The Jews of Argentina

April, 2016
by Wendy Schneider

No need to cry for a vibrant community whose historical roots run deep

 

Everything I know about the history of Argentine Jewry I learned from a Conservative rabbi turned tour guide. That would be Ernesto Yattah, a native of Buenos Aires, who received his ordination at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. Yattah served as an associate rabbi of Houston’s largest conservative synagogue for nine years before returning to Argentina in the late 1990s to find his true calling.

My husband and I found Yattah on TripAdvisor in the months leading up to our six-day trip to Buenos Aires last December, attracted by the rave reviews about his Jewish tours of the city.  The five hours we spent in his company were time well spent — Yattah is a master storyteller whose depth of knowledge and passion for his subject kept us on the edge of our metaphorical seats. When told as much, he joked that his chosen profession was a dream job for a former pulpit rabbi whose congregants would start looking at their watches 10 minutes into his sermons. “Here,” he told us, “I have a captive audience.” If so, we found ourselves willing captives, soaking in Yattah’s fascinating account of how both Argentina and its Jewish citizens, were shaped and influenced by their interactions with each other.  

An American rabbi’s heroism during Argentina’s Dirty War

The Plaza de Mayo, Argentina’s most famous public square, has been the focal point for political demonstrations throughout hundreds of years, but the painted white kerchiefs on its pavement  evoke a particular period. Between 1976 and 1983,  thousands of people deemed political threats by the country’s ruling military dictatorship were arrested and vanished without a trace. A disproportionate number of “the disappeared ones” were students and young intellectuals, and 20 per cent of the total number of victims, according to Yattah, were Jews. At great risk to themselves, a group of women — soon to be known to the world as the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, gathered every week in the square, in silent protest over the unknown fates of their missing children. Often seen marching by their side was an American rabbi, a fearless and outspoken advocate for the victims of Argentina’s “Dirty War.”

Rabbi Marshall Meyer already possessed legendary status even before the military took power. A disciple of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the esteemed Conservative theologican and civil rights leader, Meyer accepted a post in Buenos Aires in 1959 with the goal of bringing the most successful institutions of Conservative Judaism to Argentina’s assimilated Jewish community. Charismatic and idealistic, Meyer would go on to found an enormously popular Conservative synagogue, Camp Ramah-style summer camps and Latin America’s only rabbinical seminary. When the military junta took power in 1976, Meyer’s attention was diverted from his own community to the alarming deterioration of human rights that was spreading across the country. In her introduction to a book containing Meyer’s speeches and sermons, author Jane Isay describes the impact of Meyer’s activism.
 
“He was a lonely voice against the government, preaching against the dictatorship, welcoming the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo into his synagogue at great risk, and visiting the prisons weekly. He ran a virtual underground railroad, helping people escape the country, hiding others until they could get out, working tirelessly to locate the disappeared,” she wrote.

When democracy returned to Argentina in 1983, Meyer was awarded the country’s highest honour by President Raul Alfonsin. He returned to New York the following year, where he went on to transform the Upper West Side’s B’nai Jeshurun synagogue into a centre of spirituality and activism. Ten years later, Meyer was dead, his life tragically cut short by liver cancer. But throughout Latin America his spirit lives on through the Marshall T. Meyer Latin American Rabbinical Seminary, whose 80 graduates are continuing his work of strengthening and sustaining Jewish communities.

Peron, Israel and the Jews 

The elegant pink-tinged government house that overlooks the Plaza de Mayo, is  known to many Andrew Lloyd Weber fans as the site of the famous balcony scene in Evita, but the Peron era is widely associated with a period in which Argentina provided a warm welcome to hundreds of Nazi war criminals. According to Yattah, however, Juan Peron’s pro-German foreign policy was less about being fond of Nazis than it was driven by a desire on the part of the dictator to exploit German technological and scientific know-how to further his goals of transforming Argentina into a strong industrial power. In this, Peron was certainly not alone. Britain and the United States’s clandestine recruitment of Nazi scientists during the Cold War has been well documented. 

The great paradox of the Peron era lies in the fact that at the same time that Argentina was actively recruiting former Nazis, the presidential couple was engaged in very public demonstrations of their affection for the Jewish community in newsreels depicting them bringing Rosh Hashanah greetings. They were also stalwart supporters of Israel. In the Evita Peron museum in Buenos Aires’ tony Palermo district, an Israeli orphanage is listed among the beneficiaries of the Eva Peron Foundation, alongside a photograph of the first lady having a tête-à-tête with future Israeli prime minister, Golda Meir. Furthermore, Argentina was the first country to set up an embassy in the fledging state, and signed a trade deal that offered exceptionally favourable terms.  

While Peron was widely portrayed in the international media throughout the 1950s as a Hitler admiring antisemite, Yattah claims otherwise. What antisemite, he asked, would appoint a rabbi as his religious affairs advisor? That same rabbi, Rabbi Amram Blum, would stand by the dictator’s side during Evita’s funeral, softly leading the dictator in reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish. 

The Crypto-Jewish roots of the Buenos Aires aristocracy

The neighbourhood of Once (pronounced On-say) is the Jewish quarter of Buenos Aires, or, as Yattah likes to call it, Latin America’s version of the Lower East Side. Over a delicious lunch of hot pastrami sandwiches served in one of the quarter’s numerous kosher delicatessens, Yattah explained how immigrants from Bolivia, Peru and Paraguay have mostly replaced the neighbourhood’s earlier Jewish immigrants. And yet the mezuzahs on the doorposts of the Syrian Jewish-owned textile stores that line Once’s crowded streets, along with the elegant facades of synagogues built during a bygone era and the ubiquitous Chabad Hassidim give this mixed neighbourhood a distinctly Jewish feel.

