Monday, April 4, 2016


Everyone should go to Recife at least once. Especially if you are into History, Judaism, tropical beaches, exotic food, friendly people and a unique cultural melting pot. Recife is all of these, and in less than 3 days in this Brazilian Venice, as the locals call it due to its many cannals, I was able to experience a very special adventure.

I went there invited to screen Mamaliga Blues, so was in direct contact with the Jewish community. I was particularly interested in its Dutch ancestry and in knowing more about my great uncle, who was born in Bessarabia and had lived there until his death in 1968.

The Dutch came this way.
Recife is 479 years-old, one of the oldest Brazilian cities, and it´s past is mingled with Dutch and Jewish colonization. Many of the Dutch who arrived in 1630 and left 31 years later were of Jewish descent. Recife was forever influenced and benefited by this brief stay, which includes an advanced sewer system (used until today), religious tolerance, and the construction of the oldest synagogue in the Americas, the Zahar Zur Israel, established in 1635. The Jews, fleeing persecution in Europe, found a prosperous enviroment until the land regained Portuguese control. The Dutch Jews then left and stopped in an island which they called New Amsterdam, and we call it today Manhattan.

The Recife of today is a melting pot of Dutch and Jewry influence, Indian and African past (due to slavery). You see it and feel it in the architecture, food, landscape, arts and crafts, music and in the physical appearance of the people. It is far from being an homogenous place. 

The oldest synagogue of the Americas
I was warmly welcomed by an exciting but dwindling Jewish community  comprised of a total of 350 families. There is a lot of assimilation and the youth is somewhat indifferent, and a lot have left to the economical centres São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. For my surprise, most of the elders still remembered my great uncle Bernardo (Baruch) Tolpolar. His story is quite unique. He was an older brother of my grandfather and came first to Brazil, settled in Porto Alegre and for some mysterious reason, left suddenly to Recife, 3.000 km (1,865 miles) away. Some say he was going to get married to this girl, but she fell ill and lost an eye. Not wanting to marry a one-eyed person, he escaped the wedding. But this is just a supposition. There are other stories which try to justify the reason of his isolation from his close family. But I guess I'll never know the truth.
In front of Bernardo Tolpolar's old house

He was regarded as a special character, always wearing a dark blue suit and a red bow tie. "I thought he was like Chaplin when I was a little girl" said one of the members of the community. Bernardo could easily be spotted sitting in a chair in the street having a conversation in the Jewish neighborhood of Boa Vista. Today, Boa Vista still keeps its old architecture, but it is in evident decay and abandon. 
Square in Boa Vista, the old Jewish neighborhood

I got to know about the "marranos",  descendents of the conversos who are trying to return to Judaism. I also met an Israeli who was born in the countryside of Pernambuco (the State where Recife is), and adopted by an Israeli family. He was now back in Brazil trying to find his real mother. It was touching to see the word "mãe" (mother) tattooed on his wrist. He was there with his Ukrainian girlfriend. Another contribution to the visual mixture of people and cultures that Recife is. 

The film screening was amazing, a full house. From the many stories I heard, one was particularly funny. This lady said when her father arrived in Recife from Bessarabi ain the 1930´s, it was carnival. He loved it and thought nobody worked here, only partied. 

I was given a package of rolled cake ("bolo de rolo"), a typical and delicate guava cake. After visiting my grand uncle in the cemetery, I headed for the airport. Coincidentally, I met this Brazilian woman married to this Dutch guy who had converted to Judaism. Would that be a synthesis of what Recife is? And furthermore, the uncle of this lady´s mother is buried just next to my grand uncle Bernardo.

I took the plane back trying to settle my senses that were bombarded with different stimuli in this fascinating trip. I haven't told half of it. You have to go and experience yourself. And maybe when you come back home, days later, sitting and eating a rolled cake you bought there, you will begin to understand what had happened in Recife. 

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