LIMA, Peru, Dec. 12 (JTA) — Peru seems an unlikely venue for debate about who is a Jew.
This South American country of 27 million has fewer than 2,800 Jews — though some who claim to be Jewish are not counted in the official number.
At its peak, the once-thriving Peruvian community was 5,500 strong.
“That was in 1970,” tour guide Jaime Fischman remembers. “Today we’re working on survival.”
Fischman’s grandparents were part of an early wave of German and Russian immigrants. Native Peruvians affectionately dubbed the exotic newcomers “Turcos,” or Turks.
“Our countrymen are devout Catholics who’ve never had much curiosity about who Jews really are,” he says.
The Jews of Peru are a lively mix of cultures. Some are descendants of Polish and Russian immigrants fleeing pogroms, and of Germans who fled the rise of Nazism.
A few claim descent from Portuguese “secret Jews” who outlasted the Inquisition. Some came from North Africa. Holocaust survivors and their descendants also are part of the mix.
In addition, two unique groups challenge Peruvian notions of what it means to be a Jew.
The B’nai Moshe, sometimes referred to as “Inca Jews,”are former Christians. Rural farmers with no knowledge of Jewish custom and ritual, they began to practice an iconoclastic form of Judaism in the 1950s — inspired, they said, by the Psalms.
They ate only fruits, vegetables and fish with scales. Unable to attract the attention of the mainstream Jewish community, they read from a homemade Torah scroll.
They prayed wearing homemade prayer shawls. They used the sea as a ritual bath, and the men traveled to Lima to be circumcised.
For some 30 years, the Jewish mainstream ignored the B’nai Moshe. Eventually they were “discovered” and examined by an Israeli-led religious court.
In 1989 they were converted — on condition they move immediately to Israel. With the help of the Jewish Agency for Israel, 140 of the B’nai Moshe settled in Elon Moreh, a religious community in the West Bank.
Second and third waves also were converted and made aliyah. Those who did not pass the rabbis’ examination remain in Peru, awaiting another chance.
The claims of a second group — descendants of 19th-century Moroccan Jewish adventurers who came to the Amazon jungle during the rubber boom — are more problematic.
The community has passed through generations of intermarriage. They light candles on Friday night and bury their dead in what they call an “Israelite” cemetery, but their religious practices are also influenced by Catholicism and supernaturalism.
This group lives in Iquitos, a town more than a thousand miles from Peru’s coastal cities, accessible only by plane or river boat.
They have little contact with the outside Jewish world. But the 170-member community clings fiercely to a Jewish identity. They make donations to Israeli institutions, and several of their number have moved to Israel.
The B’nai Moshe and the “Amazon Jews” remain separated from the established community, which is concentrated in Peru’s capital, Lima.
Israeli Rabbi Eliyahu Birnbaum has charged that the Lima Jews don’t accept the other groups because they are from a lower socioeconomic level.
Community leader Elie Scialom believes it’s not poverty but the B’nai Moshe’s Indian ancestry that keeps them isolated, “much the same way Ethiopians caused concern when they arrived in Israel.”
For example, 90 percent of Lima’s 7.5 million inhabitants are mestizos, people of mixed Indian and European heritage. But few mestizos live in the neighborhoods where Jewish professionals, bankers, and industrialists make their homes behind walled compounds and in secure high-rise apartment buildings.
The tight security is necessary because of fear of crime, not anti-Semitism, Peruvian Jews say.
“It’s possible to live a lifetime here without experiencing anti-Semitism,” Fischman says. But “violence is offered indiscriminately.”
Peru’s history has been turbulent since the time of the conquistadores, the Spanish soldiers who subdued the Inca empire.
From the late 16th century, when Peru was the center of the Inquisition in Latin America, through the 1990s, when the country was hard hit by terrorism, Jews learned to keep their institutions low-key.
Virtually no markings — no menorahs or Hebrew lettering — identify Jewish buildings. For example, the Colegio Leon Pinelo, which serves children from practicing Jewish homes, stands behind high walls.
Enrollment has fallen from 600 a decade ago to 400 today. Intermarriage and emigration are partly to blame, but transfers to secular schools worry the school’s principal, Leon Trahtemberg.
“Parents want more sports, wider social contacts, more English instruction,” he says. “We try to accommodate without sacrificing what is essential to developing Jewish pride in our young people.”
Trahtemberg, a historian, believes Peruvian Jewry is “at a crossroads.” People feel the pull of outside influences, he says, and at the same time want to preserve the status quo.
“We have a broad base of services, and they are flourishing,” he says. “But without forward-looking leadership, we’ll eventually lose them.”
Lima’s Jewish institutions are many and long-standing, among them a cultural center, a sports club, women’s and youth Zionist organizations and a burial society.
The Bikur Holim has 60 elderly residents and is expanding its capacity.
There have been annual school trips to Israel and — until the Palestinian intifada began two years ago — aliyah was steady.
The community has four synagogues, including a Conservative congregation in the upscale neighborhood of Miraflores, and a Chabad study center.
The Sephardic synagogue is in the now-decaying San Beatriz area, where Jews once lived in Spanish-style villas with lush gardens.
A remnant of the old community helps Rabbi Abraham Benhamu maintain a weekday minyan.
On weekends, activity centers on the Ashkenazi Union Israelita, where the large, modern sanctuary is full on Shabbat mornings.
Guests from the Iquitos community have been welcomed in Union Israelita services in the past, but the group has not visited in recent years.
As for the B’nai Moshe, they now have their own places of worship.
“They worked hard to be strictly observant,” Scialom says, “but they lived too far from our synagogues.”
Scialom explains why B’nai Moshe converts were relocated immediately to Israel: The rabbis wanted not only to guard against intermarriage, he says, but to assure their contact with Orthodox Jews.
Among Lima’s Jews, in contrast, Orthodox practice has declined: Only about a dozen families keep the Sabbath strictly.
“Perhaps if our community were more observant,” Scialom muses, “they might have been allowed to become part of us.”
Embracing the families in the Amazon is more complex than recognizing the B’nai Moshe, whose Orthodox conversion has removed questions about their Jewish credentials.
The Jewish faith brought to the jungle by the ancestors of the “Amazon Jews” has all but disappeared.
Some in Lima grumble that the Iquitos only profess Judaism when it helps obtain things such as free burial, immigration rights to Israel or a chance to beguile tourists.
Jewish authorities agree that in order to be fully acknowledged, group members would have to convert.
In any case, both groups could become mere historical footnotes: The remaining B’nai Moshe could convert and move to Israel, while the Iquitos community could disappear through intermarriage.
After 150 years in the country, Peru’s Jews feel deep ties to their land and its people. But they also share a precarious future.
“We need unity above all else, all segments of the community embracing change,” Trahtemberg says. “We require this to survive.”