Review: Graciela Mochkofsky, The prophet of the Andes: An unlikely journey to the promised land, 2022.
Inca Jews? Yet another 'lost tribe'? Jewish folklore never fails to surprise. But this is even stranger. This, at least for the Jewish 'colony' (the real Jews) in sleepy Cajamarca, Peru, was more like an outbreak of the plague, which they instinctively shunned, refusing these interlopers even access to their synagogue to pray.
They called themselves 'Israel of God', until convinced by American writer Bryan Schwartz, who lived with them a year to teach them Jewish rituals, that 'Inca Jews' would be their key to marketing success.
The community was founded in 1966 by Segundo Villanueva of Trujillo, a poor, landless fellow, but intelligent and resourceful, who found a Bible among his father's effects. Sounds boring, but this was in the 1940s, and Peru was still under the Catholic yoke, which forbade worshippers from reading the sacred text. Owning a copy would land you in jail.
Segundo started reading it, and by the time he had finished his theological odyssey, he would end up in a settlement in the West Bank, effectively a prisoner, in a tiny apartment in a sea of hostile Arabs, unable to roam about as he once did in his beloved Andes. Not really a happy ending, but his story has much more to it, and its implications for Israel are profound. Who is a Jew? And is mass conversion a way out of Israel's demographic timebomb?
First, are there any other such instances of spontaneous conversion to Judaism? Answer: At least three:
* Abayudaya community in Uganda founded in 1919 by Kakungulu, who died 1928 but whose followers continued, persecuted in the 1960s by Amin. Conservative American rabbis took the community under their protection, converted 400 and helped them establish a Jewish community formally recognized in Uganda. The Jewish Agency officially recognized the Abayudaya in 2016 and actively backed their struggle for the right to immigrate to Israel, but then in 2018 withdrew its recognition. No 'law of return' for the 3,000-strong community, no participation in government-sponsored Israel experience programs like Birthright and Masa.
*'The Jews of San Nicandro', a group of Catholics converted in the 1930s, and its survivors emigrated to Israel 1948. It seems they weren't Jewish enough for Hitler but good material for the new state eager for nation builders.
*A Colombian messianic Christian group leader Pastor Villegas in Medellin was kidnapped by a guerrilla group in 2000, freed, but in the meantime, in the jungle, had converted to Judaism, and began emphasizing Christ's Judaism in his sermons. He had 300 followers but they were banned from the Jewish colony's synagogue in Medellin. Villegas built his own synagogue, open to all, frequented by Jewish tourists during holidays or for shabbat. But no 'law of return'.
Then there are the many 'lost tribes', with contenders in India, Kashmir, China, famously the Falasha Jews, who made it to Israel but are not happy campers.
Dare to be a Daniel
Reading the Bible on his own, Segundo realized that there were many discrepancies in the New Testament – the inconsistent geneologies of Jesus for a start, who first saw the resurrected Jesus and when. And what about Moses' covenant with God? It was 'eternal', so did God suddenly change the rules? His first major decision was to revert to Saturday as the sabbath. When his band of followers protested, he told them: look up Sunday in the dictionary. 'first day of the week'. God rested on the 7th. He was also not happy about God admitting getting tired, but he let that go. Of course, the day of rest was changed after Jesus rose from the dead, though it's not clear who decided this or the strange Trinity, which increasingly looked like heresy to Segundo. As his theology became clearer, he christened his group Israel of God.
Segundo attended evangelical meetings but the only group with Saturday as the day of rest was the 7th day Adventists, a sect founded during the second 'great awakening' in the US in 1830. They alone had a solid missionary operation, and kept the sabbath. Other US Protestant mssionaries had washed their hands of Latin America as their crusade to Christianize the world gathered steam (along with imperial railroads), leaving it to the Catholics, who had a monopoly on all souls there. An enlightened Peruvian government had annulled the law forbidding any religion but Catholicism in 1915, and the Adventists took note. They were 'reformed' Adventists, who stood by their pacifist credo (the regular Adventists in Germany had allowed conscription in WWI, i.e., when it was most needed!). So Segundo joined up.
But the dizzying array of Protestant sects was like a red alert to Segundo. Why all this division when there is only one God? Is that so difficult? He stuck with the Adventists for 10 years, but Segundo began to annoy the missionaries with his questions and deviation from Adventist doctrine. Why don't they keep the day of the new moon, like in Isaiah, Ezra, Kings, Chronicles? And how could they cook on Saturday? asked Segundo. And what's with the doctrine banning divorce? And above all, why the Trinity?
