Intense, lifelong friendships that transcend social and cultural barriers are an Argentinian specialty, like tango, recurrent currency crises, and artery-clogging steaks.
I have written many times about my native land of Argentina, Mainly, it has been to relate traumatic memories of the dictatorship, to warn about the dangers of totalitarianism, and to stress the positive impact that community and Judaism can have in people’s lives.
True, I have lived most of my life outside Argentina; my accent is more Israeli than Spanish and I’m not a faithful example of a “typical” Argentinian, if such a thing exists. And yet, as the early Zionist poet Shaul Tchernikovsky wrote, “a man is the forged in the mold of the land in which he was born.”
But last week’s murderous terrorist attack in New York, in which five Argentinians, including one Jew, were killed, made many parts of my identity hurt in unison. Ariel Erlij, the Jewish victim, was the age and had the same name as a classmate of mine in the Bialik Hebrew Day School. It took me a few agonizing hours to realize that, by a strange coincidence, two different people had the same age and the same name. But while looking frantically for news of my friend, I learned about the other Ariel Erlij who was killed, and about the other Argentinians who died with him.
What I learned during that gruesome research project had a paradoxical effect, for it brought back another aspect of Argentina – one that I have rarely shared in print. It’s something hard to explain and virtually unknown to anybody who hasn’t lived there for an extended period: the cult of camaraderie, the elevation of life-long friendship to a level of almost religious veneration.
The five Argentinian men who were killed were in New York celebrating the 30th anniversary of their high school graduation. They had stayed close friends for decades and they wanted to celebrate this milestone together. They were all very different; Ariel was a businessman who owned steel mills; there was an architect and a rugby coach. Their surnames show the diversity of that land of immigrants: Spanish, Italian, Jewish, Slavic. It was critical for them to take this trip together; the group of friends had stayed together through life and were honoring their bond with this trip to New York that they had planned for years. It was so important for them that Ariel paid for a couple of his friends who couldn’t afford the trip (not a mean feat in a country that just came out of an economic crisis induced by populist policies).
Their story is not unique. Intense, lifelong friendships that transcend social and cultural barriers are an Argentinian specialty, like tango, recurrent currency crises, and artery-clogging steaks. Those friends would be incredibly open with each other, not afraid of showing vulnerability; sharing every aspect of their lives; going together on vacations; participating in each other’s life cycle events; eating “asados” that take 5 hours to cook and another 5 to eat; sharing rounds of “mate,” the local infusion and, most importantly, being a rock of support when tragedy strikes.
I left the country a long time ago and I’m blessed with good friends all over the world, but even after decades of living abroad, I still have an incredibly strong bond with my Argentinian friends. My mother, who still lives there and is well into her 70s, meets with childhood friends every week. Earlier this year, she had a minor cardiac incident (nothing serious, thank G-d). Her friends – some of them all the way from high school – took turns to ensure that she didn’t spend a minute alone.
During decades of political and economic upheaval, these long friendships kept the fabric of society together. The more lawless the country became, the stronger the codes of honor and loyalty among friends; the more the safety net collapsed, the more friends became a reliable support system. You can’t trust the government; you can’t trust law enforcement; you can’t trust the banks; but your friends are the only institution you can always trust. Ask every Argentinian living abroad – even those who have made their entire lives out of the country – what they miss most, and they’ll all say the same thing: the friends.
I doubt that the murderous fanatic knew all this about Argentina. He was targeting random people in his sick hatred for everything “Western and American.” But even without knowing, he did what terrorism always seeks to do: attack the best of a society. When terror strikes America, it attacks our freedom, our diversity, and our openness to the world. It’s not America’s defects that they target, but the sources of its greatness. The terrorists that strike Israel may claim territorial disputes, they may coat their murder in legitimate nationalist aspirations, but what they really can’t stomach is what Israel represents: a beacon of democracy and pluralism in the heart of the Middle East.
In this case, terror also struck at the best of Argentina. No, the five guys killed weren’t Nobel Prize winners or exceptional soccer players, but they represented what’s best of that distant land in the southernmost tip of the world: the capacity to build bonds of friendship and solidarity that last decades and that not even death can sever.
The best response to terror is always honoring the values that the fanatics try to destroy. When terror attacks the Jewish right to the land of Israel, we respond by reaffirming that bond. When terror strikes at the heart of our democratic values, we recommit to a system of freedom and human rights. Maybe among the many things that we do to fight terror and honor the fallen, we should find a space to learn from these five “landsmen” to honor our friends, love them, and cherish them all our lives. Maybe we should look around and consciously work to strengthen bonds of loyalty and solidarity with our friends and make those bonds into the cornerstone of a better society and a better world.
When Jews die we don’t say, “May they rest in peace”; we use a much more profound formula: “May their souls be bound to the chain of life.” Maybe I feel compelled to write this so as to acknowledge these victims as bound up in the great chains of our lives as well. If their deaths can impact our lives even in a minor way, and make them even a little better, we will be denying the murderer a part of the sick glory he was looking for – and strengthening the bonds he only thought he could weaken.