30 December 2009

Philadelphia: 'Jews of the Amazon' screening, Jan. 11

Do the stories of lost tribes and Jewish history grab your attention? You'll enjoy "The Fire Within: Jews in the Amazon Rainforest," to be screened at thGershman Y in Philadelphia, on Monday, January 11, at 7pm.

The documentary on the Jews of Iquitos in Peru was written, directed and produced by Lorry Salcedo Mitrani, a descendant of Peruvian Jews, while discovering his own grandfather's story. It has already been screened at many 2009 Jewish film festivals (more in 2010) and other venues, such as universities.

The booming community, populated by those who had made their fortunes in rubber, even had a theater designed by Gustave Eiffel, of Eiffel Tower fame.

The guest speaker will be Rabbi Marcelo Bronstein of B’Nai Jeshurun (New York City).

One of the best stories on this is from Tablet Magazine, written by Robin Cembalest.

Around a century ago, Abraham Edery Fimat, a Sephardic sailor from Morocco on leave in a Brazilian port, fell asleep in a bar. He soon learned his ship had sailed without him. As Victor Edery Jr., his grandson, recounts in Lorry Salcedo Mitrani’s affecting new documentary, The Fire Within, Abraham tried to follow his crew on another boat—only he went the wrong way. That’s how he ended up heading west, hundreds of miles down the Amazon, until he arrived in the remote Peruvian city of Iquitos.

To his amazement, Edery found other Jews there. They were merchants, traders, and adventurers, Sephardic as well as Ashkenazic, from Morocco and Europe, who came to make their fortunes in the rubber boom. As photos in the film show, many did. Parading in front of their tropical mansions in top hats and tuxedos, the newly rich aspired to bring a continental sophistication to the jungle outpost (though not with the intensity of the city’s most famous resident, the ill-fated opera lover in Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo). Eventually, the rubber business moved on to Asia, and most of the Jews returned to their native lands. But the families they created with native women stayed behind.
An excellent story on the people of Iquitos was in the New York Times, by Simon Romero, which quotes several individuals, including Salcedo Mitrani:

“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,” ...
The film demonstrates the the connection of their children and grandchildren to their heritage. Several hundred descendants of these men have rediscovered their identity, some have converted while others have made aliyah.

In the 19th century the Amazon was the center of a rubber boom. Many North African Sephardic men arrived to join in and make their fortunes, marrying local women and raising families. Some men died in the difficult conditions, others returned home after the industry's decline, still others stayed and kept a flame alive, lasting five generations in some cases.

Unknown to the established Lima Jewish community until the 1980s, the Orthodox rejected them, but the Conservative community taught them. Fifty years later, one man's efforts led to more than 500 converts and 300 who have made aliyah.

For more, see RuthFilms.com.

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