“A righteous man falls down seven times and gets up,” says the book of Proverbs, and those words aptly describe the remarkable life of Segundo Villanueva, the subject of The Prophet of the Andes by Graciela Mochkofsky.
Born in Peru to a Catholic family, Villanueva by chance discovers a Bible written in Spanish — as opposed to the usual, incomprehensible Latin that was the norm at the time. From that moment, Villanueva becomes passionate about learning directly from scripture what God says and how he is to interpret and live by His commandments.
Mochkofsky skillfully sets Villanueva’s quest for spiritual truth against Peru’s historical backdrop, recounting the Incas’ encounter with the Spanish conquistador Pizarro in the sixteenth century and the violent clash that resulted in their subjugation, impoverishment, and religion conversion. Until 1836, it was punishable by prison to adhere to any faith other than Catholicism in Peru. Thus, in 1948, when the twenty-one-year-old Villanueva reads the Bible for himself, he is disturbed to discover that the Sabbath is to be observed on the seventh day, Saturday, not Sunday. Villanueva shares his new understanding of the Bible with family and friends, and they begin attending the Seventh Day Adventist church, which, along with other Protestant faiths, has gained a small foothold in the country.
When Villanueva argues with the church about some of its teachings, he is expelled from the congregation, falls down, gets up, and establishes his own church in the Amazon jungle, in a place he names Hebron.
The purist that he is, Villanueva wants to learn Hebrew so that he can read the Bible in its original language. In a bookstore in Lima, in search of a Hebrew-Spanish dictionary, he discovers a secular book, Jewish Traditions and Customs. Upn reading it, he determines that he and his followers are Jewish, for they are following those traditions exactly.
In a poignant scene, after reading yet another book, this one about Judaism and ancient Christianity, Villanueva realizes that the Messiah has not yet come. He needs to revise his Bibles. “One by one,” Mochkofsky writes, “Segundo took the treasured Bibles from his library and proceeded to rip from them the false, Christian portion.” And so he falls once more, then gets back up again.
Throughout these pages, Mochkofsky compiles quite a bit of history, covering the Catholic/Lutheran divide, colonialism, class distinctions, the difference between Orthodox and Conservative Judaism, the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, illegal West Bank settlements, and, of course, conversion.
But at the heart is a quixotic man whose tenacious drive to uncover the authentic truth leads him and his many followers to convert to Judaism and move to the West Bank — where, once again, he begins to wonder. And wander away. This time to the Karaites, a Jewish sect that doesn’t accept the Talmud or Oral Law as binding.
Mochkofsky met Villanueva only once, when he was in the advanced stages of Alzheimers; but based on interviews with his family, friends, followers, and others who knew him, she has pieced together his entirely unusual life and his search for the ultimate truth with enormous empathy, humanity, and respect.
Angela Himsel’s writing has appeared in The New York Times, the Jewish Week, the Forward and elsewhere. Her memoir is listed in the 23 Best New Memoirs at bookauthority.org. She is passionate about her children, Israel, the Canaanites and chocolate.