June 14, 2001
A few weeks ago I welcomed Shabbat in Iquitos, Peru, one of the most isolated cities in the world. Located four degrees south of the Equator and surrounded by nearly impenetrable jungle, Iquitos is accessible only by air or by river -- that is, the Amazon.
The Shabbat service was unlike any I had ever attended. But that wasn't because there was no rabbi or Torah, or because it was conducted in a space that used to be a bar and is now an elderly couple's living room.
Here in Iquitos it was very familiar and very different at the same time, reminding me of Camp Tranquillity, my Jewish summer camp in New York's Catskill Mountains, where we had welcomed the Sabbath in an old Dutch barn.
Here, mosquitoes pricked my ankles as I sang "Shalom Aleichem," just as they did at camp. But here the Amazon was right outside, and my fellow worshipers had round mestizo faces and skin the color of chocolate pudding. They looked more Asian than Jewish.
Indeed, under Jewish law, which stipulates that religious identity is transmitted through the mother, they would not be considered Jewish at all. They came by their Jewish heritage paternally, from grandfathers or great-grandfathers who made their way to Iquitos from places like Tangiers, Alsace and Gibraltar during the rubber boom a century ago.
When the boom went bust, most of these traders returned to more temperate climes, leaving their mestizo (mixed-race) children behind. The beliefs of their heirs, who have little or no Jewish education, reflect the influence of Judaism, Catholicism and Amazonian mythology. Yet through the decades they have maintained a stubborn Jewish identity.
I had read about this community in "Jews of the Amazon," a book by a Venezuelan Jew, Ariel Segal, first written as a dissertation and published last year by the Jewish Publication Society. This summer, when I decided to join some friends on the trip to Iquitos, I e-mailed Segal for advice. He told me where we could find the Sabbath service.
We knew from his book that we would encounter relics of the city's Jewish immigrants in its commercial center, near where tourists register for jungle excursions. Riding in the canopied back of a motorcycle taxi, we marveled at shop facades with the names Cohen and Levy; at stars of David carved into building facades; at a weather-beaten mezuzah on a doorpost. We tracked down the Jewish cemetery, where some tombstones bear both crosses and Jewish stars, evidence of the syncretic beliefs of those buried there.
The Shabbat service we found was a relatively recent phenomenon. It was attended by members of a mestizo community who have been embracing Jewish belief and practice with a new intensity -- for reasons ranging from spiritual conviction to the perception that Jews abroad live better.
Some have emigrated to Israel. Others aspire to. But Lima's Jewish community and Israel's government have been slow to help -- for religious reasons, certainly, but also, one supposes, for racial ones.
As a result, Segal notes in his book, visiting Jews are often asked to publicize the community's plight and to send materials for prayer and study -- and so we were.
But I was less prepared for something else. Since Iquitos' inhabitants have not seen many Ashkenazis, certainly not of the New York artsy type, clad in black, several mestizos asked me when we met if I were Jewish. This was a nice twist on "Funny, you don't look Jewish."
But not so funny, because I suspected that they would be more confused after watching me stumble through the service. My Spanish is excellent. But despite Camp Tranquillity, my Jewish education is limited. I was aware that this isolated community, reading from photocopies of prayer books and singing songs they'd heard on cassettes, had put more effort into learning the service than I ever had.
For a few moments, my embarrassment -- what a bad impression of assimilation! -- threatened to ruin the experience. But then I had my Proustian moment with the mosquitoes. And I became transfixed by the sentimental power of the service, its fascinating incongruities and visceral evidence of how Jewish identity perseveres.