This is rather off our geographic topic, but, we feel, of interest.
An exhibition of photographs by JHE contributor Michele Migliori will open March 22 — at the AMIA Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
They are photos of Jewish heritage sites in rural Argentina that Michele has taken during current research work there on his PhD dissertation.
His topic — and thus, the photos — are of particular interest to us, as he is researching how the architecture and decoration of synagogues in Latin America were influenced by the synagogue art and architecture in the countries which the Jewish immigrant communities in Latin America came from in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Michele is carrying out his research as a doctoral student at Bar Ilan University in Jerusalem.
Click here to see more about the exhibition, curated by Elio Kapszuk, director of AMIA’s Department of Art and Production.
The exhibition comprises 69 pictures from 26 villages and towns in the Argentinian countryside that I visited in my first two “expeditions” during my doctoral studies in the provinces of La Pampa, Buenos Aires, Entre Ríos, and Santa Fe. These provinces are the ones that received the most Jewish immigration between the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, in the context of Baron Hirsch’s Jewish Colonization Association (JCA) initiative, which foresaw the creation of Jewish agricultural colonies in isolated areas of Argentina. When the project started, Jews were recruited in the Pale of Settlement.
In my research, I include JCA colonies as well as independent Jewish agricultural colonies funded by Jewish immigrants that didn’t participate in the Baron Hirsch initiative or that decided to drop the JCA project, and other small towns where Jewish presence is historically important.
Synagogues in these settlements were usually the first buildings to be built with bricks, representing the center of Jewish religious and communal life for decades. Those in charge of the building of synagogues were greatly inspired by the synagogue they left in Europe and tried to recreate some features that are common in eastern European synagogues.
Mural decorations representing musical instruments hanging on trees by the River Babylon, musical instruments from psalm 150, or the four animals from Pirkei Avot 5:20, or the Tomb of Rachel and the Dome of the Rock, can be found in small far away synagogues in rural Argentina, as well as more common elements, such as lions, Stars of David, and so on.
For example, the synagogue in the town of Médanos is the only one in the country to feature four wooden columns around the central bimah that connect the bimah to the ceiling, which resemble the structure of bimah-supported synagogues in Eastern Europe. According to local lore, this spatial arrangement was adopted because the person in charge of the construction of the synagogue wanted it to resemble synagogues in his region, in today’s Belarus.
Among the aims of this exhibition is to show the diversity and richness of Jewish built heritage in rural Argentina and its current conditions. Only in a minority of towns is there still an active community. In most cases, synagogues and cemeteries are either looked after by local municipalities, volunteers, or the last Jews living nearby.
Some places I visited are completely ruined and abandoned, while others were recently restored. Some synagogues are not even on the maps, either on or offline, while others are still used for the weekly prayer. And in some cases, I visited synagogues or ceremonial houses that were used as a warehouse by those Jews that left these small settlements looking for a better life elsewhere. These places are like gigantic genizot, where hundreds of books, ritual objects, and textiles can be found. The exhibition also wants to raise questions about the future of these buildings where there is no community or where the community will be reduced to zero in a few years.
Here are a few photos from the exhibition: