Named not in hubris but in honor and memory of Austin M. Wright, who taught me critical thinking, and his teacher, Wayne Booth, who coined the phrase.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Two Views of Tykocin

My father’s cousin, Morris Biales, was raised in the town of Tykocin (“Tiktin,” in Yiddish).  He emigrated at age 13, became a vice president of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, and died in 1997 at age 100.  He lived longer into my adulthood that anyone else in that generation of my father’s family.

Tykocin, about 105 miles northeast of Warsaw and 45 miles from the Russian border, was the town where almost everyone in my father’s extended family lived and left around 1900.  In the Pale of Settlement, it was part of the lands that were contested by the Russians, the Prussians, and the Austrians.

In a 1994 oral history, Morris Biales described the relationship between Jews and Gentiles:  “In Tiktin, we lived in peace with the goyim.”  He recounted his memory of the annual Kol Nidre service.  Between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Tiktin’s Jews would mow the cemetery, carry the clippings into the synagogue, and spread the sweet-smelling grass on the dirt floor.  Then everyone – including the non-Jewish town officials – would stand side-by-side and listen to the beautiful chanting of the chazzan.

Tykocin is visited today by thousands of young Jews from the U.S., Israel, and South Africa who go on the “March of the Living” and other programs designed to nurture a love of Israel.  Tykocin’s great synagogue, a beautiful baroque structure built in 1642, remains much as it was:  prayers are painted on the walls because not everyone had a prayerbook. 

It is a destination today, however, for a different reason.  In September 1939, the German Army invaded Poland and captured the land around Tykocin; a few weeks later they passed it into Soviet hands.  In June 1941, the Germans invaded again and encouraged the non-Jewish residents of the town to loot the Jews’ property and give it to the Germans. 

On August 25, 1941, the Germans ordered the Jews to gather at the market square for resettlement in a nearby ghetto.  Instead 3,000 men, women, and children were taken to a forest, forced to dig their own mass graves, and then executed by SS firing squads.  The Tykocin massacre was the first of many that the Germans were to repeat in other area towns.

The March of the Living visit to Tykocin is preceded by a visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau.  The narrative of these teen trips is that Poland was a killing ground and Israel, where they go after Poland, is the land where the Jewish people was reborn out of the ashes.

This is not my narrative, and it is the reason I have been involved with the Forum for Dialogue Among Nations.  The Forum has had some success in arranging opportunities for Jewish and Polish teenagers to engage in dialogue about their shared history, but it’s not a high priority for those bringing groups to Poland, because it is not in their narrative. 

The Forum’s Schools for Dialogue program that I described in a previous blog at least can help Poland’s teenagers – and their parents and friends and relatives and fellow townspeople – grow in understanding.  Learning in depth about the role of Jews in their communities will help them become educated and compassionate citizens of the world. 

Why should we care?

Poland’s economy is growing:  it was the only member of the European Union to avoid the recent recession.  Poland’s college and high school students are part of a global workforce that will be encountering others and shaping their communities wherever they settle.  Poland is a democracy and an important strategic partner of the United States and Western governments.  Poland is a loyal supporter and partner of Israel. 

Based on the narrative of my family, I believe that it is possible for Jewish and Polish people to stand together and listen to beautiful music.   It happened in Tykocin.  It has been happening for 20 years in Krakow at the Jewish Cultural Festival.  With the help of the Forum for Dialogue Among Nations, it can happen throughout Poland.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Snow on Sunflowers

Those who have been to sun-washed Tuscany, close your eyes.  You see the sunflowers, the fields of lavender, the grape arbor where you had lunch.  You wandered around Florence, drinking in the art and savoring the gelato and were so grateful to return at the end of the day to your air-conditioned room.

I know that when I say we are spending one weekend a month in Florence while we are living here in Italy, that’s what you’re thinking.

Change your mind’s eye instead to Chicago in January.

Imagine that your train gets into the station and there is chaos.  One hundred smokers are lined up waiting for taxis that do not appear.  All the city buses have gathered at the station with their LED signs blinking “Fuori Servizio” (out of service).  All flights are canceled.

The wind is whipping in your face.  The snow is falling at a rate of more than one inch an hour.  It started as rain mixed with snow; then everything froze. You have no choice but to tramp carefully through the slush and ice for the two miles to your hotel with your luggage.  Between stopping to wipe your nose, clean your glasses, and re-up the balance on your cellphone, it takes you 75 minutes.

There is not a plow to be seen, nor a shovel.  People are cleaning their windshields with index cards.  Restaurant owners are fighting the snow with cookie sheets.  The cobblestone streets are filled with 4” of slush.  Abandoned cars, motorcycles, and tourist buses on all the bridges have paralyzed traffic.  The road to Sienna is closed.  Later you learn that in beautiful sunwashed Tuscany, people spent 20 hours in their cars waiting to be rescued.

So when “Biggest snow since 1985 blasts Florence, Italy,” mio marito and I felt fortunate that our hotel was in walking distance, that our room was warm, and that we had dry clothes.  Unfortunately, congregants who lived out of town couldn’t get in, and congregants who lived in town couldn’t get around.  Most of the museums and even the churches closed.  The restaurants were open.  After all, this is Italy.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

I'm Jewish? Now what?

The opportunities I had to meet with young Polish Jews were highlights of my recent trip to Poland with the Forum for Dialogue Among Nations.

On our first full day of meetings, we met with Karina Sokolowska-Folwarczny, Country Director of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.  (Karina is married to Andrzej, who directs the Forum; they met after both were involved with their respective organizations.)

The “Joint,” as it is known, is the primary funder of many of the Jewish communal activities in Poland, as it is in the FSU and many other areas.  In addition to supporting traditional programs – primarily social services and kosher kitchens that provide meals for elderly and needy Jews – it also helps the growing community of young Poles who are discovering and/or want to learn about their Jewish backgrounds. 

Karina herself is an example.  She grew up knowing she was Jewish; her grandparents had met in camps and returned to the German area of Poland.  During the Communist era – from the end of World War II until 1989 – Judaism became an underground religion like others.  In college in the 1990s she joined a Jewish student organization, and that was the beginning of her public identification. 

How many other Jews are there in Poland? 

No one knows for sure.  Michael Shudrich, the chief rabbi of Poland, with whom we also met, notes that 350,000 were left in Poland at the end of the Second World War, and 5,000 are now registered with the community. 

On its website, the Joint estimates 12,000.  Karina Sokolowska-Folwarczny told us that an organization of “hidden children” now numbers 1,000+.  In addition, Sochnut, the Jewish Agency, sponsors an annual trip to Israel for Polish youth between the ages 18-26.  For 7-8 years, two trips each year have taken 60 young people who have had to prove a connection to Judaism.

