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Venezuela’s Dispossessed

Half of Venezuela’s Jewish community fled under Hugo Chávez, who died this week. Will the other half follow?

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Trudy Spira, in the office of the president of the CAIV, with the galleys of her forthcoming autobiography

Trudy Spira, in the office of the president of the CAIV, with the galleys of her forthcoming autobiography.

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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Matthew Fishbane Amazing article,
I lived there everything you say is true.

jacob arnon says:

Jews in Spanish speaking countries have a long history of being held in contempt when not outright put in danger.

It seems that Jews tend to see their past in a country from which they were expelled as “golden.” Hence the Yiddish song “Roumania, Roumania.”

Joshua Pines says:

Great article. I’ve know many from the community over the years and it jibes entirely with their stories.

One minor semi-correction. Aventura is in fact a separate city now, not merely a neighborhood. This is likely due in part to Venezuelan Jewish immigration, which has played a large role in its growth to 36k+ residents, driving its incorporation in 1995.

K. M. McDonald says:

How prescient the publication of the works – The Prague Cemetery by U. Eco and A Lethal Obsession by R. W. Wistrich the last few years. The institutionalization of anti-Semitism, subtle yet profoundly dangerous, just persists. Now the latest large-scale appearance of subtle, yet institutionalized anti-Semitism in Venezuela under Chavez; deeply disturbing and saddening.

Verificationist says:

Tremendous piece. Fiction’s level of texture and depth, except it’s all too true. I would have loved to hear from someone in the government, someone to speak for and give insight to the other side, even if it would have been nothibg more than a fatuous denial of Matthew’s claims. But overall, tremendous work, and kudos to Tablet for investing in journalism of this length, depth, and significance.

Eva Josko de Gueron says:

A excellent and moving account.

My main critique, apart from some minor errors, is that it conveys the impression that all Venezuelan Jews are wealthy — which is not the case — and that if fails to reflect the enormous, and often demeaning, effort of immigrants — Jewish and otherwise — to achieve middle class status.

I might add that, from the very beginning, the government´s message to the middle class was “if you don´t like this, leave”, read “give us free rein”, like in Cuba. Most resisted but as things got worse, many that could, sought other alternatives; it got harder for people like me to persuade or even urge others to stay on.

There is reason to realistically hope that things will change and that the Jewish community will not only survive but be vibrant again. Ojala!

Be that as it may, the article and Tablet deserve kudos.

Matthew Fishbane says:

Eva Josko de Gueron is right to remind readers of the economic diversity of Venezuelan Jewish life, which runs from one of the richest men in the country to welfare recipients and everything in between. (Hebraica club dues were charged on a sliding scale according to ability to pay.) It is precisely this diversity that is a casualty of the new Venezuela — as she points out: those who can leave, do.

Joshua Pines is also correct about Aventura, and I thank him for the precision, though being in Aventura does not feel separate to “greater Miami,” and many Venezuelans said they had moved or were moving to Miami, when in fact they meant Aventura. That the Venezuelan Jewish community is largely responsible for Aventura’s incorporation is not surprising, given the history and strength of their organizations.

shushan says:

venezualiamn jews are not friends of american Jews, therefore who cares about this story

Annette Cohen says:

As someone who has been living in Israel for the past 50 years after making aliya from New York City in 1962 for solely and intensely Zionist reasons I had a hard time coming to terms with the utter lack of relevancy of the State of Israel as a viable destination for these endangered Jews. I do not know if that reflects your personal viewpoint or the reality on the ground. I do know that a very large number of South American Jews have settled happily in my beautiful city of Haifa and throughout Israel over the years, as have many others from lands which they left voluntarily or by force of circumstance.

When taken from a philosophical, religious, political and/or historical perspective the lack of relevance of the existence of a modern, democratic, successful Jewish state in a piece about the situation in which these people find themselves is almost beyond belief. The seeking of alternatives in Florida, Spain, or other South American countries points to a historical blindness of biblical proportions. Is this something inherently wrong with Diaspora Jews or are we getting a distorted picture?

