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History

The last Jew

Is religion the only way to preserve the Jewish tradition? Not necessarily, says Argentine-Jewish author Ariel Magnus. He explains how assimilation can also become a sad burden.

"We sent you to a religious group to help you develop your sense of identity," is what my father told me when, shortly after my Bar Mitzvah, I decided I didn't want to go to the temple anymore. The way I understand it today, the explanation applied more to him than to me.

My father was among the first generation of German-Jewish immigrants in Argentina.  For him, the question of identity was almost certainly a complex one. Although not as complex as for my mother, whose parents were also of German-Jewish origin, but who moved from Brazil to Argentina to marry my father.

European forebears

For those looking to escape familiar yet increasingly unfamiliar German traditions, without being completely exposed to the friendly yet foreign Latin American culture, Judaism (the Ashkenazic variety, what would be described as "Jecke" in Yiddish) offered a kind of middle ground.

The diary of Ariel Magnus's grandfather
Photo: Marc Koch, July 2012

The diary of Ariel Magnus's grandfather

Whatever the case, I can't remember ever having an identity crisis, or the feeling that my sense of identity was in any way lacking. I was brought up to be (strongly) half German, and (not so strongly) half Jewish, but I always felt entirely like an Argentine.

One who was greatly influenced by German language and culture, and less by Jewish traditions. But that hardly made me an exception: Virtually everybody here has European forebears, which means all Argentines have been colored by their cultural origins.

The promised land

All the Argentine Jews that I know, and there are plenty of them, are assimilated. So assimilated in fact, that they refer to me, a circumcized atheist, who had a Bar Mitzvah and is married to a non-Jew, as "the Jew."

That speaks volumes about the spread of tradition in this part of the world. Or lack thereof. The problem is that Argentina is probably one of the most assimilation-friendly countries in the world. Or perhaps the country has something Jewish about it as a result of the spectrum of countries from which immigrants come.

Sometimes I even have the feeling that we Argentines are living in the Diaspora. The feeling is reinforced by the myth that this poor and distant land is actually a rich, important country, chosen by God. As if we were living in the promised land of our delusion of grandeur.

Maintaining customs

But this self-confident, cheerful assimilation also creates feelings of guilt and burden. As my parents are always telling me "you have to nurture traditions or they get lost forever."

Ariel Magnus in Buenos Aires
Photo: Marc Koch, July 2012

Ariel Magnus in Buenos Aires in July 2012

My folks don't consider religion itself important (God is as much a stranger to them as to me and to their own parents), but they place importance on the little rituals: Lighting candles on Friday nights, drinking sweet wine and avoiding pork (although a couple of slices of ham won't hurt), fasting once a year, marrying Jews and raising children within the faith.

Is it so hard to stick to these thousand-year-old customs? Not necessarily - if you find the right woman. So why doesn't it happen? Because people don't want it to, and because they are don't see a need to have anything to do with the religion.

Inverse assimilation

But no reason to panic! Thank God, I am not the last Jew in Argentina. Several temples, more or less denominational schools, different sports clubs (enough to create a Jewish football league, in which I also played), and a Jewish book trade fair mean it isn't necessary to slap an assimilation protection order on Jewish life in Buenos Aires.

On the contrary: There is nowhere in the Spanish speaking cultural region that Woody Allen and Sigmund Freud are as revered as here. And that is indicative of inverse assimilation, namely, the country assimilating to the traditions of its Jewish citizens.

Amen to that.

Ariel Magnus was born in Buenos Aires in 1975, and is a writer and translator. He comes from a German-Jewish family, whose members arrived in South America during the Nazi era. His grandmother survived the Auschwitz concentration camp. Ariel Magnus attended the Pestalozzi school in Buenos Aires, and from 1999 to 2005 he studied in Heidelberg and Berlin. He writes for a number of newspapers, including the Berlin daily, "Tageszeitung." He has also published six novels, some of which have appeared in German. His book, "La abuela" (2006) tells the story of his grandmother and was published in German this year. His best-known work "Un chino en bicicleta" was awarded the La otra Orilla international literature prize in 2007. Magnus wrote this text exclusively for Deutsche Welle.

DW.DE