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By Clara Castelar


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My mother’s family has a talent for the improbable. This is something I only came to appreciate when I tried to chart the paths that led my Melo and Oliveira ancestors from Iberia to sleepy little towns on the Cear-Paraiba border in Northeast Brazil. 

Mine is not a complete map. The paths twist, turn and often vanish. When I began my quest for my elusive ancestors, almost thirty years ago, all I had to go on was a watch and a prayer. The watch had belonged to my grandfather’s, Joo Laurentino Melo, son of Laurentino Jose Cabea de Melo. It had a rampant lion engraved inside its lid and it was said to be a family heirloom; the prayer was my grandmother’s, who passed it on to me when I turned thirteen.  She told me that traditionally, it was passed on from father to son, but her father had taught it to her cautioning not to repeat it before strangers. She was the eldest daughter and so was I.

A decade or so later, I had moved to Shepherdstown, West Virginia when I met Zohara Muchinsky Boyd, a Holocaust survivor from Poland.  It surprised me how quickly we bonded, considering the cultural differences I believed to exist between Catholic Brazil and Jewish Breslau. 

It turned out that as children we had read some of the same books and that some of her mother’s domestic habits were very much like my own mother’s, which we took to be nothing more than universal mommyisms, but what absolutely awed me, was Zohara’s kindness. 

I quizzed her about her values. She told me that her Jewish upbringing shaped her and that kindness was the heart of Judaism.  It was to honor Zohara that I went to my first Rosh Hashanah service. There I found out that my grandmother’s secret prayer was
the U’Netaneh Tokef Kedushat Hayom, Let Us Tell How Utterly Holy This Day Is.

“On Rosh Hashanah it will be inscribed and on Yom
Kippur it will be sealed how many will pass from
the earth and how many will be created; who will
live and who will die; who will die at his
predestined time and who before his time; who by
water and who by fire, who by sword, who by
beast, who by famine, who by thirst, who by
storm, who by plague, who by strangulation, and
who by stoning. Who will rest and who will
wander, who will live in harmony and who will be
harried, who will enjoy tranquility and who will
suffer, who will be impoverished and who will be
enriched, who will be degraded and who will be exalted.”

The puzzlement of  Judaic tradition existing in what seemed to be a Catholic family, stayed with me for many years. As I continued to inform myself about Judaism, it became clear to me that my family followed many Judaic-based practices–just how many I would not find out until the advent of the internet. I had never heard of New Christians, Marranos, Conversos, Anoussim or Crypto-Jews until I posted a message on a Jewish website asking if anyone had information on the Jewish roots of the Oliveira, Melo, Barros, Pereira, Dantas, Bezerra, Nunes, Sousa, and Monteiro families from Northeast Brazil. Bob Feron, head of the translation section at the Brazilian Embassy, responded. He was a member of Kulanu, Hebrew for all of us, an outreach group whose goal is to find and assist dispersed remnants of the Jewish people. Bob put me in touch with Karen Primack, editor of the
Kulanu Newsletter, and Jack Zeller, Kulanu’s president. They, in turn, led me to Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn, whose rabbinical thesis dealt with Brazilian crypto-Jews and who is a leading authority on the subject. I also heard from Professor Judith Laiken, in the American
Southwest, Crypto-Judaism  scholar Schulamith Halevy, and journalist Inacio Steinhardt, in
Israel. An intense exchange of e-mail  followed  and for the first time I became aware of a  part  of history, consistently left out of  Brazilian textbooks.

Folk traditions say that Jews arrived in Iberia as traders and settlers, in King Solomon’s ships. That tradition also maintains that Jews came to Iberia following the  Babylonian Captivity.  Jewish historian Josephus quotes Greek geographer Strabos, to prove following the destruction of the Second Temple, Jewish migration extended to every corner of the known world. But there exists proof of Jewish presence in Spain, in the 3rd Century BCE and in Portugal, the 6th. Century, CE. Judaism was a religio licita, a legal religion, throughout the Roman Empire, but once the Visigoths supplanted the Romans as rulers of
Iberia and converted to Christianity, things took an ugly turn.  In 615 Visigothic King Sisebut ordered that Jews who refused to convert be given a hundred lashes. Should they continue to resist, all their property would be confiscated and they would be banished. Sisebut also instituted the death penalty for Jews who reverted to Judaism, thus creating the need for Jews to hide their true religious identity.

