Flanked by bustling cafes in downtown Recife on Brazil's northeastern coast is a little-known treasure of Jewish history in the New World - the oldest synagogue in the Americas.
Sephardic Jews built the two-story Kahal Zur Israel Synagogue before 1641 - most likely in 1636 - when they enjoyed religious freedom under the Dutch, who ruled part of the northeast region from 1630 to 1654 to control sugar production.
The Mikve Israel Congregation in Curacao, a Dutch Antilles island in the Carribean, was considered by some to have been the first congregation in the Americas. But it was founded only in 1651, also by Sephardic Jews from Holland.
In the world's largest Catholic nation, whose best known icon is the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro, the Recife synagogue became an important symbol of the Jewish heritage in Brazil.
Based on old maps, archeological excavations uncovered the remnants of the synagogue, including the original Mikvah - a bath for religious ceremonies - under six layers of floors. The restored synagogue reopened in December 2001.
The synagogue is a fixture for tourists and its archives are perused by Brazilian and foreign scholars, whose studies are shedding light on the Jewish role in Brazil's early days.
"It challenges the stereotypical view that Brazilian culture is based on a tripod of Portuguese, [native] Indians and Africans," said Tania Kaufman, head of the Jewish Historical Archive in Recife, the capital of Pernambuco state.
"We now know Jews were a fundamental part of Brazil's cultural melting pot."
Records in Amsterdam and Brazil show that the Jews helped to build the sugar industry and infrastructure for the town, which at its largest, had some 1,600 Jews in 1645, the same as Amsterdam according to a Dutch historian. The story also details what happened when Dutch rule ended in 1654, the growth of New York's Shearith Israel congregation.
In November, an annual Jewish festival attracts some 20,000 attendees.
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