An Amazonian Exodus

From the New York Review of Books:

By the Israeli law of return, all Jews have the right to move to Israel and attain citizenship. The law was designed for those with at least one Jewish grandparent, and others have to prove that they are truly Jewish. The undertaking is a distant cousin to asylum seeking: How to prove one’s background and intentions, that one is not simply immigrating to a richer country for more opportunities? In 1990, as a middle-aged man, after moving first to the Peruvian Amazon and amassing a series of followers who joined him in intensive Bible study, Segundo managed not just to convert but to make aliyah—to “ascend”—and migrate to Israel. There he and his disciples joined a settlement in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, caught up in a fight over who counts as Jewish and in a demographic contest with Palestinians for the future of Israel.

…Mochkofsky smelled a story upon reading an account by a New York–based rabbi titled “Converting Inca Indians in Peru” and—despite its inaccuracies, exaggerations, and inventions—followed the trail all the way to a 2005 meeting with Segundo in Israel. She brought the family nearly ten pounds of yucca from Argentina at the request of his daughter, who wanted to cook a Peruvian dish. By then Segundo was called Zerubbabel Tzidkiya and had developed advanced Alzheimer’s. This meant, she writes, that “our awkward exchange could not be described as an interview.” She notes that the book, though, is dominated by the voices of men, since Segundo’s wife and daughters, who at first had spoken to her, later “decided to step back.” Segundo’s son continued to answer her questions and supply her with documents and photographs.

Mochkofsky first published a version of Segundo’s story in Spanish in 2007 under the title La revelación, but has now written an entirely new book on the subject, which has been expertly translated by Lisa Dillman into English. Mochkofsky condenses an astonishing sweep of religious and political history from the Spanish conquest to Zionism, connecting it to Segundo’s story with a light touch.

…Segundo began to gather a group of relatives to puzzle through the Holy Book with him. For a while they joined the Seventh-Day Adventist Reform Movement, which in Segundo’s opinion at the very least got the Sabbath right, since the Bible so clearly said it was not Sunday but Saturday—sábado in Spanish. The Adventists were just one of the many Protestant groups trawling Latin America then—a quarter of all Protestant missionaries landed there after 1949, when China closed its doors to them. The Protestants could not resolve his questions either. In Mochkofsky’s account, Segundo’s character emerges as stubborn and profound. “But why? Segundo wanted to know” is the refrain. Why was God one in the Pentateuch, an all-powerful oneness, then suddenly three later on? What exactly was the Holy Spirit if he, she, or it did not appear in the book?

Here are some highlights from this 2022 book, The Prophet of the Andes: An Unlikely Journey to the Promised Land:

* Thus the Adventists believed, like other Christians, not only in the eternity of the soul but also in an eternity for the whole person, provided the person was a true believer. Body, mind, and spirit were indivisible, and therefore not only the spirit had to be preserved; food and caring for one’s health were also essential. This explains their militant abstention from drinking and smoking, and their frequent vegetarianism, as well as their emphasis on building hospitals and schools.
The Adventist Church would play an essential role during the Second Coming, the Adventists believed. It was the “remnant .” The term could be found in many books of the Bible and referred to those who, in times of widespread apostasy, had been selected as the keepers of the commandments of God and the faith of Christ. The Adventist Church’s unique role was to proclaim God’s final message to the world at the time of the Judgment and the second Advent of Christ.
Although the Adventists concentrated more on the end of the Bible than the beginning, more on the eschatology of Revelation than the deeds and instructions of God found in the first five books, the Pentateuch, which Segundo especially loved, the Adventists, he believed, had the virtue of adherence to the letter of Scripture. They saw the Bible as a road map to God.

* Just like other groups before them to whom Segundo presented questions they found inappropriate or irrelevant, the Adventists resented it. They were not interested in questioning their dogma. Segundo found that although he’d finally chosen a church, the one of the true Sabbath, that church had not chosen him.

* And thus, once again, almost a decade after choosing the Adventists, they were without a church. Soon, they would also be without their beloved publication, because only members of the church received it. They were alone.

* The group went back to eating meat after concluding that the Reformers’ vegetarianism was a deceit. Leviticus 11 , Víctor Castillo observed, listed the clean and unclean animals, and the clean ones, he said, “shall ye eat.” So why not eat them?

