Dapper New Jewish Mayor Takes Buenos Aires by Storm

By Noga Tarnopolsky

Published December 01, 2006, issue of December 01, 2006.
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Jorge Telerman, the new mayor of Buenos Aires, is an energetic, dashing man, even when suffering and sniffling through a wicked spring flu. The high-octane 51-year-old, a former journalist and ambassador to Cuba who previously served as minister of culture for the city, is the ultimate urban animal, prowling his city’s streets in good times and bad — as he is prone to say — and fueled by the metropolis’s bursts of energy.

How does it feel to be the first Jewish mayor of a major city south of the Rio Grande?

“Actually, it feels pretty good,” Telerman said in a recent interview, before pulling out a glimmering golden fountain pen he received the night before from a foreign rabbi who visited to congratulate him on that very fact. “It’s just Job Cohen [the mayor of Amsterdam] and Bloomberg and me.”

His head shaved to a shine, Telerman, clad almost always in well-tailored suits, has been head of government of the Autonomous City of Buenos Aires since March 29. He formally succeeded Aníbal Ibarra, who was impeached and removed from office as a consequence of municipal mismanagement following a tragedy in which almost 200 youngsters were killed by a fire during a concert at an improperly licensed club. (Among Ibarra’s other problems, he failed to appear in public for three days following the cataclysm.)

Coincidentally or not, Telerman has turned mayoral presence into one of his hallmarks. He pops up everywhere, at all hours. When an ice factory blew up shortly after he became interim mayor, spewing ammonia into the night air, it was Telerman, in white smock and surgical mask, who went door to door at 3 a.m. asking elderly citizens to evacuate. When Buenos Aires’s late-winter October nights lit up with free art exhibits and special performances all night long, the mayor could be seen reveling with the best of them (even later than 3 a.m.).

“Presence is not just a matter of showing up when something bad happens,” Telerman said. “It’s about showing up for the parties, as well. It’s about living with the city, in all its conditions.”

It’s a reputation that he shares, in fact, with one of his fellow mayoral Jews. When asked what he thought of Michael Bloomberg’s performance last month during a plane crash on New York City’s Upper East Side, Telerman pleaded ignorance. “I don’t have time to watch TV, even if it’s my paisano Bloomberg. Do you have any idea what kind of tsoris I have of my own?”

This tsoris includes, among other things, major infrastructure, such as subways and sewers, dating back to the early 20th century, with resultant breakdowns and flooding — and a 10% rate of poverty among a population of about 3.5 million, of which half is indigent. Since the economic crash of 2001, Buenos Aires has seen a growing polarization of wealth and poverty. And in truth, Telerman’s influence ranges much beyond the municipality’s formal borders, as the urban sprawl known as Greater Buenos Aires houses more than 13 million, many of whom depend on the city or its services in some way.

In addition, Telerman never has been elected to public office. He faces elections sometime in 2007, in the hope of securing a full four-year term. For now, his almost certain opponent appears to be the Peronist vice president, Daniel Scioli.

Telerman, who has established his own independent party, is perceived to be something of a loose cannon in a political arena increasingly monopolized by the president and his party. He goes to some lengths to underscore the fact that his ambitions begin and end in the city of Buenos Aires, but when asked if this is a message intended for the president, he quickly ripostes, “It’s not my job to calm [President Nestor] Kirshner.”

But one aspect notably missing from Telerman’s tsoris is any mention of his Jewishness — or, in this Catholic nation, anything to do with religion. Perhaps it can be chalked up to the cosmopolitan melting pot that is Buenos Aires, or perhaps to the cheerful assertiveness of this unlikely mayor. Smiling, he says he is looking forward to once again donning his “kippe” and heading off to the municipal menorah at Plaza San Martin for the first midsummer night of Hanukkah.

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