While visiting Cusco, Peru, the gateway to Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley, to explore both Inca and Catholic cultures and tradition, I discovered Jewish life in this 12,000 foot high city in the Andes. Who knew?
It was lunchtime at Papacho’s, a casual hamburger restaurant in the historical center of the city. Right there on our table was a sign advertising breakfast in 4 languages: Spanish, German, French, Portuguese and Hebrew. The Hebrew was so unexpected that I was compelled to do some digging.
I learned that most Jewish Peruvians are either descendants of those who fled the Inquisition or mid-nineteenth century Jews who came from Western and Central Europe. Jews also arrived from Eastern Europe and the Ottoman Empire pre -World War I. Most live in the capital city of Lima where there are three synagogues and two Jewish newspapers. There is still a dwindling population of Jews in the Amazon Basin city, Iquito, where a mattress shop serves as a makeshift synagogue.
The Jewish population of Cusco, however, is made up mostly of young Israelis, 40,000 of whom descend upon the city per year after finishing military service. Travel after military service is a rite of passage for many, a transition from discipline to freedom. Attracted to backpacking, rafting, rock climbing and hiking as well as the archaeological remains and sheer beauty of the cobblestone alleys, green velvet surrounding mountains and sweet disposition of the local population, the young Israelis find Israeli flags, Hebrew signs advertising various businesses and even Israeli pop music welcoming them from the shops. Some restaurants serve falafel and schnitzel and I bet in another season or two shakshuka will be the new favorite dish.
Some Israelis have relocated to Cusco and opened restaurants, food delivery service and nightclubs, saying it’s easier to open a business and be entrepreneurial in Peru. Even some Peruvians who own restaurants offer Israeli food as well. In addition, there is a popular hostel named Beit Asimha (House of Happiness) with a large hamsa above the entrance.
Cusco has its very own Chabad-Lubavitch Center established in 2006 which caters to Israeli and Jewish tourists. Shabbat meals are served every Friday night during summer high season to approximately 300 Israelis. Rabbi Ofer Kripor and his wife Yael claim to hold one of the biggest Passover seders in the world with 1200 participants. The center has a restaurant offering kosher food, classes, synagogue services and more. It is located at Calle Vitoque 631. What’s app number: 972522623770.
I have often said that in spite of everything, we Jews are still everywhere. Even here, in a city of 7 churches, I am happy to say we can find our “mishpucha” (family).
Miriam Seiden is a cultural explorer who loves to write about her living bridges around the world.