Notes from Limmud 2009
The Fictional Jews of Peru
[Standard disclaimer: All views not in square brackets are those of the speaker, not myself. Accuracy of transcription is not guaranteed.]
Peru was the centre of the ancient Incan Empire and the Moche empire and at least five different civilisations beforehand. It was conquered brutally by the conquistadores in the sixteenth century. It's one of the most important countries in Latin America regarding Jews: Most of the forgeries and the fear of crypto-Jewry came from there.
Crypto-Jews came to the New World in Columbus' ship. Columbus was not Jewish [fx: audience applauds]; the first person to create that myth was a very antisemitic historian called Salvador de Madariaga, who invented Jewish ancestry for Columbus because he was avaricious and greedy and liked gold. On both sides he had no Jewish antecedents. By repeating this you are repeating an antisemitic canard.
Columbus did, however, have a Jew on his ship, recently—two days before they set sail—converted [to Christianity]: Luis de Torres. De Torres was there because Columbus thought he was going to run into the Ten Lost Tribes in Asia, so he needed him to translate Hebrew and Arabic. So imagine the surprise of the Taíno Indians in the Bahamas when they see these strange white men land, and the first thing any of them say to them is "Shalom aleichem".
Columbus said to Isabella that these Ten Lost Tribes had to be converted to Christianity so that she could launch her crusade and recapture Jerusalem.
De Torres when they reach Hispaniola went off into the jungle and disappeared. He probably married into the Taíno Indians—who were one of the first victims of Spanish genocide: Estimates of their population before the arrival of the Spanish vary from between 200,000 to two million; but in just a few years they were down to eight hundred. As a Sephardi the speaker is almost proud of the fact the Jews were expelled from Spain the day before Columbus set sail, because it meant Jews played no part in this genocide.
A number of people on Colmubus' ship list did not return: twenty Crypto-Jews. Queen Isabella was very upset at the idea of Jews or Moslems or Gypsies joining the Spaniards on their voyages of conquest, and the fact these Crypto-Jews did not go back meant they stayed, so by Columbus' third voyage it was forbidden for New Christians to join the voyages to the New World.
Now, King Fernando [Ferdinand] was halachically Jewish. This was never hidden. His maternal grandmother was a Jewish woman from Aragon called Palamito Lady (?) [Wikipedia doesn't seem to agree!], who converted to Catholicism.
Américo Castro (a typical Sephardic name, always of Sephardic origin—including Fidel Castro's ancestors). [I didn't catch what about him, though; possibly his Wikipedia page gives a clue.]
After having slaughtered and raped the Taínos, and brought black slaves [to replace them], and then done the same to Mexico, they moved onto the land called in Quechua Tawantinsuyu. Rumours of the empire of the Incas had already extended up to Central America: in Costa Rica there is a museum in San Jose called the Jade Museum, where you can find Inca artefacts. As the Spanish conquistadores got further south, they started to hear of this fabulous empire with even more gold and jewels than the one they had just finished ravaging.
The conquest of Peru was a combination of what happened up north with a civil war on top of that, that lasted from 1532 through its "pacification" in 1572 until the middle of the seventeenth century.
The Inquisition was formally established in Peru in 1570. Why? Because suddenly rumours came out of the jungles that there were Jews here. Very bizarre: At that point there were probably in all of the Tawantinsuyu empire a hundred Crypto-Jews. Their surnames were Castro, Chavez, Perez (from the Hebrew Perez!), Ayala (likewise). This was the time when there was a particular fanatical king, Philip II, who saw Jews everywhere.
The Inquisition was set up in Mexico City and in Lima; between 1570 and 1640 the Inquisition went wild in Peru, because the majority of people taken in by the Inquisition were not Jews. They started looking at certain practices of the Quechua Indians, which the Spaniards thought were Judaic.
In 1572 the Inquisitor Toledo (which is a twisting of תולדות [I'd like to see evidence for that!], and guess what his origin was—often the people of converso origin was fanatically antisemitic) saw these practices and said they're all Jewish; that's why Atahualpa [the last independent Inca emperor] didn't want to convert to Christianity: he was a Jew!
