Converting Inca Indians in Peru

By Rabbi Myron Zuber

It all began in 1966, in the Peruvian city of Trujillo, with a man called Villaneuva, a good Catholic who frequently attended church. It was customary for the people to sing a psalm en route to church. On that particular Sunday they were singing Psalm 121, “I will lift my eyes to the hills…” When he came to the fourth verse, “Behold, the Keeper of Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps,” he began to ponder, why shouldn’t he join that group of people who have 24-hour Divine supervision? Discussions with his priest could not reconcile his difficulties. After a period of time Villaneuva came to the conclusion that the Catholic Church could not satisfy his spiritual search; he decided to embrace Judaism.

However, in a staunchly Catholic country like Peru one cannot offhandedly dismiss the religion of the country and become Jewish without encountering severe obstacles. Villaneuva was excommunicated from the Church, which posted a sign proclaiming that no one could socialize with him or marry into his family. Villaneuva remained undaunted. The following week, more extreme measures were employed, and Villaneuva discovered that he had no electricity or plumbing. Still he refused to capitulate.

Villaneuva’s children were afraid that the tension would erupt into physical blows so they encouraged their parents to go to Spain. While there, he studied Rambam and Abarbanel in Spanish and visited the small Jewish community in Madrid to acquire as much knowledge as possible. After six months, the furor dissipated and the parents returned to Peru.

In the interim, the priest was defrocked by the bishop for having failed to adequately guide his flock. Villaneuva wasted no time and immediately set about educating his contemporaries with his newfound knowledge. It did not take long for him to amass 500 people who also wished to convert to Judaism. Now he faced the problem of what to do with all these people who wished to become Jewish. The small Jewish community in Lima, composed of post-World War II refugees of Polish and Hungarian descent, callously looked down on the Inca Indians as social inferiors. If the Indians attended shul, the Lima Jews would intentionally exclude them; they gave no encouragement, no aliya, no honors. Nobody was receptive to them, nobody invited them to a home or helped them in any way. The Indians returned to their homes totally disheartened.

Villanueva tried to obtain Spanish siddurim and, not being cognizant of the correct dinim, constructed his own tephilin out of wood. (Incidentally, this unusual pair of tephilin, a labor of love and self sacrifice, is presently housed in the Museum of Jews of the Galuth in Israel.) For 20 years Villaneuva struggled single-handedly for the solution to his dilemma.

In 1985 he contacted the Lubavitcher Rebbe, and Lubavitch Rabbi Chadakov immediately got in touch with me since he said I was “proficient in the laws of ritual slaughter and adept at mingling with people.” I agreed to travel to Peru to aid these Inca Indians in their quest to become Jewish and immediately enrolled in intensive Spanish studies.

I arrived in Peru in 1988 and discovered that the people were genuinely committed. They davened every day, but, due to the scarcity of tephilin, Villaneuva wore the tephilin first, and after his turn a big line formed and people took five-minute turns using the tephilin.

On Shabbos the entire community got together at long tables for a meal of fish and vegetables. There is an obvious absence of meat or poultry in these people’s diet because nobody there knows how to properly slaughter an animal according to Jewish law. Trujillo is 11 hours from Lima, so transporting kosher meat in this hot climate would not be feasible. The women baked their own challah and participants are generally optimistic and jovial.

The Jews in Lima displayed unwarranted prejudice in their refusal to allow these people to use their mikva. Therefore the people in Trujillo use the ocean as a mikva, and the Jews of Cajamarca, further inland, use a nearby waterfall.

Although I was most interested in instructing the congregation about practical matters such as kashrut or Shabbat, they were especially interested in more esoteric concepts such as gilgul (reincarnation) and Mashiach. These people were extremely self-sacrificing. They constantly thought about being Jewish and were prepared to offer all their possessions in order to practice Judaism properly. For example, one woman sold all her jewelry at the market in order to obtain money to pay for tephilin for her son on his bar mitzvah. The woman’s husband, who usually finds work only two days a week, traveled to Ecuador to work in the mines so he could obtain enough money to purchase a new suit for the child and a new dress for his wife.

Villaneuva traveled to Lima in order to have a bris. The mohel was more lenient than other Jews there; he felt that if these people sincerely wanted to become Jewish he would not stand in their way.

The people would gather around a table each Sunday to discuss the Sidra and Villaneuva would lead the discussion. One time during the Sidra discussion a person interrupted to comment that he was having car trouble. Villaneuva immediately stopped the trivial side issue and insisted that a table was comparable to an altar; therefore, only holy ideas could be expounded in its presence. On another occasion it was discovered that a man had profaned the Shabbos. Villaneuva immediately excommunicated him despite the man’s tears and protest.

The situation came to a head. What would become of these people? It was not possible for them to achieve their potential as Jews if they continued to live in these isolated conditions. The community decided that they would have to relocate either to the United States or Israel.

Villaneuva opted for Israel and everyone agreed to abide by his proposal. He was extremely respected in the community and his advice was always taken.

