The History of the Jews in Brazil

The beggars tried in vain to stop the young thugs from hurling rocks against the church door, but their upraised hands were as useless as blades of grass. Hiding inside the church, Edson lay face down on a pew bench that smelled of sweet polished wood and sweaty thighs and listened to the clatter of stony rain. Life in Rio de Janeiro’s streets were particularly rough on the cocoa-colored dreamy-eyed, but these kids pursued the twenty-year-old Edson with inexplicable hate, as if mankind had stepped backwards. God too, did not spare Edson any indignity. Instead, He singled him out as if to say: You, Edson, will be my Persecuted One destined for a life of fresh bruises, my Holy Gladiator with No Glory.

Padre Josué pattered down the aisle, opened the church door and the attackers skittered away. Moments later, his cassock fluttered next to Edson’s feet. The young man sat up, expecting Padre Josué to invite him into the small library in the vestry, a room not only hung with robes smelling of incense, but a book-heaven revealing worlds covered in ice, and Indians who cut their bodies so that their scars healed into brown pearls, and giant ancient animals with useless brains sunk into their hip bones. Edson was the only one in his family who could read. But this time, the padre handed him what at first looked like a donkey saddle, a book so large it could have crushed the little priest between its pages. Edson lifted the tome from the padre’s hands. The History of the Jews in Brazil. The wine stain on the old leather cover blossomed like butterfly wings over the word “Jews” and Edson touched the stain as if the book were bleeding. Padre Josué lowered himself to the pew and explained how he felt it time to give the book to one so persecuted. “You will see,” the padre said, “why people treat you so, and why you must endure it,” and he smiled cryptically as sweat trickled down his neck into his clerical collar. Edson sat up and turned to the first chapter, “The Children of Doom.” He read of how during the Inquisition in Portugal, Jewish children were snatched from their parents’ arms and shipped to São Tomé to be converted to Christianity. Many of these children did not live long; they died of snakebites and diseases, or threw themselves into the shark-filled waters when they were old enough to know despair. However, there were other Jews, luckier ones, who survived the Inquisition and made their way to Brazil. God shoved some children to one side and gave them the unlucky destino of São Tomè. Then He shoved to the other side the charmed ones, and gave them a better life, one where they could be loved.

When Edson looked up from reading, Padre Josué had since left, but by then Edson understood perfectly God’s notion of justice and how arbitrary, how irrelevant fairness was to human desire. How else could his own suffering be explained? He knew right then that he was a brother of Abraham, and that sometime long ago God had pointed to him and said, “You must search for the Promised Land, the Land That Poses Questions You Cannot Answer.” Edson realized he was a Jew and had been one all along. He tested his perception by looking at the painting of São Sebastião and his body riddled with arrows, wounds the shape of human lips, and felt no particular connection. He gazed at beautiful Biu, long-legged and rippled-hair, who was at the altar, dusting the baby Jesus with lambswool, and the familiar longing for her had disappeared. In short, these vestiges of Catholicism and lust moved him not. Elated by his new and wonderful identity, he carried the book out the front door of the church and back up to the favela where he lived with his mother and younger brother. Though his neighborhood was nothing but shacks and brick houses and small stores and narrow alleyways all crawling up the hill, Edson had never felt such unbelievable destiny.


The favela in Rio de Janeiro was not the Promised Land, ah não. The cement floor of the small apartment sweated from sea mist and heat. The cockroaches crawling on their ceiling looked like chicken turds with legs, and the walls were patched with magazine pictures of hoochi-coochi women coyly looking over their shoulders, displaying their thong-split butt cheeks. The pictures, glued on so long ago, had melted into the wood. Edson’s younger brother loved this visual enticement. Dio was stretched out on their couch, his face flushed from a bout of samba practice. Dio was accidently named for Diogenes the philosopher, who was a cynic, Edson found out from one of Padre Josué’s numerous books, someone with no hope. But Dio could toss his golden crown of curls and shimmer his hips, and do imitations of actress Anita da Silva from the telenovela Slaves to Love. Edson never knew exactly what Dio did during the day, only that on some days Dio brought in more money than their mother, who managed a store. “We’d starve without him,” their mother Sophia had declared once, for his coffee-cream skin and innocent face made people fall in love at first sight. On the couch, Dio languished like a lascivious goddess, a child-man with an amazing lack of chest hair, a morsel of Joy.

