Mi Buenos Aires judío: "Once"  

AMIA Jewish Community in Argentina

The title of the exhibition, literally: My Jewish Buenos Aires, is a wordplay related to “Mi Buenos Aires querido”, a tango sung by the iconic Carlos Gardel. The exhibition itself is comprised of four parts and explores the diverse history of the urban Jewish community in the City of Buenos Aires. Its streets contain physical evidence and subtleties of its presence and a story that is still being written.

Although the Jewish immigrants and their families settled in many of the neighborhoods of the city, seven in particular are the most representative. The first important settlement was around Lavalle Square in the 19th century. With time, the settlement expanded towards Once, Boca-Barracas, Villa Crespo and Flores, and later to the more contemporary areas of Palermo and Belgrano.

This unit refers to the neighborhood of “Once” and it is completed by three other parts:
The first neighborhood
Between "knishes" and "burekas"
Sites to remember and honor

“The Once"
By 1910, the growth in population in the city and the changes in the urban landscape led the Jewish presence westwards, to the neighborhood known as “Once” (eleven in English), called that way because it was the location of “11 de Septiembre” terminal of the Railway. 

Under clouds like gray fur
The sun slowly rises in Plaza Once.
Solitary sleepers,
Crouched on benches of night and stone
Hate the green glow of lamps
On the branches moving with the wind.
They abhore daylight.

A fragment of the Poem "Amanecer en Plaza Once" (“Dawn in Once Square”) by Kehos Kliguer.
Adapted from the Spanish translation by Perla Sneh, originally written in Yiddish

Corrientes Ave. turned into the “Jewish Street”. The center of Jewish life in the City of Buenos Aires started expanding between the streets of Córdoba and Pueyrredón, to the North and West, and Callao and Rivadavia to the South and East. The different nuances of culture and religion of the Ashkenazi Jews from Eastern Europe and Sephardic Jews from the Middle East were palpable in any given block, where they coexisted.

It was near this lively “Jewish Street” that AMIA’s headquarters opened on Pasteur 600 in 1894. In those days it was known as Chevrah Kedushah (The Society of Burrials). Over its more than a hundred years of history, it has stood out as the beacon institution for the community in terms of social, cultural and educational community service.

Israel: A Dream Becomes True

When the Independence of the State of Israel was proclaimed, there was a sense of cathartic excitement that could be felt on the streets of the neighborhood. This also happened when it was officially recognized by the Government of Argentina, seven months later.

On February 17, 1949, I presided as a Liaison Officer a public ceremony to celebrate the Argentinian recognition of the State of Israel, which took place in the Liaison’s Office on Larrea 744, and during which I raised the flag of Argentina together with the flag of Israel.

A fragment of the text by poet Carlos M. Grünberg, published in Davar Magazine.

The landscape of the neighborhood changed with the creation of synagogues, schools, social community centers, editorial offices, libraries, bookstores, restaurants and social-sports clubs.

With Jewish families living so closely to one another, all the institutions and spaces that would complement their everyday life and their leisure moments were built around the area.

Not infrequently, late into the night and after a long day of profound identification with the universality of Christian life in the big city and the nation, I tend to feel a morbid necessity for ghetto life. This is when I immerse myself in the café on Corrientes where, amongst the noise of tea glasses and the arguments between neighbors, I contemplate the crowds commuting as an avalanche in that fabulous and weird world. The mysterious attraction towards all things Jewish is then satisfied as if I had just returned from a trip to Warsaw, Bucharest, Odessa.

A fragment from the text "Scholem Aleijem" by Alberto Gerchunoff.

A halo that Once will undoubtedly leave behind in history is the combination of the noisy voices of the merchants and the silence of the streets filled with synagogues. What I like about it is that these two atmospheres are not mutually exclusive, but complementing. Business and religion are not separate things in the Jewish tradition: man needs to work and trade to be able to live, and religion offers the ethos needed to carry out business with merchandise and not blood, with words and not with blows, with limits and not with theft.

A text by Marcelo Birmajer, from the book El Once un recorrido personal.

Flavors from My Neighborhood

The cafes and bars have always been spaces where the bohemian Jewish style of Buenos Aires flourished, together with the unforgettable flavors of tradition. León Paley’s “Bar Internacional” on Corrientes 2317, the famous "Confitería Comercial", owned by Mr. Alter Karpovsky, on Corrientes between Junín and Uriburu, or Mendel Szmedra’s deli shop on Uriburu between Lavalle and Tucumán are all part of the legend of “porteña” Jewish life that lives in the memory of everyone who was lucky enough to enjoy it or hear stories about it.

There are compact groups in the hallway merrily conversing while standing, just like in the lobby of a theater. From the back counter, the cashier screams out names of clients receiving phonecalls. Just like in a family! The vapors, the whispers, the words in Yiddish, the tinkling of cutlery and glassware, fill our guests with distant, undefined memories.

An extract from Los rebeldes y los perplejos by Samuel Pecar.

The Jewish Press

For decades, written press was one of the most effective ways of sharing information, creating a sense of belonging and reflecting the intensity and diversity of community life for the Jewish immigrants. The main publishing offices were born in Once.