Matthew Fishbane says:

Annette, thank you for an interesting, important question. The Venezuelan Jewish community seemed to have very strong ties to the state of Israel. Many of the people I met had family there. Many were choosing to make aliya. The Jewish school takes Juniors on an annual trip to Israel. The club has youth groups and other organized connections to Israel. Hillo Ostfeld has hosted Shimon Peres in his home. If the article neglected to make clear this strong bond, it is an oversight. Salomon Cohen Botbol, the president of the CAIV, talked quite a bit about the challenges of aliya for members of his community. One in particular was the splitting up of large, tight-knit families. In the piece, Isaac’s view toward aliya is representative of what I heard from some others there.

Israel is full of Spanish speaking Jews. Nice.

My2cents says:

In response to Mr Arnon when he says : “Jews in Spanish speaking countries have a long history of being held in contempt when not outright put in danger.
It seems that Jews tend to see their past in a country from which they were expelled as “golden.” Hence the Yiddish song “Roumania, Roumania.”

I’d like to tell him that I much disagree with both of the points he’s trying to make. Firstly “Jews in Spanish speaking countries” is too broad of a generalization. Each Spanish speaking country is different from the other. I invite you to read about the jewish community in Panama, and then compare to the one in Colombia to see how much they differ in several aspects (i.e level of religiousness, relationship with the government, influence in the local economy).
Secondly, NOT ONE south american country has expelled jews. so when you say” It seems that Jews tend to see their past in a country from which they were expelled as “golden.”” You are very mistaken. Jewish people are leaving just like non-jews are too. Anyone who is well to do and has some vision and ability to transplant themselves to a better place does it. there isn’t any persecution taking place in latin america. The current situation is harsh for everyone. In the past 15 yrs the jewish communities of Colombia, Argentina, and Venezuela have emigrated in immense numbers. But if you read a bit you can find how non-jews have also left in large numbers.

Jean Terry says:

This is certainly a sad story and a story the Jewish people have repeated countless times in history.

Botbol said, meant he knew that the assault would be no more than a few unpleasant and costly hours—“the scariest of my life,” he said, but nothing out of the ordinary…. probably the Jews on the railroad platform in Birkenau felt the same way

shushan has no idea how involve are the venezuelan jews in their american communitties, he is extremelly ignorant! Venezuelan jews are involve in federation, JCC, sinagoges, and US politics.

My2cents says:
“In response to Mr Arnon….
I’d like to tell him that I much disagree with both of the points he’s trying to make. Firstly “Jews in Spanish speaking countries” is too broad of a generalization. Each Spanish speaking country is different from the other. I invite you to read about the jewish community in Panama, and then compare to the one in Colombia to see how much they differ in several aspects (i.e level of religiousness, relationship with the government,….”

I am sorry ‘My2cents” that I haven’t seen your post till now. Had I seen I would have replied sooner.

Except for Argentina, about which later, there are relatively few Jews living in most Spanish speaking countries.

Then those small number of for the most part immigrated the these countries after WW2. They are also mostly middle or upper class professional who are “protected” by the authorities. (I use the word advisedly.) Many of them also present themselves as secular leftists.

In a country like Mexico for example there area about 50 thousand Jews and most live in the capital city. There is always talk of “conversos” “hidden Jews” and their descendants, but if they have to be hidden that should tell you much about their status there.
Jews whatever their persuasion can take their presence in these countries for granted.

I have met many Spanish speaking non Jews, in the US, in Europe and in South America (mostly educated persons of the left and the right) and they word Judio is often used as an expletive.

Argentina is an exception because the number of Jews there is greater and these started arriving in the 1900’s and many arrived after world war2. They never had an easy time there and the best one can say about the rulers is that some were not antisemitic. In the 70’s all hell broke loose and the military government went after leftists and subversive (and many, many Jews) in their dirty war to “rid the country of internal enemies.”

The number fo Jews in Panama is under ten thousand

The number of Jews in Panama is under ten thousand almost enough to fill a large futbol stadium.

