From the wine country of Mendoza to Buenos Aires’ cobblestoned barrios, Argentina is full of Jewish stories.
The South American nation, after all, has the biggest Jewish population in Latin America; its capital, Buenos Aires, is the 16th most-Jewish city in the world by population. For American travelers, Argentina is a compelling destination to explore the stories that comprise a rich, savory Jewish heritage, since Jews remain a vital presence throughout Argentine society — not only in big cities, as is often the case in Europe, but also on ranches and vineyards.
“You can find Jews in every facet of the Argentine life: actors, filmmakers, artists, politicians, chefs, even gauchos (cowboys),” said porteña (Buenos Aires native) Judith Golimstok, who leads heritage tours with Jewish Adventure Argentina. Golimstok’s own grandparents escaped pogroms and Russian Army conscription, fleeing to the Argentine capital and founding a Jewish school.
Her tour company partner, Valeria Duek, is the descendant of Syrian Jews who settled in Rosario — Argentina’s third-largest city — and Once, a traditionally Jewish barrio of Buenos Aires.
Jewish travelers have more options than ever to explore Jewish heritage in the Southern Cone, the name given to the southernmost areas of South America. A growing number of tour operators, both native and international, offer various ways to experience the land of tango, dulce de leche … and South America’s only kosher McDonald’s.
It helps that there’s virtually no bad time of year to visit. Dotted with palm trees, Argentina is blessed with a near-perfect climate of mild, sunny winters and summers that never get too hot.
Currency trends are another strong incentive. For years, an American dollar bought roughly three Argentine pesos. Now it buys nearly 60. “The Argentine Jewish community, like other Argentineans, is resilient,” reflected Golimstok. “We have to be resilient to survive the constant ups and downs of the Argentine economy.”
Every journey into Argentine Jewry starts in the iconic capital of Buenos Aires, a beguiling, sometimes overwhelming megacity of radically diverse neighborhoods. The capital’s main thoroughfare, Avenida 9 de Julio is the widest street in the world, 14 frenetic lanes across. Buenos Aires city blocks are similarly supersized: What looks like a five-minute walk on the map can easily take 20.
Yet the narrow, cluttered streets of Once, B.A.’s historic Jewish barrio, feel oddly reminiscent of New York’s Lower East Side, packed with mom-and-pop garment shops, groceries and hole-in-the-wall eateries. “I like to call it the Promised Land, a place where you can find many different things and get very good deals,” laughed Golimstok. Years ago, her own grandparents, like other Ashkenazim from Eastern Europe, were called rusos — “Russians” — by the locals to distinguish them from their Italian, German and Spanish neighbors here.
Once and the surrounding downtown neighborhoods were, in fact, a parallel scene to New York, circa 1910: small Jewish-owned factories, a flourishing Yiddish press and theater scene, Zionist organizations, Jewish hospitals and cultural centers. Between the late 1800s and World War II, B.A.’s swelling Jewish congregations built a collection of elegant synagogues.
For Ben Robbins, director of Bespoke Kosher Travel, these lavish temples — architecturally diverse, like the Moorish-style Gran Templo Paso — are the highlight of a Jewish Buenos Aires trip. “They’re a must see,” said Robbins, who customizes kosher tours from a London home base. His most popular itinerary, typically for groups of 10 or more, involves two nights in Buenos Aires, two nights on a cruise and another three nights back in Buenos Aires to explore neighborhoods, hit the tango halls and mingle with Jewish locals.
Authentic contact with locals is a highlight of contemporary tours. Golimstok’s partner, Duek, create experiences for Jewish Adventure Argentina participants, showcasing the living culture as well as a 500-year heritage. Duek might take visitors to cook empanadas at a Jewish nursing home, join Shabbat dinner in a resident’s home, and learn beginner tango moves at a “milonga,” a salón for amateur enthusiasts. The pair also coordinates glatt kosher meal delivery to the main tourist destinations in Argentina, with a 15-person minimum.
Several of Duek’s must-see B.A. sights are relatively new. They include the Shoah National Monument, which opened in 2016, and several landmarks that commemorate the 1994 bombing of Buenos Aires’ Jewish Community Center (AMIA), which killed 85 and still reverberates psychically in a region with its share of anti-Semitism. “At the renewed subway station Pasteur-AMIA, not only the name AMIA was added, but a number of Argentinean illustrators donated their work in tribute to the victims,” said Duek. She also takes visitors to see tribute murals located at the nearby Hospital de Clínicas.
Many tours venture beyond Buenos Aires to include Iguazú Falls, the stunning waterfall at the confluence of Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil. Another popular stop is El Calafate, a tourist town and gateway to the famous shimmering blue glaciers of Patagonia, in Argentina’s frozen south. The culturally minded taste malbecs in the shadows of the Andes in Mendoza, the heart of Argentine wine country.
South America cruise passengers might consider a shore excursion to Buenos Aires and/or Montevideo. One such offering is with Milk & Honey Tours, a Berlin-based outfit that specializes in bringing Jewish heritage alive through stories like that of Crypto-Jews who escaped the Spanish Inquisition for the New World; the celebrity conductor Daniel Barenboim, who was born in Argentina; and the Syrian Jews who built the onion dome on Buenos Aires’ Or Torah Synagogue.
The Jewish Museum in Manhattan, which leads art-focused adventures, is also heading south this spring with “Jewish Art & Culture in South America: Buenos Aires & Rio de Janeiro.” Led by Darsie Alexander of the Museum’s curatorial team, the eight-night April 2020 trip contrasts two vibrant Jewish artistic communities. In Buenos Aires, travelers will tour the working studios of artists in the Jewish Museum collection; in Rio, highlights include the House Museum of Brazilian collector and philanthropist Eva Klabin, one of the largest classical art collections in Brazil, with over 2,000 works spanning Ancient Egypt to Impressionism.