Chanukah—the eight-day, candle-lighting holiday–commemorates the rededication of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem (c.168 B.C.E) after a three-year struggle against persecution. It’s an appropriate time to recall that oppression has also led to immigration, in general, and the Jewish presence in Argentina, in particular.
I’ve long had a curiosity about the multi-cultured diversity in Buenos Aires. Along with its indigenous roots, French-inspired architecture and Italian-influenced lifestyle, I’d heard the city was home to the largest Jewish community in South America (some lists claim it’s the sixth largest in the world).
While I knew that the first arrivals fled the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisition(15th/16th centuries) and that some coerced to convert (conversos) followed, that was the extent of my education.
So, on my very first trip to Buenos Aires, this October, I decided to learn what I could about the Jewish community and proceeded to ask almost everyone I met about it.
Consequently, my daughter and I chatted with people in hotels, restaurants and shops who, it turned out, happened to be Jewish. In Palermo Viejo, we chatted with the owner of a stationery store who published a book benefitting a Jewish charity, a young woman who had just opened a hip café serving Jewish-style food and a jewelry designer who owned her own gallery.
For history, we toured the The Museo Judio, adjacent to the city’s oldest synagogue, La Libertad. The name refers to its street address, which happens to be near the fabulous Teatro Colon (where we saw the opera, Elektra, in its exquisite horseshoe-shaped theater). Its real name isCongregación Israelita de la República de Argentina, aka CIRA and it’s a stunning, Byzantine-style, “Jewish church” that was built in 1932.
Tours, and the weekly concerts, are free but, for security reasons, you must make an appointment 48-hours in advance and present your passport.
The guide pointed out exhibits of religious artifacts, ritual objects and photographs–including those of the rural communities—and added historical details. He noted that Argentina abolished the Inquisition and granted religious freedom after its independence from Spain in 1816.
Most immigration occurred after 1850 and from Eastern Europe. During the presidency of Domingo F. Sarmiento (1868-1874), there was an actual policy to recruit immigrants to develop under-populated land. Later, around 1881, philanthropist Baron Maurice de Hirsch helped Jews fleeing Russian pogroms by financing Jewish agricultural settlements in Argentina. These settlers were originally called “Rusos,” and later became somewhat famous as “Jewish Gauchos.” By 1895, 3,880 out of 6,085 Jews or 65%, lived outside Buenos Aires; today, almost all—about 250,000– live in the capital.
Within the city, the community conducted its first ten-man service (minyan) in 1862, celebrated its first wedding, in 1868, and inaugurated its first synagogue (either 1875 or 1897). Until 1939, when Argentina cancelled its open door policy, Jews continued to emigrate from Europe. Though not permitted in the top ranks of military or political leadership, they worked in manufacturing plants, started retail businesses and became established in Porteño life and economy. By mid-century, Buenos Aires had a Jewish hospital, Zionist organizations and cultural institutions including Yiddish newspapers, books and theaters.
This is Part 1. See Part 2 and read both full articles in About Travel