July 20, 2000
Jewish in Buenos Aires
Tourists experience the remarkable culture and turbulent history of the quickly evolving nation.
As an Argentine expatriate, I am often asked what I miss the most about my country. The truth is, with telephone rates and e-mail being what they are, I don't have much of a chance to miss my friends and family. But I do miss my city: Buenos Aires. I miss the long after-dinner walks on the cobblestone streets of the Belgrano or Palermo neighborhoods, taking my kids for a treat in one of the hundreds of ice cream stores in town, getting together with friends at a cafe in the Recoleta, or occasionally splurging on a fancy meal at one of the many waterfront restaurants in Puerto Madero.
Jewish visitors to Buenos Aires are often curious about Jewish life in the city. As in many other aspects of life in Argentina, there are plenty of contradictions. There are some 200,000 Jews in Argentina, and more than 70 percent of them live in Buenos Aires or the surrounding area. During the past decade, some Jews have made good money and moved to quiet gated communities on the outskirts of the city. At the same time, other Jews have suffered a decrease in their income, and several Jewish schools and synagogues have shut down for lack of funds.
Similarly contradictory is the identity of Argentine Jews as such. Jews of all origins have completely integrated into Argentine life, and relations with non-Jews are generally good. An unfortunate indicator of this fact is a very high intermarriage rate. Occasional acts of anti-Semitism, however, whether vandalism in Jewish cemeteries or anti-Semitic chants during soccer matches hosted in a middle-class Jewish neighborhood, are not unknown. Also, some institutions, like the police or the military, have long held a reputation for anti-Semitism. Most Jews share an instinctive self-consciousness and caution which is often justified. Two recent taxi rides illustrated for me the ambiguity of Jewish life here: one with a non-Jewish driver who was listening to the 24-hour Radio Chai; the second, with another gentile driver who tried to convince me that the 1992 bombing of the local Israeli embassy had been the product of Jewish extremists angry at the peace process in Israel.
A visit to a shul will also evoke ambiguous feelings. On the one hand, there are more than four dozen religious services to choose from. My family likes to take foreign visitors to Bet-El, established in Belgrano by the late Rabbi Marshall T. Meyer in the 1960s, or to Bet-Hilel in Palermo (both are Conservative). My parents like to show off something that foreigners rarely find at home: a place packed with people of all ages even on regular Shabbatot, and a jazzy service full of vitality and strength. From the ornate Templo Libertad (Conservative) at a stone's throw from several downtown hotels, to Beit Jabad or Templo Paso (Orthodox) in the traditionally Jewish neighborhood of Once, Emanu-El (Reform) in Belgrano, or the Sefaradi Ieshurun in Palermo, there's a shul for every taste. For those seeking something very different for the High Holidays, Templo Fundacion Pardés has held its services at the city's planetarium.
On the other hand, visitors are shocked when they are reminded to take their passports along with their hotel keys and tallitot. As a sad consequence of the bombings of the Israeli embassy and the Jewish AMIA buildings during the 1990s, many synagogues and most Jewish institutions will not admit new faces without proper documentation. The buildings are also barricaded behind a row of tall planters or cement posts to prevent car bombings, a chilling sight.
Hungry tourists in Argentina dash for the parrillas (steakhouses) as soon as they have a chance, since Argentine meat is world famous. Unlike cattle in the U.S., cattle in Argentina roam free in the fields and feed on grass, producing meat which is lean and flavorful. Fortunately, there is no reason for kosher-keeping visitors to deprive themselves of such a treat, since there are many kosher restaurants in town. While none of them is particularly fancy, they offer an array of local foods, from bifes (steaks) of various kinds, to tira de asado (short ribs) and empanadas (pastries which are typically filled with minced meat and spices, vegetables, or creamed corn). Some include traditional Sephardi or Eastern European dishes on their menu. Al Galope, located in the Once, is well liked by both foreigners and locals. For those on the run or those who just can't live without burgers and fries, nearby Abasto Shopping Center offers a kosher McDonald's (located on the second floor, across the hall from the standard version of the Golden Arches.) Buenos Aires has a vibrant cultural life. There are many museums and art galleries with both modern art and colonial artifacts. The Museo Judao de Buenos Aires, located in the Templo Libertad, allows visitors to learn about Jewish immigration to the city of Buenos Aires and the interior provinces. Through its collection of documents and both secular and religious artifacts, visitors get a picture of the history of the local Jewish community. The museum is open on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, and members of its volunteer staff offer guided visits in Spanish or English. Templo Libertad itself also merits a visit during services. Its current building dates back to 1932 and is the oldest synagogue of the country - born out of the gathering of a handful of half-Jewish families that took place in 1862. Its architecture is magnificent, with marble, stained glass, dark oak benches and an impressive pipe organ.
Since its establishment in the 1960s, the Conservative movement's Latin American Rabbinical Seminary has produced more than 50 rabbis who work today in different countries of the region. It has an impressive library open to its students and the general public. Two other sources of Jewish information and documentation are located at the AMIA/DAIA building: the documentary archives of the Max Turkow Center and the IWO library. In an inner patio in the same building there is a striking monument by Yaacov Agam to the victims of the 1994 bombing of the old AMIA headquarters. Also in memory of the victims, but mostly to demand a speedy and truthful investigation of the crime, relatives of the victims and a handful of Jewish leaders rally every Monday at the time of the bombing at the square facing the Federal Courts Building.
Buenos Aires' nightlife is legendary. Dinner rarely starts before 8 p.m., and most restaurants are open well past midnight. Walking on Shabbat evenings is safe; most streets of Buenos Aires are busier at midnight than they are in Los Angeles at 9 p.m. Helped by an abundance of public transportation, even teenagers roam the streets in the early hours of the morning during weekends, when movies offer their last show at 1 a.m. and discos open only at 2 (and it is not cool to arrive before 3). If you get invited to a wedding, do take a nap the afternoon before and plan on eating and dancing until dawn.
Most visitors take fond memories from a visit to Buenos Aires. Well fed, intrigued by the local customs, tired but happy after a string of late-night outings, they find Argentines warm and welcoming, eager to socialize with guests from abroad. Just ask my American husband, who not only took an Argentine girl for his wife, but keeps bringing his family back to this city every year.