The phenomenon of “hidden children” was fascinating to our group.  Deathbed confessions by people now in their 60s and 70s are common.  There are many versions of very similar stories. 
  • An elderly person – more often a woman, because girls were easier to hide and “pass” – was adopted by a non-Jewish family, and raised as a Catholic but told at some point she was born Jewish.
  • Even with that knowledge, the person either continued to practice Catholicism because it was their religion or – in the face of Communist anti-Semitism – hid their roots from their spouses and children.
In addition to the descendants of hidden children are Poles whose ancestors survived because they themselves hid or disguised or denied their Jewish roots.

Yale Reisner, a researcher at Warsaw’s Jewish Historical Institute, also spoke to us of this phenomenon.  On the average of once a week someone calls or comes to the Institute with a similar story.  “My mother has only a few months to live, and last week she told me that her parents were Jews.”  They want to know what to do next.

Some Poles make the discovery themselves and then confront their relatives; this was the case of a young journalist who found his family’s unique name and town on the popular Jewish genealogical website, while he was browsing the Internet late one night.

(This is not only a Polish phenomenon.  Last week, we spent five days in Brussels as guests of the International Jewish Center, Belgium’s only English-speaking Liberal Jewish community and a member of the World Union for Progressive Judaism.  At the Jewish Museum of Belgium, we learned about the constantly increasing number of Belgians who learn late in life that their parent was one of the enfants caches.)

We met that young Polish journalist who found his family on the Web not because of his past, however, but because of the choice he has made about his future:  to live a Jewish life in Krakow.  Much of that active life is focused around the Centrum Spoleczności Żydowskiej w Krakowie, the Jewish Community Centre of Krakow, in Kazimierz, the old Jewish quarter.  Dedicated in 2008 by Prince Charles, the Centre is directed by incredibly energetic New Yorker Jonathan Ornstein, who also has become a permanent resident.

A few blocks away, at the Żydowskie Muzeum Galicja – the Jewish Museum of Galicia – our guide was an educational specialist from Nashville, a young Jewish woman whose father I know, coincidentally.  She too plans to stay in Poland.

We met many, many other Jews like these, from Poland and other countries, who are building active communities in Warsaw, Krakow, and Lodz.  Poland’s annual Limmud – an annual adult education program that has been spreading throughout Europe from country to country for 30 years – attracted 640 eager learners to Warsaw in November.

An American expatriate I met in Brussels commented, “When you live in the U.S., you tend to think of everything in Europe in terms of past history.  When you live in Europe, you realize that history is part of your life every day.”

And this is the message of the Forum for Dialogue Among Nations.  Our history as Jews, and/or as Poles, is very much a part of today.  How we respond has the power to shape tomorrow. 

* * *

As I write, Garrison Keillor is telling me that today is the 151st anniversary of the birth of Ludwig Lazarus Zamenhof, inventor and advocate of the use of the international language Esperanto.  He died in Warsaw on April 14, 1917.  I photographed his grave when we were in Warsaw’s Jewish cemetery.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

A Venetian Giorno del Ringraziamento

Several months ago, when we knew we would be in Milan for Thanksgiving, we invited friends from London to visit us for the holiday.  They countered with a suggestion that the four of us meet in Venice.  Why not?

So we made our plans to stay at a hotel near Piazza San Marco that was included in their package.  I didn’t expect to find turkey and all the sides, but I did discover a restaurant named Osteria La Zucca – “The Pumpkin” – where I thought Thanksgiving dinner would be an interesting experience.

A few weeks ago, I began to read in the paper about flooding in the Veneto – the Italian region where Venice is located – and that’s when I learned about alta acqua, “high water.”

I should have learned more.  While it was a pleasure to be in Venice when relatively few other tourists were there, the high waters did impact us.  When I asked at the hotel desk on the first afternoon if alta acqua was coming soon, he said that if we returned to the hotel by 10:30 p.m., we’d be fine.  About 10, we walked to Piazza San Marco and found it filling up like a formerly empty swimming pool.

The next morning, when we assumed the waters would have receded, we instead found our way blocked in several directions by standing sewer water that was as much as 8” deep in places, depending on the pitch of the sidewalk.

What we also didn’t know was that the time of alta acqua changes daily. Our friends were leaving on Thursday, Thanksgiving Day, around 2 p.m.  We took a long walk in the morning and stopped on the sunny shore for a snack. 

On the way back to our hotel so our friends could pick up their luggage, we had to walk on the gangplanks that the city sets up for people to make their way over the water.  When the gangplanks came to an end, however, our path was blocked by deep water.  I led everyone back and tried another route:  also blocked.

Finally our friend, claiming she had been raised in a boarding school where conditions were far worse, gave me her shoes and long coat (it was quite cold), and waded through water up to her knees; about 10 minutes later she returned with the luggage in hand.

At that moment, two other Englishwomen on their way out of town offered our friends their waders.  If you don’t want to buy boots, Venetians will sell you bright blue plastic bags with soles.  Thus our friends could reach the quay where their water taxi would take them to the airport.

We continued our sightseeing and had dinner without confronting any more acqua alta that day.  On Friday morning, the concierge assured us that if we left our hotel by 10 a.m. we would be fine.  When the siren went off about 9:20 a.m., however, we headed immediately to the train station.  My caution was not in vain:  water around the hotel was already about 2” deep, and it was raining.  We had a long wait at the train station (no benches) but we felt like lucky refugees when we finally got on the warm dry train and headed west toward the snow-capped Dolomites on our way back to Milan.

The meal
We knew that La Zucca emphasized local fresh vegetables, and we were not disappointed.  The highlights were two primi piatti:  tagliatelle with gorgonzola and pistachios, and divine roasted artichoke hearts; and the contorni:  leeks baked with a crispy parmesan crust, an eggplant and pepper flan; and the dolce:  pear mousse with chocolate sauce.  Though we were in the first seating, the lamb chops were gone, so I ate my first guinea fowl and decided I prefer roasted turkey, and not just for Thanksgiving.  

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

A Week in Poland Is Not Enough

For nearly ten years, I have been involved with Forum for Dialogue Among Nations, an NGO (Non-Governmental Organization) founded by Andrzej Folwarczny, a former member of the Polish parliament, to promote Polish-Jewish relations.

Andrzej, who is not Jewish, is painfully aware that many Jews blame Poland more than Germany for the Holocaust.  Much of his adult life has been devoted not only to demonstrating this blame is not justified, but also to encouraging both Jews and Poles to understand that the histories of the two peoples are inextricably intertwined.  This is my belief:  that contemporary and recent Jewish history cannot be understood without an understanding of the history of the Polish people, and vice versa.

My involvement enabled me this month to spend a full week in Poland as a guest of the Forum and Poland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  While I went knowing that my personal narrative had shaped my positive feelings, I wanted also to understand the negative feelings on both sides as well as what I could do about them.

I was not disappointed.  Our six days were packed with presentations by government officials and academics; we met over lunch and dinner with young Poles – Jews and non-Jews – who have chosen to make their lives in Poland.  We examined the history – what several scholars referred to as “the two narratives” – and we looked to the future.

One of the high points of my week in Poland was a visit to the regional high school in Chęciny, a participant in the Forum’s impressive “School of Dialogue” program. 