In the 8th. Century, the Islamic invasion of Spain ended Visigothic rule and inaugurated an
era of deliverance. For approximately seven centuries, Jews were able to worship openly.
However, as Christian monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella supplanted Islamic rulers, in 1492,
conversion obsession took hold in Spain.

Non-Christians were no longer protected minorities. Faced countless sanctions, many Jews
and Moslems outwardly embraced Christianity while continuing to follow Judaism and Islam in secret.

By 1492, the Christians’ crusading zeal reached a climax. Jews and Moslem had to convert or leave. Approximately 175, 000 Jews chose to leave.  For a hefty fee, King Joao II allowed 600 wealthy Jewish  families to come to stay in Portugal for eight months. He later he changed his mind and offered them a choice to convert or become slaves. He ordered the children of those who refused conversion to be sent to the island of Sao Tome, in West Africa. Nearly all the children died.

Joao’s successor, Manuel, freed the Jewish slaves. He seemed to have no interest in forcing his subjects to adopt Christianity until he decided to marry a Spanish princess, the daughter
of Ferdinand and Isabella. She agreed to do so if he rid Portugal of the Jews. Manuel was not enchanted with that idea. He needed literate subjects with good administrative skills and with contacts at major commercial centers throughout the world. His solution was to kidnap and baptize Jewish children between the ages of four and fourteen. Parents who refused 
baptism would never see their children again. As the Jews continued to resist, he told them they could leave the country if they assembled in Lisbon. When they did, some were dragged to baptismal founts, others were simply sprinkled with holy water.

This made them  Christians in the eyes of the king and in the eyes of the pope. It was 1497,
the year my ancestors went underground as Jews.  They became New Christian, in the parlance of the time. Later they would be known as Anoussim, the Hebrew word for the forced, Marranos, the Spanish word for pig, Crypto-Jews, and, pejoratively, Jews without a Past. There is great irony in the latter appellation given that many of their Judaic traditions would endure for five hundred years.

My maternal grandmother was gravelly ill, and geographically out of reach, by the time I had talked with enough people and read enough books to be able to identify the traditions she passed on to my mother and to me. Some practices were altered, such as the celebration of the holiday of Succoth when Jews build a succah, a shelter covered in greenery. My mother’s family retreated into the woods and planted trees unknown in ancient Israel–bananas and papayas–around their succah. Following the death of a relative, they emptied all containers of water in the house, and then they washed and groomed the corpse and dressed it in a winding sheet. On the way to the cemetery, the wailed as they walked behind the coffin, listing the deceased’s qualities in heart
rending laments. Their first meal, after a funeral, included an egg, a symbol of mourning–my mother fasts and does  not eat meat for days following a death in the family. They sat shivah, the seven day morning period, but rather than sit on low benches, as normative Judaism requires, they reclined in hammocks. They remained in seclusion for a week and during that time they would comb their hair. The men would not shave and the women kept their heads covered with a shawl. Every one of their life cycle ceremonies included some remnant of their Judeo-Iberian past. For example, when I was born, relatives perfumed my clothes with the smoke of burning lavender blossoms and my mother placed gold jewelry to the water in which I had my first bath.

It took David Gitlitz years to compile the Crypto-Jewish practices for Secret and Deceit, his 505 page-long compendium of Crypto Jewish practices had yet to appear when I prepared a list of questions for my mother, Josefa de Melo Castelar, who is a good, if occasionally reluctant source. At seventy nine she is very much taken with the present as races from a class to another, in Fortaleza, Ceara, constantly searching for a new outlet for her apparently inexhaustible creative energy. She agreed to talk about her  family, but she did not know her father very well. She was three when he left her mother and resettled in Mato Grosso. She was closer to her Oliveira and Bezerra–B’tzur, in Hebrew–relatives whose property straddles the Cear-Paraiba border.  Before he died, my grandfather, Joo Laurentino Melo, sent  me four handwritten pages on his genealogy. He also wrote
lyrical descriptions of my great-great-parents’ farmhouses. There was no discussion of his people’s religion.

