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Judi's Journal

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The Jews of Iquitos, Peru

By Judi Siegal

In one of the remotest places on earth, once the most isolated city in South America lies Iquitos, Peru, surrounded by the Amazon River and separated from other cities by the vast Amazon tropical rainforest and the high Andean summits. In this exotic setting dwell the Sephardic Jewish descendants of Morocco, Malta, Gibraltar, Alsace and the city of Manchester. They came originally in 1870 escaping anti-Semitism in their home countries and also in search of a better life and fortune as they cast their lot in with the rubber barons who exploited the Amazon region for the profitable product. They made quick fortunes as traders, merchants, and providers of services to those who labored in the rubber industry. Their intention was not to linger long but to make their fortune and move on. In time, the small community of the Jews in Iquitos became the only other organized bastion of Judaism in Peru in addition to Lima, the capital.

The early settlers built a cemetery against the inevitable loss of life in such a harsh environment but made no provisions for a synagogue or school, again. because these settlers did not believe they would settle permanently. They did register a Benevolent Society with the local authorities to take care of their indigent and met for the High Holidays but other than that, there was little organized Jewish life. The immigrants married with the local populace and by 1910, with the decline of rubber prices, many left the city. The remaining remnant continued to marry the Christian natives but kept the Sabbath and felt a strong sense of Jewish people hood and tradition and tried to keep the fragile community intact. They made contact with the Jewish community of Lima during the 1950s and were boosted in their efforts when the Jewish Peruvian geologist, Alfredo Rosenzweig, visited the community during a trip to the Amazon region. In 1967, Rosenzweig published an article detailing the economic contributions of the Iquitos community including the importance of the great commercial houses of Kahn, Cohen and Israel, among others.

Dr. Ariel Segal (no relation! Different spelling!) a noted Israeli scholar, who teaches at a university in Lima, visited the region in 1995 in order the study the Iquito community. There was curiosity about this group of self-proclaimed Jews in such an isolated region. Segal also believes that there may be other descendants of the early Jewish immigrants scattered around the villages of the Amazon region. When the majority left, some stayed and assimilated into the native culture. While they may not be Jewish according to strict Jewish law, the Iquitos today identify with their Jewish heritage and try to keep Jewish customs. A spokesman for the community proudly points out that the people try to keep kosher as best they can refraining from eating pig and turtle.

For those that wish to live a more complete Jewish life, provisions have been made for those wishing to immigrate to Israel. Rabbi Guillermo Bronstein of the Conservative congregation in Peru and representatives of the Jewish Agency have visited the area providing resources for those wishing to make aliyah under the Law of Return. (A provision that allows any Jew to become an Israeli citizen if they are considered Jewish under Jewish law) Since their Jewishness is debated in Orthodox circles, the Iquito Jews undergo Orthodox conversion once they immigrate to the Jewish State.

The Iquito descendants of Jews bury their dead in the Israelite cemetery, celebrate Kabbalat Shabbat services,( though some of them also attend churches,) and speak proudly of their Jewish heritage even while throwing in some Amazon and Christian customs. Their particular situation of combining local customs with Judaism is similar to other communities such as the Bene Israel Jews of Bombay, India.

The Iquito community and its blending of local and Jewish custom is a product of isolationism, a whole community that has existed for almost 100 years without benefit of a rabbi, synagogue or school. It is a tribute to the Jewish spirit of survival and pride in a heritage despite having little contact with other mainstream Jews.