Where Jewish Culture Runs Deep
There are a few reasons why a New Yorker will feel at home in Buenos Aires, Argentina, the second-largest city in South America: he has to negotiate busy streets and assertive natives, and take the “subte” (the subway) to get around. He can always find pizza and he gets to choose from an abundant roster of cultural events. But with its decaying colonial architecture and unique blend of gentility and bellicosity, Buenos Aires is also a true mix of Europe and South America.
Since it is located in the Southern Hemisphere, Argentina’s seasons are opposite to ours, which makes it a great winter escape.
New York Jews will feel especially comfortable in the city’s deep-rooted community, the largest in Latin America, and its many synagogues, restaurants and social clubs.
Argentina’s Jewish population grew during the 19th century, thanks to extensive land purchases made by the German-Jewish philanthropist Baron Maurice de Hirsch in an effort to help Jews in Eastern Europe. Tens of thousands of Jews later immigrated as a result of the Holocaust. Paradoxically, hundreds of German war criminals were also admitted, including Adolf Eichmann.
Sadly, Buenos Aires’ Jews have been hit with their share of tragedies. Over a third of the tens of thousands of Argentinians kidnapped during the Dirty War, which lasted from 1976 to 1983, were Jewish. In 1992 the Israeli embassy was bombed, killing 29. The AMIA (amia.org.ar) (the Argentine Israelite Mutual Aid Association), the Jewish community center, was attacked two years later, killing 87.
Despite this, the 250,000-strong community is robust and diverse, and it offers much for tourists to enjoy. Due to security precautions, contact a congregation to say you plan to join it for services.
Comunidad Amijai (amijai.org) (pronounced Amichai), located in the city’s small Chinatown, is a large and extremely modern Conservative synagogue, its members well heeled, its Friday-night services packed. Rabbi Dario Feguin, a disciple of Rabbi Marshall Meyer (who rejuvenated B’nai Jeshurun on the Upper West Side), regularly leads lively discussions with the congregation, making this visitor wish she spoke Spanish. Centro Comunitario Chalom (chalom.com.ar) is a good Sephardic option in the beautiful Belgrano neighborhood, a quiet area of stately apartment buildings and tasteful shops. Jabad (Chabad) is quite popular, with 25 centers in Buenos Aires alone, many of them in its best neighborhoods.
Young, observant travelers should look into staying at Iaacob House Hostel (iaacobhouse.com.ar). Located in Palermo, it offers single-sex accommodations and a kosher kitchen. Though I did not stay there, I was invited to its communal Shabbat dinner, where I had to switch into Hebrew mode to communicate. Most of the 30 or so affable young, religious Israelis who crowded the table were on post-army tours of South America.
Once (ohn-sey), the city’s traditional Jewish neighborhood, is home to even more synagogues as well as a number of kosher restaurants; one is Succath David, a large steakhouse with an extensive menu including delicious chorizo steak and parilla (pronounced “parisha”) tabletop grill options. The Abasto Mall is located on the Once-Almagro border and has the only kosher McDonald’s outside of Israel.
Located in the city center, the Libertad Synagogue has been a Buenos Aires fixture since the 19th century. It offers a daily minyan, both traditional and egalitarian Shabbat services, and houses the city’s Jewish Museum, which presents information about Argentina’s rich Jewish history. The Museo del Holocausto, the Buenos Aires Shoah museum, is a short walk away. A current exhibit there is titled, in translation, “Adolph Eichmann/ He Lived Among Us.”
A visit to the synagogue and museums could easily be paired with a tour of the Teatro Colón, which is, acoustically, considered to be one of the best theaters in the world, especially for opera; a stop at the Obelisk; the Plaza de Mayo square and La Casa Rosada, the executive office. If you’re in the area in the evening, stroll along Avenida Corrientes (“The Street That Never Sleeps”), and take in some tango (see more about tango below).
Nearby is Puerto Madero, the newly developed port area. Cafés and restaurants face the water as well as the Puente de la Mujer, a pedestrian bridge designed by Spanish “starchitect” Santiago Calatrava, who also has to his credit two bridges in Israel and the new PATH station here. The area’s Buenos Aires Ecological Reserve has nature trails and opportunities for biking, walking and birding.
Across town, make sure to stroll in Palermo Viejo, which contains art galleries, boutiques, bars and cafés. If you’re homesick, Palermo Soho and Hollywood will remind you of America (at least in name).
If time permits, spend an afternoon outside the city In Le Tigre, situated on the river delta, an hour train ride away. Boat trips and rental kayaks are available, and there are restaurants on the water.
Iguazu is a longer excursion from Buenos Aires, where one can see exquisite waterfalls. The tropical province of Misiones, and the monumental waterfalls of its Iguazu River on the Brazilian border are a short flight away.
Since many Argentinians have Italian lineage, Italian food is plentiful. Local dishes include empanadas; chipas, cheese-bread snacks; medialunas, sweet, doughy croissants and alfajores cookies. Keep in mind that porteños (Buenos Aires natives) tend to eat dinner on the later side, so a restaurant’s peak hour will be 9 to 10 p.m. Be sure to try mate (mah-teh), a strong tea that is sipped through a metal straw called a bombilla. A common sight is an Argentinian with a thermos in one hand and a mate cup in the other, who is constantly replacing the hot water. Don’t be surprised if someone offers you a sip of his mate; it is typically drunk communally. Visit a peña, or club, such as La Peña de Colorado, for the opportunity to see traditional music and dance.
A trip to Buenos Aires should include a tango show. La Confitería Ideal, an elegant, old salon de tango, and La Esquina Carlos Gardel are great places to catch one. For the tourist who would like to try a tango lesson, there are private and group options. La Catedral is an unpretentious and inexpensive venue that has a vegetarian restaurant. Academia Nacional del Tango on Avenida de Mayo offers group lessons and is conveniently located near Café Tortoni, an elegant and historic coffee house and hangout for the city’s native and visiting intellectuals since it was founded more than 150 years ago.