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This Country of Mothers

A novelist returns to Buenos Aires, the place he’s been imagining for nearly a decade

Nathan Englander
May 02, 2007

The ombú tree in front of Café La Biela is more than two hundred years old. It’s a vast, ancient-looking thing, biblical in its proportions, so that, sitting half-shaded by it at an outdoor table, I wouldn’t have been surprised if there was another man, at the other end of Buenos Aires, shaded on the tree’s far side. As for the other half of me, well, that was cooking in the sun. Just enough to be reminded that I was well south of the equator and enjoying the end of summer in Argentina, my New York winter far behind.

The café abuts the park that contains this massive tree, and sits atop the hill outside the Iglesia del Pilar, where a huge crafts fair takes place on weekends. There are young people tanning on the grass, and old folks on the benches below the reach of those massive branches, and a generally joyous feel. I order an asparagus omelet and medialunas and my coffee, and it is one of the best breakfasts I’ve ever had. The rest of the block is lined with fine restaurants, all facing the wall on the opposite edge of this very narrow park. The restaurants and nightclubs follow the wall around the corner where they become even livelier, and, what feels like every eight feet or so, a Freddo’s ice cream store dots the way.

Oh, and on the other side of that wall, the centerpiece around which all this activity takes place, around which this whole celebration of life is built, is the Cementerio de la Recoleta, the country’s most famous graveyard. (Among the many other legends laid to rest in giant, marble mausoleums, Eva Peron’s body is sealed up in the Duarte family tomb.)

It’s this juxtaposition, this relationship to the deceased that allows for one of Buenos Aires’ liveliest neighborhoods also to be its deadest, that began to fascinate me when I first visited the city in 1991. I began to think about a nation that lionizes its deceased heroes while living among so many nameless Dirty War graves.

* * *

While making my home in Jerusalem between 1996 and 2001, I became more and more interested in notions of death and burial, bodies and their absence, and community and identity and governments gone awry. These ideas began to form into the basis of a novel, and that novel ended up being set in Argentina. The first finished page I ever wrote was set in the Recoleta cemetery on the other side of the wall.

Intent on building my own Buenos Aires, staying true to the city I was constructing in my head, I decided not to return to Argentina until the novel was done. In many ways this trip was a visit to the city of my imagination. Recoleta I’d set foot in, but there were other central places that appear in the novel that I’d never been to before. One of the single purest moments of my whole life was stepping out onto the pier at the Club Pescadoro where a critical moment takes place, and, looking down toward its end, thinking, Yes, that’s where they stood. It wasn’t a sense of déjà vu, and it wasn’t like visiting a movie set. It was, simply, like knowing, like seeing any other memory in my head. Other places I’d visit, like the section of Cementerio de la Tablada set aside for Jewish prostitutes, were equally moving to me, but raise more complicated issues about memory and truth.

* * *

How best to silence a dinner party: When you are invited to a Jewish Argentine friend’s house for dinner, and you are meeting her whole extended family for the first time, and everyone is curious about the American, who speaks no Spanish and has no connection to their country but has dedicated most of his adult life to writing a novel set there, and they ask you what the book is about, quickly muster the two most wildly uncomfortable subjects you can think of. It is about the Dirty War, I tell them. And it touches on the shameful history, that so many worked so hard to forget, when there was, in Buenos Aires, a society of Jewish pimps and whores.

It was not the story of the society members’ lives that I became fascinated with, but the story of their deaths. This is maybe the way the actual becomes fictional, when the symbolic weight of a simple fact begins to build a momentum of its own, to demand its own, new imagining. When I heard that these pimps and prostitutes wanted to be buried as Jews, I couldn’t let go of the idea of a community that felt it could deny this wish—to stand in judgment this way. They forced those Jews to bury themselves separately. In the book, I built a pimps’ and whores’ graveyard for the Society of the Benevolent Self. I’d heard of two such areas in Buenos Aires, both within larger Jewish cemeteries. Partly, I just can’t get past this idea that, however much shame a community felt while these people lived, that a punishment—even the passive one, of leaving those plots untended—can be carried out so long after death.

I start my second day in Buenos Aires on Corrientes Avenue, which cuts through the heart of Once, the city’s Jewish center, and runs right on through Villa Crespo, its other heavily Jewish neighborhood. If Once were the Old City of Jerusalem, Corrientes Avenue would be its Cardo; and if Buenos Aires were Israel, Villa Crespo would be its Tel Aviv.