Edson threw The History of the Jews in Brazil onto the couch next to his brother. Dio raised his eyebrows at the hefty thump next to him. “You are ambitious,” he said. “But books make you ugly.” Edson did not respond to this usual mocking but went into the kitchen, got a scissors and cut his shoulder-length hair at the hairline in back. “Thank God you are cutting that greasy mop finally,” Dio laughed at his brother, but Edson didn’t stop there. He left two long hanks of hair on either side of his face, then went to the box of cleaning rags and cut two strips. He dampened his hair at his temples, then wound each hank around the cloth, so when his hair dried, they would curl into spirals like he had seen in pictures of Jews from the Holy Land. Dio watched for a bit, then said, “You are kidding right? You are going to go out with those goat tails?”

Edson looked at his brother. “Now who is the one who puffs around the neighborhood like some circus clown? Who? You are lucky no one beats the shit out of you.”

Dio got up abruptly. “I can’t be seen with you. You are too strange.” He sat up and slipped on his t-shirt and rubber sandals, then snatched a paper bag full of something. “I’m going to the store,” he said. “I need something.” Normally, Edson would stay home in embarrassment, but a new Hebraic aura shielded him against all contempt and he found courage to step out into the world as the Isaiah of all things Brazilian. He grabbed his History of the Jews in Brazil and followed Dio out of the house to their mother Sophia’s store. It was thus: Edson the rachitic monk, Dio the precious Cupid. In the Old Testament, Jews bowed their heads and accepted their raw deal, even as the Babylonians partied until paralyzed with pleasure. God’s unequal affection was an obstacle Edson would struggle to climb over in trying to find the secret of His Almighty Love. If that even existed.


Sophia’s sundry shop was part of a row of storefronts along Rua General do Pardo, but her store was a pit in which no one could escape. Whereas her less-ambitious competitors on the block sold mostly towels and t-shirts, she sold gardening tools and car oil along with clothing. And wow she was good! She could bate-boca like no other. Edson remembered when a young housekeeper still wearing her uniform had come into the store and Sophia zoomed in and led the girl to the apron rack. “Ah minha filha,” Sophia crooned, “slaving for a Senhora all day means you deserve the best money can buy.” The young housekeeper touched the ruffles, admiring, forgetting they will be stained with bean gravy. Yet the woman bought the apron and left. Then a man popped by for a shovel and started haggling for a lower price, but Sophia was firm. “Nowhere on this block can you buy a cheaper shovel. Go to a hardware store and you’ll see how much you pay!” The man meekly bought the shovel at her price, then left. Finally an old man stuck his head in, asking where he could buy a coffin. “Do I look dead to you?” Sophia yelled, exasperated at the one item she lacked. Her temper made her vibrant home-dyed red hair seem to burst into flames.

Edson stopped at the bin of cheap panties and bras rolled onto the sidewalk, and rested his book on the edge. Dio clutched his paper bag, entering the store nonchalantly like a customer. Their mother Sophia and her manager Waldir were at the counter doing accounts, Sophia tapping the laptop keys aggressively, and Waldir looking at her with ticklish satisfaction. Waldir was squat and apple-cheeked and always wore a suit and tie, no matter how warm the weather. There was a mutual admiration: Sophia thought him classy, so different from other Brazilian men in their baggy khaki shorts and rubber flip-flops, and he approved of her refined taste in merchandise, like when he sniffed a box of perfumed soap, and sighed, “Ah the sweet smell of Granado Terrapeutic Lather Bar! What a brilliant selection!” Sophia still jabbing at the keyboard, complained to Waldir about how their whole neighborhood might have to move because new apartments were being built for the Olympic Games close to their store, which happened to sit on lucky land. Sophia declared she wouldn’t move her precious store for any brouhaha. “Those big-shots can build around us,” she declared. “One detour won’t kill them.” Waldir nodded, knowing his shyness an asset in these situations. Sophia looked up and caught Edson’s strange hairstyle: “Why in the hell are those rags hanging next to your face? Dio, give your brother some fashion sense!”

Edson touched the two small tails. “I am curling my hair.”

“Please go, you are scaring away the customers with your craziness.” She shrugged him off, sliding closer to Waldir. Normally, her words would have hurt Edson, reminding him of his invisibility, but at least now he had an explanation for her cruelty: My mother is afraid of losing her Promised Land. We came from the Northeast Brazil where land burned with drought and cane fires. We migrated to Rio and my mother got herself a business, and now we may be kicked out of our homes so that the Olympic Games can welcome foreign invaders. No fate was more Jewish than that. And the fact Sophia had the talent to sell souvenir plastic statues of the Corcovado even Brazilians bought – again, Jewish.

