Half of Venezuela’s Jewish community fled under Hugo Chávez, who died this week. Will the other half follow?
One afternoon, Isaac drove me through the formerly Jewish neighborhoods of San Agustín and San Bernardino, verdant jumbles of single-family houses entombed in high walls topped with electrified fences or spiky grates. Like other Latin American cities, Caracas is an anarchic, unzoned mix of high-rise, midsize, and half-finished apartment blocks wedged among colonial and mid-century houses. Condominiums with names like “Shagall” (a phonetic spelling) and “King David” mark the residences of devout Jewish families, who prefer to walk to shul or who hadn’t done well enough to make the move east to the more prosperous neighborhoods of Los Palos Grandes, Altamira, and La Florida, closer to the Hebraica club. Isaac pointed out that San Agustín had so emptied of Jews that the site of Caracas’ first Hebrew school was now under construction to be adapted into a Catholic primary school, its windows taped with Xs and its front yard a gravelly pit.
This movement across Caracas neighborhoods, Isaac explained, was no different than the natural movement of cities everywhere, like how the immigrants of the Lower East Side of Manhattan, or their children, found their way to the Upper West Side. The most recent Venezuelan migration happened to have occurred just before Chávez took power, with the founding of a number of synagogues in La Florida and Los Palos Grandes, largely in order for Jewish club and religious life to be consolidated. The white quinta where Isaac’s grandmother had lived was a half block from the CAIV; Crema Paraiso, where she would take him for dairy treats, was just down the hill. Isaac showed me all these things and then pointed to the spot where his car was when it disappeared. “Came out of synagogue,” he said, “and it was gone.” I said that a crime like that seemed out of place in such a quiet neighborhood. He chuckled to himself, and added, “Oh, it had a LoJack device. The police found it. And then I moved east.”
In that way, Isaac’s attitude toward the plight of Venezuela’s Jews is one of general resignation, expressed in a shrug that was familiar to me because it was the same one my Russian-born, several-times-bankrupt grandfather would use when he parked his white Buick badly in the lot of a Clearwater, Fla., strip mall: What are you gonna do? Jews don’t vote for Chávez, Isaac explained. But that was never where his support was from. Isaac could send his kids abroad, but then what? Who would make a living, and how? And where? In Miami’s Aventura neighborhood, like a Latino shtetl? In Israel? He’d been there plenty of times, but making full aliyah? For now, he seemed to be saying, there was nothing to do but stay put, get caught up on back taxes, and spend as much time as he can at Puerto Azul, the largely Jewish beach club an hour’s drive away on the other side of the Ávila, where family has been going for 40 years, and then come back to his Internet café and the power outages and MORA sign and the little humiliations of life under Chávez. “I have a Cuban friend in Miami,” Isaac said about the once-thriving Jewish community that has all but disappeared from Havana. “And he’s said to me, ‘My friend, the same thing is happening here.’ ”
Directly above Isaac’s Internet café is a large cement high-rise building built by a man named Hillo Ostfeld. One sunbaked afternoon, I was picked up by a bulletproof green Chevy Blazer, driven by Ostfeld’s Colombian-immigrant driver. As we crawled through traffic, A/C on high, the driver told me about the amateur baseball he played, and then about leaving his civil-war-ravaged rural home to find opportunity in Caracas, and how working for “el señor Ostfeld” had always been a benediction. He was neatly dressed in pleated slacks with a number of phones and pagers affixed to his belt, and he officiously led me past security and up the elevator to the penthouse offices where Ostfeld, his lawyer son-in-law, and a number of associates manage the various enterprises el señor built over his 57 years in Venezuela.
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