Jewish journalism was truly prolific and far reaching. Over 400 publications in different formats took form throughout over a century and a half to account for the diverse ideologies, topics and linguistic styles.

The bookstore Sigal on Corrientes and Pueyrredón was founded in 1930 and it was named “Heritage Site” by the Secretariate of Culture of the Government of Buenos Aires in 2003.

The Theaters

On the earlier days of the 20th century, Yiddish theater was a very popular arena for the community. Most theaters were located in Once, and attended by crowds willing to enjoy a repertoire of plays related to Jewish life and universal literature in their mother tongue. The frequent presence of world renowned artists ensured full houses in the Excelcior, Ombú, IFT and Soleil theaters, all located along Corrientes Ave.

The neighborhood also gave birth to the “Jewish Gardel”, Jevel Katz, who lived and died on Paso 600. His wake took place in the Society of Jewish Actors and it was attended by a moving crowd who wanted to honor him. Newspapers reported it was the biggest collective expression, only smaller to that observed five years earlier, with the passing of Carlos Gardel. Throughout his ten years of career in Buenos Aires, he wrote and composed the music of approximately 500 plays on Jewish life in Buenos Aires.

If you walk along Corrientes, endless Jewish stores you shall see
Cafes filled with people like a procession of Rabbi followers
Playing dominoes and dice they enjoy time
Far more merchants than customers,
A few benches and too many presidents
They vote, they make up lists and they quarrel like women…

"Vi khsidim baym Rebn" ("Like a procession of Rabbi follower"), song by Jevel Katz.
Adapted from the Spanish translation by Eliahu Toker, originally written in Yiddish.

Tragic Times

Life in the neighborhood also had its share of hardships and pain. In January 1919, during what is known as the “Tragic Week”, Once was one of the main stages of the barbaric behavior observed in Buenos Aires. A workers’s strike was violently contained by parapolice groups who came after Jews with particular fury and hatred. The neighborhood was filled with death, and Jewish homes and institutions were violently attacked.

The overpopulated and colorful Once also had its brothels, some run by Jewish pimps. It was the brave Raquel Liberman who reported this dark organization to the police, the community’s rejection also played its part in achieving its dissolution and punishment for the roughnecks.

When I was young in Warsaw I heard some bloodcurdling tales about Buenos Aires. That small cars roamed the streets of Warsaw to capture young girls. That a pimp would trick poor or orphan girls and take them to a basement and try to pervert them with promises, cheap jewelery and, if they did not accept to become prostitutes he would beat them down […]. Today Warsaw is just ruins and I am in Buenos Aires, precisely in the neighborhood where the stories behind these tales took place.

A fragment of the tale “Hanka”, by Isaac Bashevis Singer.

The streets of the neighborhood also witnessed Nazi ideology in some sectors of society, as well as anti-Semitic actions by nationalist groups.

The regime that took power after the coup in 1976 kidnapped and disappeared thousands of people and was particularly violent against Jewish prisoners. Particularly pursued for being Jews, they were tortured even more cruelly and the interrogators used Nazi symbols and slogans during the questionings.

July 18, 1994, 9.53 AM

On July 18, 1994, AMIA’s whole building was destroyed by a terrorist attack. 85 people were killed, and hundreds were injured.

AMIA reopened its building in 1999, and continues to actively promote the continuity of Jewish life in the nation and support a plural coexistence as members of the Argentinian society.

The explosion created a new urban expression: the piles. For security reasons and as per new official rules, every Jewish institution in all the neighborhoods of the city and throughout the whole country had to protect their fronts with all sorts of defense materials. Since then, what was thought to be a temporary measure, has turned into an indelible mark in the urban landscape that reminds us continuously of the lack of resolution of the terrorist attack.

Three tragedies that would profoundly shake our society took place very few blocks away from one another. Three wounds that would decisively impact our society and are recalled through deeply felt homages: the Terrorist Attack against AMIA, the Fire in the nightclub República Cromañón and the Tragedy at the Railway Station of Once.

The complex structure of a big city like Buenos Aires changes with time. Some sites preserve their original appearance as a testimony of the passage of time. Yet others appear transformed, and only pictures and imagination allow us to truly appreciate them in their whole historical dimension. And then there are those new urban spaces that contribute their own mark to centuries of history.
Today, the Jewish Community of Argentina is the sixth largest in the world, and it contributes its best to the country and its society through its multiple institutions.

AMIA Jewish Community in Argentina
Credits: Story

Curation and texts — Ana E. Weinstein, Director of the "Marc Turkow" Center of Documentation and Information on Argentine Judaism, AMIA
Curation and digital production assistant — Gabriel Feldman, Assistant at the "Marc Turkow" Center of Documentation and Information on Argentine Judaism, AMIA
Adviser — Gabriel Scherman, Director of the Communication and Press Division, AMIA
Translation into English — Mariana Gelaf
Photos — Photo Archive of the "Marc Turkow" Center of Documentation and Information on Argentine Judaism, AMIA, Archivo General de la Nación, Daniel Caldirola (published in the book Retratos de una comunidad. Idea, production and general direction: Elio Kapszuk. AMIA, 2005), Sebastián Kirszner, Leonardo Kremenchuzky, Silvana Luverá, Mundo Israelita, Alicia Segal, Manrique Zago.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.