Meeting with me in a Tel Aviv café on a sunny morning, Gabriel, who will soon mark his ninth anniversary in Israel, speaks nostalgically about his native Argentina, but seems to have no second thoughts about his decision to become one of the thousands of Argentine immigrants who have found their way to the Israeli homeland. He was referred to me by a mutual friend who knew I was interested in finding out more about the immigrant experience of Jews from various countries.
Argentina seems like a logical country with which to start. It has both a thriving Jewish culture and a large immigration rate to Israel. What explains this paradox? The answer is largely one of economics.
The Last Wave of Argentine Immigration
At the turn of the new century, Argentina experienced huge political and economic upheaval. Billions of dollars in investor assets were wiped out in the country’s banks, and the middle class, in particular, was devastated. Gabriel owned a marketing company in Buenos Aires, and business was thriving. He was a member of a Jewish country club and lived in a comfortable home with his wife and children. But as the economy bottomed out, Gabriel found that customers couldn’t pay their bills, and his agency’s work load decreased dramatically. As the unemployment rate grew close to 30%, basic services collapsed, and robberies became commonplace.
When Gabriel finally broached the subject of immigration with his wife, they cried together, he says, but agreed that it was time. Since they had visited Israel several years previously, it was their first choice for a new country. Thousands of Argentine immigrants have followed.
Leaving Argentina Behind
When I ask him what he misses most about Argentina, Gabriel pauses, looks into the distance, then says softly: “My family.” Parents and other relatives were left behind, and contact now is limited. He also describes the simple pleasures of the culture and countryside, from tango music to the country’s lush greenery. “Argentina has the most amazing waterfalls in the world,” Gabriel says wistfully, and recalls hiking with his sons in the Lake District.
Gabriel’s family was active in Buenos Aires’ Jewish community. In the Once district are some of Argentina’s best-known synagogues, such as Yesod Hadat, founded in 1932 by Syrian Jews. Once (pronounced on-say) also has a Jewish culture center, hosting concerts and lectures, and a high school, which two of his children attended.
Once Gabriel and his wife made their decision to leave the country, there was no looking back. From the time they contacted the Jewish Agency’s offices in Buenos Aires until they boarded a plane to Israel, less than two weeks elapsed. And arrival in Israel was a smoother process overall than he expected. Gabriel and his family lived in a furnished apartment the first few months after his arrival, but now have their own house – more modest than the one at the country club in Argentina, but a place that feels like home. He says he was thrilled with the warm reception his family received. Like most Argentinians, Gabriel’s family had the benefit of an already strong sense of Jewish identify, developed in Argentina’s active Jewish community.
Gabriel laughs at those who questioned whether he wasn’t afraid to bring his family to a country subject to terror attacks. “I told them that it’s a lot more frightening to walk some of the streets of Buenos Aires.”
Gabriel no longer owns his own business, but he does work in the same field. When his oldest son graduates from the university, they plan to re-open the business together in their new homeland. Gabriel says he still has no regrets: “At night I go home and play Latin American folk music on my guitar, and my wife cooks my salteñas (spicy empanadas) and locro (a thick stew). I have the best of both worlds now.”