It has never been sexy to be Jewish in Brazil. Besides inheriting the Iberian obsession with
purity of blood–Jews, Moslem and Brazilian Indians were known as racas infectas, infected races, in Colonial Brazil–many Brazilians grew up hearing Jews described as  Christ killers.  Google the word judeu, Jew, and more Brazilian hate sites pop up than references to Jesus. In a bizarre example of the oppressed turning on the equally oppressed,  many Brazilians of color blame slavery on the Jews and the internet is a
convenient repository for much of their misdirected anger.  But it is not only those with
spurious grievances who wax anti-Semitic. The Portuguese language itself reflects a cultural
bias again Jews.  Recently, publishers of the Aurlio, Brazil’s most popular dictionary finally
saw fit to remove an entry that equates Jews with evil, but to many Brazilians, Jew means usurer, exploiter. As far as I know, the word safado, which derives comes from the word sefardita, Shephardic, and which means dishonest rascal will remain in the dictionary. So will the verb judiar, which means to torment, to mistreat, to torture, will apparently remain in place.

Antonio Pereira de Almeida’s Dona Adriana do Santa Rosa, a hagiography of Adriana de Oliveira Ledo, daughter of pioneer Teodosio de Oliveira Ledo, makes no mention of Jewish roots. Almeida bemoans the difficulty of finding Adriana’s ancestor Bartolomeu Ledo, “a man of somewhat humble origins.”  He goes on to say that in 1594, Bartolomeu had been summoned by the Inquisition to “due to his marriage to a Brazilian Indian mestiza.”  His brother-in-law, Manuel de Oliveira, son of Jorge de Albuquerque Coelho, was summoned at the same time, and so was Bartolomeu’s wife, Ana Lins, whose grandparents were Francisco Caldas, reputed to be a vicious enslaver of Native Brazilians, and a Brazilian Indian woman. Her parents were Filipa Roiz (Rodrigues) and a German aristocrat, Roderich Linz, of the Linz von Dorndorff house of Ulm, Bavaria.   Roderick  Linz, arrived in Brazil around 1550. He was the son of Hans Lins, whose father was Zimprecht Lins, son of Konrad Linz, and Ursula Scheffer grandson of Johan or Hans Linz. The latter was the son of Albrecht Linz, whose father was Heinrich Linz.  Zimprecht married Bárbara Gienger, in Ulm, Bavaria, in 1490. She was the daughter of Mathaeus Gienger and  Úrsula Hutz, paternal granddaughter of  nobleman Jacob  Gienger, and  maternal granddaughter of  Hans Hutz, who lived in Bavaria in 1380, and whose
father was also called Heinrich Linz. The Bavarian Linzes descend from Heinrich der Linzer, registered  in Ulm, 1296.

Whether intentional or unintentional, there is a certain amount of obfuscation going in Almeida’s book.  It is unclear whether the Jorge to whom he refers  was the son of Duarte Coelho Pereira or Jeronimo de Albuquerque’s, but he seems to be certain that Jorge’s mother was a Brazilian Indian, brought up by Brites de Albuquerque. There is nothing humble about the Albuquerques. They  were old Iberian nobility linked by marriage to the royal houses of Portugal and Spain. So says Armorial Lusitano, which lists Portuguese aristocrats and their crests.  Brites married explorer  Duarte Coelho Pereira, the illegitimate son of  navigator Gonalo Coelho and his Portuguese mistress, Ana Catarina Duarte, of
the Minho aristocracy. Gonalo may have been a Jew, but only one of my sources hints at that possibility. Whatever his religious background, he seems to have cherished Duarte Coelho Pereira. 

Together they took part in the 1503 exploratory expedition Brazil financed by New Christians such as Fernando de Noronha. Goncalo provided the
navigational skills he had acquired in Pisa and  Americo Vespucci drew maps of the recently discovered land. Map in hand,  the King of Portugal carved up Brazil into fifteen
capitanias, hereditary fiefs. He gave the first to Noronha. In 1553,  he rewarded Duarte Coelho Pereira’s services to the Crown in Goa, Siam and the South China Sea by granting him the capitania of Pernambuco– 60 miles of coastal land. The newly appointed donatrio, proprietary landlord,  founded Olinda and brought Jewish technicians from  Madeira to help develop Pernambuco’s sugar industry. He subdivided the land,  part of which went to the Old Christian Joao Pais Barreto.   Bartolomeu Ledo fetched up  at Barreto’s mill at Cabo Santo Agostinho . Though the author of Dona Adriana claims that Bartolomeu’s origins
were “somewhat humble,” Armorial Lusitano describes the Ledos as “a family of apparent
Spanish origin, adding that “Fernandes Ledo,  father of Bartolomeu Ledo was one of the
principal figures of Ponte de Lima,  in Portugal’s  Minho, in the late 1500s, sufficient
time for to blur genealogical details.

