Mik­vah, pho­to by Daniela Weil

In July of 2016, I schlepped my fam­i­ly to Brazil. We left our com­fy, sub­ur­ban, Hous­ton life and head­ed for a semes­ter abroad in the trop­ics. My hus­band was able to con­vince his boss that work­ing remote­ly would not be an issue, which in a pre-COVID world was no easy feat.

I am Brazil­ian. I want­ed my fam­i­ly to have a cul­tur­al expe­ri­ence. But I didn’t want to go back home” to São Paulo, a huge, mod­ern city. I want­ed to delve into the soul of Brazil, its his­to­ry, its rich African cul­ture. And I want­ed my daugh­ter — who is adopt­ed from Africa — to expe­ri­ence that too. I want­ed her to live in a place whose pop­u­la­tion was pre­dom­i­nant­ly black. So we moved to Sal­vador, Bahia.

Sal­vador was Brazil’s first cap­i­tal, between 1549 and 1763, and the major eco­nom­ic cen­ter of South Amer­i­ca dur­ing the glo­ry days” of the tri­an­gu­lar trade. It’s port was the most like­ly place where a chained, kid­napped African would have set foot in the New World if he or she had sur­vived the gru­el­ing three month Atlantic cross­ing. Today, more than 80 per­cent of Bahia’s inhab­i­tants are of African descent.

Bahia was fer­tile ter­ri­to­ry for the expan­sion of the Catholic church and its favorite pas­time: the Inqui­si­tion. But despite forced con­ver­sions, the slaves secret­ly prac­ticed their African faith in late night Can­domblé cer­e­monies. While pre­tend­ing to be Catholics, they blend­ed both faiths by assign­ing their Orixa gods to the Catholic saint images in order to avert the Inqui­si­tion and pun­ish­ment; Can­domblé has sur­vived in Bahia until mod­ern times.

But after being there a few months, I start­ed to won­der: where were the Jews? Brazil and Argenti­na have some of the largest num­ber of Jews in South Amer­i­ca. In Sal­vador, a city of three mil­lion inhab­i­tants, there were only about two-hun­dred Jews. Igno­rance about Judaism abound­ed. Many of the white par­ents at my daughter’s pri­vate school had nev­er met a Jew. What do you mean you don’t believe in San­ta Claus?” they would ask. Do Jews believe in God?” Being in a place with zero Jew­ish his­to­ry was per­plex­ing to me. What hap­pened here? Jews had been doing such a suc­cess­ful job at hid­ing in Bahia for so many cen­turies, that it was no won­der peo­ple didn’t know they existed.

While in Brazil, I was research­ing a sto­ry for a children’s book I was writ­ing. It was about the very first syn­a­gogue in the New World, built in 1632 in the town of Recife — just over a ten hour dri­ve north of Sal­vador. Recife was home to a short lived Dutch colony, one of the only places in the world where Jews could wor­ship open­ly and freely in the 1600s. Dur­ing my research, I came across an arti­cle in a Brazil­ian mag­a­zine about a recent­ly dis­cov­ered sev­en­teenth-cen­tu­ry alleged mik­vah in a hotel at the his­toric cen­ter of Sal­vador; I had nev­er heard of a mik­vah in Sal­vador. Unlike the colo­nial Jerusalem” occur­ring in Recife, Bahia was the cen­ter of the Por­tuguese Inqui­si­tion. I sali­vat­ed at the thought of going after that sto­ry, and. so I added vis­it­ing the Hotel Vil­la Bahia to my to-do list.

But after being there a few months, I start­ed to won­der: where were the Jews? Brazil and Argenti­na have some of the largest num­ber of Jews in South America.

My fam­i­ly and I strolled around the his­toric cen­ter of Sal­vador, the Pelour­in­ho (the lit­er­al trans­la­tion means the old slave whip­ping post), almost every week­end. If you’ve seen Michael Jackson’s video They Don’t Care About Us”, you might rec­og­nize it. Bright­ly col­ored two-sto­ry colo­nial town-homes lined the maze of cob­ble­stone streets. African drum rhythms fad­ed in and out as we walked up and down the hills. The tow­er­ing church steeples loomed at almost every cor­ner, as if keep­ing a watch­ful eye on each resident’s move­ments. A mas­sive stone cross hov­ered over the town square, a con­stant reminder of who was in charge.

The next few months’ work can be sum­ma­rized by many failed attempts to vis­it the sup­posed mik­vah. Between repres­sive hotel staff and mul­ti­ple unre­turned phone calls, I felt like a goy attempt­ing to con­vert to Judaism in an ortho­dox syn­a­gogue. Was this a test to mea­sure how much I real­ly want­ed to see this so-called mik­vah? It wasn’t until a week before we left Bahia, that I scored a meet­ing with Mr. Bruno Guinard, the French hotel own­er. At the rus­tic hotel lob­by, Brunol appeared, speak­ing Por­tuguese with a heavy French accent. How much time do you have?” He asked. And then, the sto­ry began to unroll.

A few years ago,” he began, a Jew­ish guest from Europe noticed the odd look­ing foun­tain near the court­yard. She told me she thought it might be a mikvah.”

What was a mik­vah? he won­dered. He shrugged it away, until a sec­ond Jew­ish vis­i­tor asked the same question.

He decid­ed to go to the office of his­tor­i­cal her­itage to inquire about the guests’ asser­tion. They sent a team to inspect the hotel, and gave him a ver­dict: The foun­tain was noth­ing more than a Por­tuguese Bath. Now, Bruno knew lit­tle if noth­ing of Jew­ish his­to­ry. He had heard of Turk­ish Baths, and Japan­ese Baths, but he knew he had nev­er heard of a Por­tuguese Bath before. And he knew baths only began being built in the homes in Sal­vador in the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry. That made him think some­thing was indeed fishy. His curios­i­ty led him to jump down the research rab­bit hole himself.

Bruno began to research Cryp­to Jews dur­ing the Inqui­si­tion. He learned of all the dif­fer­ent ways that they laid low: torahs hid­den behind false walls, secret com­part­ments in homes, sub­tle mark­ings on stone. Despite lit­tle aca­d­e­m­ic research about the Jews in Bahia, many his­to­ri­ans believe that up to three-fifths of the pop­u­la­tion may have been New Chris­tians, Jews who con­vert­ed dur­ing the Inqui­si­tion. Bruno found out that about 80 per­cent of the Inquisi­to­r­i­al cas­es in Bahia were for secret Jew­ish practices.

Bruno had been unsuc­cess­ful­ly try­ing to find the orig­i­nal own­er of his house for years. But through a stroke of serendip­i­ty, he bumped into the right con­nec­tion at an ice cream shop, and was grant­ed access to the archives in the Fran­cis­can Church next door. He dug through the crum­bling pages of sev­en­teenth-cen­tu­ry books until he found this name with­in a legal doc­u­ment: Fran­cis­co de Oliveira Por­to. Jack­pot! The mys­tery man was oust­ed — here was the orig­i­nal own­er of the house. 

Bruno had been unsuc­cess­ful­ly try­ing to find the orig­i­nal own­er of his house for years. But through a stroke of serendip­i­ty, he bumped into the right con­nec­tion at an ice cream shop.

Hotel Vil­la Bahia (yel­low house on the right) where the mik­vah is housed, across the street from the inquisi­tor’s house (blue house on the left), pho­to by Daniela Weil

With the help of a schol­ar, Dr. Suzana Sev­ers, Bruno began a process of restor­ing the mik­vah, which revealed sev­en­teenth cen­tu­ry Por­tuguese tiles. The two-hun­dred-sev­en­ty gal­lon tub was filled by a fresh rain-water reser­voir above it. Bruno dove into the study of mik­vahs. Though tra­di­tion­al dimen­sions were very spe­cif­ic, the cru­cial need was to com­plete­ly sub­merge a per­son. Grav­i­ty or nat­ur­al pres­sure gra­di­ent must sup­ply it with fresh water. Bruno used his body for a sub­mer­sion test; it passed.