Chęciny was a shtetl town before World War II:  in 1939 Jews represented about 60% of the population, but now there are no more.  As a School of Dialogue, administrators and a team of teachers from the school – as well as the regional officer responsible for education – have made a commitment to educate their students about Jewish life in Chęciny.  The implications of this commitment are wide and deep.

The Forum initiated its program in Warsaw schools and selected university students to be prepared as trainers.  The trainers go to cooperating schools to work with teachers and one class of teenagers who explore the Jewish roots of their town.  A school must agree to devote four full days of classroom time to research and study; at the end, students make a presentation to their families, classmates, and town officials. 

In Chęciny, as in most towns, the students have produced a “walking tour” of the former Jewish sites in the town as well as profiles of people who lived there.  Reality demands that they also research what happened to the Jews of their community in the 20th century and before.  In the cemetery, they found a 13th-century stone that predates the earliest records of Jews in the town. 

Chęciny has gone beyond that:  in addition to an annual three-day festival of Jewish culture, the high school has a relationship with a high school in Israel and students and teachers had visited two weeks earlier, so the Israeli flag still was flying.

Town leaders want to turn the former synagogue, used by the Russians as a stable but now a community center, into a Jewish museum and cultural center.

“Propaganda,” you may be saying.  Nevertheless, the evidence is that dialogue is always more effective than no dialogue! 

The required research includes asking one’s parents and grandparents about their personal histories relative to the Jewish community.  Parents, grandparents, and even great-grandparents of today’s 16-year-olds were born during the 1945-1989 period of Soviet rule of Poland, an era marked by official anti-Semitic policies.

This 44-year Russian occupation of Poland is just one of the facts that shape the Polish narrative. 
  • Another is that when the Germans invaded Poland in September 1939 they captured and killed 20,000 Polish intellectuals. 
  • The Soviets “finished” the job at Katyn, a massacre for which the Russian parliament just took responsibility a few days ago. 
  • Hitler’s plan for the Polish non-Jews – leaderless and mostly uneducated peasants – was to create a slave labor force of untermenschen (sub-humans).
  • More officially designated “Righteous Gentiles” are from Poland than any other country in Europe.

While Jews were killed primarily by the Germans, the Polish people accept and share responsibility.  Their atonement has taken many forms over the years, both public and private.  Studying the Holocaust is part of the required curriculum; cities and towns have given land and erected memorials; countless exchange programs, including the Forum, have been funded by the government. 

The issue of reparations remains unresolved largely, the Poles maintain, because decisions made by the post-War Soviet government complicated the issue.

The implications of the School of Dialogue program are huge.  As Polish students learn about the contribution of Jews to their own communities, their participation reshapes their communities for now and for tomorrow.  “Never again” is not an abstract promise. School of Dialogue – with the Forum’s ambitious goal of expanding the program throughout the country – will ensure a future of mutual understanding. 

Are there Jews in Poland to benefit?  Read my next installment!

Saturday, November 13, 2010

"Living Reform" in Italy

While Reform Judaism in the US prides itself on inclusivity, the Orthodox community in Italy is tightly exclusionary.  The impact on individuals is the saddest part of this story.

In some Italian cities, only children of “community” members are allowed to attend Jewish educational programs.  Decisions about “who is a Jew” in Italy – after a long history of inclusion and acceptance – have become as restrictive and repressive as those in Israel.  Unless one can provide several generations of ketubot to prove one’s mother was Jewish, one will likely be rejected.  People who have been members of the community for years  would not be accepted if they applied today.  How many of us have our great-great grandmother’s ketubah from Poland or Lithuania?

Two weeks ago a student from California found her way to Shabbat services at Shir Chadash, the Progressive congregation in Florence.  A member since childhood of an Orthodox synagogue, she had gone on Kol Nidre to the Great Synagogue in Florence only to be turned away flatly and told no one who was not a member of the “community” was allowed to attend.

A few weeks ago, I sent an email to the main synagogue in Milan, inquiring about the times of Shabbat services.  I never received a response.  Last Saturday morning, we went anyway.  The security agents outside the building didn’t bother me; in fact, in contrast to the grilling we’ve gone through in other cities, it was nothing.

What did bother me – us – was that once inside the building, there was no sign, no person to tell us where to go, how to enter the sanctuary, which of several doors to walk through.  We had been at the synagogue in September for the European Day of Jewish Culture, but we hadn’t come in the same entrance, and it was confusing.

I knew women had to sit upstairs, so I headed there.  In the balcony, I saw no prayerbooks.  A few women were scattered around, mostly in pairs, and they all stared at me.  No one came over.  Finally I went over to one woman who was studying a prayerbook and asked her where they were kept; she pointed vaguely to the other side of the balcony.

We left after an hour.  There were about 80 people there by the time we left, at the end of the rabbi’s sermon:  about 40 men and 40 women.  No one greeted us, no one said “Shabbat shalom” till some teenagers, running into the building as we left, mumbled it to Fred.

Not only is the community unwelcoming.  This past summer, a Chabad rabbi in Milan publicly made the outrageous and totally unfounded charge that Progressive congregation Lev Chadash had served lobster at its seder.  As the battle raged in the Italian media – which couldn’t quite grasp what was happening – he finally retracted his charges around Yom Kippur, but refused to apologize for his preposterous claims.

“We are Orthodox in our traditions,” one member of an old Italian family told me, “but Reform in our daily lives.”  Not really.  Such thinking unfortunately reflects a gross misunderstanding of Reform Judaism.

If the Jews of Italy were truly “living Reform,” they would comprehend and embrace the idea that there is more than one way to be Jewish.

If the Jews of Italy were truly “living Reform,” they would be concerned about the disenfranchisement of other Jews in their midst.

If the Jews of Italy were truly “living Reform,” they would advocate for religious equality of all Jews:  men and women, Ashkenazic and Sephardic, rabbis and lay people.

If the Jews of Italy were truly “living Reform,” they would welcome the non-Jews in their midst, whether married to Jews or seeking a path to spiritual fulfillment through Judaism.

If the Jews of Italy were truly “living Reform,” they would demand religious freedom and cultural pluralism for all Jews.

If the Jews of Italy were truly “living Reform,” they would acknowledge that through community they will strengthen one another.

“Schwer tzu zein a yid.” – It's not easy to be a Jew.  To be a Reform Jew in Italy is to struggle daily with invisibility.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

A Community Divided Against Itself

My husband and I are at the halfway point in our five months of volunteer service to two of the three Progressive Jewish communities in Italy:  Congregazione Beth Shalom in Milan and Shir Hadash in Florence.  We have visited Lev Chadash, here in Milan, also a member of the World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ).  And WUPJ is also trying to grow a group in Rome.

Both congregations we serve are made up of a mix of U.S. and British expatriates and native Italians.  Both congregations include Jews married to non-Jews and Jews-by-choice, many of whom grew up in Italian Catholic families.  Both function, with difficulty, on the edge of the recognized Jewish communities in their cities.

