Stark Contrasts and Traffic: A Jewish Odyssey in Sao Paulo

In the Brazilian metropolis of 11.2 million, there are tremendous economic disparities among its roughly 60,000 Jews. Of course the religion that really unifies everyone here is soccer.

The sense of the exotic almost wears off the moment one lands in the traffic of a polluted and congested São Paulo highway. The southern sun is strong in December, the air heavy with smog. White buildings, skyscrapers, palm trees, plateaus in the distance. Everything here tastes, smells, sounds green. Water tingles in every air molecule. “Traffic will be much worse when World Cup comes soon,” the driver says in broken English and turns up the radio.

The guidebooks promised a “monsoon-influenced subtropical climate,” and that phrase alone conjured a storm of excited thoughts (childhood readings of Kipling and samba songs, mostly), as I boarded a late-night flight. “You know that the average São Paulo resident loses 20-30 days a year in traffic alone?” the driver adds, once we’re in the center of the city, standing in bumper-to-bumper traffic at a circle in the leafy Jardins neighborhood. “That’s a very interesting statistic,” I say, opening the window for air.

One learns quickly that São Paulo boasts two major sports: soccer and navigating traffic. To maintain polite conversation with a Paulistano, one should best discuss one of the aforementioned – or analyze levels of crime in various neighborhoods. Complaining about a corrupt or apathetic government is considered passé, or at the very least useless. Afternoon ambles offer a glass-fronted corporate Paulista Avenue, and a peaceful Higienopolis quarter with spacious condo buildings and a shopping mall where decorated Christmas trees and Santas lounge under palm trees outside European clothing boutiques. The architecture is modern, even bleak at times. And in the not-far-off distance lie the infamous favelas, shantytowns of collapsible adobe-colored houses.

“One understands without being told that here is a metropolis,” Kipling wrote, in his 1927 letter from São Paulo for London’s Morning Post.  Almost 90 years later, and São Paulo is ever the bustling metropolis, an enormous and dense city now numbering 11.2 million residents, with 25 million in the state at large. Here, one finds a humid city of immigrants and their descendants: sizable communities of Brazilians who identify as Italian, German, Lebanese, Japanese, Korean and African. Even the very Portuguese spoken here has echoes of other places: São Paulo intonations are unmistakably Italian, a remnant of immigration waves from the early 20th century.

And then there are the Jews: Estimates are that São Paulo’s Jewish population is 60,000, and another 40,000-50,000 live in Rio de Janeiro – out of a total 150,000 Jews throughout Brazil. There are 55 Orthodox synagogues and a handful of Reform temples. Here, in the New World, Jewish communities have found refuge on soil that was, for them, untainted by bad memories. Memorials to the Inquisition exist hand-in-hand with those to the Holocaust, each constructed by children of refugees. Monuments can at once evoke Isaac de Castro Tartas — a 17th-century Marrano (crypto Jew) martyr who was extradited from Brazil, on orders from the Inquisition, and then burned at the stake in Lisbon — as well as the fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

'Crisis of Jewish identity'

I spend Shabbat in the Sephardi Jewish community, invited there by the local Chabad, an affluent and dominant force in São Paulo. Over the Sabbath tables of the Jewish elite and powerful, high in the penthouses above the city, the flow of Portuguese mixes with sprinklings of English and Hebrew. The hosts pour grenache; there are men in sports jackets, women in loosely draped bright colors and Italian-made dresses. In the grand Beit Yaakov synagogue, its congregation following the Aleppo tradition, the Kiddush at times feels like the Upper East Side transplanted in the tropics. Familiar faces, family dynasties, laughter. We lounge in sunlit living rooms and snack on nuts and bourekas, then move to the dining room where we eat lahmajeen (a traditional meat pie) and sip guarana (a beverage made from a local plant).

“Only 25,000 of 60,000 Jews here stepped into a shul on Yom Kippur,” a congregant exclaims to me in Hebrew as we walk out of synagogue. He shakes his head and sighs. “Our assimilation rates! And the young, they don’t care about Israel, imagine! It’s a crisis of Jewish identity.”

Rabbis and community leaders here proudly explain that there is no anti-Semitism in Brazil, and indeed, it seems that futbol is the religion that unifies people here more than any sort of nationalism.

“The Brazilian people have a tradition to welcome [others],” the governor of Sao Paulo, Geraldo José Rodrigues Alckmin Filho, tells me at a Jewish community event. “It’s a culture which loves diversity.”

But as much as the ethnic diversity is striking here – the economic disparity is even more shocking. Of 200 million living in Brazil today, 30 million live under the poverty line: that is, earning the equivalent of $1 a day. Despite the fact that the country's economy is one of the most rapidly growing today, with the 10th-largest GDP in the world, the emergence of a middle class is painstakingly halting.

