Navigate to Belief section

Eretz Peru

The idyllic Peruvian city of Cusco is an obligatory stop on the South American tour for many young Israelis. For a few entrepreneurial expats, it’s also home.

Paula Sadok
August 31, 2011
An Israeli restaurant in Cusco.(Shannan Mortimer/Flickr)

An Israeli restaurant in Cusco.(Shannan Mortimer/Flickr)

Walk down the cobblestone alley, and you’ll see it lined with restaurants serving falafel and schnitzel and Internet cafés advertising their businesses with Hebrew signs and Israeli flags. Shoppers speak Hebrew, and Israeli pop music emanates from storefronts. A shopkeeper waves and calls out to a passerby, “Shalom!”

Remarkably, you’re in Cusco, Peru, the ancient capital of the Inca Empire and the gateway to Machu Picchu. Each year, some 40,000 young Israelis embark upon a grand adventure they call tiyul hagadol, the big trip, after finishing military service. About 30 percent hit South America’s Gringo Trail, according to the Jerusalem Post, and picturesque Cusco, a city with a population of approximately 350,000 people, is an obligatory stop. These travelers have added new terms to the local lexicon in South America, including un grande balagan, a Spanish-Hebrew phrase that roughly translates as a big, confusing mess.

Rabbi Ofer Kripor, who co-directs Cusco’s Chabad center with his wife, Yael, says he regularly draws the largest crowds in South America, hosting approximately 300 Israelis for Shabbat dinner every week during the summer high season. The Chabad house is located in an old colonial mansion on Calle Granada, near the city center. Shabbat meals take place in the open-air inner courtyard. Kripor says that Cusco Chabad also holds one of the biggest Seders in the world, catering to 1,200 travelers.

It’s easy to see why so many young Israelis are drawn to Cusco. Located in Southeastern Peru, in the Andean valley, it’s a visually stunning city, “the undisputed archaeological capital of the Americas,” Lonely Planet says. High-adrenaline activities such as rafting, rock climbing, and hiking are all nearby. Vestiges of the Incas’ greatness remain in the still-preserved Temple of Koricancha and perfectly carved stone walls. After the Spanish conquest in 1533, conquistadores built a colonial city on the ruins of Inca sites, erecting a magnificent Plaza de Armas flanked by an enormous cathedral to the east and an even more beautiful Baroque church to the south. The heavily Israeli Procuridades Street—what some call “Israeli town”—is located on the northwest side of the plaza.

Native Peruvians are more than happy to cater to the Israelis. Swiss Raft, a Peruvian-owned company that runs trips down the Apurímac river, advertises in Hebrew signs on Procuridades and employs Hebrew-speaking guides. In the southern part of the city, the Beit Asimha (“House of Happiness” in Hebrew) is a popular hostel, with a large hamsa, the hand-shaped amulet, affixed on a sign above the door. Like many restaurants on Procuridades, Sueño Azul—which serves Israeli food, translates its name into Hebrew on its door, and affixes hamsas and Israeli flags to its walls—is owned by native Peruvians and mostly staffed by them.

But that is changing. In recent years, a small number of Israelis have relocated to Cusco. They organize Purim parties and Hannukah celebrations. Among the expats are several entrepreneurs who’ve taken advantage of the influx of traveling Israelis and Cusco’s favorable business climate, opening shops on or near Procuridades.

The Duchovny brothers are among them. In 2006, Ohad and Gilad, twin brothers from Rehovot, returned to Cusco, which they had both visited earlier on their post-army trips, after Ohad fell in love with a Peruvian woman traveling in Israel, whom he has since married. The brothers, now 31, opened the Bagel Café on Procuridades that same year, and Gilad later initiated several ventures of his own, including a restaurant, a nightclub, and a food-delivery service. Partnering with a close friend and fellow Israeli ex-pat, Ohad opened a sushi restaurant.

Gilad says he has no plans to return to his homeland. “I love Israel, but it’s more comfortable here,” he says. He cites his ability to earn a better living and how quickly he was able to establish himself in business. Like his brother, Gilad has also married a Peruvian woman—he jokes that he and his wife communicate in “Hebrew-Spanglish”—and the couple has two small children.

Ben Brodny, 28, a Haifa native and Gilad’s business partner, moved to Lima in 2005. He says he originally came to Peru because he wanted to be his own boss. “It’s impossible to be independent in Israel,” he says. In 2008, he met the Duchovny brothers, and he talked about how much he missed bourekas, the popular Israeli pastry. A year later, Brodny opened Brodny’s Bourekas, a small café three blocks off of the Procuridades, a huge mural of the coast of Tel Aviv painted on its wall above the kitchen.

Unlike Gilad, Brodny says he’s fairly confident he’ll return to Israel. “It is not possible to live all your life here,” he says. “If you think you’re going to have children,” he says shaking his head, “What about school?”

But he’s not going anywhere soon. He speaks perfect Spanish, and he knows Peruvian slang and folksongs. “I’m more Peruvian than a lot of Peruvians here,” he says.

Paula Sadok, who has work forthcoming in the New York Times and Marie Claire, has recently completed a novel.

Paula Sadok, who has work forthcoming in the New York Times and Marie Claire, has recently completed a novel.

Join Us!

All of Tablet’s latest stories—in your inbox, daily. Subscribe to our newsletter.

Please enter a valid email
Check iconSuccess! You have subscribed to the Tablet newsletter.