BY ARIEL KATZ
Within a few minutes of our first meeting, my Buenos Aires host mother was asking me where my parents and grandparents were from. When Paula discovered I was Jewish, she hugged me again. “Shabbat Shalom!” she said. It was Saturday, the traditional Jewish day of rest. She led me through the house. We passed an Anne Frank poster and a menorah and entered the dining room, where a long table was set. Silver candlesticks stood in the center and a braided challah poked out from under an embroidered napkin.
Over the next few weeks, my fellow study abroad classmates shared stories of life with their host families. They passed around the maté gourd late into the night. They ate dulce de leche straight out of a tub in the fridge. They had family friends over for long, politically charged dinner conversations. Meanwhile, around the two-person table in the kitchen, Paula and I faced each other over cups of red wine. She told me stories of her son’s Bar Mitzvah party, reminiscing about the apartment packed with people. She proudly informed me that Buenos Aires is home to the only Kosher McDonald’s outside of Israel. She asked me if I believed in God.
There are about 250,000 Jews living in Argentina, according to the Jewish Federations of North America. Ninety-two percent of Ar- gentineans are nominally Roman Catholic, two percent are Protestant, two percent are Jewish, and four percent practice other religions. About 200,000 of the country’s Jews live in Buenos Aires. Paula’s stories of being Jewish in the capital introduced me to a community at once integrated with and separate from the Catholic majority. The history of Jews in Argentina began with conversos, Spanish Jews who, having converted to Catholicism in name only, fled the Inquisition and kept their true religion secret. Since then, Argentina has experienced waves of immigration as European Jews fled persecution in the 19th and 20th centuries.
During my five weeks in Buenos Aires this past summer, over the course of long Shabbat dinners, I pieced together Paula’s own story. As part of a respected Jewish family in Hamburg, Germany, Paula’s maternal grandfather drew the attention of a rabbi in Argentina. The rabbi wrote a letter inviting him to live in Buenos Aires, and Paula’s grandparents left Hamburg for Argentina in 1909. Her grandfather was a rabbi at Templo de Libertad, the city’s first synagogue. According to Professor Judith Elkin, founding president of the Jewish Latin American Studies Association, soliciting strangers to sail to South America was a trend in Argentina then. “Jews came to Argentina because Argentina was recruiting immigrants, and Jews had heard they could find work there on the farm or in the city,” Elkin said in an email.
Dr. Rafael Gurovich, who has lived his entire life in Buenos Aires and has children and grandchildren in the city, says his family settled on Argentina’s plains. His grandfather was a member of what he calls the “famous generation of the Jewish gauchos who sowed wheat and harvested doctorates.” Gauchos are a cultural icon in Argentina, analogous to the American cowboy. The cowboys in Gurovich’s family, however, lived in Basavilbaso, where Jewish settlers replicated the villages they had left behind in Russia; 3,500 of the 6,500 inhabitants were Jewish. Gurovich’s grandmother never had to speak Spanish; even the farmhands spoke Yiddish.
Argentina has long been a breeding ground for eccentric cultural enclaves: Welsh speaking communities thrive in the countryside; in Buenos Aires, there is a Little Armenia and a Chinatown; in the port neighborhood of La Boca, Italian mixed with Spanish to birth the creole tongue known as lunfardo; Jews settled in the plains and became gauchos roaming the pampas.
For Paula’s grandparents, it wasn’t easy to come to a country that wrote Catholicism into the constitution (it remains the state religion today). But little by little the family worked hard, learned Spanish, began to study at the university, and integrated to the point that Paula’s mother, upon meeting a young man fresh off the boat from Austria, said she “wasn’t interested in that foreigner.” Four months later he became her husband. Paula’s father’s reason for leaving Europe was rising anti-Semitism. Like Paula’s mother’s family, he found prosperity in Buenos Aires, opening a factory in La Boca and raising several children.
Paula’s parents were always adamant about the importance of their heritage and the power of family ties. These values lie at the intersection of both Jewish and Argentinean cultures, and stem, perhaps, from a common reaction to the fluid surroundings both groups often experience. Jewish culture disperses and changes with the shifting political and social landscape of their homelands; similarly, Argentina has weathered many different sociopolitical climates. Paula described the economic crisis of 2001, during which Buenos Aires cycled through five presidents in ten days. The promise of prosperity that had drawn immigrants to the city a century ago was gone. Young people of all backgrounds, Paula’s children among them, left the country to settle elsewhere.
Thus, after a century of growth in Argentina’s Jewish population, its numbers are once again decreasing, partly because of immigration and partly because of high rates of intermarriage and consequent loss of identity, said Elkin.
Back in the time of Paula’s grandparents, Jewish and non-Jewish communities in Buenos Aires didn’t mix as frequently; Catholics respected Jewish tradition, but only from afar. The relationship between the communities changed with each generation; while Paula has always been part of Jewish groups and societies, she’s made many Catholic friends as her life progressed. She goes to their Christmas celebrations, and they come over on Rosh Hashanah. Elkin notes that this changing relationship is also highly dependent on the wide swings in government and society from dictatorship to democracy and the periods in between.
The historical relationship between Jews and their government has sometimes been strained. During authoritarian leader Juan Peron’s long years in office, the state often had contradictory policies that inspired mistrust in the Jewish population. On the day Peron, who was in office in the late 1940s and early 1950s, offcially recognized Israel on behalf of Argentina, Paula told me that Jews closed their businesses and took to the streets, singing and dancing. However, Peronist Argentina is also notorious for harboring Nazi war criminals, most notably Adolf Eichmann. Indeed, Jews have been simultaneously integrated into and alienated by Argentina. Paula repeated many times that Argentinean Jews are bravo, a word that translates roughly to “fierce,” or “courageous.” Like the rest of Buenos Aires, Jews are always hitting the streets to celebrate, protest, or commemorate. A recent memorial took place at the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina, a Jewish organization that was bombed in 1994.
One of Paula’s key lessons was that there is no “traditional” or “original” Argentinean lifestyle and, on the flip side, that there is not a universal “Jewish experience.” It was strange to encounter my own culture in a different hemisphere: outwardly identical, but inwardly different. All the symbols were the same—the mezuzah on the door, the candles at Shabbat—but the stories behind them were not those with which I had grown up in the U.S.
I left Buenos Aires in a frenzy. My cab to the airport was waiting at the curb as I ran around my room throwing a few last knickknacks into my suitcase. Dulce de leche from a street market. A packet of store-bought alfajores. A small circular silver and blue keychain from a Jewish school Paula supported—we’d gone to the school opening together. A man in a black kippah made a toast in Spanish. Paula and I walked through the brand-new little classrooms. The Shabbat blessings were on the wall in Hebrew and Spanish, in playful letters above a miniature plastic table set with candlesticks and ringed by tiny chairs.
Many things about Buenos Aires were disorienting: the multicolored buses that once took me into the provincias when I got on the wrong one; the lack of vegetables at most meals; the streets that were not always marked; the cold weather in June. Perhaps among the most surprising was encountering familiar things that I was not expecting. The Coca-Cola bottles and McDonalds signs weren’t striking: they represented a commercial, removed version of the familiar. Paula’s life story was familiar in a more personal way. I felt the cultural similarity of Argentina and the U.S. on an individual level—as countries transformed by immigration, full of people with dual cultural identities.
Ariel Katz ‘15 is in Morse College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.