Pittsburgh Visit

Back briefly for the first time in a year and a half early this June, I was able to snap a few photos of my hometown. Situated in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, spread across steep slopes and punctuated by three rivers and countless gulleys, Pittsburgh is a geographically striking city, unlike any other place I’ve known. A better photographer could convey this in pictures; I’ll have to ask you to take my word for it as I show you a few images from the four-mile walk between my brother’s apartment in Victorian Friendship and Pittsburgh’s downtown:

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Subterranean Time-Warp Blues

It’s been a hectic montaña rusa of a month and by far the longest stretch I’ve gone yet without posting to the blog. To ease myself back into the game, here’s something I’ve been meaning to share for a while now: an underground tunnel direct to the past, just a few blocks from my home. Galería Obelisco Norte is a subterranean shopping strip buried beneath gargantuan Avenida 9 de Julio and adjacent to one of the city’s main subway transfer stations. Long past its prime and worlds away from the nearby galeries parisiennes that share the first part of its name, this galería is a curio cabinet straight out of the ’50s. The tenants occupying its six-foot-shallow stalls sell everything from custom shoes and model trains to the sort of art that Motel 6 buys in bulk. There’s even a barber shop and a restaurant, The Paty King.

I come imitating Walter Benjamin, who’d wander Paris’ arcades in search of those traces of the past no historian would have thought to record. For it’s in this neglected corridor, among all the places I go in Buenos Aires, that I feel closest to the (imagined) city that used to sit atop it. Have a look for yourself:

Sins and Social Justice: Yom Kippur at Bet El

This past Saturday was Yom Kippur, the most important holiday in the Jewish calendar and an opportunity to think critically about what we value and the ways in which these values inform–or don’t–our daily lives. I spent the day at Bet El, a Masorti synagogue founded in 1962 as a beacon of pluralism and inclusion in a country where Jewish institutions have often shown remarkably little concern for such things. (It’s the same place I went for passover.) My favorite part of the Yom Kippur service was the Al Chet, a confession of collective sins read aloud by the entire congregation, culminating in a joint plea for God to pardon our failings. Each entry in this lengthy list begins, al chet shechatanu lefanecha, “for the sin which we have committed before thee,” and the traditional entries run the gamut of biblical wrongs, from lying to lewdness. (You can find a typical version in translation here, courtesy of Chabad.) It’s not usually a highlight for me, but Bet El’s version supplements the classic Mahzor (prayerbook) sins with its own homemade appendix worthy of a congregation brave enough to openly espouse social justice and the rights of desaparecidos during the stifling and dangerous silence of the country’s last dictatorship. Like everything else on Yom Kippur, Bet El’s list is long. Here’s a selection of my favorites; if you’ve been to a synagogue on Yom Kippur before (and share my politics), you’ll instantly understand why I like Bet El so much:

For the sins which we have committed before thee…
…by concerning ourselves solely with our own lives and ignoring the giant problems
that surround us.
…by deafening our ears to oppression.
…by allowing poverty and violence to increase.
…by participating silently in xenophobia and discrimination.
…by destroying our natural environment.
…by not showing solidarity with cartoneros [the more than 300,000 people who make
their living sifting through Buenos Aires’ trash] and street children.
…by silencing ourselves before hypocritical leaders.
…by doing nothing except for personal profit.
…by not striving in our daily lives to find the divine spark planted in your being.
…by demanding of others that which we will not demand of ourselves.
…by being too critical of others and not critical enough of ourselves.
…by manipulating memory.
…by creating a divided community.
…by believing that to raise an alternative voice is to divide the community.
…by rejecting our tradition without knowing it.
…by believing that to interpret Jewish law is to destroy Judaism.
For all these sins, oh God of forgiveness, pardon us, absolve us, allow us to atone.

BA’s Little Bolivia

The big news in my life lately, beyond visits from three friends: I have a new camera! It’s a Canon Powershot SX130, and it hovers on the line between point-and-shoot and D-SLR, with full manual functionality and 12x optical zoom. Given that my last camera was literally a decade old and barely worked–if I balanced it on my knee, I could usually get a half-focused shot–the improvement is hard to describe. As you might imagine, I’m ecstatic.

Yesterday I brought along my new camera as my friend Dan (visiting from the U.S., by way of Mexico City) and I trekked over to a highly under-appreciated corner of Buenos Aires: the city’s informal Bolivian market in the liminal barrio of Liniers, just about the farthest point in the city from where I live. To get there, we took Buenos Aires’ new Metrobus, the city’s first bus rapid transit line, which opened a few months ago. It was indeed quite fast, carrying us the 12 or so km from Palermo in about 40 minutes. The end of the line, Liniers’ bus terminal, is right on the city’s border with Buenos Aires province, and it’s about as far removed from the onda of Retiro as a neighborhood can be. It’s also home, almost inexplicably, to one of BA’s main Jewish cemeteries.

Dan and I spent an excellent afternoon exploring, buying dried goods, and eating (Dan had a chorizo sausage cooked on a shopping cart!). Here are some photos from our afternoon in BA’s Little Bolivia: