A Forgotten Episode In Jewish History
From Name Witheld

Dear Jeff, I am a member of one of the most reputable families in Israel. While everybody knows that 50 years ago, my granfather was a Rabbi and a Mayor, no one knows that my other grandfather had brothels in the Middle East and India in the 30's. This fact always puzzelled and bothered me, it was kept a secret in the family. I could never comprehend that my grandather who is a member of the 'chosen people' could possibly be a pimp. Like most Jews, I did a search of my family's Jewish history on the world famous website:
To my surprise I found out the my grandfather was not unique, we Jews controlled much of the prostitution business worldwide at the beginning of the last century. I am enclosing one particular episode which really touched me, you may want to post it in memory of these poor Jewish women. Please do not post my name or address.
We now come of a very sordid period in Jewish history. Late in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Jews controlled the trade in white slavery, which is a polite way of saying prostitution. And they did so worldwide. Reputable historians claim Jews ran brothels in Shanghai, India, Turkey, Argentina, Brazil and New York City.

Women for the trade were procured in the following way: After the Eastern European pogroms, many young Jewish women became orphans who were without skills. As orphans they lacked dowries, which meant that arranged marriages were out of the question for them. During those years, only men received Yeshiva education, and if they were to marry and continue their education, they needed a wife with a dowry.

A charming young man, with plenty of cash, would show up in an Eastern European town and seek out a beautiful Jewish orphan. He would connect with her through an organization and eventually offer to marry her. After the marriage had been consummated, he would excuse himself because he had business commitments in another city, and leave, but not before giving his new wife a steamship ticket to Buenos Aires and promising to meet her there. When the wife would arrive in Buenos Aires or Rio, her husband was nowhere to be seen, but someone presenting herself as his aunt would meet the young woman.

Typically, these young ladies, some not older than 18 years, without any skills, with no education and without family, were told by these "aunts" in so many words that they either become prostitutes or would starve to death. Although many women faced with this situation committed suicide, others adapted.

Because these women and their pimps were considered "impure" by the regular Jewish community, they were ostracized. At the end of their lives they were not allowed to be buried in the existing Jewish cemeteries. To deal with this situation, the women and their pimps established their own cemeteries and synagogues. Incidentally, the word in Portuguese for pimp, is cafetão, a word derived from kaftan, the long black silk robes worn by orthodox Jews.

In his book "Prostitution and Prejudice: the Jewish Fight against White Slavery - 1870-1939", Edward J. Bristow quotes my father after he had visited several cemeteries where Jewish prostitutes were buried. My father reported that their average age was about 20 years. My father surreptitiously copied the wording of many tombstones. According to my dad, a typical tombstones might be inscribed in Yiddish or Portuguese: "Ruchelle, beloved daughter of Shmuel and Hanna O, of (the name of the village in Eastern Europe), 1900-1920".

One unfortunate result of Jewish-controlled white slavery was that anti-semites in Europe used the information to paint all Jews as unworthy, as criminals, and deserving of expulsion from their country. Fortunately, Jewish communities that had been initially timid in dealing with this issue eventually rallied and worked throughout the world to stamp out this blemish, finally succeeding. So much so that today many Jews have not heard of this shameful episode in Jewish history.

By 1960, the Jewish prostitutes of Latin America had all but disappeared. Most had died, as did their associates and associations.

Recent Brazilian Jewish historians have been more charitable when writing about these women and their plight. Brazilian historian Beatriz Kushnir has pointed out that the women and their men, despite being ostracized by the Jewish community, maintained their Jewish identity by creating their own synagogues, cemeteries and even mutual help societies that duplicated those of the regular community. According to Kushnir, they kept Jewish holidays and some even kept the kashrut. In recent years the Jewish community of São Paulo has allowed the reburial in its regular cemetery of those who initially had been laid to rest in a cemetery restricted to Jewish prostitutes. But instead of burying them with names on their tombstones, they were given numbers.

I have just received a clipping from a Brazilian newspaper reporting that a director is planning a film dealing with the story of a Jewish woman immigrant from Poland who was forced into prostitution, etc. It is based on a book by Moacyr Scliar, a Brazilian Jewish writer.

The woman in this film had been promised marriage. That didn't occur on her arrival in Rio, and her only option for survival turned out to be prostitution. Furthermore, in the story, the woman only speaks Yiddish. The Brazilian, non-Jewish, soap-opera actress chosen for the part has been learning to speak Yiddish for her part in the film.

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