The Smithsonian Folklife Festival: Jewish Culture in Unusual Places

1870 synagogue in Lima, Peru / photo courtesy of

The Smithsonian Folklife Festival takes place every summer, bringing amazing world cultural events to the National Mall! Every year has a specific theme and in 2015 they’ve been focusing on Peru.

Doubtless the Festival has done a great job in covering many aspects of this nation. But allow me to expand on their efforts! For the last few years, inspired by our local Folklife tradition, I have researched and brought attention to the widely diverse world Jewish communities. Jewish culture has touched almost every region of the world, and of course vice versa. So let us begin.


In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue…and Jews were officially expelled from Spain, making the “new world” look like a good possibility. In fact, many “conversos” were on board the Spanish ships, according to the Jewish Virtual Library. These people were mostly forcibly converted to Catholicism, though many still secretly practiced Judaism. Latin America promised economic prosperity and the chance to get away from the Inquisition…so they thought. In fact Spain started limiting “conversos” emigration to “the new world,” though the Portuguese didn’t have as many restrictions, so a number of them moved into Spanish territories like Peru. For more information on “conversos,” I made a LibGuide when I was in Library School.

Jews had to live in hiding in Peru, and many Latin American countries, until the Enlightenment of the 19th century. But the community was quite small and intermarried, and much of the establishment they set up passed to new Jewish immigrants, like central European merchants whose descendants make up the bulk of the modern day community. In the latter half of the 1800s, North African Jews, also drawn for economic reasons, made their way to this country.

In the 20th century, the reason for Jewish immigration took a turn towards the attempt to escape persecution. Jews from Turkey and Syria came after World War I, expanding the Jewish presence to the entire country but eventually moving back to the well-established areas in Lima. This included Ashkenazi and Sephardi synagogues, services like homes for the elderly, and a Jewish day school that 80% of kids attend.

The community peaked at 52,000 members in the 1970s, but declined more recently due to socialist governments, neo-Nazi antisemitism, economic hardships, intermarriage, the end of emigration, and immigration to other Latin American countries and Israel. But Peruvian Jews, now numbering around 3,000, continue to own businesses and serve in the government. Former first lady Elaine Karp and former second vice president David Waisman are both members of the tribe.

As of late, indigenous Peruvians (or B’nai Moshe) are starting to turn to Judaism as well. Many see it as the best way to practice the Bible, their ancestors having been converted to Catholicism during the Spanish colonial period. Rabbi Mendel Zuber from the U.S. acquired a Bet Din from Israel in the late 20th century to convert a few hundred people to Judaism. Read more about his work and experience here.  Some of these new converts stayed in Peru, but many made aliyah to Israel as well.

For Spanish-language resources, chec out, Judios de Peru on Facebook and Museo de la Communidad Judia del Peru.

The Smithsonian Folklife Festival continues until July 5.

Previous Festival Coverage on JewishDC
2014 / 2013 / 2011 / 2010