"..who were struggling to keep alive the only synagogue in the middle of the Amazons and showing me that no matter where we came from, the survival of the Jewish people was a miracle..."
In the middle of the Peruvian jungle exists a place known for being the world’s largest city inaccessible by road. About 1,000km from Peru’s capital Lima, the only way to arrive to Iquitos is by plane or by cargo boat. As traveling via boat would amount to a multiple-day long journey, arriving by air is the preferred option, and the breathtaking views over the Amazon River from the sky do not hurt either. In Iquitos, cars are limited, the buses have no windows, and the most common mediums of transportation are scooters and moto-taxis. The Amazon River is the cornerstone of the city, the children swim, drink and even shower in the river’s waters.
Iquitos is known as the sexiest city in Peru due to the beautiful women, hot temperatures and the sexual market that takes over once the sun goes down. But, it is also the home of what is left from the second largest Peruvian Jewish community, a community that every Friday night still celebrates Shabbat behind a mattress store and sings the Shalom Aleichem before saying good shabbos. This synagogue is the home of Jorge and Rivka Abramovitz, who needed to transform it into a place of worship for all of those in Iquitos who desire to return to their ancestors’ religion, and for those who still practice Judaism in the middle of the Amazons.
Peruvian synagogue in Iquitos
Peruvian synagogue in Iquitos
As the president Jorge Abramovitz welcomed me into his home and asked me about my background I noticed the Hebrew letters that decorated the stairs of the entrance. Once in the hallway, I felt joy seeing the colorfully decorated Hanukkah drawings, Menorahs and Hebrew prayers on the walls, all which seemed to be made by children.
Abramovitz opened the synagogue’s door and the stars of David, the prayers in Hebrew of course and the Israeli flag adorning the room amazed me. The rich Jewish culture in Iquitos is rooted in the late 1880s, when a massive immigration of young Jews (mostly from Morocco) arrived to Iquitos through Brazil as a result of the rubber wood export boom. Later on, in the beginning of the 1900s Ashkenazi Jews from Germany, Austria, England, France, London and Poland invaded the area, looking for fortune and some escaping the anti-semitism happening in Europe that was starting to grow at the time. Iquitos became a city that was succeeding and growing, due in part to many of the local Jews who contributed to its transformation as important political and economical figures. However, as the rubber fever began to decline some Jews were forced to leave and return to their native countries. Others, like Jorge’s father who came from Poland, stayed and decided to start their own families by marrying local Amazonian women. Many of them returned back to their countries leaving unrecognized children in the jungle whom later on, would return back to their roots.
Unfortunately, continuing to practice their faith or even being recognized as Jews have not been easy tasks for the Amazonian Jews, due mainly in part to the fact that the majority of Jews who immigrated were men. Under halakhah law, (Jewish law) in order for someone to be a Jew you must be born from a Jewish mother, or have a proper conversion by a recognized rabbi. In Iquitos, there is no rabbi (aside from Rabbi Bronstein who visits from Lima and has been of great help according to Jorge) or kosher stores, nor do they have help from the wealthy Jews from Lima because they do not consider them “true” Jews. The Jews of Lima are a very closed community. They don't let anyone go inside their synagogue, or even sit with them at the same table, according to some Jews from Iquitos. Amazonian Jews know that living in the middle of nowhere with no help or appreciation and a reputation as “weirdos” begs the question-- why do they even continue practicing their faith if no one cares or sees them? Well, that is the beauty and power of their heritage—no matter where one is, a Jew always feels the necessity to practice their faith and be a part of a community. They are driven to pray to the God of Abraham, remember what Moses left, light candles, sing the Hebrew songs in a circle and say the words of the Shema.
This rich culture of faith has inspired many in Inquitos to convert to Judaism. According to Rivka Abramovitz, “in order to convert, one person needs to study for years and be an active member of at least 9 months at the local synagogue, before showing up to the rabbinical court to be accepted or rejected.” She showed me pictures of her children who are currently serving the IDF (Israel Defenses Forces), as well as photographs of the mass conversions of over 400 people that took place in 2002, 2004 and 2011. She told me, “All of these people prepared and converted before making Aliyah (Law of return to Israel). They all were placed in the city of Ramlet, but of course people started to move around Israel for many reasons. Some are living as ultra-orthodox, others have served the IDF."
I asked them how did they know if someone who didn’t have a Jewish grandfather wanted to convert because he/she loved Judaism, or wanted to do it just to leave the country. Rivka smiled and said, “we have had those type of cases and that’s why the Rabbinical court stopped the mass conversions for years. They found some converts not practicing or living as Jews in Israel and that hurt those who really did it from the heart. Due to that issue, we now follow them, or send ‘spies’ to check on them. We want to know what they are eating, are they studying, what are they doing on Friday night. It is not easy to invade someone’s privacy, but we have to do it.”
As Rivka continued showing me pictures I looked around her living room that was so proudly Jewish decorated. Books, kippahs, menorahs, pictures of their children in Israel – a land that Rivka and Jorge still haven’t visited— made me feel as if I was somewhere in Jerusalem. However, the highlight of this unique visit wasn’t just the history behind the Amazonian Jews’ ancestry, but something hidden behind a vintage closet. Rivka smiled at me as she revealed her prized possession, telling me “that is my son’s old closet, but now it is our treasure.” Jorge stood up and opened it slowly and inside laid a well taken-care of Torah, rescued from WWII and donated to the couple in 2009.
As my time with the couple came to an end I had to say good-bye, we parted with a hug that made tear up as I was left so emotional by my experience. As I drove through town with my driver “Pocho” I saw in the middle of the synagogue’s block a grocery store named “Cohen.” Not only I was amazed by the Ashkenazi name, but also by an indigenous man who walked out wearing a kippah.
As we arrived to our destination, the one and only Jewish cemetery, Pocho asked me if I wanted to buy flowers for my loved ones, but instead I told him that I needed stones instead. Looking at me as if I were crazy, he handed me a few. The cemetery is nested behind the area’s main Catholic-Christian burial grounds. Upon entering one notices the beautiful graves, all decorated and well kept, surrounded by statutes of Virgin Mary and Jesus among beautiful angels.
The “Israelite cemetery,” on the other hand, wasn’t so well-kept. A large Star of David on the top of the gates marks the entrance to the Jewish cemetery, where some of the tombs were half broken. A few tombs had flowers, but the rest were adorned with stones. However, the mixture of Hispanic names with Ashkenazi last names, or Sephardic names with Ashkenazi last names followed by a Peruvian one made the cemetery beautiful and unique.
The Amazonian Jews want to do everything the right way, just like the halakhah law requires it, they just don’t know how. Hopefully one day more rabbis from Lima, will assist the Jews of Iquitos so they will not be left waiting for one to travel from Israel or Argentina, where they seem to appreciate the Jews of Iquitos more than those of their own country.