On this sunny morning, there is an absolutely impressive hustle and bustle to the neighborhood. I imagine that this is what the Lower East Side must have looked like back in the day, when the store that just sold ribbons was next to the store that just sold buttons, next to the one that sold only knobs. Aside from customers and perusers and people passing through, there’s also an army of workers pushing handcarts loaded with merchandise in every direction and further clogging the way.

Business seems even busier when the city that boasts some of the widest avenues in the world also has amazingly narrow sidewalks. And, thrilled to be there, taking everything in, I also become quickly aware of the need to look down. These narrow sidewalks are all—every one—broken, busted, pocked or pitted in some way.

Oddly, though, the sidewalks are also being fixed. But a city can’t both be busy fixing every broken street and have every street broken. It is Susana, who I met on my last trip to Buenos Aires sixteen years before, and who is showing me around Once, who explains it immediately. “Election year,” she says, as if I should have known.

And I should have. Politics is elemental to Buenos Aires; it’s always right there.

* * *

In its recent history, the Buenos Aires Jewish community has had the very dark distinction—and may its miserable record stand for all time—of falling victim to the attack that killed the most Jews in one place since the Holocaust. On July 18, 1994, a bomb-laden van drove into the AMIA building, their Jewish community center, killing 85 and wounding more than 300 people. Prior to that, in 1992, the Israeli Embassy was blown up, killing 29 and wounding 252. The Embassy bombing was Argentina’s largest terrorist attack until AMIA took its place. (And while I make my observations of business in Once, I’d be remiss to ignore the statistics. Poverty is still a huge issue among Buenos Aires’ Jews.)

One would assume then, that the Jewish community must be a downtrodden community, that it must be, otherwise, noticeably depressed. But I tell you: Outside of Israel, I have never seen such a vibrant, thriving, broad-spectrum community—that is, I don’t mean an exclusionary, homogeneous neighborhood, but an integrated, mixed, urban, lively Jewish center. In my eyes, it looks like a whole Jewish society—distinct, yet Argentine—has formed.

The Jewish character of these neighborhoods goes way beyond mezuzas on store doors, or the woman in a snood I spotted behind a counter at a five-and-dime. There are an amazing number of synagogues. Between Once and Villa Crespo I probably toured a half dozen and knew of even more. All the flavors of religious thought were represented, and I visited both Ashkenazic and Sephardic shuls. In Buenos Aires, the land of nicknames (everyone in the country has one), they’ve boiled those two distinct cultures down to a pair of representative countries. They don’t ask you if you’re Ashkenazi or Sephardi there. They ask, “Are you Polish or Turkish?” “à Sos Turco?”

The shuls haven’t been spared nicknames either. They are generally known not by their official names but by the streets they’re on. All except the synagogue on Paso Street, which is actually named the Paso Street Synagogue. Thanks to the smaller synagogue further down on Paso Street, even the synagogue officially named in nickname style begs a nickname. As everyone now calls the smaller one “Little Paso.” I’d say that makes the Paso Street Synagogue, “Big Paso” by default.

There are also the Jewish social clubs where people come to play sports or cards, to hear lectures and hang out. There is Club Hebraica, and Club OHA Macabi, and Club Nautico Hacoaj in Almagro. Club Nautico, which sits on The State of Israel Avenue, has had its cross street renamed. It is now at the corner of The State of Israel Avenue and Palestine Street (feel free to check a map).

Susana walks me down Tucumà Street, which seems to be the kosher food nexus, and where we sit down to lunch. (Around the corner, Susana points out the name of the celebrity butcher Adolfo “Coco” Maleh, advertised on a sign. If any country is going to have a celebrity kosher butcher Argentina would be the one.)

One dish I spotted going by at the kosher restaurant is called “Papas Fritas a Caballo,” which translates as “French fries on Horseback.” And here is the recipe: Take a plate of French fries, and put two fried eggs on top. It’s nothing short of genius.

As for specifically Jewish local specialties, there is the pletzeleh. I had mine from a bakery called de La Bobe in Villa Crespo. When I mention eating pletzeleh to any of my North-America-based Jewish Porteno expats, they look like they might cry at the mere mention, so painful is the yearning. It’s not a pretzel, and it’s not bread, and it’s not pastry. Basically it’s like a bialy had sex with an onion—but better.

