March 30, 2006
Situation Improves for Argentine Jews
Jorge Telerman, 49-year-old former journalist, professor and Argentine ambassador to Cuba, wanted someday to be mayor of Buenos Aires.
"But not this way," he told a friend recently.
As deputy mayor, it was Telerman's fate to be promoted to that post two weeks ago, after a local political tragedy -- the removal of popular Mayor Aníbal Ibarra due to his purported accountability for conditions that caused nearly 200 young people to die in a 2004 nightclub fire.
It's also Telerman's fate to be the first Jewish mayor of this city with the world's largest Spanish-speaking Jewish population.
That his sudden ascent caused scarcely a murmur suggests how much things have changed for Jews in Buenos Aires, the national capital that had after World War I the only pogrom in the Western Hemisphere. Argentina also is the country that sheltered Nazi fugitive Adolph Eichmann after World War II and, 20 years later, harbored the Cold War's most anti-Semitic dictatorship. It is where, in 1992 and 1994, more than 100 people died in bombings of the Israeli Embassy and a Jewish aid society.
Telerman is hardly the only prominent Jew in Argentina. They number in the thousands: Cabinet ministers, executives, judges, college deans, actors, journalists, artists, even tango stars. Still, in spite of that success -- or maybe because of it -- Argentine Jews, who make up perhaps 375,000 of the nation's 38 million, are still trying to understand their evolving reality.
This journey was a fundamental topic of a recent conference in the flashy Palermo district. Two speakers, one a philosopher and the other a psychiatrist, agreed that the most pressing issue for Jews in Argentina was one of identity: Were they Argentines who happen to be Jewish? Or Jews who find themselves living in Argentina? Are they more attached to the country or to the Jewish community?"
In fact, an estimated 60 percent of Argentina's Jews have no connection to Jewish institutions. Of the 40 percent who do, most of these ties involve sports, socializing or recreation.
Jewish institutions have still played an important role, partly because of a traditional distrust of the government and even the non-Jewish community. This shtetl-like mentality emphasized Zionism and learning Hebrew, with the expectation that those going through the system might eventually make aliyah.
The idea that Jews in Argentina are passing through on their way from Russia (or other place of origin) to Israel -- a voyage that might last several generations -- was hardwired into the Jewish educational system. Many have made aliyah out of necessity, especially during the Dirty War and subsequent economic downturns. It's fair to say that through the years, many Argentine Jews have had one (at least metaphorical) valise packed at all times.
The tenuous sense of Argentine Jewish life is reflected in the names of synagogues. One is called Amichai -- "My people live." Another is Lamroth Hakol, modern Hebrew for: "In spite of everything." This shul was founded in 1943 by refugee German Jews.
That phrase -- in spite of everything -- could be applied to each generation since: We're still here in spite of the Shoah, in spite of intermarriage, in spite of the Dirty War, in spite of economic downturns, in spite of bloody bombings and other disasters, in spite of everything -- still here.
The latest extended tribulation, Argentina's economic crash of 2001, hit the middle class hard, devastating Argentine Jews (and other Argentines). At one point, about 60 percent of the Jewish community fell below the poverty line.
"You have to put yourself back in 2001," said Viviana Bendersky, who manages a Buenos Aires daycare center for the American Joint Distribution Committee, which specializes in aid to Jewish communities outside the United States. "The feeling was that Argentina was going to disappear.
"It hit so many people, banks failed, no money anymore," she said. "We realized that families were not able to give kids basic things, like medicines, vitamins, vaccinations. So that was the beginning of this program."
These days, the daycare center is alive with joyful activity: young women picking up young children, a birthday party with cake, youngsters bouncing on a trampoline.
Bendersky said things have gotten a little better: "The most urgent need is work. The second is housing. We have a lot of old people who are living in terrible boarding houses. We have large families living all in one room."
Help to the Jewish community has also come from the shuls, which provide aid to Jews and non-Jews. Lamroth Hakol, like most others, passes out food, free clothes and medicines every week, while also offering some part-time work. The congregation does whatever it can to help the elderly and the very young survive.
Modest signs of recovery are everywhere, as are signs of increased Jewish integration into mainstream life. Buenos Aires is filled with posters advertising tango singer Zully Goldfarb -- who sometimes sings in Yiddish. At the spectacular Teatro Colon, a ballet is cosponsored by DAIA, the Delegation of Argentine Jewish Associations, the nation's most prominent Jewish organization. At the Teatro San Martin, there's a modern dance recital memorializing those who died in the 1994 terrorist bombing of the Argentine-Israeli Mutual Association (AMIA).
These ties to Argentine cultural life represent an effort by Jewish groups to assert themselves and their ongoing relevance. The traditional mission of AMIA is to deal with issues that touch Jewish lives, including burials, weddings and other rites of passage. DAIA's mission is to act as the political arm of the Jewish community. It also investigates anti-Semitic acts and brings them to the attention of the Argentine government.
A DAIA official explained in an interview that traditionally, when an anti-Semitic act occurred, Jews were reluctant to call the police and instead called DAIA.
As Jews have become ever more involved in the public sphere, they are likely to feel more comfortable contacting Argentine authorities directly.
And no one would be happier to see that -- and what it symbolizes -- than the new mayor of Buenos Aires.