Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia


Brazil, Contemporary

Bernette, Yara - still image [media]
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American-born Yara Bernette, whose parents moved to Brazil when she was six months old, became a concert pianist and piano teacher of world renown.

Institution: Anat Falbel

by Anat Falbel and Nachman Falbel


The Brazilian Jewish community is the second largest Jewish community in South America and one of the ten largest in the world. In 1996 the estimated population was 130,000. The history of Jewish immigration and life in Brazil may be divided into two major periods: the colonial, from 1500 to 1808, and the independent period, from 1808 to the present. The first establishment of New Christians in the territory dates from 1500 and the existence of the esnogas is mentioned in the testimonies, denunciations and confessions collected by both the First Visitation of the Holy Inquisition (1591–1595) and the Second Visitation (1618–1619). The martyrology of a large number of New Christian women, including Branca Dias (c. 1515–c. 1588), whose descendants were also victims of the Inquisition, serves as testimony to their role in the maintenance of Judaism. Due to the oppressive presence of the Inquisition, it was only during the period of Dutch rule in the northeast coastal areas of the country (1624–1654) that Jews enjoyed a tolerant regime and were able to establish their communities. There is evidence that the communities later known as Zur Israel and Maguen Abraham were already organized in 1637. After the military defeat of the Dutch armies and the destruction of the Jewish communities, the Inquisition accelerated its activities throughout the eighteenth century and many Brazilians were sent to the auto de fé, which was abolished only in 1794. In 1810, two years after the arrival in Brazil of the Portuguese royal family, Portugal signed a treaty of trade and navigation with England which stipulated that foreigners living in Portuguese possessions would not be persecuted or harassed. From then on, new waves of Jewish immigration arrived in Brazil. The first of them, beginning between 1808 and 1822 and persisting during the entire nineteenth century, was the immigration from North Africa, the so-called Moroccan Jews who initially settled in the north of the country and began establishing small communities along the Amazon River, dealing with all sort of merchandise that was exchanged for rubber and the abundant produce of this vast area. Their first organized community, Shaar Hashamaim, was established in 1824 in the city of Belém, where the second, Essel Abraham, also was established in 1889, along with elementary schools and self-help institutions. In the first decades of the twentieth century these communities began to suffer not only the consequences of the low demand for rubber, but also from the isolation caused by the vast distances between Jewish communities. As a result, a movement began towards the larger urban centers such as Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo in the south of the country. Another wave of immigration of the nineteenth century that deserves mention is the so-called Alsatian one, notably after the Franco-Prussian war of 1870–1871 and following the annexation of Alsace-Lorraine. The French Jews, who settled mainly in the major cities in the south of the country, brought with them European refinement that attracted the affluent Brazilian class to their culture. Besides establishing fashion houses, stores for household equipment and importation enterprises, they were very much engaged in the development of cities such as São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, involved in the parceling of large areas and in the creation of infra-structure facilities, such as transportation or water and electricity systems.

The Ashkenazi immigration from Eastern Europe began in the last decades of the nineteenth century. In 1891 a large group fleeing from the Tsarist Empire arrived in Brazil. During the first decades of the twentieth century, Ashkenazi immigration increased rapidly, constituting a majority that took a leadership role that endures to the present. As in Argentina, the Jewish Colonization Association (JCA) in 1904 initiated a colonization program in the state of Rio Grande do Sul, with the foundation of the settlement Philippson, followed in 1911–1912 by that of Quatro Irmãos. But the failure of the agricultural colonization promoted by JCA led many of the settlers to leave for the urban centers, where they joined the existing Jewish population. At the same time, in 1905, the government of the State of São Paulo promoted a program of agricultural colonization in the hinterland that also received Jews from Russia, who were established in Nova Odessa and other colonies.

