The Jewish don of Latin American TV says ‘adios’ after 53 years


On Saturday, the Spanish language television network Univision will host the final broadcast of “Sábado Gigante.”

With 53 years on TV, the world’s longest-running variety show is an eclectic, strange mashup of a game show, a talk show and live entertainment. There are singing competitions — the poor-performing contestants are eliminated by a trumpet blast, a la “The Gong Show” — as well as lie-detector tests for husbands accused of infidelity, comedy segments and beauty contests. (Check out a montage of clips from the show’s 50th anniversary here.)

Each week, the three-hour hodgepodge is broadcast in 40 countries and watched by tens of millions of viewers. With a reach beyond the Spanish-language market — it’s been the subject of parodies on “Saturday Night Live” and “The Colbert Report” — “Sábado Gigante” is a well-known pop-culture phenomenon.

Less known, however, is that Don Francisco, the show’s Chilean creator and host, is Jewish.

The son of German Jews who had fled Nazi persecution, Mario Luis Kreutzberger Blumenfeld created “Sábado Gigante” and transformed it into an unprecedented success. Drawing on his immigrant background and influenced by American television culture, the kindly Kreutzberger connected with a pan-Latino audience and became the the undisputed “Gran maestro” of Spanish-language media — not in spite of, but because of, his Jewish identity.

“Among Spanish speakers in the United States he is an icon,” said Ilan Stavans, a professor of Latin American and Latino culture at Amherst College who has been a guest on “Sábado Gigante.” “In my view, he couldn’t really come to that type of persona were he not Jewish.”

Kreutzberger, 74, was born in Chile, the “only option” his refugee parents had when they left Germany, he told CBS News. In his 2001 Spanish autobiography “Don Francisco: Entre la Espada y la TV” (“Between a Rock and the TV”), he describes a Jewish upbringing in Chile filled with bar mitzvahs, Hanukkah celebrations — and anti-Semitism.

His world was the world of immigrants. At home with his family, German was the language of communication, not Spanish.

“German is my first language,” he wrote. “I only learned Spanish when I started to go to school.”

This immigrant experience — facing linguistic challenges and prejudices — was what eventually allowed the TV host to connect with his pan-Latino audience, who faced similar challenges in the United States.

In fact, it was at Club Israelita Maccabi, the Jewish community center in the Chilean capital of Santiago, that the prototype of Don Francisco was born.

“Every Friday night, we had a soiree that I presented in the character of ‘Don Francisco Ziziguen González,’ a German-Jew who had arrived some 15 years earlier to Chile,” he wrote in the autobiography. “He spoke some faulty Spanish the way Germans pronounced it. The character wasn’t a mere invention, but based on my parents and their German friends who came to our house on the weekends.”

Kreutzberger’s father, a tailor, wanted him to join the family business and sent him in the late 1950s to New York to learn the trade. In the Big Apple, however, the young Chilean discovered a different passion: television. Inspired by what he saw on the screen, he returned to Chile with the goal of becoming the country’s Johnny Carson. He pitched his idea of an American-style variety show to Channel 13. The executives were enthusiastic but there was one problem: His name was “too difficult to pronounce and not easy to remember,” he recalled in his autobiography.

In search for a more universal Spanish name, “I decided to resurrect my old character from my times at Club Maccabi,” he wrote — and Don Francisco was born.

Kreutzberger’s show — then called “Show Dominical” (“Sunday Show”) — premiered in 1962 on Channel 13. (The same year, Carson started his 30-year tenure as host of “The Tonight Show.”) In 1963, the broadcast was moved to Saturday and the name consequently changed.

In 1986, the U.S.-based Univision came calling and “Sábado Gigante” — “low-brow entertainment geared toward the working and middle classes,” as described by Stavans — became an American show. No longer confined to the slim borders of Chile, it was produced for the rapidly growing Spanish-speaking community in the United States.

“With the move to Miami, the show acquired a new identity as a Latino show,” Stavans said. On Univision, the son of immigrants to Latin America quickly became the pride of Latin American immigrants in the United States. He said Kreutzberger “sees himself as a Latino, not just a Chilean, because of his Jewish identity.”

Simon Guindi Cohen, the New York-based founder of the clothing label Spenglish, is a lifelong fan of “Sábado Gigante.”