Most of the Jews of Buenos Aires, numbering approximately 240,000, reside elsewhere in the city. The mostly secular Ashkenazi majority are either unaffiliated or identify as Conservative Jews. Fifteen per cent are Sephardic, descended from Syrian and Morroccan Jews who immigrated to Argentina at the beginning of the 20th century. There is also a large Chabad presence. But nowhere among Argentina’s Jewish population, is there any geneaological connection to 16th century Portuguese Crypto-Jews, the first Jews of Argentina. Their descendants can indeed be found in today’s Buenos Aires — in the most improbable of places. 

The role played by Jewish “New Christians” in transforming Buenos Aires from an insignificant outpost on the fringes of the Spanish empire into a key player in the global silver trade was only recently discovered, thanks to a Jewish Yale student’s discovery of Sephardic names among the 16th century benefactors of Buenos Aires’s Franciscan convent. Weaving a tale populated by Crypto-Jewish Franciscan monks and prosperous Jewish merchants trying to stay one step ahead of inquisitors from Spain, Yattah held us in rapt attention with a story that could rival any bestselling mystery novel. Ironically the safety, acceptance and prosperity that Crypto-Jews would find in Buenos Aires was the exact thing that led to their complete disappearance. Within a generation their integration was so complete, that it wasn’t until the last decade that genealogical research connected Buenos Aires’s oldest, most established Catholic families with the Portuguese Crypto-Jews.  

The Cardinal, the Pope and the Jews

One doesn’t expect to wrap up a Jewish tour of Buenos Aires inside a Catholic church, but, on Yattah’s insistence, we couldn’t leave the city without seeing the Holocaust memorial at the Buenos Aires Metropolitan Cathedral. Inaugurated in 1997 by the archbishop of Argentina, Cardinal Antonio Quarracino, the memorial to Holocaust victims and those murdered in the 1990s terrorist attacks at the Israel Embassy and the AMIA (for Asociación Mututal Israelita Argentina: the Central Jewish Community Centre), is a powerful symbol of the remarkable steps taken by Argentina’s Catholic church towards reconciliation with the Jewish people.  Among the fragments of Jewish texts displayed in the glass enclosed mural is a page from the Book of Esther rescued from the ruins of a Berlin synagogue destroyed during the Second World War, a copy of the Book of Samuel found in the ruins of the Israeli embassy, and a book of Yiddish fables recovered from the AMIA bombing. Beneath the mural a framed letter writen by Quarracino just two months before the cardinal’s death to his good friend Baruch Tenembaum, founder of the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation, contains these words.  

“I have no doubt that my current coadjutor archbishop Monsignor Jorge Bergoglio, when the moment comes to succeed me, will walk the same path of reconciliation and fraternity with our elder brothers.”  

Monsignor Jorge Bergoglio, known to the world as Pope Francis, would not only walk the path modeled by his predecessor, he would bring  the spirit of reconciliation between Jews, Catholics and Muslims to the world stage.

When Pope Francis was about to embark on his historic trip to the Holy Land in May 2014, he invited fellow Argentinians Rabbi Abraham Skorka and Muslim leader Omar Abboud to be part of the papal delegation. At a time of unprecedented violence throughout the Middle East, the shocking brutality of ISIS and rising global antisemitism, the photograph of the three men embracing in front of the Western Wall had stunning symbolic effect. It was, said Yattah, the first time that representatives of the three Abrahamic religions had shared such a moment in the place where it all started. And it made perfect sense to him that  “three Argentinian guys”  made it happen.

An unplanned visit to the Jewish museum


A late afternoon flight home on our final day in Buenos Aires would give us just enough time to catch an English-language tour of the famous Colon Theatre — or so we thought — until discovering on our arrival that the tour was cancelled due to ongoing renovations. Instead, we crossed the street to have a look at the Templo Libertad, a majestic synagogue built by prosperous European Jewish immigrants in the late 19th century that has recently been made a national monument. Gazing up at the prominent Magen David above its elegant wooden doors, we almost missed a small sign on the adjacent building indicating that a Jewish museum lay within. Why not, we thought, as we spotted a nearby diner where we could spend the hour before it opened having a leisurely breakfast. That spontaneous decision was the first of two that morning that would make our last day in Buenos Aires one of our best. The second was choosing to take advantage of a guided tour included with the admission price, a choice the Israeli couples who arrived at the same time opted to forego. That left my husband and I and a Spanish-speaking couple the only participants on a tour of the museum’s small collection of artifacts that depict the history of Jewish migration to Argentina.  Of particular interest were items connected to the agricultural colonies set up by the German Jewish philanthropist Baron Maurice de Hirsch for persecuted Russian Jews, the forebears of the famous Jewish Gauchos of the Argentine pampas. But it was our young guide’s eloquence, depth of knowledge, and the way he seamlessly alternated his explanations between English and Spanish that we found most captivating, and I was curious to learn more about him. 

His name, I later learned, is Fede Treguer, a 20-year-old history major, who grew up with little connection to the Jewish community. It was during the year leading up to his Bar Mitzvah that Treguer began delving into his family history, specifically, the details surrounding his grandmother’s miraculous escape from the Warsaw Ghetto, unlikely survival of an Allied bombing raid in Germany, and perilous journey to Argentina, via Paraguay. 

Our Facebook conversations after my return home revealed more interesting details about Treguer. A part-time docent since the age of 18, Treguer revealed that the source of his greatest satisfaction is seeing Jews from abroad react with surprise when they learn about the museum’s successful outreach initiatives with the Catholic and Muslim communities. 

“I feel that the most important thing of working with non-Jewish people is to destroy the walls that can tear us apart,” he wrote. 
 
If Fede Treguer is truly representative of today’s Argentine Jewry, there is much to celebrate: A community that knows its history and lives its values — something we can all strive to emulate.