Thursday, November 15, 2007

Celebration of Skin

People ask why I chose Buenos Aires, and not some other cosmopolitan Latin American capital where a strong dollar makes living light on the savings. One reason is that, well, Managua or La Paz aren’t home to an important Jewish Diaspora. Buenos Aires, on the other hand, has the only kosher McDonald’s outside of Israel. Although not observant by any stretch of the imagination, when starting from scratch (again) in another international city, I at least hoped to have religion as a common thread to tie me into local life should I feel too displaced. It turns out I didn’t have to go far to find it – religion found me.

Heading out for a midnight snack, I left my apartment wearing an Israeli Defense Forces t-shirt. I was just going down the block to Volta for a quarter kilogram (half a pound) of heavenly gelato flavors like dulce de leche con brownie, cream of almonds con caramelized almonds and tiramisu con real chunks of cake.

After crossing the street at my own risk at Junín and Peña (more on this later), a man on the corner with a black hat and bushy beard said something to me in what I guessed was Hebrew. Seeing the confusion in my eyes, he switched to Castilian (Spanish), but got the same look before making a connection with me in English.

After admitting I was Jewish, Rafael the rabbi asked me what I knew about Jabad Lubavitch. The blank looks resumed, so he tried making a connection to some famous rabbi in Brooklyn.

“Don’t you know Brooklyn!” he demanded, hoping I would say yes to something.

My ignorance prompted him to reconfirm my identity with questions like “Were you born in New York?” “Is your mother Jewish?” and “Did you have a bar mitzvah?” After I regained his confidence, he returned to the rabbi questions, digging into his wallet lined with large bills to find a creased black and white photo of a rabbi I still didn’t recognize.

“Without the beard and black hat, he sort of looks like the Pope,” I said sheepishly. Rafael inhaled a large breath of disappointment. But I wasn't totally a lost cause, just a work in progress. We exchanged numbers so that he could invite me over to temple sometime.

A week after the chance encounter my cell rang. I didn’t recognize the number or voice.

“Heyyyy Jeff man, what’s up?”

The hearty, American-sounding greeting caught me off guard. My first thought was a surprise call from a fraternity brother now in Zambia, but who didn’t have my number even if he found a working phone to dial South America.

Rabino Rafael wanted to see what I was doing the next night because there was some celebration at the synagogue. After greeting me in English, he had defaulted back to Spanish, a stronger tongue. I thought I understood him well enough, but sought confirmation of the odd, unexpected invitation.

“So, I can attend the event where they do the skin cutting of the dick?” I asked in suave Spanish, which turned heads on the express line at Disco, a supermarket chain I initially mistook for a record store.

“The boy’s father would love it if you attended,” the rabbi said as I stepped out of line to add to my basket, wondering what sort of gift would be most appropriate to mark the occasion – bottle of Malbec, jar of formaldehyde or Swiss Army knife.

Hanging up the phone, I felt strangely excited to attend my first bris (well, technically my second). Whereas growing up in New York I’d cook up any excuse to skip Wednesday night Hebrew school or marathon High Holiday services, here in Buenos Aires I couldn’t be too choosy with company, at least not at the outset. Having Tuesday night plans other than eating cold pizza in my apartment was comforting, even if I was only going down the street to temple to celebrate foreskin removal. There I could meet locals, practice Spanish and score points with Dios all at the same time.

Uncertainty, however, undercut excitement. I already grit my teeth when trying to communicate with porteños, most frequently when I present a basket of goods to Disco’s mumbling clerks. Discomfort would double at an Argentine temple where, with a yarmulke on my head, it would be expected that I'd be versed in hymns and traditions when the sad truth is that I’m all but illiterate unless Wikipedia is a click away. Worst case scenarios swirled in my mind. What if Rafael asked me to lead a prayer? To bless the wine. Break the bread. Cut the skin. All I could muster would a blessing for Chanukah candles.

The next evening as I made my way to temple, I paused where Peña intersects Junín in free form. Although not even a blip on the city’s grid of poorly controlled streets, I take no comfort as drivers speed up to these crosswalks like a finish line in their race to beat traffic. Barreling down Junín, a convoy of buses belches black smoke while cars shoot across Peña without so much as a stop sign to regulate right of way. When the screeching of tires interrupts my dreams, my mind flashes to this intersection where a black and yellow taxicab (no doubt driving without headlights) has stopped on a peso to avoid driving through the side of bus #101.

An elderly man stood at the corner, looking dapper but apparently not seeing much. Sensing that someone was beside him, he spoke up. Before I could process the translation, he hooked his arm around mine and marched us across the street. I threw up my free arm in hopes of slowing a cab and Fiat running neck and neck to the finish line.

It turned out that the gentleman and I were headed to the same place. The bris, minus the baby’s robotic wails from a different dimension of pain, was a festive event followed by an appetizing spread of finger food and sweets. Rafael introduced me to the head rabbi, and we all did a shot of Smirnoff. For someone who can’t remember the last time he had been to temple, I look forward to making it twice in one week for Shabbat dinner.

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