The Adventists had had enough. Segundo and his followers were themselves banned. Segundo found like-minded Loje who was also looking for the real version of 'one god'. He had founded the Israelite Evangelical Association of the New Covenant, observed Saturday sabbath, and also the lunar calendar. Segundo had long given up on the paganized Christian holidays, so the Jewish holidays Passover and Rosh hashanah, celebrating the lunar calendar, took on new meaning for Segundo. Passover celebrated the Jews liberation from Egypt, but also the ritual of Christ's death and resurrection. The harvest festival Shavot, celebrating God's laws given to Moses coincided with Pentecost, God's new covenant to spread the word.
Segundo began to see time as sacred time, with God anticipating every event that was to occur before He'd even begun His creation of the world. Moses began to take the main role in all this. The original covenant, with laws to help man in his spiritual growth. But he wouldn't join Loje's church. He cooked on Saturday. And made his employees work! God's message was so clear, and yet his messengers were muddying it up.
The next step was to found a commune and live like the first Christians, so they bought a small holding on the edge of the Amazon forest, called it Hebron, and were able to scrape a living growing and selling their produce. Segundo was shot by a neighbour but miraculously survived undaunted.
He slowly came to the realization that there was only one truth. One religion that all others sprang from. Judaism. He now saw that Jesus had failed as a prophet of the apocalypse. Yes, a second coming, or maybe just the coming, would be a success, bringing Jews and Christians together. Squaring the circle. He would learn the rituals, learn Hebrew, read only the Jewish Bible, the Tanakh, become a Jew. Jesus the Messiah was a human invention. Both Christainity and Islam were just imitations of Judaism. 'It's all a fiction. People had a need for the Messiah, so the Messiah was invented.'
Becoming a Jew
It was 1968 when they found Judaism but living in Israel was still a pipe dream. Segundo finally found a real Jew in Cajamarca. A Sephardic merchant, Jose Goldstein, one of 3,000 in Cajamarca, part of the mass migration from Europe at the end of the 19th century. Goldstein had set himself up in the bazaar trading, and soon owned it, assimilated and married a Catholic. He was nice enough, but not the 'real Jew' Segundo was looking for. Goldstein no doubt smiled as he directed Segundo to the local synagogue. When this Inca showed up at the synagogue, Rabbi Benhamu felt threatened by what might become a problem for his colony. Segundo only wanted to learn Hebrew, not invade their cozy community, so the rabbi gave him some notes and pointed him to the Stadium bookstore in San Isidro, Lima's most upscale neighbourhood, where he bought Jewish Traditions and Customs, and started instruction his children for the bar and bat mitzvahs. At last, they were Jews.
But Rabbi Benhamu still refused to let them worship. The Jewish colony was a typical Jewish diaspora community, much like Canada's. Not too big, made from two waves of Jewish immigration, from Germany in the second half 19th c; Turkey, the Balkans, Thessaloniki in the early twentieth; a scattering from Poland and Bessarabia. Jews were/are welcomed by Latin American elites as honorary whites, just as local Indians are reviled (and hired as cooks and gardeners).
The first Ashkenazi congregation in Lima opened its doors (though not to the likes of Segundo) in 1934, attended by the mayor and a presidential aide. The immigrants amassed commercial fortunes in a single generation and had pride of place in Peruvian society. But the 'community' was plagued by intermarriage, lax conversion. Not circumcizing boys! There was no mohel; only a Jewish doctor, Ruben Kogan, who charged $60 for adult circumcision.
But this 'whites only' apartheid was nixxed by the leftist military President Alvarado (1968–75), who passed a law forbidding discrimination in any house of worship.
The nerve! 1,000 Lima Jews immediately immigrated to the US and Israel. Segundo and his group were allowed to worship. But something had to be done about the lax standards. First, local conversions were banned, leaving poor converts like Segundo out in the lurch, and forcing rich brides to go to the US for conversion. (They came back as eager converts, so good move.) But judeophiles like Segundo, actually wanting to be Jews, stuck in Rabbi Benhamu's craw. Jews had renounced proselytizing after 70AD. Rejected hellenized Jews, intermarriage, tightened up laws. Hunkered down behind ghetto walls against a hostile world. But surely Israel had changed that.
More visitors came to see these strange new Inca Jews, Jungle Jews. Israeli Rabbi Jacob Krauss came with his family. He thought they looked like something out of the Flintstones, but realized they were in fact out of the Torah. This was how Israelis must have lived in the desert, with however much or little God provided. At the end of the visit, his children didn't want to leave. He was touched by their devotion.
