Arrivals: From the Amazon to the Judean Hills


When his maternal grandmother, Odorina Carneiro, told her teenage grandson one day that he was of Jewish descent, Gavriel did not realize what that meant. After all, his father was Catholic and so was his school and neighborhood. Though he sought spirituality in Christianity, “inquiry was discouraged and substance missing.” 

Only as an adult did he discover that he was the scion of a Jewish family that had somehow endured through centuries of persecution by the Spanish Inquisition. As in similar cases, it was mainly the women who had managed to nurture a flicker of Judaism during these extensive wanderings. Historical records showed family presence in Cadiz (Spain) in the 1560s, then Porto (Portugal), followed by a lengthy stay on Sao Miguel – a mid-Atlantic Azores island – where the family continuously hid their practices from the Church. They ultimately took refuge in Brazil in about 1840. 

In northeastern Brazil, the family was systematically ostracized for about six generations by the clergy, until they moved northward to the port city of Belem. There Gavriel Sapir was born, near the mouth of the Amazon River. 

Carneiro, who lived in the adjacent house, presented him with a small golden Star of David necklace, a memento that was never worn. The baby was also circumcised. His mother and grandmother would read him Old Testament stories at bedtime, but it was principally Carneiro who had some unusual traditions. 

“She never cooked meat with milk and dishes were separate,” Sapir says. On a farm one summer, he witnessed a dramatic episode when she slaughtered a lamb. Using a sharpened knife, she slit its throat with one cut after whispering a few strange words. She also covered its blood in the dirt, explaining that this was a custom. A strong personality and “a female CEO with an entrepreneurial spirit,” Carneiro held sway over “a farming and business empire.” She helped build Brasilia, Brazil’s recently founded capital, organizing the shipping of building materials there. Moreover, she was strongly committed to democratic values, education and poverty alleviation. She even visited Israel once. 

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“I wasn’t brought up in a religious environment,” Sapir explains, but attended Catholic schools for their educational level. He was quite mystified by their doctrinal emphasis on faith, heaven and hell. When attending mass, he was once barred from receiving the Eucharist. When he asked why, the priest said, “You are not meant to say those prayers or participate.”

“The lack of inquiry and intellectual pursuit bothered me,” he remarks. “So many dogmas, so much unexplained.” 

When he turned 18, his grandmother’s health deteriorated fast. 

“Before she died, she had a golden Star of David made for me, and told me: ‘Never forget your roots.’ That still did not resonate with me, but I wore it anyway – not for its Jewish significance, but as my grandmother’s gift and my connection to her.” Embarking on a medical and surgical career left no time except for “anatomy, dissections, physiology and biopsies in the laboratory.” In 2008, 23-year-old Sapir moved to England to pursue a master’s degree in global health and economics at Oxford University. 

“I joined the local Chabad, led by Rabbi Eli Brackman – a mind-blowing experience. For the first time, I learned that there was room for thinking, inquiring and disagreement in religious learning,” he states. “It was my first encounter with the giants of our tradition, and the warmth of the Jewish people through Shabbat observance. The Brackmans’ challah, chicken soup and cabbage salad kept me coming back.” A clinical fellowship in transplantation immunology was followed by several years of clinical research at King’s Hospital, UCL and Newcastle’s Royal Victoria Infirmary. 

After Brackman encouraged him “to clarify my status and seek rabbinical advice,” Sapir hired an expert to research his genealogy, a project that was unsuccessful initially. In the interim, he dissociated from his past and focused on learning Judaism from scratch. He studied halachot (Jewish law), became an observant Jew and completed conversion in Israel. 

Four years ago, however, as he sat in a coffee shop in Jerusalem, his cousin called him from Portugal. This was precisely two weeks before his marriage to Hannah, an intensive care nurse from Manchester. 

In the University of Porto archives the cousin had discovered a family tree spanning 16 generations that showed “immediate and direct relatives all the way to 1498 to Cadiz in Spain, where it all started. I was the 16th generation,” Sapir says. It was “a surreal experience” for him to review the viciously antisemitic Inquisition files – how they accused his ancestors of crimes such as “impure blood, Jewish practices and witchcraft, infected bloodline of the Jews and membership of the condemned nation.” Judaism was now “the blood running in my veins, my ‘contaminated’ blood cells,” he says wryly.

After Gavriel and Hannah’s aliyah to Efrat in 2019, they were “incredibly privileged to be adopted by a Syrian family living in Efrat – Paul and Shelley Kopyt, originally from Brooklyn, NY. They have taught us the secrets of Jewish parenthood, commitment to religious education of children, and loved us without boundary,” he says. “We even named our eight-month-old daughter after Shelley.” They are always thrilled with her Shabbat delicacies – “hummus, lahmajin, kube and Syrian Bazargan.” 

In Israel, Sapir worked as senior consultant for Big Pharma companies, assessing market opportunities for new drugs, medical devices and biotech products, and doing business forecasting for venture capitalists. He is now doing a graduate law degree to work with international litigation and patents. 

Sapir feels “a complete dependence on Hashem,” who has guided his path and diminished “that history of suffering and pain from Spain and Portugal.” As he says, “I live in the hills of Judea, together with my people, as a complete Jew and proud Israeli, walking in the footsteps of giants like Menachem Begin, Rabbi Kook and Shlomo Goren – people who loved the State of Israel and the Torah.” As an Israeli father, the words of Zechariah 8 about thronged Jerusalem streets where children play resonate strongly for him. 

He concludes by saying, “My life is almost like a lost Torah scroll that was found. Israel will be united by love of Jews for one another, irrespective of their level of observance. We must work hard to overcome our differences and engage with those who think differently from us. As Jews, this is a moral imperative.”  

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