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Jewish Buenos Aires ~ Part 1

???????????????????????????????Fabulous Sites for Chanukah Visits and Anytime in the Argentine Capital

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

Jewish Buenos Aires ~ Part 2

Fabulous Jewish Sites for Chanukah Visits and Anytime in the Argentine Capital

President Juan Peron recognized the State of Israel, in 1949, during his first Jewish Traveladministration, which was the time he was married to Eva Duarte de Peron, better known as Evita.  There is a famous photograph at the time of Evita with Golda Meir, who visited Argentina.

Then, after his second administration, after his return from exile, during the period of post-Peron military dictatorships (1976-1983), a disproportionate number of Jews (roughly 10% or 3,000 of 30,000) were among the disappeared, the “desaparecidos.”  This period was known as the Dirty War, which you can learn more about here.

Among the best known of those Jews tortured under the military dictatorship who survived was Jacobo Timerman, a journalist, who wrote several books related to his imprisonment.  His son, Hector Timerman, is Argentina’s current foreign minister and was the Argentine Ambassador to the United States previously.

In 1991, Jewish charities responded to the needs of 4,000 people; after the peso devalued, that number multiplied ten-fold and a number of synagogues (there were about 90) and parochial schools had to close or merge.

The two painful incidents that occurred during the 1990s are the reason for on-going security measures at Jewish sites. On March 17, 1992, the Israeli Embassy was bombed. Once located in a quiet corner of residential Recoleta where Calles Suipacha and Arroyo meet, only an outline of the former building on an adjacent structure remains. Though the neighborhood is known for its luxe hotels and embassies, this spot has been preserved as a serene park with 22 trees and seven benches to memorialize the 29 who died there.

And, on July 18 1994, AMIA was bombed. The Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina is an important Jewish Community Center that offers educational, employment and cultural arts programs in the neighborhood of Once and Abasto. The still-unsolved crime left 85 Porteños dead. Today, their names are carved on a protective wall and the inner courtyard is home to the Monument to the Memory of the Victims, by Israeli artist Yaacov Agam. It’s a kinetic Star of David which appears to change as you move around it.

In spite of these tragedies and the current economic instability, both the secular and observant community has endured and prospered. During a walking tour of Once, an historic, Jewish neighborhood, we got a glimpse of a more traditional life.  Our guide Ariela, from Anda Tours, introduced us to this garment-center-district where streets are lined with small shops featuring bolts of bright fabrics or women’s clothing. She pointed out that each door of a Jewish business displays a Mezuzah (a prayer on parchment enclosed within a decorative case). We noticed some of the city’s 30 Kosher restaurants, browsed a Kosher food market, saw synagogues and a Police Station with a sign in both Spanish and Hebrew. She also told us about the country’s only Kosher McDonalds, in the Abasto Shopping Mall.  You can find more information on Kosher dining in Buenos Aireson this link.

For those not interested in a formal, guided tour, a brochure called Buenos Aires Kosherin Spanish and in English lists museums, such as Centro de Ana Frank and the Museo del Holocausto hotels with kosher meals (The Alvear Palace Hotel in Recoleta for example caters events with up to 400 kosher meals), kosher restaurants, Jewish bookstores and shops, synagogues and community centers; it also indicates walking tours.

For me, the major benefits of travel are to meet locals and learn history “in situ” and I was lucky to experience both in Buenos Aires. One remark made by the young Jewish tour guide seems to best sum up the city’s multi-cultural diversity: “We are Italians who speak Spanish.”

See more articles on Jewish Buenos Aires and cultural sites here, and a neighborhood visit tour with more information on the Temple and Jewish Museum here.

This is Part 2 of the articles that originally appeared in About Travel.
For Part 1 click here.


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