In the 1910s the Ashkenazi immigrants established organized communities in Rio de Janeiro, Porto Alegre and São Paulo, creating models of community life to foster their social, cultural and religious needs, independent of the organizations established by the Moroccan and Alsatian immigrations of the previous century. However this was a slow process and although community associations sprang up as early as 1905, they were based on the origin of the immigrants. A large scale immigration from Eastern Europe occurred between 1914 and 1933, parallel to an increase in the number of Jewish societies and institutions. Between 1933 and 1945 a large number of German Jews flocked to Brazil, where they organized their own independent societies. However, at the same time, because of the virulent anti-Jewish sentiment in official circles of the government, Brazil adopted a restrictive immigration policy with regard to what it called the “Semitic element,” sending secret instructions to its diplomatic representatives abroad to discourage Jewish immigration precisely when the situation of European Jews became desperate. At such a crucial moment, when Jewish survival became a world problem and the fate of those who desired to emigrate from Europe was discussed at the 1938 Evian Conference, Brazil and other Latin American countries closed their doors to this immigration, making entrance conditional on conversion to Catholicism. After the stormy war years, a new immigration began to arrive, mainly of Holocaust survivors from Europe who gradually merged into the existing Jewish milieu and adapted themselves to the new surroundings. Beginning in the 1950s, Brazil also welcomed new immigrants, refugees from the conflict in the Middle East and North Africa, or from Nasser’s Egypt in 1954, or from the unstable situation of countries under communist rule, like the Hungarian Jews fleeing from the anti-Communist revolt in 1956. Later, the country also received fugitives from threatened Jewish communities in Latin America, such as those living under dictatorships in Argentina and Chile.


An important chapter in the complex history of Jewish immigration to Brazil is the formation and participation of the women’s societies which were established to facilitate the absorption of the Jewish immigrants who came to Brazil from Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, especially Morocco. In addition to setting up synagogues, schools and cultural associations, the Jewish communities in the largest cities of Brazil established entities to assist in the settlement and the adaptation of immigrants to their new country. While these entities were in contact with parent international associations which had branches in the large European centers and North America, it was not always possible for them to maintain this contact. Thus they often worked in isolation, depending on the good will and help of the members of the local community. At certain times and in certain places they would receive the help of non-Jewish individuals and societies, but the major responsibility for the recent arrivals would belong to the institutions set up for this purpose.

The fact that Brazil was a country of immigration explains the phenomenon that is common to other countries where the central role of women and of women’s organizations can be seen in the process of settling and helping immigrants, of whom the great majority came merely with the hope of starting up their lives again on the new continent. One of the main reasons for this phenomenon is that the so-called “heads of families” were engrossed in the daily struggle to provide for the home and concentrate on their occupations while the women, in spite of their traditional roles at home, had more time to organize and devote themselves to altruistic activities such as helping others. The considerable diversity of origins of the waves of Jewish immigrants into Brazil resulted in a multiplicity of women’s societies which cared for their own compatriots, beginning with the division between between the Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews. In fact, the socio-economic superiority of the first Ashkenazi families which came from the former Tsarist Empire at the end of the nineteenth century resulted in the women of this group organizing the first society in São Paulo, the Beneficent Society of Israelite Ladies (Sociedade Beneficiente das Damas Israelitas), which was launched on June 15, 1915. The aim of this society was to help immigrants in need, whose number increased greatly at the time of World War I and the years following the war. Although we have no exact statistics on the number of Jews in Brazil at this time (1915–1917), it is calculated that there were about 3,000; if there were about a hundred families in the capital, Rio de Janeiro, one might assume that in São Paulo there were up to half this number due to its smaller size. But such a calculation would be mistaken, since it does not take into account the waves of Moroccan immigrants which came to Amazonia and other regions of the North of Brazil, or those from other countries of origin. The members of the Beneficent Society of Israelite Ladies, who came from families which could financially support the new society, included Clara Klabin, Regina Borthman, Olga Netter, Olga Nebel, Olga Tabacow, Clara Ficker, Esther Zippin, Nesel Klabin, Bertha Klabin, Riva Berezowsky, Polly Gorenstein, Fanny Mindlin, Rosita Gordon, Sonia Azariah, Mania Costa, Luba Klabin and many others who greatly helped the new immigrants. Extensive medical and maternity assistance was also provided for non-Jews or those who resorted to the institution. During the Constitutionalist Revolution in 1932, when the State of São Paulo fought against the dictatorship of Getúlio Vargas, the Society of Israelite Women helped the war effort together with other organizations in São Paulo. When the Nazis came to power in 1933, the increasing number of Jews arriving in Brazil resulted in an increase in the number of women’s societies devoted to this important wave of immigration. In 1935, the society broadened its activities and humanitarian aid for the growing community by setting up a crêche for Jewish children. By this time there were also other women’s organizations in the Jewish community and on June 10, 1940 the Society of Israelite Ladies merged with the Israelite Children’s Home and the B’nai B’rith Drop of Milk Association. The Israelite Children’s Home was founded in 1939 by Luba Klabin, Fanny Mindlin, Bassia Dreizin, Mina Gantman, Genny Zlatopolsky, Dora Deutsch, Polly Saslavsky, Riva Berezovsky, Alice Krauz, Luiza K. Lorch, Vera Proushan, Anny Zausner and Rosa Zlatopolsky; it housed and sheltered children from three to seven years old whose mothers needed to work. Earlier, in 1932, the B’nai B’rith Drop of Milk Association had been set up by Luiza K. Lorch, Alice Krausz, Anny Zausner and Fanny Mindlin. This association supplied milk, medicine and clothing to newborn children and was supported by the Society of Israelite Ladies. The result of the merger was Ofidas, the Israelite Women’s Social Assistance Organization, known today as Unibes, the Brazilian-Israeli Union of Social Welfare, which later absorbed the beneficent associations for men, Ezra and Linath ha-Zedek.