I can write another ten pages about this topic but if people are interested I suggest they do some research on their own.

jacob arnon says:

Re: Argentina let a lot of Jews in, but they also let a lot of German Nazis in.

What does that tell you?

A visitor says:

My husband’s venezuelan family (we are not Jewish) is dealing with some of the same issues addressed in this excellent artcle. We hope that the jewish community in Caracas will be safe from further violence and can continue to make contributions to the overall quality of life in Caracas.

Mr. Chavesz you are dying because the G-d of the jewish people has cursed you for going against his people. Look at Hitler and the german people how they fell. No Empire or nation or race or person that goes against G-ds people will ever survive or have any peace. G-d is justfull thats why you are dying. You got what you deserve

As the stories and experiences of S American (& S African too) Jews becomes more prevalent in the US, I hope we learn some lessons from them.

As a pretty typical kid raised in the NY/NJ area, born in Brooklyn to marginally religious parents and raised with the suspicions and striation that Ortho vs Conserv vs Refromed vs “atheist” Jews create for themselves in the relative safety of the US, personally, I learned a lot more on HOW to be Jewish from my S American friends in Aventura than almost anything in my past.

The “I’m not religious” comment from Isaac reminds me so much of my friends. They have a much more comfortable sense of their Jewishness and religiosity – one we can learn from.

A year or so ago I recall reading something to the effect that Castro, through an interviewer, admonished Chavez against mistreating Jews.

Does anyone recall that story, and did it alter Chavez’s behavior?

great piece.
Seems to be similar to whats going on in the Turkish and Iranian jewish communities.

JamesPhiladelphia says:

The Jewish community in Mexico are about 50,000. They are a mixture of those coming from Russia and Poland, and from Arab countries Syria and Lebanon. They came to Mexico during the 1920,s and 1930,s. Before WWII. The converses came during the Spanish conquest in the sixteenth century.. Established in the north Monterrey and formed industries. Their descendants remained converses. and they are just a curiosity and insignificant as far as the Jewish community is concerned. The Jewish community in Mexico are fully integrated in the country. Prosperous, and even members of the government. The secretary of health is Jewish, a personal friend of president Calderon. The previous president Fox, his foreign minister was of Jewish descent, Mexican father Jewish mother.

The Sephardic community has provided money to the Shas party in Israel. The whole community Ashkenazy and Sephardic is very supportive of Israel. Leftist anti Israel are almost non existent.

Thus arnon is strongly ignorant of the Jewish community in Mexico.
Should check his facts before posting misleading denigrating comments. And keep his mouth shut up.

Quite a few descendants of these Mexican Jews live in the USA . Most of us are professionals quite successful in America. Strong supporters of Israel. Strong supporters of the USA.

JamesPhiladelphia says:

In Mexico for the last 30 years of the PRI party control the most popular TV anchorman was Jacobo Zabludovsky a son of Russian Jews born in Mexico. He was the powerful anchorman of news from the main tv chain Televisa. Actually the Televisa chairman had converted to Judaism with his first Jewish wife. Now divorced he reconverted to Catholic. The family are the Azcarragas.

Mexico has been good to Jews , and vice-versa for industry, commerce, technology, higher education.

Emilio B says:

Excellent piece. Should be required reading for ALL Jews, everywhere.

Why am I not surprised that Chavez is supporting the Syrian government by sending arms to fight the insurgents? One anti-Semitic dictator deserves another. I would like to see Oliver Stone’s comment about his beloved Chavez proudly supporting
the bloodshed in Syria.

rosita says:

menos mal q llego hugo, ya se estaban apoderando del pais entero, remember palestina: sionistas ladrones y asesinos!

Samir Halabi says:

Why wasn’t there issued a fatwa on Chavez the Jew-hater’s head.
Although elected as the winner once again in the Venezuelan national elections. I hope that he will be fatwad in the not too distant future.


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Venezuela’s Dispossessed

Half of Venezuela’s Jewish community fled under Hugo Chávez, who died this week. Will the other half follow?