Though not an inclusive bunch, Perus few Jews persevere

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LIMA — 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 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 embody 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. And 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 1,000 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 numbers 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."

Leo Trahtemberg, a historian and principal of the Colegio Leon Pinelo, believes Peruvian Jewry is "at a crossroads."

"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.

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.

"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.

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.