About 50,000 Jews lived in Italy in 1933; 40,000 survived the war.  The European Jewish Congress now estimates the Italian Jewish population to be about 30,000, including a large number of Libyan Jews who came to Italy in the 1960s and 1970s.

The Holocaust is very much a current issue for today’s Jewish community.  Last week, RAI-TV, a state-sponsored channel, showed a docudrama, “Under the Roman Sky,” portraying Pope Pius XII as responsible for saving 10,000 Jews.  Rome's Chief Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni described the series as "junk.

At the same time, there is intense interest in Jewish thought, philosophy, history.  Hardly a day goes by that the Corriere della Sera doesn’t have an article on – to paraphrase Saul Bellow – the Hart, Shaffner, & Marx of contemporary Israeli writers:  David Grossman, Amos Oz, or A.B. Yehoshua.  In fact, yesterday’s Corriere features the new book of Bellow’s letters on its front page, and today’s paper includes a long feature article about I.B. Singer’s The Family Moskat; you don’t find that kind of coverage in The New York Times.
The issue that threatens the community the most is not anti-semitism.  Nor is it intermarriage, which now exceeds 50 percent; nor is it the declining birthrate.

Rather – as Ruth Ellen Gruber wrote in an excellent article this past June – it is “a lack of pluralism and increased Orthodox rigidity in the official community” that is alienating and turning people away.

I have written before about the state of Reform/Progressive Judaism in various countries.  Italy is typical of other European countries.  All citizens have the option to pay a “religious tax” that is then credited to their own religious community, which they designate.  For Jews who are considered part of the “official” Jewish community, these revenues are then returned to the Jewish community via the UCEI (unione delle comunità ebraiche Italiane).  The problem is that the UCEI, though its mission statement claims that it represents the Jews of Italy, doesn’t recognize nor accept all of them.

No money goes to the Progressive congregations in Florence or Milan.  These congregations must shoulder their entire financial burden themselves.  They are not listed on the communities’ websites of Jewish organizations.  They spend much of their energy trying to let people know they exist.  The Internet has helped a bit, but the vast majority of Italian Jews know nothing about Progressive or Reform Judaism.  (To be continued.)

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

A View from the Top

Before moving to Milan, we had seen some snapshots of the views from our windows but I was worried how I would adapt because I’ve spent most of my adult life in green and leafy urban areas.

Of course, I’ve not spent my days with views of the Alps or Milan’s magnificent Duomo, and I needn’t have been concerned about the trees either.  While many Milan streets do not have trees or grass, ours has both.  The most populous tree is the magnificent plane; its leaves turn yellow and then brown but don't fall off so rapidly.

Our 7th floor apartment is in a predominantly residential neighborhood in a block of apartment buildings.  Exceptions:

* on our side of the wide avenue is a gelateria/bakery/bar/snack shop and barber/hairdresser on the ground floor of the building next door

* across the street is a yellow-brick building that takes up an entire city block and is – so far as we can tell – the Milan headquarters of the Italian air force!

Between us and this well-fortified building covered with some pretty fancy electronics is a double row of chestnut trees that reach at least to our 5th floor.  The park-like esplanade down the center of the street is primarily for dog-walking, a popular Milan activity, and for parking.

The balcony on the back of the apartment faces southwest (the center of town and the Duomo) and offers hints not only of the trees on other streets, but a special view of a neighbor’s balcony garden, a very common sight here in Milan.

 And sunsets . . . 

In the fall, mio marito and I typically take a day in the rural parts of Maryland and Virginia to see the fall colors.  This year, friends joined us and we delighted in the change of seasons at Lake Como instead:  not so many jack o’lanterns but the change of seasons is beautiful in its own way.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Perche? Perche.

Our apartment in Milan is on the top floor of a seven-story building near Piazza Novelli, a traffic circle – or round-about – about a three-mile walk from the Duomo, the center of Milan’s concentric circles.

When we arrived in August, half of the Piazza was under construction; the street is torn up and Jersey barriers re-route traffic in both directions around the other side of the circle.  A huge crane is in the center of the piazza.  High fences obstructed our view, so we couldn’t really understand what was happening.  Some days the noise of construction started at 7 A.M.; other days the silence led us to believe nothing was happening. 

In front of our building, we noticed a sign that was easy to translate:  “Work in Piazza Novelli will cause traffic problems from 9/9/2006 to 1/28/09.”

Since it was already 9/15/10, we laughed when we saw the sign, and a few days later, I photographed it.

Perhaps I was photographed in turn by the closed-circuit cameras, because in yet a few more days, we noticed another sign that had been officially altered:  “Diversions caused by work from 9/9/2006 until ... the work is finished.”

Two days after that, the Jersey barriers were completely reconfigured.  The first half of the roadway around the plaza is still fenced in and mostly inaccessible, and it appears that work is about to begin on the other half of the roadway. 

We have learned from neighbors that a 250-space parking lot has been constructed under the Piazza, which will be a great boon to the neighborhood, where people cram cars everywhere, including on the broad sidewalks.

When will it be finished?  When it’s finished!

Last Friday night, about 7:30, huge pieces of machinery arrived and men started to repave the street in front of our building. We suspected this was about to happen because we saw that the next block had been paved the night before, plus “no parking” signs had been tied to all the posts. Nevertheless, it was a bit of a surprise because our street didn’t need repaving, which was pointed out by a letter to the editor the next morning in the Corriere della Sera.

An American who has lived here for 30 years told me that his favorite word in Italian is perchePerche means both “why?” and “because.”  One can have an entire conversation using only this word.  Perche?  Perche.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

To market, to market, to market

Our professoressa at Casa Italiana, where we studied Italian before coming to Milan, taught us about “il mercato rionale,” the local neighborhood market. A Roman, she wasn’t sure if Milan had such markets and, if it did, they surely weren’t as good as Roman ones!

So we were delighted to discover that within two miles of our apartment are at least three local markets on three different days of the week. On Mondays, the biggest of the three fills four blocks of a wide street that is closed for the day, plus it spreads its tendrils onto three perpendicular side streets. Most of the stalls sell clothing, from underwear and socks to coats, dresses, purses, scarves and – at this time of the year – sweaters of every shape, size, and color imaginable. The fruit and vegetable vendors are on the side streets, and here and there housewares, tablecloths and curtains, a woodcarver one week. Other than the produce, about 75% of the items are produced in China, including many of the sweaters.

On Tuesdays, two blocks to the west of our apartment, il mercato rionale is devoted to food, with a little clothing, flowers, housewares, and jewelry thrown in. That street is not closed to traffic, but the stalls line both sides of a wide sidewalk on one side of the street.

This is “our” market, and as is the custom, we have found “our” vendor: a lovely woman, patient with my stumbling Italian, whose selection is outstanding. Surely I cannot be faulted, knowing the word for “tomato,” that I do not know the word for cherry tomato, and what we call “Roma” tomatoes (not what they are called here), and all the six different types of tomatoes she has available one week.

