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Eretz Peru: Cusco is a popular spot for young Israelis

(Tablet Magazine) — Walk down the cobblestone alley and you’ll see it lined with restaurants serving falafel and schnitzel, and Internet cafes advertising their businesses with Hebrew signs and Israeli flags. Shoppers speak Hebrew, and Israeli pop music emanates from storefronts. A shopkeeper waves and calls out “Shalom!” to a passer-by.

Remarkably, you’re in Cusco, Peru, the ancient capital of the Inca Empire and the gateway to Machu Picchu. Each year, some 40,000 young Israelis embark upon a grand adventure they call “tiyul hagadol,” the big trip, after finishing military service. About 30 percent hit South America’s Gringo Trail, according to The Jerusalem Post, and picturesque Cusco, a city with a population of approximately 350,000, is an obligatory stop. These travelers have added new terms to the local lexicon in South America, including “un grande balagan,” a Spanish-Hebrew phrase that roughly translates as a big, confusing mess.

Rabbi Ofer Kripor, who co-directs Cusco’s Chabad center with his wife, Yael, says he regularly draws the largest crowds in South America, hosting approximately 300 Israelis for Shabbat dinner every week during the summer high season. The Chabad house is located in an old colonial mansion on Calle Granada near the city center. Shabbat meals take place in the open-air inner courtyard. Kripor says that the Cusco Chabad also holds one of the biggest seders in the world, catering to 1,200 travelers.

It’s easy to see why so many young Israelis are drawn to Cusco. Located in Southeastern Peru, in the Andean valley, it’s a visually stunning city, “the undisputed archaeological capital of the Americas,” Lonely Planet says. High-adrenaline activities such as rafting, rock climbing and hiking are all nearby. Vestiges of the Incas’ greatness remain in the still-preserved Temple of Koricancha and perfectly carved stone walls. After the Spanish conquest in 1533, conquistadores built a colonial city on the ruins of Inca sites, erecting a magnificent Plaza de Armas flanked by an enormous cathedral to the east and an even more beautiful Baroque church to the south. The heavily Israeli Procuridades Street — what some call “Israeli town” — is located on the northwest side of the plaza.

Native Peruvians are more than happy to cater to the Israelis. Swiss Raft, a Peruvian-owned company that runs trips down the Apurímac River, advertises in Hebrew signs on Procuridades and employs Hebrew-speaking guides. In the southern part of the city, the Beit Asimha  (“House of Happiness” in Hebrew) is a popular hostel, with a large hamsa, the hand-shaped amulet, affixed on a sign above the door. Like many restaurants on Procuridades, Sueño Azul — which serves Israeli food, translates its name into Hebrew on its door, and affixes hamsas and Israeli flags to its walls — is owned by native Peruvians and mostly staffed by them.

But that is changing. In recent years, a small number of Israelis have relocated to Cusco. They organize Purim parties and Chanukah celebrations. Among the expats are several entrepreneurs who have taken advantage of the influx of traveling Israelis and Cusco’s favorable business climate, opening shops on or near Procuridades.

The Duchovny brothers are among them. In 2006, Ohad and Gilad, twin brothers from Rehovot, returned to Cusco, which they both had visited earlier on their post-army trips after Ohad fell in love with a Peruvian woman traveling in Israel, whom he has since married. The brothers, now 31, opened the Bagel Cafe on Procuridades that same year, and Gilad later initiated several ventures of his own, including a restaurant, a nightclub and a food-delivery service. Partnering with a close friend and fellow Israeli expat, Ohad opened a sushi restaurant.

Gilad says he has no plans to return to his homeland. “I love Israel, but it’s more comfortable here,” he says. He cites his ability to earn a better living and how quickly he was able to establishimself in business. Like his brother, Gilad also has married a Peruvian woman — he jokes thahe and his wife communicate in “Hebrew-Spanglish” — and the couple has two small children.

Ben Brodny, 28, a Haifa native and Gilad’s business partner, moved to Lima in 2005. He says he originally came to Peru because he wanted to be his own boss. “It’s impossible to be independent in Israel,” he says.

In 2008 he met the Duchovny brothers, and he talked about how much he missed bourekas, the popular Israeli pastry. A year later, Brodny opened Brodny’s Bourekas, a small cafe three blocks off of the Procuridades, a huge mural of the coast of Tel Aviv painted on its wall above the kitchen.

Unlike Gilad, Brodny says he’s fairly confident he will return to Israel.

“It is not possible to live all your life here,” he says. “If you think you’re going to have children,” he says shaking his head, “what about school?”

But he’s not going anywhere soon. He speaks perfect Spanish, and he knows Peruvian slang and folk songs. “I’m more Peruvian than a lot of Peruvians here,” he says.

(This article originally appeared on Tablet Magazine,