“Don Francisco was always a people person and in less than a second he could make them laugh and also cry,” Guindi said. “The show was amazing. It was a great, dynamic show like any other American family show. It was a show full of emotions, just like a Latin soap opera but with games.”

“I could relate to him because he literally looked like one of my uncles, but never in my mind did the idea of him being Jewish come across,” said the Mexico-born Guindi, who is Jewish. “To me, and I think that to the rest of the viewers, Don Francisco was an aspirational character of a Latino that has genuinely made it in the United States.”

Stavans is not surprised.

“Only a minuscule and largely educated portion of the audience is aware of his Jewish identity,” the Amherst professor said. “In Latin America, Jews constitute less than 0.001 percent of the entire population of close to 460 million. This means that the vast majority has absolutely no experiential knowledge of Jewish culture.”

Kreutzberger didn’t address Jewish topics on “Sábado Gigante.” But off camera, Stavans said, “he sees himself as very Jewish.”

In advance of the final broadcast, which will include guests like Shakira and Enrique Iglesias, a street in Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood was renamed last week in honor of Don Francisco. Hundreds of fans jammed the streets in hopes of seeing their idol.

In a way, honoring Don Francisco also was recognizing an increasingly self-confident Latino community in the U.S.

“‘Sábado Gigante’ was like a little miracle in everyone’s weekend when you were in a country that wasn’t yours,” Guindi said. “It was a reassurance to the people who watched, so they could know and see that we were not in this country alone.

“It gave us a little extra push on the weekend so we could go on and strengthen our Latin roots.”

A fascination with Abraham Lincoln


Filmmaker Salvador Litvak has been trying to make a movie about Abraham Lincoln for 12 years, a dream that was finally realized with the completion of his independent film “Saving Lincoln.” But Litvak is hardly alone in his fascination: This year, we saw the 19th century president catapulted into the 21st century zeitgeist with the release of Steven Spielberg’s big-budget “Lincoln” biopic, as well as “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” a fantasy horror film with Lincoln as a vampire hunter; and multiple museum exhibits on the 16th president. So why, 147 years after his death, at this time of ferocious political discourse, has Lincoln become such a high-profile figure?  Litvak believes it may lie in people’s thirst for lost civility. “Not since Moses has there been a man who models so beautifully how to live and how to treat others as Abraham Lincoln,” Litvak said.  

The writer-director of this very American story was born in Chile and came to the United States as an immigrant with his family at the age of 5. His father’s family, from Russia, and his mother’s, from Hungary, each migrated to Chile. His maternal grandmother survived the Theresienstadt concentration camp in Terezin along with her infant daughter. “My family was extremely conscious of the Holocaust. My grandmother was living with us, and any time there was a Holocaust-related program on TV, she and my mother would watch it with tears in their eyes,” Litvak said. “My family was Conservative, but not Orthodox. Growing up, I didn’t think that Judaism was very spiritual, but that was a big awakening for me as an adult. Now I’m very into it.”

Litvak’s obsession with making a Lincoln film originated with his wife and co-writer, Nina, who as a child discovered Lincoln through a book of his favorite jokes, which she found on her parents’ shelf.  “People don’t know that Lincoln was very funny and was constantly telling jokes and funny stories, so that amazed her when she was 6,” Litvak said. When his wife proposed the idea of a movie, Litvak found he had his own connections to the man. “I had always been fascinated with Shakespeare,” he said. “He wrote about kings and queens, and those stories are very intimate and personal, but they take place on this big stage where the things that happen within those families affect nations. If Shakespeare were writing today, I think he would pick a subject like Abraham Lincoln, because his story is so full of contradictions, so personal and human, yet it played out on this grand stage of history and war.” Litvak said he felt a personal connection as well. “As a kid, I was a tall bean pole with bright red hair … an immigrant. I felt like such an outsider,” he said. “And Lincoln, with respect to the political establishment of the U.S. during the time that he lived, was the ultimate outsider. So I had a similar fascination with him growing up, because I think he’s a hero to everyone who sees themself as an outsider. I think that’s why he’s so loved.”