And being able to call a tomato by its right name is important, because here – unlike at home – the custom is not to pick your own produce. That is, you stand in line near the scale, you tell the vendor what you want, they get it and bag it and weigh it, and then you tell them the next item. “Our” vendor is patient enough to follow me around the stand so I can point to the item whose name I cannot remember. I’ve also learned the hard way to be very specific about quantity. Mio marito and I can eat 4 tomatoes before they spoil, but not a kilo!

Our market is a neighborhood market, not on the tourist circuit. This past weekend while in Florence we visited Sant’ Ambrogio, which includes a kosher butcher and some stands with extraordinary displays of produce.

At some of D.C.’s markets, vendors are limited to selling only what they grow, but in Italy, the world is the limit so while most of the produce is from one part of Italy or another, there are pomegranates from Israel and dates from Morocco.

The third market we stumbled on one Thursday. I was frustrated because I wanted to prepare chicken with tarragon, dragoncello, and in two supermarkets and three specialty food stores, we had drawn a blank look. As we passed through this street market, I spotted a woman selling literally dozens of teas and spices, including dragoncello. We call this “the market we don’t go to” because unfortunately the produce vendors are very aggressive, following us down the row with their wares and urging us to buy from them.

The first two weeks, we overbought; I felt like I was spending every minute preparing and cooking produce. Worse, I didn’t want to eat out, knowing that food was waiting at home in our small refrigerator!

Now I’ve become more savvy. While I’ve described only a couple of special meals on this blog, we’ve sampled some other restaurants as well, including two Chinese (much more delicate than in the U.S.) and a fine Indian one. A couple of times we’ve picked up pizzas, which are incredibly inexpensive and delicious, and eaten them at home with our own salad.

Probably five days a week, we eat lunch at home, listening to NPR’s “Morning Edition” on WAMU, one of our D.C. public radio stations, over our laptop. And at least five nights a week we prepare our own dinners: pasta with vegetables, salads, chicken breasts – just like home – but with more olives and fresher cheeses.

Monday, October 4, 2010

The Treasures of Casale Monferrato

Last week we had the great pleasure of visiting the Piedmontese town of Casale Monferrato, about 75 miles from Milan.

“Casale,” as it’s called locally, was on our list of “must-see’s,” but it’s relatively difficult to reach without a car, so we were delighted when we were invited to go for the day with friends. The occasion was the 90th anniversary of Keren Hayesod, which was being marked by the “Keren” chapter of Torino with a guided tour of Casale’s synagogue during Sukkot.

(Keren Hayesod is the Hebrew name – used internationally – for what we in the U.S. know as the United Jewish Appeal. Internationally, “Keren” almost exclusively raises funds for Israel; the UJA serves as an umbrella organization in the U.S. that raises money both for Israel and for local programs.)

The Jewish community of Casale dates back to the 15th century; the Encyclopedia Judaica says the first Jews arrived in the 1430s, though other sources says the community was established when the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492.

Only two Jewish families remain in Casale, though at its height, the community numbered more than 1,000. We had the pleasure of being given a guided tour of the synagogue, built in 1592, by Adriana Ottolenghi. She and her husband Dr. Giorgio Ottolenghi, as well as a representative of the other family, were on hand to greet visitors, as apparently they are on most Sundays, special groups notwithstanding, when dozens of tourists visit the synagogue and its museum.

Many people consider the synagogue to be the most beautiful in Europe. Finer photos of it than I could ever take, as well as more information about the Casale Jewish community, are at  Rabbi Louis Kaplan has written a fine essay about his 2000 visit to the synagogue and includes a history of the Jewish community; you can read it at

The highly embellished Baroque interior is a stark contrast to the nondescript exterior. In accordance with the rules of many European towns and villages, the Jews were allowed to build a synagogue so long as no one knew it was there. The building was not to be distinguished from the outside, nor could music or praying be heard by passersby. That was centuries ago. Today, interestingly, everyone whom we asked for directions sent us the wrong way, not purposely but because they themselves didn’t seem to know how to get there. Even the official tourist information signs were unclear.

The website of the community does not show the charming courtyard where the sukkah appropriately stood next to a pomegranate tree loaded with fruit. On the pavement, the motif was bees, givers of sweetness and light, appropriate to Sukkot as well as other holidays.

Nor does the website do justice to what Mrs. Ottolenghi led us to in the basement of the synagogue complex: dozens of the most creative and picturesque modern Chanukiyot we have ever seen. About 40 were on display out of a collection of more than 100 owned by the community/synagogue/museum. They are about to make their first trip together away from Casale, to the Musee d'Art et d'Histoire du Judaisme in Paris (

You can see a few of these extraordinary menorahs at
They were created by both Jewish and non-Jewish artists out of every material, from BIC pens to sterno cans to silver, crystal, brass, acrylic, film: every possible medium that could represent the unlimited imaginations of the artists. My personal favorite, fashioned from gold-plated wire and wax by Jessica R. Carroll of Rome, replicates the bee motif of the synagogue’s courtyard. Her father, sculptor Robert Carroll, a native of Wisconsin, has carved an eight-branch menorah of olivewood with a brass shamash mounted on an Italian granite base. Celebrate Chanukah early by visiting the website!

* * *
The meal

A day in Piedmont must include, our friends assured us, a typical Piedmontese Sunday lunch, which it was our pleasure to share at Osteria Amarotto in Casale Monferrato.  They should know!  David and Carol Ross, retired U.S. foreign service officers, operate Sophisticated Italy, helping travelers get to know the best of Italy, and they are among the founders of our Milan congregation.

Mio marito and our friends took the prix-fixe menu, which began with a “white meat paté” of chicken and veal; I tasted some and it was superb. That was followed by a small vegetable tart; then tagliatelle in a too-salty broth; then bollito misto. This last dish – a mélange of cuts of beef and veal – boiled together, was served from a rolling cart with several sauces.

I went the à la carte route because I wanted lamb chops, which were tiny and fragrant, and I wanted to try the peperoni bagna cauda after our friends described “bagna cauda” as a hot sauce of olive oil and garlic. Unfortunately they forgot the third major ingredient: anchovies. Mio marito liked it very much, and I was happy with his tartine de verdure. (Lest I seem a picky eater . . . it’s just fish, in most forms, for which I’ve never developed a taste.)

Dessert was two kinds of cake, also akin to patés: one chocolate, one nougat. Heavenly.

Our friends chose a lovely red wine, and for once I drank in mid-day, but only a few sips. I did not want to be sleepy for either the synagogue tour or the promised stop at a cashmere outlet on the way home.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

From Milan at last

Last year for our 36th anniversary, mio marito (my husband) and I took White’s Ferry across the Potomac, visited a winery for a tasting, hit the Leesburg Prime Outlets, and had a so-so dinner at a restaurant in a converted bank.

This year, we rode a packed rush-hour bus to Stazione Centrale di Milano and 30 minutes later by train we were in Pavia, a town of 75,000 about 25 miles south of Milan.

Pavia has gone through multiple incarnations since its founding in pre-Roman times.

