When travelling, how many of you roll the country you are visiting around in your mind and ask, “Could I live here if forced to leave my home?”
It isn’t as far-fetched a notion as many might seem to think. Our ancestors have been exiled from places and regions just as or even more enlightened than those in which we now reside. Most of our grandparents or great-grandparents came from countries that either wouldn’t provide religious, economic, and social equality for them or tried to ethnically cleanse them out of existence. So, I ask again. If forced to leave your home, where could you see yourself living?
Israel? Perhaps, but the constant war-footing and the lack of equality for progressive Jews and in many places, women, makes the country somewhat suspect for me.
Nope. I found my haven today and it is happily situated on the South American Atlantic. I absolutely could see myself living and thriving in Montevideo, Uruguay.
Now, I should explain that I knew very little about this country before we arrived. Most of what I recall about Uruguay and Jews came from newsreels about Israeli partition or the movie Exodus. Uruguay was the first Latin American country to vote for a free and independent Israel and they were the country that put the partition plan over the top during that historic UN vote. They were also the first Latin American country to open an embassy in the state and to welcome the Israeli ambassador to its capital. The Zionist roots here run deep but their Jewish history is long and proud.
We took a private tour today of Jewish Montevideo. I found a wonderful guide on Trip Advisor who has been lovingly ferrying Jewish tourists around the city for years. Fanny Margolis is a former teacher and a very involved member of the Jewish community here. She was thrilled to give us the history of the Jews in this area. The first Jewish settlers were refugees from the expulsions of both Spain and Portugal. These Sephardic Jews made their way to the territories of the Americas to find peace and prosperity. Uruguay has fluctuated for generations between the kingdoms of both with the Portuguese of Brazil battling for territorial rights with the Spaniards of Argentina. The Uruguyans finally achieved their independence in 1830 and the next wave of Jewish immigration took place at the beginning of the twentieth century. Jews escaping the pogroms and degradation of Eastern Europe found their way to these shores mostly due to quotas in immigration in North America. In Uruguay, they found a country that values secularism, (there is a strict separation between church and state) public education, state-administered health care, and a fully democratic governance. With the exception of a dozen or so dark years in the 1970s and early 80s when the country was run by a dictatorship, Uruguay has been faithful to these principles throughout its history. It’s a great place for Jews to thrive.
The last wave of Jewish immigration came after the Holocaust. Many German and Hungarian Jews tried to make their way here before the war but were rebuffed by treaties. After the war, more than three-thousand Jewish refugees came to Montevideo to try and pick up the pieces. At its height, there were 50,000 Jews living in the city and surrounding areas. There are still remnants of the Jewish shops, (it felt like wandering through Kensington Market or along Spadina Avenue in Toronto) old synagogues of both the Sephardim and Ashkenazim, a communal centre that runs day schools and childcare, as well one of the most beautiful Holocaust memorials I have ever seen outside of Yad Vashem. This is a place that is very proud of its Jewish heritage and at how easily Jews have integrated and assimilated into Uruguayan society.
The Jewish population is dwindling here. Fanny estimates that no more than 10,000-15,000 still live in the country. The Zionist foundations have taken many through Aliyah to Israel and many of the younger generations have scattered across the globe. They are facing many of the same problems that are the Jews of North America. Assimilation, inter-marriage, or simply a move away from religious practices is plaguing this community but there is still a dedicated group who are involved and trying to maintain Jewish customs and heritage.
Montevideo is also one of the most architecturally distinct cities we have visited. The diverse range of art deco and colonial styles reflects on its multi-cultural history. It is a city brimming with culture, nightlife, museums, and theatres. They love their city squares and parks and are extraordinarily proud of the greenery and green space. It is also really hot here in the summer (It is 40℃ today. I hate writing that knowing that my dear ones at home are suffering from snow and cold. Today has been the hottest day of our trip.) and very moderate in the winter, just perfect for a Jew who hates the Canadian winters.
So, I ask again Members of the Tribe. Where could you live if forced to flee your home?
Check out Montevideo, Uruguay. A Jewish haven in South America.
|The Sephardic Centre|
|Part of the Holocaust Memorial|
|Old Jewish signage in the Old City|