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The Jews of Iquitos

We have a constant editorial dilemma chosing articles for Converts to Judaism are part of our natural constituency–conversion creates an instant interfaith family, after all–and yet if we feature too many articles by or about conversion, we could make people in interfaith marriages feel pressured to convert. We want to be welcoming to people who choose Judaism, but at the same time we don’t want to proselytize. There are both important cultural and religious reasons for this. Religiously, many believe that proselytizing can invalidate a conversion. Culturally, Jews have a memory of being pressured or coerced to convert to other religions, and so don’t think Jews should do anything remotely like that. In this we’re in pretty much the same boat as the rest of the Jewish community–always struggling to be welcoming without exerting any pressure.

Many people who choose conversion to Judaism do so because they come from families with a Jewish grandparent or earlier ancestor. A recent article about a small Jewish community in Peru captures some of the issues facing both individuals and communities who become cut off from the rest of the Jewish people. The small community in Iquitos, Peru thought of themselves as Jews even when the Ashkenazi Jewish community in Peru wouldn’t recognize them. Descended from 19th century Sephardi merchants, the families had intermarried with local people and they look like them. At the same time, they retained some Jewish practices, beliefs and identity. This has to sound familiar to a lot of my regular readers! The Iquitos Jews were not practicing normative Judaism, in part because they were so cut off from other Jews. Finally they decided to undergo formal conversion in order to gain acceptance, and the community is slowly shrinking as members move to Israel.

You can see why these stories are both difficult and exciting for us. They’re difficult because such stories implicitly validate the Ashkenazi suspicion about the Jewishness of Jews of color. Ever since I read the Ashkenazi Privilege Checklist, I’ve been more alert to this as an issue.

On the other hand, stories like these do show that people can retain their Jewish identity for generations after marriage with non-Jews. It provides parents with a reason to inculcate Jewish identity. I did feel sad, and a little empathetic, for the protagonist of this story who had pushed other Iquitos Jews to go to Israel, and now finds that he wants to live in his birthplace in Peru. Identity is complicated, and depends on more than one experience.

Ruth Abrams


Author: Ruth Abrams