The purpose of the festival is to bring amazing world cultural events to the National Mall! But since they couldn’t do that this year, they thought up a new sort of program, called Beyond the Mall. You can watch all of the archived programs here. And technically, two countries took center stage online—the United Arab Emirates and Brazil!
Doubtless the Festival has done a great job in covering many aspects of these nations. But allow me to expand on their efforts! For the last few years, inspired by our local Folklife tradition, I have researched and brought attention to the widely diverse world Jewish communities. Jewish culture has touched almost every region of the world, and of course vice versa. So let us begin.
The United Arab Emirates
Back in the 12th century, according to the Jewish Virtual Library, Rabbi Benjamin of Tuleda journeyed to visit “far-flung Jewish communities,” including some of the area that is now the UAE. He found a community in “Kis,” which is located in Ras al-Khaimah.
That being said, there’s no more reference to the Jewish community in the UAE until last century. When the country was founded in 1971, there was a small community of Jewish locals and those who moved to the country for business.
It took until the 21st century, last year in fact, for the UAE Ministry of Tolerance to recognize the Jewish community. Things have progressed quickly from there. A synagogue is said to be under construction and Rabbi Yehuda Sarna, NYU Chaplain, will will serve as Chief Rabbi. He’ll travel to the Emirates a few times a year to help cultivate the local religious leadership. A new Talmud Torah school has opened in Dubai as well.
The Jewish community currently rents a villa to act as a synagogue, and follows Orthodox practice, with some benedictions to UAE rulers thrown in. The location of the new synagogue, and the names of Jewish community members, are kept secret.
That being said, Sarna feels optimistic about presenting as a Jew in the Emirates today. He told Haaretz:
“When it was suggested in 2010 that I start visiting NYU in Abu Dhabi, where we also have some Jewish students, I said I’ll go only if it’s safe enough for me to go dressed the way I dress. They said come, and I walk around there with a kippa and tzitzit. I’ve gone every year for the past eight years twice a year exactly as I am now.”
Things weren’t always so optimistic. In 1999, a British university banned books by Jewish authors at its UAE campus. And the Zayed Center, named for UAE founder Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, published a report blaming Zionists for the Holocaust, which later got the center shuttered by the government, according to the U.S. Department of State. The report also highlights cartoons, editorials and op-eds, denigrating “the Zionist Lobby,” comparing Israelis to Nazis and hearkening to conspiracy theories about Jews ruling the world.
The recent positive shift may owe a lot to the 2019 visit to the Emirates by Pope Francis, which propelled the country to take acts towards interfaith tolerance.
Jews first arrived to Brazil in the 16th century, according to the World Jewish Congress, on European expeditions led by Christopher Columbus. Many “new Christians,” often forcibly converted and still practicing Judaism in secret, fled from the Portuguese and Spanish Inquisitions.
They started out with the first sugar plantations, but by 1645, the community had grown 1500 strong, with a Torah and tzedakah fund, and worked in various trades. With expanding Dutch influence in Brazil, Jews found more tolerance and greater commercial success. The Jewish Virtual Library points to the first synagogue, Kahal Zur, built in 1636 in the Dutch capital of Recife. The Dutch were driven out of Brazil in 1654.
Until 1773, when a royal decree abolished anti-Jewish persecution, Portuguese Brazil was a more tenuous place for Jews. Isaac de Castro was arrested in 1647, sent back for trial in Portugal and burned at the stake for teaching Jewish rites and customs. Increased persecution led many Jews to immigrate to Curacao, New York and back to Europe. Those who stayed often lived as conversos. The Jewish Traveler’s Guide: Hadassah Magazine’s Guide to the World’s Jewish Communities and Sights by Alan M. Tigay says this:
Some conversos moved to Sao Paulo, in southern Brazil, to get far away from the Inquisition’s headquarters in the north. Scholars claim that they have assimilated quickly and thoroughly, thus erasing Jewishness from the Brazilian scene until the nineteenth century. But evidence of jungle tribes who light Friday-night candles and don’t eat pork and the appearance at one Sao Paolo synagogue of at least one Catholic a month searching for Jewish roots seems to belie this.
Brazil gained independence in 1822, and Jews settled in cities around the Amazons (Moroccan Jews) and Rio Di Janerio (Ashkenazi and some Sephardi Jews.) Some Jews tried to establish autonomous agricultural settlements, but they didn’t pan out. New Jewish immigrants, some 50,000 fleeing the impending Holocaust, settled in more cities, and some antisemitism followed. But after the war, Jews started to see more acceptance again, and started to win seats of public office.
Postwar Jews immigrated as well, some 3,500 from North Africa. By the 1960s, there were 140,000 Jews living in Brazil, and 33 Jewish day schools attended by 10,000 pupils. Today, the total number is around 120,000 Jews, but cultural and religious expression continue to thrive, from liberal to Orthodox and Ashkenazi to Moroccan. The Confederacao Israelita do Brasil (CONIB), founded in 1951, is an umbrella group for the Brazilian Jewish community’s political, and often Zionist, aims. In 2016, a record amount of Brazilian Jews made Aliyah to Israel, though Brazil isn’t known to be a hotbed of antisemitism. If anything, intermarriage appears to be the bigger threat to the community.
In 2001, Kahal Zur was reopened 347 years after the Portuguese shuttered it. An excavation, led by archeologist Marcos Albuquerque, was able to preserve some original foundation to use in the rebuild. Kahal Zur now serves as a museum for visitors to Recife.
The Smithsonian Folklife Festival swims in uncertain waters until next year, but we have a long history to look back on for now. Check out my past coverage of Jewish life in unique places under the “Annual Events” tab.