Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Jewish Buenos Aires

At least 250,000 Jews live in Argentina, making it the seventh largest community in the world and easily the largest in Latin America. The Argentine Jewish community has contributed significantly to the country and has produced many outstanding writers, artists, sportsmen and women and other prominent people. These include musicians Giora Feidman, Daniel Barenboim and Lalo Schifrin, several football players, world judo champion Daniela Krukower and world boxing champion Carolina Duer.  The vast majority of the community live in Buenos Aires and on my recent visit I took a guided tour of some of the city's historic Jewish quarters and sites.

Libertad synagogue
Accompanied by Jessica Cymerman, a native of Buenos Aires and guide for the wonderful Milk and Honey Tours, our tour began in Once. Once is a heavily Jewish area with many tailors and shops dealing in textiles and "shmatte". There is a very visible Jewish presence with a significant Orthodox community as well as shop signs in Hebrew. A theatre which once staged plays in Yiddish still stands here although it performed its last Yiddish production many years ago.  There is even a Kosher Macdonald's in the Abasto shopping centre - don't expect to get a cheeseburger there! The shopping centre occupies an art deco building and the site was the central wholesale fruit and vegetable market from 1893 to 1984. It stood empty for some time before being converted to a mall in 1999. The area also has a significant Chinese and Korean presence which is reflected, amongst other things in the sign outside the district police station which includes Hebrew script in addition to English, Spanish and Chinese. Once was immortalised in the film El Abrazo Partido (translated to Lost Embrace for English speaking audiences). Made in 2004 and directed by Daniel Burman, it follows the fortunes of a Jewish family living in this barrio, with many scenes shot in Once's streets. Well worth seeing.

Textiles shop, Once
Sign for Once police station
It is difficult to visit a synagogue or community organisation in Buenos Aires without making arrangements in advance due to strict security measures being in place which include it being forbidden to photograph the exterior of Jewish institutions. More of this later. Jessica took care of all of this in advance and we made a visit to Once's Gran Templo de Paso at Paso 42. Built in 1929 and opened in 1930 by Russian and Polish Jews it was designed in the Ashkenazi tradition and is still in use today although only attracting a large congregation during the holidays. The synagogue has a large and impressive collection of Torah scrolls - several having been added as other communities closed and integrated into the Gran Templo. I had the honour of drawing back the curtain and opening the Aron Kodesh to reveal the scrolls. Jessica explained that she has a personal connection to this synagogue as her parents were married here.

Gran Templo de Paso
Torah scrolls, Gran Templo de Paso
Gran Templo de Paso
A little history. The first Jews arrived in the country following the expulsion from Spain in 1492, and fleeing the Inquisition. Many lived as secret Jews and gradually assimilated into the wider community. More came following independence in 1810 when the Inquisition was abolished and religious freedom declared. They came to escape persecution and poverty in Europe and in 1889, 824 Russian Jews arrived by sea, purchased land and established a colony called Moiseville with the intention of becoming gauchos - Argentinian cowboys! Short of pesos they appealed to Baron Maurice de Hirsch who funded the Jewish Colonisation Association which at its height owned more than 600,000 hectares of land and housed over 200,000 Jews in co-operative ranches. Today, most of these are owned by non Jews. Perla Suez' book The Entre Rios Trilogy captures the spirit of this period as well as the many challenges and obstacles faced by the Jewish immigrants.

Whilst the gaucho story has become romanticised, the means of arrival of another group of Jews from Europe was far from romantic. Zwi Migdal was an organised crime organisation trafficking Jewish women from Eastern Europe to Argentina, having promised them marriage or employment but instead selling them into prostitution on arrival. Originally known as the Varsovia (Warsaw) Jewish Aid Society, it changed its name in 1927 following protests by the Polish Ambassador to Argentina. At its peak in the 1920's it controlled perhaps 200 brothels and several thousand women held as prisoners and forced to work as sex slaves. An embarrassment to the Jewish community who feared they would be tarnished by association, Zwi Migdal tried to buy respectability by offering funds for community buildings and charities but were largely shunned and their donations refused. In some cases members were even banned from synagogues. The organisation was eventually brought down by one Raquel Lieberman, a former prostitute, robbed by men from Zwi Migdal. Lieberman bravely involved the police and the courts, with a resultant legal case resulted in 108 criminal convictions and the end of the organisation in Argentina. Unfortunately, the activities of the Zwi Migdal provoked expressions of anti-semitism in some quarters including in neighbouring Chile.