All immigrants reinvent themselves. Ledos and Mellos seem to have done so with a vengeance. Records at the Torre do Tombo, Lisbon, say nothing of Bartolemeu’s ancestry. They list him as a sugar cane planter and oleiro, a word that can mean potter, tile and brick maker or owner of brick works. He was charged with practicing Judaism. The charge against his brother-in-law, Manuel Oliveira (de Albuquerque Coelho) is not known. Ana’s was that of dallying with a New Christian priest. It is not clear how the three extricated
themselves from the deadly claws of the inquisitors. There is no record of the family for
another 150 years.  Supposedly Manuel and Bartolomeu’s children intermarried thus
establishing the Oliveira Ledo family. That seems plausible. Marriage between cousins was a common practice in Pernambuco sugarocratic families well  into the 20th. Century.  In her book, Politics and Parentela in Paraiba, Linda Levin writes that “Twentieth Century data indicates that the interior of the Northeast is still the most inbred area in Brazil.”  She attributes this prevalence of endogamous marriages to Portuguese traditions and a shortage of white women. She neglects to add that marriage between cousins was an old Judaic practice. Tangled family webs are the bane of those who research Brazilian genealogy. Add to that documents that disintegrate due to the climate, the depredations of insects, and arson.   Factor in elaborate fraud, an incomprehensible formula for naming children-in some families each child has a different surname and fraud designedt to prevent future generations from learning about ancestors who did not measure up to accepted social standards–Jews Moslems, Indian, Africans and manual laborers–and you have a researcher’s nightmare. Things get truly complicated with the Anoussim, who usually discarded the baptismal
name. My mother’s Hebrew name was to be  Rebecca, my aunt Aureli’s was Leah. Sephardim sometimes changed the name of a person who had suffered a severe illness, and families on the run from the Inquisition, were not eager to flaunt names usually associated with Jews. Here seems to be a good place to add that names in themselves are not proof of Jewish descent. Some Brazilians believe that all Jews took the names of trees and
fruit, but not every Brazilian Moreiras, Carvalhos, Pereira and Oliveira is  a descendant
of Anoussim. Jews took place names–there are at least three towns called Oliveira in
Portugal–and some took the name a godfather. Some used different surnames on different occasions. Sometimes, Christian surnames such as Batista, Cruz, Paixo, Santo, and de Jesus indicate Judaic origins, but that is not a reliable guide,  either. Historian Elias Lipiner
coined the word genealogicidio, genealogicide, to describe the suppression of Judaic roots in Brazilian descendants of  Crypto-Jews. In O Nome e o Sangue: Uma Fraude Genealgica no Pernambuco Colonial, Evaldo Cabral de Mello was able to show how ancestors of the Mello family nearly excised their Judaic roots. For whatever reason, descendants of Bartolomeu and Jorge do not surface in Northeastern Brazilian history until 1630 when the
Dutch  invaded Pernambuco. Along with many other sugar planters, they fled Pernambuco to Bahia where they  joined the anti-Dutch resistance. For years, they engaged in the guerilla war  led by Andr Vidal de Negreiros until, by 1649, the resistance coalesced into an army powerful enough to vanquish the invaders. It was at that point, that the Oliveira Ledos began their real ascent into the northeastern Brazilian socio-economic elite. They capitalized on the alliances they had  made during their stay in Bahia to regain what they had lost during Negreiros’ scorched earth campaigns. With the blessing of  Garcia d’vila, Bahia’s  most powerful landowner– himself married to a Jewish woman–they marched into Paraiba, decimating the natives and taking over the land.  They founded Campina Grande,
Pombal and many towns in Paraiba, Ceara and Rio Grande do Norte. Pleased with their performance, the king of Portugal rewarded Antonio de  Oliveira Ledo with and the
title  capito-mor,  military governor,  of thesertes and with a land grant of  4, 000 kilometers, to be shared with his sister and brothers.  Within a century of the oleiro’s arrival,  the Oliveira Ledos became “the most important ancestral pool for ‘the first families of the serto. ‘”