Litvak and his wife spent two years researching and writing their Lincoln script and were very proud of their completed work but found their timing could not have been worse. “The week that we finished, Steven Spielberg announced that he was making a Lincoln movie based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book. So, at that moment, all the work that we’d done had become useless in the studio world,” Litvak said. “No one would even read it, let alone make it, because of Spielberg’s film.” 

The couple licked their wounds and moved on to make the Passover seder comedy “When Do We Eat?” (2005), which became a cult hit. But their desire to make a Lincoln movie persisted, and with Spielberg’s movie still unrealized, Litvak and his wife decided to move ahead. They tossed out their old script and started from scratch, this time finding a unique point of view from which to tell their story, through the character of Ward Hill Lamon.

“Lamon is a fascinating character, a Southerner who was guarding Lincoln during the war and had saved him from repeated assassination attempts that began in 1861,” Litvak explained. “He came to Washington from Illinois as part of his entourage, because Lincoln liked having him around. He appointed himself Lincoln’s bodyguard, because there was no Secret Service. No one had heard of a presidential assassination at that time, but Lamon recognized the danger and stepped into that role.” (Lamon, however, was not at Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865.)

The obstacle now was how to tell this grand story on a small budget. “In our research we found these wonderful photographs from the Library of Congress, and I’d seen movies like ‘300’ and ‘Sin City’ and thought, ‘We can do this!’ ” Litvak said. “I bet we can shoot this as a green-screen movie and fill in the background with the photographs. At this point, it was just a theory, and we weren’t sure it was really possible, but we committed to it and assembled a small but incredibly talented and dedicated team to make it happen. It ended up being much more involved and difficult than we ever expected, but we did it.”

While it may be difficult to compete with a big-budget, major studio film on the same subject, Litvak believes his film offers a perspective on Lincoln that has not been seen in any of the previous films on his life. “Perhaps, most important, how dark and difficult his presidency was,” Litvak said. “The gentlest of men, who said he could never break the neck of a chicken for his dinner, charged with armies spilling rivers of blood. He found himself in that position, and we’re showing the unique point of view of this from his close friend Lamon. He saw a Lincoln that no one else saw during Lincoln’s darkest hours.”

“Saving Lincoln” will be released in theaters on the anniversary of Lincoln’s birth, Feb. 12, 2013.

To see a teaser trailer of Saving Lincoln and learn more about the film, visit www.SavingLincoln.com

Israeli tourist released from Chile jail


An Israeli tourist charged by Chile with accidentally starting a massive forest fire in a popular national park was fined and released.

Rotem Singer, 23, was ordered by a court in Puerto Natales to pay a $10,000 fine to the government of Chile and perform two years of community service for the Jewish National Fund. JNF and its Israeli branch Keren Kayemet L’Yisrael will help raise money to plant 50,000 new trees in the Torres del Paine national park.

Singer, of the central Israeli city of Nes Tziona, was arrested Dec. 31 and released on bail. He was ordered to remain in the region while the case was investigated. He is accused of setting fire to toilet paper in order to dispose of the trash and of not putting out the fire well enough.

Some 48 wildfires burned more than 32,000 acres of forest in the national park in late December and early January, and destroyed at least 100 homes.

Under the agreement, Singer was not implicated in the fire. Ynet reported that Singer will continue on his post-army backpack trip.

Chile calls on Israel to compensate for park fire


Chilean investigators reportedly believe that a fire in a popular national park is the work of arsonists, though an Israeli remains charged with negligently starting the blaze.

Some Chilean lawmakers have called on Israel to compensate Chile for the damage because an Israeli national has been charged with starting the fire in the Torres del Paine national park. The fires were still burning on Jan. 3 but were under control.

Rotem Singer, 23, of the central Israeli city of Nes Tziona, was arrested Dec. 31 and released on bail. He was ordered to remain in the region for the next three months as the case is investigated.

Some 48 wildfires have burned more than 32,000 acres of forest and destroyed at least 100 homes.

Israel’s Foreign Ministry on Jan. 2 released a statement expressing “solidarity” with Chile and “sorrow” over the destruction to the national park and tourist site.

“Israel has also experienced a similar disaster last year in the Carmel forests, and that painful memory enhances our sense of common destiny,” the statement said.

The Foreign Ministry said that “the deep friendship the Israeli people feel toward Chile is as strong as ever.”