* the headquarters of the Sephardic Jewish Charitable Society.
Segundo knocked on the door.
It was opened by a man with a black beard and curly hair, the crown of his head covered by a small circular cap, knotted tassels dangling out from under his shirt. Segundo introduced himself as leader of the Israelites. The bearded man introduced himself as Rabbi Abraham Benhamú.
Segundo told him the story of Israel of God and the founding of Hebron in the Amazon, recounted the way they kept the Sabbath and observed feast days, and the way they ate, following the teachings of the Bible. The rabbi listened, moved and yet feeling a secret, growing unease. What was this highlander doing in a synagogue? What did he want?
To learn Hebrew, Segundo finally explained.
Relieved, the rabbi went to his office. He had designed a way to learn Hebrew in four lessons, a method that was used to teach children, and he’d written it down on a few sheets of paper. He gave them to Segundo. Benhamú also told him how to find the Hebrew teacher at the Jewish school who could help him obtain a Hebrew-Spanish dictionary. And he explained how to get to Stadium bookstore, in San Isidro, Lima’s most upscale neighborhood, where they sold a book called Jewish Traditions and Customs, [38] which children used to prepare for their bar and bat mitzvah, the rite of passage marking the start of adulthood at age thirteen.

* What the rabbi had initially feared was indeed happening: they wanted to be Jews.
Benhamú would later say he’d never doubted the sincerity of their aspirations. On the contrary, he would avow that they moved him then, and they still moved him. How could he not be moved by the fervor of a man who had gone nine days without working to observe Pesach despite being so poor that not working meant he couldn’t eat? How could he not be moved by these men’s genuine passion to be Jews? But if he had one mission in that far-off, faithless community where he’d ended up, that mission was to defend it from outside corruption.
Benhamú was thirty-two, and he had children; he wasn’t heartless. But if he accepted more Gentiles, the already tenuous identity of Peruvian Jews [1] —the colony, as they called themselves—would eventually vanish.

* Whether rich or poor on arrival, the majority of Lima’s Jews amassed fortunes over the course of a single generation and went on to form part of the capital’s upper class.

* Who, then, if not the mohel? Segundo learned that there was a surgeon, Rubén Kogan, who performed adult circumcision. Though he was a Jew, he did it not as an act of faith but as a job: he charged sixty dollars per person.

* When the “Cajamarcans”—as the members of the colony called them, as a reminder of where the newcomers came from—entered the synagogue, the men and women who were casual about their religion but strict with regard to their class could not hide their displeasure. After all, what, if not the desire to climb the social ladder, could bring such people to their synagogue?

* Benhamú sought out Lima’s other Orthodox rabbi, who led the Ashkenazi synagogue. They decided to tackle the matter together and summoned Segundo to a meeting. Excited, he recounted his story, described his studies and his path, and concluded by invoking Isaiah’s prophecy foretelling the day when all men would be members of the people of Israel: “For I know their works and their thoughts: it shall come, that I will gather all nations and tongues; and they shall come, and see my glory.”
The rabbis grew alarmed. The man was messianic! Judaism had resisted supposed messiahs and their followers for many centuries, but the Protestant Reformation had ushered in a new species: Christian Hebraists, Protestants who learned Hebrew in order to comprehend the Book and ended up becoming convinced that it was necessary to convert all Jews as some sort of precondition for the Second Coming.
Shaken, the rabbis sent Segundo off and sequestered themselves in council. “I want nothing to do with him,” Benhamú announced. The Ashkenazi rabbi agreed. They told Segundo he was persona non grata and cut off all contact with him.

* The New Testament was false.
The Old Testament, the Jewish Bible, contained God’s only true message.
One by one, Segundo took the treasured Bibles from his library and proceeded to rip from them the false, Christian portion.

* Even in the face of these bewildering new realities, the Bnei Moshe, whose numbers were minuscule by comparison, were considered stranger than anything else. Neither the press nor Israeli society knew how to describe them. Without realizing how offensive it was to them, journalists called them “Indianim.” One commentator claimed that their faces “would fit beautifully in a Life Magazine photographic essay entitled ‘The people of the Andes.’ ” [31] And the correspondent from The Jewish Week observed that “the Peruvian men were outfitted, like other Elon Moreh residents, in jeans, sneakers and colorful knit kippot. Only their dark complexions and distinctive South American features set them apart.” [32]
They were an exotic, unclassifiable element in a nation accustomed to splintering into very specific tribes. Very soon they would be forced to pick one.

* Outside the settlements were the secular Jews, whom the Bnei Moshe found distasteful. They shouted when they spoke and didn’t seem to care about pleasantries. In Peru people spoke softly, using exaggerated politeness: How are you doing? May you have a nice day, friend; I wish you well, brother. Here, Yehoshua laughed, people got right in one another’s faces, as if they were going to fight, even if nothing happened.
Inside the settlements, differences—even among the Orthodox, even within a small settlement like Elon Moreh—could be disconcerting. There were the modern Orthodox Jews, who lived in the secular world and served in the army. Then there were the ultra-Orthodox, the Haredim, who lived in isolation from the modern world: the men dedicated themselves wholly to studying the Torah, and their children did not serve in the army. Some of them opposed the State of Israel, convinced that Israel could exist only after the coming of the Messiah. Others believed that their rabbi, who lived in Brooklyn, was the Messiah: you could tell who they were by the flags with messianic crowns flying from their roofs.

