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RECIFE , city in northeast Brazil, capital of the state of Pernambuco; population: 1,486,869 (2004); Jewish population estimated at 1,300.

Colonial Period

When Recife became a prosperous center for sugar production in the 16th and 17th centuries, Portuguese New Christians were already living in the city and its environs and in many regions of the Brazilian Nordeste (North East). They worked mainly in sugar production and commerce. The significant number of New Christians in Recife took part in a variety of activities, and some bound themselves through intermarriage to prestigious Old Christian families.

The Inquisition dispatched an official inspector (visitator) and an inquisitional commission was established in 1593–1595 in Olinda, the port of Recife. New Christians were tried and arrested; some were taken to Lisbon and handed over to the inquisitional tribunal. After the inspector had left, surveillance of New Christians was continued by the bishop of Brazil, with the assistance of the local clergy. Thus the New Christian Diego Fernandez, husband of Branca Dias, was accused by the Inquisition of being a "Judaizer" and of keeping an "esnorga," a secret place to pray.

Two New Christian writers lived in Recife and stood out in the colonial period with works that reveal elements of Jewish expression: Bento Teixeira, author of Prosopopéia – one of the most important Portuguese-Brazilian colonial poems – published in Lisbon on 1601, and Ambrósio Fernandes Brandão, author of Diálogos das Grandezas do Brasil, in 1618.

Dutch Period

The first organized Jewish community in Brazil was established in Recife during the period of Dutch colonial occupation (1630–1654) that brought Jews among other Dutch colonists and permitted religious freedom. The West India Company came to Brazil attracted by the sugar plantations and more than 120 engenhos (sugar mills) in Pernambuco.

In 1636–1640 the Dutch Jews founded the first Brazilian synagogue in Recife, the first on American soil: Kahal Kadosh Ẓur Israel. Later they founded the synagogue Kahal Kadosh Magen Abraham in Maurícia. Both were unified in 1648, with the signatures of 172 members both from Recife and Maurícia. The Jewish community was very well organized along the same lines as the mother community in Amsterdam. Ẓur Israel maintained a synagogue, the religious schools Talmud Torah and Eẓ Ḥayim, and a cemetery. In Recife there was a "Rua dos Judeus" (Jodenstraat or Jewish street) in 1636.

In 1642 Rabbi Isaac Aboab da Fonseca arrived from Holland, accompanied by the ḥakham Moses Rafael de Aguilar. Jews from Recife addressed an inquiry regarding the proper season to recite the prayers for rain to Rabbi Ḥayyim Shabbetai in Salonika, the earliest American contribution to rabbinic responsa literature. Despite official tolerance, however, the Jews were subjects of some hostility at the hands of Calvinists.

The estimates of the Jewish population at Recife vary greatly. According to Arnold Wiznitzer, it reached 1,450 members in 1645. Egon and Frieda Wolff's research indicated around 350 Jews.

By 1639 Dutch Brazil had a flourishing sugar industry with more than 120 sugar cane mills, six of which were owned by Jews. Jews also had an important role in commerce, tax farming, and finances. Jews were also engaged in the slave trade, worked in agriculture, in the Dutch militia and as artisans and physicians. The contacts with the local population – including many New Christians – was permanent, due to the economic activities. During Dutch domination in the Nordeste, New Christians came closer to Judaism.

As early as 1642 the Portuguese began preparations for the liberation of northeastern Brazil. In 1645 they began a war that lasted nine years. Jews joined the Dutch ranks, and some were killed in action. Famine had set in and conditions were desperate when, on June 26, 1649, two ships arrived from Holland with food. On that occasion, Rabbi Isaac Aboab wrote the first Hebrew poem in the Americas, "Zekher Asiti le-Nifle'ot El" ("I Have Set a Memorial to God's Miracles").

It was stipulated in the capitulation protocol of Jan. 26, 1654, that all Jews, like the Dutch, were to leave Brazil within three months and had the right to liquidate their assets and to take all their movable property with them. The majority left for Amsterdam, but some sailed to the Caribbean Islands (Curação, Barbados, and so on). Wiznitzer maintained that a group of 23 Brazilian Jews arrived in New Amsterdam (old name of New York), then under Dutch rule, on the Saint Catherine at the beginning of September 1654 and that they were the founding fathers of the first Jewish community in New York. Egon and Frieda Wolff rejected this historical connection and argued that there is no documentary basis to assume that the Jews who arrived in New York were the same that had left Recife during the expulsion of the Dutch.

New Christians continued to live in Recife. Two decades after the departure of the Dutch, the Inquisition was also acquainted with and persecuted the New Christians who had converted to Judaism during the Dutch occupation and had remained in Pernambuco. Many reports reached the Lisbon Inquisition in the second half of the 17th century and during the 18th century regarding their clandestine observance of Jewish rituals. Portuguese policy in the middle of the 18th century eventually enabled the New Christians to mingle with the rest of the population, until their traces disappeared as they became completely assimilated.

Modern Period

The contemporary immigration of Jews from Eastern Europe to Recife started in the 1910s, and in 1910 a synagogue was established in a private house. The Centro Israelita de Pernambuco and the local Ídishe Shul were founded in 1918. Synagoga Israelita da Boa Vista and the Jewish cemetery were created in 1927. In 1930 Sephardi immigrants built their synagogue. The Jewish community was very active with a network of institutions, including six schools, the assistance organization Relief, a sports club, a library, a Yiddish theater group, youth and Zionist groups, and women organizations such as wizo and Pioneiras. The community, which reached a population of 1,600, lived mostly in the neighborhoods of Boa Viagem and Boa Vista.

