Last April, my boyfriend, Brad, and I got bumped from a flight and each received $1,000 vouchers. We’d always been interested in Buenos Aires, so we planned a trip to Argentina. Gauchos! Tango! Steak! Jews!
I’d fixated on Argentina as Jewish place after a trip to Israel in my early 20s, when I met an old bookstore owner who’d moved to Israel from Argentina. We talked for a while about Jewish life in South America, and all these years later, I remembered our conversation fondly. I imagined I’d meet many old bookish Jews in Buenos Aires. After all, with a Jewish population estimated at between 180,000 and 250,000, Buenos Aires is regularly cited as the sixth-largest Jewish community in the world.
But meeting Jewish people casually — meeting anyone at all, in fact — wasn’t easy. Buenos Aires is the largest city in Argentina, and the second-largest city in South America. It has a metro population of 15.1 million and is incredibly busy and crowded, like a scene out of “Koyaanisqatsi” minus Philip Glass. People are not unfriendly, exactly. They’re just ... otherwise occupied.
So we did some research and made a list of Jewish sites to visit. Here are a few I recommend:
AMIA community center and memorial: “Recordar el dolor que no cesa.” Those words — “remember the pain that does not end” — are printed on a sign atop the wall surrounding the AMIA Jewish community center. Beneath the sign, a black wooden canvas stretches along the wall’s length, with 85 names painted in white. Ileana, Mirta, Rosa, Gabriel — names of the dead, all of them killed in 1994 in the worst terrorist attack on Argentine soil.
In the years since the bombing, AMIA has continued its mission of serving the Buenos Aires’ Jewish community, tending to more than 20,000 students of Jewish schools; drawing thousands to cultural events; assisting families who would not, without AMIA’s help, be able to afford funeral services for their loved ones.
The bombing, which was never solved, continues to reverberate. In March, it was announced that Argentina’s former president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, now a senator, will stand trial, along with 11 other officials from her administration, on charges of covering up the role of the Iranian government in the bombing. Meanwhile, Alberto Nisman, the investigator who uncovered the Kirchner’s administration wrongdoing, was murdered in 2015. Netflix is reportedly creating a miniseries about him.
All of this makes AMIA a rather relevant stop, which can be paired, if you’re feeling tragic, with the site of the 1992 bombing of the Israeli embassy, which killed 30. That site is now an open-air memorial with benches and trees, and there is no advance notice needed to visit the park.
El Once: There is no one Jewish neighborhood in Buenos Aires, but El Once, which is technically part of the larger Balvanera neighborhood, is a good place to visit to experience a taste of Lower East Side immigrant European culture — as transplanted to South America.
It is both a garment district and party-planning center, where anything event-related can be purchased. The fabric merchants often have quirky window displays, like a cutout of Marilyn Monroe hovering over Minnie and Mickey Mouse dolls dressed in textile remnants.
In El Once, you’ll see storeowners wearing kippahs, and even find a small storefront that sells seder plates, kiddush cups and other basic Judaica.
Gran Templo Paso: Also in the Balvanera neighborhood, you’ll find the Ashkenazi Gran Templo Paso, which bills itself as “one of the most beautiful synagogues in all of South America.” The first Talmud Torah in Buenos Aires was founded here in 1894, though the current building wasn’t constructed until 1927.
As with all synagogues in Buenos Aires, security is tight, so visits must be arranged ahead of time, even for services, which the temple describes as “modern Orthodox.”
Near the temple, there are several Jewish restaurants and bakeries, including Mozart Kosher, Yafo Kosher, Ajim Deli and Helueni, as well as multiple kosher ice cream shops.
McDonald’s: Normally, I wouldn’t recommend McDonald’s as a center of Jewish life, but this particular McDonald’s is the only kosher McDonald’s outside of Israel, which makes it unique. It’s also in the Abasto shopping mall, which is a remarkable Art Deco building. The architecture alone makes a visit worth it, but the shopping mall also houses an interactive children’s museum.
Templo Libertad/Jewish Museum of Buenos Aires: In order to visit this fascinating site, you need to contact them ahead of time and send in your passport number and personal details. It’s worth the trouble, as you get two for one: the temple itself, along with the creatively installed exhibits at the museum.
The temple, the first synagogue built in Buenos Aires and a National Historical Monument, is beautiful, a sort of Byzantine palace with three naves and enough wooden pews to seat 1,000 congregants.
The elaborate design is visible in every detail, from light fixtures to the ark itself.
The museum has all kinds of material culture from Argentina’s Jewish history, from a Yiddish-language Remington typewriter to birth certificates.
There are contemporary exhibits as well. When we were there, I quite enjoyed looking at a piece of golden matzah — certainly the most attractive matzah I’ve ever seen. JN
This article first appeared in the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent, a Jewish News-affiliated publication.