There was little anti-semitism in Argentina until the 1930's when as in other countries, fascist organisations and activities were prominent and although Argentina gave sanctuary to some Jews fleeing Europe, it also took in prominent Nazis at the end of the Second World War, sheltering them from detection and justice. This included Adolf Eichmann who was famously caught and kidnapped by the Israeli secret service in 1960, spirited away, tried and executed in Israel. It is interesting to note that following the kidnapping, the Argentinian government protested and sought reparations for breach of sovereignty at the United Nations. In later years Jews suffered disproportionately under the dictatorship in the 1970's and 1980's, accounting for 1,900 of the 30,000 "disappeared" constituting 12% of the victims but only 1% of the population. Some of the mothers of those who disappeared still demonstrate every Thursday afternoon in Plaza de Mayo - both Jews and non-Jews.

Commemorative window that survived the 1994 AMIA blast intact
Back to the tour. The Asociacion Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA), is a short walk from the synagogue. It provides a range of services to Buenos Aires' Jewish community including health and welfare support, education, cultural activities and a home for various Jewish organisations. The building is striking and modern. The original AMIA was destroyed in a major terrorist attack on July 18th 1994 when a suicide bomber drove a van containing 275 kilograms of ammonium nitrate fertiliser and fuel oil mixture into the building creating an explosion so powerful that the entire structure collapsed. The attack is known to have been masterminded and carried out by Hizbollah operatives. No-one has ever been charged with organising the attack and there is much controversy about the way in which the investigation has been handled over the years. Some of this is reflected in the various monuments to those murdered such as the ironic murals in the Pasteur Subte (metro) station just around the corner from the AMIA building, one of which shows the hunt for justice represented by a blindfolded woman being led through a maze by a tortoise. A pretty clear message I think. The AMIA bombing followed a similar attack on the Israeli Embassy in 1992 which killed 32 people.

A couple of items that survived the blast intact are displayed in the lobby of the new AMIA building, including a stained glass window given to the community in 1968 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Israel's independence and the 75th anniversary of the AMIA. There is a memorial inside the AMIA courtyard designed by Israeli artist Yaacov Agam. It consists of nine poles, each 3.7 metres high decorated in bright colours and which form different patterns depending on where the viewer is standing. These include representations of destruction, a Chanukiah, a white Magen David, a rainbow, a menorah, a coloured Magen David and the AMIA symbol. The pillars are placed on a large platform in the shape of a Magen David, complying with the Biblical requirement that "You must not make image or any likeness of anything that is in the heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters under the earth".

The AMIA bombing was the subject of an excellent film Anita made in 2009 and which followed the experience of a young woman with Downs Syndrome whose mother is killed in the bombing and who is temporarily lost to her family and unable to explain who she is or where she lives. Directed by Marcos Carnevale, it features a wonderful central performance by Alejandra Manzo. The bombing is also referred to in a more recent Argentinian film, God's Slave, directed by Joel Novoa and made in 2013. 
Yaccov Agam's memorial in the AMIA courtyard
AMIA memorial, Pasteur Subte (metro) station
The tour concluded with a look at several other monuments, including one to Holocaust rescuer Raoul Wallenberg and a visit to the small but interesting Jewish Museum at Libertad 769. It holds temporary exhibitions and stages cultural activities as well as showing items from its permanent collection including paintings, textiles, religious objects and documents. From the museum, visitors can enter the exquisite Libertad synagogue. Built in 1932, close to the Teatro Colon, the synagogue is home to the Congregacion Israelita de la Republica de Argentina. It has a beautiful interior which includes a dome decorated in gold leaf (pictured at the top of this post), pink marble and beautiful stained glass windows.

Buenos Aires is a very big city and the tour took about four hours, but the time passed very quickly and Jessica was an excellent guide - friendly, entertaining and able to answer all of my questions - including those about non-Jewish sites in the city. Thanks Jessica and thanks Milk and Honey Tours too!

Libertad synagogue
You might also like Cafes, tango and a marvellous market - beginners guide to Buenos Aires part one.

You can see more pictures from Buenos Aires here.

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