Jewish Cemetery in the Americas (Recife, PE)
Last update: 10/05/2023
In the 16th century, many Jews came from the Iberian Peninsula to Brazil aboard Portuguese ships. It is known today that the Portuguese Gaspar da Gama (the interpreter of Cabral’s fleet), Fernando de Noronha, João Ramalho, the very grantee of the captaincy Duarte Coelho, the poet Bento Teixeira and many others were New Christians (Jews recently converted to Catholicism to escape the Inquisition) (MOURA, 2002).
Thus, Recife and Olinda received many Jewish settlers fleeing inquisitorial persecutions. With the arrival of the Dutch in Pernambuco and in particular with the presence of Count Maurice of Nassau, the Jewish immigrants were able to enjoy the freedom to practice their religion and traditions. Settling in the state, they built schools, synagogues, clubs and cemeteries.
The exact size of the Jewish population who came to Northeast Brazil is not known, but researchers estimate that during the Flemish era (1630–1654), about three hundred Jews lived in Recife (MELLO, 1996). During this period, the lands belonging to the current neighbourhood of Coelhos were called Cemetery of the Jews because that was where the immigrants who professed the Jewish faith were buried.
The construction of Kahal Zur Israel Synagogue (or the Rock of Israel Congregation) represented one of the most important milestones of the Jewish presence in colonial Brazil. This synagogue is located on Rua do Bom Jesus – formerly called Rua dos Judeus [Street of the Jews] – in the neighbourhood of Recife, and was the first official Jewish temple in the Americas. The immigrants also reserved a specific area to set up their own cemetery to bury the dead according to the Mosaic faith.
A record from the Pernambuco Archaeological, History and Geography Institute dated 1876 already suggested the need to undertake further study to find the location of the first Jewish cemetery in the Americas. This cemetery was marked on maps from the period of Batavian colonisation. Based on these maps, historian Gonsalves de Mello recorded that the cemetery was located in a region called Sítio dos Coelhos, and that it was surrounded by a protective palisade that was destroyed around 1641 by the Dutch government. According to the author’s records, in this place a small military post was erected.
Personally visiting the open fields, Ribemboim concluded that the property of the Dispensário Santo Antônio religious institution should be subject to archaeological surveys. This dispensary is located at 109-A Rua de São Gonçalo in the Coelhos neighbourhood, and functions as a religious entity coordinated by the Daughters of Mary Sisters of Charity. Part of the Dispensary’s property, which was ceded to the Congregation of Our Lady of Glory, would have also been used as part of the cemetery. In addition to these, an area of the Amadeu Barbosa timber warehouse company must be considered. Thus, Ribemboim delimited three rectangles, where investigations should be carried out.
According to the author, there is a Star of David – the Jewish symbol – in front of the entrance of the Dispensary, but no one could explain why the symbol was present (RIBEMBOIM; Menezes, 2005).
Continuing the research work technically, architect Mota Menezes pointed out with relative accuracy the area to be prospected with archaeological resources, where the first Jewish cemetery in the Americas was. It should be noted that he came to this conclusion from overlapping the oldest to the newest maps and used triangulation and proportionate measurements. Mota Menezes focused on buildings and sites that had not undergone major changes from that time to the present day, and came to the conclusion that the cemetery must be on the grounds of Our Lady of Glory, not ruling out even an area of the Santo Antônio Dispensary and a part of the Amadeu Barbosa timber warehouse premises, which has an entrance from Rua Dr José Mariano (RIBEMBOIM; MENEZES, 2005).
Therefore, the place where the first Jewish cemetery was comprises a polygon that covers part of the properties of two religious institutions together with the property of a trading company. And although the exact size of that space is unknown, Ribemboim and Mota Menezes assume that it is not small. They take into account some variables: 1) the number of Jews in the Dutch Brazil period was high; 2) the cemetery had to serve the Jewish population of Recife, Maurícia and other adjacent localities; and 3) the Flemish occupation in Pernambuco lasted twenty-four years.
Thus, the authors outlined an area to be prospected at the Dispensary comprising a rectangle about 80 metres by 110 metres. Regarding Our Lady of Glory, the research object encompassed an area measuring 35 by 60 metres. And in relation to the Amadeu Barbosa Timber Warehouse, the mapping indicated an empty rectangular area of approximately 35 by 146 metres to be searched.
Below are the names of some Jews who lived in Pernambuco during the Dutch occupation, whose deaths must have occurred between the years 1630 and 1634, and who were probably buried in the cemetery (Ribemboim & Mota Menezes, 2005).
|Name||Date of burial|
|Felipe Dias do Vale||antes de 1634|
|Manuel Mendes de Castro||1638|
|Isaac Russon (ou Rusten)||1645 ou 1646|
|Antonio Montesinos||1646 ou 1647|
|Baltasar da Fonseca||antes de 1649|
|David Senior Coronel||1651|
|Simon Bar Mayer||1653 ou 1654|
|Antonio da Costa Cortizes||-|
|Esposa do neto de David Senior Coronel||-|
According Ribemboim and Mota Menezes, it would also be worth clarifying some important points: 1) no records were found about the possible transfer of the body of Benjamin Pereira, who died in Paraíba, to the Coelhos cemetery; 2) according to bibliographic records, Isaac Russon, David Henriques, David Barassar and Moses Mendes, executed by Luso-Brazilian forces, would have been buried in the Church of St John the Baptist in Olinda, and it is unknown whether the remains of these four Jews were then transferred to the Coelhos cemetery; and 3) no records were found that expressed the exact dates of the burials of Antonio da Costa Cortizes, and wife of the grandson of David Senior Coronel, with her name also being unknown.
According to a decree of 26 September 1656, after the expulsion of the Dutch, the land that included Jewish cemetery fell to the hero Henrique Dias as spoils of war.
Finally, it is worth noting that only through archaeological surveys will it be possible to know the names of those who were buried in the first Jewish cemetery in the Americas. This, however, will only occur if the time and the Capibaribe river waters have not eroded their gravestones and their mortal remains.
Recife, 23 February 2007.
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LIPINER, Elias. Izaque de Castro: o mancebo que veio preso do Brasil. Recife: Fundaj, Ed. Massangana, 1992.
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______; MENEZES, José Luís Mota. O primeiro cemitério judeu das Américas: período da dominação holandesa em Pernambuco (1630 - 1654). Recife: Edições Bagaço, 2005.
SINAGOGA Rochedo de Israel: memória e resgate. Brasília, D.F.: Ministério da Cultura, 2001.
how to quote this text
VAINSENCHER, Semira Adler. Jewish Cemetery in the Americas (Recife, PE). In: Pesquisa Escolar. Recife: Fundação Joaquim Nabuco, 2007. Available at:https://pesquisaescolar.fundaj.gov.br/en/artigo/jewish-cemetery-in-the-americas-recife/. Accessed: month day year. (Exemple.: Aug. 6, 2020.)