Only slightly less odd than flying five thousand miles to hunt down cemeteries (I visited four that week) is using my first morning—a very sunny morning—to go visit a radio station. But Radio Jai (as in chai) isn’t just any radio station, it is the premier (and only) Jewish radio station in Latin America. Founded in 1992, six months after the Israeli Embassy bombings—which they stress in their literature as proof of purpose—Radio Jai has a broad range of programming, from politics to music. The station has branched out into publishing, putting out books and CDs, and of the long list of cultural events they’ve been involved with over the years, I still can’t figure out how a radio station managed to cover the Israeli mime Hanoch Rosen’s performance at the San Martin Cultural Center.

We are stopped as soon as we enter the building. Because one doesn’t just walk into Jewish sites in Buenos Aires, and one doesn’t just say, “I have an appointment,” and go up. There is a back-and-forth that goes on at Jewish sites in that city. There are lists checked and phone calls made, discussions and once-overs. There is an intentionally unmissable feeling that one is suspect—which is all the more shocking, when, as concerns being a threat to Jews (despite what any detractors may say), I can’t be any less threatening (I “look” Jewish, I speak Hebrew, etc). And I was with Susana, who has been teaching in the Jewish schools there for more than 20 years. She is a small blond woman, who might as well be the mayor of Jewish Buenos Aires—so many students stop to say hello throughout the day, a hundred different parents kissing her cheeks. Walking with her gave me the sense of how close-knit and healthy community life is in these neighborhoods. Watching Susana explain her way in to Jewish building after building—or failing to—may sum things up best. It’s a community whose vibrancy I can’t say enough about that also lives as if it’s under siege.

* * *

Susana and I are looking at the sidewalk again, this time at a plaque at the base of a tree. It has a name on it, as do the plaques at the bases of the trees nearby. This one has the name of her brother’s friend, killed in the AMIA bombing. The force of the blast was so great that a friend of Susana’s, living nearby, was lifted off the bed and into the air and landed on the other side.

The new AMIA building is a fortress. It’s set far back from the street. And along the sidewalk is a high wall. Covering the wall, and far more prominent than the quiet monument of the trees, are all the names of the victims, written in giant letters. It’s almost graffiti-like in its urgency. Not the serif, block letters I’m used to for such things.

It seems like every Jewish building has its own memorial to the attack, along with a “Justice and Memory” reference—the accompanying phrase. Memory, they’ve managed. There hasn’t been much justice at all.

* * *

The building that houses the radio station was first bought in the 1940s as part of a charitable organization that opened cafeterias for poor Jews, called Comedores Populares Israelitas Argentinos. It’s narrow and nondescript, with one of those tiny elevators that makes the faint of heart say, “I’ll just take the stairs.” The radio station is upstairs in what looks like a converted apartment. The front room is decorated with photographs of the owner of the station with important folks (like Israeli politician Shimon Peres). There’s a poster for Lerner & Moguilevsky—an Argentine clarinet and accordion Klezmer duo—in the hallway. Across from it, a small room has a rack of CDs on the wall. I checked their collection for Hadag Nahash—my favorite Israeli rap group. They were represented, along with Shlomo Carlebach and Shlomo Artzi (spanning the whole spectrum of singing Shlomos).

Maxy Yolis, an editor, shows me around. He’s a lanky, bearded young man in a pressed, white shirt. He can’t be any nicer or prouder of what they do. He takes me back and introduces me to Gustavo Rube, the sound engineer, perched in front of his mixing board and the window to the broadcast room. Maxy takes me around to a small inner office. He tells me about the station’s 200-meter antenna in City Park that broadcasts to big Buenos Aires—out to the provinces, and about the reporters they have in Israel and the United States. Despite their powerful signal and what sounds like a very professional operation, the radio station had a full-on haimishe labor-of-love feel.

On the way out, I studied a plaque in the lobby, listing the founders of the Comedores Populares Israelitas. The first founder is Isaias Mellibovsky. I know this name. Matilde Mellibovsky is the mother of one of the disappeared.

* * *

The reason I know the name Mellibovsky is that, in researching a novel set during the Dirty War, when the military government, in what can only be described as a reign of extreme paranoia, began abducting and murdering innocent civilians, many of whom were young, I read part of a book called Circle of Love Over Death by Matilde Mellibovsky. It is a collection of testimonies of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, women telling the stories of their missing children. Mellibovsky’s own daughter, Graciela, was disappeared at age 29.