My mother has Jewish ancestors on both sides of her family. The history of my maternal
great-grandfather’s is better documented. The  Mellos are a huge family of sugarocrats–my
great-great-al times with owned a sugar mill near Recife. In Brazil their roots intersect with
those of Chico Buarque de Holanda through either Joo Cabeia/Cabeza/Cabea de Mello–Evaldo Cabral de Mello makes it clear that it is Joo, not Rui, who is the ancestor of the Paes Barretos from whom the Brazilian Mellos descend–whose family fled the Portuguese Inquisition  for La Rochelle, in Protestant France,  in the 1550s. Cabral de
Mello says that when the Duke of Alba invaded Portugal and placed the King Felipe II of Spain, on the throne, the Cabeias/Cabeas, the army Catarina di Medici dispatched to Ilha Terceira, in the Azores, to  support Antonio, Prior do Crato, Pretender to the Portuguese throne. Antonio was the  grandson of son of Portuguese King Manuel I and the son  Prince of Portuguese of Prince Luis and his Jewish mistress Violante Gomez. Coincidentally, one my closest friends in Shepherdstown was Zora Kuznitch Leimbacher, granddaughter of a Hungarian baron and daughter of a Yugoslavian Jew, who happened to be a close friend of Chico’s aunt, Gilda Alvim. Madame Alvim lived in Paris and Zora met Chico and his sister
Miucha at her house several times without realizing that their were internationally known composers and singers. After leaving Viana, Portugal, the (Barbosa Tavares Cabea  Rodrigues) Mellos spread out through  former Ottoman Empire–the Macedonian branch perished in Auschwitz–and far flung places such as the Congo. They are writers, doctors, politicians, diplomats and  plain folks such my grandfather whose pride was his horsemanship–he excelled in jousting–and his elegant handwriting. 

For better or for worse, Oliveira Ledos and the Mellos, as well as other B’nei Anoussim, such as the Barbosas, Bezerras, Coelhos, Dantas, Melos and Monteiros, to whom my mother is also related, made Northeast Brazil, what it is today. Tarcisio Dino has done extensive research on the Oliveira Ledos. He has  this to say, “One can assert that there is not a single town in the serto that did not originate from a farm owned by a member of the Oliveira Ledo family, even when { that person} did not use the original surname. Such is the case of Brejo da Cruz and Catol do Rocha,  whose owners, Manuel Oliveira da Cruz and Francisco da Rocha Oliveira {used} surnames which do not evoke the clan, though the former was the latter’s uncle. They were, respectively, son and grandson of Anto da Cruz Portocarreiro and Ana de Oliveira Ledo, Teodsio de Oliveira Ledo’s sister.” 
Dino could not tell me  exactly where my great-grandfather Joo Antonio de Oliveira fit
into the Oliveira Ledo family tree. He wrote me to say that several family members dropped the Ledo surname.  Joo Antonio’s documental proof of the exact connection vanished in a fire. However, the extent of his property in Ic, Cedro, Lavras da Mangabeira, Umari, Bananeira, Misso Velha, Baixio and Ipaumirim, and his hereditary privileges as a Lieutanant Colonel for  National Guard,  indicate that in all probability he was a direct descendent   of Capito-Mor Teodsio, who settled Cajazeiras, Paraiba in the 17th. Century.

Map of Paraiba, showing several of the towns that made  up part of  the Oliveira Ledo’s fief.

  The B’nei Anoussim’s influence was not always positive. One of Dantas, the lawyer Joo
Duarte,  shot and  killed his political opponent,  the governor of Paraiba, Joo Pessoa Cavalcanti de Albuquerque, precipitating a national crisis that culminated with Getlio Vargas’s dictatorship.  Joo Pessoa had allegedly empowered his underlings to break into Dantas’ office to steal documents. The underlings found a cache of poems and letters between Dantas and his lover, which the Pessoa supporters promptly published in the local paper newspaper.   Dantas might have forgiven the break-in, but by allowing the letters to be published Pessoa turned a political struggle into an affair of honor. In my corner of Northeast Brazil the prickly Iberian notion of honor survives–mess with it and all hell breaks loose. 

