The protagonist of Graciela Mochkofsky’s Prophet of the Andes, ably translated by Lisa Dillman, is also a figure of enormous resolve...In 2003, Mochkofsky learned about Segundo Villanueva, 'an indigenous Peruvian' and 'good Catholic' who determined after years of study that Judaism was the one true faith, and who, with his followers, converted and moved from Peru to Israel...Theirs is a story spanning decades, leading from a village in the Peruvian mountains to a Jewish settlement in the West Bank...Segundo Villanueva’s story is remarkable—a sort of inverse of Christ’s narrative, from Catholic carpenter to founder of a Jewish community—and Mochkofsky tells it meticulously and with verve...Perhaps surprisingly, she refrains from commenting on its political implications: that the Bnei Moshe, along with the influx of Soviet and Ethiopian Jewish immigrants in the Eighties and Nineties, proved so useful for zealous proponents of Greater Israel that they were (and are) prepared to break with millennia of antiproselytizing tradition in order to swell the West Bank settlements...The continued conversion of Peruvians and other Latin Americans with no Jewish roots represents a fascinating and radical shift.
This story is sprawling, multigenerational, the stuff of a Cecil B. DeMille epic; its settings range from dirt roads high in the mountains where the air is too thin to breathe to fecund rainforests to the war-torn West Bank ... Like any epic, it often lacks intimacy; we get to know Villanueva as a student, a teacher and a prophet, but not so much as a father, a husband or a man. Mochkofsky is no doubt aware of this; an endnote laments the 'preponderance of male voices in this book,' a hazard of the decision to focus her narrative on the part of Villanueva’s life and community that largely excluded women. Even more unfortunate is that Villanueva’s voice is not among those featured ... Mochkofsky’s text, originally written in Spanish, seems to have lost lyricism in the sometimes awkward translation ... The most notable exclusion, however, is not a person, but an event: Here is a story of Jewish faith in which the Holocaust plays no part whatsoever ... And yet the narrative of displacement is no less compelling for it.
Mochkofsky condenses an astonishing sweep of religious and political history from the Spanish conquest to Zionism, connecting it to Segundo’s story with a light touch ... Mochkofsky pointedly avoids telling the reader how to interpret this story. Were the Peruanim exploited by enthusiastic proponents of settlements in Palestine, or did they exploit right-wing nationalism to get what they wanted? Or was it a bit of both?
Journalist and educator Mochkofsky, a contributing writer for the New Yorker, chronicles the inspiring, sometimes astonishing tale of Segundo Villanueva (1927-2008), whose spiritual journey and personal magnetism made him the center of an extremely dedicated group of followers from the 1960s until his death...Finding a Bible in a trunk he had inherited, at a time when the Catholic Church deeply discouraged Bible use by laity, Villanueva read the book with fervor, finding great inconsistencies between what the church taught and what the Scriptures presented...His conversational and questioning nature caused a small group of family and friends to follow his leadership in looking for a church home that would more closely align with their findings in Scripture...As he continued to immerse himself in biblical study, Villanueva rejected Christian teachings altogether and decided that he and his followers were, in fact, Jews, a decision that led to splintering within the community...Readers will be swept up in this story of one man’s unshakeable quest for truth and the people who followed him through every obstacle, from poverty to jungle predators to Israeli bureaucracy...At times inspiring, at times heartbreaking, this account of a small Jewish community is always engrossing.
New Yorker contributor Mochkofsky makes her English-language debut with this immersive chronicle of an unusual search for religious authenticity in 20th-century South America...In the late 1940s, 21-year-old Peruvian mestizo Segundo Villanueva was surprised to come across a Spanish translation of the Bible in his murdered father’s trunk...Once he delved into the scriptures, Villanueva became unsettled by the New Testament’s abandonment of almost all the laws delineated in the Old Testament...That tension led Villanueva to found his own church, called Israel of God, in 1962 and build a settlement in the Amazon jungle, where he and his followers kept the Sabbath, observed feast days, and taught themselves Hebrew in order to read the 'original' Bible...Drawing on impressive insider access, Mochkofsky documents the Peruvians’ beliefs and the mixed reception they received in Israel with empathy and insight...The result is an intimate chronicle of faith and politics.