Blazing Saddles: Jewish Life in Argentina

by Lina Tuv

A long time ago, in a far away land, there lived a Jewish gaucho in a settlement called Moisesville. This first Jewish colony in Argentina was comprised of Jewish cowboys. Fleeing pogroms, they arrived from Russia in 1889 and established agricultural settlements in the vast, unpopulated land of Argentina’s Santa Fe province.

In the Pampas – Argentina’s fertile lowlands where gauchos once reined – vast blue skies meet large stretches of flat grasslands speckled by solitary shrubs in the distance. A man dressed as a cowboy with his facón, a large knife tucked into the rear of the gaucho sash, greets tourists as they descend from the bus. As most of the descendents of the original founders moved to large cities, today the settlements are mostly empty, except for a few that cater to tourists or operate as sanctuaries where locals can unwind in the country air.

Buenos Aires, Argentina’s capital, is the largest city where the gauchos settled. Today, its Jewish community numbers 180,000, out of 250,000 Jews total in Argentina. Though Argentina’s Jewish community is the largest in Central and South America, it has shrunk by nearly a third over the last 40 years and continues to decline due to emigration, intermarriage, and assimilation.

Jews began leaving Argentina for Israel and Europe in response to political and civil unrest during the military dictatorship from 1976-1983, when 30,000 people went missing, 2,000 of whom were Jews. In the early ‘90s, the Israeli Embassy and AMIA, the Jewish community center, were blown up, tarnishing the terror-free landscape of Argentina and shaking up the relative calm of the Jewish community. Since the bombings, all major Jewish institutions have been fortified, and visitors may find it easier to locate a synagogue by looking for cemented columns and booths with guards instead of the address itself. These safety boosters serve as a reminder of the fragility as well as the perseverance of the Jewish people.

The most recent blow to the Jewish community was the economic crisis of 2001 that left many with the title “new poor,” signifying the descent from middle to lower class. Like the majority of Jews in Argentina, Alvaro Katz, in his late 20s, came from a middle-class family. Katz remembers December 20, 2001, when the masses gathered in the Plaza de Mayo, the main square in downtown Buenos Aires, to protest the economic crisis. “The people took to the streets. They drummed against the pots and pans they carried out from homes as they marched toward the government headquarters. I remember watching on television the president’s escape from the Casa Rosada by helicopter. There was chaos on the streets with looting all around.”

Today, most Jews seek a cultural model of Jewish identity, emphasizing knowledge of Hebrew, Jewish history, and solidarity with Israel. They forge social ties with their circle of friends in their Jewish primary and secondary education. Dana Kamelman, who is in her early 20s and works at Hillel in Buenos Aires, said, “I talk to my girlfriends about marriage, and we agree that we’d like to marry within our faith. We feel this way not because we are observant; it has more to do with our being part of the Jewish community on a cultural level.”

Today’s vibrant Jewish cultural and educational life yields snapshots of young Orthodox men purchasing flowers from street vendors on Shabbat eve; the world’s only kosher McDonald’s outside of Israel; young Jews socializing at a Yom Ha’atzmaut celebration at Hillel; and large posters on Buenos Aires’s main avenues and plazas, announcing everything from Matisyahu’s concert to Passover festivities.

One of those events was YOK, a post-Passover festival with music and food in the capital’s largest park. Kamelman’s sister, Deby, a Buenos Aires-based law and philosophy student, recalls, “There were about 2,000 people enjoying falafel, boios, knishes, shawarma, baklava, and matzah with chocolate as they swayed to the music streaming from the several stages throughout the park. They had everything from wine-tasting booths to a mural depicting Moshe surfing on the Nile, freshly painted by two young guys during the fest.”

The capital is not the only place to house a vivacious Jewish community. Mendoza, a desert city known for its wine production, has a quiet yet rapidly reviving Jewish community of 4,000. In 2008, Rabbi Uriel Lapidus founded the city’s first and only kosher market and its first Chabad.

On a walk through Mendoza, one might be surprised to find a 10-foot menorah commemorating Israel’s 50th birthday across the city’s main plaza. This gigantic candelabra stands as a testament to the continuing Jewish presence in Argentina, despite the declining numbers.

Lina Tuv went to Argentina to study Hebrew and instead took up tango and journalism. When she’s not traveling, she runs a graphic design boutique.

This post is from the just-released PresenTense Jewish Heroes issue; you can also subscribe to PresenTense Magazine and receive this, and future issues, delivered directly to you.

image: exploring the Pampas of Argentina (courtesy Lina Tuv)