cover image The Prophet of the Andes: An Unlikely Journey to the Promised Land

The Prophet of the Andes: An Unlikely Journey to the Promised Land

Graciela Mochkofsky, trans. from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman. Knopf, $30 (288p) ISBN 978-1-101875-18-6

New Yorker contributor Mochkofsky makes her English-language debut with this immersive chronicle of an unusual search for religious authenticity in 20th-century South America. In the late 1940s, 21-year-old Peruvian mestizo Segundo Villanueva was surprised to come across a Spanish translation of the Bible in his murdered father’s trunk. (In Peru’s Catholic villages at the time, Mochkofsky notes, “the Bible was for priests; they alone were permitted to read it and understand it.”) Once he delved into the scriptures, Villanueva became unsettled by the New Testament’s abandonment of almost all the laws delineated in the Old Testament. That tension led Villanueva to found his own church, called Israel of God, in 1962 and build a settlement in the Amazon jungle, where he and his followers kept the Sabbath, observed feast days, and taught themselves Hebrew in order to read the “original” Bible. In 1989, Villanueva and nearly 70 of his followers formally converted to Judaism. Six months later, they moved to an Orthodox settlement in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Drawing on impressive insider access, Mochkofsky documents the Peruvians’ beliefs and the mixed reception they received in Israel with empathy and insight. The result is an intimate chronicle of faith and politics. (Aug.)