So this paranoia spread through El Alto Peru—a vast area covering modern Peru, most of Argentina, part of Bolivia and northern Chile. On 23 January 1629 (the summer there in the southern hemisphere) the Spanish had the biggest auto da fé of Judaizers and Quechua who practise their faith. In this a famous Crypto-Jew was burned: Maldonado da Silva. This surname also always of Jewish origin (including the current president of Brazil). Most of the Da Silvas of Brazil today got there fleeing the Inquisition from Peru. (There was an Inquisition in Brazil, but it was comparatively sloppy, and the country was so huge you could easily vanish in it.)
So how did all these Jews get in? Seville was characterised by bribery, and forging of fake blood purity certificates was a business in the Spain of that period. No Spaniard did not have some Jewish, some Moslem or some Gypsy ancestry, and that made most of the Spanish inelegible to try their luck in the New World.
Why did the Spanish need to attribute a Jewish origin to the Quechua? Because the Inquisition only had jurisdiction over converted Jews and Moslems, and heretics. Accusing them of being secret Jews was a legal loophole used as an excuse to kill them. Probably they picked on Jews rather than Moslems because there were fewer Jews: they didn't have their own state, as the Moors did in Morocco.
One thing Toledo noted was that the Quechua placed the dead body in reverence; it could not be dismembered, but had to be buried in its entirety. Also the royalty were mummified. But the rank-and-file would wrap the body in llama wool and bury it as soon as possible; and this made the Inquisition think it was derived from the Jewish practice of burying the dead within twenty-four hours.
And this was the hideous thing about the burnings: For the Quechua, not having their bodies received into Pacha-Mamma [the earth mother goddess] meant their souls would forever wander the earth.
Another practice Toledo thought was Jewish: menstruants were forbidden sexual intercourse. But of course things like these exist in many cultures that have had no contact with the Jews.
The Quechua also did not eat tapir or boar, which were considered unclean meat—as we know from the chronicler Murúa, Atahualpa said to his jailers "How can you eat the pig? It eats its own excrement!"
Now enter a third generation Portuguese Jew born in Holland: Antonio Montezinos. He was a bit of a funny guy, announcing that he was going to go backpacking through the Spanish Empire, and would be using a legal loophole to do so. He never formally studied law, but his father was a dayan [judge of Jewish law]. According to the jurisdiction of the Inquisition, Jews could only be expelled from the Spanish territory; the Inquisition could only torture and burn judaisers: false conversos. Montezinos thought: What would happen if I go to Peru—the site of the craziest and most active Inquisition?
This was 1640, the year after the huge auto-da-fé they'd held there. He took a Dutch pirate ship, and goes as Mister Jew. In his memoirs, chronicled by Manasse ben Israel in A Esperanza de Israel, he says he put every possible Jewish article on himself; and sailed with a bunch of Dutch pirates to the pirate port of Cayal in Peru, where the Dutch (and English) were kicking the Spanish in the rear end.
Montezinos was told, "Get out of here, or they'll kill you!" He replied, "No they won't, because I'm an open Jew." So he got off on Rosh Hashana, and walked through the streets of Lima screaming in Hebrew at the top of his lungs, and telling everyone in Portuguese "So Judeo". No one took action against him because everyone thought he was out of his mind... until he started to establish connections with Crypto-Jewish circles.
He was taken before the Inquisition... and took out a copy of the founding articles of the Inquisition from 1497, and read out to the Inquisitors what it said. He goes up to the Grand Inquisitor, kissed him on the mouth, and said, "You can't touch me, I'm a Jew."
The Inquisition was embarrassed by this, so they exiled him... to Lima. Pretty dopey, huh? (Lima was the capital of the whole of the Spanish South America.) It was now Yom Kippur, so he walked through the streets wishing everybody גְמַר חֲתִימָה טוֹבָה, and it's the same story all over again.
