Jewish Roots in a remote corner of the Amazon

IQUITOS, Peru — If Ronald Reátegui Levy someday finds that he is the last Jew of Iquitos, it may well be of his own doing.

His dream, which he has vigorously pursued, is to persuade the descendants of Sephardic merchants who settled in this remote corner of the Amazon basin more than a century ago to reaffirm their ties to Judaism and emigrate to Israel.

“It is getting very lonely here,” said Mr. Reátegui Levy, 52, an inspector at Peru’s national oil company, referring to the more than 400 descendants of Jewish pioneers who have formally converted to Judaism this decade, including about 160 members of his immediate and extended family. Nearly all of them now live in Israel.

Until recently, such a rebirth of Judaism here seemed unlikely. The history of Jews in Iquitos, dating from the late-19th-century rubber boom that transformed this far-flung Amazonian outpost into a once thriving city of imported Italian marble and a theater designed by Gustave Eiffel, was almost forgotten.

But Mr. Reátegui Levy and a handful of others began organizing the descendants of dozens of Jews from places as varied as Morocco, Gibraltar, Malta, England and France who had settled here and deeper in the jungle, opening trading houses and following their star in search of riches and adventure.

The rubber trade collapsed, and fortunes here and upriver in the Brazilian city of Manaus vanished. Some Jewish immigrants perished young, succumbing to diseases like cholera. A few stayed, marrying local women and raising families. Others returned home, leaving behind descendants who clung to a belief that they were Jews.

“It was astounding to discover that in Iquitos there existed this group of people who were desperate to reconnect to their roots and re-establish ties to the broader Jewish world,” said Lorry Salcedo Mitrani, the director of a new documentary, “The Fire Within,” about the Jews of the Peruvian Amazon.

“We were isolated for so many decades, living on the jungle’s edge in a Catholic society without rabbis or a synagogue, in which all we had were some vague notions of what it meant to be Jewish,” Mr. Reátegui Levy said.

“But when I was a child, my mother told me something that forever burned into my mind,” he said. “She told me, ‘You are a Jew, and you are never to forget that.’ ”

Iquitos lies four degrees south of the Equator, reachable only by boat or plane. Isolation, intermarriage and assimilation nearly wiped out the vestiges of Judaism here. Storefronts chiseled with Jewish surnames like Foinquinos and Cohen, and a cemetery ravaged by vandals, served as some of the few reminders of the community that once thrived here. (

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