On May 25, 1908, the Opera House in Buenos Aires, “Teatro Colon,” opened its doors in its current location. This monumental and majestic theater required three different architects and the most refined woods, marble, tile, etc. from Spain, France, and Italy, as well as other countries, for its construction. Luciano Pavarotti would say about the Teatro Colon that it is one of the most difficult theaters in which to perform. Why? Because its exquisite acoustics are so perfect that any errors could be clearly heard.
This past March I had the pleasure of co-leading a delegation from Denver and LA on a Jewish Heritage trip to Buenos Aires. While on our tour of the Teatro Colon, the guide talked about the process of restoration the building had undergone in recent years. With a gentle smile on her face, she pointed at a square on a wall in one of the rooms where we had stopped, and then said, “This was left here to show the arduous work of restoration that took place. This panel shows the wall the way it was before the restoration started.” The panel on the wall showed years of deterioration due to smoke and other pollutants. I searched in her smile to understand the full meaning behind her sense of pride: It wasn’t just about showing the final result of a job well done; it was about the process. Being able to appreciate what the building was and what it is now, without covering its past completely, was the perfect way to understand the true meaning and the full story of the Opera House.
The memory of this tour of the Teatro Colon became more meaningful a few weeks ago as I sat with family, friends and community for the Passover Seder, my first as an American citizen. The magid section came around, and we prepared to tell the story, not only of our ancestors who escaped slavery thousands of years ago, but also our personal stories, and those of our parents, grandparents, and great grandparents. Who are you and where do you come from? What is your story? Although we each have one that is rich and dense, I wondered what makes it into the “official” version of the story of our lives, and what we leave out. I became aware of the fact that, often, there is a particular version that we tell others, and, eventually, we repeat to ourselves. I began to fear that each of our stories, my story, becomes too clean and sterile, too diluted, and begin to lack meaning, as we often (unlike the Teatro Colon) erase the marks of what was there before in the process of highlighting who we are today. And so, I wonder, are there ways to access that which we have left out of our official stories, to infuse them with meaning, authenticity, truth, and a sense of pride?
I believe one way to do this is through traveling. Here are four things that I have left out of my official story, but that I was reminded of while traveling throughout Buenos Aires this past March:
- Buenos Aires was created to be “the Paris of South America.” There is beauty and history in every building, in every square, in every school, in every park.
- The best doctors in Buenos Aires, in addition to their private practices, see patients or coordinate special labs and research initiatives in public hospitals (Argentina provides free basic health care to everyone). Why? Because it gives them a higher status. You heard that well! Working at a public hospital gives doctors a name and a reputation that they wouldn’t have if they were to only practice in the private sector. I’m extremely proud of this.
- A visit to the Metropolitan Cathedral located in the Mayo Square in the city reveals a holocaust memorial. This unique memorial contains sheets from prayer books, megillot, etc. rescued from the ruins of the Treblinka and Auschwitz concentration camps as well as the Warsaw ghetto.
- Lastly, Friday evening services at synagogues in Buenos Aires are still my absolute favorite! The music and the sense of community of all ages truly coming together is contagious to all attending, even if it’s their first time there! The contagious warmth, the uplifting melodies, the informal and accessible style of the prayer leaders make it a truly unique experience.
I hope Jews around the world, like my friends from Denver and LA, will continue to have the courage and determination to go out of their comfort zones, to travel, meet other people, and re-discover people they already know in their home countries. Thanks to them and our experience together, I was able to fill in some of the pieces of the puzzle of my personal magid and create a more authentic version of my personal story.
Let us truly be able to gather again for our Seder in years to come, ask the right questions, and tell the most vivid truthful and enduring stories of both our ancestors and ourselves!
About the Author: Cantor Sheila Nesis and her family live in Denver, Colorado, where she serves Temple Sinai. Born and raised in Buenos Aires, Argentina, she moved to the US in 2007 and served Temple Israel of New York City, as well as congregations in the Phoenix and Scottsdale area before relocating to Denver.