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Hidden Roots in the Jungle

A new film spotlights a far-flung group seeking connection with the mainstream

Robin Cembalest
January 07, 2009

Around a century ago, Abraham Edery Fimat, a Sephardic sailor from Morocco on leave in a Brazilian port, fell asleep in a bar. He soon learned his ship had sailed without him. As Victor Edery Jr., his grandson, recounts in Lorry Salcedo Mitrani’s affecting new documentary, The Fire Within, Abraham tried to follow his crew on another boat—only he went the wrong way. That’s how he ended up heading west, hundreds of miles down the Amazon, until he arrived in the remote Peruvian city of Iquitos.

To his amazement, Edery found other Jews there. They were merchants, traders, and adventurers, Sephardic as well as Ashkenazic, from Morocco and Europe, who came to make their fortunes in the rubber boom. As photos in the film show, many did. Parading in front of their tropical mansions in top hats and tuxedos, the newly rich aspired to bring a continental sophistication to the jungle outpost (though not with the intensity of the city’s most famous resident, the ill-fated opera lover in Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo). Eventually, the rubber business moved on to Asia, and most of the Jews returned to their native lands. But the families they created with native women stayed behind. And though the men left little evidence of organized Jewish life—with the exception of a cemetery—their children and grandchildren retained knowledge of their heritage.

Still, without schools, books, rabbis, or connections to Jews in the faraway capital, Judaism in Iquitos seemed destined to fade away. So how to explain the fact that several hundred of their mestizo descendants—now three, four, and five generations removed from the source—have not only rediscovered their identity, but embraced it, studied for conversion, even made aliyah? This is the story Salcedo tells in The Fire Within.

The film, which is having its New York premiere this month at the New York Jewish Film Festival and is screening at other venues over the next few months, is the latest addition to a genre of what might be dubbed Lost-and-Found Jewry: films, books, long-form articles, and other reports on the intriguing communities with potential Jewish roots that have been “discovered” in recent decades around the globe. One subset is devoted to descendants of the Lost Tribes, whose candidates include the Mizo in Northern India and the Lemba in South Africa, among others. Another searches for traces of communities of crypto-Jews dispersed after the Expulsion in the Iberian peninsula and South America. Ranging from the scholarly to the sentimental, these accounts tend to incorporate historiography, genealogy, detective work, circumstantial evidence—and a good dose of wishful thinking. One quality that unites them is our collective desire to compensate for the traumatic loss experienced over the course of history, from biblical times to the Spanish Inquisition and beyond.

The rise and fall and rise of the Jews of Iquitos is certainly an inspirational example of the resilience of Jewish identity in unlikely circumstances. It is hard not to be struck, as I was when I attended Shabbat in Victor Edery Sr.’s living room in 2001, by their earnest attempts to create a proper service using tattered photocopies and audiocassettes. And watching The Fire Within, I saw how much they had achieved in the past seven years: establishing a synagogue; finding an international team of rabbis to help them; the dramatic beit din in the jungle, and later, after aliyah, their adjustments to life in an unfamiliar land.

But for all the demonstrable evidence of direct lineage to Jews, the Iquitos group does not fit neatly into a compelling narrative of loss, since no one knew they were missing—not even the Jews of Lima. When the Iquitos group first approached Peru’s skeptical Jewish leaders, as we see in The Fire Within, brown skin, adherence to patrilineal descent, and lack of dramatic historical pedigree all worked against them. In this sense, their situation raises a host of troubling issues common to many of the lost-and-found groups. In most cases, the proof—whether in the form of Jewish legal connection, DNA links, or vestigial practices seemingly inherited from Sephardic ancestors of yore—is maddeningly elusive. So as these poignant human dramas unfold, as these groups—often in the Third World—seek to connect with mainstream Judaism, the major question inevitably changes from “Who is a Jew?” to “Who should be a Jew?” And then: “Why do they want to be Jewish?” and, eventually, “Which ones should we let in?”

Those answers can be difficult to determine, and seeking them not nearly as romantic a quest as seeking lost Jews in exotic locales. The reasons that outsiders want in range from the persistence of that stubborn “Jewish fiber” to economic to emotional needs, as Ariel Segal thoughtfully explains in his study of Iquitos, and Barbara Ferry and Debbie Nathan document in their fascinating exposé of the new crypto-Jews of the American Southwest. However, it becomes clear from all these stories that pedigree has nothing to do with sincerity, or success. And whatever the connection, newly proclaimed Jews around the world have learned, the arc of breathless rediscovery—and the help of their discoverers, who often become their greatest advocates—is often followed by rejection by the community at large. It’s one thing to be intrigued that someone’s grandmother lit candles in the basement on Fridays; it’s quite another to let them join your synagogue.

The Fire Within ends in Israel, where the Iquiteños describe the daily challenge to assimilate and make a new life. Of the 300 who made aliyah, only two have returned to Peru. But there is plenty of material to make another movie. There are still 90 Jews in Iquitos. And a text at the end notes that a new group named Beit Jacob has appeared in the jungle, with 211 members who are not descended from Jews. They have approached Rabbi Eliyahu Birnbaum, a Uruguyan-born rabbi in Israel who assisted the Iquitos group, to inquire about conversion and aliyah.

Robin Cembalest is executive editor ofARTnews. She blogs at Her Twitter feed is @rcembalest.

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