In Lima he danced and taught people Hebrew songs for about two weeks. He was considered such a nut. The Inquisition arrest him again, and when they feed him, he taught the Inquisitors בִּרְכַּת הַמָּזוֹן [Grace after Meals]. So this time they exiled him to Ecuador. He went from Quito to the jungle... where he wrote that he found a tribe of American Indians called Chachapoya (a real nation). He did not claim they are all the descendants of the Ten Lost Tribes; but he said some of them came there when the Indians came there. (He knew that was long before the time of the Ten Lost Tribes.) He says an old shaman told him some are the descendants of Reubenites. He hung out with them for two years. He said they knew the Shema.
Actually, it's possible they did, because Crypto-Jews have been fleeing to live with the natives the whole time, because they had the same enemies.
Montezinos had by now caused a massive uproar in South America, and was becoming a major diplomatic incident for the Spanish Empire. (This is probably why they didn't have him quietly knifed.) Philip IV turned to the independent Netherlands (the part where the Spanish were now massacring the Dutch too) saying, "This guy is yours; take him back!"
Montezinos returned to the Netherlands, where Manasse ben Israel told him, "You did a rather risky thing." Antonio de Montezinos replied, "What I did was entirely legal." Manasse ben Israel is no idiot; when Montezinos told him about these "Reubenites" he said, "ooh, this can help our coreligionists who have been living as Crypto-Jews in another country"—the Crypto-Jewish community who have been in England since the time of Elizabeth II. But they did not have official recognition; and James I was not good to them.
Now Oliver Cromwell was in charge. Manasse decided to write to the British Parliament to say, "be happy there are Jews in High Peru". Cromwell, being a Puritan, believed the Jews must be scattered to every corner of the Earth, and Israel (i.e. the Ten Lost Tribes) must unite with Judah, before Jesus comes back. So Manasse said: Israel (the Reubenites) was just united with Judah (open Jews); does this ring any bells?
Cromwell did not respond favourably to that letter. A lot of letters went back and forth between them, but Cromwell never actually conceded formal recognition to the Jews. He just said he wouldn't say it was illegal. Gradually the presence of Jews became accepted in Britain.
(The speaker digressed at this point, having used the word "should", to quote Queen Elizabeth responding to Walsingham when he used it: "'Should' is not a word you use to a queen".)
Back in Peru, the Inquisition went to town. They used this incident for one of the most grotesque campaigns against the Indians of the jungles. Montezinos spent the rest of his life writing tracts against the cruel behaviour of the Spanish towards the Indians.
The Inquisition said even the name Peru is Hebrew. They said it's an anagram of Ophir: a land mentioned in the Bible a number of times (Gen. 10:28-29, also Kings and Chronicles) as a difficult place to sail to; you can reach it by sailing west. [Eh? I thought Ophir was supposed to be in the south, though looking at the Bible, it doesn't seem to give any direction.] Solomon supposedly sent ships to Ophir to bring back the gold.
The name for Peru in Quechua was Tawantinsuyu. So where did they get "Peru" from? The Spanish encountered the Chachapoyas first on their march to Cajarmarca. Through sign language, they heard the word "bilu". In the Chachapoyas' language, bilu means "river". Perhaps they did not understand what the Spanish were getting at. The Spaniards heard it as "Peru". There is no connection between "Peru" and "Ophir".
Did Montezinos feel guilty for bringing on the fate he did to the Indians? The Inquisition was brutal anyway, and had gone on a brutal campaign against them just beforehand. The Inquisition would have done what it did with or without him? At the same time, his presence brought it more immediate. He wrestled with this for the next eight years of his life. And nobody tried the trick Montezinos tried again.
Why did Montezinos invent the whole thing with the tribe of Reuben? Cecil Roth came to the conclusion that the whole thing was cooked up by Manasse ben Israel as the spearhead of the plan to get the Jews readmitted to England; and the reason to do this was because Amsterdam was getting overwhelmed with Crypto-Jewish refugees from Spain.
Why the Tribe of Reuben? Manasse ben Israel said it was because the Indians were kind and tried to help Montezinos, the same way Reuben did Joseph.