In 1948, a 21-year-old Peruvian mestizo man named Segundo Villanueva opened up his murdered father’s trunk for the first time. It had been passed down through the generations of men in his family.
He was shocked to find an old copy of the Bible. He couldn’t understand what it was doing there, as his family was Catholic and thus forbidden from owning Bibles. Only priests were allowed to read the holy book and convey its contents to the people, he understood.
This odd discovery changed the course of Villanueva’s life, taking it on a highly unlikely arc from Rodacocha, a small hamlet in the Andes where he was born in 1927, to the ancient Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, where in 2008 he was buried under the name of Zerubbabel Tzidkiya.
Because Villanueva dared to open up that forbidden Bible and read it, he eventually ended up an observant Jew — after first trying out several lesser-known Christian and syncretic religious identities.
Villanueva took many others along with him on his single-minded journey to understand the word of God as written in the Hebrew Bible. His genuine, unending search for the truth resulted in hundreds of Peruvian families converting to Judaism and living in Israel. They arrived in three small waves of aliya (immigration) between 1990 and 2006.
“This is one of the most fascinating stories I have come across as a journalist,” said Argentinian-born journalist and author Graciela Mochkofsky, who delved into it for many years.
Mochkofsky’s piecing together the events of Villanueva’s life, and those of his family members and followers, resulted in “The Prophet of the Andes: An Unlikely Journey to the Promised Land,” published on August 2.
Jewish on her father’s side, Mochkofsky, 53, is the newly appointed dean of the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York. In tracing the “prophet’s” tale, she put her journalist’s chops under heavy use: The author learned that although the major outlines of Villanueva’s reported story were true, she constantly faced the challenge of separating fact from fiction.
It started with the first account Mochkofsky came across about Villanueva and his followers, who eventually called themselves the Bnei Moshe. It was an essay written by Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi Myron Zuber titled, “Converting Inca Indians in Peru,” that she read in September 2003.
According to Zuber, “It all began in 1966, in the Peruvian city of Trujillo, with a man called Villanueva, a good Catholic who frequently attended church… After a period of time, Villanueva came to the conclusion that the Catholic Church could not satisfy his spiritual search; he decided to embrace Judaism.
“It did not take long for him to amass 500 people who also wished to convert to Judaism… Villanueva changed his name to Tzidkiyahu and is revered as a prophet and leader in Israel,” Zuber continued.
Mochkofsky would later discover that that wasn’t actually what happened — in Peru or Israel.
But Zuber’s article, as problematic as it was, intrigued Mochkofsky enough to dig into the story. After several reporting trips to Peru and Israel to meet with members of the Bnei Moshe, she wrote a Spanish-language book titled “La Revelación” (The Revelation).
Published in 2006, the author now calls it “a much flawed” first edition of “The Prophet of the Andes.” A major reason for this was her inability to interview Villanueva. He happened to be in Peru when she was in Israel, and vice versa. (She was also unable to speak with him for this new book because, by the time she was able to work on it, he had developed dementia.)
“The first book was more of a fable about faith and the search for truth. I didn’t have the resources to do all the necessary research. To get the full story I need to know more history, and more about Judaism and Hebrew, Segundo, and the politics of Israel,” she said.
A curious prophet
In the meantime, Mochkofsky was hearing about an increasing number of communities similar to the Bnei Moshe sprouting up in South America. She wrote about one in Bello, on the outskirts of Medellín, Colombia that was published in The California Sunday Magazine in April 2016.
“At the time I completed writing ‘The Prophet of the Andes,’ there were around 60 of these congregations in 14 Latin American countries,” Mochkofsky said.
The story of the Bnei Moshe began with Villanueva, at the time a young carpenter, reading the Bible and gathering groups of people around him to read and discuss it with him. Villanueva’s questions and desire to comprehend the true meaning of the word of God were ceaseless. He would engage anyone willing to study.
He reached out to local religious scholars and leaders at the Protestant congregations that were cropping up for the first time in Cajamarca, where he lived.
“Segundo’s story paralleled the influx of Protestant churches into the Andes in the 20th century. There were as many interpretations as learners,” Mochkofsky said.
But when he started to ask challenging questions, doors were closed in his face.
Taking the Bible in a very literal sense, Villanueva could not understand why the Christians he knew observed the Sabbath on Sunday, in contradiction to what was written in the Five Books of Moses. He eventually joined a church that not only made sense to him but was also welcoming: The Seventh Day Adventist Reform Movement.