A Bais Din from Eretz Yisrael came to Peru and converted many of these people. Then two groups of approximately 380 people emigrated to Israel and settled in Elon Moreh, on the West Bank. Most were young people, the older ones being only 43 years of age. They rapidly integrated into Israeli society, far more successfully than the Russian or Ethiopian Jews. Some Inca Indians joined the Israeli army while others found jobs and became productive members of society. They managed to merge into Israeli mainstream society and settled down to a relatively comfortable lifestyle.

After this mass exodus took place, I was under the false impression that there was nothing left of Inca Jewry in Peru. A small number of individuals had chosen to remain because of their jobs. Others voluntarily chose to stay because they felt incapable of starting over and relocating to a foreign country. In no time at all, more people became interested in the Jewish phenomenon and soon there were 200 people who joined the group of committed Jews.

A neighborhood of about 30 Jewish Inca Indians also grew in Lima, and they experienced difficulty with the other Jews of Lima. One problem was that the excellent school established by the Jewish community refused to register a seven-year-old child of a Jewish Incan mother, saying the tuition was too expensive (the mother thought the real reason was that they were prejudiced against her Indian status). The school had accepted two Catholic girls, children of the vice president of the country, and hired a Catholic teacher to provide them with religious instruction. I was extremely upset that the Jewish school was more prepared to provide for Catholic hierarchy than for their own Jewish brethren, who happened to be Indians. I approached the staff of the school and was adamant until they finally relented and admitted the Incan child.

The Lima Jews do not permit the Inca Jews to enter their synagogue, even though the Incans were converted by a Bais Din of Israel.

One day I was approached by a group of women in Trujillo who wished to speak with me privately about nidah (family purity). I was embarrassed by the subject matter and relatively unfamiliar with the intricate details. I decided to suggest that in the future a husband and wife team should visit the Inca Indian Jews, so the woman would be available to discuss matters pertaining to women.

On Shabbos the children sang beautifully, songs they already knew, and other smiros I taught them. Each week somebody would come to the community as a curious observer. One week a man by the name of Serna, a professor of French at the University of Trujillo, came. Extremely impressed by the melodious singing, he suggested the youngsters sing on public television. The children were extremely excited at the possibility and I instructed them regarding the occasion. However Valderama, Villaneuva’s successor, refused to allow this. He did not think it a good idea for the Jewish community to be in the limelight; that this would promote antagonism and foster ill feeling.

Before my departure, I helped the group organize shiurim on the weekly Torah portion. I was happy to note that these people are thinking individuals able to figure out resolutions to questions. I invited them to call me collect if they ever encountered questions they were unable to resolve.

I encouraged them to sing and dance, and advised them to incorporate their Indian melodies to Hebrew songs. I taped a beautiful Indian melody used to sing Psalm 121, “I lift up my eyes to the mountains.” I did not want them to abandon their culture, but to merge it and make it a part of their new-found Judaism. I encouraged them to dance Indian dances for Yiddishkeit enhancement. Trujillo had a community of 180 when I left.

I traveled to the small community in Cajamarca to make my farewells and planned to stay only a few days. The people were disappointed and asked me what it would take for me to stay. I replied that they only numbered eight, not enough for a minyan. However, if two additional people would agree to have themselves circumcised, I would remain. Two people immediately agreed to this proposal and traveled to Lima to have the operation performed. I extended my stay. The community of Cajamarca eventually plans to go to Israel but the Israeli government wishes to verify their commitment to Judaism. If they are still Jewish after a two-year waiting period Israel will accept them.

Each Incan Jew has taken a new Jewish name to augment his Jewish identity. However, many still retain their Spanish names. One man, ironically, is called Jesus, and it is amusing to comment that Jesus read the Torah portion nicely today. It takes a while to make a total switch from the old Spanish names to the new unfamiliar Jewish names.

Villaneuva changed his name to Tzidkiyahu and is revered as a prophet and leader in Israel. His presence commands respect. Valderama, his successor, longed for a sefer Torah for his shul. He approached the shul in Lima with his request but the Jews refused to give him anything, even though there are a large number of sifrei Torah decomposing in the basement of the Lima shul. I opened one at random and was shocked to witness the escape of numerous cockroaches. The sefer Torah is permitted to house repulsive insects but is forbidden to the Inca Indian Jews.

Undaunted, Valderama set about making his own sefer Torah. Unfamiliar with the dinim entailed in writing a sefer Torah, he proceeded to painstakingly photocopy each page from the Chumash on to parchment. He then sewed the pieces of parchment together to form a Torah scroll. An Israeli museum requested this sefer Torah for purposes of display because they were impressed with this effort.

I always tried to be accommodating and flexible in trying to merge the two cultures. When a congregant asked if he should sit shiva for his Catholic mother, I compromised by telling him that he could sit for one day. Another asked if he should continue placing fresh flowers on his mother’s grave. I responded that since flowers are expensive it is more productive to convert this expenditure into tzedakah and give charity in her honor. I sympathize with these people and tried to satisfy their old ties so long as it did not interfere in their Jewish affiliation.

I have been back in the States for a few years now. I remain in telephone contact with my friends in Peru, and my wife visits twice a year to help the women. I spend much of my time speaking about these courageous Jewish Incans, trying to raise donations for their many needs.