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A Jew's Quest in the Peruvian Amazon

May 7, 2020 | by Sara Yoheved Rigler

While living in the Peruvian Amazon married to a native woman, an American Jew experiences a life-saving miracle that sparks his spiritual quest.

Saul was born in New Jersey in 1980. His family belonged to a Reform temple, which they attended on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, faithfully maintaining their post-services-on-Rosh Hashana tradition of going out for Chinese food. Saul went to Hebrew school one afternoon a week and on Saturday mornings until he was Bar Mitzvah age. “Our family was culturally Jewish,” says Saul. “We read The New York Times, watched Woody Allen movies, and espoused liberal political causes.”

When 9/11 hit, Saul was in college. Suddenly many of the foreign students were warned that unless they had proper visas they would be deported. A campaign ensued for students who were U.S. citizens to marry foreign students just so they could receive resident visas. Saul volunteered to marry a Catholic Peruvian woman. Their nuptials took place at City Hall. Saul’s father was proud of him that he was doing "tikkun olam."

Surprisingly, the marriage stuck. When Saul graduated in 2003 with a major in Romance languages, he found it difficult to get a good job. After two years of teaching, Saul and his wife decided to move to her native city of Lima, Peru. For what it cost them to rent for one year in New York City, they could purchase an apartment in Lima. Saul got a job teaching English at the French School.

Lima boasted four shuls and 3,000 Jews, most of them elderly Holocaust survivors. Chabad and the Conservative shul struggled to get a minyan. Saul was an atheist. His Judaism consisted of lighting Hanukah candles, holding a Seder, and refraining from eating on Yom Kippur, although he did drink. And he maintained his family’s “Jewish tradition” of absorption in liberal politics.

The lack of even a single synagogue in Tarapoto was irrelevant to Saul.

After nine years of living in Lima, a metropolis of ten million people with no public transport system and which is enshrouded in fog nine months a year, Saul decided to move to the beautiful Amazon region. He chose Tarapoto, a city of 500,000 people with opportunities for developing a business in legal and technical translations for mining companies. The lack of even a single synagogue in Tarapoto was irrelevant to Saul.

But as Saul and his wife had children, it became important to him to give his offspring a Jewish identity, based on the Reform doctrine of patrilineal descent. Their first son was born while they were visiting Saul’s parents in New Jersey, and he was circumcised by a Conservative mohel. When their second son was born in Tarapoto, Saul approached a local surgeon and asked him to circumcise the eight-day-old baby. The surgeon refused, saying it was dangerous to circumcise such a young infant.

The Miracle

Three months later, Saul’s family was invited to a wedding in the beach resort of Los Grillos in Zorritos, near the border with Ecuador. Saul’s American friend Eric was marrying a non-Jewish Peruvian woman, and he brought Rabbi Laurie from Florida to conduct the ceremony. Saul still wanted a bris for his second son. While he understood that Rabbi Laurie could not actually circumcise the baby, he asked her to officiate at some kind of bris ceremony the day after the wedding, and she agreed.

At Los Grillos, Saul’s family was staying in a rustic, one-room bungalow with a thatched roof. It contained just a bed for the couple and a smaller bed for the children. Above the bungalow was a platform holding a 1000-liter water tank, accessed by a ladder. The bungalow was so close to the shoreline that they could leave the baby sleeping in the children’s bed while Saul, his wife, and older son frolicked on the beach, still within earshot of the baby’s cries.

The wedding took place on Saturday afternoon, with the dancing going on until late into the night. On Sunday morning, Rabbi Laurie conducted a bris-like ceremony with all of Eric’s and Saul’s friends in attendance. Afterwards, Saul bid Eric goodbye, telling him, “We’re heading back to our bungalow to have a family beach day.” Eric protested that they had just had a bris for his son, a significant Jewish milestone. They should stay and celebrate with the assembled friends. Saul and his wife acquiesced. They spent the whole day eating, drinking, and celebrating both the wedding and the bris.

The one-ton water tank had crashed onto the bed in which their baby would have been sleeping had they not stayed to celebrate the bris.

Toward midnight, as they drove toward their bungalow, the caretaker came running out, screaming, “I’m so glad you guys are okay!” He pointed in the dark to the ruins of what had been their bungalow. That day a drunken driver in an SUV had collided with the ladder, knocking the one-ton water tank off its perch and through the hatched roof. As Saul waded through the sodden remnants of the bungalow, he spied the water tank. It had crashed onto the bed in which their baby would have been sleeping had they not stayed to celebrate the bris. Saul stood there trembling.

“It was very apparent to me,” Saul recalls, “that my son had survived because we had decided to do the ceremony and because we had stayed there to celebrate it properly. I saw the hand of God. I wasn’t ready to admit it to others, but I thought to myself, ‘Well, if there is a God and He just saved my son, I have to do something to thank Him. What can I do?’”

All the way back to Tarapoto, Saul reflected on an appropriate response. He thought about keeping kosher, but other than fruits and vegetables, there was no kosher food available in Tarapoto. Then he considered learning Hebrew, but he concluded that was a weak response to a major miracle. Finally, he decided, “I learned that God is pretty much into Shabbat, so if I make a nice dinner with wine on Friday nights, that would be something.”

