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Buenos Aires Clears the Air

September 24, 2009 By:
Elyse Glickman, JE Feature
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Congregación Israélita de la República Argentina in Buenos Aires. Photo by Elyse Glickman

In recent years, Argentines, especially those in the Jewish community, have worked hard to put historical events and political controversies aside to improve relationships outside and inside the country.

Although images of the tango, Eva Perón and hidden Nazi war criminals have planted varying images of Argentina in the minds of those living outside of it, there are vivid, inspiring people and places that make today's nation a wonderfully inviting place where American Jewish travelers will feel right at home.

In the last three decades, for example, President Raúl Alfonsin enjoyed the support of the Jewish population and placed many Jews in high positions in the early 1980s. Carlos Saul Menem, elected president in 1989, also appointed many Jews to government and visited Israel several times, even offering to help mediate the Israeli-Arab peace process.

When a Jewish cemetery was vandalized in Buenos Aires, for example, Menem immediately expressed his outrage and, within a week, disciplined those responsible. He also invoked investigations against Nazi war criminals hiding in his country, and in 1988, he facilitated a law against racism and anti-Semitism that passed in the Argentine Parliament.

These steps toward progress -- combined with a shared commitment to preserve Argentina's Jewish past and today's thriving culinary, fashion and arts communities -- make Buenos Aires, a city that includes 200,000 Jews, an essential destination.

Abraham Lichtman, historian and a leader of Buenos Aires' Jewish Federation, also points out wonderful parallels between Buenos Aires and many U.S. cities, such as New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore, ranging from its immigration history to the fact that Ashkenazi and Sephardic communities are still thriving and continuing traditions that their ancestors brought with them at the end of the 19th century.

Lichtman notes that many neighborhoods in Buenos Aires have thriving Jewish communities or historical ties to the early immigrants (including Villa Crespo, Flores and Belgrano). Once (pronounced ON-say).

While Lichtman tends to focus his energy in preserving the historical and artistic legacy of Jewish Argentines, Violeta Horne -- my Tourism Argentina guide and a Buenos Aires native -- mentions in her conversation that her father-in-law just so happens to be Julio Epstein (who arrived from Kiev in the 1930s), a respected historian of Jewish music who had a radio series on Argentina's "Radio Chai."

Give Them Libértad ...

In the bit of downtime before our tour, she recommends that I walk from our digs at the Park Tower Hotel past the lushly gardened and monument-filled San Martin Plaza to Congregación Israélita de la República Argentina, known more familiarly as "Libértad" ("Freedom") for its location on Libértad 733.

A short distance away, one can find the city's IWO Foundation, with archives that house more than 60,000 volumes and artifacts related to the history of East European Jewry, immigration to Latin America and Israel, among other things.

Horne, however, recognizes that most visitors prefer to spend their time discovering a place and its culture rather than reading about it. Not surprisingly, her first stop on our whirlwind tour is Montserrat and Plaza de Mayo, which includes Casa Rosado, with that famous balcony where Evita Perón professed her love to her countrymen. I, however, found myself moved by a simple, but poignant, mural of personal effects in the Catédral Métropolitana, honoring some of Buenos Aires' first Jewish residents.

Moving on to La Boca, which, more than a century ago, was a point of entry for Sephardic and Moroccan Jews, although descendants of original residents have moved on to more fashionable areas.

As for Evita: Even if some of us may not be fans of the icon's politics, the Museo Evita's artifacts are fascinating, much like the country itself.

For more information, see: www.argentina.travel.

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