Don’t let the headlines mislead you, writes Andrew Gold, who discovered a warm Jewish welcome in Argentina – there’s even a kosher McDonald’s
Argentina has been in the news quite a bit in recent weeks – and not in a good way.
The death of local prosecutor Alberto Nisman, who was said to possess vital information that would implicate the Argentine government in the cover-up of a 1994 anti-Semitic attack, has made international headlines.
It reeks of foul play, and locals are marching in the street to make their voices heard. “He was having an affair with a man who provided him with the gun to kill himself out of shame,” said my animated Porteño taxi driver.
Everyone, from the newspaper seller to the barman at one of Palermo’s brewery pubs, has a battery of wacky theories about Nisman.
It is unlikely we will ever know the full truth. But none of this should put you off coming to Buenos Aires, which enjoys a reputation as the Paris of South America. And with so many young Jewish people opting to experience part of their gap years here, their parents are bound to follow.
When I moved to Argentina last year, my prime concern was how the locals would react to me as a Brit.
As it turned out, the vast majority of people actually like us, as long as we don’t drive around with daft number plates referencing the Falklands War, à la Top Gear.
But what really struck me was the bizarre history Argentina shares with its Jews.
Despite the bombing Nisman was investigating, the country is in many ways a Jewish haven, second only to Israel in terms of safety and acceptance.
Buenos Aires is home to the only kosher McDonald’s outside Israel as well as more than 250,000 Jewish people – one of the biggest communities in the world.
In fact, there are more Jews in the city of Buenos Aires than in Uruguay, Brazil, Chile and Mexico combined.
It has the only Holocaust museum in South America, and Jews were welcomed with open arms after World War II.
Of course, it should be noted that this hospitality was also gladly extended to the Nazis.
Some historians even claim Hitler escaped Germany at the end of the war for the snowy peaks of Bariloche in the south of Argentina.
Argentina’s former leader, Juan Peron, stamped Jewish passports with the Star of David but he was also the first South American leader to acknowledge the state of Israel.
All this suggests Jews enjoy and endure a tricky political relationship with the country.
On a personal level, it has been far more pleasant.
Over the months, I have built up a group of local friends in their 20s, and after knowing them for some time, I realised my mates Fernando Olomudski, Alex Cohen and Agustina Goldstein were them-selves Jewish – it was the names that gave it away!
These guys all work at the Argentine Experience, a Jewish-owned restaurant where guides teach you how to talk and make signs like a Porteño.
You can make your own empanadas and tuck into the tenderest steak you are ever likely to try. The city enjoys hot weather for most of the year, so you can work on your tan at the pool before heading into San Telmo or Palermo for the nightlife.
Among the sights to see is the Recoleta Cemetery, which is like a bizarre and intriguing netherworld of houses for the dead.
Elsewhere, visitors can walk along the riverbank in Puerto Madero and see the street museum of colourful Italian houses in La Boca.
When my mum came to visit, I wanted to introduce her to Argentine traditions, so I took her out for a day of polo, where we learned to play the horse-driven sport, before an evening of tango dancing in La Catedral del Tango, the city’s most famous milonga (tango club).
The Onze zone is predominantly Jewish and has many street markets connected by synagogues.
Here, and in the nearby Abasto region, Jews walk proudly wearing kippurs and Stars of David.
The more affluent live in suburban regions akin to Muswell Hill or St John’s Wood. San Isidro and Belgrano are posh areas with gated Jewish communities.
There are schools, synagogues and many Jewish organisations in the city as well as small pockets of Jews in the cities of Rosario and Córdoba.
The Gran Templo Paso, with its white façade and majestic arches, is arguably the most beautiful synagogue in South America.
The Holocaust Museum is as eerie and poignant as you would expect, and it also shows revealing photos of vast Nazi rallies in Buenos Aires.
Just this week, locals attacked a Jewish hostel in Patagonia. And guards continue to monitor the memorial to the 1994 AMIA bombing after two decades.
I doubt we will ever know the truth about the bombing, despite the wacky theories of cab drivers. But regardless of the complex relationship, Argentina remains a haven where Jews thrive and play a key role in the culture.