Finding Jewish Buenos Aires

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Last April, my boyfriend Brad and I got bumped from a flight from Atlanta to Philly and received $1,000 vouchers for our trouble.

Truth be told — and don’t repeat this to Delta — it was actually no trouble at all, as we were only delayed a couple hours, which we spent enjoying fried chicken and local beer at Ludacris’ restaurant called, well, Chicken+Beer.

Fast-forward 10 months, and we still hadn’t used the vouchers, which were set to expire within a year. Since neither of us can plan what we’re having for dinner without getting flummoxed, it was no surprise we’d put off the planning for a big trip. We were also rather undecided on the domestic versus international point. Brad worried the national parks were being plundered, and suggested we see some of the more far-flung ones before they vanished beneath drills and development. I was more selfishly worried about the fact that I hadn’t been out of the country in 10 years, which is a long stretch for someone with wanderlust. My rallying cry: Utah can wait.


In my old life, I was a Spanish teacher and translator, but these days I really only speak Spanish to my dog. So I lobbied for South America, where I’d never been. We landed on Argentina, a country we’d both always wanted to visit. Gauchos! Tango! Steak! Jews!

I’d fixated on Argentina as a Jewish place after a trip to Israel in my early 20s, when I met an old bookstore owner who’d moved to Israel from Argentina.

We talked for a while about Jewish life in Argentina vs. Israel, and all these years later (I won’t say how many), I remembered our conversation fondly and imagined I’d meet many old bookish Jews if I went to Buenos Aires. With a Jewish population estimated at between 180,000 and 250,000, Buenos Aires is regularly cited as the sixth-largest Jewish community in the world outside of the U.S. and Israel, so I figured the chances were good.

But meeting Jewish people casually — meeting anyone at all, in fact — wasn’t so easy. Buenos Aires is the largest city in Argentina, and the second-largest city in South America. It has a metro population of 15.1 million and is incredibly busy and crowded, like a scene out of Koyaanisqatsi but with less Philip Glass. Streets are packed with cars, buses and bikes. People are big-city brusque. Not unfriendly, exactly, just … otherwise occupied.

So we did some research and made a list of Jewish sites to visit. There are many we didn’t get to see due to poor planning (see dinner conundrum, above). But here are a few I recommend:

AMIA community center and memorial

The names of those who died in a 1994 bombing are posted on the wall of the AMIA Jewish
community center. | Photos by Liz Spikol

Recordar el dolor que no cesa. Those words — “remember the pain that does not end” — are printed in capital letters on a sign atop the concrete wall surrounding the AMIA Jewish community center. Beneath the sign, a black wooden canvas stretches along the wall’s length, with 85 names painted in white. Ileana, Mirta, Rosa, Leon, Gabriel, Jacobo, Amalia, Silvana, Carlos, Ramon — name after name of the dead, all of them killed in 1994 in the worst terrorist attack on Argentine soil, which destroyed AMIA’s original building, constructed in 1945.

In the years since the bombing, AMIA has continued its mission of serving the Buenos Aires Jewish community, tending to more than 20,000 students of Jewish schools; drawing 120,000 people to cultural events; assisting 200 families who would not otherwise be able to afford funeral services for their loved ones; and so much more. Tourists can visit AMIA with advance notice; they get a special tour and plenty of information about the building’s history.

But what’s fascinating now is how the bombing, which was never solved, and its investigation continues to reverberate. In March it was announced that Argentina’s former president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, now a senator, will stand trial, along with 11 other officials from her administration, on charges of covering up the role of the Iranian government in the bombing.

Meanwhile, the investigator who uncovered the agreement that Kirchner’s administration allegedly made with Iran, Alberto Nisman, was murdered just four days after he revealed the wrongdoing, and his case has not been solved. In addition to causing “shock waves in Argentina’s politics,” as the AP put it, Netflix is creating a miniseries about Nisman.

