Jewish Salta



May 21, 2012

Dear Family and Friends,

The plaque on the wall reads “Estudio Contable, Ema Jaffi de Kohan, Contadora Publica National.

 After almost two weeks in the “deep freeze” of Patagonia, I wander about this lovely city with its spring-like weather (actually, right now it’s late fall). This city of about 500,000 is known as “Salta la Linda” – Salta the Beautiful.

I find the Cathedral, the Church of Saint Francis, and the Monastery.  Orange trees line the residential streets. I photograph the preserved colonial homes and offices with their ornaments and pastel walls.  I stroll through the Plaza of the Ninth of July where the kids are enjoying the mild temperatures. And by accident, I find that brass plaque affixed to the wall of a narrow street. 

I normally think of the surname Jaffe as a possible Jewish name.  But, Kohan? A possibility.

No matter what the spelling – Cohen, Coen, Cohn, Cohan, Kahn, Kohn, Koen, or Kohan - “Cohen” is the Hebrew word  כהן (kohan) that refers to the descendants of Moses’ brother Aaron and the priestly tribes of ancient Israel.  Even today, the kohanim (plural) have certain responsibilities and are accorded certain privileges during the religious rituals at the synagogue.    

Not everyone with the name Cohen is descended from a High Priest, of course, but I was curious about Señora Kohan.  I rang the bell, went upstairs to the office but Sra. Kohan was away.  I introduced myself to the staff, "Mi nombre es Jan Polatschek. Yo soy un hebreo. Creo que Kohan es un nombre judío. ¿Hay otras personas hebreo aquí en Salta?”

(I am Jan Polatschek.  I am Jewish.  I believe Kohan is a Jewish name.  Are there other Jewish people here in Salta?)

One of the staff members answered “yes” and dialed her telephone.  After a taxi ride across town, I arrived at the Salta synagogue, Asociacion Alianza Israelita.  I was greeted by Sarah, one of the members of the congregation. 

Sarah gave me a tour of the synagogue grounds: sanctuary, classrooms, meeting hall, basketball court and a structure that surely served as a “sukkah” during the fall harvest festival of Sukkoth. 

Sarah told me that there are several hundred Jewish families who have lived in Salta for many years. They are mostly merchants and professionals and they support a variety of civic organizations.

This synagogue is affiliated with the Masorti Olami, a worldwide group of Conservative Jews. Their guiding principle is “Where Tradition and Modernity Meet.”

The biggest surprise was that Sarah escorted me down the street to yet another synagogue in Salta.  The “Jabad Lubivitch” is part of the worldwide Chabad community.  Led by Rabbi Rafael Tawil, a young Lubivicher Rabbi from Buenos Aires, the congregation follows the strictly Orthodox practices of the Jewish faith.  For example, the small and simple sanctuary has a “mechitza” – a partition down the center aisle that separates the women from the men during the prayer services.

I couldn’t resist. In my suspect Spanish, I told Sarah one of my favorite jokes and one that seemed appropriate: 

“A Jewish man is shipwrecked alone on a remote island for seven years.  Finally he is rescued.  But before he leaves, he takes the captain of the rescue ship on a tour. “Here is my synagogue, here is my home, here is my kitchen, here is my exercise area and here is my synagogue.”

The captain is puzzled, “You are one man here, but you have two synagogues?”

Our friend responds, “This one I go to.  That one, I don’t go to!”

With a knowing smile, Sarah chuckled.

Ema Jaffi Kohan is a public accountant and a college professor. I didn’t meet her.  I wish I had.  I would have thanked her.  Her office plaque inspired my curiosity about the Jewish community in Salta.  And like all of the Jews here is Salta, she can choose between two synagogues. I can only wonder, “Which synagogue does she go to?” 


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