Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Buenos Aires' oldest synagogue: The worst and the best

All of my life I have harbored a huge craving for any kind of food that contains both sugar and whipping cream -- but over the years I've finally learned to fight the feeling. That stuff is bad for you. One cannot live on hot caramel sundaes and Tiramisu alone.

I also have a huge craving for any type of spirituality -- but that is a craving that I encourage. I keep thinking that if I go to enough holy places, meditate upside down long enough and/or read enough holy texts, that some of that spirituality will finally rub off on me and I will become an enlightened Good Person instead of the salty loner curmudgeon that I actually am.

So far no luck.

But I keep trying.

If the human race is ever going to evolve out of the shattered shards of pollution, greed and war that it so enthusiastically embraces right now, it is going to have to learn to spiritually evolve -- and hopefully this evolution will start with each of us individuals evolving individually. Duh.

So whenever I get a chance to visit a church, mosque, shrine, temple or synagogue, I'm there -- always hoping that something higher and better will somehow rub off on me. Hence my trip to the oldest synagogue in Buenos Aires the other day.

I've been to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem and to various simple but dignified synagogues all the way from Esfahan, Iran, to Berkeley, California, but the Buenos Aires synagogue was more impressive and elaborate than most, even the one I visited in St. Petersburg. A member of the minyan gave me a very nice tour. Plus the temple also had a small museum and I got to learn more about the history of Jews in Argentina.

"Originally, there were no synagogues in Buenos Aires and minyans gathered in peoples' homes or at the Recoleta cemetery," said our guide. That's the cemetery where Evita Peron is buried. "But in the middle of the nineteenth century, Baron Maurice de Hirsh, a French industrialist, became pained and horrified by the persecution of Jews in Russia, so he arranged for Russian Jews to immigrate to Argentina. He then founded many planned communities out in the countryside here." Apparently these communities were like prototypes for the later Israeli kibbutzim.

"The Congregation Israelita de la Republica synagogue was originally constructed on this site in 1892, by Baron Hirsh's widow Clara. It was rebuilt and rededicated again in 1932."

I was awed and inspired by the tour.

But let's get back to chatting about spirituality once again. Sure, religions have their illuminating aspects. But they also have their shadow sides too. For instance, some of the most vicious attacks on human beings while using religion as a red herring since the tragic destruction of Poland's Warsaw Ghetto are now being committed in Gaza -- by Israeli neo-cons who are using the Jewish religion as a smoke screen in order to torture, starve and kill. Yet the Jews that I met in Argentina were gentle and delightful people who would never even consider condoning such crimes in their name.

And there are also terrible, grim and horrible atrocities being committed across the planet right now -- sometimes in the name of Christianity -- by Americans in Washington who possess unlimited power. Yet the average American citizen, and the average American Christian too, is also someone who, when you meet him or her individually, are individual people who you like and respect -- people who would shudder at the mere thought of shrouding innocent human babies with depleted uranium and white phosphorus.
Muslims are that way also. Take a look at the extreme difference between "Muslim" extremists as a group and the individual Muslims that I personally know and love.

What is it about mankind's herd mentality that seems to be able to condone and justify almost anything -- as long as it is done by a group? Or for a so-called religious cause.

"Snap out of it, Jane," you might say. "Stop thinking about the worst aspects of spirituality and start thinking about the best." Yes, well. The synagogue in Buenos Aires was very impressive -- and I have the video to prove it too. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4yMuoI5I7KI

PS: I really need to get off of my bottom right now and go do more stuff to try to save the world from violence and conflagration. And you do too.

PPS: At this point, I'd like to read you a quote from Chagdud Tulku, a classically-trained Tibetan Buddhist lama. "Trying to change people by aggression and dominance is like trying to extinguish a fire by putting more wood on it. You're just making it worse. If, instead, you take the pieces of wood off the fire one by one, the fire doesn't have a source of energy and it will go out -- the problem has been resolved. Aggression and dominance never work -- they only cause escalation."