All of this makes AMIA a can’t-miss stop, which can be paired, if you’re feeling especially tragic, with the site of the 1992 bombing of the Israeli embassy, which resulted in the deaths of 30 people. That site is now a small park, the Plaza Embajada de Israel, an open-air memorial with benches and trees tucked along a warren of smaller streets. Unlike the interior of AMIA, there is no advance notice needed to visit the park, which has the ghostly remnants of the original building preserved along one side.

El Once

One of El Once’s many fabric shops

There is no one Jewish neighborhood in Buenos Aires, but El Once, which is technically part of the larger Balvanera neighborhood, is a good place to visit to experience a taste of Lower East Side immigrant European culture — as transplanted to South America. It is both a garment district, with shop after shop of schmatte– and fabric-sellers, and a party-planning center, where anything event-related can be purchased. The fabric merchants often have quirky window displays, like a cutout of Marilyn Monroe hovering over Minnie and Mickey Mouse dolls dressed in textile remnants. You’ll see storeowners wearing kippahs, and even find a small storefront that sells seder plates, kiddush cups and other basic Judaica.

Gran Templo Paso

The Gran Templo Paso is near several kosher restaurants.

Also in the Balvanera neighborhood, you’ll find the Ashkenazi Gran Templo Paso, which bills itself as “one of the most beautiful synagogues in all of South America.” The first Talmud Torah in Buenos Aires was founded here in 1894, though the current building wasn’t constructed until 1927. As with all synagogues in Buenos Aires, security is tight, so visits must be arranged ahead of time, even for services, which the temple describes as “modern Orthodox.” Even taking photos of the exterior of the building is discouraged and can court trouble. Near the temple, there are several Jewish restaurants and bakeries, including Mozart Kosher, Yafo Kosher, Ajim Deli and Helueni, as well as multiple kosher ice cream shops.

McDonald’s

Normally, I wouldn’t recommend McDonald’s as a center of Jewish life, but this particular McDonald’s is the only kosher McDonald’s outside of Israel, which makes it quite unique. It’s also in the Abasto shopping mall, which is a remarkable Art Deco building that long served as a central fruit and vegetable market. The architecture alone makes a visit worth it, but in addition to a kosher Big Mac and plenty of stores, the shopping mall also houses Museo de los Niños, an interactive children’s museum with rides and Please Touch-style exhibits.

Templo Libertad/Jewish Museum of Buenos Aires

To visit this fascinating site, as with most Jewish sites in Buenos Aires, you need to contact them ahead of time and send in your passport number and personal details. It’s worth the trouble, as you get two for one: a look at the temple itself, along with as much time as you want to explore the creatively installed exhibits. The temple, the first synagogue built in Buenos Aires and a National Historical Monument, is beautiful, a sort of Byzantine palace with three naves and enough wooden pews to seat a thousand congregants. The elaboration in design is visible in every detail, from light fixtures to the ark itself; the front of the sanctuary faces Jerusalem. The museum, which is on the same premises, has all kinds of material culture from Argentina’s Jewish history, from a Yiddish-language Remington typewriter to birth certificates. There are old photos of Jewish gauchos and a room set for Passover. There are also contemporary exhibits as well. When we were there, I quite enjoyed looking at a piece of golden matzah — certainly the most attractive matzah I’ve ever seen.

 

Buenos Aires is a phenomenal city and I highly recommend it, even if you don’t get bumped off a flight and receive vouchers you didn’t really need.

But plan ahead when visiting Jewish sites, or better yet, hire one of the many guides who offer Jewish-specific itineraries. It will make things easier and safer.

lspikol@jewishexponent.com; 215-832-0747

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Liz Spikol is the Jewish Exponent's editor in chief; she has worked for the publication for four years. Prior to that she was at Philadelphia magazine, Curbed Philly and the before-its-time Tek Lado, a magazine for bilingual Latinx geeks. She is active in the American Jewish Press Association and contributes to the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle, Baltimore Jewish Times, Washington Jewish Week and Phoenix Jewish News. A Philly native, Spikol got a bachelor's degree at Oberlin College and a master's at the University of Texas at Austin. She lives in Mt. Airy.

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