How Piecing Together 500 Years of Family History Intro’d Jônatas Chimen Dias DaSilva-Benayon to Himself

Published on November 21, 2019

A tent is by definition a transient’s abode — a refuge. In his masterwork, “In Thy Tent I Dwell,” Jônatas Chimen Dias DaSilva-Benayon constructs a tent out of hundreds of years worth of family artifacts — literally piecing together his own history.

Jônatas grew up in Brazil where he did not know much about his familial background. Only after immigrating to the United States was it revealed to him by his parents that on both sides of his family he is descended from a long line of Jews exiled from the Iberian Peninsula. 

Putting the Pieces Together

After this discovery, Jônatas set out to reconnect with his forgotten identity. Jônatas sought the council of rabbis who were willing to accept him as a fellow Jew but only if he chose to convert because they did not believe that Jônatas possessed adequate documentation to substantiate his claims of Jewish heritage. The rabbis insisted that he should just convert but Jônatas knew that he was descended from Portuguese Jews that had suffered under the Inquisition for hundreds of years.

“I would say that my relatives died for being Jewish, so how can I convert? They would tell me that they appreciate my courage, but they’d say ‘I can’t do anything for you.’”

— Jônatas Chimen

Through his research of rabbinical texts, Jônatas came across examples of a ritual of re-establishment for descendants of crypto-jews known as a hatafat dam. The process involves circumcision if you are a man, followed by a drop of blood being drawn, and finally a ritualistic bath of purity. 

A rabbinical council in Israel eventually endorsed the ritual and formally recognized Jônatas as Jewish. Jônatas then adopted the Jewish surname Benayoun to symbolize his return to Judaism. Years later, Jônatas’ parents embarked down the same path by remarrying in a Jewish wedding.

The Influence of Immigration 

Jônatas’ quest continues to inspire his work. Recurring themes of diaspora shape the multidisciplinary art that Jônatas creates. A multimedia exhibit created by Jônatas called “5 Madonnas in Exile” skillfully juxtaposes the historic persecution of Sephardic exiles with the modern-day plight of refugees and asylum seekers. Jônatas’ journey of self-discovery influences much of his work including a collection known as Diaspora Creature that depicts images of his ancestors applied onto graffiti-ed wood panels. Miami, an urban patchwork of exiles and migrant communities, is where Jônatas currently lives and works.

This December 6 and 7, Jônatas Chimen will be exhibiting alongside other world-renowned artists and through JADA — on stage co-hosting Grit Daily’s Miami Art Summit during Miami Design Week.

Samuel Loetscher is a Columnist at Grit Daily. Based in Miami, he currently works in e-commerce and writes about Latin America and South Florida.

Read more

More GD News