Sophia was too busy with Waldir and his numbers to say something sweet to Dio like, “Are you going out on a date meu filho? When can I meet her?” Meanwhile, Dio pilfered from the woman’s underwear bin, a pair of panties and a teen bra, then even had the cara-de-pau to toss back the teen bra and get something with more heft. He slipped the panties and bra under his t-shirt and pressed it smooth like a well-practiced thief. Then Dio turned to go but Edson grabbed the History of the Jews in Brazil, took off after him and smacked the back of his head with the book.

“Hey!” Dio howled and dropped his bag. The bra and panties fell from under his t-shirt.

“What the hell are you doing stealing from her store?”

Dio snatched the underwear from the ground and stuffed it into his paper bag. He faced Edson with a flutter of his eyelashes. “I am buying these from her. I make money, you know.”

“How?” Edson slammed the book against his brother’s chest. Dio stumbled backwards with a little “ow”. “How are you so fucking lucky?” Edson continued to rail. “What in the hell did you do to be so blessed? It cannot just be from being born with twinkle-toes. That doesn’t make sense.”

Dio turned and marched down the street, clinging onto his paper bag. “Come watch then!”


At the shipping docks, Dio hurried down a pier along a row of warehouses. Edson followed, still clutching his book until they arrived at a large group of men waiting, one with a boom box. Dio slipped into the crowd and opened the bag. He pulled down his pants and smiled shyly at the flash of his uncircumcised bullet, then slipped on the pilfered underwear, tugging at the back. He put on the stolen bra too, and quickly stuffed a rolled-up sock into each of the cups. Finally, from the bag, he took out one of his mother’s dresses, threw it over his head and wiggled his way in. His curls were so beautifully sassy, a man came up to him, stuffed a bill into Dio’s bra, and with a large knife, cut off a lock of Dio’s hair and tucked the curl into his shirt pocket. Someone clicked on the boom box. Dio listened to the music for a few seconds, then burst into a drop-jaw samba, shuddering his hips until the skirt worked halfway up his thighs. He swirled into a pinwheel, then bounced his ass as if his underwear were stuffed with a live chicken. He grinned broadly as his small chuckle gurgled in his throat. His fingers fluttered, picking at invisible pieces of air. The men’s faces gleamed with both hate and passion. Edson burned with shame as Dio flicked up the back of his skirt, revealing his panty-split butt cheeks. Edson knew the whole story now, Dio’s amazing wads of cash, his beautiful sad look of a child being chosen to go to São Tomé and forced to change his very soul. Dio may have felt free twisting his hips and throwing kisses to men who wanted to kill him, because he was not able to see how hate and love could exist at the same time. Edson turned and left, the music still in his head. He heard someone calling out about his strange haircut, but finally the waves churning underneath the pier crushed their voices into a distant buzz. When he was far enough away, he set the book at his feet, unraveled the rags from two damp hanks of hair on either side of his face, and threw the rags into the water.


Dio never returned home. A week after he disappeared, Edson found Seu Alfonso’s rooster sitting on Dio’s pillow and at the same time, a bush outside caught fire. Edson and Sophia knew this was a bad omen. Sophia tried to reason: “Since when do young men come home? If you weren’t so ugly, you’d have a girlfriend too,” but as she was making coffee, she exploded: “It is so hot in here! We are roasting in hell!” Such a small woman with the aggressive force of an exploding dream. Edson sat down at the table listening to Sophia’s tirade that Waldir hadn’t been at the store lately – because he has others to worry about, she said.

“He has a wife,” Edson thought to himself, but didn’t remind her of what she already knew. Sophia poured herself some coffee and eased herself onto a chair, her hands circling her mug. “I will work at my store for a year. After that, I want to die.” Edson hung down his head. He didn’t have the heart to tell Sophia where Dio probably was. He could only say: “Dio went to the Promised Land. Since when have we Jews ever stayed put?” His mother rose up and slapped him upside the head. “Where in the hell did you get the idea we were Jews? Can’t you stop being an idiot for once?” With that, she stomped into her room. Edson heard her weeping through the rustle of her clothes as she dressed for work, trying to crush her grief and move forward like a Jew would. But Edson could not. Not even to push past the first chapter, “The Children of Doom”, where Jewish children from Portugal were sent to São Tomé on ships never to return. He knew there were other parts of Brazilian history, where Jews kicked ass, like when they became bankers for the Dutch merchants up north in Recife. But he didn’t have the heart to walk away and leave the children to their fate.

