The sanctuary of the Libertad synagogue in Buenos Aires. Image courtesy of the Jewish Virtual Library.
When I was an MFA student at Bennington, I spent six months studying Jewish literature with my advisor David Lehman. (The paper I wrote that semester is fifteen years old now and I'd revise it if I had the time, but if you're curious, it's called Nu: what makes Jewish literature so Jewish, anyway?) During that six months I read all sorts of poetry and prose, including two volumes in the Jewish Latin America series edited by Ilán Stavans (who I heard speak at Williams a few months ago.) Novels including Cláper (Venezuela) and The Jewish Gauchos of the Pampas (Argentina) reminded me that the Ashkenazic immigration story familiar to most North American Jews is paralleled by the story of Jews immigrating to South America, many to Argentina.
My great-aunt Vera (of blessed memory) and great-uncle Carlos emigrated to Brazil and lived there for many years before coming to the States. (My middle name, Evelyne, honors their daughter who died when I was a child.) And the grandmother after who I am named emigrated to Mexico and came to San Antonio once she became engaged to my grandfather who already had residence in Texas. So I'm keenly aware that Jews who left Europe came to the Americas through doors other than Ellis Island (see the Galveston Movement)... and went to places even further south than San Antonio where I was born and reared. But since I read those books at Bennington I hadn't thought much about the Jews of Argentina, until we planned a vacation there.
Buenos Aires is home to a sizeable Jewish community, including many synagogues and even a rabbinic school (associated with the Conservative movement, it's the only rabbinic seminary in the southern hemisphere.) Before we left on our vacation I did some reading about Jewish Argentina, and promised myself that I would try to daven b'tzibbur (with a community) while we were there. The day before we left the country, I went to daven shacharit at Argentina's oldest synagogue, Congregacion Israelita de la Republica Argentina (CIRA -- here's their Spanish-language Wikipedia entry, since the English one is pretty paltry) also known as "Libertad" because it overlooks a small plaza of the same name. According to the Fundación Judaica, CIRA was founded in 1862; the current building was constructed in 1897 and remodeled in 1932.
I must have been the tenth person to arrive. I got there around 10am, expecting the service to be well underway, but found instead a handful of people chatting in Spanish in the enormous ornate sanctuary. In front of us, a half-dome adorned with gold mosaic spelled out the words of the shema, topped by a round stained-glass window featuring a star of David. Above the ark I could see the workings of a massive pipe organ. About three minutes after I got there, the small crowd moved to the pews at the front of the room, and beckoned for me to join them, and began to sing.