"The best synagogue of the world" by Ana Lígia Lira
It was already dawn when I received a message from Jacqueline, the wife of Rabbi Gilberto Venturas, inviting me to a Brit Mila ceremony at the Ohel Avraham community in Recife. Brit Milah, meaning "circumcision alliance," is the religious ceremony within Judaism in which the foreskin of the newborn is cut on the eighth day after he is born, as a symbol of the alliance between God and the people of Israel.
The rest of my evening was filled with words, teas, and preparations to advance the next day's tasks as much as possible and thus be able to accept Jacqueline's invitation with ease.
Soon, I was in front of house number 315 on a residential street in Recife. The house would go unnoticed were it not for the discreet star of David carved in cement in the doorway and a Mezuzah set in the portal. A lady opened the gate and I entered.
Honestly, it seemed that the curtains of time were opening right in front of my eyes, transporting to that moment and that place all the essence of a people that always aimed to be what it is and travelled so many different paths to get there. A people who mixed up, dyed their skin in different colors, learned to speak with different accents, but never had to rediscover themselves because they always were what they were, what they are meant to be. The power of “meant to be” is uncanny.
I soon saw the Rabbi dancing among the other men. Men he knew would hardly be accepted in traditional Jewish communities. Black men in their well-groomed garments, gentlemen with rough hands as if they have spent their entire lifetime working in crop fields, cultivating life and memories. Young men now dancing among bookshelves, singing in Hebrew and exercising all the dignity that their ancestors and their rabbi demanded. Speaking of genealogy, I was striked by how they know their own genealogies! They speak with dexterity of six, seven generations before their own, find the documents of their ancestors in the midst of thousands of other documents of the Inquisition. They learn paleography, study their history. It is a pity that in the face of arrogance, not even the strength of documents is enough to convince, and so they continue to face the world in the attempt to be themselves.
Jacqueline came and hugged me. She is young, but has a warm embrace of a mother. She has sweet and strong words, and is always there beside the rabbi as if she and him were the same promise of a God who now unites his people as he brings together stars. In each face, an immense effort and a rescue that without the life commitment of that couple, would be impossible.
From that whirlwind of few people and thousands of stories, Luciano, the doctor responsible for the circumcision, emerges. A man surrounded by walls built by many things, among them persistence and generosity. An intellectual with roots in the Seridó and an ability to always surprise.
Luciano came along with me when I took my first steps toward these stories and, providentially, was there when I found them. It is as if we have already walked a long way together that we do not remember, but the traces of this journey appear during our conversations that, when they lean to the same direction, they yield surprising results. It was from these conversations that my master's project was born. I can say that I may be, in his circle of friends, the person who least knows him, but who better knows who he really is. To see Luciano there, exercising the two greatest strengths of his soul (being a doctor and being Jewish) echoed within me, and made me see that this was a reunion with a purpose, with a mission.
All the women got involved in the preparations and proudly showed what they had done for the most important man of the day, the little baby who was now entering the community. We hope that he will follow the way that paved by the efforts of those who came before him. This way, he may never listen to the humiliations that his parents once heard or suffer persecution that would force him to choose between faith or life.
I asked Jaqueline where she and the Rabbi would have lunch, as I intended to invite them. She replied that they would eat right there and I was invited to share the meal with the community. Before lunch, the men organized themselves in a corner, and did some readings. Jacqueline explained to the women Jewish laws, answered questions, and struggled not to be overcome by the already apparent fatigue.
We had lunch, all of them Jews, and I, a Christian. The Rabbi spared no words of gratitude towards the direction that my studies took in relation to the history of these people. Little did he know that it was there, finally, that I had begun to understand what I really had to do. I was beginning to understand what my friend Luciano had already tried to explain to me through his demands, questions, and rigidity toward his own research work. I, looking at those people, found the answers to several "whys".
What I can say is that I know of recognized, traditional, adult Jewish men who do not possess half of the zeal for their faith as I have seen in many of the children of that community. However, many of those people, even having so many customs and children, will never be broadly recognized as Jews in fact and in law. They will be judged, refused, barred. Exactly how their ancestors were. But they will not give up - that is what I saw in every look and in every heart of those people: Rabino Ventura, his Jacqueline, Luciano and all the other pioneers who gave to these people the most beautiful synagogue in the world: The one of reencounter.