The most notable exclusion, however, is not a person, but an event: Here is a story of Jewish faith in which the Holocaust plays no part whatsoever. It is, Mochkofsky writes, “a Judaism with no past and no tradition, with no memory of persecution, the Holocaust or the struggles for Zionism” — and yet the narrative of displacement is no less compelling for it. The Peruvian converts were fleeing not persecution or pogroms but abject poverty, fueled by government corruption. When emissaries from Israel visited Villanueva’s congregation, they were aghast at the barrenness of the place: dirt floors, no plumbing, a windowless, roofless temple lit by candles. Israel was no less of a beacon to these newly minted Jews. They, too, bore a brutal legacy: of colonialism, the Spanish arriving in Peru to conquer, to kill and to convert the local population by force.
Many of Villanueva’s followers remain in Israel today, but Villanueva did not find peace there. The rabbis, it turned out, were as fallible as any other leaders, prone to conflicting interpretations of the Torah. His insistence on continuing to ask questions made Villanueva a nuisance there as he had always been, everywhere. And so this is, ultimately, a story of a journey without a destination — and Villanueva less a messianic or prophetic figure than a tragic one. A restless, homeless, helpless searcher who seeks endlessly without finding, sows continuously without reaping, and dies with his mind, and his memory, in tatters. In the Old Testament, this is Cain’s fate; in Coleridge, the Ancient Mariner’s. But when we encounter this man in folklore, he is known by another, more familiar name: the Wandering Jew.
Kat Rosenfield is a culture writer, a columnist at Unherd and the author of four novels, including the Edgar-nominated “No One Will Miss Her.” Her next book, “You Must Remember This,” will be published in January.
THE PROPHET OF THE ANDES: An Unlikely Journey to the Promised Land, by Graciela Mochkofsky | Translated by Lisa Dillman 272 pp. | Alfred A. Knopf $30