Meet the Jews of Iquitos, Peru, possibly the most isolated Jewish community you can find
“Wherever you go, there’s always someone Jewish”, goes the song.
Isolation and distance are very much on our minds and in our mouths these days – and no doubt, leaving their marks on our hearts as well. As part of this series loosely related to the pandemic, I’ll be looking at some isolated communities.
I’d like to start with the community in Iquitos in Peru. At the moment, there are really only two organized Jewish communities in Peru – a predominantly Ashkenazi one in Lima, and a "Yehudei Amazonas" (Amazonian Jewish) community in Iquitos. According to Wikipedia, Amazonian Jews are “ the mixed-race people of Jewish Moroccan and indigenous descent who live in the Amazon basin.
How isolated is the community? Iquitos itself is isolated. It’s the capital of its province, and it’s the ninth most populous city in Peru (according to Wikipedia), and it’s not accessible by road. It is actually the largest city in the world that can’t be reached by road. It is only accessible by air or by river.
During a trip to Iquitos in 1948-49, the Argentine Israelí geologist Alfredo Rosensweig got a list of 138 Jewish immigrants who had lived in that area between 1890 and 1912. “If Iquitos is a city hidden in the jungle, its Jews are a Community hidden deeper therein. Everything Jewish is like this, quiet but proud, hidden but obvious.”
Jews arrived in Iquitos in the 1800’s from Morocco as part of a rubber boom. Other small Jewish communities also developed along the Amazon basin at that time. The boom ended in the 1920’s, and over time, many people left, leaving Iquitos as the only community with Jews outside of Lima. According the Encyclopedia Judaica, “Though they continued to intermarry with local Christian natives, the descendants of Jews preserved a strong sense of Jewishness, kept up some Jewish traditions, and made several attempts to sustain a fragile community.” They connected with the Jewish community in Lima in the 1950’s, and there was somewhat of a revival.
Their leadership reached out to the community in Lima again in the 1980’s, and in the 1990’s the Rabbi in Lima and others began the process of educating the community about “mainstream” Judaism and then giving them a Conservative conversion.
Following a period of renewal, their leadership reached out to the Jewish community in Lima in the 1980’s, and in the 1990’s the Rabbi in Lima and others began the process of educating the community about “mainstream” Judaism and then giving them a Conservative conversion.
Many have made Aliyah, but a small core continues to live Jewish lives in Iquitos. One of the leaders of their community has allocated the back room of their business as the synagogue.
If you find this as fascinating as I do, you can read more here:
Looking ahead, I’ve had some fascinating discussions with rabbis of virtual congregations, and congregations “without walls”. I’ll share their experiences and insights.
And I’ll be writing about some other very isolated Jewish communities....like the one in Sefwi Wiawso in Ghana.