In 1992 the Arquivo Histórico Judaico de Pernambuco (Historic Jewish Archive of Pernambuco) was founded. In 1994 the Associação para a Restauração da Memória Judaica das Américas (Association for the Restoration of Jewish Memory in the Americas) was established and in 2000 the building where the synagogue Kahal Kadosh Ẓur Israel had been founded in the Dutch period was recognized as a "national historical patrimony" by Instituto do Patrimônio Histórico e Artístico Nacional – Iphan, a federal agency, and a memorial-museum was opened. Together with the old "Rua dos Judeus" the memorial figures in the tourist tours of the city of Recife.


A. Dines, F. Moreno de Carvalho & N. Falbel (eds.), A Fênix ou o Eterno Retorno (2001); A. Wiznitzer, Os judeus no Brasil colonial (1960); E. & F. Wolff, A odisséia dos judeus no Recife (1979); J.A. Gonçalves de Mello, Gente da Nação: cristãos-novos e judeus em Pernambuco 15421654 (1990); T. Neumann Kaufman, Passos perdidoshistória recuperada. A presença judaica em Pernambuco (2001).

[Roney Cytrinowicz (2nd ed.)]


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Recife, the capital of the state of Pernambuco, is Brazil's seventh-largest city, with a population of 1.5 million (2007). Although its regional economic primacy was challenged in the late twentieth century by Fortaleza and to a lesser degree by the growing cities of its own agreste hinterland, Recife remains the economic, cultural, and political center of the vast Northeast region between the São Francisco and Parnaíba rivers. In the sixteenth century Recife was the country's largest city and the commercial center of the most important sugar region in the world. Its strategic location at the confluence of the Capibaribe and Beberibe rivers on the sugar coast drew attacks by the French in 1561 and by English pirates in 1578, and between 1630 and 1654 occupation by the Dutch, under whom it took the name of Mauritzstad after its governor, Count Johann Mauritz of Nassau. Although Recife's sugar hinterland lost primacy to Bahia after the Dutch invasion, Recife's commercial and foreign-oriented classes gradually overshadowed the traditional planter aristocracy at nearby Olinda, a transition marked by the War of the Mascates (1710–1711) and finally sealed by the city's emergence as provincial capital in 1823, after Brazilian independence.

Its regional pride, peripheral position, and sustained contact with foreign ideas made Recife the center of several nineteenth-century regionalist revolts, notably in 1817, 1824 (Confederation of the Equator), 1831 (Setembrizada), 1832 (Abrilada), and 1848–1849 (Praieira), a resistance to centralized authority that emerged again briefly in 1911 and 1930. Recife's intellectual leadership continues to be exerted throughout the Northeast and beyond by the Recife Law School, the newspaper Diário de Pernambuco, the philosophical and literary Germanism of the "Recife School," and the Federal University of Pernambuco. Dominating a network of smaller towns and subregions throughout the area, Recife reached a population of 100,000 by 1872, and grew steadily by absorbing migrants and rural laborers from the remote backlands and by centralization of the sugar industry. A decaying colonial city in the late nineteenth century, Recife's surges of modernization during the twentieth century gave it a more European look than most Brazilian cities but did not resolve the economic misery, poor health, and illiteracy that characterize the majority of its inhabitants. The social contrasts and tensions underlying the revolts that have punctuated the city's history continue to typify Recife today.

Home to the first Afro-Brazilian Congress (1934), broad programs of urban reform in the Vargas period, and the rise of union activism following the military dictatorship, Recife reflected tensions over citizenship and progress in the twentieth century. These sociopolitical transformations, despite a history of patronage and unequal social relations, exemplify broader Brazilian trends of conservative modernization.

See alsoAfrican-Brazilian Cultural and Political Organizations; Agreste; Confederation of the Equator; Maurits, Johan; Pernambuco; Praieira Revolt; War of the Mascates.


C. R. Boxer, The Golden Age of Brazil, 1695–1750 (1962) and The Dutch in Brazil, 1624–1654 (1957), provide reliable and readable accounts of colonial Recife and environs. Gilberto Freyre, The Mansions and the Shanties (1986), and Vamireh Chacon, A Capibaribe e o Recife: Historia social e sentimental de um rio (1989), describe the color and variety of the city in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. For an introduction to Recife as an intellectual center, see João Cruz Costa, A History of Ideas in Brazil (1989). Martha Knisely Huggins, From Slavery to Vagrancy in Brazil: Crime and Social Control in the Third World (1985), details the relationship between the disintegrating plantation economy and the class structure of Recife, while Robert M. Levine, Pernambuco in the Brazilian Federation (1978), integrates the political history of Recife with the history of the Northeast region and Brazil as a whole. The politics of rural mobilizations from the mid-twentieth century through the start of the twenty-first are analyzed in Angus Wright and Wendy Wolford, To Inherit the Earth: The Landless Movement and the Struggle for a New Brazil (2003), and in Anthony W. Pereira, The End of the Peasantry: The Rural Labor Movement in Northeast Brazil, 1961–1988 (1997). Joel Outtes, O Recife: Gênese do urbanismo, 1927–1943 (1997), explores citizenship, urbanity, and modernization in twentieth-century Recife. For contemporary issues of industrial labor and unionism, see Maurício Rands Barros, Labour Relations and the New Unionism in Contemporary Brazil (1999).

                                        Roger Cunniff

                                  Okezi Tiffani Otovo


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Recife City and port on the Atlantic coast, ne Brazil; the capital of Pernambuco state. Originally settled by Portuguese in the 1530s, it was under Dutch occupation in the 17th century. It is now a major port and shipping centre, exporting sugar, cotton and coffee. Pop. (2000) 1,421,947.