Half of Venezuela’s Jewish community fled under Hugo Chávez, who died this week. Will the other half follow?
On one of my first days in Caracas, I visited the club with a friend of a friend, whom I will call Isaac. (“You just don’t know how these things can play when they come back around,” he said, explaining why he felt uncomfortable with me using his full name.) The first thing you see at the entrance to el club—after you pass through a turreted blast wall—is the well-groomed guards manning booths with bomb-sniffing Labradors. The deadly-serious, IDF-inflected manner with which they question a non-card-carrying member’s credentials makes it clear that this is a community living under threat.
But once inside the club—a sprawling compound, the last up the hill before the city gives way to the mountain—the feeling is of a prosperous settlement. A road leads past a banquet hall to a stacked parking garage with school buses, chauffeurs, and parents shuttling in and out collecting children from camp and after-school activities. A few lengths further, past the Colegio Moral y Luces Herzl Bialik school (founded 1946) and an administrative building, a stone-paved walkway introduces the main grounds, where an Olympic-sized pool shimmers in the warm tropical light. On an extended patio nearby, a half-dozen concession stands offer Kosher foods of all kinds, from burgers to arepas, sushi to hummus. The place is packed with families and a mood of easy familiarity: couches, knitted kippot, big bellies and suspenders, Teutonic, sun-spotted skin tones, sheitels and full-length skirts, strollers, grandparents, beer bottles, tropical fruit shakes, bearded Chabadniks, uniformed, dark-skinned cleaning and wait staff, and BlackBerrys holstered on belts.
On the day Isaac led me there, the Copa América, the continental soccer cup, was playing its final match, and all the chairs in the main, airy, covered patio were filled with males taking in the frenetic play-by-play of Paraguay versus Uruguay. A full-size fútbol field and baseball diamond laid a green carpet before the view over the bar-graph skyline of eastern Caracas. There were professionally printed banners reminding members of some of the club’s stated values: solidarity, “sense of community,” and respect—“all Jews are united and identified thanks to the state of Israel and the use of the Hebrew language.”
To our right, a few unsupervised kids were shooting baskets in an airy gymnasium that during the school year would seat thousands; the endlines on the wooden floor read HEBRAICA in light blue. An empty disco set-up, with a bar and a dancing balcony and lights, was being used to store a school display about the Holocaust Museum in Washington. A glass-walled health club, Gimnasio Galsky, harbored dozens of treadmills, weight machines, yoga mats, mirrored dance rooms, racquetball courts, and stacks of exercise balls. Cheerful instructors greeted us. Isaac couldn’t go more than a few paces without having to stop and say hello—to the pink-polo-shirted Ziggy, for example, blitzed from beer and soccer, looking for all his worth like a retired sales manager in Riverside, Calif.—and then follow each greeting with an explanation to me of his relation: “we went to school together,” “we grew up together,” “his father and my father play cards every day,” “we did business together,” “I almost married her.” More than anything contemporary, the scene was like that of an American Jewish community center in late 1950s New Jersey, or at least a Rothian, harmonious, fictitious rendering of that period’s peak—hardly opulent, but familiar and easy.
Against the feeling of external threat, the Jewish community of Caracas has constructed an archipelago of these heavily protected spaces where life as they know it can go on. Fifteen minutes west of the club by car is the original and main island: the grounds of the Confederación de Asociaciones Israelitas de Venezuela, known as CAIV, the umbrella organization of the many institutions of contemporary Jewish life in Venezuela. Unlike el club, which is the hub of the residential area where most Jews now live, the CAIV houses mostly administrative groups in a neighborhood that an earlier generation left behind. Fueled by Chávez’s impetuousness, the CAIV’s compound of social halls, a synagogue, and offices in leafy San Bernardino has taken on the air of a besieged bunker, the last fort being held before sounding the general retreat. Twenty-foot metal-spiked walls surround the grounds, and armed guards buzz visitors through bullet-proof glass and a metal detector. Inside, the president and officers seem to cling ever more tenuously to the idea that the community can outflank the profound social and political changes being wrought by Venezuela’s dictatorial president; that they can hunker down and eventually rebuild, or somehow stanch the flow of younger Venezuelan Jews leaving to find more promising economic and social conditions.
I went to the CAIV one day to meet Trudy Spira, a vigorous 79-year-old Holocaust survivor. Spira was there to attend an 80th birthday party for Pynchas Brenner, a long-serving Polish-born, Lima-raised rabbi. We sat in the CAIV president’s windowless office, and on the wall behind her were twin portraits of the liberators Simón Bolívar and David Ben-Gurion. Spira had spent some time on her looks that morning, with her gray hair in a salon coif accented by simple pearl jewelry. Later that day, she said, her twin grandchildren would be graduating from the Jewish community’s private high school, housed in the Hebraica club, to go to university in Caracas and confront a future in which—according to their grandmother’s mitteleurop-edged but still sing-song English, one of a half-dozen languages she spoke—they would have to “play it by the ear.”
Spira’s Venezuelan story began in 1955, when she was 22. Born in southern Poland, she was liberated from Auschwitz at age 12 and then settled in Israel with her mother. In London, where she’d been sent to boarding school after the war, the ceramic bathroom fixtures were manufactured by a brand called “Panama”—but beyond this she had never given South America a thought. With a tattered childhood, she had no sense of geography and little reason to imagine that elsewhere, away from the fires of Europe or the hardships of early Zionism, there should be a better place. Venezuela, the tropics, Simón Bolívar, the bustle of the hot port meant nothing to her.
Around the same time, a pair of Slovakian Jews, cousins, one married, both Holocaust survivors, had secured papers for Brazil but were ultimately buffeted across the Caribbean to Caracas, where they worked, first as door-to-door garment salesmen, then clothing merchants, then textile manufacturers, cobbling together new lives from scratch. In the ’5os, the unmarried of the cousins traveled to Israel to visit his sister, who in turn introduced him to a young lady who was living with her mother in an old Arab house. The young woman was Trudy Spira.
To Spira, the man was by all appearances well-to-do, a fellow Holocaust survivor with an established life in a faraway place where he described opportunities as limitless, so when he asked for her hand she accepted, on the condition that they eventually move back to the Holy Land to be with Spira’s mother. The marriage—hardly a matter of love but to Spira one of seemingly good fortune—took place in Israel. Spira packed a small suitcase with some dresses and a few photographs. Together the couple set out for South America, stopping in Paris for travel documents and a brief honeymoon.
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