Like the Tuscan town of San Gimignano, Pavia is known for its towers. These towers are not attached to buildings but are freestanding and were built by individual families as assertions of power and wealth. At some point, more than a hundred existed; now, three dominate the campus of the University of Pavia. On March 17, 1989, the tower next to Pavia’s Duomo suddenly collapsed, killing four people and rendering the Duomo unsafe for habitation. It is now partially remodeled, but the tower will not be rebuilt.

Interspersed among the towers are several churches that we visited, each more fascinating than the next.

+ The Duomo, partially restored, is only half a church for now, wide and shallow with a temporary wall completely blocking 2/3 of the nave, the transept, and all the other parts of the building.

+ S. Maria Incoronata di Canepanova, built about 1500 on the site of a miraculous vision of Mary, contains oil paintings of eight heroines from the Hebrew bible.

+ Chiesa di San Francesco, a stark medieval church started in 1228, two years after the death of St. Francis of Assisi, with its interesting though faded frescoes everywhere, towers and brickwork.

+ The Basilica di San Teodoro, with its magnificent mural of the patron saint of Pavia on what is essentially a pictographic map of the city as it was about 1525 with the remaining towers still identifiable in 2010.

San Teodoro is near the River Ticino in the center of what was once the fishermen’s living area, and the Jewish ghetto backs on to the church. Rabbi Moses da Pavia lived there during the 11th Century, but the community was at its height at the end of the 15th Century. On several occasions, the Jews were ordered to leave the entire Milanese territory but always managed to delay their expulsion; in 1597, their time ran out.

According to the Jewish Encyclopedia, “The governor then gave the Jews two months in which to depart. He obliged the poor to leave first, giving them an escort of soldiers and 5,000 florins in gold for the expenses of the journey. The majority left the province of Milan after Easter, and the remainder after Pentecost. But two Jewish families were left in Cremona, Lodi, and Alessandria; in Pavia not one Jew remained.”

+ Finally, we visited San Pietro in Ciel d’Oro, a huge basilica named for the gold leaf that formerly covered its ceiling (a “sky of gold”). San Pietro houses the remains of St. Augustine in a magnificent intricately carved marble altarpiece that is the focal point of attention, and the remains of Boethius in a reliquary in the crypt below the altar.

Both of these early Christian philosophers preoccupied me as a graduate student some 40 years ago. Their writings were the centerpiece of a course I took in medieval literature at the University of Cincinnati with Elizabeth Armstrong, who made all these works alive and (most important in those days, “relevant”). In that crypt I thought about how far we were from the Leesburg outlets and how close I was to what moved me.

* * *

“Tell us about the food,” my correspondents plead.

Our special meal that evening was back in Milan, about a mile from our apartment, at Alla Cucina Economica, a slow-food trattoria near the supermercato we visit every Friday. What we hadn’t noticed is that the theme of the restaurant is Barbie. On each table a Barbie doll sits in a soup bowl with a flower; there were various Barbie environments scattered about the dining room; the bathroom had a pile of bloody Barbies!

Like many small restaurants here, this one had only two choices for antipasti, primi (pasta course) and two for secondi (main course). Unfortunately, the two choices for secondi were pork and octopus; fortunately, the octopus had all been consumed by the lunch crowd and replaced by salmon.

Unfortunately, I am not a fish lover and will eat salmon only under conditions of great hunger and/or at a public dinner. Fred was thrilled with the salmon, which he preceded with a dish of barley in some incredibly rich cheese cream sauce; the chef left off the salami garnish.

I took the high-cholesterol vegetarian road, an extraordinary route. My antipasto was a small slice of onion and cheese quiche: surely the best I’ve ever eaten. My main course was risotto with parmesan and a drizzle of balsamic extract.

For dessert, we shared a white chocolate pane cotta. There are people who go from place to place comparing pane cotta; we had never tried it and were swept away by our first taste.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Austin M. Wright, Wayne C. Booth, and the reliable narrator

Dr. Wright (I could never comfortably call him “Austin”) gave me – and any other students who paid attention – nothing less than a way to look at life, not only literature. His method encouraged inquisitiveness and especially critical thinking, and he showed us, rather than told us, how to enter a narrative from any number of points to determine what exactly was the point – or, rather, points. In a way, he spoiled me, ruined forever my ability to look superficially or non-analytically at a short story, a novel, a movie, a play . . . or life.

The stories we tell help us understand and share our lives. We choose our stories, or they choose us. Then we choose the words to describe what we feel and what we think. Our audience matters. When a friend dies, what we say to the family is shaped by whether we are saying it privately or publishing on the Internet. When we listen to others, we judge not only their choice of words but who they are: what we know of them in as many dimensions as we can access. Can we trust their narration?

Dr. Wright’s undergraduate courses at the University of Cincinnati focused on 20th century literature, primarily by American writers. Our judgment was not to be whether they were “good” or “bad” or “interesting” or “boring.” Rather:
• Were they internally consistent?
• Did character, action, setting, dialogue fit together?
• What did they know and when did they know it (a popular question in those Watergate days)?
• Who was telling the story?
• Were the readers getting the whole story?
• Were there elements of the story that made us question or accept what the storyteller was saying?

Later, I came to understand that Dr. Wright’s approach reflected the application of theories of the “Chicago School” of literary criticism. While a graduate student at the University of Chicago after World War II, he taught at Wright Junior College (my father’s alma mater). Wayne Booth taught at Chicago from 1947 to 1950, left, and returned later. In 1961, Wright published The American Short Story in the Twenties; Booth published his landmark The Rhetoric of Fiction, in which he laid out his vision of the relationship between a text and its reader, including the concept of the reliable narrator.

Years later, I joined the administrative staff of the University of Chicago moving, as I noted to Dr. Wright, from one UC to another. My primary responsibility was describing the financial needs of various academic units. I met Wayne Booth, among many others, as I listened to their stories and chose words to shape compelling narratives. That circle of my life closed but has never ended.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Parashat Emor: Who Will Bless the Priests?

My husband, a Reform rabbi, is retiring after 25 years as senior rabbi of Temple Sinai in Washington. Upon the occasion of his retirement (!), the synagogue’s chapter of Women of Reform Judaism invited me to speak for Sisterhood Shabbat. Here is what I said:

When Sisterhood graciously invited me to speak tonight – and I thank you all for this opportunity – it was pretty clear to me that this week’s Torah portion, Emor, part of the Holiness Code, as it is called, has special relevance for me this Shabbat.

This is because Emor spells out certain rules for the priest and his relationship to his family. And it emphasizes that the community’s expectations for the priest are expectations for his family as well. Significantly, it demonstrates that there are two standards: one for the priest and his family, and a different one for everyone else in the community. The punishment for a priest’s daughter who loses her virginity before marriage is a fiery death, because she brings dishonor on the priest. The conventional death for a woman who commits a sexual indiscretion is just plain old stoning.

