The Sands of Time

by Rabbi Corinne Copnick

During 2016, I spent 100 days at sea as Guest Rabbi on several cruises to disparate parts of the world – and consequently was out of the United States of America. I have now conducted all the Festivals/Hags as well as many Shabbats and some Interfaith services on the ocean in many lands, and it has been a life-changing experience in terms of my feeling of connection to Jews, past and present, in so many parts of the world.

It was so moving, for example, to stand in the beautifully restored old synagogue (rebuilt in 1636 as the Kahal Zur Israel synagogue) in Recife,* Brazil. Originally

, the synagogue had sand floors, one of five in the world. I realized that I was standing where, centuries ago, 23 courageous Jewish people departed from this congregation, fleeing persecution from the Inquisition that had travelled from Europe to Brazil. It was the second time they were fleeing the Inquisition; in 1497, they had already escaped the Inquisition in Portugal for what they hoped was safety in a new, faraway land. That land was Brazil (colonized by the Dutch until the Portuguese defeated them).

The Jewish refugees came in the guise of New Christians or conversos, but secretly most of them practiced Judaism and married only within their own group. Now, with the emergence of this threat of the new Inquisition, a small group risked sailing to Peter Stuyvesant’s fledgling New Amsterdam, where they pleaded for admittance as refugees. That is how Jewish people who did not want to live in hiding or masked as Christians, as many others did, but rather continue to conduct their lives by the Holy Laws of Judaism, came to dwell in what was to be New York in America.

Other secret Jews fled to Curacao, where there is a second sand-floor synagogue in Willemstad, where I also visited (Mikve Israel Emmanuel).

With about 200 congregants today, it was built in 1732 by the descendants of the Jews who fled there). Some fled to areas of the Caribbean.

In fact, three more synagogues with sand floors can also be found in Kingston, Jamaica; Saint Thomas, Virgin Islands; and Paramaribo, Suriname (the latter is technically in South America. They still maintain the sand-floor tradition.

Why did these Portuguese secret Jews fleeing the Inquisition put sand on the floor of their synagogues? The reasons given are symbolic. First of all, the sand was to remind them of the 40 years the biblical Israelites had spent wandering in the desert. Secondly, it was a reminder of how their Portuguese ancestors had placed sand on the floor of their basement synagogues in Portugal to muffle the sound of their sacred rituals.

In 1665, the Portuguese, who had by now defeated the Dutch, closed the Kahal Zur synagogue in Recife and expelled 1,200 Jews. Judaism was banned. Although since the early 1900s, Jews have once again prospered in Brazil, it was not until 2002 that, funded by the Safra banking family, the synagogue’s doors reopened for the first time since the 17th century.** It had been closed for 347 years. It is said to be the oldest existing synagogue in the Americas. (In North America, the oldest shul is the Touro synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island.)

And in the winter of 2016, when I traveled from Brazil to Willemstad, Curacao, where other members of old Recife congregation had fled, I took my shoes off in the sanctuary of Mikve Israel Emmanuel and stood gratefully in prayer. On the sand floor.

*In Recife the name is pronounced as Hecife. The “R” at a beginning of a word is pronounced as an “H.” When you get to Rio de Janiero, Recife is pronounced the way it is spelled, with an “R” sound.

**See http://www.Jewishvirtual and multiple other sites on the Internet.