This past Sunday, I woke up to a woman’s voice making a blessing over Shabbat candles. As I stepped out of my bedroom, I noticed my host-mother, Kitah, curled up on the sofa, watching the “Judaism” disc of her religions of the world documentary.
Rarely has a Cearense encountered a Jew during his or her lifetime and, according to a Jewish friend with a Fulbright in Fortaleza, the Northeastern Brasilians do not know the difference between Jews and Israelis due to their similar Portuguese names and tend to think of Jews only when considering the Passion of Christ.
My dad tells me there is a community of about 100 Jews in Fortaleza, but their phone is out of service and their synagogue must be underground. Without kosher food in the city, I’ve succumbed to vegetarianism. Afraid of people’s perspectives on vegetarians, I take the time to tell new acquaintances that I do eat meat, but cannot eat the meat in Fortaleza because the cows were not killed peacefully enough for my liking, their meat was not soaked and salted postmortem and their blood was definitely not separated.
Accustomed to Yale’s great kosher kitchen and Chabad house, I often took for granted the easy access to kosher meat and religious services our school provides. With passover now underway, I’ve had to reduce my diet to vegetables, fruits, some dairy and eggs and have been scrambling to organize a makeshift seder sometime during the next week. While my religious experience in Fortaleza certainly has not been as trying as slavery in Egypt, being deprived of a vibrant Jewish community for the first time in my life has made me reflect on my faith and try to understand how my new home fits my old traditions.
LESSON 1: Tofu
I adamantly avoid tofu at Yale. Whether or not it’s earned the approval of the distinguished Chinese warrior, General Tso, tofu to me has always been a bland, awkward-to-chew mix-in that never seems to absorb marinades the way it’s supposed to.
But with few protein choices in the vegetarian diet in Fortaleza and an incredibly progressive host-family of an astrologist/sexual violence educator host-mom and a food engineering/tofu entrepreneur host-sister, I’ve bypassed the black beans and dived head first into blocks upon blocks of homemade tofú.
My sister, and her one-person apartment-based company GranSolar, makes everything from smoked tofu (tofú defumado) to curry tofu and pepper/calabrese tofu (pimenta calabrese). It works in salads, on sandwiches and can be made into an incredible paté. While the real vegetarians in my program are struggling with beans and rice on the daily and a severe lack of greens, I get to enjoy my host-mother’s incredible salads and soups and never feel the need to indulge in street-vendor churrasco or fried ham-and-cheese sandwiches.
While non-GranSolar tofu in Fortaleza is disgusting, overpriced and horribly processed, my host-sister’s manually pressed, home-smoked tofu lingers on my palate like a beautifully cooked steak, shining on its own without sweet, sour or spicy sauces.
LESSON 2: Italians
According to a friend, there is a great deal of anti-Semitism in Fortaleza, however, there are no Jews to attack. If the Fortalezan population could spot a Jew as easily as any urban or suburban resident of the Northeastern United States, I would be thought of as a Zionist whose ancestors had a hand in killing Jesus.
But, the Cearenses I’ve encountered struggle to connect my facial features and nasal voice to the chosen people of Long Island, New York. Instead, they think I’m Italian. While at first I was not bothered by this classification, given that the Italians and Italian-Americans I’ve met in my lifetime are generally cheery and relatively jacked, I’ve been forced to reevaluate the classification as I’ve learned more about European tourism in Ceará.
Apparently, Italians are the major players behind ridiculous amounts of sex tourism (hotel + hooker packages) and overpriced pousadas in the more ritzy areas of Fortaleza and the state of Ceará. They are neither viewed as the people responsible for Snooki-esque offspring, nor those responsible for the family-favorite Olive Garden. Rather, they are those seen imposing “developed” ideals through beachside resorts and feeding the prostitution circles in the Northeast of Brasil. As I adapt to this new stereotype, I’m forced to think, “Am I worse off being thought of as a Jesus killer or as a sleezy sex tourist?”
Lesson 3: Atkins Diet
There is no matzo in Fortaleza or kosher for passover products. So, I am inadvertently doing an extreme version of the Atkins Diet for the next week. During this time, I’ll also be attempting to tone-up my body. No carbs and tons of lifting should yield great, lean results. Stay posted.