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Keep Kosher In Salvador, Brazil

brazil and kosher

Have you ever heard of Bahia? How about Salvador? Not El Salvador, or San Salvador, but Salvador, the capital of Bahia, the largest of Brazil’s twenty-six states.

Well, neither had I, until about five years ago, when my husband and I established a Chabad House and Jewish center in Salvador serving the Jewish residents as well as thousands of Jewish tourists who come to visit the region’s idyllic beaches and fishing villages, Salvador’s Pelourinho Old Town and enjoy practicing Capoeira martial arts. Many of the Jewish tourists join the millions who throng to Salvador for the world’s largest Carnaval celebration every February.

Life here is like nothing we have experienced before. For a nice English girl like me, the weather alone presents enormous challenges. The thermometer never dips below seventy-eight degrees, and usually hovers around a hundred. Homeschooling our children, the non-existence of a mikva, and the lack of privacy due to our open home present difficulties. Interestingly, the one thing I thought would be hardest – feeding my family and guests a strictly kosher diet while living over twelve hundred miles from the nearest kosher shop – is not so difficult after all.

Living in bustling cities with strong Jewish culture, one cannot imagine existing without a kosher grocery, a butcher, a restaurant or two, and a take-out place nearby. I dreaded the logistics of having to plan my meat consumption three months ahead of time, ordering it from Sao Paulo, and arranging to have it trucked north for four days by refrigerated truck, then unloading it all and storing it in our industrial-sized freezers. I thought eating defrosted yogurt and cheese and UHT milk* would be unbearable. I thought doing without ice cream, pizza, bagels and gourmet cakes would be a real sacrifice. I was sure my husband, four small children and I would suffer from the lack of kosher amenities.

But, we are not suffering. Not remotely. I have learned to bake bread, bagels, pizza and gourmet cakes, using simple ingredients from the local supermarket that do not need kosher certification. My children know that the ice cream we eat is different from the ice cream they have on the infrequent occasion when we visit cities in which kosher exists; but it is ice cream nonetheless.

Absent from my kids’ diet are the endless bags of fried, salted, sugared, preservative-laden snacks kids everywhere eat. Our consumption of fresh and cooked vegetables has doubled, and a mango-papaya-maracuja (passion-fruit) shake is a treat for my children; no sugar, no cream, just fruit. When they get twenty stars on their good-behavior charts, there are no chocolate bars. We take a walk down the road to the nearest coconut vendor, and the lucky winner gets a freshly perforated coconut, ice-cold, with a straw inside to suck out the delicious, naturally sweet and vitamin-laden agua-de-coco (coconut water).

One of my children was recently diagnosed with celiac-sprue disease, a condition where the villi in the intestines cannot absorb gluten, shrinking away to nothing when gluten is introduced in to the system, thus endangering the body’s absorption of other vital vitamins and minerals. Since gluten is a protein found in all products made with wheat, barley, rye, and most oats, keeping to a gluten-free diet is extremely challenging. In the literature available on the subject, much space is devoted to discussions of the self-control needed (and often lacking) to stay away from these products. While reading this, I smiled. To the kosher-conscious (especially one living in Salvador) such self-control is par for the course.

My three-year-old knows when she walks up the candy aisle in the supermarket, that she cannot have even one item on the shelves. My children don’t even bat an eyelid when the ice-cream man rolls his cart down the street, shouting “Picole, picole!” When my four and six year olds recently attended a friend’s birthday party, they took bags of homemade cookies along, and refused even a lick of the spectacular Hot-Wheels birthday cake served. (I know because the birthday boy’s mother, amazed at their self-control, told me!)

The thousands of Jews who crowd into Salvador to attend the world-famous Carnaval (a weeklong outdoor festival) are amazed. Who would have thought you could buy a kosher schnitzel and potato salad within earshot of the samba beats? Who would believe that you could obtain a Shabbos meal with challah and chicken soup a hundred yards from the trio electricos (music trucks)? Our Chabad House, so close to the Caranaval offers kosher options for the thousands of Jewish revelers.

When we moved here, our new friends here told us it couldn’t be done. Keeping kosher in Bahia was an impossibility, and people predicted that it would take six months for us to start compromising. (They said this about my long skirts and my husband’s beard and black coat, as well). Four and a half years later, we have proven that keeping kosher in the land of Capoeira and Carnaval is a matter of making up your mind to it. I am inspired by the families that have jumped on the kosher bandwagon, and have taken steps towards bringing G-d’s blessing into their homes.
So – kosher Salvador? Absolutely!

*UHT milk is long life milk which doesn’t need refrigeration and lasts a few months. However, it tastes very different to regular milk found in supermarket shelves.

As seen in the Joy of Kosher with Jamie Geller Magazine (Bitayavon- Winter 2011) - Subscribe Now.