For those who don’t know about the Mothers, it goes like this: During a time where people lived with terrible fear, when they were—with good reason—deathly afraid to speak up and speak out, the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo came together and made themselves heard. I cannot have any more reverence for them. To this day, they march around the Plaza de Mayo every Thursday in their signature kerchiefs, some of them carrying pictures of their disappeared. What can I tell you? It’s something I wanted to see in this lifetime. And, only there for a week, arriving and leaving on a Thursday, I was afraid I might miss them—and almost did.

* * *

I cannot tell you how deeply involved I became in their story. We are basically bequeathed our historical memory—we weep over the tragedies that we have been tied to by fate. Over the years of writing, Argentina’s Dirty War became very personal to me, the facts of it, the human costs, the lessons that need to be learned. I think the Mothers are true, living heroes. I wanted to see them march in the Plaza de Mayo, outside the Pink House, the seat of Argentina’s government.

Their procession is something truly unique. It isn’t protest, really. The government they organized against has been gone for nearly 25 years. The Dirty War ended long ago. They are not demanding answers—as they have them. Their children are dead. It is no stunt. It’s not performance art. And these old ladies, circling quietly once a week, week after week, year after year are not trying to grab attention in any modern way. Who listens? Who looks? The people who’ve been passing them for their whole lives? To me it is so much more than that. It’s quantum mechanics, and metaphysics, and just plain holy. To circle for the rest of their own lives is, in a way—in the universe that is a single life, a single reality—to keep those children living for an eternity. It’s a group of women who have managed to beat the time-space continuum themselves. And I know this sounds crazy. But I’ve really thought about it—a lot.

* * *

My flight was supposed to land at dawn but the plane just circled and circled over Buenos Aires because of a terrible storm. Sandwiched between strangers in the middle of the plane, all I could see was the blade of the wing, and the air current made visible by a heavy rain. I’d just spent a decade writing a novel about this city, imagining every inch of it again and again. I was on my way down to observe, write, and return. I’d sworn that I wouldn’t get romantic. Looking out that window as we made our descent, seeing nothing more than that wing and streaming water, still, I couldn’t help it. It was like landing in a dream.

Waiting outside the airport with my bags, the only thing I could understand when the driver arrived was that he was delayed by the rain, which was what I assumed he meant, though he was saying, “agua,” which is about all the Spanish I understand. And “water” is not “rain” after all—which became clear to me when I saw the flooded highway and it took forever to get to Recoleta. I dropped my things at the hotel, grabbed a map from the desk, and raced back outside to hail a taxi.

I hopped into a cab, and closed the door. The driver was yelling at me. I’d done something wrong. And I knew what it was from the pantomime. How embarrassing. In this macho alpha-male country, I hadn’t—with my soft Yankee weakness—closed the door hard enough. I was late; we needed to go. So I apologized. And I opened the door again, and, two hands, I slammed it as hard as I could.

Then the driver was really screaming; then he’d blown his top. It seems, he wasn’t saying “too soft” the first time, but “too hard” and my response, as you already know, was to show him, You want to see what hard is? You want to see a good New York slam? And still in this country of nice folk, when he dropped me at the Plaza, he wished me a good day in an English I didn’t know he had.

The mothers circled round.

* * *

What does it mean that a country’s greatest memorial to its biggest crime is in fact a living, moving, human—and therefore transitory—memorial? What does it say about history and memory, and the role the past plays in building a future? Because, I tell you, the Dirty War isn’t forgotten. It’s something this country knows.

I raise the subject with my friend Jessica, born in Buenos Aires in 1977 after the military junta was already in power. I want to know how she sees it, a hip, stylish woman, who writes for Argentine television and film; I want to know if the country’s history plays any role in her and her friends’ lives. She shook this off without pause. “Everybody knows the day,” she said. “March, 24th. El Golpe [the coup]. They don’t forget.” And she added, with a bit of judgment in her tone, “I have friends getting married on that day—that’s new.” She tells me about a television commercial that’s currently running. During the Dirty War, the children of the disappeared were sometimes kidnapped and given away for adoption. The advertisement is aimed at these children, long adults, who do not know who they really are. If you have doubts about your parents give us a call. It is a strange notion, the idea of an adult with a nagging doubt, wondering if the only parents he or she has ever known are actually living a terrible lie. For Jessica this is a sign of how it’s still a living thing, how the Dirty War is still with them. As for the disappeared, she said, “We all know someone who’s gone missing.”

