Adopting Forebears’ Faith and Leaving Peru for Israel

Peruvian Jews celebrating the Sabbath at a synagogue in Iquitos. (Photo: Tomas Munita for The New York Times)

IQUITOS, Peru — If Ronald Reátegui Levy someday finds that he is the last Jew of Iquitos, it may well be of his own doing.

His dream, which he has vigorously pursued, is to persuade the descendants of Sephardic merchants who settled in this remote corner of the Amazon basin more than a century ago to reaffirm their ties to Judaism and emigrate to Israel.

“It is getting very lonely here,” said Mr. Reátegui Levy, 52, an inspector at Peru’s national oil company, referring to the more than 400 descendants of Jewish pioneers who have formally converted to Judaism this decade, including about 160 members of his immediate and extended family. Nearly all of them now live in Israel.

Until recently, such a rebirth of Judaism here seemed unlikely. The history of Jews in Iquitos, dating from the late-19th-century rubber boom that transformed this far-flung Amazonian outpost into a once thriving city of imported Italian marble and a theater designed by Gustave Eiffel, was almost forgotten.

But Mr. Reátegui Levy and a handful of others began organizing the descendants of dozens of Jews from places as varied as Morocco, Gibraltar, Malta, England and France who had settled here and deeper in the jungle, opening trading houses and following their star in search of riches and adventure.

The rubber trade collapsed, and fortunes here and downriver in the Brazilian city of Manaus vanished. Some Jewish immigrants perished young, succumbing to diseases like cholera. A few stayed, marrying local women and raising families. Others returned home, leaving behind descendants who clung to a belief that they were Jews.

“It was astounding to discover that in Iquitos there existed this group of people who were desperate to reconnect to their roots and re-establish ties to the broader Jewish world,” said Lorry Salcedo Mitrani, the director of a new documentary, “The Fire Within,” about the Jews of the Peruvian Amazon.

Scholars compare the Jews here with groups like the Hispanic crypto-Jews of the southwestern United States and northern Mexico, the Lemba of southern Africa or the Bene Israel of India, who in varying ways have sought to reclaim a Jewish identity that had seemingly been weakened through time.

“We were isolated for so many decades, living on the jungle’s edge in a Catholic society without rabbis or a synagogue, in which all we had were some vague notions of what it meant to be Jewish,” Mr. Reátegui Levy said.

“But when I was a child, my mother told me something that forever burned into my mind,” he said. “She told me, ‘You are a Jew, and you are never to forget that.’ ”

Iquitos lies four degrees south of the Equator, reachable only by boat or plane. Isolation, intermarriage and assimilation nearly wiped out the vestiges of Judaism here. Storefronts chiseled with Jewish surnames like Foinquinos and Cohen, and a cemetery ravaged by vandals, served as some of the few reminders of the community that once thrived here.

But by the end of the 1990s, some of these descendants, including Mr. Reátegui Levy, were brought together by Víctor Edery, a patriarchal figure who organized religious ceremonies in his own home, keeping a few customs alive even if it was done by blending Jewish and Christian beliefs.

Still, the existence of the Jews of Iquitos posed some philosophical challenges to some Jews elsewhere. Since nearly all the Jews who originally settled here were men, their descendants could not attest to having Jewish mothers, ruling them out as being Jewish according to strict interpretations of Jewish law.

Moreover, the Jewish community of about 3,000 people in Lima, the capital, largely preferred to ignore the Jews of Iquitos, some scholars say, in part because of the thorny issues that the Jews here posed about race and origins. This is, after all, a country where a small light-skinned elite still wields considerable economic and political power — and Lima’s Jews are often seen as an elite within that elite.

“The notion of a Jew who looks like an Indian and lives in a poor house in a small city in the middle of the jungle is, at best, an exotic footnote to the official history of Peru’s Jewry as Lima sees it,” said Ariel Segal, a Venezuelan-born Israeli historian whose arrival here in the 1990s to study the community also helped serve as a catalyst for the Iquitos Jews to organize.

By the start of this decade, the Jews here were gathering to observe Shabbat each Friday and during the High Holy Days at the home of the patriarch, Mr. Edery. After he died, they met on Próspero Street at the home of Jorge Abramovitz, 60, whose father, a Polish Jew, moved here long after the collapse of the rubber boom.

While they lacked a rabbi, they conducted services in Hebrew they learned from cassette tapes. They cleaned their cemetery and began burying their dead there again. They persisted in their campaign to be recognized as Jews and to be allowed to emigrate to Israel.

Finally, they persuaded Guillermo Bronstein, the chief rabbi of Lima’s largest Ashkenazi synagogue, to oversee two large conversions, easing the way for hundreds to move to Israel. The exodus included nearly the entire Levy clan, descended from Joseph Levy, an adventurer who put down stakes here in the 19th century.

Mr. Reátegui Levy, the oil field inspector, moved in 2005 with his wife and six children to Ramla, a dusty city southeast of Tel Aviv. But despite dreaming for decades of such a move, he said he had trouble adjusting to Israeli life.

He said he missed his house with cacao and passion fruit trees, and the status of being a manager at PetroPerú. He murmured something, just audible over the din of this city’s thousands of motorcycle rickshaws, about losing the spark of love with his wife.

So, unlike nearly all the Iquiteños who moved to Israel, Mr. Reátegui Levy moved back, alone.

He still attends Shabbat at Mr. Abramovitz’s home each week, along with 40 or so other regulars who dream of formally converting and moving to Israel. While their numbers have dwindled, he encourages them and regales them with tales of fertile land in the Golan Heights and the bravery of his eldest son, Uri, who is in the Israeli Army.

But something keeps Mr. Reátegui Levy here in Iquitos, the same decaying jungle city that attracted his great-grandfather from Tangier so many decades ago. “My family, my heart and soul, all that I hold dear are in Israel,” he said. “Maybe I am back here for a reason.”
(Tags: Jews, Hidden Jews, Peru)


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