Exploring Jewish Buenos Aires
Did you know that the only kosher McDonald’s outside Israel is in Buenos Aires? That fact speaks to both the size of the Argentine Jewish population and how many of them follow traditional dietary laws. But it also suggests how assimilated Argentine Jews are. Argentines consume more beef per capita than any other people in the world: why should Argentine Jews be different?
Aside from that McDonald’s, a map of kosher restaurants and establishments geared to the Orthodox is published. Among the restaurants listed are at least three that serve sushi and others that serve the favorite Argentine food after steak and hamburgesas – pizza. Numerous shops catering to Jews sell religious items, books, wigs and garments acceptable to the Orthodox.
The question of exactly how many Jews there are in Argentina is one of debate. Reputable sources cite figures that range from a low of 184,500 to a high of 595,000. (The national population is 38 million.)
Laura Szames, the assistant director of the Jewish Museum and Cultural Center, cited a figure of 250,000, down from 500,000 in 1960. Regardless, Buenos Aires has the largest Jewish population in Latin America.
Szames attributed the wide range of population estimates to the old debate over who exactly is a Jew. Rather than mass emigration or a precipitous drop in the birth rate, Szames attributed the fall in the numbers in part to assimilation. There are people whose grandparents are buried in Jewish cemeteries, who think of themselves as Jewish, she said, who are not counted by official number-counters.
Szames said that there were more Orthodox Jews now than earlier, but she said that it only appeared, because of their distinctive dress, that Orthodox Jews dominated the local population. There are more than 80 synagogues in Buenos Aires, she said, and they cater to all varieties of Judaism. Szames said she attended a Reform congregation.
We spoke in the magnificent space of the Templo Libertad, a historic center for Conservative Judaism adjacent to the small museum, which serves, in part, as a visitor’s center to the much larger temple. Built downtown between 1897 and 1932 in neo-Byzantine style, the temple served a middle-class Jewish population before much of it moved to greener neighborhoods after World War II.
The fact that Jews are now dispersed throughout the city, not clustered downtown or to the rag-trade district of Once, speaks to the ease in which Jews live today in Argentina.
While I was visiting last spring, Hasidic rapper Matisyahu performed in one of the city’s large music halls, his prayer shawl-covered head appearing on billboards all over town. There were backlit posters in the subway for Passover explaining that “Pesach Means Freedom.” And Israeli writer David Grossman was the subject of the cover story of the weekly cultural supplement of La Nacion, the country’s major news daily.
But recent history has put Argentine Jews on guard. Two violent attacks on Jewish institutions left more than 100 dead. In 1992, the Israeli Embassy was bombed, killing 30, and in 2004, the Jewish service organization AMIA was bombed. The names of the 86 killed in the unsolved terrorist attack are scrawled on a billboard across the building’s façade to chilling effect.
Today, Jewish institutions are barricaded and guarded by young men who fiercely scrutinize would-be visitors.
“The bombings were the worst things that ever happened for Jews in Buenos Aires,” Szames said. “My uncle took his children out of Jewish schools because he was so afraid. People stopped coming to our community center.”
The temple’s rabbi, Dr. Simon Moguilevsky, answered my question about the barricades with resignation. “It’s the same for Jews all over the world,” he said. “You have to pass through similar barriers to enter the Great Synagogue in Paris.” When I expressed surprise, he said, “Ah, but you’re from the United States.”
Szames said that even more worrisome to Buenos Aires Jews is the fragile economic situation. The bottom fell out of the economy in 2001 and a formerly prosperous country had to confront widespread poverty for the first time. It is estimated that more than a million homeless people have constructed shantytowns on the outskirts of the city.
“The Jewish population of Buenos Aires was largely middle class,” Szames said. “After the financial collapse we found that there are many homeless Jewish families living in the ‘villas miseria’ (the Argentines term for the slums). That comes as a shock to the community.”
Szames said that American Jews visiting Buenos Aires have a rewarding time. “American Jewish tourists are fascinated,” she said. “They always go to the kosher McDonald’s even if they don’t keep kosher at home. We hold a seder for tourists every year – last year more than 200 came. It is a revelation for Americans, I think, to see how another diasporan community adapted.”
I got a confirmation of sorts from what Szames said on the roof terrace of the apartment I was renting. Another renter was Anna Grantham-Gold, an Orthodox Jew from England, who was visiting her daughter.
Grantham-Gold, who was sunbathing, told me that she had gone to a wonderful kosher restaurant the night before. She said that because the only kosher butcher had shut down in her small English city, her family had become by default vegetarian. She was enjoying eating out according to her ritual in a city where she could eat meat. When Grantham-Gold went to the temple, she said the rabbi invited them to Shabbat dinner. “We immediately met a new crop of friends.”