Amazonian Jews

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Amazonian Jews
Total population
Regions with significant populations
 Brazil7,000 (2004)
Modern: Portuguese (Brazil), Spanish (Peru), Hebrew (Israel)
Liturgical: Sephardic Hebrew
Related ethnic groups
Moroccan Jews, Sephardi Jews, Berber Jews, Other Jewish groups
•Brazilians and Peruvians
mestizos, caboclos, others

Amazonian Jews (Hebrew: יהודי אמזונאס, "Yehudei Amazonas"; Spanish: judíos amazónicos; Portuguese: judeus amazônicos) is the name for the mixed-race people of Jewish Moroccan and indigenous descent who live in the Amazon basin cities and river villages of Brazil and Peru, including Belém, Santarém, Alenquer, Óbidos, and Manaus in Brazil and Iquitos in Peru. They married indigenous women and their descendants are of mixed race (mestizo). In the 21st century, Belém has about 1000 Jewish families and Manaus about 140 such families, most descended from these 19th-century Moroccans.[1]

A small Jewish community was established in Iquitos by immigrants from Morocco during the rubber boom of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Other than Lima, with a larger, mostly Ashkenazi Jewish community, Iquitos has the only organized Jewish community in Peru.[2] Since the late 20th century, some of these Sephardic descendants have studied Judaism and formally converted in order to be accepted by Israel as Jews. Hundreds from Iquitos have emigrated to Israel since then, including about 150 from 2013 to 2014.[3]


This ethnic group is descended from Moroccan Jewish traders who worked in the Brazilian, and later Peruvian, Amazon basin. They spoke Ladino, Hebrew, and Haketia. The earliest Moroccan Jews came in 1810 from Fez, Tanger, Tetuan, Casablanca, Salé, Rabat, and Marrakesh. In 1824 they organized the first synagogue, Eshel Avraham, in Belém, Brazil, at the mouth of the Amazon River. With the rubber boom of the late nineteenth and early 20th century, thousands more Moroccan Jews entered the Amazon towns. Those who stayed married indigenous Native American women, and their children have grown up in a culture of Jewish and Christian, and Moroccan and Amazonian influences.

The peak of the rubber boom between 1880 and 1910 attracted so many merchants and other workers that it was the height of Jewish immigration to the Amazonian Basin; they established new communities along the interior of the Amazon River, in Santarém and Manaus, Brazil, and ventured as far as Iquitos, Peru, on the east side of the Andes. This was a major center on the Amazon for rubber export and related businesses. It was the headquarters of the Peruvian-owned Peruvian Amazon Company (PAC). The rubber boom also attracted Jewish adventurers from England, Alsace-Lorraine and France, and other Europeans, who helped found new Jewish and European institutions in Iquitos, including an opera house.[2]

Some of the Jewish immigrants settled in Iquitos, marrying native women and establishing a Jewish cemetery and synagogue. Even after the rubber boom, some Moroccan Jews remained in Iquitos and other cities of the Amazon. Many of their mestizo descendants were reared Catholic in their mothers' faith, also absorbing Amazonian culture, and the remnants of the Jewish community gradually gave up much of their practice.[2] Other Moroccan Jews lived in isolated ribeirinho settlements in Brazil.

Rabbi Shalom Imanuel Muyal, who lived in Brazil for two years prior to his death, has come to be considered a holy man, healer and folk saint, admired by non-Jews in Brazil. He is referred as "Santo Moisézinho" (Saint Little Moses).[4] Jewish religious authorities in Morocco decided to they should have one of their rabbis in Brazil to raise funds for a yeshiva and ensure the Jewish community there was keeping to religious norms and practice, and Rabbi Muyal was sent over.[5] When he died in Manaus in 1910, two years after arriving and probably from yellow fever, he was buried in a Christian cemetery as no Jewish one existed locally.[5] After his death, he started to be revered as a saint by local Catholics and people began making pilgrimage to his grave.[5] This led to the Manaus rabbi building a wall around the tomb, which only made the visitors more numerous.[5] In the 1960s, the nephew of Rabbi Muyer who was then serving as a Minister in the government of the State of Israel wanted to exhume the rabbi's remains and reinter them in a Jewish cemetery.[5] This led to the outbreak of protests, and the Amazonas government asked that his body not be moved.[5]

Relationship with other Jewish communities[edit]

For the Peruvian communities, an enduring casta system stemming from the colonial period resulted in virtually no interaction between these Jewish-Peruvian descendants living on the east side of the Andes and religious leaders of the small, mostly ethnic European, Ashkenazi population concentrated in Lima. The latter did not consider the Amazonian Jews to be Jewish, according to the halakha, because their mothers were not Jews. Some suspected that the Peruvians wanted to emigrate to Israel for economic reasons.[6]

But in the late 20th century, a small group in Iquitos began independently to explore their Jewish heritage and study Judaism. They reached out to Marcelo Bronstein, a sympathetic rabbi of Congregation B'nai Jeshurun in from Brooklyn, New York to follow a formal conversion process in 2002 and 2004 in order to be eligible for aliyah to Israel.[2][6] After completing their conversions, a few hundred Amazonian Jews from the Iquitos area made aliyah to Israel in the early 21st century. Another conversion of numerous Peruvians was completed in 2011, following their five years of study; and more emigrated to Israel, including about 150 from in 2013–2014. They have mostly been settled in Ramle.[3]


  • The documentary, Eretz Amazonia (by David Salgado), is based on Samuel Benchimol's book Eretz Amazonia; The Saga of Jews in the Amazon, about Jews in northern Brazil.[7]
  • Stephen Nugent and Renato Athias made Where is The Rabbi, showing the life of Jews in the Amazon Basin.
  • The Longing: The Forgotten Jews of South America, (2006), a documentary written by Gabriela Bohm that is focused on descendants of crypto-Jews in South America, particularly Ecuador and Colombia, some of whom pursue conversion to be accepted as Jews.[6][8]
  • The Fire Within: Jews in the Amazonian Rainforest (2008) is about the Peruvian-Jewish descendants in Iquitos, and their efforts to revive Judaism and emigrate to Israel in the late 20th century. It is written, directed and produced by Lorry Salcedo Mitrani.[9][10]

Notable people[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Jeff Malka,"Indiana Jones meets Tangier Moshe", Sephardic Genealogy Resources,
  2. ^ a b c d Ariel Segal Freilich, Jews of the Amazon: Self-exile in Earthly Paradise, Jewish Publication Society, 1999, pp. 1-5
  3. ^ a b Judy Maltz, "For the Jews of the Amazon, Israel Is a Whole Different Kind of Jungle", Haaretz, 11 June 2013, accessed 25 August 2015
  4. ^ "Veltman, Henrique. Os Hebraicos da Amazônia" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2011-07-14. Retrieved 2012-03-20.
  5. ^ a b c d e f "The Jewish Community of Brazil". The Museum of the Jewish People at Beit Hatfutsot.
  6. ^ a b c Michael Fox, "Film Uncovers Amazonian Jews Who Want to Make Aliyah", JWeekly, 14 November 2008
  7. ^ YouTube links to documentary online
  8. ^ Nathan Southern, Overview: The Longing: The Forgotten Jews of South America (2006), New York Times
  9. ^ The Fire Within: Jews in the Amazonian Rainforest (2008), Ruth Diskin Films
  10. ^ The Fire Within: Jews in the Amazonian Rainforest (2008), Jewish Film Festivals

External links[edit]