The Jewish Brazilian Thing
Stories of the Jewish Diaspora, on being young and out of place within the Christian status quo.
From Adassa Kapolnai
The fact of being who or what a person or thing is. (Oxford online dictionary)
As a broader political term, it seems to me that Identity is a tad harder to define than that definition may lead one to believe, and even harder to talk about, since by its own nature it is a term prone to individual interpretations. So, if I can’t write on identity itself, I guess I can write on the subject of my identity, which is one I know far better. But even far better is not completely better, because, even on my own identity there are things that are still quite muddy. How would I define my identity, you might be wondering. Jewish Brazilian? Jewish bisexual Brazilian? (Maybe it is noteworthy that somehow I seem to put “Brazilian” last every time, but then again I live in Brazil and that’s a perk of not being a minority label: you don’t actually have to emphasize it as much).
My grandparents where Jewish European, from Italy and Hungary, and they both came to Brazil during the Second World War. For my grandmother specially, that meant trying to became as Brazilian as possible, to the extent that she, to this day, refuses to speak Italian. So they brought my mom and aunt up to blend as well as they could into the gentile culture of the country that had welcomed them. That meant that, even though I always knew we were Jewish, we never did celebrate the holidays or made any big fuss about it. But the thing is: identity is not something one can erase like that. So we ate matzah bread on Pesach, not because it was Pesach but because that’s the time of the year that stores sell it and my mom supposedly loves it’s taste (if you never had any matzah, it’s hardly something one would call delicious, so I have a hard time believing that particular bit of my family’s folklore).
The word Midrash means, in Hebrew, to extract knowledge. It refers to a literature genre that seeks to elucidate passages of the Torah and Talmud. This is done, among other ways, through retelling traditional stories that relate a greater meaning than what one may expect at first glance. Maybe because of this tradition, Jews tend to tell stories in order to convey a point. So let me tell you a couple stories to illustrate further what is like being Jewish Brazilian in my particular case, and maybe they can serve to shed some light on the difficult subject that is identity.
When I was in my early twenties I got in a car accident. It was an ugly one and the car was totally wrecked. But somehow I was ok, and so was everyone else in the vehicle. A thing like that can mess with one’s head. So the next week I decided that, since G’d seemed to have protected me, I would try and learn a bit more about Him. I bought a couple of books for the task: “Christianity for dummies”, “Islam for dummies”, “Buddhism for dummies” and “Judaism for dummies”. After reading them all, what I discovered was that all my beliefs, everything I held dear to my heart and thought of as moral and generally good where in fact Jewish principles. Because you see, even if you don’t celebrate Rosh Ha Shana, or don’t have a mezuzah at the entrance of the house you grew up in, that doesn’t mean you stop “thinking Jewish”, or that you don’t teach your children to do just that. So I bought a Star of David necklace and went on with my life. Now the flip side of being Jewish, especially diaspora Jewish, is the war. My grandmother’s reaction to my big Jewish discovery was that she bought me a new star of David, made of gold (which at the time I couldn’t have afforded on my own), and a photography book full of images of the holocaust. Not bloody images, but strong powerful images that depicted piles of children’s shoes, of eyeglasses, of violins, that used to belong to Jews murdered during the war. She told me that if I wanted to own my identity she would support me, but that I should be prepared for whatever was to come.
I met my husband when I was 11 years old. I came home and told my mom we would be married someday because I had fallen for him right then and there (she laughed it off as just one more crazy thing children sometimes say. Nevertheless, we did become great friends first, then boyfriend and girlfriend, then husband and wife). He is an intelligent and sweet man, who loves me wholeheartedly and has always treated me with kindness and respect. He is also not Jewish. We were 25 at the wedding, so by that time he had already met all my family years ago. My grandmother, specially, was always fond of him, because he reminds her of my late grandfather: they are both distracted brilliant intellectual types. But when I told her that we were to get married her first response was to ask me: “If they start persecuting us again, are you sure he will protect you? Are you sure he won’t turn his back on you?”. She didn’t ask because of mistrusting him in particular. She asked because she lost count of how many Jewish wives were delivered to the Nazis by their gentile husbands.
Three years ago I went to New York, to visit a close friend who lives there. One day he decided to introduce me to his American friends, so we went out for a beer. When I got there, one of them asked me “So, John tells me you are Brazilian and Jewish. Is that a thing?” I answered that we make up about 0,06% of Brazilian population and about 3% of Rio de Janeiro’s population (in case you are wondering, that means 120 000 Jews in Brazil, 22 000 in Rio. Quite a lot of people), so it must be a thing. But what I guess he meant is that the mental image of a neurotic Woody Allen doesn’t really go together with the hot Latin image of say, Jennifer Lopez. And, even though I look nothing like Jennifer, I understand his bafflement as identities become more complex and nuanced. Because I am not only Jewish, just as much as I am not only Brazilian. So yes, Jewish Brazilian is a thing.