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by Alex Minkin
“YIDELE IS A SMART KID, he tells everyone that Carnival is not Jewish.” The author of the 1930s Yiddish textbook from São Paulo, shown at left (from the YIVO collection), wasn’t joking. In the early 20th century, Carnival, seen as a wild pagan street party, appalled the ancestors of the majority of today’s Jewish community when they arrived in Brazil from Europe.
Brazilian Judaica scholar Bernardo Sorj observes a fundamental difference between Brazilian and Jewish cultures. According to Sorj, Brazilians subscribe to the idea of “optimistic fatalism”: They trust rather than fear the future and are focused on the present. In the Jewish tradition of “pessimistic willfulness,” the future is a source of uncertainty and anguish. Jewish dissatisfaction with the present leads to a desire to change it. Sorj concludes that immersion into Brazilian culture is highly therapeutic for the Jews, as it is an excellent antidote for their historical traumas.
One of the early encounters of these two cultures occurred at Yiddish Avenue, a nickname for the neighborhood in downtown Rio de Janeiro where most of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe settled and lived between the 1920s and 1960s. Trade relations led to increasing cultural connections, and Jews who wanted to learn about Carnival and samba were warmly welcomed. For example, Jacob Pick Bittencourt, famous as Jacó do Bandolim, born to a Brazilian-Jewish mother and a gentile father in Rio de Janeiro, became one of the greatest Brazilian mid-century Carnival composers. (To hear a piece by him, check out the video.)
Since then, the Jewish community went on a long journey of integration into Brazilian society, where anti-Semitism today is slight or nearly nonexistent. A 2008 Carnival float on the theme of "goosebumps" that portrayed scores of "dead" mannequins and a dancing Hitler was banned by Judge Juliana Kalichszteim and did not appear in the festival; the incident is properly seen, however, more as the result of ignorance and poor taste than of anti-Semitism.
The Third Testament, a popular Yiddish radio program in Rio de Janeiro in the 1980s, emphasized similarities between the nations by comparing persecution of the Jews in Europe to the struggles of Brazilian people in the unstable political and economic realities of the country. The program also compared Jewish festival of Purim to Carnival, and suggested that Queen Esther is represented in a role of charismatic Carnival Queen who leads dance processions.
A breakthrough of cultural integration happened during 2003 Carnival in Rio, when Jews embraced an opportunity to showcase the traditions of their small community to fellow Brazilians. Jewish Culture Center in Sao Paulo joined Mangueira samba school to present the story of Ten Commandments at the Rio Carnival that eventually won the 2nd place in the competition. (For some fantastic video footage, look below.)
The procession included a car in the shape of the Star of David, a tall golden menorah, and a model of the Western Wall. One of the samba school’s floats was dedicated to Judaism, as participants -– most of them non-Jews -– danced in costumes embellished with religious symbols (peyot, or sidelocks, and tefillin), carried small Torahs made of paperboard, and wore dreydls and the Stars of David on their hats.
Director of São Paulo’s Hebraica Jewish Center Jose Luiz Goldfarb is not only an active Carnival participant and supporter; he also helped to produce the Mangueira’s Exodus story. As Bernardo Sorj suggested, the holiday became a cure from the ghosts of European anti-Semitism. A religious Jew, Goldfarb is inspired by dedicated participation of Brazilians in the Carnival celebrations. He recalls the words of Rabbi Henry Sobel who officiated at Goldfarb's bar mitsve in the 1970s: “It seems to me that we can learn a lesson from the Rio Carnival. Many Jews are only passive observers of synagogue rituals. This is what we need to apply in our religious consciousness today: more devotion and joy in the observance.”
TODAY'S JEWISH MUSICIANS in Rio believe in connecting religions and cultures through music. Leonardo Fuks, a shofar player and trumpeter, recalls that Yiddish Avenue, where he used to live, was also referred to as Little Africa, with Jews and African Brazilians living side by side. His father and uncles attended samba performances that took place on the adjacent streets. Fuks is now a member of a group of about 20 musicians called Rancho Carnival Praça Onze (Klezmer Carioca) that entered the Carnival scene of Rio de Janeiro in 2013. (You can see them performing below.)
Founded by Ricardo Szpilman, who was raised in the family of Jewish musicians, the group develops a pioneering work of combining klezmer with Brazilian music, including samba, afoxé, funk, jongo. The band re-imagines jam sessions that could have happened on the Yiddish Avenue in Rio in the first half of the 20th century, and continues forming an identity of the “Rio Jew,” creating colorful cultural connections unimaginable in the “old countries” of Europe.
Alex Minkin is the global project manager and founder of Ticún Brasil, an innovative social justice NGO. Since 2008, Ticún Brasil implements educational and art projects in Rio de Janeiro as well as Brazilian cultural events in New York ranging from teaching photography and English in slums (favelas) to improvisational music cinematic concerts, from Jewish and Afro-Brazilian studies to poetry presentations. Originally from Moscow, Alex studied at Yeshiva University and the Portuguese Language Institute in New York. He also runs the new music project Extended Techniques, dedicated to under-explored contemporary classical and jazz.