This week on The Trip podcast: Mexican-born Rabbi Daniel Askenazi on leading Barcelona’s Jews.
There are few things in Western Europe older than the Jews of Spain. They were there in biblical times, under the Moors, and afterward. Then came Torquemada and the inquisition and for six centuries, the only Jews in Spain were crypto-Jews, who hid their faith until it was all but lost. And now, the Jews are back in Barcelona, and their leader, the chief rabbi of Barcelona, is a big bear of a man, a beer-drinking Mexican who was raised on gefilte fish tacos (that is apparently a thing) and has charmed his new community. How do I know? My cousin, actually, Julie from southern California, is a part of that community, has been for decades as she and her Syrian-Argentine husband, have raised a family in this congregation. Rabbi Daniel Askenazi, they say, has been a champion of widening the circle for Jews in Barcelona, all while keeping everyone safe in perilous times.
Of course, all peril is relative, and we recorded this episode in the misty days before the great pandemic. So you’ll hear no Coronavirus talk from the rabbi, and frankly, after the week me and my city have had here in New York, I’m rejoicing in that.
Nathan Thornburgh: Should I call you rabbi? I don’t want to be overly formal, but you’ve worked hard for this title.
Daniel Askenazi: I had to learn. A few years.
Thornburgh: Where did you start out? Where are you from?
Askenazi: I was born and I was raised in Mexico City. I am a chilango. 100%.
Thornburgh: 100% chilango? What does that mean? What defines you as a chilango?
Askenazi: In Mexico City, you have the actual Mexico City, the Distrito Federal, and you have the metropolitan area. Most of the Jewish chilangos are born in the metropolitan area. I was born in Mexico City.
Thornburgh: This community in Mexico City, where are their roots from?
Askenazi: In my case, my parents were born in Mexico. But three of my four grandparents were born in Aleppo, in Syria. The fourth one was born in New York. But she had 11 brothers and sisters. Ten were born in Aleppo and the last two were born in New York.
I left Mexico when I was 18. I went to Israel. My main goal was to go to a Yeshiva and to fulfill my obligation to serving the army. They have this agreement that you will go do six months in the army and then you’ll go back to Yeshiva. But I fell in love with the army and I stayed there for nine years.
I didn’t have a plan to become a rabbi
Thornburgh: You stayed in the army for nine years?
Askenazi: Yes. I am an officer in the Israeli army.
Thornburgh: And that didn’t derail the plan of becoming a rabbi later?
Askenazi: I didn’t have a plan to become a rabbi at the time.
Thornburgh: It was just something that was germinating in your mind.
Askenazi: It was just cooking.
Thornburgh: What do you love about the army? These seem like different vocations.
Askenazi: In the army, you get so close to people that, if it’s very dark and someone takes their shoes off, you can tell who it is by the smell. They become family, and you fulfill this commandment of the Torah: of loving the other like yourself, because they are becoming like yourself. Your partner is like you.
Thornburgh: So there was something about the community, and as an officer later on—you’re a leader, and you’re always learning. There are these parallels then to the two jobs?
Askenazi: Of course.
Thornburgh: You have lived in Colombia, and in Los Angeles. You’ve practiced your religion there. What differences did you feel between the American Jewish community and the Latin American one? As a Latin American Jew, how are you received?
Askenazi: Latin American communities tend to be closed communities. They will never accept an outsider. If you’re a Jew, of course they will accept you. But they’re very closed communities.
Thornburgh: Is that just because of the history of how they got there, or where they came from?
Askenazi: Yes, and because of the local character of the people.
Thornburgh: But they’re not just Jews. They’re Colombians.
Askenazi: They consider themselves Colombians, of course.
Thornburgh: So they’re going to have a local version of what it is that they do.
Askenazi: Yes. For example, in Mexico, you get Syrian food with guacamole. There are things with tortillas, and gefilte fish with tortillas, and with hot sauce.
Thornburgh: So many readily available metaphors for your existence as a Mexican Jew.
Askenazi: There is a lot of cultural syncretism.
Thornburgh: How did you come to be in Barcelona, and to be the chief rabbi of Barcelona?
Askenazi: My wife and I were looking for a new professional home because our children were growing up, and in Barranquilla, Colombia there was no proper Jewish framework for them. Not at the education level, and not on the social level. Our main goal was to go to the United States. We wanted to live there, because I got exposed to these American ideas, to this American kind of Judaism.
Thornburgh: Define that. What what are a few of the main characteristics, the things that you learned from American orthodoxy?
Askenazi: The rabbis in America are more open, and cheering for inclusiveness in communities. I always wanted to be an inclusive rabbi. That is why I became a rabbi.
Thornburgh: What does it mean to be inclusive? To bring in converts?
Askenazi: Converts, I believe, is not the main point. In Latin America, if someone wants to convert, it will be a secret, and he will study in secret, and then he will convert in secret. And when he comes to the community as a convert, everybody will know that he is a convert and will distance themselves from him, because they don’t like outsiders. In America, if someone wants to convert, it’s open. They will be supportive. Not only that: If someone is married to a non-Jew, in my perspective, I will not close the door immediately. Maybe in Latin America they would. I will embrace it. Of course I have an interest in someone become Jewish. We lost enough Jews in the war. We cannot lose more.
Thornburgh: It sound like—from your experience in Colombia and the Latin American Jewish experience in general—you see the danger of small, closed communities. They’re not robust enough to support a school and all of these things. You’re advocating for a larger tent.
Askenazi: I would not put it that way, because expanding numbers indiscriminately isn’t my thing. If someone wants to convert, of course, come. But they have to go through the due process. That process will last years, maybe two years, three years. But once they convert, they become part of the Jewish family without any hesitations, without any discrimination. They are Jews, our fellow Jews.
Thornburgh: On this show, I’ve been to many places that used to have Jews—Lebanon or Iraq for instance—and where Jewish people just can’t live anymore. What does it mean to you to be able to build strong communities in places that once had more Jews, and might become a safe and thriving place for Jews again?
Askenazi: It’s a cycle closing. In Spain, we are closing a cycle or opening a new one—of Jewish life where there was no Jewish life. That’s also the essence of Israel. That you can turn off a light, but if your spark is cared for, you can have fire again. For me, that’s the essence of the people of Israel—being able to return to this place and make it a strong community where they were once expelled or killed or mistreated. We are not hiding anymore, and we are proud. It’s opening a new cycle and turning the light on again.
Thornburgh: Do you ever envision a day where a synagogue opens back up in Aleppo? Just as it happened in Spain?
Askenazi: Of course. And it will happen eventually. Jews will go back to Aleppo, and they will open the synagogue again, and they will pray. It’s 2,000-years-old community. For 2,000 years there were Jews in Aleppo. It’s only been the last 50 that there weren’t any.
Thornburgh: Well, when you put it that way, it is inevitable then.
Askenazi: It will be.
Thornburgh: Well, I hope so. I will meet you there and we’ll have a beer.
Askenazi: Of course.