The ministry offered to send a mission of experts in forestry to assist in rehabilitating the forest and to donate tree seedlings for the effort.

Israel, U.S. woo Latin America after neglect leads to tilt away


It’s time for the West to woo Latin America—some will say it’s about time.

The United States and Israel appear to be heading toward increasing their focus on the area following years of neglect that has resulted in closer ties between Latin America and Iran—and gains for the Palestinians. The shift comes amid Iran’s deepening influence in the region, as well as the successes of a Palestinian diplomatic offensive that has seen eight Latin American nations agree to recognize a Palestinian “state” in recent months.

President Obama’s visits this week to Brazil, Chile and El Salvador follow on the heels of a visit to Israel last month by Chilean President Sebastian Pinera.

Israeli Foreign Ministry officials and American Jewish groups that focus on Latin America say the West’s attention to the area should have come sooner.

“Latin America has suffered benign neglect both from the United States and Israel,” said Dina Siegel Vann, the director of the American Jewish Committee’s Latin American Institute.

“When you have a vacuum it will be filled,” she said, referring to Iran’s courting of Latin American countries that chafe under U.S. domination of the hemisphere—chief among them Venezuela. “This is the point of view of many Latin American Jewish communities who feel that they have not been treated as a priority.”

An Israeli Foreign Ministry official speaking on condition of anonymity acknowledged the neglect, saying it was primarily a function of resources diverted to peacemaking in the region since the launch of the Oslo process in 1993.

That has been redressed in recent months with several high-profile visits to the continent, including Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Brazil visit in July 2009, and then-President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s return visit a year ago.

The outreach is coordinated with the local Jewish communities, and Vann noted a number of successes, including the visit to Israel this month of Chile’s president and last year of Panama’s president, Ricardo Martinelli.

Jewish lobbying helped moderate Chile’s recognition of Palestine with enough qualifications that the recognition was almost a moot point, Vann said.

“They spoke about Israel’s right to exist within secure borders, they said negotiations have to continue and that an agreement has to be part of bilateral negotiations,” she said. “In the end, the Israelis were happier with it than the Palestinians.”

Vann and her boss, AJC director David Harris, just returned from a high-profile tour of Argentina, Brazil and Chile to address issues of concern to Jewish communities.

The highest-profile effort is Obama’s tour of Brazil, Chile and El Salvador. Obama did not publicly address the Middle East when he met over the weekend with Dilma Roussef, his Brazilian counterpart. The visit focused on free trade with Latin American nations as the continent is showing an economic turnaround at a period when much of the West is otherwise struggling with recession.

Nonetheless, the joint Obama-Roussef statement pointed to an effort to bridge differences that erupted last year over the refusal by Brazil and Turkey to join the international effort to isolate Iran over its nuclear weapons program.

The statement underscored closer defense cooperation in recent months.

“They reaffirmed both countries’ commitments on disarmament, nuclear non-proliferation, and the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, with a view to achieving the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons,” it said.

Daniel Mariaschin, the executive vice president of B’nai B’rith International, said it was his understanding from his administration contacts that Obama in private meetings is sounding out Roussef to see if she plans on continuing the tilt of her predecessor, Lula, toward setting Brazil apart from the U.S. policy on the Middle East.

“From what I understand, he’s going to ask where will Brazil be going from this particular point,” said Mariaschin, who spoke to JTA a day before the summit, and who was slated to head to Latin America this week. “He will be raising the issue to try and discover if there is daylight in the policies between Lula and Roussef.”

Lula, who was Roussef’s mentor, was behind both Brazil’s decision to recognize Palestine and to attempt, with Turkey, to strike a separate nuclear inspections deal with Iran. Brazil predominates in South America, and its decisions had a domino effect, particularly on recognizing Palestine.

Vann said Lula had his eye on history as he left office.

“He wanted to go out with a bang,” she said.

That’s typical of a region that often has sought to distinguish itself from its powerful northern neighbor, Mariaschin said.

“There’s an interest in showing bona fides to the Islamic world, the Arab world, the non-aligned, that these countries in Latin America are of an independent mind,” he said.