In Rio de Janeiro, on December 23, 1923, when immigration to Brazil was greatly increasing partly due to restrictions on immigration to the United States and Argentina, the Rio de Janeiro Beneficent Society of Israelite Women, or, as it was known for a long time, “Froiein-Farein,” was officially established. But this society had actually begun work in 1916. As mentioned above, women from the old immigrant Jewish families devoted themselves to this kind of work and among the Rio de Janeiro organizers we can find Sabina Schwartz, Sima Hoineff, Ofélia Kastro, Sara Tchornei, Scylla Schneider and Sara Fineberg, who were joined by others whose names would be recorded in the history of immigration in Rio de Janeiro. One of the most important aspects of their excellent work was that of combating the serious problem of white slave traffic, which was a sad chapter in the history of Jewish immigration in South America, especially in Brazil and Argentina. For this purpose, a Committee for the Defense of Jewish Women (Idischer Froiein Schutz-Komitet), affiliated to the international organization based in London, was established. It began to operate systematically in 1929, visiting ships and making contact with girls and women who arrived alone in Brazil, helping them to find ways to survive. In other places and smaller communities, we find that the initiatives to provide assistance were generally also taken by women.

Similarly, women participated in the internal polemics of Jewish life, the political and ideological currents which divided the immigrants according to their convictions, and the spiritual and cultural beliefs imported from their countries of origin. Zionism and leftism, or “progressivism,” with their respective parties covering a wide spectrum of ideological nuances, had both youth and women’s organizations. On February 28, 1926, a shaliah of Keren ha-Yesod, Dr. Uriel Ben Tsion, together with his wife Ida Ben Tsion, who was one of the important activists of WIZO in Canada, arrived in Rio de Janeiro. Mrs. Ben Tsion soon gathered a group of women around her and founded an organization which was affiliated to world WIZO. In a short space of time WIZO groups were organized in São Paulo, Porto Alegre, Curitiba, Belo Horizonte, Recife and in smaller cities such as Campos, Rio Claro, Baurú and Juiz de Fora. Such associations spread Zionism and acted in campaigns in favor of the Yishuv in Erez Israel, especially in the area of education and social assistance. They continued their activities until 1938 when all organizations considered foreign, including the Zionist movement, were prohibited in Brazil. However, during World War II, in 1940, the Brazilian Hebrew Center was founded and quickly legalized a Women’s Section, which continued the Zionist activities of the WIZO. In order to legalize its activities, its name was changed and it was merged with the Red Shield of David, which aimed above all at providing help for war victims in Europe. This took place in July 1942, in the house of an extraordinary woman, Scylla Schneider, who headed WIZO from its foundation and who was the wife of Jacob Schneider, one of the pioneers of Zionism in Brazil. The main aim was to continue working on behalf of women and children in Palestine as well as the refugees and war victims. At the end of the war in 1945, the Zionist movement in Brazil was again officially legalized and both WIZO and the Organization of Brazilian Pioneers of Hebrew Studies and Social Assistance (later Naamat), which was set up as the women’s wing of labor Zionism, had complete freedom of action.

For its part, the “progressive” current could be found in the Vita Kempner Women’s Organization, founded in 1945. This was an association which helped children from post-war Europe and Palestine. All of these women’s organizations had branches throughout Brazil, in order to reach Jews throughout the country. They were not restricted to providing assistance and eventually adapted to new needs, extending their activities to education and culture.

