A Southern Cone Shtetl

Tuesday, November 13, 2012
Travel Writer

It’s already November, which means that if you haven’t yet booked your holiday in Punta del Este, you had better get moving.

The Southern Cone’s premier beach resort, Punta del Este, Uruguay, is the favored getaway for well-to-do Jewish families from Montevideo and Buenos Aires. Both capitals are a short hop from this favored spit of coastline, where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Río de la Plata, and where beaches can feel as glitzy as nightclubs.

The truth is, no summer resort in America comes close to the kind of shtetl-like environment you find in Punta del Este. The most frequent comparison is to the Hamptons, which Punta resembles in certain key ways; each hub is a string of beach towns rather than a single city, and each attracts the wealthy elite of one major nearby city (Porteños, residents of Buenos Aires, are Punta’s dominant summer crowd). Social climbing, competitive dinner reservations and real estate one-upmanship are endemic to both.

But American Jews scatter to diverse summer spots, whereas for a certain class of Argentine Jewish families, Punta del Este is de rigeur — and has been ever since the 1940s. That’s when Mauricio Litman, the Argentine son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, saw opportunity in this pine-fringed coastline and single-handedly spearheaded the development of vacation bungalows, golf courses and hotels.

Litman’s name inevitably comes up in any discussion of Jewish life in Punta del Este. Virtually every institution bears his imprint, from the Cantegril Country Club (indeed, the entire posh Cantegril neighborhood was originally a Litman project) to the only-in-South-America circus of annual beauty pageants to the Punta del Este International Film Festival, a highlight of the summer calendar whose major prize carries the Litman name.

With miles of beaches and a glittering high-rise skyline, Punta del Este looks a little like Miami, and its sprawl is very much New World. It’s a southward-facing spit of land where river meets ocean and bay, and the result is shoreline to please any taste: tranquil waters on the riverside, wind and surf on the exposed Atlantic. Argentines and Uruguayans are sporty people, with strong traditions of horseback riding, rugby and soccer, all of which are prime activities for regulars at the Cantegril and other local sports clubs.

But Punta is not just sun and surf. The Ralli Museum, the finest in town and one of Uruguay’s premier collections, is also a monument to Jewish ambition – specifically that of Harry Recanati, a Thessaloniki-born Sephardic Jew.

Recanati, who died last year, took over the Tel Aviv-based Israeli Discount Bank from his father and built it into one of the country’s most successful banks. His international career brought him frequently to Latin America, where the descendant of Spanish Jews fell in love with Hispanic art.

Together with his wife, Martine, the banker established the Harry Recanati Foundation, which oversees Ralli Museums in Chile, Israel and Spain as well as the original one in Uruguay. Together, the institutions (which are all free to the public) constitute one of the world’s major Latin American art collections.

Located in the posh (of course) Beverly Hills neighborhood of Punta del Este, Uruguay’s Ralli Museum is a white stucco building with arched porticos that surround a sculpture-filled courtyard. Latin American painting and sculpture of recent times are the focus; they are complemented by the works of European surrealists like Dalí, Chagall and Modigliani. Many of works on view, both classic and contemporary, are by Jewish artists. This summer’s exhibitions include a retrospective of the Belgian surrealist Magritte, a pictorial survey of Buenos Aires, and works by the Argentine painter Daniel Kaplan.

Another highlight of Jewish culture is the Punta del Este Jewish Film Festival at the Conrad Hotel, Punta del Este’s most famous resort. Held annually in midsummer, the JFF has a strong lineup of contemporary Israeli films alongside dramas and documentaries with Jewish themes from across Europe, Latin America, Uruguay and Argentina.

That international perspective, always a feature of this community of New World transplants, has a new significance lately. In Jewish communities from Buenos Aires to Montevideo, the tight-knit core of Southern Cone pioneers has given way to globally minded young professionals; many members of the new guard have made aliyah or emigrated abroad in recent years.

Nonetheless, even as Jewish affiliation dwindles at institutions in the capital, 2003 brought the official opening of the Comunidad Israelita de Maldonado, a vibrant seaside Jewish Center that serves the region.

So it’s a good bet that when January rolls around, Jewish families will once again gather on the shores of Punta del Este. 

The Ralli Museum in Punta del Este. Courtesy Ralli Musuem

Comments

We have vacationed in Punta del Este several times and I did not recognize the resort town described in this article. While parts of Punta contain the posh summer homes of wealthy Argentinians, many regular South Americans vacation there too. It is a casual place, not competitive, with a laid-back Latino sense of hospitality and fun. There are several shuls, kosher caterers, and a kosher grocery store.

As for Jewish affiliation, it is far from dwindling in either Montevideo or Buenos Aires. A new generation of committed young Jewish professionals have reinvigorated the Jewish community of Montevideo, its schools, synagogues and social organizations. While it's true that many young people emigrate to Israel after graduating, their high school experience is rich in Jewish learning and identification.

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