Other factors have played into the pro-Arab tilt of an area that once was perceived as a redoubt of pro-Israeli sentiment; Latin America votes tilted the U.N. 1947 vote toward creating a Jewish state.

Among them are the substantive Arab diasporas in the region, including what is believed to be the largest Palestinian diaspora in the world in Chile and a Lebanese community in Brazil that is said to outnumber the Lebanese in Lebanon.

Another factor is the tendency of Latin America nations to follow each other’s leads. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez courted Iran as a means of needling the United States, which had sought his ouster in the early 2000s because of his nationalization of the oil industry.

“More often than note, there’s a tendency among Latin Americans to vote as a bloc” in international bodies, Mariaschin said. “I don’t think that’s helpful or healthy.”

The Iranian influence on Latin America was especially troublesome, he said, not just as it related to how it hindered efforts to set up a united front against the prospect of a nuclear Iran, but also in the reports of the infiltration of Iranian terrorists into the region.

U.S. lawmakers, led by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), the chairwoman of the House of Representatives’ Foreign Affairs Committee, have pressed the Obama administration to make a priority of driving Iran influence away from Latin America.

The threat is real, Vann said, particularly in the little-policed “triangle” where Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay meet.

“Iran’s presence in the region is very detrimental, and it’s not theoretical,” she said, pointing to the certainty in Western intelligence circles that Iran was behind deadly attacks on the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires in 1992 and its AMIA Jewish community center in 1994.

Vann cautioned against overstating Iran’s danger, however, noting an incipient skepticism in the region of such claims stemming from how the evidence the Bush administration used to make the case for the Iraq War turned out to be unfounded.

“They truly don’t believe Iran is a threat, and they draw parallels with Iraq and WMD,” she said, using the acronym for weapons of mass destruction.  “We have to be careful not to magnify the problem.”

Currently, she said, the only solid evidence of illicit Iranian activity in the region points to money laundering. Accusing the Iranians of planning imminent terrorist attacks, for instance, could undermine the case for tracking Iranian activity.

Jewish businessman gifting rescued miners


Chilean mining executive Leonardo Farkas has written $10,000 checks to each of the 33 miners who are being rescued from a collapsed mine in Chile after being trapped for more than two months.

Farkas reportedly gave the checks in the miners’ names to each of the families and set up a separate fund to collect donations, The Associated Press reported. The money is more than some of the miners earn in a year.

By early Wednesday afternoon Chilean time, 15 miners had been pulled from the San Jose gold and copper mine, where they had been trapped since its collapse on Aug. 5.

Without complications, all the miners are expected to be pulled to freedom by Thursday, according to reports. The Chilean miners reportedly have survived the longest of anyone buried underground.

Farkas, who is Jewish, is a well-known philanthropist in Chile. He appears annually on a telethon run by the major Chilean television networks to raise funds to help children with developmental disabilities. In 2008 he donated about $1.5 million to the cause.

Farkas owns businesses in several industries, with mining comprising the most important of his holdings.

He was sued recently by his Australian partners, accused of inappropriately using company funds for personal charitable donations.

Chile’s Jews part of the larger community in Santiago


When a fire alarm sounds in the south-central section of Santiago, it’s answered by a unique company of firefighters — Bomba Israel. In keeping with the Chilean custom, this is an all-volunteer bomba (fire brigade), and each of the company’s firefighters is Jewish. Their emblem is the Star of David and their trucks proudly fly the flag of Israel alongside that of Chile.

Established in 1954 in what was once a largely Jewish section of Santiago, Bomba Israel was created by the Jewish community “to thank the country that welcomed them,” said firefighter Robert Segal, 23, the son of a German-born Jewish mother and a Jewish Chilean father.

Despite the country’s very large and vocal Palestinian community and a history of dictatorships on the left, as well as on the right, Chile has been quite hospitable to Jewish immigrants. The Chilean Jewish community consists of more than 20,000 people, with the majority living in Santiago, the country’s capital.

Today’s Chilean Jewish community is well integrated and relatively prosperous.

Many Jews are prominent professionals, academics and civil servants, including an ambassador to Russia and three Cabinet members. And the backgrounds of the diverse Bomba Israel crew include everything from businessmen and lawyers to manual workers.

Segal, a student, is among the diverse crew at the station located in what is now a blue-collar neighborhood.