He went over to the cantina where Nogueira ran a numbers game. A card with rows of colorful animals was taped just inside the entrance and beside the card was a small blackboard with the numbers from the last drawing. Nogueira was all grin with black sunglasses. Xico, a blue-black moreno with large doughy feet like two burnt empanadas, burst out laughing at Arnivaldo, a toothless guy who always bet on the monkey without taking into account his dreams or premonitions. “If you hammer on a nail long enough,” the toothless Arnivaldo insisted, “eventually it goes into the wood. I never give up on the monkey. Not ever.”

Edson sat at a table and opened The History of the Jews in Brazil hoping they would ask him, “What is bothering you, amigo?” and maybe he’d have the nerve to tell them about Dio. Instead, Xico cried, “What a strange way to cut your hair!” Edson ran his fingers down the long hanks of hair at each side of his temples, debating whether to explain about his discovery of being Jewish. But instead, Xico grabbed him from behind and held his head back. “Give me a knife, Nogueira!” Nogueira slipped a knife from below the counter and went up to Edson, held a hank, and began cutting. Edson howled as the others laughed. “Make it even, amigo!” Xico said. “Your mother is too busy to finish what she started!” Then Nogueira cut the other hank as Xico pressed his sweating palm against Edson’s forehead. Finally, they let him go. Nogueira did not pocket the piece of hair as the men had with Dio’s, but instead tossed it into the wastebasket. “Looks like we opened up a beauty parlor.”

“What did you do?” Edson cried, feeling the strange tufts on either side of his face. “You had no right!”

“Amigo, you looked lopsided.”

“You had no right,” he answered quietly.

Edson finished his beer and looked away from the men, who chuckled, unsatisfied that the fight had ended too soon. Up the hill, the favela houses leaned against each other like collapsed temples. Finally Nogueira lifted his sunglasses onto his head and said, “The drawing will be tomorrow meu gente. I’ll have the new numbers on the chalkboard and one of us will be rich.”

Xico and Arnivaldo burst into loose-lipped babbling about their future riches and the animals that bring goodness like the monkey, and the ones that doom men into foolishness, like the snake. Edson thought luck was a three-legged dog, pitifully alive, yet unable to run. Yet the deformed ones were not part of the numbers game. He left quietly, went to look for Dio at docks and took along The History of the Jews in Brazil.

The docks were empty. Edson sat on a crate facing the sea and set his heavy book to the side. The ropes tethering the ships to the quay swung softly with the tug of the tide. He could see in his head, the Jewish children being shipped to Africa so long ago, those poor big-eyed tots dressed in their little wool jackets and sweet puff caps, torn from their heartbroken mothers and given to cruel nuns who carried them up the gangplank! He thought he heard children calling faintly from the high portholes, “Why is Edson there in Brazil while I am on the way to São Tomé?” Edson reeled just thinking about it, even though the Jewish children were kidnapped  hundreds of years ago. Was there a point where Jews realized the Promised Land was nothing they could reach, yet longing made their dream of salvation all the more rich?

Edson wondered if ghosts existed and whether they longed to be of the flesh. He imagined his little brother bobbing in the ocean, his dress billowing like a Portuguese man-of-war, its poison tentacles hidden in the deep water. Edson listened for distant boom-box music. The waterfront is supposed to be dangerous, but he was ragged and just as lost as those left to die. “You are our brother,” is what the sea says to him, “no matter what we give or take.” Edson is Jewish, and he knows it in his heart; he has lived through sinister twists of fate. Like a Jew he can disappear, and he has a mother “who is good with money,” as people say here. What he cannot do is save someone who has journeyed far from his homeland, nor can he push away those who now give him sorrow.


About Kathleen de Azevedo

Kathleen de Azevedo’s novel, Samba Dreamers (University of Arizona Press) about Brazilian immigrants in Hollywood, won the 2007 Pen Oakland Josephine Miles Award, given to books which address human rights issues. As well, her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Américas, Boston Review, Greensboro Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Green Mountains Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Gettysburg Review, Gulf Coast, Cimarron Review, and TriQuarterly among others. She was born in Brazil and currently lives in San Francisco.

Kathleen de Azevedo’s novel, Samba Dreamers (University of Arizona Press) about Brazilian immigrants in Hollywood, won the 2007 Pen Oakland Josephine Miles Award, given to books which address human rights issues. As well, her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Américas, Boston Review, Greensboro Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Green Mountains Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Gettysburg Review, Gulf Coast, Cimarron Review, and TriQuarterly among others. She was born in Brazil and currently lives in San Francisco.

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