Rubber Roots: Jews in Iquitos, Peru are looking for ancestors – and their identity
Traveling to Iquitos in the Peruvian Amazon jungle at the end of the 19th century required, above all, time. It took about eighteen days after embarking a steamship in Europe. The first stop on the South American continent was in Belén de la Pará, Brazil. There they had to board a small, double-deck steamer that took them upstream the Amazon River to a stopover in Manaus and then to Iquitos,
In contrast, the cumbersome journey from the Peruvian capital of Lima across the Andes on horseback, on foot, and then in small rowing boats lasted more than two months. Iquitos was the Peruvian center of the rubber boom at the time and attracted people in search of better life. In 1880, Alfredo Coblentz was one of the first few Jews of German descent who tried their luck as distributors for the milky juice of the rubber tree (Ficus elastica).
“The first Jews who came to Iquitos were people who had been promised a better life”, Ariel Segal says while trying to explain the motives for the long and exhausting journey from North Africa to Peru. “At the time many fled to Morocco because of a growing anti-semitism in Europe”, said the scientist based on the results of his research project on Iquitos. In his book “Jews of the Amazon. Self exiles in earthly paradise” he wrote down the story “of the forgotten Jews”.
Drawn by the rubber rush, between 1880 and the beginning of the 20th century approximately 250 predominantly Sephardic Jews followed Coblentz’s example from Rabat, Marakesh, Tetuan and Casablanca. After the invention of synthetic rubber the dream of economic fortune in the jungle ended.
“Most of them left after the boom end around 1912”, says Jorge Abramovitz, current president of the Jewish welfare organization “Sociedad de Beneficiencia Israelita de Iquitos”, founded in 1909. The few remaining descendants of the former Jewish immigrants in the Peruvian Amazon are still united within this organization.
Abramovitz lives four houses away from the Plaza de Armas, Iquitos’s main square. The light blue painted colonial style building with high ceilings also houses his mattress business. “The house is painted in the colors of Israel”, he says with pride. His father Zew, of Polish descent, came from Palestine in the mid 1930’s and worked as a gold seeker in the tributaries of the Amazon River, and later as a leather merchant and textile importer.
Abramovitz’s wife, Rivka, created a small zoo in the backyard. Screaming little monkeys are jumping from pole to pole. Red, yellow, blue and green feathered parrots nibble their bananas, a Loro releases verbal fireworks -, even if the Jewish congregation gathers for the Kabbalat Shabbat in an adjoining room that serves as an improvised synagogue. A curtain separates this place of prayer from the rest of the house.
Every Friday evening approximately 50 community members gather for their prayers. The room is painted in white and a flight of stairs from the second floor leads to its entrance. Brown colored mahogany chairs, a couple of benches with plastic seating pads, a simple table with the flag of Israel, a reproduction of a dancing Rebbe and a board with Hebrew letters decorate the praying hall.
“The book of prayers has brought us together again”, says Miguel Bensús. The 24 year old is the prayer leader. “We help each other because for decades much of what represents being Jewish has been lost”, the chemistry student says. A big silver chain with the star of David hangs around his neck. Even on the street or at the university he is wearing his Kippah.
The story of Miguel Bensús puts a spotlight on the history “of the forgotten Jews of Iquitos”. His great-grandfather emigrated from North Africa and married a native Peruvian. Though the majority of his descendants was raised and educated Jewish and circumcised, “halakhically they were not Jews”, Bensús says.
In catholic schools worship was mandatory. Those who filed to appear for Sunday’s mass were punished with bad grades. “Many have mingled Jewish customs with catholic rituals and stories and stayed with it. Others lost their roots completely in the brushes of external influences.” The Jewish cemetery is adjacent to the catholic cemetery; the gate with the Star of David is locked with a heavy iron chain.
Miguel Bensús is standing at the grave of his great-grandfather Abrahams Bensús Benamú. “Even though there is a Jewish cemetery, which is now culturally protected as Peruvian national heritage, we never had a synagogue. And nobody has an explanation for it”, says community chairman Abramovitz.
“Not until the 1940’s and 50’s descendants of Jewish immigrants began to refer to their roots. Initiated by Victor Ederig, a new congregation formed in the 1960’s and people started to gather for service: in Ederig’s tavern “La Sirena“. We owe it to Don Victor that we still have a community today“, Abramovitz points out.
“Iquitos was a world all by itself”, says Rabbi Guillermo Bronstein who lives in the Peruvian capital of Lima. The Rabbi of the conservative “Asociación Judía de Beneficencia y Culto de 1870” visited the Jews in Iquitos for the first time in 1991.
Afterwards a new stage began for the Jewish descendants. “About 30 to 40 families lived there at the time, some with their great-grandparents, grandparents, nephews and cousins, up to 15 family members scattered throughout the wide jungle”, the Rabbi recounts. “I suggested a conversion to Judaism, provided that their descent from at least one Jewish parent was traceable.”
A majority accepted Bronstein’s suggested path leading back to their Jewish roots. Each Friday people willing to convert gathered for mass. Bronstein sent photocopies of prayer books and collected works on Judaism. The congregation began to create a list of Jewish descendants in the region. “In the third or fourth generation the names of the Jewish ancestors from Morocco had to be found. Even a catholic minister and municipalities in Morocco helped us in our genealogical research”, Bronstein described the criteria.
Nearly ten years later “the seeking for traces” ended for 98 inhabitants of Iquitos with a festive service and ritual circumcision. “We had a Mohel flown in from the United States”, Bronstein says. Two years ago an additional 240 descendants of Jewish immigrants converted to Judaism at a ceremony in a hotel in Iquitos. “Almost everyone has immigrated to Israel by now”, says Abramovitz. In the meantime, some people have also converted under orthodox rituals.
The lucky ones who can count on such a well-informed tour guide like Abramovitz still find numerous traces of former Jewish inhabitants of Iquitos. The foamed plastic merchant stops less than 50 meters away from his store and points to a one-story corner building that almost occupies a quarter of the whole block. At the “Casa Cohen” people stock up on building material, housewares and food, before they return to their hamlets at the Amazon river banks.
The Spanish tiles decorating the outside walls are evidence of the former Jewish owners wealth. “The trading company “Casa Israel” was known in the whole region”, Abramovitz says. Their own ships picked up the raw rubber material from the collectors in the jungle and provided them with all kinds of supply needed for their survival in the wilderness. “For decades the “Casa Israel” used to be the highest house in Iquitos and for decades Jewish mayors governed the city”.
The Jews of Iquitos have gathered for another service at the synagogue. The small congregation sings in Hebrew. “We want to stay here and live out our Jewishness”, says Jorge Abramovitz.
3,000 of 28 million:
About 3,000 Jews live in Peru today. Three synagogues exist in the capital of Lima. The Asociación Judia de Beneficencía y Culto de 1870 is conservative, the Union Israelita del Perú (Ashkenazi) and the Sociedad de Beneficiencia Israelita Sefardí is orthodox.
All three communities are united within the Asociacion Judia del Peru. Apart from B’nai B’rith Loge and the Hebraica Club, a culture- and sport community, the Jewish community in Lima has its own school, the Colegio “León Pinelo“, one of the best private schools in the country with its approximately 28 million inhabitants.