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THE CANADIAN JEWISH NEWS    February 9, 2006 and The National Post

A tour of Jewish Buenos Aires – with love


Special to The CJN

BUENOS AIRES — First we meet for coffee. In Buenos Aires, where cafés dot every corner and frequently appear mid-block too, little is discussed without a bracing shot of caffeine. My contact for a personal tour of the city’s Jewish sites, Salito “little Sal” Gutt, is a most genial fellow, whose tours express his knowledge of, and love for, the city where he was born and raised. Like all Argentines, Salito has known hard economic times. After two successful years in New York (following in his father’s footsteps, his area of expertise was sewing machine mechanics), he decided that “money is important, but not enough for my life.” So he returned home to his beloved Buenos Aires. Facing new competition from Asia, he switched from sewing machines to importing, but a plummeting local economy coupled with punishing exchange rates defeated him. “I discovered I am poor.” He grins. What to do? ”I have my car. I speak English.” Thus began Salito’s personalized tours; after two years, at the suggestion of American friends, he began specializing in Jewish Buenos Aires. Salito’s family story, like so many in this country, begins with immigration. After fleeing persecution in Ukraine, his grandparents arrived in Buenos Aires in 1923. “The doors were open,” their grandson says simply. Life was good for many in the early 20th century; the country and its capital, Buenos Aires, the “Paris of the Americas,” became home to the largest Jewish community in the New World after New York, numbering half a million at its peak. But recent times have proven more perilous. In 1992, the Israeli Embassy was bombed and, in ’94, a powerful explosion targeted the Jewish Community Centre, AMIA. Deaths from the first attack numbered 29, from the second, 85. Hundreds more were injured. Today, the Jewish community numbers around 250,000 with 166,000 in Buenos Aires, but fear of a third attack is not the reason behind the reduced numbers. Rather, the economy in the early part of the new century proved too challenging, with hyperinflation, currency devaluation, and the freezing of bank accounts by the state. Even today, as things return to normal, many portenos (port dwellers, as city dwellers are nicknamed) seem a bit shellshocked. Thousands of Jews took up offers from Israel and departed; others left for Miami, Spain and Canada. But not Salito Gutt. This is his city, a city of stories, and at last he has found the perfect job. Our tour begins, with Salito behind the wheel, frequently wandering off-topic, then returning to his main theme, with a dramatic, “Let’s focus!” He delivers his overview – “This is the story, not literal what I’m telling you” – of the late 19th-century efforts of an Austrian, Baron de Hirsch, to rescue European Jews and settle them in the countryside, “in the middle of nowhere.” Many of the new communities failed, since most Jews had no background in farming, having not been allowed to own land in Europe.

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This story concludes with our first stop: the memorial to the 1992 Israeli Embassy attack, on a corner in the upscale Ricoletta neighbourhood. A section of the original wall remains exposed; a moat of stones surrounds us; the names of the dead are listed on a plaque; and two rows of shady “tilo” trees provide shade for the victims – not all of whom were Jewish, but included neighbours and passersby. The new embassy, on the 10th floor of an office building, is well secured, as are all Buenos Aires Jewish sites. No picture taking of exteriors is permitted and advance permission is necessary (with passport numbers) for entry to religious or community institutions. This shady embassy memorial is popular for quiet contemplation all year. At 3 p.m. every March 17, the anniversary of the 1992 bombing is observed. Salito recounts one particularly sad occasion when a tearful young girl, aged 16, who lost her mother here when she was only six, asked why this had happened. Where was justice? No one could answer her. After the 1994 bombing, a group called the Active Memory Movement started meeting in front of the Supreme Court every Monday at 9.30 a.m., “for justice and prayer.” . We next pull up outside the downtown Reform temple, the “Libertad,” a lovely old building, where  Salito warns me not to take photos lest my camera be seized. Then we’re off to the bustling old Jewish business district of Once (pronounced on-say), its streets lined with small businesses – many with mezuzot on the entrances – most selling clothing or cloth by the metre. The neighbourhood is also home to a half-dozen kosher restaurants and several bakeries; a nearby shopping mall offers a kosher McDonald’s. Looking in vain for a free parking spot, Salito jokes, “Moshe parted the Red Sea, maybe he could find me a parking spot?” No such luck. Under a brilliant sun, we park in a lot and head over to the well-secured, thriving new AMIA centre, one of four community centres in the city.

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Afterward, Salito takes me to into a beautiful old Conservative temple, the Paso St. Synagogue. The 1919 building is a gem, exquisite with old woodwork, stained-glass windows, marble and brass, and the interiors lit with large antique chandeliers. “I was bar-mitzvahed in this place,” says Salito, “and each time I come here – maybe once a week – I remember being small and standing here, my father and grandfather nearby and my mother and grandmother on the first floor throwing me candies, for a sweet life.” As the premier Spanish-speaking Jewish community in the New World, Buenos Aires became a centre for translation from Hebrew into Spanish. Holy books translated into Spanish are still exported from here all over Latin America. There are religious schools too. Salito adds, with pride, “Rabbis, cantors, mohels, we also export them.” He shows me the daily service written in phonetic Spanish (as well as Hebrew and Spanish) for those who never learned Hebrew, another rarity.

For more information, contact Salito’s Tours: ; Sigal’s Bookstore: Av. Corrientes 2854, (1193) Buenos Aires  


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