They had to form a new community, Krauss told them, to qualify for conversion, so in 1980 they called themselves Bnei Moshe (children of Moses) and built their synagogue in El Milagro (the miracle), a grid of tracks in the desert. The real turning point (there are so many) was in 1981, when Victor Chico, an orphan raised by Segundo, won a Bible contest sponsored by Israel and got the inevitable junket to Israel. Victor wedged his prayer in the Wailing Wall to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to help him and his family come to Israel. Suddenly Bnei Moshe had an international audience.
But Judaism has its sects too. Reform and conservative are the mainstream accommodationist versions vs various orthodox sects. Everyone had their own view of the Inca Jews, either banning them outright, or using them to replace Palestinians as workers, like the Jewish Agency and the fanatical settlers in Elon Moreh; or actually liking and wanting them as idealistic Jews, like Krauss. Their case was batted back and forth, for some, a cause celebre, for others, a plague.
In 1985, when conservative American Rabbi Bronstein came to check out the 'Inca Jews' for the Jewish Agency, he was impressed, realizing they were much closer to the original Jews of the Torah, offered them a conservative conversion on the spot. Segundo demurred: I need an orthodox conversion. That took some doing. Circumcision, candles, lamps, minyan. Letters to the Chief Rabbinate in Israel. More letters.
In 1988, Segundo was approached by Rabbi Myron Zuber, another American, a freelance charismatic Chabad-Lubavitcher, who helped with their formal conversions, instructing them in how to properly observe kashrut (kosher) and Shabbat. The goal of Bnei Moshe was to make aliyah (emigration) to Israel once converted.
They finally were allowed to be converted by the local orthodox rabbi, but only under an exclusionary clause: if they would be whisked away to Israel immediately afterward. The Lima colony had no interest in born-again Judaism, thank you very much. A Beit Din initially performed formal conversions for about 300 members of the community in 1991, almost all of whom emigrated to Israel, followed by an additional 200 several years later. First they settled in Elon Moreh, an orthodox settlement near Kahane settlements, i.e., into the thick of Israeli exclusionary politics.
How did the children of Moses fare in Israel?
The Elon Moreh settlement reacted much like the Adventists in Peru. Too many questions! Theology is not a high priority with armed settlers. While the Incas were darker than Arabs and all but the Mizrahi 'oriental' Jews, they were accepted grudgingly by the religious Jews but not at all by the seculars. Segundo and his followers found the seculars distasteful. Loud, pushy, irreligious.
All but the orthodox were not sufficiently Jewish, and after Segundo had settled in, he started to pick holes in Judaism itself. The Tanakh includes all the prophets' writings and letters, much like the New Testament includes letters by Paul to various congregations. This is not the word of God, argued Segundo. Only the Pentateuch, the first five books Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, are God's word.
Though forbidden, he went to visit Samaritans, who have their own edition of the Pentateuch, and claim to be the authentic descendants of the original tribes of Israel, possessors of the authentic scripture and guardians of the authentic place of worship, Mount Gerizim. But that didn't gel. He settled on the Karaites (readers), who recognize only the Pentateuch, and are not considered Jews by the Chief Rabbinate.
Segundo had found all the monotheisms wanting so why did he stop with the Pentateuch? Textual analysis makes it clear that there were many authors/ scribes/ whatever at work on those books too. Who knows what God's original words were (assuming 'he' 'spoke' to 'Moses')? At least we have some evidence that Jesus actually existed, and lots about Muhammad. But really none for the Old Testament stories, however colourful and compelling.
Once again, just as with the Lima Jewish colony, he and his followers were banished. They moved to Kfar Tapuach, an even more extreme Kahane hotbed with even less concern about theological niceties.
Of course the Incas adopted settler thinking, seeing Palestinians as interlopers on Jewish land, happy to serve in the IDF, accepting that Palestinians have no rights and should be killed or deported. New converts to any ideology go for the extreme position against 'enemies'. The fierce orthodox settlers didn't really care what the Incas believed as long as they toted a gun and were ready to kill any 'enemy'. The Incas are much like black exslaves after the civil war, who joined the US army and were sent to kill and dispossess native Americans. Black Buffalo soldiers famously biked across the American west in 1897, but infamously were doing this as part of the genocide of native Americans.*
Only 22% of Israelis are orthodox. Segundo was shocked when his Israeli sponsor, the conservative Kiperstock, refused to go with him to Elon Moreh or Kfar Tapuach, that all believing Jews other than the militant Zionists are against seizing Palestinian lands. In media interviews, they would deflect pesky journalists asking about being 'part of desperate maneuver to use the poor from other parts of the planet as cannon fodder against the Palestinians.'
