The Jews of Iquitos

We have a constant editorial dilemma chosing articles for InterfaithFamily.com. Converts to Judaism are part of our natural constituency–conversion creates an instant interfaith family, after all–and yet if we feature too many articles by or about conversion, we could make people in interfaith marriages feel pressured to convert. We want to be welcoming to people who choose Judaism, but at the same time we don’t want to proselytize. There are both important cultural and religious reasons for this. Religiously, many believe that proselytizing can invalidate a conversion. Culturally, Jews have a memory of being pressured or coerced to convert to other religions, and so don’t think Jews should do anything remotely like that. In this we’re in pretty much the same boat as the rest of the Jewish community–always struggling to be welcoming without exerting any pressure.

Many people who choose conversion to Judaism do so because they come from families with a Jewish grandparent or earlier ancestor. A recent article about a small Jewish community in Peru captures some of the issues facing both individuals and communities who become cut off from the rest of the Jewish people. The small community in Iquitos, Peru thought of themselves as Jews even when the Ashkenazi Jewish community in Peru wouldn’t recognize them. Descended from 19th century Sephardi merchants, the families had intermarried with local people and they look like them. At the same time, they retained some Jewish practices, beliefs and identity. This has to sound familiar to a lot of my regular readers! The Iquitos Jews were not practicing normative Judaism, in part because they were so cut off from other Jews. Finally they decided to undergo formal conversion in order to gain acceptance, and the community is slowly shrinking as members move to Israel.

You can see why these stories are both difficult and exciting for us. They’re difficult because such stories implicitly validate the Ashkenazi suspicion about the Jewishness of Jews of color. Ever since I read the Ashkenazi Privilege Checklist, I’ve been more alert to this as an issue.

On the other hand, stories like these do show that people can retain their Jewish identity for generations after marriage with non-Jews. It provides parents with a reason to inculcate Jewish identity. I did feel sad, and a little empathetic, for the protagonist of this story who had pushed other Iquitos Jews to go to Israel, and now finds that he wants to live in his birthplace in Peru. Identity is complicated, and depends on more than one experience.

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3 thoughts on “The Jews of Iquitos

  1. Thank you for sharing this. So sad! Here’s a community that has managed to keep their Judaism alive through intermarriage and adaptation, in the face of a largely anti-semitic dominant culture and an Ashkenazic Jewish community that invalidates their efforts. Judaism has survived in part because of communities like this that can go underground and reemerge again, all the while keeping some aspects of Jewish practice. Regardless of how those practices cohere with “normative” Judaism, the willingness to continue to identify as Jews is a key to religious survival — I would hope that we would honor variants of Jewish practice as valid parts of our tradition.

  2. i arrived at your article through the jmnet. i live in israel, and a group of the iquitos have joined our synagogue here at kibbutz gezer. our synagogue also has many people from russia, from english-speaking countries, and native born israelis. i am really glad to have them in our community. to look around the beit knesset on a friday night and see such a diverse crowd is truly heartwarming. so there may be sadness to your story, but on this side of the ocean, there is happiness as well.

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