In 1850 two men found themselves standing under a tree near the famous Recoleta Cemetery in the center of Buenos Aires. Each man was carrying a small book and reading to himself. It was Yom Kippur and each man prayed silently to himself without saying a word, even though they each knew what the other was doing. After finishing their prayers they started to talk and they agreed to meet next year and to try to find some more Jews. The year after this story the first minyan took place for Yom Kippur and they decided to found the Congregacion Israelita de la Republica Argentina, the first Jewish Institution in Argentina.
When I asked Rabbi Guido Cohen about the history of Jewish life in Argentina, this was the legend he shared, truth or fiction it is hard to say, but as he pointed out the tree is still there.
The roots of Jewish life in Argentina are relatively new, prior to the late 1800s there had been a small smattering of Sephardic Jews who had come to the country but the Inquisition followed and all signs of Jewish life disappeared. The eradication of the Inquisition in 1813 paved the way for the potential of Jewish life but it was not until the very end of the 19th century that large numbers of Jews began to settle in Argentina.
Today Argentina is the home to the world’s largest Spanish speaking Jewish community. There are over 250,000 Jews in Argentina, most living in Buenos Aires. The earliest European Jewish settlers, however, initially made their homes on the Pampas, the vast Argentinean plains, where it was common to find Jewish cowboys.
In many ways Jewish life in Buenos Aires bears a strong resemblance to Jewish life in any major North American city. There are a myriad of synagogues, Jewish organizations and schools. The arts scene is vibrant and there a Conservative Seminario Rabínico Latinoamericano, which like it’s American counterparts, trains rabbis. On a recent Friday, I attended a Shabbat Service in the center of the city. The tunes were a recognizable mix of contemporary liturgical music used in the United States.
But even as it is familiar, there is no mistaking Buenos Aires for Boston or Los Angeles. While visiting, Rabbi Cohen offered to take me to see a local synagogue, which he promised, would be quite special. Walking into the courtyard and then the sanctuary of Amijai, it was easy to understand what he was talking about. Set amidst greenery, the building is modern and rounded, the sanctuary made of Jerusalem stone and the acoustics state of the art.
But it was Cohen’s comment as we left that reminded us of exactly where we were, “not only is this the most beautiful shul in the city, it is also the safest.”
Concern for safety is real. In 1994, the Jewish Community Center was bombed and 85 people were killed and over 200 wounded. Moving around town with the World Union of Progressive Judaism we were never without our security team. Moreover, the economic instability that plagued the country in 2001 led to significant migration to Israel, the United States, Spain and Canada. As proud as Argentineans are, they have reasons to worry too.
Still Jewish life is vibrant and uniquely Latin American. Though concerns about safety abound, there are 1,500 students at the Tarbut Jewish school where Rabbi Cohen directs Jewish life and learning, and this is only one of many openly Jewish schools. Jewish children are educated to be multi lingual. Though not particularly religious –the numbers for intermarriage that I heard while there varied but were around 50% – people are proud to be Jewish. Recently, the city elected Rabbi Sergio Bergman to an important seat on the city council. Buenos Aires boasts more than a dozen kosher eateries including the only kosher McDonald’s outside of Israel. The popular ten member Samaj band has a really local flavor. It plays a mix of Klezmer, Israeli and Latin music, that had us dancing for hours one night at our conference.
Today the Recoleta Cemetery is in the center of one of Buenos Aires’ most posh neighborhood which buzzes with life at all hours of the day and night. It is hard to imagine that it was ever a place where two Jews might find some quiet for reflection on Yom Kippur. Yet, if those fabled men were by some extraordinary means to come looking for Jewish life in Buenos Aires today they would be far from alone as they were just over a century and a half ago, instead they would be in the midst of the worlds most vibrant Jewish communities. The biggest question they would face would be choosing which synagogue to attend!
I have always been struck by car commercials. Car commercials to me seem unique in the world of advertising. Whereas other commercials tend to advertise the features of their product, which of course will make your life easier, happier and more fulfilled, a car commercial tends to depict the experience of simply having the car. The experience alone of having this new model of car will lift your life to the heights of ecstasy and elation. You may be driving everyday to work but when you get behind the wheel of this car you will gracefully be floating down the Swiss Alps. While other industries tell you how their product enables you to be happier; the car commercial assures you that the car itself is happiness.
Yet, we know while that new car may be safer, more comfortable and more gas efficient, it alone does not bring us genuine and lasting happiness. In fact one would be hard pressed to identify any single product that has brought us real happiness. Of course, we experience the joy of having something new and revel in discovering all of its features and unique aspects but soon the newness begins to disappear and along with it the temporary boost to our sense of joy.
How do we achieve a true, genuine and lasting happiness in our lifetimes? This is to put it simply perhaps the question of our time. As people who live in an era most defined as the era of the individual, we seek personal fulfillment and personal happiness to a greater extent than those in generations before us. Unfortunately, I don’t possess the definitive answer to this perplexing question (but if I did I would be sure to blog about it on MJL!) and I am inclined to think that there is no definitive answer to this question as so much of it is contextual and specific to each case. However, I would like to propose a perspective, a shift in orientation, that could provide an avenue for a life of genuine and lasting happiness.
Rabbi Dr. Aaron Kirschenbaum of Tel Aviv University articulates a dichotomy between rights and responsibilities, between Western law and Jewish law. He writes in his work Equity in Jewish Law (Ktav, 1991):
“Social, political, and legal theory in Western liberal society conceives man as a plenitude of rights; people do as they please unless constrained by the hedges of the law. The state governs the individual; the liberal democratic state governs the individual by enlightened laws. In contrast, the Jewish tradition measures the human being by the duties and responsibilities he bears…
Indeed, according to the rabbis of the Talmud, the Covenant subsequent to the Exodus – for which the Theophany took place – was not between God and the six hundred thousand Israelites who had come out of Egypt. It was between God and the Community of Israel. The formation of the community was thus a necessary concomitant of the Revelation.”