Courtly behavior towards members of the clan each other is just as integral a part of in my
mother’s culture as is the notion of honor. My grandmother used to tell me a story that
exemplifies that behavior. My grandfather’s cangaceiro, brigand, cousin, Z Dantas and his
band  once attacked a train in which my grandparents were traveling, unbeknownst to him.
Once he saw them, Z apologized profusely and cancelled the robbery. The notion of a robber’s honor may seem oxymoronic, but  a family such as mine can be extremely  tribal. Ultimately, what counts is what the tribe thinks and to hell with the others. It is the rare Albuquerque, Coelho, Bezerra, Monteiro,  Mello, Oliveira and Dantas who took to unsanctioned brigandage. As for plundering in the name of the king, that was the honorable way, though not the Jewish way. Afonso de Albuquerque did so in Bab-el-Mandeb,  in Sri Lanka, in Goa, along the coriander coast, accumulating piles of gold as high as the piles of decapitated heads his army left behind. But all in all, mine is an honorable group. That is as should be,  for ours is the tribe of Judah, to which King David and Jesus of Nazareth belonged–symbolized by the lion engraved on my grandfather’s watch lid.  We Mellos are of the house of  Bar Rosh, Aramaic for head, as in head of the family or tribe.  Cabeza
de Mellos were known in Castile nearly a thousand years ago.  We kept the faith, changing it when we had to, in order to survive. Between the late 1500s and the 1700s hundreds, the Inquisition killed 338 Ibero-Brazilian Anoussim and their descendants. We have endured. We  lost the Hebrew language before we lost our homes in Sepharad. Later we lost their prayer books. Against the law of probabilities, we did more than survive.  We still have  the U’Netaneh Tokef,  Passover’s  Had Gaddiah, and the joy of making the house beautiful and of putting on festive clothing for the Sabbath. In our family, my grandmother,  passed on Judaic traditions to two generations–her grandmother was the Stone Age Brazilian Indian whom my great-great-grandfather, a member of the Coelho family, kidnapped her with the help of his hunting dogs. Soledade, my grandmother,  saw to it neighbors got platters of especially prepared food around Passover. She saw to it that the milk from family cows was shared with the poor. She supervised births, making sure that the new mother remained secluded for thirty days. She salted and soaked meat to remove all traces of blood, before it was cooked.  She taught us that game, eels and seafood were unclean.  She ate pork–not to do  so was the undoing of many an Anoussim–but she insisted that  it was unclean and bad for one’s health. She did not mix dairy products and meat and she forbid her children and grandchildren to eat  in the home of strangers. She had  all sorts of prayers and formulas–many of which duplicated those compiled by Isaac Jack Lvy and Rosemary Lvy-Zumwalt in Medical Lore of Sephardic Women–to ease ailments and heartbreak.

She spoke a Portuguese full of archaisms and she had little book learning–her father tended to dismiss the tutors she disliked and she disliked them all–but she knew that continuity, dor l’dor, generation to generation matters. Little of my  maternal great-grandparents’ material world survives. The great houses gone, photographs lost, trinkets vanished. What I have is glimpses of that world, seen by my grandmother and my mother’s eyes. I know  that my maternal great-grandfather Oliveira had blue-grey eyes, wore denim suits, and was not fond overly of bathing–since bathing often was one of the habits that distinguished Jews from Christians, some Anoussim learnt to avoid it the hard way. I know that he had a Lieutenant Colonel patent from the National Guard, one of the perks of the oligarchy, and  a small army of retainers. He had a big house with thick walls and high towers and he loved his Passo Fino horse Meia de Seda, his dog Rompe Ferro, and his cats Basto, Bastim and
Bastio. I know bandits had to kneel at his feet, kiss his hand and ask permission to cross his
little fiefdom. Yet he was no kingmaker. In the Twenties he was just influential enough to call the shots, politically, in a few towns. After his death,  his eldest son, Colonel Francisco Moreira de Oliveira,  got to decide who won the election for deputed estadual, not too little a thing in the backwoods.   I know very little about my great-grandmother, Maria Jose Barros, whose mother was a Native Brazilian captured by an Indian  slave raider’s hunting dogs. Maria Jose was blind–trachoma was endemic in that part of Brazil when she was
growing up–and she supposedly was a great beauty. She and my grandfather met her when he was a widower in his fifties. She was thirtyish and married. There two versions of what happened next. Version number one says he bought her from her husband for a cartload of sugar which seems a paltry price. My mother blames the disaffected children of her  grandfather’s first wives for this version, though she knows that Native Brazilians were not worth much to landowners in Brazil. She prefers version number two, according to which
great-grandma’s husband just up and disappeared when he realized that she was being courted by a powerful landowner. When pressed for more information, my mother adds that most probably, my great-grandfather’s retainers cut the unfortunate husband at strategic places, then dumped into sauva anthill. “He was never seen again,” she says. I think that version number two is credible. By all accounts, great-grandpa had no qualms about inflict pain on outsiders who failed to see his point of view–a very unJewish quality, in my opinion. The thousand cuts and burial in anthills figure in more than one story about  him.

