25 June 2009

Peru: Aliya from the Amazon

The history of Jews in Iquitos, Peru dates from the late-19th-century rubber boom that created a city from an Amazon outpost. It featured imported Italian marble and a theater designed by Gustave Eiffel - of Eiffel Tower fame. But that has been nearly completely forgotten.

This story is told in the New York Times.

Dozens of Jews from Morocco, Gibraltar, Malta, England and France settled in the town and in the jungle. They opened trading houses in search of fortune.

When the rubber trade collapsed, the fortunes in various places vanished. Some Jewish immigrants died young of diseases. Some remained, married local women and raised families. Others returned home, leaving descendants who believed they were Jews.

Jewish oil field inspector Ronald Reátegui Levy, 52, has persuaded many Jews in the town to move to Israel. More than 400 of those with Jewish ancestry have converted and emigrated. Some 160 members of his own family have converted - nearly all live in Israel.

He says that they were isolated for decades living at the edge of the jungle in a Catholic society, no rabbis, synagogue. When he was a child, his mother told him, "You are a Jew, and you are never to forget that.”

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.
Scholars are comparing the Jews here with Hispanic conversos in the southwestern US and northern Mexico, the Lemba of southern Africa and the Bene Israel of India.

“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.
Iquitos is only reachable by boat or plane and is four degrees south of the Equator. Isolation, intermarriage and assimilation nearly wiped out the remains of Judaism.

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.
Victor Edery brought some of the descendants, including Reátegui Levy, in the late 1990s, and held religious ceremonies in his own home.

Venezuelan-born Israeli historian Ariel Segal arrived in the 1990s to study the community was also a catalyst for the community to organize.

In early 2000, Jews were observing Shabbat each Friday and High Holy Days. When Edery died, they met at the home of Jorge Abramovitz, 60, whose Polish Jewish father moved there long after the rubber collapse.

Although there was no rabbi, they held services with Hebrew learned from tapes, cleaned the cemetery and buried their dead. And they kept up their campaign to be recognized as Jews and to emigrate.

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.
There's much more to this fascinating story at the link above.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous12:18 AM

    Unfortunately, for the people of Iquitos who rediscovered religious roots of Judaism, to be a Jew is a race not a name, color or country. A Jew is recognized only through the mother Jewish ancestry. Consequently, the people of Iquitos will never be seen as Jew as they want for none of them where born from a Jew mother. However, they may be converted to Judaism. No need to be upset because as any religion there are codes, rules to be respectfully followed. For instance, there is President Sarkozy who was proudly announced as a Jew descendant from more than one Jewish community. He may have some Jewish roots that where lost since the moment that his grandmother was a catholic French citizen from Marseille despite that his grandfather was the descendant of a very important Jewish family from Greece. Sarkozy’s mother was raised as a Catholic and so was he. Only because his grandfather was Jewish, Sarkozy can’t be claimed as a Jew according to this Jewish religious. He may be converted to a Jew or Judaism. But I bet he rather be claimed as a Count since his father is the Hungarian Count Sarkozy.