this flood of humanity included tens of thousands of Jews. The frenzy lasted until about 5680/1920 when the rubber balloon burst as suddenly as it had inflated due to the successful cultivation of rubber trees (grown from seeds smuggled out of Brazil) in Indonesia and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). This destroyed the Amazon monopoly; most of the Jewish rubber traders drifted off to large towns or left Brazil altogether in search of greener pastures. Others remained in the jungle where their descendants avoid pork and crab until this day. News of the bonanza had filtered to North Africa, and towards the end of the nineteenth century, thousands of young Jews were leaping at the opportunity to seek new lives of adventure and prosperity. In earlier years, it had taken three long months to cross the Atlantic by sailing ship.
However, steamships were now able to voyage across the ocean in three weeks, enabling wealthy entrepreneurs to return home to visit their impoverished families and inspire even more youngsters to follow them to the Brazilian El Dorado. After all, who could withstand the temptation to leap out from the daily struggle to earn a few Moroccan dirhams into a new world of endless possibilities?
Bonanza hunters would disembark at Belem on the Atlantic coast, where the Amazon River stretches 200 miles wide, and take a riverboat 900 miles up the Amazon River, the wondrous waterway that is home to the bloodthirsty piranha and menacing stingray fish and contains a daily water supply sufficient to supply New York’s faucets for ten years. The end of the journey was generally Manaus, a boomtown of 50,000 residents built next to the mud-stained waters of the Negro (Black) River.
However, for Jews, massive prosperity came at the ultimate price – their Yiddishkeit. For many of these “Marroquinos,” some of them barely past bar-mitzvah age, the sole link to Judaism was a machzor stashed in their luggage and fond memories. For many of them, davening degenerated into an annual, improvised Yom Kippur minyan. As a contemporary Jew noted in his diary: “Lest we forget the religion of our fathers so far away, each of us left Tangiers carrying with us the [prayer] book of Yom Kippur in order to celebrate this day as it should be. Before leaving Tefe for whatever part, we fixed the date of the Holy Day to celebrate it wherever we might be… and planned to meet two or three days beforehand to celebrate together. Our oarsmen built us a little hut in a clearing in the jungle. We lit a bonfire and fed it through the night to keep away the wild animals and snakes that might come near… One night of Yom Kippur, our peons killed a tiger near our little hut but even for that, we did not interrupt our prayers” (cited in “Kippur on the Amazon” by Susan Gilson Miller, Sephardi and Middle Eastern Jewries: History and Culture in the Modern Era, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996).
Traveling endlessly up rivers and down jungle paths was not conducive to mitzvah observance and many youngsters ended up assimilating with the residents of the jungle to an alarming degree.
ONE-MAN KIRUV CAMPAIGN
One Moroccan Jew traversed the Atlantic to Brazil for more idealistic promptings than making a fast buck. This was Rav Shalom Immanuel Muyal who disembarked there in 5668/1908. Who sent him, and why exactly he came, remains an unsolved enigma. Some claim that Moroccan rabbis sent him to Brazil as a sort of one-man kiruv squad to keep his coreligionists within the fold. Others claim that he was invited to serve as the rav of Manaus’ 4,000-strong Jewish kehillah.
Rav Shalom Immanuel’s valiant attempt to stem the tide of spiritual erosion was short-lived. After two years, he contracted a deadly disease, perhaps malaria or Yellow Fever (a viral disease transmitted to humans via mosquitoes from the howling monkey). Since Manaus had no Jewish cemetery in those days, the Jews had little choice but to bury their beloved spiritual leader in the local non-Jewish cemetery, building a wall to separate him from the surrounding graves.
That should have been the end of the story. However, soon after his passing, the locals discovered a marvelous phenomenon – Cota Israel, the woman who nursed Rav Shalom Immanuel during his final days, suddenly displayed an amazing ability to manipulate people’s limbs and rid them of their strains and pains.
“Where did you get this wonderful talent?” people asked her.
“Rav Shalom Immanuel gave me a special blessing before his death,” she replied.
This was enough to trigger an interest in the departed tzaddik and people suffering from illness or unsolvable problems began praying at his grave. Every time a prayer was answered, the rav’s reputation soared higher until it mushroomed into a legend that has not abated. Testimony to Rav Shalom Immanuel’s healing powers is provided by a veneer of plaques plastered over the sides of his grave as well as his title – Santo Judeu Milagreiro de Manaus – the Holy Jewish Miracle Man of Manaus.
Rav Shalom Immanuel’s kiruv work was not in vain as not all the Jews of the Brazilian jungle forgot their heritage. Just this year, a Yerushalayim-based organization printed the special Ner Shabbat siddur, based upon the unique nusach of Sefardi Jews who had settled in the Brazilian Amazon basin, one century ago.
Things took an interesting turn twenty-five years ago when a Moroccan-born Israeli Knesset member, Eliyahu Muyal, claimed that Rav Shalom Immanuel was his great-uncle and requested permission to transport his body to a Jewish grave in Israel. The Catholics of Manaus flatly rejected his proposal, and the town’s troubled souls continue to find solace, lighting candles and offering prayers at the grave of this Moroccan tzaddik.