The priesthood ended when the Temple was destroyed, and rabbis became our teachers and community leaders. A vestige of the special role of priests, however, was and is that rabbis are viewed – and view themselves – as “symbolic exemplars,” in the words of psychologist and rabbi, Jack Bloom, in his 2002 book, The Rabbi as Symbolic Exemplar: By the Power Invested in Me.

As leaders, they retain some semblance of specialness – holiness – if you will.

Most Jews, whether they are affiliated with a congregation or not – unless they are totally hostile to Judaism and the Jewish community – respect rabbis (or at least they should). Most rabbis, in turn, conduct themselves in ways that earn the respect of the community (or at least they should).

This isn’t something I thought much about as I was growing up, and I never thought about rabbis’ families, until I was part of one. Shortly before I married Fred 36 years ago, we attended a rabbis’ meeting in Atlanta, where the only activities for rabbis’ wives were shopping and a tea and tour of Atlanta.

It was 1973. My former roommate, Sally Priesand, had been ordained but was not married. There were no other women rabbis. It was a million years ago!

Dissatisfied with what I perceived to be a stereotyped program, I urged the Central Conference of American Rabbis to introduce substantive options. In true organizational fashion, the rabbis said, “You want it? You do it.” Fortunately, the sympathetic executive vice president of the CCAR, the late Rabbi Joe Glaser, gave me a little budget and some clerical help.

I surveyed the wives; the results were enthusiastic, and we were off! The first program included Dr. Helen Glueck, a renowned research physician – incidentally married to the president of Hebrew Union College – who talked about Jewish genetic diseases.

It also included several panels of wives speaking frankly about issues that troubled them: from congregants’ unrealistic expectations to rabbis’ lack of time off. We had tapped a deep and overflowing well, and rabbis skipped their own sessions and came to ours.

Wisely, the CCAR established a Task Force on Rabbinic Family Relationships, a hotline, and other resources to help rabbis and their families deal with what so many clearly felt were heavy burdens.

Society evolved, and the Jewish community evolved. It took a longer time and a lot more pain than I can reflect in these few minutes. Most strikingly, as more women entered the rabbinate and the cantorate, the emphasis shifted in many ways. The women rabbis made more of a point of carving out time for their families, and their husbands made it clear they were not going to be judged by the same standards as were rabbis’ wives.

The effect was that finally most congregants became more sensitive to the demands on both female and male rabbis, and in most situations, the concept of judging a rabbi by the behavior of the rabbi’s spouse – or partner – or children – became verboten.

Despite the dramatic changes that women rabbis brought to the profession and the congregations, however, I must report to you that rabbis and their families continue to feel external and internal pressure.

The pressure remains because over the centuries, what has not changed is that we – you and I – set high standards for rabbis, and rabbis set high standards for themselves. Some people want them to be God, or at least God-like. (Some rabbis think they are God, but I would not have married – or reared – one of those!)

We want rabbis to be able to heal us when we are sick, forgive us when we make a terrible error, save our marriage, reconcile us with our children. Though we know on some level they cannot perform miracles, we are disappointed when they do not.

We want them to be without blemish, like the priests in Emor. When a rabbi is less than honest, or deceptive, or engages in behaviors that are ethically or morally wrong – or even a little sketchy – we feel ashamed and betrayed. The stain on them justifiably feels like a stain on us.

There are other expectations, however, that are less dramatic and perhaps a little more common. Let me give you an example.

A couple of years after we moved to Washington, when David was about 7 years old, I took him and two friends to a children’s play at Glen Echo on a Saturday morning and afterward, to lunch at McDonald’s. While I was sitting there having lunch with the children, a woman from our neighborhood came in. “The rebbetzin is eating at McDonald’s on Shabbat!” she announced to the entire restaurant.

“Everybody has to eat somewhere,” I said.

The fact that she, a Conservative Jew, was at McDonald’s on Shabbat was not the issue for her, of course. She clearly expected our family to be different – more observant and holier, perhaps – than hers.

Early in our marriage, I recognized that I would need to find a way to navigate this “holiness gap.”

How do you live a daily life that is exemplary in the significant ways while ensuring that you and your spouse and your family are seen as normal human beings, accessible and approachable and worthy of being good friends?

Some say it cannot be done, but I’ve always believed it can, and Fred and I have been so fortunate to have Essie and the late Gene Lipman as our own examples and predecessors.

First and foremost, it requires a thick skin and a sense of humor.

I also believe that Emor begins to show us a way to bridge this “holiness gap.”

In his Introduction to Leviticus in our Plaut Torah Commentary, Bernard Bamberger comments on the evolution of the role of the priests in Leviticus and in Deuteronomy. Originally, priestly obligations and responsibilities – sacrifices and sanctifying – that is, giving a blessing – were entirely in the hands of the priests.

The Torah, however, is aimed at everyone: the priestly laws are not “professional secrets.” Rather, carrying out the responsibilities incumbent upon priests is an obligation of all the people. While some of God’s instructions in Emor are directed to Aaron, others are directed to all the Israelites.

Explains Bamberger, “The concept of a complete Torah, which all may study who have the will to do so, expresses a new democratic spirit (644).”

The Torah tells us, Bamberger says, and Emor emphasizes, that we are all capable of holiness; we are all responsible for meeting the same high standards – making the same ethical and moral choices – that once were exclusively the obligation of the priests.

A message of Emor, then, is that every individual has the potential to be holy. One attains holiness not by birth – as the priests did – but by engaging in acts of personal and social righteousness. Each of us has the power to be exemplary Jews and human beings and to engage in holy acts.

In other words: we can be the kind of people that we hope and want and expect our rabbis to be:

• We can be students of Torah, not necessarily experts but seekers of meaning and value in our texts.

• We can build a better world by giving ourselves, and our time, to individuals and programs that need us.

• We can always speak positively and never harshly of one another. We can be patient with those who tax our patience, who interrupt us, who cut us off, who don’t listen.

• We can forgive those who find fault with us.

• We can look for and find the good in every person; approach all with an open mind and an open heart and respond to all with compassion.

• We can focus on people’s talents and strengths and help them utilize their abilities for the good of the community.

• We can appreciate the work that people do and the risks they take on our behalf, and show our appreciation.

• We can help others heal by being present for them in times of illness, in times of loss, in times of terror and the darkest nights of the soul.

• We can lead by encouraging and helping others to join us on our sacred journey.

If we can fulfill these mitzvot, as we expect our rabbis and our cantors and their families to fulfill them, then we can bless one another. AMEN.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Reflections on Argentina and its Jews

Part I

One day before the beginning of the blizzards of 2010, we returned from three weeks in Argentina, our first encounter with South America; in fact, we had never been anywhere south of the U.S. border.

Jews have been in Argentina in significant numbers at least since the 1850s. Prior to that, some Sephardic Jews – including Conversos (secret Jews) – had come from Spain. The great influx of European Jews began around 1860, when huge numbers made their way from the Pale of Settlement to various ports around the world. Today, the estimates of Jews in all of Argentina range from 150,000- 200,000, or even as high as 250,000, but most agree that all but about 20,000 live in Buenos Aires. There is no religious census in Argentina as there is in some European countries.