Then, in 2012, dur­ing an Inqui­si­tion con­fer­ence in Sal­vador, Bruno asked Dr. Sev­ers if they should go pub­lic with the mik­vah. Dr. Sev­ers sug­gest­ed invit­ing her friend, Dr. Ani­ta Novin­sky, the high­est author­i­ty on the his­to­ry of the Jews in Brazil, for lunch at the hotel. They agreed to not say a thing.

Dr. Novin­sky came the next day. After lunch, they strolled the hotel grounds. She paused in front of the foun­tain. Bruno replayed the conversation:

I can’t believe what I see,” Dr. Novin­sky said.

What do you see, Ani­ta?” asked Bruno.

Is this a… mik­vah?” she muttered.

Your words…” Bruno did not want to lead her on.

She began to cry.

You don’t know what this means. I have been research­ing Jews in Bahia for forty years. No one has been inter­est­ed in my work. No one has ever found a thing. You don’t under­stand the impor­tance of this. It is an arti­fact of the secret underground!”

In the years that fol­lowed, Bruno con­tin­ued to keep the five-hun­dred year old mik­vah a secret. He want­ed to be sure of what it was before being cru­ci­fied for pro­claim­ing fal­si­ties. So Bruno called a series of rab­bis to inspect the struc­ture and give him a ver­dict. And, as typ­i­cal Jews, they could not agree. The truth is that it was impos­si­ble to attain cer­tain­ty. After all, cryp­to-mik­vahs were nev­er meant to be outed.

When the Chabad Cen­ter rab­bi came, he mea­sured it like a tai­lor suit­ing a king. After hours of work, Bruno asked him: So Rab­bi, is this a mik­vah or isn’t it?”

Bruno, hop­ing the ques­tion would final­ly be laid to rest, was not expect­ing the rabbi’s typ­i­cal rab­bini­cal answer. It doesn’t real­ly mat­ter whether it was a mik­vah or not.”

What do you mean?”

What mat­ters is the his­to­ry that you unfolded.”


As we walked out to leave, Bruno point­ed to a house across the street. See that blue house?”

Yes,” I answered, what about it?”

That was the home of the chief Inquisitor.”

What? Why would a secret Jew build a mik­vah in his house when he lives right across the street from the Inquisi­tor?” I asked, incredulously.

If you were the Inquisi­tor, would you think any­one would have the nerve to be using a mik­vah just feet away from your house?”

That made a tremen­dous amount of unex­pect­ed sense — hid­ing in plain sight.

I’m not Jew­ish and I don’t have Jew­ish cul­ture,” said Bruno, but what fas­ci­nates me the most is the resis­tance. I think it’s incred­i­ble! Putting a mik­vah in the mid­dle of the Catholic orders dur­ing the Inqui­si­tion. It’s either a lot of stub­born­ness, or a lot of faith. Right down the street are the order of the Domini­cans, which rep­re­sent­ed the Inqui­si­tion. Down the street, the Jesuits, and right here, the Fran­cis­cans. Across the street, the agent of the Inqui­si­tion. Let’s put a mik­vah right under everyone’s noses!”

We returned to Hous­ton in Jan­u­ary of 2017. I think about Mr. Porto’s mik­vah almost every day.

Daniela Weil grew up in Brazil. She always had a pas­sion for art and nature, and stud­ied biol­o­gy at Bran­deis Uni­ver­si­ty. After work­ing with whales, Daniela moved to Hous­ton to make 3D ani­ma­tions for sci­ence. Daniela became a full-time chil­dren’s writer and illus­tra­tor after adopt­ing her daugh­ter Lucy. She loves to inspire chil­dren through her writ­ing. She lives in Austin, TX. Her book, The Diary of Ass­er Levy, is out now.