* The grandchildren of the first Bnei Moshe were called up to do obligatory military service; their families were proud. When one boy confessed, crying, that the army was too hard and he didn’t want to return, his father was furious. “Do you want them to think we’re not men? You must be a man and serve in the army like a man, and if you must die, you die.”

* And it was amid this war of influences, fears, and jealousies that Zerubbabel returned to El Milagro in 2003, thirteen years after he’d left. Wisely, he began by convening, one by one, those he knew from the past. But very few of them actually went to see him. He had no access to the conversion lists, they knew. So what was the point of meeting with him?
What’s more, the few who did expressed alarm.
“Señor Segundo is acting a little strange,” said José Urquiza, one of El Milagro’s new Inca Jews.
“He doesn’t believe in the sages,” Agustín Araujo, leader of the Cajamarca Inca Jews, confirmed.
Lucy Valderrama confirmed that Segundo had stopped following Jewish law.
This was substantiated by a warning that arrived from Israel: The rabbis at Elon Moreh and Kfar Tapuach said that Zerubbabel rejected the sages, the Oral Torah. Anyone who spoke to him risked being censured by the new beit din.

* Thus the isolation Zerubbabel had felt at Kfar Tapuach followed him to Trujillo. There, they had let him down; here, they wouldn’t even hear him out. In order to tackle the situation head-on, one day he showed up at the El Milagro synagogue. During prayers, he told everyone that things in Israel were not what they thought; they were wrong.

* Embittered, Zerubbabel tried to demand the synagogue’s property. It was his, he claimed, but he was willing to sell it. In truth, it was not his. His daughters had donated the land, the cost of construction had been borne by all, and no property deed existed. But he had been the pioneer, the teacher, the leader who had made it possible for them to dream of Israel, even if they refused to admit it. They owed him, and this was the only way of making them pay.
Nobody replied.
With no recognition, no followers, and no other choice, Zerubbabel was forced to return to Kfar Tapuach.

* Seven years after the death of Zerubbabel/Segundo, the Inca Jews were no longer an anomaly. In addition to the Jews of Bello, other groups and leaders were coming to similar conclusions on their own, leaving the Catholic Church or the evangelical or Pentecostal churches they’d grown up in, going through a transitional phase with messianism—or not—and finally coming to Judaism. In Colombia alone, there were more than thirty communities in Bogotá, Barranquilla, Cartagena, Santa Marta, Cúcuta, Villavicencio, Valledupar, Montería, Sincelejo, Corozal, Bucaramanga, Melgar, Ibagué, Neiva, Garzón, and Cali; in Medellín two other groups emerged, independent of Rabbi Villegas’s.
In Peru, in addition to the Inca Jews of Cajamarca and Trujillo, there were new communities in the Lima neighborhood of Los Olivos, and other independent communities had been established in Huánuco and Tarapoto. In Ecuador there were three thousand followers among seven groups: five in Guayaquil, one in Quito, and another in Zaruma. In Brazil, new groups were established in São Paulo, Ubatuba, Goiânia, Tatuapé, and Bahia, and every month another one seemed to spring up somewhere. Mexico had a dozen communities spread across Mexico City, Mexicali, San Miguel de Allende, Ciudad Juárez, Saltillo, Guadalajara, Xalapa, Morelia, and Tijuana; no one had counted their members. In Venezuela, there were four growing groups in Maracay, San Cristóbal, Maracaibo, and Cagua. In Guatemala City, eight families were awaiting conversion. In El Salvador there were a hundred people between the two communities found in San Salvador and Armenia. Nicaragua had one group in Managua and another in Granada. In Costa Rica, there was a group in Alajuela. And more in Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Bolivia, and Chile.
Traditional Jewish leaders in Latin America looked on in alarm as, generation after generation, their communities shrank through assimilation and interfaith marriage, but they refused to accept the newly emerging Judaism that eclipsed them in religious fervor and, in many places, in number. Rejected in their home countries, Latin America’s new Jews committed themselves to anyone willing to help them, whether they be North American Orthodox and Reform rabbis who saw their emergence as a divine sign or an opportunity for personal enrichment; the handful of Latin American Conservative rabbis disgusted by the way traditional communities rejected them, which they saw as racism or classism; or Kulanu, the American proselytizing organization that had supported Rabbi Zuber’s trip to Peru and sent volunteers to offer spiritual support wherever they could.

* By the early 2010s the Israeli religious establishment and the Chief Rabbinate had grown alarmed. “Israel may decide if it wishes to become the welfare state of the third world,” warned Chief Rabbi David Lau, the son of Meir Lau, “but so long as it has not chosen to do so—it should stop the immigration of non-Jews.” [2] New restrictions were created against conversions performed outside Israel; scores of Orthodox rabbis were deemed too progressive and blacklisted; the minister of the interior, who approves all immigration requests, added new layers of requirements. Aliyah became practically impossible to the Latin American converts.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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