“That opening, as well as their observance of the Sabbath on Saturday, strict dietary restrictions, dogmatic zeal, and social conservatism — women wore long skirts, no makeup or jewelry, and used no perfume —appealed to Segundo and his group,” Mochkofsky writes.
But after some time, Villanueva still didn’t feel right about where he was. So, in 1962, he founded his own church, Israel of God. After learning about José Alfredo Loje’s small congregation, Israelites of the New Covenant, Villanueva adopted their use of the lunar calendar and the observance of Israelite feast days mentioned in the Torah, such as Sukkot, Passover, and Shavuot.
Still identifying as Christians, members of Israel of God set up congregations in several locations in central-northern Peru, including a small settlement they build themselves in the Amazon in 1967 that they named Hebron.
It wasn’t until Villanueva was able to access a religious bookstore in Peru that sold a variety of translations of the Bible that he realized that translation by default involves errors and interpretations.
He decided that the version of the Bible he must follow is the original Hebrew, so he began to learn the language. This eventually led him to be further troubled by inconsistencies between the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, and how he may have misinterpreted scripture.
Ultimately he concluded that Jesus was not the Messiah and that he and his flock must become Jews. They would be known as the Bnei Moshe.
Birthing pains for Bnei Moshe
“For the third time in his life, at forty-six, Segundo was hit with the full force of revelation, brought on by the pages of a book. Here, finally, was the explanation… None of the prophets had said that the Messiah would come twice, first to fail, then to triumph. Jesus had not been, and could not be, the Messiah. His messianism had been a human invention, well-intentioned but false,” Mochkofsky writes.
Then began the complicated politics of the Bnei Moshe’s conversion to Judaism and aliya to Israel.
For the most part, the congregations of assimilated European-descended Jews in Peru wanted nothing to do with the Bnei Moshe, either doubting their intentions or discriminating against them because of their racial background and social-economic status. Unaccepted at established synagogues, Villanueva and his people built their own shanty-style houses of prayer to use until they could officially convert and make aliya to Israel.
When a Conservative rabbi arrived in Peru offering to convert them, the strict Villanueva declined, saying, “Thank you, but we are looking for an Orthodox conversion.”
Segundo sent letters to rabbis and Jewish leaders in North America and Israel, hoping to get support from them. Most never answered. Some did reply and visit, particularly Religious Zionist rabbis who looked at the Bnei Moshe as a possible source of Jews who could be settled in the West Bank to boost the Jewish population there.
Approval from Israel’s Chief Rabbinate would be necessary for this highly unusual mass conversion of people who did not claim Jewish ancestry (though Villanueva’s son is now trying to prove a connection to the Jews expelled from Spain in 1492).
After positive reports were provided by visiting Israeli rabbis, a beit din (three-rabbi panel) returned on August 17, 1989, to administer examinations and convert 160 Bnei Moshe. Many of the newly minted Jews chose Hebrew names. Villanueva became Zerubbabel Tzidkiya.
On February 28, 1990, Tzidkiya and the first group arrived in Israel. They were immediately taken to the Elon Moreh settlement in the northern West Bank. Many of them later relocated to the Kfar Tapuach settlement.
Ultimately two more groups of Peruvian converts to Judaism, the Bnei Abraham, and the Inca Jews, arrived in Israel. Israel eventually put a stop to the immigration in 2006, when it started to look like many applicants were more interested in economic opportunity than being observant Jews.
Mochkofsky said she doesn’t think that the Bnei Moshe were manipulated by those who settled them in the West Bank without giving them a choice of where to live.
“The media was racist at the time that the Bnei Moshe arrived. They were seen as lacking agency, as a phenomenon. But I don’t see them as pawns. Everyone involved had an agenda or goal, and the Bnei Moshe had theirs. They figured out what was what and got what they wanted. They were where they wanted to be. Theirs is a success story,” the author said.
Without giving away spoilers, it is possible to say that readers of “The Prophet of the Andes” will be surprised by how things worked out for Segundo Villanueva/Zerubabbel Tzidkiya in the years after he finally achieved his dream of settling in Israel as a Jew. Mochkofsky certainly was.
“I thought the end of my book would be his successful aliya, but it wasn’t,” she said.
There is a twist toward the end of the book that leaves readers admiring Tzidkiya for his limitless commitment to his spiritual quest, but also pitying him for it.
“There are different ways to read this book. But one is to see it as a tragic, never-ending search for the truth by a man who was consumed by a book,” Mochofsky said.
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