I am walking through the San Telmo neighborhood of Buenos Aires with the Americas Scholars group. Our tour guide, Gabriel, mentions that he is a Turkish-Syrian Jew. I have been interviewing Jewish people in New York, asking them about race, assimilation, and identity. In between stops on our tour, I ask Gabriel to share his perspectives on these topics. Although English is not Gabriel’s first language, I quote him verbatim in this edited transcript.
If you ask me “how is the community where I was grown?” I have to talk about my grandparents. Two of them came from the city of Aleppo in Syria, the other two came from Izmir in Turkey. The ones that came from Syria spoke in Arab[ic] and my Turkish grandparents spoke in Ladino. My grandparents were religious and they made the holidays in Hebrew. They came at the late 1930s, looking for a better economic situation for them and for their kids. They were living in Once neighborhood, where it is called an “open ghetto.” It is a place where the Jewish are living; they’ve got their schools and kosher restaurants. Once neighborhood is very populated, lots of noises.
Education in Argentina was completely free and universal. They could take their kids to schools, but they were going to receive Argentinian history, Spanish as language, and everything as according to the national culture that the government wanted to install. The kids of those who came from Middle East, at least in the Sephardic community, became professionals—the first generation of Argentinians. So my father got assimilated in the community and away from their religious heritage—Middle Eastern heritage. My parents didn’t have any trouble to be assimilated, because the city of Buenos Aires is based on immigration. In those days, the Arabs and Jewish community were completely assimilated. In fact, the Jewish were one of the biggest minorities that were here. There is not any kind of persecution or anti-Semitism, not even any kind of feeling against the Jewish community. So it is not something you have to hide. I could say that the Jewish community, generally, is recognized for being open-minded and sharing neighborhoods—being in close connection with other groups of immigrants. So the Arabs that are in Buenos Aires and practice Islam live together with the Jewish in a very peaceful way. In fact, after the attacks in 1992 and 1994 against the embassy of Israel and the AMIA building, one of the first ethnic groups that stands up for the Jewish and asks for justice were the Muslim community. Here, I would say, you cannot see, you cannot feel, you won’t find any kind of demonstration of the Jewish against the Arabs or Muslims.
I went to public primary school, high school, and university, so I am a completely, let’s say, freethinker. My Jewish roots do not give me any specific sense of thinking. But I do recognize myself as a Jewish person. It is difficult to say how I feel myself as Jewish without practicing everyday or without going to the synagogue. I don’t know. I made my Bar Mitzvah. I am circum—how do you say that word in English? Circumcised. On high holidays I get together with my family to eat. We keep on eating the traditional food that my grandmother used to make—the Middle Eastern kind. I think that those things stick you to a culture. I do not believe in God; it’s not that I have a connection with the religious part. But I do believe that the Jewish are divided in people and religion, so I belong to the people. But then, the religion, I just don’t care much about it.
I am 33 years old; I am not that old. My grandparents were alive when I was 20 and they spoke in Hebrew, so I do know where I am coming from. My grandparents were alive, so the traditions were alive—wanted or not. You know the Sephardic way from the city of Aleppo is different, for example, from the Sephardic way in the city of Damascus, in Syria. So the way I practice Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur is different from the way another Sephardic friend could do it. Today, you could say, we do try to keep those things alive. But from my point of view, it is completely part of me. It is who I am.
In Buenos Aires you have got everything. Among the secular community, you have got Jewish people that are in the right wing and do not believe in distribution of richness and do not believe in the social care that the poor people have to receive in the country. Being as assimilated as I told you, none of my political decision has to do with my religious heritage. It would have to do with my parents’ heritage and how they influenced me, and how the university influenced me in a political way of thinking.
So nowadays, I’m completely assimilated, 100% Argentinian. I have nothing to do with Syria or Turkey, where my grandparents came. It’s not part of my specific interest to go back to one of these countries. I don’t feel that I have to go back anywhere. I am here; this is my place. I would go to these countries to visit them as a tourist, but not searching for my heritage. I don’t believe I have problems with my identity. But my kids, I don’t know if they will have the same connection that I have. I do have it, because I was raised like that. My girlfriend has got Italian, Spaniard, and French heritage. She was raised Catholic, even when she is atheist, as I am.
(To the group) Well, we are in the heart of the neighborhood of San Telmo, listening to a tango song…