The Jewish experience is born out of community. When we come into the world our family celebrates our birth in the context of community. When we reach crucial developmental milestones in our lives, those are marked in communal ceremonies and rituals. Our wedding symbolizes this reality most profoundly when we stand under the chuppah, the canopy representing the intimacy of marital bonds, that is open to all sides and surrounded by our family and friends. Lastly, our final passing from this world is also observed within the embrace of community. This is not coincidental, as Rabbi Dr. Kirschenbaum noted, but rather is indicative of the founding narrative of our people. Judaism; its narratives, rituals and legal system is rooted in the communal. The effect of this is a shift towards responsibilities and a perspective that places each individual within the larger story of a people and a destiny, a shared past and an equally shared future.
Who is rich? The one who rejoices in their portion.
This statement from the Sages can mean much more than only a reflection on a life satisfied with one’s worldly affairs. Of course, it does deeply mean that, and that alone is a valuable lesson for a world dominated by sheer materialism, of which the advertising I mentioned earlier is only a small part, but possibly it is also a reading on who we are on an existential level. Do I exist solely as one individual absent a larger picture? Are my needs, wants, desires, passions and concerns the only dominating motive and drive for my life? A life wholly consumed by I, quickly turns to the reality of the finitude of our lives. Deep dissatisfaction and unhappiness arises out of a sense of futility and irrelevancy.
A life interwoven and bound up in the trajectory and narrative arc of a people that transcends generations can instill purpose, dignity and genuine happiness to our existence. My needs and wants are connected to the needs and wants of others. My story is part of the greater Jewish story. I am a link between all the generations that came before me and all those that will come after me. I am a guardian of a sacred trust that I have inherited and tasked with not only its preservation, for it is not an exhibit in a museum to be mummified and put on display, but its cultivation, furtherance and elevation.
This way of thinking and approach to living can foster lasting and true happiness. I offer it as a model to consider. It has proven successful for me and as one of my mentors and teachers Rabbi Dr. Tsvi Blanchard would often end his lectures with, I invite you to explore the possibility of this for your life.
I began making frequent trips to Israel during the second intifada, in August 2001. I became accustomed to the security guard at public places, having my bag checked at entrances to restaurants, markets, malls, etc., which made me feel secure.
Yet, it can still be a little bit jarring to transition in when I arrive in Israel and have my bag checked or go through metal detectors at shops and other public venues. I am now in Jerusalem for a two week stay, and my first stop was the supermarket. At the SuperSol, the now familiar guard, a young Ethiopian man who could be the age of my son, sits at the entrance and asks, in Hebrew, “Madame, do you have a weapon?” I can’t help it, I laugh, and answer, “No.” He looks in my bag in a cursory way and lets me enter.
I laugh for several reasons, I suppose, as I think about it later. One reason is that it is still so surprising, even after all these visits, to be asked this question. I wonder what would happen if I said “yes”. I wonder who carries a weapon in their bag. I also laugh at the thought that if I did carry a weapon, why would I want to tell him? But that’s a scary thought, not funny at all, and so totally absurd for me — I could never imagine even touching a weapon, no less carrying one around. I laugh because of the momentary nervousness generated by the horrible reason that the guard is asking me this question in the first place. And then I grab my shopping cart, consume myself with the delight of being in this place, feeling secure because of the presence of this guard at the entrance.
I was thinking about weapons that night of my return to Jerusalem. Coincidentally, just a block away from the SuperSol is Jerusalem’s Independence Park (Gan Ha’atzmaut). That night there was a huge demonstration of the Israeli Ethiopian community, protesting racism in Israeli society. The streets were all blocked, traffic was at a stand-still as I arrived at my short-term apartment just a few blocks away. Shortly after the demonstration, I could see some signs still left there as I walked past the park. I watched the news that night and heard one protester sum it up: “You brought us here. Now what?”
There are a lot of seam-lines in Israeli society. Racism is one of them. Tolerance, respect and inclusive democracy are all hot button issues. Yet, while Israel’s social problems are in sharp focus for the occasional visitor like me, it also strikes me that we are not so perfect in the USA either. I wish there were more protests addressing the social problems in our country, actually, when I see the Israeli activism.
It occurred to me that these are the weapons we have — words. That had been the first thought that had made me laugh at the guard’s question. What went through my mind was, “Of course I have a weapon! It is my voice. It is my words.”
A couple nights later I walked past the park and noticed an elaborately decorated car parked nearby. The car was covered with banners, signs, bumper stickers and painted words, all promoting the Bretslover Chasidic sect. The words proclaim G-d’s love. Echoes of the protest still linger, perhaps this is one of them. Here is one kind of weapon against hate, captured in words. I wonder how we get from slogans to actions — how we can do a better job of loving each other with acceptance, respect and compassion.
As I walk down the street I am consumed with thoughts of protests, activism, tolerance and mutuality. I notice a slightly familiar person walking past me, now in front of me. It’s the young Ethiopian guard from the SuperSol. His pace is quick — but I want to catch up and tell him that I DO have a weapon. It’s my words. It’s my actions. It’s OUR activism.
Of course, I don’t bother him. But I think about how we need to do a better job of revealing our best weapon against hatred, inequality and violence. And I am grateful to him for his unknowing inspiration.
Photo by Itta Werdiger Roth