Yom Kippur in Buenos Aires
By Ilan Stavans
Years ago, I spent a Yom Kippur in Buenos Aires unlike any other. One moment of it in particular still haunts me.
I generally like to be at home for the holiday but travel kept me on the road. I lodged at a comfortable hotel. I thought it would be good to stay in the room. The holiday encourages a contemplative state in me.
The day before, I had met Osvaldo, a friend whose family traces its roots to El Once, the immigrant neighborhood in the city where Jews first settled. He had grown up in a traditional environment but over time had drifted away from religion. Osvaldo’s older brother had followed a different path. After much indecision in his youth, not knowing exactly what to do in life, he spent months in Europe with relatives. Somehow he ended up in India. But his story isn’t predictable: he wasn’t enlightened by Hinduism, becoming a yogi and finding nirvana or something like it. Instead, in Vijayawada, in southern India, where he stayed in a commune, Osvaldo’s brother somehow awoke to his dormant Jewish faith and decided to become a ba’al tshuva. He returned to Buenos Aires a few weeks later and immediately registered in a yeshiva.
Osvaldo couldn’t quite understand his brother’s inner journey. He saw him as having abandoned doubt in favor of a strict certainty. In turn, his brother thought Osvaldo should follow him in embracing religion. They often got into heated discussions. Soon the tension between the siblings was exacerbated. Eventually they stopped talking to each other.
By the time of my visit, Osvaldo’s brother had made aliya. He had a devout wife and six children. They lived in a neighborhood in Jerusalem surrounded by people who were as Orthodox as they were. He disclaimed his Argentine upbringing, to the point that he never spoke Spanish with those around him. Osvaldo’s mother would call him once a month, generally on Thursdays. Since he had drifted away from her as well, the conversations were often brief and formal. Once or twice, Osvaldo also spoke to him, but he did it out of politeness and to reduce the family tension as much as possible.
Then came the tragic news. An acquaintance of mine forwarded it to me via email: Osvaldo’s brother, on the way to morning prayers, had been brutally murdered with a knife by a terrorist. The police reacted immediately to the incident, and the terrorist, a young girl, was injured. Lying on the ground bleeding, she was arrested and taken to a hospital, from where she was scheduled to be transferred to prison.
I sent my condolences.
The funeral for Osvaldo’s brother was attended by hundreds of people. Osvaldo and his mother had thought of attending but flights were too expensive. They also didn’t know anyone in Jerusalem and didn’t feel like participating in an Orthodox ceremony. Osvaldo’s mother promised the widow, whom she had never met, that when she saved enough she would visit her and the children.
When I arrived in Buenos Aires, Osvaldo looked angry. We had spent time together several years back and I felt I knew him well. He didn’t look his old self. I don’t know if it is accurate to describe him as still in a state of mourning. His brother’s death had taken place a few months before. Osvaldo, in emails to me, had written that he was reconciling himself with the new reality. But when I saw him he appeared taciturn.
The morning before Yom Kippur we met for coffee at La Biela, a bar in La Recoleta. I wanted him to feel like he could talk to me. While telling me the whole story in detail, he recalled the Guerra Sucia, the Dirty War, in the country, when the military junta fought a war against lefties. Jewish families were targeted and the number of desaparecidos was high among them. Osvaldo didn’t have anyone close who had disappeared but he knew people who knew people who were victims. The death of his brother in Israel made him feel as if Jews again were victims.
Drinking a beer, he compared terrorists in the Middle East to antisemitic generals in the Argentinian army. He wanted vengeance. He wasn’t apologetic about it in any way.
“An eye for an eye,” he said to me. “Now that we have an army, like all other nations, I want to see blood.”
I was surprised by his extreme reaction. The Osvaldo I knew was a tall, handsome, quiet man with a friendly demeanor. He often dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, wore sandals, and carried a leather bag on his left shoulder where he kept that day’s newspaper, a notebook where he liked to make sketches, a pencil, his keys, and his glasses case. He only shaved every three days or so, which gave him a scrubby look. He worked for an advertising agency. He never raised his voice. I’d never seen him fight with anyone. Clearly the death of his sibling had changed him in untold ways. I said that the girl who had perpetrated the act would probably go through a trial that would land her in jail for years.
“I don’t care about that!” he said. “At some point she’ll be part of a prisoner exchange, and then what? I’d rather see immediate action.”
I felt uncomfortable.
“I’m a coward, though,” he said. “My brother demurred but ultimately he made some decisions. He took action. I don’t know if I can.”
“What kind of action would you take?”
He didn’t answer.
Changing the subject, I asked Osvaldo what he was planning to do for Yom Kippur. I said I would probably stay in my room, but if he knew of a nearby synagogue, I could probably walk there that evening for Kol Nidre. Since I didn’t know anything about security, did I need to petition a member of the congregation in advance?
Osvaldo was silent for a few seconds.
“I will go with you!” he said.
“I don’t want to impose. You’re probably not in the right state of mind.”
“No, no, I want to go,” he answered. “It is only a few blocks from your hotel. I’ll pick you up and we can go together.”
Somehow I regretted by decision to go with him, but felt discourteous changing plans. I put on a shirt and a nice pair of pants. At around 4 pm I had something to eat, enough to get me through the next twenty-four hours. Osvaldo wore the same jeans and t-shirt as when we were drinking beer. He was uncommonly quiet as we walked to the synagogue. A couple of acquaintances recognized him at the entrance door. He told one of them I was visiting from Mexico and wanted to experience Yom Kippur in Buenos Aires.
The reaction I got felt sarcastic: “Do you need to travel to the end of the world to be closer to God?”
The other offered his condolences to Osvaldo. “Your brother is a martyr! His memory makes us stronger.”
We entered the building. It was packed. Osvaldo and I made our way to the last empty seats at the back of the temple. I looked for a couple of prayer books and handed him one.
“No, gracias,” he said.
The rabbi appeared next to the ark, followed by a female cantor. The rabbi said a few pleasantries, then asked the congregation to open the prayer book to Kol Nidre. I followed the instructions.
I sensed the warmth of the place. I was away from home. I thought of my own wife and children and wished I were near them. The entire congregation was standing. Slowly I entered a meditative state that made me feel less burdened. The cantor’s voice was melodious. The rhythm of her chant was soothing.
A few minutes passed. I heard some noises next to me, like mice munching on a nut. A bit of a commotion followed. I turned around to see how Osvaldo was doing. He was the only person sitting down. His bag was open. He had taken out a few crackers and an apple and was eating them in front of everyone.
The woman standing next to him asked him not to eat. “We are all doing penitence. We are all fasting! You shouldn’t be eating, not here in any case.”
Osvaldo looked at her with disdain without uttering a word. The woman became noticeably upset while also trying not to lose control.
A man in a row ahead of us turned around and came close to where we were. He was a chubby man with glasses. His yarmulke looked as if it was about to fall from his scalp at any moment.
“Osvaldito, come with me…”
My friend didn’t move.
“You’re angry. And you should be… We are all angry. Come with me, querido.” He paused. “Would you share some of that apple with me?”
Osvaldo looked at me. His look was penetrating.
The rest of the congregation was now aware of the hoopla taking place. The cantor stopped singing. The rabbi pointed in the direction where we were. For a moment the entire universe stood still.
Then, emboldened, my friend stood up and howled. I have never heard a more disturbing sound. It had a liquid quality to it, enwrapping us all. We reacted to it with a collective sigh, the depth of which I cannot describe.
I seem to remember the cantor resuming her delivery of Kol Nidre, although at that point I was no longer tuned in.