Jews of the Amazon: Self-Exile in Earthly Paradise

Article excerpt

by Ariel Segal. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society; 1999. 341 pp. $29.95.

Ariel Segal's Jews of the Amazon: Self-Exile in Earthly Paradise tells the story of a small group in Iquitos (Amazonian Peru) who define themselves as Jews (some have migrated to Israel). All claim ancestry from a group of North African Jewish men who migrated to the Amazon as part of the nineteenth-century rubber boom and married local women. While the story itself is compellingly told and may appeal to some because of its novelty, Segal's mixture of history, participant anthropology, and self-referential commentary places this book more in the journalistic category (Segal is the Latin American correspondent in Israel for the BBC) than the scholarly one. To Segal's credit, he makes it clear to readers that the book is not the traditional "researcher-researched relationship between a historian and his or her living sources of information". By dispensing with many historical conventions (extensive footnotes, chronology, full use of archives) Jews of the Amazon provides readers with a story that is as much about Segal's relationship with the Iquiteños as it is about the group itself. As Segal notes, he is the classic example of "the researcher who woke up transformed into a protagonist".

Much of Jews of the Amazon outlines the two years that Segal spent living in Iquitos. This is done by moving between traditional narrative and excerpts from oral histories. In addition, Segal kept a journal during his stay, and direct selections from it form much of the basis for the book. …