November 2, 2006
The Amazon’s magical mystery rabbi
Details of Rabbi Shalom Emmanuel Muyal's mission and death in the Amazon remain obscure, but that's nothing compared to the mystery of his afterlife. |
Local Catholics have named him the Santo Judeu Milagreiro de Manaus, or the Holy Jewish Miracle Worker of Manaus. His tomb receives regular visits from Christians who attribute magic to his spirit.
Nobody can say for sure why Muyal set off from Morocco to the Brazilian Amazon in 1908. The most likely story seems to be that he was sent by Morocco's chief rabbi to touch base with the rain forest faithful.
Like all travelers back then, Muyal began his Amazon expedition near the mouth of the river in the city of Belm, and worked his way upriver. By 1910, he had traversed the nearly 1,000 miles to Manaus, then a city of 50,000.
In his book, "Two Years Among the Indians," German anthropologist Theodor Koch-Grunberg, who passed through the town a few years before the rabbi, warned of a "dangerous 'Manaus fever,' that nearly every year kills a quantity of foreigners." Muyal caught something, probably yellow fever, and died on March 10, 1910.
Manaus didn't have a Jewish cemetery until the 1920s, so Muyal was buried with non-Jews in the Sâo Joâo Batista Municipal Cemetery. In keeping with tradition, members of the Jewish community built a small wall around the tomb. The headstone featured inscriptions in Hebrew and Portuguese.
By all accounts, nobody really wanted to hang out at the rabbi's deathbed -- nobody except a woman named Cota Israel, who faithfully attended to Muyal until he died.
After the rabbi's death, Israel developed a knack for helping people iron out kinks -- muscle pulls, twisted ankles and knees, fractures and back problems.
"Just a common woman, she began to treat people as would a physical therapist today," said Isaac Dahan, a doctor who also serves as the Jewish community's prayer leader in Manaus.
There's no record of when Muyal himself was first credited with miracles, but members of Manaus' Jewish community born in the 1930s remember hearing stories about him when they were children.
Dozens of beneficiaries have attached plaques to the rabbi's tomb. Most simply announce a "graãa alcanãada," or miracle performed, without specifying the details. Most are not dated, but the oldest with a date is from July 18, 1975.
A few years later, around 1980, a member of Israel's Parliament named Eliahu Moyal learned from a friend of the late miracle-performing rabbi in Brazil. Muyal determined that the man had been his long-lost uncle.
He sent a letter to the Amazonas Israelite Committee in Manaus asking whether the remains could be sent to Israel for reburial. After some soul searching, community leaders regretfully denied Moyal's request.
"How could we? He'd become a saint," Dahan said. "We can't even move him to our cemetery nearby."
Christians continued their pilgrimages to the tomb, lighting candles and leaving offerings.
Many members of the 200-family Manaus community find the phenomenon a bit curious, but they don't begrudge the Catholics their Holy Rabbi.
"Nobody can disrespect the beliefs of the city where we live," Dahan said.
-- Bill Hinchberger, Jewish Telegraphic Agency