Was this an experiment in returning Judaism to its original outward reaching, proselytizing character? It was disapproved of from the start by Jewish elites, both secular and religious, on racist, class grounds. The Inca Jews bring to mind communist fellow travellers of Soviet days, Sov-symps, as we were called, many of whom were Jews, converting to communism and going to Soviet Russia. Good propaganda value both externally and internally, this time, providing a boost to bored Jews, both diaspora and Israeli, who are otherwise dismissive of Judaism the religion. Warning: it didn't do much to prop up a dysfunctional soviet system.
For the Zubers, Kiperstocks and Bronsteins, the Inca Jews were a God-send. To the Jewish Agency and the settlers, they were more like a Jehovah-send, to help with the hard and dangerous work of genocide. The 'good Zionists' saw the Incas as 'sincere and good candidates to populate Palestine with real Jews, people who embrace Judaism for its spiritual heritage rather than its social networking to make a buck.'
But is this another case of hazbara? The Incas live with the settlers, not with the cultured Israeli elite in Tel Aviv. And it's young males who are sought out, not cranky old men like Segundo, asking uncomfortable questions.
The Incas spontaneously converted, rejecting a cold, elitist Catholicism. So did the Ugandans, whose leader converted 3,000, who ironically have flourished since long before Israel existed, despite Israel's refusal to acknowledge them as legitimate Jews, eligible for aliyah.
All in all, this suggests that Judaism does have an enduring shelf-life, despite it being rejected by most biological Jews, who prefer nothing, Buddhism, even Christianity itself, to stuffy old Judaism. Israel? Not so clear. The world's masses don't like it much, but world leaders all kowtow. Israel has close ties with all important world leaders. They even write laws for them outlawing criticism of Israel as anti-Jewish racism, antisemitism, to keep Israel safe from popular opinion. For many religious Jews, Israel is a pariah state.
Ennui, heresy ... In God's good time, it's just same old same old. Kings come and go. Judaism as the founding monotheism will no doubt survive this test.
Segundo's criticisms of Catholicism, Protestantism, and Judaism itself, are all compelling. I took a similar path of questioning Christianity, the Trinity, the pagan nature of Christian rituals, the discarding of core doctrines and still trying to claim continuity with the original followers of Jesus. But I ended up a Muslim.
Segundo ended up rejecting the whole lot, whereas to my mind, Islam returned to the one God without rejecting Jesus as a prophet, unlike Judaism. I'm surprised that Segundo would drop Jesus in favour of Moses, but he is a mosaic character himself. (He even had a stutter.) Leading his followers out of Egypt to the Promised Land. His innocence belies his path of theological destruction. He really did demolish all the idols. Including himself. He was crucified too. What a life story. Worthy of Jewish and Christian folklore.
I'm not sure what he ended up as. Mokchofsky finally caught up with him (he went back to Peru briefly but was totally ostracized, by ordinary Peruvians and his unhappy former followers still there), but he was already non compos mentis, lost to Aldzheimer's. His daughter and most of the others who followed him to Israel have stuck it out. They have entered Jewish/ Israeli history, but more as an 'exception that proves the rule'.
The door for would-be mass converts seems to have closed. The Ugandans have been told as much. Valiantly, they continue their colony at home, and are accepted locally as just another of the many Protestant religious groups. The real Jews, as Kyrie Irving might argue.**
Segundo was a prophet, forged in the white heat of colonialism, racism. Like a true messiah, he was 'despised and rejected of men', laughed at. Stubborn as a bull. Sincere to a fault. And unflinching in his spiritual path to ... He spent the rest of his life in Israel cooped up in a tiny apartment on a hill surrounded by barbed wire, unable to move freely for fear of being murdered. Hardly a 'heppi end', as a Russian settler-neighbour might say.
Did his quixotic dream have any lasting impact on Israel? Given the rocky road of the Falashas and all the Mizrahi Jews in Israel, probably not. Israel seems to be a default racist society. Perhaps the Israelis will finally wake up and accept the Palestinians as brothers after all. Maybe in God's ideal time, where everything that will happened has already happened in God's mind.
*The natives nicknamed them buffalo soldiers because their wiry afro hair reminded them of buffalo. Attempts to celebrate the truly historic bicycle convoy through the mountains have failed as the dark side of the soldiers came to light.
**US basketball star Irving has been suspended and otherwise persecuted for promoting a documentary Hebrews to Negroes: Wake Up Black America, which argues that the current white European Jews are imposters, not the original Jews of the Old Testament, that they controlled the Atlantic slave trade, and currently control the media. What a shame he didn't meet Segundo who would probably have agreed.