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Penguin Random House
Penguin Random House

From Peru to Israel: the Long Journey of the Inca Jews

In ‘The Prophet of the Andes’, Graciela Mochkofsky tells the story of Segundo Villanueva, a little known religious leader who led thousands to Jewish conversion

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Segundo Villanueva was born in 1927 in a tiny farming village perched in the Andes. When he was 17, his father was murdered and Segundo was left with little more than a Bible as his inheritance. This Bible launched Segundo on a lifelong obsession to find the true message of God contained in its pages.

He found himself looking for answers outside the Catholic Church, with a hierarchy and colonial roots that embodied the gaping social and racial inequities of Peruvian society.

In The Prophet of the Andes: An Unlikely Journey to the Promised Land, Argentinian author and journalist Graciela Mochkofsky documents the life of this little known religious leader who led thousands to Jewish conversion and how he would inspire a wave of Latin American Jewish communities today.

Mochkofsky, who originally wrote the book in Spanish (La Revelación, 2009) focuses on this Peruvian villager and spiritual leader, who, over years of religious study, explored various Protestant sects and founded his own religious community in the Amazon jungle before discovering a version of Judaism he pieced together independently from his readings of the Old Testament.

Engaged in a colossal adventure, in search of the true faith, Villanueva, like a Moses, led an entire community from the top of the Peruvian Andes to the jungle of the Amazon to find a utopian community; from modern Peru to the dangerous Jewish colonies of the Israeli Occupied Territories; from the Gospels to the Torah and the Talmud, and from peace and poverty to the very center of the political storm and warfare of our day.

His makeshift synagogue began to draw in crowds of fervent believers, seeking a faith that truly served their needs. Then, in a series of extraordinary events, politically motivated Israeli rabbis converted the community to Orthodox Judaism and resettled them on the West Bank.

Segundo’s incredible journey made him an unlikely pioneer for a new kind of Jewish faith, one that is now attracting masses of impoverished people across Latin America.

In a recent interview with The Jewish News of Northern California, Mochkofsky explained that she found this story about the Inca Jews on the Internet, while she was looking for something else, “something that had to do with personal identity and the fact that I grew up in a very Catholic region of the world that has a very strong Jewish history at the same time,” she said. Her father is Jewish, and her mother is a Catholic, and she was
raised as a Catholic, but she became very interested in Judaism.

The story of the converted Inca Indians in Peru intrigued her.

“It was this conversion out of nothing, and a mass conversion — now, a contemporary mass conversion — and then these people had been taken to Israel,” she recalled.

Three weeks later, she was in Tapuach, a settlement in the West Bank, in Israel, where Villanueva’s family lived. Mochkofsky would spend the next
two decades reconstructing the spiritual struggle that brought them to Israel, and the fault lines in contemporary Judaism that influenced their experience there.

A native of Argentina, Mochkofsky was recently appointed dean of the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY. She has been a regular contributor of The New Yorker, where she produces a monthly column on Latinx culture and politics. She is a winner of the 2018 Maria Moors Cabot prize for outstanding reporting across Latin America and the Caribbean.

Mochofsky was a political correspondent with La Nación in Argentina, has been a columnist and blogger for El País in Spain, and a contributor to publications in Latin America, Europe, and the U.S., including The California Sunday Magazine, The New Yorker online, and The Paris Review blog.
She is the author of six nonfiction books in Spanish, two of them about the relationship between press and political power in her home country. The Prophet of the Andes, translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillmanabout, is her latest book.

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