Un bagel de sésamo, sin schmear.
That’s me you just heard, ordering a sesame bagel in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Among the things I’ve learned about myself over the last many months studying here is that I care deeply, inordinately, about the places we eat. Last week, I finally made it to Sheikob’s Bagels, where the American owner, Jacob Eichenbaum-Pikser, is bringing New York Jewish food to the Southern Hemisphere. What drew me to the exposed brick walls of Sheikob’s was a hankering for more than simple carbs; I wanted to steal a moment away from being an extranjera and surround myself with the Jewish smells and sensibilities that felt familiar to me.
My life as a young Jewish person has always been tied to eating. There’s a certain way my family does things, such as going to all ends of the earth for the “right” ingredients or showing up anywhere with baked goods. That has everything to do with communicating our heritage and sharing the values that I take to be Jewish: generosity, community, humility, and compassion. Eager to understand what Jewish life, or lives, were like in Argentina, my research began: pastrami at La Crespo, gefilte fish at Mishiguene, and a few religious services sprinkled in.
Food isn’t a bad place to start learning about Jewish life. Look no further than the Passover table, which memorializes the Israelites’ liberation from slavery through salt-dipped herbs and unleavened bread. Maimonides, the Sephardic philosopher, scholar, and physician of medieval times, wrote extensively on how to properly nourish the body, predating your parents’ favorite phrase, “everything in moderation,” by centuries.
Restaurants also play an important role in developing and proliferating cuisines. Argentinian chef Tomás Kalika opened Mishiguene (which means “crazy” in Yiddish) four years ago, launching his grandmother’s varenikes onto the Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants list. Kalika, who grew up in Buenos Aires, told the New York Times in 2017 that “Jewish cuisine is global.” He hoped to reflect the breadth of Jewish food in the diverse cooking methods and plates offered at Mishiguene and Fayer, his newer fire-fueled restaurant that emphasizes the influence of Argentinian beef and grilling. On a recent trip to Mishiguene, Klezmer music played as waiters set down a refined plate of gefilte fish (wrapped in a thin layer of carrot) on a geometric crystal plate—just like the one on which my grandmother serves her lemon cake.
Tasting pieces of my family’s tradition—like creamy, flaky rugelach or sweet challah—in a new context was fulfilling. But at the same time, my stomach kind of hurt. Here I was, checking a new restaurant off my list, but my perpetual food quest felt shallow. I was reaching out for food in order to grasp pieces of myself, but like this holey sesame bagel, I hit empty space after taking a bite. What had I really learned about Jewish life in Buenos Aires beyond a few dishes?
Argentina’s 200,000 Jews constitute the largest Jewish community in Latin America and the seventh-largest in the world. Given the sizable Orthodox presence in Buenos Aires, I see a yarmulke or black brimmed hat as often as I see someone cross themselves on the bus when passing a church. On a broader scale, my perception of Jewishness in Argentine society was made up of dots that I didn’t quite know how to connect. There were the Nazis that fled here after WWII, and the bombings of the Israeli embassy and Jewish community center that devastated the city in the 1990s. Here and there, an anti-Semitic remark would make headlines, further leading me to question what role Judaism played in this traditionally Catholic country.
In this context, where was Buenos Aires’ Jewish community? In my pursuit of a Jewish experience that I could order alongside an agua sin gas, I was unthinkingly swallowing a simplistic, decontextualized vision of Jewish life in Buenos Aires, which I perceived to exist apart from the porteño culture. Restaurants here like Mishiguene and Fayer distill an experience, evoking the flavor of a grandmother’s kitchen without the familial connection. What was missing from the table was dialogue with Argentinian Jews, for whom religion is just one defining identity of many.
Templo Libertad is the city’s central synagogue, blocks away from iconic sites like Teatro Colón and the Obelisk monument. Hernan Rustein, the temple’s executive director and one of its Hazzanim, or song leaders, calls himself a “professional Jew,” but he says that he feels most complete when engaging with others in ways that aren’t strictly religious, like singing together or being a Jewish person in society.
“I’m Jewish all the time,” he said. “I usually remove my kippah [yarmulke] when I leave the building, just because that’s who I am. I’m an Argentine that’s also a Jew and I always have been me and after that all of the other labels.” Rustein is wary that Argentinian Jews lack more individualized options to engage with the complexities of Judaism beyond the passive acceptance of traditional authorities.
Rustein started a Facebook page, “My Judaism,” as a forum for Argentinian Jews to gain a greater sense of community by recognizing their own definitions of Judaism. “The Talmud has 76 volumes of discussion. That’s a big mess, and that’s something that not a lot of people are willing to accept,” he said. “We are complex individuals in a complex tradition with a complex history and we need to have complex answers,” he explained. He created the website to establish “something that really represents ourselves. To build a community on top of shared values that are really our values and not someone else’s, and [that are] not imposed.”
Using videos bearing the hashtag #esteesmijudaismo (#thisismyjudaism), Argentinians and people from around the world share the instances in which they feel most connected to Judaism, from playing Rummy with family to loving partners of all genders, races, and faiths.
“Most of us just feel porteño and Jewish-porteño. But it’s part of our culture, it’s part of the city,” Rustein said, citing how Yiddish words like “mishiguene” and “tuchus” are part of the local lexicon. I didn’t have to go to Mishiguene to get the sense of the word; in fact, life outside the restaurant is where I’d actually be able to engage with Judaism in all its dimensions.
A week ago, Diana Rubinstein, my host mother from last semester, invited me to her Passover seder. She and I share Russian heritage, loyalty to our friends, and a love of eggplant. Her Judaism, she said, “is a way of being. They’re the principles, the ethical and moral values that orient you in life. Judaism speaks of loving others equally, and trying to be the best one can be every day. And there are things that are understood without having to explain.” Around the table were Jews and non-Jews, people distantly related and just meeting for the first time; as we shared the traditions behind the bitter herbs and the sweet wine, I thought about my own Judaism. Food will always be an important dimension of my identity; what I was starting to taste was a deeper understanding of myself and my communities.