In 1948, a young Peruvian carpenter named Second Villanueva he first opened a chest from his father, who had recently been murdered. The treasure it contained had been transmitted from generation to generation through the hands of the men of his family. When it was his turn, Villanueva was surprised to find an old copy of the Bible. Although his family was Catholic, at that time only priests could read the Holy Scriptures. But this discovery would change his life (and that of hundreds of other Peruvians) forever.
How Segundo Villanueva went from being a 21-year-old mestizo carpenter from the northern Peruvian Andes to being buried in the cemetery of the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem under the name of Zerubbabel Zidkiya? His story was one of the best-kept secrets in the history of modern religion until the Argentine writer and journalist Graciela Mochkofsky decided to tell it in his new monumental book, The Prophet of the Andes.
Edited by Sudamericana, this book traces Villanueva’s eclectic journey and his tireless search, which will lead him from the Catholic Church to a succession of Protestant sects, including one that he himself founded, to finally lead to Judaism.
This path took him from the small town of Rodacocha where he was born to the Amazon jungle, to leave him, towards the end of his life, in a Jewish colony in the occupied Palestinian territories of the West Bank. In the process, succeeded in converting hundreds of natives to Judaism and, later, that these brand new “Jewish Incas” might know the Promised Land.
I was looking for something else, at the beginning of September 2003, when I found on the Internet a letter from a certain Myron Zuber, rabbi, whose title caught my attention: Converting the Inca Indians to Peru. It told the story of a Peruvian “native”, Second Villanueva, “a good Catholic” who, moved by a passage from the Bible, had renounced the faith of his family and his society to embrace the true religion: Judaism. After many years of suffering and persecution, Zuber said, Villanueva managed to convert and emigrate to Israel with hundreds of followers who considered him a prophet.
The rabbi’s account was full of errors (there are no “Inca Indians” in Peru, and Segundo was not indigenous but mestizo), exaggerations and, as I learned later, complete fabrications, but as soon as I had finished reading it, I ran to the phone and called number listed downstairs with an address on Blauvelt Road, Monsey, New York, where the rabbi accepted donations for the Segundo community.
Although I introduced myself in English, the woman who answered on the other end of the line immediately recognized my accent and, in a cheerful voice and in Spanish, told me that Rabbi Zuber was dead. It was the widow, Margalit, formerly Margarita in Peru, one of the converts to Judaism mentioned in the letter. The others, including Villanueva and her family, now lived in Israel; if I wanted, he could give me his phone numbers.
So it was that a few weeks later, on September 27, 2003, Jewish New Year 5764, I landed at Ben Gurion airport with a load of four kilos of cassava that Noemí, daughter of Segundo Villanueva, gave me had asked. In his garden in the West Bank, cassava was not growing well; the holidays were approaching and I wanted to cook a Peruvian dish.
Segundo’s other two daughters, Raquel and Eva, and Noemi’s daughter, Hadassa, were also waiting for me in the colony. When Naomi took the long brown tubers out of the bag, there were cheers; they were going to cook them, they told me, for the night after Yom Kippur.
It was lunch time. They gave me first place in line to wash our hands. I turned on the tap and did it without further ado. Behind me, I felt suppressed laughter, surprise. It took me a while to realize that I had misunderstood what was actually a religious ritual as a matter of hygiene.
“You are not religious?they asked. Don’t explain to me. I am the daughter of an Argentinian Jew of Eastern European origin and a Catholic Paraguayan of Basque, Guarani and Danish grandparents. By getting married, my parents agreed that their children would choose their religious identity. My father was an atheist; my mother, observer. When my youngest brother was born, during a difficult delivery, my mother told me that I had decided to be baptized Catholic with the newborn. We both look like him physically; my two other brothers, similar to my father, who gave their side, without any religion; some time later, one of them was also baptized. By decision of my mother, I was sent to a school run by nuns; my brothers, in public and secular schools.
We were living at that time in Salta, an Andean city in Argentina where, like in Villanueva’s Peru, the population is mostly mestizo and there are still vestiges of a stratified and racist social structure inherited from the Spanish colony. During catechism, the nuns affirmed that my father would not go to Heaven: only the baptized had this right. For a long time, tormented by nightmares of my father burning in hell, I tried to convert him to Catholicism. Over the years, however, I gave up, not to convert him, but to Catholicism itself. This separation from my father hurt me, and it bothered me that my paternal grandmother, when referring to Jews, always used a “we” that did not include me.
For years I struggled with the need to reconcile my Catholic upbringing and my non-Jewish identity with the assumption, anywhere, that with such an obviously Jewish surname (at least to an Argentinian ear), I must have been Jewish.
The women smiled understandingly; the story of the clash between Catholicism and Judaism in Latin America was, after all, much more his than mine. I was middle class and came from a country that for most of the 20th century hosted the third largest Jewish population in the world after Israel and the United States.
The women of Villanueva, on the other hand, had been poor and mixed race in a classist and deeply Catholic country in which Jews made up barely 0.01% of the population. It had been a long and difficult battle to get where they were. But even now, after all they had done to be accepted as Jews, some tended to assume that they were not.
They showed me how to wash my hands, pouring the water from the pitcher on one hand, then on the other, and again on the first. In the years that followed, I learned as much as I could about rituals and the Jewish Bible, and took Hebrew lessons to understand the language they spoke, a Spanish peppered with words and expressions. Hebrews. I also learned about the different Christian denominations that guided them before finding Judaism, and Peruvian religious and political history, as well as the economic and class divisions that marked their choices.
In the afternoon, the women introduced me to their mother, María Teresa, and took me for a walk around the neighborhood. In those first days that I spent with them, they kept me at a distance from the men of the family. Segundo was not in Israel and could not see him until 2005. On that same trip, I met his son Joshua in Jerusalem, who would become a central source for this book. Although I met the women first, they quickly decided to step back and let the men tell me the story.
Over the next few years, the story of Segundo Villanueva took me, again and again, to the mountains and cities of Peru, to Colombia, to Israel and to the Jewish settlements of the West Bank. It’s a story that I thought I understood several times and then I discovered that I had done it wrong; What It seemed to have an end, but it turned out to have another.. A story that, almost two decades later, remains incredible to me.
She is a writer and journalist.
She was co-founder of the digital magazine elpuercoespín and columnist for El País in Spain.
He is currently a columnist for The New Yorker magazine.
She is the author of seven non-fiction books, including Timerman, the journalist who wanted to be part of power, Tío Borís, a forgotten hero of the Spanish Civil War there Original sin. Clarín, the Kirchners and the struggle for power.