Lorry Salcedo Mitrani’s documentary focuses on the Jewish community in Iquitos, Peru. The community was created in the late 19th century when Jewish men – mostly Sephardic settlers from North Africa – came to Peru as part of the country’s rubber boom. Most of the men settled in Iquitos, in the country’s Amazonian central region, and married local women.
Over the years, the community existed quietly – perhaps too quietly, since the Jewish community in Lima, the Peruvian capital, wasn’t even aware of their presence until the 1980s. The questions on the authenticity of the Iquitos community’s Jewishness created problems within Peru’s small Jewish population – Lima’s Orthodox Jewish leaders rejected the Iquitos Jews as not being true members of the faith, while the city’s Conservative Jews patiently instructed them in full Judaic protocol and coordinated formal conversion ceremonies. Many of the Iquitos community eventually resettled in Israel, where they made a determined effort to learn Hebrew and assimilate into a very different cultural environment.
The film skirts some obvious questions about the Iquitos community’s acceptance of Jewish culture – kosher food, circumcision, and the appropriate observance of religious holidays is never raised. Nonetheless, “The Fire Within” provides a compelling real-life story of religious piety. The mix of rare photographs and archival footage, plus remarkable interviews with the Iquitos community – those who remained in Peru and those who made the aliyah to Israel – offers a fascinating glimpse into a rarely considered aspect of Latin American Jewish history.