Buenos Aires — A Travel Bargain With Star Quality

By Michael T. Luongo

Published September 09, 2009, issue of September 18, 2009.
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With its Paris-inspired architecture, visiting Argentina has been like traveling to Europe, but wholesale, and who doesn’t love a bargain. Since the 2001 collapse of Argentina’s peso, once equal to the dollar, it’s been a cheap alternative to Euro-land. In this recession, bargains are even more welcome.

Fancy Balconies and Shutters: Paris-style architecture abounds in Buenos Aires, home to Latin America’s largest Jewish population.
Michael T. Luongo
Fancy Balconies and Shutters: Paris-style architecture abounds in Buenos Aires, home to Latin America’s largest Jewish population.

Of course, Buenos Aires has also long been one of the world’s most important Jewish capitals, with Latin America’s largest Jewish population. At its mid-1960s height, there were more than 300,000 Jews in Argentina, and today’s estimates range from 190,000 to 250,000. Even with assimilation, you’ll find a presence in historically Jewish neighborhoods like Once, Abasto and Villa Crespo, where Ashkenazic Jews fled pogroms and settled with Sephardim after the Ottoman Empire ended. Tucumán Street, where you’ll see women with wigs and yarmulke-covered men, and Paso Street’s synagogues, remain to mark this once much larger community.

I love coming to Tucumán Street to buy an American food favorite — peanut butter — associated here with Sephardic Jews and other Middle Easterners who in early days substituted peanuts for sesame when making tahini. One of my favorite restaurants is Mamá Jacinta. Owner José Mizrahi told me his dishes are inspired by his Syrian Sephardic grandmother. Another is Al Galope, across the street. It’s a parrilla, or Argentine steakhouse. Forget Juicy Couture, this is Juicy Kosher, and it took me a long time to figure out how kosher and mouthwatering can exist in a piece of meat at the same time. The secret, as I understand, is that once the blood has been removed, the meat is marinated, putting back moisture and tenderness. Add a kosher Malbec wine from Mendoza, and it becomes an Argentine tradition with a Jewish twist.

Emily Epstein, a New York photographer friend of mine living here now, says that Buenos Aires puts her in touch with her Jewishness. One day, she kvelled: “The Jewish community of Buenos Aires in many ways is more accepting and exciting than in New York. I wasn’t very connected to my Judaism before I came here. The temple I go to has a four-string quartet that plays with the cantor. There’s a kosher McDonald’s, for goodness sakes!” And she added, “It’s way better than Kosher Castle.” While ordinarily I wouldn’t recommend McDonald’s overseas, Emily’s right. The kosher McDonald’s on Avenida Corrientes in the Abasto Shopping Center is the only one in the world outside of Israel. At one time, the mall’s food court had three kosher restaurants, but only McDonald’s remains.

Not that kosher is dying. Café Eshel on Calle Tucumán opened up in Buenos Aires’s downtown area, near where I lived, and I fell in love at first knish. The basement serves as the Chabad House, and when I asked the owner, Rabbi Mordechai Jalusi, why he opened here, he laughed and said, “Because I am crazy,” adding, “I have my base here, in the zone, and I want a restaurant for all the people.” In other words, he wanted to bring kosher to office-lunching gentiles who might not ordinarily try such things.

There’s nothing like food for breaking down barriers, though it’s not as if Jews in Buenos Aires haven’t had things to be paranoid about. After all, President Juan Peron’s religious adviser, Catholic priest Virgilio Filippo, accused Jewish psychologists of making Buenos Aires’s citizens neurotic so that they could take over the country. Sounds like a Mel Brooks movie plot, but I can vouch that Argentines are neurotic without any help. Peron was a bit two-faced, offering asylum to Jews and Nazis alike after World War II. The 1970s military dictatorship wasn’t much better, holding Jewish intellectuals in contempt.

The worst, though, happened with democracy. On March 17, 1992, a suicide bomber attacked the Israeli Embassy, killing 29 and wounding hundreds. The outline of the building remains like a ghost at the memorial site at the intersection of Arroyo and Suipacha streets. Worse still, was the bomb on July 18, 1994, that destroyed the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina, a Jewish community center, killing 85.

Friends of mine tell me that Jews and gentiles alike attended candlelight vigils after the tragedies. Still, you’d understand if Jewish institutions retained a sense of paranoia, which is the case with Templo Libertad and the adjacent Jewish History Museum. The hours are terrible — only a few a week — and it closes for several months of the year. Even when they’re open, the Israeli-trained guards try to keep people out. Despite appearances, Laura Szames, the museum’s press officer, insisted that the museum, which concentrates on Jewish immigration history and has a collection of Sephardic Torahs, wants visitors. Still, to avoid frustration, I recommend an organized visit.

You could use a company like Travel Jewish, run by Deborah Miller, an American once married to an Argentine. Or hire a private guide such as Susana Alter, whom you can contact at altersusana@yahoo.com.ar.

Whether you come for an inexpensive escape with members of the family, a visit concentrating on Jewish history, or a romantic tango getaway, Buenos Aires will leave you with nothing to kvetch about.

Michael Luongo is the author of Frommer’s Buenos Aires guide and many other travel books.

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