The oldest congregation in the country, La Congregación Israelita de la República Argentina, is affiliated with the World Union for Progressive Judaism [WUPJ] ( We attended Services there on two Shabbat evenings. Centrally located, its grand building is featured in every guidebook and includes a small but interesting museum recounting the history of the Jews in Argentina, including more than 800 early settlers who became gauchos (cowboys) and established ranches throughout the countryside where many still farm the fertile land and raise . . . Argentine beef!

The congregation has two rabbis, a cantor, and a very full program of activities, from a large religious school to social action initiatives to holiday celebrations. The Shabbat prayerbook of La Congregación Israelita carries the logo of the WUPJ, and its Shabbat Service includes Debbie Friedman’s arrangement of “Mi Shebeirach,” as well as many other liturgical settings familiar to U.S. synagogue attendees.

In the late 1950s, the congregation invited Conservative Rabbi Marshall T. Meyer from the U.S. to serve the congregation. In addition to revitalizing his own congregation and spinning off others in suburban Buenos Aires, he established a seminary that prepares community leaders – rabbis, cantors, educators – for all of Central and South America. A social justice activist who worked against the “Dirty War” and tried to save many of the Disappeared, Meyer eventually returned to the U.S. and became the guiding spirit and spiritual leader of B’nai Jeshurun on the Upper West Side of New York, today’s thriving “BJ.”

Two other sites that many Jewish travelers to Buenos Aires typically visit are AMIA, the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina; and the former site of the Israeli Embassy, now a memorial park.

AMIA is a multi-purpose center for the Jewish community. In July 1994, a truck loaded with explosives drove into the building. The building was destroyed, 85 people died, and more 300 were injured. A new building erected on the same site is highly secure, with the familiar Jersey barricades outside, guards, double walls and metal detectors. Tourists must be cleared in advance of a visit, usually with a group, to view the exhibits and artwork in the building. On the street, 85 trees planted on several blocks through the neighborhood of Once, the equivalent of New York’s Lower East Side in its hey-day, are reminders of each of the dead.

No one ever has been convicted of the bombing of AMIA, nor has anyone been held responsible for the 1992 bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, when 29 people died and more than 240 were wounded, most of them children in a nearby Catholic school.

While they particularly affected the Jewish community, these two incidents occupy a significant place in recent Argentine history. Members of the Jewish community with whom we spoke do not regard them as examples of anti-Semitism directly targeting them but rather as manifestations of larger international issues being played out in a country where – for many complicated political and historical reasons – justice may never be fully served.

While there have been no convictions, these cases are not closed but very much alive. Many see the two bombings as reprises of the Dirty War, which continues to echo throughout the society. While we were in Argentina, President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner implied that the adopted children of the owners of Argentina’s largest media group, critics of Kirchner and her husband (the previous president of Argentina), may have been stolen from their families. Jews were disproportionately represented among the victims of the Dirty War, an issue that Nathan Englander dealt with in The Ministry of Special Cases.

At the Museo de la Shoá, many aspects of Argentina’s complicated history vis à vis its Jewish citizens are highlighted. Jews played an important role in helping the young country develop its great wealth, and they were well-respected and participated fully. While Peron had Nazi sympathies and at the least allowed – if not encouraged – Nazis to settle in Argentina, he also established diplomatic relations with Israel in 1949. Subsequent presidents – following the Dirty War – had good relations with the Jewish community. President Saul Menem ordered the release of files that revealed Argentina’s role in harboring Nazis, a move that some see as the trigger for the bombings in 1992 and 1994.

Part II

Shortly before we traveled to Argentina, we were delighted to discover that Madi, whom we’ve known for many years, lives in Buenos Aires, and owns BA Cultural Concierge ( Among other treats, Madi arranged for us to spend a half day with Elvira, an Argentinean Jew whose family originally came from Syria. Elvira offers Jewish tours with a socially responsible focus and helps visitors find volunteer community service opportunities and internships (

Elvira, whose parents operate a children’s clothing store in Once, took us to the synagogue her grandparents had founded and to kosher bakeries, and she pointed out the only kosher McDonald’s outside Israel. Most importantly, she arranged for us to meet with Betina Rosental, who works with the Refuot Community Medicine Bank of the Fundación Tzedaká ( Fundación Tzedaká was founded in 1991 to serve the neediest members of the Jewish community.

Elvira explained that from the earliest days of the Jewish community in Argentina, in the 1880s, until the 1990s, when Argentina’s economy began to collapse, Argentine Jews had sent millions of dollars overseas to communities in Palestine, Israel, and elsewhere. After nearly a century, became the recipients of aid from other countries, as about 50,000 people slipped out of the middle class and below the poverty line.

The Medicine Bank, one of the Fundación’s many initiatives, provides prescription and over-the-counter medications to these Jews who live below the poverty line. While medical care in Argentina is provided by the state, medications are not. Pharmaceutical companies and doctors contribute medications, and the Bank collects and purchases others; through a network of professional social workers, pharmacists, and dozens of volunteers, prescriptions are filled and delivered throughout the country both for chronic conditions and emergency care. The model program is being copied by the local Catholic community on a more limited basis; it has been copied by the Jewish community in Uruguay, and shortly after our visit, a major international foundation was arriving to study the initiative with the possibility of replicating it even more widely.

The Fundación is housed in one of many Jewish community centers throughout Buenos Aires. Elvira explained that these are the real social centers for the Jewish communities, with fitness centers; lectures and concerts like the one we had attended at AMIA; and dances, sports teams, camping programs and Zionist activities for children and young adults.

Synagogues in Buenos Aires do not have dues-paying members. Families pay school fees to the private Jewish day schools that are affiliated with the synagogues. Synagogue budgets depend on charges for b’nai mitzvot and weddings, plus High Holy Day “appeals.” Funerals are handled through AMIA.

Our tour with Elvira ended at the Catedral Metropolitana de Buenos Aires, the main Catholic church directly across from the Plaza de Mayo, where some relatives of the Disappeared still walk every Thursday. (The original mothers’ group has been replaced by people with other agendas, which caused a schism among the founders; the Thursday we were there, signs focused on the dangers of drugs.)

The cathedral contains the first memorial to Jewish victims of the Holocaust erected in a Catholic church, according to its designers, and also marks the bombings of the Israel Embassy in Buenos Aires and AMIA. Located on the wall in the side chapel of the Virgin of Lujan, it is next to the tomb of the late cardinal of Argentina, Antonio Quarracino. Cardinal Quarracino commissioned and arranged for the mural but died before its dedication. The mural contains torn and partially burned pages of Jewish books rescued from concentration camps, ghettoes, the Embassy of Israel, and AMIA. We found it very moving. Elvira explained that she ends her Jewish tours there because she wants visitors to return home with the understanding that the Jews of Argentina have lived side-by-side with non-Jews in peace and safety for more than 100 years.