Although Tarapoto had no real Jewish community, a decade before an Israeli organization named Shavei Yisrael had sent an emissary to reclaim the great-grandchildren of Moroccan Jewish traders who had come to the Amazon in the late 19th century and had married local women. Shivei Yisrael had started a large-scale conversion program under Orthodox auspices for those descendants of the Jewish traders who wanted to be Jews. They held Shabbat services in private homes. Saul started attending these services on Friday nights and would follow up with a dinner in honor of Shabbat. He continued this practice for two years.

Then Saul and his wife went through a painful break-up. As he remembers,

“I really felt very troubled. I felt regretful of a lot of things that had gone on for many years. I went to an indigenous spiritual retreat that a client of mine was running. Before the retreat, the participants had to go on a special diet. We were forbidden to eat pork or shellfish for two weeks. I thought to myself, ‘Anything that my great-grandmother wouldn’t eat and that a shaman in the rainforest wouldn’t eat, there must be something to it.’”

During the retreat, Saul “really felt directly the Divine presence.” Afterwards, he started making Kiddush on Shabbat nights.

He needed to educate himself but no Jewish books were available. “Amazon doesn’t ship to the Amazon.”

A couple months later he decided that he was tired of wading in the shallows of Jewish observance. He wanted to dive in. But how? He needed to educate himself, but no Jewish books were available. As he wryly observes, “Amazon doesn’t ship to the Amazon.”

Internet Jew

At that point Saul discovered the Jewish internet., especially the “How-to” articles by Lori Palatnik, “Ask the Rabbi,” and Pathways [now Aish Academy] became like tour guides through the dense jungle of Jewish observance. Saul felt like he was maneuvering through the rain forest on clearly marked trails. He also used the websites Mi Yodeya and Sefaria, an online library of classic Jewish texts.

“Once I started, it snowballed,” Saul recollects. “I wanted to learn more and I wanted to do more.” Still, he proceeded slowly. He learned that there are three daily prayers, but when he looked at the Shaharit morning service, he realized, “I’m not ready for this.” Instead, he undertook to say the one-line “Modeh ani” prayer upon awakening, and Shema Yisrael.

Gradually, Saul took upon himself to observe Shabbat. He needed his cup of fresh coffee on Shabbat morning, but he realized he could grind the coffee beans on Friday before sundown. The Friday night services were held a 45-minute walk from his house, and he wasn’t ready to stop driving on Shabbat. One Friday night he found himself at a gas station and realized he could make sure to fill his car before Shabbat. “I was just focusing on the next step, and I didn’t know where it was going to take me. As I would approach a new mitzvah, sometimes I was excited, and sometime I’d say to myself, ‘That’s stupid. I’m never going to do that.’ Eventually, I would do that mitzvah and afterwards I’d feel uncomfortable not doing it.”

Keeping kosher in the Amazon presented its own problems. There was no kosher meat available in Tarapoto. At first Saul would go to the local butcher and, even though the meat had not been slaughtered according to halacha [Jewish law] he’d buy cuts of chicken and beef (kosher animals) and bring them home, and salt and soak them according to the laws he learned about on the Internet. Eventually he said, “This isn’t really right.” He started to have kosher meat airlifted to him from Lima (18 hours by car from Tarapoto) by paying a taxi driver to pick up meat at Lima’s only kosher restaurant and bring it to the airport.

After a year of such gradual steps, Saul was keeping Shabbat except for smoking, which he felt incapable of giving up. Even there, he took a small step in the direction of the halacha by lighting his cigarettes from an existing flame, as is permitted on the holidays. Half a year later, he decided, “I’m ready to do this,” and he kept his first full Shabbat. It was May 26, 2018. “It was really hard,” he remembers. “But it felt really good to take that step.”

Meanwhile, the erstwhile atheist had developed a relationship with God through his online Jewish studies. “I believed that God created the universe and gave us the Torah, and when you do a mitzvah, you’re getting closer to God by doing what He told you to do.”

By winging his way through cyberspace Saul found a Judaism he didn’t know existed.

Eventually, Saul decided that Tarapoto, Peru, was not the right place to live a Jewish life. The best place to relocate, he realized, was Israel. So in February, 2020, he came for a six-week stay, with the intention of making Aliyah and then going back to Peru to retrieve his two children. Saul and his ex-wife decided he would have custody of the children so they could be raised as Jews and take advantage of the educational opportunities of living in Israel. But then, in March, the coronavirus pandemic hit, and Israel went into lockdown. Marooned in Israel, Saul is happily learning Torah in the Old City of Jerusalem, anxiously waiting to be reunited with his children.

Before the lockdown, Saul ended up at my Shabbos table. Among the other guests was an American couple, Yitzchak and Jenny, who became religious twenty years ago. At some point in the discussion, Yitzchak, with umbrage, said to Saul, “I’ve been learning Torah for twenty years, while you learned everything you know on the internet. And you know more than I do.”

The road to Judaism did not pass through the Peruvian Amazon, so Saul had had no choice but to fly, and by winging his way through cyberspace he found a Judaism he didn’t know existed.

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