IQUITOS, city in Peru, largest city in the world not accessable by roads. Surrounded by the Amazon River and two of its tributaries, and separated from other cities by the vast tropical rain forest and the high Andean summits, Iquitos, located 1,200 miles from Lima, was the most isolated city in South America until the coming of the airplane. Nevertheless, like Manaus and Belén do Pará, it was the hub from which representatives of foreign industries administered their businesses during the rubber boom of the 19th century. Hence, starting in 1870, around 150 Sephardi Jews, mainly from Morocco but also from places such as Gibraltar, Malta, Alsace, and the city of Manchester, made their way to Iquitos in search of quick fortunes working as traders and owners of commercial houses that provided services to the people who exploited rubber in the jungle. In a few years the little town founded by Jesuits became a cosmopolitan city that boasted the only organized Jewish community in Peru besides the one in the capital city of Lima.
In 1905 the Jewish immigrants, who initially had no intention of staying long in the city, built a cemetery to accommodate the inevitable loss of life in a frontier area while refraining from building such permanent structures as a synagogue or a school. By 1909, they had founded and formally registered with the local authorities of the city the Israelite Society of Beneficence of Iquitos in order to provide assistance to fellow Jews, although, they only met for the Jewish high holidays and scarcely developed a Jewish life. Most of the Jews, like all the immigrants, married or had children with local Amazonian women. During the 1910s, with the decline of rubber prices, most of the Jews left the city. The few who stayed, together with the first generation of their descendants, met occasionally for Sabbath services in private homes. Though they continued to intermarry with local Christian natives, the descendants of Jews preserved a strong sense of Jewishness, kept up some Jewish traditions, and made several attempts to sustain a fragile community, which made its first contacts with Lima's Jews during the 1950s, especially after the visit of the Jewish Peruvian geologist Alfredo Rosenzweig, who in 1948 got to know the first generation of Jewish descendants during a trip to the Amazon region. In an article published in 1967 Rosenzweig provided the first detailed account of the presence of Jews in Iquitos, telling about the economic contribution of the big and famous Kahn, Israel, and Cohen commercial houses, among others, and obtaining a copy of the statutes of the Israelite Society and a list with 29 documents concerning community members buried at the Israelite cemetery, where "Israelite," "Hebrew," or "Jewish" is explicitly written as the faith of the deceased.
In 1995 Dr. Ariel Segal visited Iquitos in order to research the syncretic identity of the Jewish descendants of the city after learning that there was still an organized community of self-proclaimed Jews who celebrated the main Jewish holidays. These had been visited twice by Rabbi Guillermo Bronstein of the Conservative Jewish congregation of Lima and by officials of the Jewish Agency who helped those members who expressed an interest in learning about Judaism and immigrating to the State of Israel and whose cases fell under the Law of Return, to make aliyah. Their Judaism has been also debated in Orthodox circles after they were visited by a member of Israel's Rabbinate.
Iquitos descendants of Jews still bury members of their congregation in the Israelite cemetery, they celebrate Kabbalat Shabbat services – although some of them also attend churches – and speak proudly of their Jewish heritage while a few of them practice some local Amazonian and Christian rituals. They define themselves as members of the "chosen people" with Jewish blood. This sense of lineage and identity is part of the fascinating historical consciousness that Dr. Segal, in the book Jews of the Amazon, categorized as Marranic, claiming that the identity of the "Jewish Mestizos" – Mestizaje is understood as biological and cultural miscegenation – resembles the identity of many descendants of Jews forced to convert to Christianity in the Iberian Peninsula, and of other communities that combined Judaism and another religion, such the
Defining Marranism also as an identity, a product of isolation rather than exclusively a result of compulsory conversion to another religion, is, however controversial, useful in understanding the sense of peoplehood of the Iquitos community after living almost 100 years without a rabbi, a synagogue, or a Jewish school.
The Jewish community in Iquitos has shrunk since the turn of the 21st century, with a newly found spiritual awakening coinciding with an increased desire to make aliyah to Israel. Since the early 2000's, the leaders of the Iquitos Jewish community estimate that 80% of the group has left to find a life in Israel. Currently the community numbers approximately 50 individuals, and the Iquitos congregation holds services and meetings in the back room of a mattress store.