Half of Venezuela’s Jewish community fled under Hugo Chávez, who died this week. Will the other half follow?
For a fragile diaspora, expropriation is the gravest of threats. But in the Jewish community of Caracas, as for a large part of the Venezuelan upper class, this menace has been complicated by the fact that so many are cosmopolitan and hold multiple passports, spending part of their years in New York, Miami, Madrid, Paris, San José, or Tel Aviv. Hence older Jews I spoke with in Caracas were sanguine about a potential loss of property, and when I compared their situation to that of the Cuban exiles in south Florida, many quickly agreed that they had already imagined themselves hunkered in a Venezuelan Miami, bequeathing Caracas deeds that their grandchildren would reclaim in 2041, once the Golden Age of the Bolivarian Revolution had concluded. As Alan Vainrub’s grandmother put it when I visited her apartment in Caracas, “The Jew will go and set himself anywhere”—her maid was serving us delicate Bavarian cups of aromatic coffee—“and build another story of 50 years, wherever it may be.”
Still, the damage to the place the Jews were leaving was significant, both for the Jews’ general economic consequence and for the hole the emigrants left in a tiny, tight-knit world. Though the community doesn’t take a census, the indicators—school enrollment, club dues, synagogue rosters, weddings, bar mitzvahs—all look bad. Rabbi Pynchas Brenner, the 80-year-old who had officiated in Caracas for 44 years, and who offered travel and life benedictions to this year’s graduating class, said that enrollment in the Jewish school had gone from 2,300 at its peak in the early 2000s to 1,050 last year. At the synagogue in the central neighborhood called Mariperez, once a mainstay of mid-century Jewish life, it is now a challenge to gather a minyan.
When I first met up with Isaac, at the Internet café he owns and runs in a commercial district of Caracas, he was pulling down the steel-plated armor protecting his storefront, using the same bunker mentality that was evident across the city, where murder rates had risen to an astonishingly high 200 per 100,000 residents, 10 times that of Bogotá, 15 times that of São Paolo, Brazil. Stuck to the glass underneath the plating was a sign that read “EN MORA”—overdue—in big red block letters, a device city officials had taken to using to shame owners into filing new commercial taxes. “Sure, I’m late,” Isaac muttered about what he owed, “but they make you jump through a thousand hoops and, what the hell, I’m not a delinquent.”
Isaac had told me to find his café by looking for the giant yellow fish, a new piece of public art, one of many dotting the recently bricked-over promenade. The municipality had passed an ordinance requiring all signage to be standardized, “so that no shop has an advantage over another,” Isaac said, his eyebrows shuttling up and down in mischievous complicity. What was once a riot of awnings like those of any market district in Latin America—some in the art-deco style in keeping with the more distinguished geometric buildings—is now just blank walls with wiring conduits dangling like ripped tendons awaiting government-approved signage. Regulated advertising (the French-built Metro system displayed only propaganda with Chávez’s Hecho en Socialismo logo) is just one of a long list of petty insults Isaac endures from the Chávez government every day, he said. Then he leapt out of his chair and raced to the back closet to find his yellow, blue, and red Venezuelan flag, with its horse facing to the left, which he marched outside and tucked in its standard. When he returned, his face was a combination of terror and relief. “I forgot that today is Simón Bolívar’s birthday,” he said. “I would have been fined.”
Isaac’s parents were born in Romania, and he was born in Venezuela. Under a mop of curly gray-flecked hair, he has the easy shuffling gait of a tropical creature, padding around sockless in brown Crocs and cargo shorts, thumbing through the photocopied catalogs left by the vendors who come by his store to take orders for headphones and printer-ink cartridges, popping open mamones, or honeyberries, and staining his knit polo shirt with their juice. “If I was making a lot of money, I would never leave,” he said. “But how can you operate like this?” His store has about 60 clunky black desktops with battered keyboards. He pays his counter staff the monthly minimum wage of 1,500 Bolivares Fuertes, or about $350, which he noted is half the yearly dues he pays to the Hebraica club, not including what he pays for tuition and to CAIV for the certificate that allows him to enroll his kids in the Jewish school. His greatest business expense, to power and cool the network, is for electricity, a utility so scarce in Caracas that my hotel prohibited air-conditioning and offered no replacement fans. By decree, Isaac explained, any establishment consuming more power than it had the same month two years earlier would be sanctioned with rations and charged at higher rates, for not doing its part to help reduce demand. “Everyone you talk to,” Isaac said, “they have a plan B.” He held a Romanian passport because, like other Venezuelan Jews, he traveled often and worried that he might get caught with no way of coming home.
Growing up, Isaac had been sent abroad repeatedly. When his parents were divorcing when he was 10, he was shipped off to a yeshiva in New York for a couple of years, an experience he described as traumatic. And after an uncle with an engineering degree arranged for him to study at the University of Oklahoma in Tulsa (again, oil at the root of all things Venezuela), Isaac spent four distracted and confusing years on the American plain, majoring in textiles. But his experiences abroad had confirmed for Isaac his Venezuelan Jewish identity: He found his Judaism to be portable and cosmopolitan and his nationality to be a mixture of exotic and cool. What mattered was that he would always come back to Venezuela, which is how a place becomes home.
Another way Isaac resembled many of the second- and third-generation Venezuelan Jews was in his observance. When asked, he told me flatly that he was “not religious,” but then he followed that with the fact that he wrapped tefillin every morning. (“A rabbi once told me that the way to be plugged in to God is like the same as using the telephone,” he said. “ ‘Tefillin,’ ‘Telephone.’ And if that idea sticks with me like that, it’s better not to risk it by not doing it.”) Then he added that he didn’t eat pork (“filthy animal”) but that he did eat shellfish (“this is the Caribbean, please”), and that he observed Shabbat every Friday night with his family. “But I’m not religious,” he said again.
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