         “My grandmother was a wild Indian,” my grandmother Maria Jose da Soledade once whispered to me. “She was caught by hunting dogs. You mustn’t discuss this with anybody,” she added.  I remember feeling confused about this revelation. I did not know why it was bad to be a wild Indian. Many years later I would recall that my father had a large store of anecdotes which Native Brazilian cannibals and their many recipes for human barbeque. The irony is that Unlike the Tupi -‘warani, the G Nation, to which my great-great-grandmother most probably belonged–Ic branch of the Gs was one of the tribes living in Joo Antonio’s land–did not eat -its captives. In any case, by 1820, when my
great-great-grandmother was born, the tables had turned on Indian peoples of northeast Brazil.  They were no longer a threat to white settlers whose Predatory practices would eventually lead to the extermination of most of both the Tupi Nation and that of the Gs.

My great-grandmother died giving birth to her third child. Her first child was my grandmother, also named Maria Jose, was four years old. Devastated by his loss, he gave little Maria Jose a new name, Soledade, loneliness. He kept her and her siblings close to him. As the Eldest and dearest of the three children, she got the greater share of his attention. He hired tutors for her, he was the one who taught secret prayers, bits of ancient songs, and mysterious rituals. She was fifteen when he decided to remarry. Soledade was
appalled. She resented his new wife with whom she quarreled often. Tired of trying to mediate between wife and daughter, Joo Antonio sent Soledade to live with his sister Maria Manuela, in the nearest town. She stayed there for four years. Unprotected by her father’s
small army of retainers, she had no freedom to come and go. She pined for the rustic towers of her father’s fortress and she chafed at the limits her aunt set for her. But for women of her generation marriage or the convent was the only acceptable options. She chose marriage.

At eighteen, she caught the eye a young man from a family of landowners in nearby
Paraiba. Blond, blue-eyed and handsome, my grandfather de Melo does not seem to have had much to recommend him except his good looks, his superior skills at shooting and riding. But he was a Melo, related to the influential Dantas and Albuquerques clans. The wedding took place when grandma was nineteen. Six years and five children later, handsome grandpa lit out for Mato Grosso and never came back. My grandmother’s family
provided for Soledade and her children. When my parents got married, her uncle, Sebastio Bezerra provided the trousseau. Providing for a fatherless bride is good Judaic practice. And never mind that the bridegroom might not be comme-il-faut.

On his mother’s side, my father comes from landed gentry, but his father, whose beaky North African profile and dark skin he inherited, was only a merchant–rich, but still a merchant. My father must have used every bit of his considerable charm to persuade my mother’s family to accept his suit. He had an excellent job, managing the largest cotton gin in the area; he was generous, courtly, well spoken and impeccably dressed.

True, he spoke with a careful, excruciatingly grammatical correctness that seemed to mock their archaic, hispanicised Portuguese, but he was, after all, not one of them. On the minus side, he had no interest in owning land, riding horses or shooting. He carried no weapons, and he spent his spare time reading and writing. That he had the guts to put Catholicism at the top of his list of laughable superstitions, even though one of his maternal uncles was a canon of the Church, might have tilted the balance in his favor. My family had no great love for priests other than those to whom they were closely related–many Anoussim families
selected one son for the priesthood. They made safe confessors. 