“The role we play in the image of the Jewish community is very important,” he said. “Many people can’t believe that Jews do this kind of work; they think we’re all rich and powerful and don’t want to dirty our hands.”

Segal said that except for the fact that all of its members are Jewish, Bomba Israel is a regular fire company. It owns two pieces of equipment, one of which is a state-of-the-art rescue truck that is used for automobile accidents more often than fires.

In addition to its regular members, Bomba Israel also supports a youth brigade of 20 cadets ages 12 to 17. Like the senior members, they receive extensive training in firefighting, rescue operations, first aid and CPR. When they reach age 18 they can qualify for full membership in the company.

While many visitors to Chile are attracted to its spectacular scenery rather than its cities, Jewish travelers can add a stimulating dimension to a visit by connecting with Santiago’s welcoming Jewish community.

Santiago has about a dozen synagogues, including a palatial Chabad House in the fashionable La Dehesa section, an Aish HaTorah shul and Beit Emunah, a relatively new chavurah in the upscale Las Condes neighborhood. There is a sizeable Sephardic community with its own synagogue, as well as a Progressive (Reform) temple, Or Shalom, and two conservative congregations, Maguen David and B’nei Israel.

B’nei Israel is often referred to as “the German synagogue” because it was founded by refugees from Nazi Germany and Austria, and its membership is still made up largely of their descendants. Services are conducted in Hebrew and Spanish and there is a great emphasis on music and communal singing.

The new Chabad House is a remarkable Jewish development in Santiago. Located in an upscale suburb, the building’s facade is a vastly expanded replica of 770 Eastern Parkway, the world headquarters of Chabad Lubavitch in Brooklyn. The interior of the building is not complete, but Rabbi Menashe Perman is proud to show off the luxurious mikvah and the enormous social hall. While the sanctuary is still not finished, the rabbi reported that some 400 worshippers attended High Holiday services.

Construction for the Chabad House began in 2002. The building was designed by Jorge Haichelis, a local Jewish architect and Chabad member, and the project was largely underwritten by David and Sarah Feuerstein. David Feuerstein, 81, is a Warsaw Ghetto and Auschwitz survivor, and serves as president of the Chabad of Chile and director of the International Committee of Yad Vashem.

The Chabad compound also includes a separate building that is used for the daily minyan, as well as the preschool play group and women’s group, both organized by rebbetzin Chaya Perman. The extensive youth activities are under the direction of Rabbi Yishai Libersohn, a Mexico City native and the Permans’ son-in-law.

Although the vast majority of Chilean Jews are secular, they have developed a rich network of educational and social organizations. Among them are B’nai B’rith, Maccabi sports clubs, as well as two Jewish day schools. The Chilean Jewish community has close ties with Israel and many of its young people visit Israel during their last year of high school.

Peter Rothholz, who headed his own Manhattan-based public relations agency, now lives in Santa Monica and East Hampton, N.Y., and is a frequent contributor to Jewish publications.

Latin America Aims for Northern Palates


 

Guarding the entrance to Bodegas Barberis, a family-owned winery in western Argentina, is a small ceramic statue of the Virgin Mary, known locally as the Virgen de la Carrodilla.

“She’s our local patron saint and protector of the vineyards,” said Adrian Barberis, who with his three brothers owns the prosperous winery.

The virgin hardly would cause an eyebrow to be raised in this devoutly Catholic country — except for the fact that Bodegas Barberis, 15 miles south of the city of Mendoza, is a leading Argentine exporter of kosher wine.

Each year, the churchgoing Barberis family turns over 20 percent of its 100-hectare winery to a team of Chasidic Jews from Buenos Aires. For several months before Passover, Chasidim supervise every aspect of wine production — from _fermentation to bottle-sealing — to ensure that the laws of kashrut are observed to the letter.

By now, the winery’s 15 employees are used to seeing the half-dozen bearded men running around checking cooling tanks, tasting samples from wine vats and operating forklifts on the loading docks.

That’s not all. Honoring a Jewish tradition known as terumot vema’aserot, Barberis must intentionally spill on the ground or give to charity 10 percent of its annual kosher wine production. Other talmudic laws prohibit Barberis from using fruit produced during the first three years of a grape harvest, require all wine to be flash-pasteurized before bottling and demand that the land be allowed to rest every seventh year.

