For the Jews of the Amazon, Israel Is a Whole Different Kind of Jungle

Peruvian newcomers adapt to life without plaintains and ceviche - but develop a taste for shwarma.

RAMLE - Among the few prized possessions Nazalith Levy packed in her two suitcases last month when she embarked on her journey here from the Amazon jungle was a huge wooden mortar. The 15-pound, beautifully carved piece of kitchenware is what she uses to prepare the classic Amazonian tacacho: mashed roasted green plantains shaped into balls and then rolled in salt and other condiments.

The only problem is that in the central Israeli town of Ramle, where she now resides, there are no plantains to be found. And so, the only function this Amazonian kitchen essential serves these days is to decorate her small Formica counter top.

Levy, a 35-year-old former drug store assistant, is among a group of roughly 50 mixed-race converts, also known as the “Jews of the Amazon,” who have arrived in Israel since the summer after finally getting their Jewish status recognized by the Interior Ministry. Like her, they all hail from Iquitos, the largest city in the Peruvian rainforest.

Among the most recent arrivals in the group, Levy, her husband and three children touched down in Israel in early October and are living in a small walk-up apartment provided by the Ramle municipality, which in recent years has absorbed hundreds of immigrants from South America, including two previous waves of Amazonian Jews.

Finding plantains, Levy acknowledges with a shy smile, is actually the least of her problems these days. Before she can even begin looking for work, the Peruvian transplant needs to learn some basic Hebrew and acclimate herself to a very different sort of culture.

“But I’m very happy I’m here,” she says, apologizing for the state of disarray in her apartment as she is still in the midst of unpacking.

Pablo Alvarado, 42, and his wife Lupe Sinos, 34, are somewhat more veteran in the country, having arrived here at the end of August. They also put up a brave face – that is, until the conversation turns to food and their favorite dishes from the old country. “What I miss most,” says Sinos, her eyes suddenly welling up with tears, “is grilled sabalo and corbina. You can’t get this type of fish here in Israel.”

Perhaps not surprising then that when asked what the biggest challenge is for him, 21-year-old Jose Pacaya, who arrived here in June, responds: “The food. I can’t get used to what they eat here. And I really miss my ceviche.”

Pacaya, who can already get by with his Hebrew after having spent three months in a kibbutz ulpan, says he also wishes Israelis would talk a little slower so he’d have an easier time understanding them. But he’s resigned to the fact that this isn’t going to happen any time soon, certainly not before the next few months when he enlists in the army and comprehending the language will become even more essential.

By the end of this year, the Jewish Agency expects Pacaya, Levy and the rest of their group to be joined by another 100 Peruvian Jews, who were recently approved for immigration under the Law of Return. They are among close to 300 residents of Iquitos who were converted to Judaism by a Conservative rabbinical court in August 2011 after they had engaged in Jewish studies for five years. Most of them are the descendants of Moroccan Jews who arrived in the Amazon in the 19th century seeking employment in the rubber industry, married and had children with local women.

Delayed approval 
to immigrate

Under current immigration procedures, individuals who are not born Jewish are expected to spend nine months as active members of their local Jewish communities after they have completed the conversion process – regardless of what type of conversion they have undergone – before they can move to Israel. During this time, their applications are reviewed by the Interior Ministry. The ministry, which does not have its own emissaries abroad, typically relies on recommendations from the Jewish Agency about the validity of conversions performed abroad.

The Jewish Agency last year notified the Interior Ministry that it had determined the conversions performed for the Peruvians fulfilled all the necessary criteria to make them eligible for immigrating to Israel under the Law of Return. Based on this recommendation, they should have been able to immigrate to Israel in May 2012.

But ministry officials initially insisted, despite a Jewish Agency legal ruling to the contrary, that bringing this large a group of converts to Israel required a special cabinet ruling. Both Jewish Agency officials and Conservative movement leaders in Israel were incensed by the Interior Ministry’s refusal to grant the Peruvians permission to immigrate. After withholding approval for months, the Interior Ministry eventually accepted the legal ruling that no cabinet decision was required in order to bring the group over.

Hundreds of members of the Iquitos community have already immigrated to Israel in two separate waves – one in 2001 and the other in 2005 – so that the newcomers already have a built-in support network of friends and family who celebrate Peruvian holidays together and maintain many of their local customs.

The Iquitos are the only Jews converted by a Conservative rabbinical court overseas who have been allowed to immigrate to Israel as a group under the Law of Return. Just because they are recognized as Jews for immigration purposes, however, does not mean that the Chief Rabbinate will recognize them or their children as full-fledged Jews who can marry in Israel. For this reason, some members of the community have chosen or are planning to undergo Orthodox conversions as well.

Such is the case with Shneur and Dorit Kordobak, as well as their three children, who have been enrolled in religious schools in Ramle. The couple, who owned a mini-market in Iquitos, have already embraced certain Orthodox customs: He covers his head with a skullcap, and she covers hers with a beret. No surprise then that one of the key advantages they cite for living in Israel is that it’s much easier to find kosher food here.

“My grandfather was Jewish, and I remember him from the time I was a little boy,” says Shneur, who is 49. “I had already planned to come to Israel 15 years ago, but that was before I converted so I wasn’t recognized here as a Jew.”

No rockets yet

Unlike many of the other newcomers who have already begun to seek work or are employed full-time, mainly in menial work, the Kordobaks are devoting all their energies these days to learning Hebrew and Jewish law.

After waiting for months to receive authorization to come to Israel, Sarah Morey and her husband Roland Del Aguilia, both of whom work today as janitors in Ben-Gurion International Airport, say they were pleasantly surprised by how smoothly things went once they set foot in the country. “We were prepared for the worst, but the Israeli bureaucracy turned out to be very efficient,” says Del Aguilia.

Israel also turned out to be a much safer place than they thought. “I was planning to see rockets fall when we arrived, but I haven’t seen any yet,” he says, only half-jokingly.

Asked what they like most about their new homeland, the husband and wife don’t hesitate. In complete unison – making sure to enunciate each of the three syllables in the word – they respond: “sha –war-ma.”

Tomer Appelbaum