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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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A pet-grooming shop in a small shopping center that attracts a largely-Jewish clientele.

A pet-grooming shop in a small shopping center that attracts a largely Jewish clientele.

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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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?