Amazonia and Pará, Brazil

Jungle Jews of the Amazon

The River has already progressed through several shades of pink when dawn finally reaches over the shadowy fringe of jungle trees rising above the home the Hamani family has owned for more than 70 years. Claudio Hamani and his first cousin, Mary, have been married 35 years living in this house in Obidos, at the geographical center of the Brazilian Amazon. On an average weekday morning, Claudio is up to meet the 5:30 a.m. boat stopping fifty meters from their doorway, bringing supplies that the Hamanis sell in their general store. As he steps out to the waterfront, Claudio points to the small mezuzah on the inside of the front door. It is easy to miss, painted-over in the same bright turquoise hue as the door itself. "This is the first time I have noticed the mezuzah in a while," Claudio says. "But I always know it is there." 

What no one can say, not even Claudio Hamani, is how long Judaism will continue to be there in the heart of the Amazon, with assimilation, dissipation and above all, isolation, painting Jewish practice into an obscure corner of life. 

When the first Jewish pioneers came from Morocco to Obidos, they spent days journeying by boat into the jungle interior from Belem, approximately 700 miles away, at the mouth of the Amazon River. In the early years, between 1810 and 1910, 1000 Jewish families explored the jungle hoping to strike it rich on hardwoods, animal hides, plants for medicines, colognes, spices and aphrodisiacs, and above all, "black gold" - rubber. The towns they settled have names which were as foreign to the arriving North African Jewish immigrants as everything else about Amazonia: places like Itacoatiara, Itaituba, Manacapuru and Obidos, where Mary Hamani's father opened a store in 1930. 

Today, Mary's nephew, 37 year-old Moises el-Mescany, is one of two rabbis serving nearly 600 remaining Jewish families in the Brazilian Amazon. The vast majority of these families have emerged from the interior to live in the region's two capital cities, Belem and Manaus, where their children have better opportunities to meet Jewish mates ­ other than their cousins. Isaac Dahan, the Manaus community president, who still leads more than 125 active Jewish families, observes matter-of-factly, "It is a shame that the Jewish community in the interior is dying. But it finished so that we in the cities might survive." 

Claudio Hamani is not so quick to eulogize his community. "Our house still has mezuzot, we still observe the High Holidays and perform Jewish burials. Traditions die hard!" he exclaims. "Judaism will be alive in Obidos as long as we are here." 


When Rebecca Hamani died two years ago at age 94 in Obidos, her daughter Mary and son-in-law Claudio ensured that she received a proper Jewish burial in the town’s well-kept Jewish cemetery. Rebecca was the 16th person buried since 1918 in the tiny Obidos Jewish cemetery, surrounded by the royal palms so prolific in the Amazon jungle. Jews who caught yellow fever or malaria and died on Amazon riverboats rest under three unmarked graves. Claudio Hamani says, "When those three got here, someone said, ‘They were Jewish, take them,’ and the community buried them in Obidos."

When Rebecca Hamani died two years ago at age 94 in Obidos, her daughter Mary and son-in-law Claudio ensured that she received a proper Jewish burial in the town’s well-kept Jewish cemetery. Rebecca was the 16th person buried since 1918 in the tiny Obidos Jewish cemetery, surrounded by the royal palms so prolific in the Amazon jungle. Jews who caught yellow fever or malaria and died on Amazon riverboats rest under three unmarked graves. Claudio Hamani says, "When those three got here, someone said, ‘They were Jewish, take them,’ and the community buried them in Obidos."

The Hamani family poses in their store in Obidos, on the Amazon River waterfront, where they have served passing navigators and "caboclo" jungle natives for decades. Mary (at far left) and Claudio (at far right) are first cousins. Marrying cousins was common among the Jewish communities of the Brazilian Amazon – where there were few other potential Jewish mates available. The Hamanis’ daughters, Ester and Carolina, do not wish to marry their cousins – so they must leave the jungle interior or assimilate, marrying non-Jews. Claudio believes this factor will eventually doom the Jewish community in the Amazon interior. “It is a great shame that the Amazon Jewish communities are disappearing,” Claudio says, “but our daughters don’t want to marry their cousins, and there is virtually no one else.”

The Hamani family poses in their store in Obidos, on the Amazon River waterfront, where they have served passing navigators and "caboclo" jungle natives for decades. Mary (at far left) and Claudio (at far right) are first cousins. Marrying cousins was common among the Jewish communities of the Brazilian Amazon – where there were few other potential Jewish mates available. The Hamanis’ daughters, Ester and Carolina, do not wish to marry their cousins – so they must leave the jungle interior or assimilate, marrying non-Jews. Claudio believes this factor will eventually doom the Jewish community in the Amazon interior. “It is a great shame that the Amazon Jewish communities are disappearing,” Claudio says, “but our daughters don’t want to marry their cousins, and there is virtually no one else.”

Rabbi Moises el-Mescany, 37, is one of two rabbis serving nearly 600 remaining Jewish families in the Brazilian Amazon. Rabbi Moises, who trained in Jerusalem, grew up in Belem, one of the two large state capitals in the Brazilian Amazon. Both of the rabbi’s parents were born in Obidos, deep in the Amazon interior. Rabbi Moises remembers fondly his childhood vacations spent at his grandparents’ in Obidos. "They all taught me the Jewish traditions," he reflects, "lighting candles and saying kiddush on Shabbat, making Seders on Pesach, building sukkot, fasting on Yom Kippur. It was difficult because my grandmother sometimes felt alone in the jungle."

Rabbi Moises el-Mescany, 37, is one of two rabbis serving nearly 600 remaining Jewish families in the Brazilian Amazon. Rabbi Moises, who trained in Jerusalem, grew up in Belem, one of the two large state capitals in the Brazilian Amazon. Both of the rabbi’s parents were born in Obidos, deep in the Amazon interior. Rabbi Moises remembers fondly his childhood vacations spent at his grandparents’ in Obidos. "They all taught me the Jewish traditions," he reflects, "lighting candles and saying kiddush on Shabbat, making Seders on Pesach, building sukkot, fasting on Yom Kippur. It was difficult because my grandmother sometimes felt alone in the jungle."

Trading in "black gold" (rubber) and other jungle products, Jewish pioneers prospered, building some of Brazil's finest synagogues. The towering, domed Shaar Hashamaim synagogue in Belem, the capital of the Brazilian state of Pará, houses the country’s oldest Jewish congregation, dating from 1824. The synagogue building pictured dates from 1946. Belem still has 400 Jewish families and three active, Orthodox synagogues.

Trading in "black gold" (rubber) and other jungle products, Jewish pioneers prospered, building some of Brazil's finest synagogues. The towering, domed Shaar Hashamaim synagogue in Belem, the capital of the Brazilian state of Pará, houses the country’s oldest Jewish congregation, dating from 1824. The synagogue building pictured dates from 1946. Belem still has 400 Jewish families and three active, Orthodox synagogues.