“We are allowed to cultivate the grapes and bring them to the bodega in plastic bins,” Barberis said. “We leave them in the truck, and the rabbis and their employees unload them and do the whole process in a special sector of the bodega. The only thing our oenologist does is explain to the rabbis and their people how to use specific machinery.”

Barberis said his biggest market is the United States, where an estimated one-fifth of Jews regularly drink kosher wine, mainly at weddings, circumcisions, bar mitzvahs, funerals and at their Shabbat tables.

The peak season for kosher wine is right before Passover, when hundreds of thousands of American Jewish families stock up.

“It all depends on production schedules,” said Barberis, who is familiar with basic kashrut terminology. “The Orthodox Jews don’t work on Pesach, so if Pesach coincides with fermentation and the grapes are mature, we can’t use our grapes, meaning we have to buy grapes from other wineries.”

This year, Barberis expects to sell $300,000 worth of kosher wine to Royal Wine Corp., an importer based in Bayonne, N.J.

Other wineries in both Argentina and Chile — a six-hour drive over the Andes Mountains from Mendoza — also are turning to the relatively small but lucrative kosher market to supplement exports in the face of weak internal demand.

That’s resulted in the appearance on U.S. supermarket shelves of relatively inexpensive brands such as Chile’s Layla Cabernet Sauvignon and Argentina’s Byblos Bonarda, both imported by Abarbanel Wine Co. of Cedarhurst, N.Y., as well as Chile’s Alfasi Merlot, imported by Royal Wine Corp.

“Currently, Argentina is exporting more than 50 percent of its total production. Some bodegas export up to 90 percent,” says Enrique Chrabolowsky, a Jewish wine critic based in Mendoza.

Chrabolowsky, who with co-author Michel Rolland, has just published a coffee table book, “Wines of Argentina,” said that last year, Chile exported a record $900 million worth of wine — mainly to Europe and North America — while Argentina exported $300 million. Both neighbors are taking advantage of the fact that they offer relatively cheap land, phylloxera-free soil, high productivity and low wages compared with more established wine-producing countries, such as France, Germany, Italy and Spain.

Even so, less than 5 percent of the kosher wine bought in the United States comes from South America. That’s mainly because the cheaper sugary-sweet Concord varieties produced by Mogen David and Manischewitz in upstate New York still dominate 40 percent of the U.S. kosher market, and Israel also commands a healthy share.

In fact, a search for “Chile” at www.kosherwine.com, a Chicago-based online retailer, turns up 13 labels, while a search for “Argentina” brings up only six labels. Both countries pale in comparison with Israel, with 152 kosher wine brands on the market.

“Argentina never paid attention to exports, because almost all of its production went for the internal market,” Barberis said. “Then internal consumption began declining, which obligated us to export our products. We started later than Chile, which never had a big internal market and has been exporting since the beginning. But Argentina can grow rapidly and has big potential.”

According to Chrabolowsky, a Jewish entrepreneur named Samuel Flichman pioneered Argentine quality wines, though there are few Jews still in the industry. Probably the largest Jewish vintner in Mendoza today is Pedro Marchevsky; his wine is called Ben Marco and has a menorah on the label, but it’s not kosher.

Barberis, on the other hand, produces three varieties of kosher wine for export to the United States: Valero Syrah, Valero Malbec and Valero Tempranillo.

The Syrah, boasts the label, “is produced using carefully selected grapes harvested in Argentina’s world-famous Mendoza winemaking region. The wine displays a deep ruby red color with a bouquet of dark berries and licorice. The wine’s flavor is reminiscent of plums and raspberries.”

The winery also produces Tekiah Syrah and Tekiah Tempranillo for the local Argentine Jewish market, as well as for export to Panama.

As a Catholic, Barberis cannot serve Valero to Orthodox Jews because it is not mevushal, or flash-pasteurized. Tekiah, on the other hand, is mevushal.

But doesn’t heating the wine even for a fraction of a second destroy the flavor?

“Theoretically, yes,” Barberis replied. “But it must be good, because the Wine Enthusiast magazine has given Tekiah Syrah a score of 84 points.”

 

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