MANAUS, Brazil — The details of Rabbi Shalom Emmanuel Muyal’s mission and death in the Amazon remain obscure, but that’s nothing compared to the mystery surrounding 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.
The rabbi’s draw is so strong that local Jewish leaders felt compelled to refuse a request from his nephew, a member of Israel’s Knesset, to have his remains removed for reburial in the Jewish state.
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.
Moroccan Jews, mostly descendants of refugees forced from the Iberian Peninsula by the Inquisition, began immigrating to the Amazon in the early 19th century. A second wave followed with the rubber boom around the turn of the century.
Numbers are difficult to pin down, but about 1,000 Moroccan Jewish families probably scattered about the Amazon during the 19th and early 20th centuries, according to journalist and historian Reginaldo Jonas Heller, author of a study about the phenomenon.
Like all travelers back then, Muyal began his Amazon expedition near the mouth of the river in the city of Bel ém and worked his way upriver. By 1910, he had traversed the nearly 1,000 miles to Manaus.
Then a city of 50,000, Manaus had been developing at an “almost North American” pace during the preceding decades of the rubber boom, according to German anthropologist Theodor Koch-Gr ünberg, who passed through town a few years before the rabbi.
In his book “Two Years Among the Indians,” Koch-Gr ünberg 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 the gentiles in the S ão Jo ão 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.
Death by yellow fever is a gruesome affair. It’s characterized by jaundice, which causes the whites of the eyes and the skin to turn yellow, and black vomit, the dark coloring due to blood.
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 passed away.
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. When asked how she did it, Israel said she had been blessed by Muyal.
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 “gra ça alcan çada,” 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. Moyal 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. When a crack appeared in the tombstone, community leaders replaced it with an identical copy and enclosed the tomb with a fence. They also set out a small table where pilgrims could leave their candles, though many still reach inside the fence to leave their candles as close as possible to the tomb.
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.