BUENOS AIRES (JTA) — Until the COVID-19 pandemic, Jews in Córdoba, Argentina’s second-largest Jewish community, were well on their way to doing what so many other communities around the world have done in recent years: to open a museum dedicated to showcasing local Jewish life and history.
But COVID presented an array of logistical and financial challenges that proved too difficult to overcome. So the umbrella group behind him made another joint pivot – and made the project entirely virtual.
Going virtual “was a new challenge, but it was also full of possibilities. For example, the ability to be interactive and also the ability to include new materials, documents, photos, without physical limitations,” said Marcelo Polakoff, Chief Rabbi of the Masorti Centro Unión Israelita Synagogue, the main temple in Cordoba.
Launched last month by the Centro Unión Israelita — which consists of the synagogue and a separate cultural organization — the virtual “museum” includes a timeline of Cordoba’s Jewish history; a 360-degree panoramic tour of the synagogue; explainers of Jewish rituals and holidays; a global map of the places of origin of the Jewish immigrants of Cordoba; the testimony of a local Holocaust survivor; and an interactive map of Jewish sites in the city of Córdoba (Córdoba is the name of both a province of over a million people and its largest city), which includes an Israel Square in the air and a monument at the Anne Frank monument.
Museum director Florencia Magaril said much of the content comes from documents and items previously found in the synagogue’s basement.
“Now the objects and the dossier, the whole story, are available online,” she said.
The 360-degree view of the synagogue and an archive page, full of photos and audiovisual recordings of the community over the years, have proven popular, Magaril said — particularly because the site caters to both Jewish and non-Jewish visitors, the latter being fascinated. inside the synagogue. But another fun section stole the show: the “Idishometer”, a quiz on Yiddish words and their translations into Spanish.
This reporter only answered 67% correctly, so the system said “you need a lot more brushstrokes and visits to your bubbe, but you’re learning pretty well.”
The quiz is representative of something the people of Cordoba are known for: a great sense of humor. They are known as a festive and funny people, from their famous style of music (the playful genre of cuarteto) to their favorite drink (fernando, a mix of the Italian liqueur Fernet and cola). Even their representative in parliament, Luis Juez, is a sort of ambassador of their humorous culture.
Cordoba Jews are an integral part of the gang – Centro Unión Israelita president Hugo Waitman boasted that the synagogue’s two rabbis were “very funny people”. The virtual museum offers links to some of the congregation’s goofy videos over the years.
“We don’t have a specific station on humor, but yes, the characteristic of being funny people is present in the ‘idishometer’ and also in the whole playful concept of the museum,” Magaril said.
The museum concept originated in 2015, as the community, now a diverse mix of around 8,000 people, celebrated an approximate centenary. The region’s first immigrants arrived between 1900 and 1915, said Waitman, who is also a historian of Cordoba’s Jewish community.
The congregation began researching its own history, following how some Jews who arrived at the port of Buenos Aires traveled more than 400 miles northwest to the region full of natural resources, green lands, plans of water and mountains. They printed a document outlining the story, but agreed there was potential for more and room to pay homage to their ancestors.
“After the century celebration, members agreed that we needed a museum, specifically to honor the immigrants who came without speaking the language,” Waitman said.
German Simon Ostwald is believed to be Cordoba’s first Jew, arriving in 1870. Twenty years later, eight complete Jewish families arrived: four from Russia, one from Austria, two from Spain and one from Italy. It is estimated that at the beginning of the 20th century there were a total of 35 people.
The communal group Centro Unión Israelita was founded in 1906, and two years later came a Hebrew school. The first synagogue was inaugurated in 1916 and the first Jewish cemetery in 1923.
The online museum’s timeline also recalls that the first woman in the province’s entire history — Jewish or non-Jewish — to graduate from college was a Jewess. Margarita Zatzkin, who immigrated from Odessa at the age of 7, graduated with a degree in pharmacy in 1905, earning a medical degree three years later (the first woman from Cordoba to do so as well).
Albert Einstein is also part of the museum. His timeline includes photos of his visit to the community as part of a trip to Argentina in 1925.
The timeline also doesn’t jump to dark events, such as a bomb attack on the synagogue on October 18, 1945.
Polakoff noted that Cordoba, at least compared to other Jewish communities around the world, has never experienced high rates of anti-Semitism.
“I always walk with my yarmulke and I never have bad experiences,” said Polakoff, who moved from Buenos Aires to Córdoba 20 years ago. “Maybe one of the reasons is the work we have done with Christians and Muslims, promoting coexistence and good relations here, in a very visible way.”
In one example of this work, 30 leaders from different religious traditions in Latin America and the Caribbean signed in 2017 what has been called the “Declaration of Cordoba”, identifying the region as an area of interreligious coexistence. It was an initiative of COMIPAZ, the first official interreligious committee in Argentina.
The museum also focuses on brighter things. Things like the “idishometer” have the most impact on non-Jews seeking to learn more about Jewish culture, museum officials say.
“We believe that we give our community whatever is within our reach to comfort them, and we seek our community to be good, and that includes happiness, humor and joy,” Waitman said.