An important step for Jewish women in community life was the establishment, in 1928 and 1929, of the Young Ladies’ Clubs, beginning with the Blue-White Club in Rio de Janeiro, the Deborah Club in Belém, Pará, and the Hatikva in São Paulo. These were run by the second generation of immigrants, who had been born in Brazil, naturally spoke Portuguese and attended local schools and universities. These associations for young Jewish women brought about an amalgam of the children of Sephardic and Ashkenazi immigrants, who had previously tended to live isolated in their communities of origin, and prepared them to take on social responsibilities. At the same time, they had direct access to the culture of Brazil, its language and literature, and could build bridges with Brazilian society through meetings with academics and intellectuals who were invited to their programs and lectures. The spiritual mentor of these programs was a noted Sephardic professor and intellectual of Moroccan origin, Professor David José Perez, who devoted considerable work to the establishment of the group, believing that this generation should be educated in Judaism and actively identify with the Zionist movement.

Since the 1950s, with the immigration of Jews from Egypt, the Middle East, Hungary and other countries, women have organized social, psychological and material help for these new immigrants in order to integrate them into local society. In the 1960s a group of women, mostly from families from the old immigration areas of Central Europe, took the initiative of setting up the Sheltered Workshop (OAT) and the Brazilian-Israeli League (affiliated with the International Council of Jewish Women), one of whose concerns was to channel the immigrants towards productive work and help their recovery in various ways.

Since the nineteenth century, when immigrants from Western Europe, including Alsace-Lorraine, began to come to Brazil, many Jewish women have made important contributions in various areas of Brazilian life. At the end of the nineteenth century an important Jewish painter was Bertha Abraham Worms (1868–1937), born in Uckenge, Lorraine. Bertha studied painting in Paris, married a dentist, Fernando Worms, and in 1895 came to live in São Paulo, where she took part in exhibitions and also taught. She specialized in genre painting, produced a number of landscapes, and was admired for her refined portraits and still lives. A considerable number of Jewish women have played important roles in art and music, gaining international reputations. Among the major figures are members of the first generation of Brazilian engravers who graduated between 1940 and 1950, Fayga Ostrower (1920–2001) and Renina Katz (b. 1926), both students of Axl Leskoschek (1880–1976), the Austrian engraver who fled to Brazil; and Anna Bella Geiger (b. 1933), an engraver from the second generation, who studied in the Engraving Workshop of the Rio de Janeiro Modern Art Museum with Johnny Friedlaender, a German Jewish artist who had settled in France. In sculpture, we can find Felícia Leirner (1904–1996), of Polish origin, and in painting, Mira Schendel (1919–1988), born in Zurich but trained in Italy, who arrived in Brazil in 1949. In addition, there were various other important women artists such as Agi Straus (b. 1926), Eva Lieblich (b. 1925), Gisela Eichbaum (1920–1996), Huguette Israel (b. 1928), Miriam Blanck Sambursky, Gerty Sarue, Hanna Brandt and Guita Charifker, who represented various trends of modern art in Brazil. The German-Jewish photographer Alice Brill (1920), who came to Brazil in 1934, took memorable photographs of the city of São Paulo between 1930 and 1950. She also painted. More recently the photographer Madalena Schwartz (1921 Hungary–1993 Brazil) gained international recognition with her photographs in Time and the most important magazines in Brazil. The cartoonist Hilde Waldman Weber (b. 1913) for decades drew for the most important newspapers in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo.

The art critic Lisetta Levy, born in Milan (1917), who moved to Brazil in 1954 after working for the newspaper Devar ha-Shavua in Israel, is considered one of the most important specialists in her area. Another important figure is Jenny Klabin Segall (1900–1967), intellectual and translator of German and French classics. She was married to the artist Lasar Segall, whose works are one of the high points of contemporary Brazilian art. In landscape gardening, Mina Klabin, wife of the well-known architect Gregori Warchavchik, one of the pioneers of modernism in Brazil, designed the first garden comprised only of Brazilian plants, in the first modernist house in São Paulo, designed by her husband in 1927. Rosa Grena Kliass, who qualified in the mid–1950s, when she began a professional life devoted to landscape architecture and environmental planning, was also the founder of the Brazilian Association of Landscape Architects and is an active member of the IFLA (International Federation of Landscape Architects), with projects throughout Brazil.

From the 1940s on, a number of Brazilian-Jewish pianists began to gain international fame, beginning with the pupils of José Kliass, an important figure in the musical world of São Paulo, who had been a pupil of Martin Krause, one of the last pupils of Franz Liszt. These pianists were Yara Bernette, Estelinha Epstein (1914–1980), Anna Stella Schic (b. 1925) and Clara Sverner (b. 1936). In the theater, a number of older Jewish actresses are still performing, among them Natalia Timberg (b. 1929), Bertha Zemel, Nydia Licia Pincherle (b. 1926), who started her own eponymous theatrical company, which had its own theater; Eva Wilma, Miriam Mehler and Teresa Raquel. Dina Sfat (1938–1989) was a well-known actress who acted in a number of Brazilian films. Berta Loran, or Berta Ajs, born in Warsaw, began acting in the Yiddish theater at the age of fourteen with her father, who directed O dibuk and worked with internationally famous actors such as Morris Schwartz, Max Perelman and Guita Galina. Berta Loran also performed on Brazilian television.

Madaleine Rosay, or Magdalena Rosenzveig, became the principal ballerina of the Rio de Janeiro Municipal Theater at the age of fifteen and, in 1952, director of its Dance School; Berta Rosanova, also principal ballerina at the Municipal Theater in the 1950s, was invited to take part in various tours of the Ballet France-Espagne in Europe; ballet teacher Aída Slon, of Argentine origin, directed the Ballet of the Cultural Artistic Theater in São Paulo and taught in the School of Dramatic Art and the Pro-Art Society. In modern dance there was Chinita (Friedel) Ullman (1904–1977), born in Porto Alegre, Brazil, who as a teenager went to Germany, where she was a pupil of Mary Wigman, a seminal figure in expressionist dance, and then joined Wigman’s company. In 1928 Chinita began to perform as a solo dancer throughout Europe. On returning to Brazil in 1932 she opened a school together with Kitty Bodenheim, attracting young women from both traditional families and the elite immigrant families. Chinita was a friend and collaborator of the group of intellectuals from São Paulo who were part of the modernist movement, which included Clovis Graciano, who designed the sets for her dances. Maria Duschenes (b. 1922), a dancer born in Hungary who came to Brazil in 1940, was a pupil of Rudolf Laban and Kurt Joos in Britain who introduced his methods into Brazil; Marika Gidali (b. 1937), also of Hungarian origin, in 1971 established the Ballet Stagium, which has been the longest-lasting modern dance group in Brazil and which has performed in various countries, synthesizing universal types of dance with Brazilian themes, emotions and rhythms. In recent years, the company established by the choreographer Deborah Colker (b. 1961) has performed in both the United States and Europe and has been received enthusiastically by critics. Deborah Colker was awarded the U. K. Laurence Olivier Prize in 2001.

The most renowned writer of fiction is Clarice Lispector, one of the most important Brazilian writers, whose work is studied internationally and has been translated into various languages. However, there was also a Yiddish literature in Brazil, which existed until the 1960s; among its writers was Rosa Palatnik, whose work portrays the world of the Jewish immigrant in a personal style greatly admired outside Brazil.

With the rise of Nazism in Germany, a number of scientists fled to Brazil, among them two women who made important contributions in their areas. Hertha Meyer (1902–1990) who worked in the area of infectious or parasitic diseases, arrived in Brazil in 1937 and began to work in the Oswaldo Cruz Institute and then in the Biophysics Laboratory at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. Her work is of great importance, especially in relation to the parasite Trypanosoma cruzi, whose morphology she studied. In Germany she specialized in tissue culture at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Dalheim. In the 1930s she emigrated to Italy, where she graduated in cytology of the nervous system. With the restrictive laws on Jews she had to leave Italy; thanks to her, Brazil benefited from the new techniques in her area. Another important scientist was Gerta von Ubisch (1882–1965), who arrived in Brazil in 1935, invited by the scientist Ernest Bresslau to organize the genetics section at the Butantan Institute; however, due to internal questions and a negative attitude to European immigrants, she was dismissed in 1938. She then became well known as an applied geneticist in agriculture in Rio de Janeiro and Rolândia, Paraná State. She returned to Europe after the war. The biologist Mayana Zatz, born in Israel in 1947, has a considerable international reputation. She is Titular Professor of Human and Medical Genetics in the Department of Biology at the University of São Paulo and is a member of the Human Genome international project (the Human Genome Organization, HUGO), which coordinates research in the area of neuromuscular diseases, where her team has been able to identify six genes which have been responsible for this type of disease. Zatz, who has received numerous prizes for her research, is today the President of the Brazilian Association of Muscular Dystrophy and has been awarded the UNESCO/L’Oréal Women in Sciences award for the top female scientist in Latin America in 2001. She also won the prize in Basic Medical Sciences awarded by TWAS (Third World Academy of Sciences) in 2003.


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How to cite this page

Falbel, Anat, and Nachman Falbel. "Brazil, Contemporary." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 1 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on April 19, 2014) <>.