* * *

The Jewish Argentines I know are in New York, and Miami, and Cambridge and Zurich and Madrid, and, of course, Jerusalem. Most of the guys my age have been living abroad for twenty years. It has long been clear that their futures were elsewhere. Economic realities surely play a role, but so must the history of that place. What future does a person feel is promised when it is laid out ahead of a certain kind of past?

Right after I returned to New York, I had an on-stage conversation with the Israeli author A.B. Yehoshua. I couldn’t resist asking the questions that he is so fiercely and wonderfully opinionated about. Without pause he will tell you unabashedly that the future of Jewish society is in Israel. As if, with the creation of the State of Israel, it really can’t be any more clear. He talks with an almost gobsmacked amazement at Diaspora Jewry’s insistence that there’s a viable future anywhere else.

My friend Mariela was wrestling with that very question. She was born in Buenos Aires, and at age ten, in the middle of the Dirty War, moved with her family to Texas. As an adult, she moved to Manhattan and became a doctor, and from there took her ample skills to Israel. She is torn about in which of the three countries to build her future, and is back in Buenos Aires visiting her grandmother along with her parents (from Holland), her sister (the U.S.) and her aunt and uncle (Costa Rica), spread out as so many Argentine-Jewish families are.

It so happens that Mariela’s boss, a prominent Israeli physician (and great-grandson to Eliezer Ben-Yehuda no less) happens to be based in the city for a few months, along with his wife and young daughter. It’s Monday night and we’d just spent an hour in a dark warehouse watching a strange performance that was part-acrobatic, somewhat-child-oriented, oddly burlesque and wholly new-agey and executed by a Ukranian acrobatic family and the rest of their blue-lit, neon-clad, and clearly half-trained troupe (don’t ask). We were out at dinner and I watched Mariela’s boss dote on her with real Israeli pride. I remembered seeing this when I lived in Israel; how happy Israelis were when smart, talented, young people moved there to help build a better country.

As for the country he was visiting, he had nothing but positive things to say (and I heartily agreed). “It’s all the best of Western culture with the real warmth and friendliness of the East.” He went on about how there was always a taxi and how wonderful the children’s museum was, and as for the tango—well, he couldn’t say enough about the tango.

At dinner, I wanted to know what he thought about the difference in how the two countries interacted with their pasts—especially coming from a country obsessed with history. He had an answer at the ready. As relates to Israel, he said, “Ha’avar ze ha’hove.” (Our past is our present.) That’s the difference for him. “I am the great-grandson of the Ben Yehuda family. I am a Zionist. My role is to build Israel.” He went on to say that when people try to destroy you again and again, you are obligated to remember. As I understood it, he was saying the past-as-present structure is essential to Israel’s continued survival. About the Dirty War’s legacy, he said, “The point is, here you don’t see it everywhere. It’s not all stones and andartot [memorials].”

But for me, it is. That’s exactly what I’m concerned with. Is the Dirty War so large and ever present that one doesn’t need to be reminded in order to remember? And then there is the more cosmic point, the message that the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo send. And that is, events can be ignored and even actively forgotten, but it doesn’t make it as if they weren’t. History, if there is any such thing as truth, can’t be undone.

* * *

I hire a car and driver to take me out of the center city, a forty-minute highway drive to the Cementerio de la Tablada. It is a large, well kept Jewish cemetery. There are impressive mausoleums by the entrance, and endless rows of small tended graves often, in Argentine style, with pictures of the deceased affixed to the stones. At the start of the main path there are two cement urns flanking the way filled with small stones to be laid on the graves as a way of marking memory. If you walk and walk, past the big mausoleums, and the memorial to the victims of the Holocaust, if you go to the back of the cemetery and ignore the road that veers off toward the new addition to the right, if you keep going to the very end of that path, you will see a low wall, behind which is hidden a tiny set of plots. On one side there is a break in the wall, an entrance. It is next to the door to the bathroom—which is behind the back wall of that graveyard within a graveyard. The window from the toilet opens above this tiny vegetable-garden sized set of plots. The wall is white on the outside, but inside it is unpainted, worn brick. The ground is overgrown with weeds, the stones uncared for, bits of garbage left or blown in. Some of the enameled portraits that are affixed to headstones have either been knocked off or have simply fallen away over the long years. To make it less welcoming, giant hornets’ nests growing off the corners of the graves are thriving and abuzz. And moving through the narrow rows, I don’t think I’ve ever stepped so carefully in my life.