“[Anyone] who is poor in Brazil – he is really poor,” Rabbi David Weitman, the animated Chabad rabbi of São Paulo, tells me as we walk the halls of Ten Yad (literally, lend a hand), a newly built Jewish community center in the Bom Retiro neighborhood. “This area is our version of your Lower East Side,” Weitman adds.

Walk the streets of Bom Retiro, and you’ll be amused by some of the new street names: Rua Divina Providencia and Rua Talmud Tora. This is an impoverished district, once bustling with Jewish immigrants, where later generations flourished and moved to better neighborhoods, namely Higienopolis and Jardins – the most expensive in town. Here, 14 synagogues once thrived; today only two remain, with struggling prayer quorums.

Behind an unassuming concrete wall, Ten Yad is São Paulo Chabad’s latest project, an attempt to seek solutions that will help a sizable destitute Jewish community. Here, the second-oldest synagogue in the city was purchased for $1.8 million, and renovated into a sleek community center featuring a soup kitchen that serves 500 meals daily (“We don’t have trays here. People drink out of glasses. It should feel like home; we must preserve dignity above all,” says Weitman). For the several thousands who rely on the center for food and other basic needs, Ten Yad also offers a full cultural program, a restored sanctuary with the original wooden pews and holy ark, and a lavish wedding hall, replete with chandeliers and cherry-wood floors, stained glass windows and intricate artwork.

“We’ve already had 12 weddings and bar mitzvahs here, since Simchat Torah,” Weitman explains as a yeshiva student rushes into the hall with a silver-encased Torah. The room is filled with sunlight, as workers hurry to put in finishing touches before the community center’s dedication ceremony that week.

Community members insist to me, repeatedly, that not everyone is wealthy here. “We know what you think of us São Paulo Jews,” one gentleman says to me at a reception, smiling. “But not everyone here can afford membership at our Clube Hebraica, you know?”

The work that the local Jewish community has done on behalf of Sao Paolo’s needy, Jew and non-Jew alike, is awe-inspiring, in the face of sorely lacking government social welfare assistance. It brings to mind the words of Maimonides about supporting the indigent among gentiles along with those among the Jews.

Step into the streets of São Paulo’s Baixada Do Glicerio, make your way through the teeming marketplace, and you’ll find a line around the corner for Bom Prato, a soup kitchen which serves 1,800 hot meals daily in this Lebanese immigrant neighborhood; one meal for one rial (about 1.5 shekels). Bom Prato now has almost 40 branches throughout the city – an endeavor that Chabad has been heavily involved in launching. Walk into the soup kitchen, and after noticing the mezuzah shyly peeking out of the doorpost, you’ll be struck by the naked poverty before your eyes: the stick-like limbs and starved eyes, the shuffling elderly, the stench and groans of this mess of humanity.

“Flour is given alongside the beans,” a social worker explains. “Flour solidifies the liquid food, that way people can eat with their hands.” I give her a quizzical look. She adds, “It’s hard for people to use cutlery if they’ve been forbidden from using it for a long time. In prison, I mean.”

In the Albert Einstein Hospital’s children’s clinic in the city’s second-largest favela, Paraisopolis (City of Paradise), one witnesses a program that is funded entirely by the Jewish community. This clinic offers basic medical care to local children, in addition to educational activities aimed at keeping youth off the streets in art, music and sports. All this in a place where children walk barefoot in urban villages, amid the drug trafficking going on along the main thoroughfare. When I mention a planned morning visit to a favela to locals, the reaction is always a unanimous shudder.

Rodrigo, the local guide and driver for our small group of travelers, is worried. “This is a dangerous neighborhood,” he keeps repeating as he drives slowly, deeper into the heart of the favela. “I’m wearing a suit, my car is black – this won’t be good.”

“Once, in a Rio favela, they took down a helicopter,” someone in the backseat helpfully notes. It’s a one-way street and the cardboard houses ahead only look worse. Groups of men approach our car to scrutinize us, three Jews bickering in Hebrew.

“We are turning around,” Rodrigo is trembling, his eyes shifting quickly as he swerves the car into a U-turn; within a minute we are out and back to driving by the ivory palaces of São Paulo. There’s a moment of silence as everyone exhales. Rodrigo clears his throat and says, “But listen, this stadium they’re building? You heard some workers died during the construction? They’re taking forever to build it. And this traffic – ah, look at this traffic.”

The contrasts in this place are stark. And I suppose they only get starker. Because when you find yourself back in Manhattan a day later, at a cocktail benefit somewhere, and the society lady next to you sighs and puts her hand on your arm and exclaims how dreadful the catering is, you’ll nod and emit something that sounds like a laugh, and find yourself thinking of other places.

Avital Chizhik was in São Paulo at the invitation of the local Chabad.

Sao Paulo, Brazil
Avital Chizhik
Wikimedia Commons