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Once upon a time in ONCE
By Deb Miller
Last Thursday I made my way to Once (pronounced OWN-say), Buenos' Aires version of New York's Lower East Side, and former hub of Jewish life. It was here in the early part of the 1900s where Russian Jews fleeing pogroms and persecution, mingled with Jews from Morocco and Syria, similarly seeking a land free of poverty and tyranny. The barrio is officially named Balvanera, but is known commonly as Once, or eleven, from the neighborhood train station (formerly 11 de Septiembre, today Sarmiento), which recalls a historical political uprising.
My tour began as I took the train to Retiro, Buenos Aires' principal train station, and from there I hopped a cab ride (approximately 10 minutes = $5) to the starting point of Avenida Puerrydon and Avenida Corrientes.
Note to first-time Buenos Aires travelers: hailing a cab can be a high-risk sport in Buenos Aires. Use a private car service, remise (sounds like reh-MEES), or Radio Taxi, as taxi drivers here have been known to take advantage of tourists.)
Note 2: Always carry small bills (either US or Argentine pesos), to carry out transactions in Argentina, as change is quite impossible to come by.
Exiting the cab on Avenida Corrientes, I was swept into a trampede of commuting pedestrians, swirling around me on all sides. Seemingly not the best moment to pull out my handy map, I fled to the nearest side street to escape the onslaught of people and the interminable rows of shops, kiosks, and traffic.
Welcome to Once.
Once can be lauded as neither a fashionable nor particularly charming section of Buenos Aires. Particularly by this tourist who loves quiet and green spaces, its gritty, dense feel recalls its humble origins, where multi-ethnic and diverse Jewish life once bubbled. Similar to the case of New York's Lower East Side, the Jewish community here prospered and emigrated up and out to more attractive barrios. Back in the good old days, crowds gathered on Sundays to buy the Yiddish paper (there were several), nosh at one of several delicatessens that lined the street, or share heated debates over political issues of the day at coffee bars that, like the Yiddish press, are no longer extant. Where Jewish shopowners and residents once were the predominant inhabitants, today Koreans and Catholic Argentines have moved onto the scene. The flavor of modern day Once simply isn't what it used to be.
But then, what is?
Present day Once is celebrated as the city's garment district, where fabrics of all kinds and colors might be acquired at bargain prices, and button stores, clothing wholesalers, and five and dime stores proliferate at every turn. Though I'm not handy with the needle and thread, I was nonetheless fascinated by the dazzling display of color in these little shops (several sporting mezuzot), full of bolts upon bolts of varying fabrics. Some of the fancier shops had attractive window displays, others gave off a bazaar/market feeling, with fabric bolts creeping out of their storefronts onto the street. I asked one of the shopkeepers if I might take a photograph of his display window (in Argentine, vidriera), to which I received a resounding, "Si, claro!" (yes, but of course!), and for the same price would I care for an autograph?…
From these fabric lined streets I sought out my first "Jewish" stop:
The IFT Theatre (Idisher (or in English/German spelling Yiddishe) Folks Teater)
Founded in 1932 by Jewish immigrants, IFT was one of several Yiddish theatres that colored the rich Jewish cultural scene at that time. In the late 50s, the IFT was the first of these theatres to provide performances in Spanish as well. In 2001, according to the posted schedule, not only were all the plays featured entitled in Spanish, none of the listed plays gave hints of having Jewish content, indicating that the theatre had, at some point, assimilated into a secular community venue.
Still, the presence of a security officer (in this case a policewoman) outside the front door, revealed that IFT was still under the official auspices of the Jewish community. (National security at all Jewish institutions are the result of measures taken following the 1994 bombing of the AMIA, central Jewish organizational headquarters). Inside the theatre (open after 4 PM), a colorful mural by Juan Carlos Castagnino (in need of attention), relates the history of Argentine and Jewish theatre.
Exiting the theatre, I spotted and followed an orthodox man and woman, with hopes of bumping into a kosher coffee bar for a snack. (I could have asked, of course, but this was much more adventuresome…) Feeling ever more noshish, after a few blocks of surveillance, I gave up on the quest and popped into the nearest kiosk where medialunas, Argentina's national breakfast food, a sort of sweet, doughy croissant, were on display, and Ricky Martin-esque music was blaring full force.
Ears ringing, and tummy satiated, I made my way to the Gran Templo de Paso (on Paso Street). This impressive structure was erected in 1927, and the ceremony was attended by then Argentine president, Marcelo T. Alvear. A wrought iron gate stands proudly in front of a beautiful white staircase leading up to the magnificent white arches which make up the entrance of this domed synagogue. Outside the Temple stood the guard dressed in blue uniform, whom I approached and asked expectantly if I could please go in.
"Sos de la colectividad?" came the brusque inquiry.
Sos de la colectividad, or Sos de la comunidad is Argentine for "Are you Jewish?" (versus the literal translation which would be Sos judo/a?), Naturally, the correct answer would be "Yes," should one want to get past. I won't go into security analyses here, reasons forthcoming.
Answering in the affirmative, I was permitted to ring the bell, at which point an attendant came and opened the gate and instructed me up the stairs, to ring another bell (administracion). Via speakerphone, I inquired if I might kindly be allowed to take a photo of the sanctuary.
"No," came the immediate response.
"Might then I be able to just look inside?"
"No, sorry," was the reply. "
If one wanted to step foot inside this lovely edifice but couldn't make it in for services, was there hope?
"Oh, certainly," was the response. "Be sure to make an appointment next time, and come without a backpack or purse of any kind, and of course no cell phone."
