Film uncovers Amazonian Jews who want to make aliyah

Thanks to a number of documentaries in recent years that now compose their own sub-genre, we’re no longer surprised to hear about tiny pockets of observant Jews in out-of-the-way corners of the world.

These communities cling to their Jewish identity with an inspiring tenacity that casts into sharp relief the ease with which American Jews preserve and practice their faith.

So it’s particularly upsetting to learn that groups of South American Jews are less than fully supported by other Jews.

Lorry Salcedo Mitrani’s “The Fire Within: Jews in the Amazonian Rainforest” introduces us to the Jewish community of Iquitos, Peru, a town that attracted both entrepreneurs and ordinary workers during the rubber boom of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

A number of those people were Moroccan Jews — single men, mostly — whose ancestors had been chased out of Spain hundreds of years earlier. The new immigrants married indigenous women and started families, and those branches now comprise Iquitos’ Jewish community.

As the former head of the community declares, “It’s a miracle that the flame of Judaism still exists here.”

And a huge feel-good story, no question. But it also comes with one big caveat.

“The Fire Within” screens Thursday, Nov. 20 at the Mission Cultural Center in San Francisco as part of the 12th International Latino Film Festival.

The fest has one more Jewish-themed film on the schedule, a documentary about how El Salvador issued certificates of citizenship to help save Jews in World War II. “Glass House” screens 6 p.m. Nov. 22 at Dominican University in San Rafael, with director Brad Marlowe and producer Leonor Avila Marlowe slated to be in attendance.

The history of the Jews in Iquito is moderately interesting, but “The Fire Within” really catches fire when it focuses on the present — and some Peruvians’ desire to make aliyah to the Promised Land. What a remarkable affirmation of, and commitment to, their Jewish identity! Who could possibly oppose such a decision?

Well, going back many generations, the Iquito Jews are descended from non-Jewish mothers, and thus don’t pass muster with the chief rabbis of Israel, the ultimate arbiters of who is a Jew.

OK, say the Iquito Jews, we’ll convert. But the Orthodox (and largely Ashkenazi) community of Lima is skeptical and unhelpful, believing the poorer Sephardic Jews are essentially motivated to make aliyah for economic reasons.

Mitrani’s far-reaching doc covers a lot of time and ground in one hour, from glimpses of the 2002 and 2004 conversion rituals (led by Americans such as Rabbi Marcelo Bronstein of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in New York) to enlightening and hopeful interviews with several of the new immigrants gradually acclimating to Israel.

“The Fire Within” adopts a surprisingly even-keel tone, allowing the Iquito Jews’ remarkable commitment and perseverance to speak for itself. As one small example of their desire to be considered Jewish, some traveled six days by canoe to participate in the conversion process.

The film plainly takes their side, but it doesn’t indulge in righteous indignation over their ill treatment by the Orthodox Jewish leaders of Lima. Most moviegoers will find it more difficult to resist that temptation, however.

If this story sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because the 2007 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival screened the documentary “The Longing: The Forgotten Jews of South America,” which focused on Ecuadoran and Colombian Jews. The films traffic in similar themes, although they spotlight peoples in different parts of the continent.

“The Fire Within” is a fine introduction to this topic, al-though it will leave some moviegoers shaking their heads. If a group of people wants to be Jews so badly, what’s the problem?

“The Fire Within: Jews in the Amazonian Rainforest” screens 6 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 20 at the Mission Cultural Center, 2868 Mission St., S. F. Information: www.latinofilmfestival.org.

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle. He is the curator and host of the CinemaLit film series at the Mechanics’ Institute and teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.