Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Jewish Buenos Aires

With kosher steak abound, and tango music filling the air, Buenos Aires is home to one of the world’s most elegant communities. Argentina boasts one of the largest Jewish communities in the world, and the largest in South America; the community stands at roughly 250,000, with the vast majority living in Buenos Aires. It is a community with a rich history, yet has concurrently suffered through calamities that have punctuated the last half century.

Buenos Aires is home to more than 80 synagogues, including the magnificent Central Synagogue, with its stunning black and gold Toledo-style half-dome above the ark. The synagogue is lit with incandescent candelabras and light pours through the immaculate stained-glass windows that depict events from the Torah. Buenos Aires is also home to more than 70 Jewish educational institutions that cater to all levels of and stages of Jewish learning.

I spent Yom Kippur in Buenos Aires, and enjoyed a reform service at the Bet Hillel synagogue that could best be described as “theatrical.” The service took on a Broadway essence, as the prayers were sung by the Rabbi and cantoress dressed in white, and accompanied by a five-piece orchestra. The Argentine couple standing next to me at services remarked, “In Argentina, we have a style of worship that combines Jewish traditions with Argentine flair.”

The first Jews that arrived to Argentina were conversos, who came to escape religious persecution from Spain during the period of the Spanish Inquisition. However, Jewish immigration began in earnest following Argentina’s independence from Spain. Following its independence, Argentina carried out an open-immigration policy. During the 19th century, waves of Jewish immigration found their way to Argentina, first from Western Europe- primarily France, and later from Russia to escape the pogroms. There were also smaller waves of immigration by Sephardic Jews from the Ottoman Empire and Morocco. Jews settled throughout the country, and there were even Jewish gauchos (Argentine cowboys) that roamed the pampas and founded the colony of Moisesville with the philanthropic help of Baron De Hirsch.

While the Jewish community of Argentina has thrived throughout its long history, life hasn’t always been dulce de leche. The 20th century was bittersweet for the Jewish community of Argentina. The Jewish community thrived in the business, fur and textile sectors, and made considerable contributions to Argentina’s cultural life including in tango music and to Argentine cinema. Under the presidency of General Juan Peron, Argentina was one of the first countries to recognize the Jewish state. Yet also during this period, Peron halted Jewish immigration to Argentina and allowed Argentina to become a haven for escaped Nazi war criminals including Adolf Eichman and Dr. Josef Mengle.

Meanwhile, during the period of the “Dirty War,” when Argentina’s right-wing military junta ruled from 1976 to 1983, the Jewish community suffered considerably as many Jewish intellectuals, left-wing sympathizers and anti-junta activists were murdered or became part of the desaparecidos- the disappeared. A Jewish mother, Rene Epelbaum, helped found the group “Madres de La Plaza de Mayo,” an organization that stood up to the military junta and marched weekly to obtain information regarding their disappeared loved ones.

The Jewish community suffered further tragedies with the bombings of the Israeli Embassy in 1992 and the bombing of the AMIA (the Argentine Jewish Association) in 1994. The Israel Embassy bombing in1992 killed nearly 30 people, including members of the Israeli diplomatic mission and local Argentine employees. The AMIA attack in 1994 killed 85 people, and wounded another 230, as well as destroying the Jewish community’s archives. In the wake of the AMIA bombing, the Argentine community at large came out to demonstrate its solidarity with the Argentine Jewish community. The two attacks are believed to have been carried out by Iran- through Hezbollah; to this day no one has ever been prosecuted for the crimes. Argentina has issued international arrest warrants for those high ranking Iranians believed behind the attacks, last month, Interpol voted to issue red wanted notices -the equivalent of being placed on the Most Wanted list for the international police agency.
More recently, as Argentina suffered through the 2001 financial crisis, the Jewish community was especially hit hard; Jewish communities from around the world played a role in assisting the Argentine Jewish community to get back on its feet.

One such organization to play such a role has been the American Joint Jewish Distribution Committee. The Joint runs numerous social assistance centers, including a center for elderly Jews, as well as a Baby Help Center, where I volunteered for two months. The Baby Help Center assists Jewish families with child care support and basic pediatric needs, as well as providing the beginnings of a Jewish education for these toddlers. While I was there, my class of adorable two-year olds celebrated Hanukkah around the menorah, and received an extra-special surprise; a girl named Rachel from the United States had sent all the children wonderful stuffed animals as gifts for Hanukkah, personally addressed to each boy and girl.

Hanukkah was also celebrated with grand festivities by Chabad, which held a huge party at the Plaza Uruguay. Over 3,000 people came out to watch the largest menorah in South America be lit up, as a klezmer band played and people munched on kosher chorizo and hamburgers, while the night ended with fireworks flaring across the Buenos Aires skyline.

Despite the tragedies that have befallen the Jewish community of Argentina, it is a community that continues to move forward. As the scars of tragedy and travails continue to heal, the Jews of Buenos Aires are expanding the Jewish communal institutions that nurture the community, while Jewish teens eat their kosher Big Macs at the kosher McDonalds at the Abasto shopping mall, and their parents glide the night away to the tango melody.


Mauricio Kitaigorodzki said...

I'd like to make a few corrections and additions to this report.
1. It is true that Argentina was one of the first countries to recognize the State of Israel in 1948, but it is also true that Argentina was among the countries who abstained from voting at the UN Assembly, reportedly under strong international pressure.
2. You might want to add that in the 30's and 50's Argentina had one of the strongest Yddish-language cultures in the world outside the USA. While perhaps a minor item for Israelis, this has an enormous meaning in terms of preserving Jewish traditions and history.
3. The figure of 250.000 Jews in Argentina is misleading. This is a possible maximum figure but not a few experts understand that the actual figure is much lower, due to emigration and assimilation.

Mauricio Kitaigorodzki

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