"Muchas Gracias," I said.
"No, (Argentines always respond to a thanks with a "no" as in "it's nothing") thanks for understanding about our security measures."
As I retraced my steps, and exited the gate, I was saddened by the need for the security measures.
My self guided tour then took me around the block to Lavalle Street, where I stumbled upon another impressive Jewish building. (All Jewish institutions, aside from the guard in blue, are protected by a row of cement barricades, drawing attention to their location).
Two men with kippot were engaged in conversation as they entered the synagogue. I knew it would be unacceptable to try to walk in with them. I approached the guard who referred me to the Jewish caretaker, a youngish man, we'll call David, who stepped outside to talk with me.
"Hi, David, I'm looking for Jewish life in Once, and I was wondering if you'd let me visit your shul?
"Sos de la comunidad?" came the response.
"Yes, I am."
David looked at me. "No, I really can't let you in unless you're coming for services."
"Lastima!" (literally, "what a shame," in this case: "Rats!"
I stepped out of the way as more people, principally men, filed in. Were they arriving for a class, the afternoon service, a board meeting?
"David, I'm trying to write a nice article on Jewish life, past and present, in Once, and it hasn't been easy. Could you perhaps share some tips?"
"Well, you're going to have a hard time visiting the synagogues, (no kidding!), but I can recommend a couple of kosher restaurants, and you'll pass a store or two selling religious articles if you want to look at those…
"You've been a great help, David!" "Thank you," (I said in English).
"No, you're welcome," came the reply.
Next stop: San Luis street (2400 block), on route to Jewish religious stores, and kosher dining. I must admit, I felt intimidated to go into the stores selling books and kippot. They were very small, and as I wasn't planning on purchasing anything, I didn't want to arouse suspicion. I made my way to the eateries, instead, and passed a Jewish building which I mistook initially for a community center. A young man greeted me:
"Hi, are visitors allowed to see the Center?"
"No, sorry," came the polite reply. In our conversation that followed, I realized this was not a community center, but an elementary school. A mother waited for me to finish my inquiry.
I waved a goodbye and continued on to the kosher eateries, where, if all went well, I would make it past the front door.
Should I make it to the front door…
On the way to the restaurant, I was side-tracked by a particular five and dime store, and walked right past the restaurant. "Everything for $1.99" was featured in several display windows. I tried to buy a couple colorful notebooks before I realized I had wandered into a wholesale store (solo por mayor), and was denied sale of the goods I held in my hands. It was a rough day for tourists.
At last, when I realized I had already passed Sucath David, one of the recommended spots David had mentioned as "a truly fine, Turkish eatery," I retraced my route. The decor was humble and the structure (for security purposes) removed the diners from the front windows and natural light. Few people were dining (I had hit an off meal time), and it looked like the large back space must be used for formal events. Though the establishment comes highly recommended, I was looking for something cozier. So after the manager answered my questions about times and prices, I made my way to David's other recommendation, the more informal Soultani, on San Luis and Paso.
Soultani had the feeling of a "regular" (and cozy) pizza joint, and I sat down to order. A few other people were eating alone (as was the case at Sucath David) and at another table sat a group of women celebrating a birthday meal. I ordered the trout with vegetables (though the pizza looked good, too) from the friendly waiter, and headed upstairs to wash my hands. The bathroom, (as is the case in many Argentine informal eating establishments) was unkempt.
For avid handwashers, and/or those of us from wealthy countries, accustomed to fancier, more charming washrooms, I strongly recommend traveling in Argentina with wipe-ies or soapgel, thereby avoiding unnecessary visits to less enticing washrooms. (Alas, I had left mine at home). Note: Since I'm on the subject: Non 5 star Argentine bathrooms are also notorious for lacking toilet paper, so BYOTP.
All in all, Soultani was a satisfying experience, the proportions generous, the service attentive. (total bill for entre and bubbly water: $8.
Full and a bit drowsy, I packed up my book and decided to wrap up the tour. Exiting, I found myself on a street lined with kosher bakeries (here they were!), but by now I was too full even to enter. I noticed these bakeries were sparser in selection than the non-kosher bakeries which go by the name panaderas, and feature a slew of caloric temptations, and are unfortunately, easily located every 4 or 5 blocks throughout the city.
Note to lacto vegetarians & the leniently kosher observant: In the non-kosher bakeries, be sure to inquire which delicacies are made with manteca (butter) or grasa (animal fat), as grasa is a prevalent ingredient).
Passing on the bakery visit, I continued walking until I found myself presently on a street full of clothing stores. I popped into one bearing an enormous mezuzah, called Peuque, with a fabulously creative window display. As I tried on a jacket, I chatted with one of the saleswomen, who told me that the name 'peuque' means 'heart' in an indigenous language of Argentina.
My energy level dropping fast, I decided to forego the purchase and while gathering my things, asked the store manager if I might take a picture of his vidriera (display window) for an article I was writing on Barrio Once.
"Sorry, he said, "I'd love to let you, but we're very vulnerable to people copying our designs."
"That's alright," I shrugged, "it's been that kind of day…"
And so ended my adventure.
A last word of advice to Once tourists: to fully appreciate the formerly energetic Jewish hubbub today, check nostalgic sentiments at the door, and proceed with open-minded curiosity. There are still treasures to be found here, simply different from those of yesteryear.
Deb Miller writes from Buenos Aires, Argentina where she organizes Adventure travel with a Jewish twist. Her candid article reflects what a tourist might typically expect to encounter on a self-guided tour of Barrio Once. Deb welcomes your visit at www.traveljewish.com
from the June 2001 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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