Asparagus and the Birth of New York’s Jewish Community

February 21, 2015

Recife Brazil

What you notice first in sailing into Recife (which means “reef’ in Portuguese, it’s surrounded by them) is what looks like a giant asparagus.  It sits there looking, I think, kind of silly.  When I asked about it a local told me it was a sculpture that represents humanity.  He paused, no he doesn’t get it either.

We didn’t spend a lot of time in Recife.  We split the short port call between Recife and Olinda, opting to spend more time in Olinda.  We missed most of modern, skyscraping Recife but did talk through the main market, the old town, and to the cultural center, which is an old prison, each stone cell holding a shop selling crafts.

Recife was founded by the Portuguese but for around 20 years the Dutch held the town, which was a good thing for Recife.  It is on a river estuary with a lot of reefs and beaches.  It kept flooding under the Portuguese.  The Dutch know how to deal with that, and when Portugal took over Recife again it had a network of canals that handled the water.  Locals say this has made them the Venice of South America.  More like Amsterdam because it has some row buildings that are somewhat reminiscent.  The Brazilians have kept up the maintenance on the canals and shipping channels and some recent work has caused problems.  Recife’s beaches are not crowded.  That’s because while dredging a new ship channel they inadvertently disrupted a shark migration route, driving the sharks into the beaches.  For a while Recife has become the shark attack capital of the world.  Holland America has canceled its beach transfers and the picture I took of the beach shows NOBODY on it.

The Dutch introduced religious tolerance (OK, destroying the baroque ornamentation in churches in Olinda is not very tolerant, see another post on that).  Sephardic Jews from Spain sought shelter in the Netherlands after the edicts of 1492.  A group of them came to Recife and set up the first Jewish community in the New World and built the first synagogue.  Under the Dutch their street was named Judeus Street (Jewish Street.)  When the Portuguese took over they renamed the street Bob Jesus.  The Dutch sent a ship to rescue the Jews and brought them north to their other new colony, New Amsterdam where they founded New York’s Jewish community.  The original synagogue is now a Jewish community and cultural center but when we went it was closed for Sabot.

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