My mother’s relatives were hardly the most devout Catholics. They preferred to worship in their own chapels.  Their rituals only began to seem unusual to me when I left home at age thirteen to go to a Catholic boarding school in the Ibiapa hills, miles away from the little town where I grew up. My father was no longer managing the cotton gin by that time. In the early fifties, he moved into a house across the street from his noisy family to all the law books needed to pass the bar, which he did, easily. He might not shoot or ride, but at eighty nine he still knows more about the law then many a young lawyer. It still amazes me that parents packed me off to school in the care of driver my father had defended successfully from a well deserved murder charger–the guy had fatally shot someone through a closed door, in the dark. Maybe my father thought his client was no worse than my mother’s vast tribe of cousins, hordes of whom would gallop into town at least once a week. They would converge upon my parents’ house–  honey colored women in long-sleeved dresses down to their ankles, their long black hair covered by shawls, handsome grey-eyed boys in somber clothes and hats, frightfully long daggers dangling from their belts. They would not come to the table to eat. They did not sit on chairs nor did they use silverware. Instead, they sat on the ground with their legs crossed, tailor-fashion, and they used their fingers to fish out tidbits from huge bowls. My father thought this was barbaric beyond words.

Colgio Santa Teresa, in Crato, Cear, the school I attended, was a place in which a little savage could learn a little French, a little English, impeccably grammatical Portuguese and passable table manners. Chapel was compulsory and I overdosed on Mass. I read silly French novels, got horrible marks in math and drawing, and very good ones in languages. After reading a book about Egypt I decided to become an archaeologist. I never got Egypt and my only excavation project has been my family history.  A few years after meeting Bob Feron and Karen Primack, and Jack Zeller I asked my mother if we were Jews.

      “Yes, we are,” she said. “I am proud of it.” Hers is not textbook Judaism. She is proud of her ancestors but cares nothing about genealogy, except to disown impeached Brazilian resident Fernando Collor de Mello–for having bad manners–and to say that Mazal Navon, sister of former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzak Navon should feel honored to be related to us, not the other way around. Navons are rumored to be related to the Mello family, but Mrs. Navon, whose family includes smugglers from Gibraltar,  is said to
discourage inquiries on the subject. Earlier this year, I took part in the National
Geographic project designed to explore early human migration and deep ancestry.  Subsequently I had a high definition mitochondrial DNA test with Family Tree DNA.   Bennet Greenspan, president of FTDNA, takes great interest in Crypto-Jews and he says that has helped several of them solve genealogical conundrums. He was very generous with his time when I approached him about the results of my MTDNA test. I had hoped that somewhere in my mother’s line a genetic marker would point clearly to a female Sephardic ancestor.

Such was not to be. Greenspan himself says that maternal DNA is more useful for tracking
migrations than it is to trace genealogy. Information on the genetic signature I inherited through my mother’s family is not conclusive. It links one among thousands of my maternal
ancestors to ten percent of the population of the Middle East. My ancestor might have been a Tunisian Berber–many members of the Zenata tribe which ruled parts of Moorish Spain seven hundred years ago belong to same haplogroup. I know that there is a Moorish slave way back in  the  Melo family tree. But my DNA match  might have been a Yemenite Jew, Libyan, Moroccan or Ethiopian. Bennet adds that mine could be very old DNA–MTDNA mutates very slowly–and he suggests that it could have been inherited from a slave brought to Iberia by the Romans.  Jews often married  non-Christian women and converted them,
he says. The genetic signature detected by the test I took comes from one of these women. The science is too new to yield  precise information about her birthplace. What does that say for my identity? I am the product of Anoussim culture, an Ibero-Brazilian-Indian West Virginian Jew–an improbable mixture, but it suits me fine.
Clara de Melo Castelar was born in Baixio, Ceara. 
She studied at the Universidade Federal do Cear,
in Fortaleza, Brazil, at North Dakota State
University, in Fargo, North Dakota, at The School
of Mines and Technology, in Rapid City, South
Dakota, and at Shepherd University, in
Shepherdstown, West Virginia. She works in
Shepherdstown, where she lives with her daughter,
Ilana de Melo Bjorlie. She publishes News from Old Unterrified,
a web magazine which seeks to record  the effect
of rampant growth on the social and political
life her beloved, Macondo-like village.

3 thoughts on “#34 The Improbable Jew”

  1. Hello Alex, I am a descendant of the Brazilian family is my grandfather Ruda de Melo Santos father is the brother of his mother Josefa de Melo Castelar.Encontrei your blog with my grandfather, along with our family with the intention of getting to know our origins and we are very happy to hear from you. I hope your contact e-mail to know you

    Mirella Melo

  2. Hey there! Very nice article. Like you, I’m a Teodósio de Oliveira Lêdo descendant in pursuit of my origins. I need to know how do you know that “Dona Adriana claims Bartolomeu’s origins”.

    Best regards!

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