In the oldest synagogue in the New World, Kahal zur Israel in Recife, I met a friendly grandmother named Berta Schvartz.
Unlike so many other tourists, I had not arrived in search of the Jewish community of the seventeenth century, when northeastern Brazil had been ruled by the Dutch. Instead, I was there to see the second Jewish Recife, the world of the Eastern European immigrants who came to the beautiful island city at the beginning of the twentieth century.
Among them was a little girl born in 1920 in the Ukraine. Brazilâ€™s greatest modern writer, Clarice Lispector, spent her childhood in the working-class neighborhood of Boa Vista, just a few bridges away from the ancient synagogue.
This was where Berta had grown up, a generation after Clarice. I asked her to take me around Boa Vista to help me imagine Clariceâ€™s girlhood universe for my biography, Why This World.
â€œEvery house has memories for me!â€ Berta exclaimed. â€œI knew every family here. And look, theyâ€™re all gone now.â€ The sacrifices of the immigrants had allowed their children to move on to reliable plumbing, round-the-clock doormen, and ocean views.
But for Berta, as for Clarice, Boa Vista was world enough. She shows me the center of this community, the Praa Maciel Pinheiro, known in Yiddish as the pletzele, or little square. Here, at number 367, Clarice Lispector spent her childhood.
â€œThe house was so old that the floorboards bounced when we walked,â€ Tania, Clariceâ€™s sister, told me. â€œIt had colonial windows, a balcony, colonial roof tiles, it really was very old. â€¦ We lived on the second floor. We eventually moved because we were afraid that the house would fall over.â€
But there it is, still looking creaky. And from its window Mania Lispector, Clarice Lispectorâ€™s paralyzed mother, raped in a pogrom in the Ukraine, sat staring, waiting for her disease to run its inevitable course. â€œShe was like a statue in the house,â€ Clariceâ€™s cousin Anita Rabin remembered.