Complicated Community: A Conversation with a Jewish Chavista
“Well, with that hair I don’t even have to ask you if you’re Jewish, it’s as good as a rabbinical statement.” The old man next to me nods at my curls, which are unruly in the oppressive heat and humidity of Caracas, Venezuela. His name is Levy Alter Alto. He is the South American version of a red-diaper baby. His grandfather, Solomon, and father, Abraham, left Romania for Curaçao in 1927 as convinced communists and, while the grandfather chose a more serene island life, Abraham boarded a ship to Venezuela to continue the struggle. I heard of Levy through a Chavista operative I met at the Constituent Assembly—one of Venezuela’s two dueling legislative bodies—and a few days later I met him at a hotel restaurant overlooking the Avila Mountain.
Soon after he arrived in Maracaibo, Venezuela, an altercation at a political rally led to Abraham’s arrest and sentencing to two years of hard labor. Levy tells me, “All of my life I loved driving on the highway from Maracaibo to Caracas because I know my father built that road. He buried his friends in the dirt under that asphalt . . . and that is how my family earned its place in this country.” (Along the way Abraham buried his last name of Arron, changing it for the Spanish surname Alto.) Because the sentencing kept Abraham in Maracaibo, he ended up meeting Sara, a young Jewish woman, and in 1940 they married underneath the chuppah: “Most people assume that because my family were all communists, we weren’t traditional or religious, but that’s just not the case. My father was religious and traditional, he cared about marrying a Jewish woman and about making Kiddush every Shabbat, and I am the same way. We were religious, Jewish communists.”
As the third son in a politically active family, Levy often felt lonely and forgotten, and he tells me that he might have become a malandro, a delinquent, had his aunt Miri not taken him under her wing and brought him to Caracas in the early 1960s to protest then-President Romulo Betancourt. During this time, political protestors on the left had broken off from the mainstream parties and started forming guerilla groups. For a young Levy, taking up arms seemed like a logical choice.
Levy ended up fighting alongside Hugo Chavez in the failed November 1992 coup d’état, attempting to depose Carlos Andres Perez’s government. In Chavez, Levy saw someone who would do away with the differences between people, differences that had caused Levy so much heartache growing up, and so he tied his faith to Chavez. “From the age of seven, I was bullied for being the ‘killer of Christ.’ I was beaten at recess every day and never felt like I belonged. Through the struggle for the cause, I not only belonged but made a real difference. I was not just the Jew; I was a brother and a comrade, fighting for our homeland.”
“It wasn’t easy, you know,” Levy says to me, emphasizing the importance of what he is about to tell me by wagging his finger. “Jewish communists were being shunned by the community back then and still are. The former chief rabbi of Venezuela, Pynchas Brenner, was run out of the country when it became known that he was a Chavista. The community has always tried to make us choose, but I refuse to.” (When I checked on this later, I found that Levy’s memory seems to have betrayed him; before his retirement to Miami, Brener had a long history of criticizing Chavez, including likening him to Hitler and Stalin.)
Levy may have refused to choose, but he went all in with Chavez. When Chavez was elected president in 1998, Levy Alter Alto was one of the 120 members of the very first National Assembly, and, when the new constitution was to be written, he was tasked with writing the 59th article, guaranteeing religious freedom for all Venezuelans.
Diplomatic ties between Venezuela and Israel began to fray in 2006, during the Second Lebanon War. In 2008, amidst the conflict in Gaza, Chavez broke off relations with Israel entirely, accusing Israel of committing genocide against the Palestinians. I want to ask Levy directly and bluntly if he does not see the irony of having been part of the creation of a country where violent deaths and starvation are commonplace, given his family’s journey from Romania, where his relatives met violent death and starvation themselves, but the age, fragility, and unabashed pride of this elderly man makes me adjust my phrasing. I ask, gently, if he ever felt conflicted working for Hugo Chavez given his anti-Semitic statements, but Levy interrupts before I even finish my thought. “That wasn’t anti-Semitism. Chavez was very critical of the Israeli government, but that is a political stance, not hatred toward a people.”
Levy is fiercely proud of what he feels he has achieved and overcome, the work he did on the new constitution being the pinnacle of that journey. As for failures or responsibility for the outcome of his life’s work, he tells me that the hardships his beloved homeland is living through now are a result of two things: imperialist pressure and the government no longer truly representing the people. “When I was part of the first National Assembly . . . we were true believers, and now politics in Venezuela has become a career, and I don’t think that’s good for the country.”
A few years into Chavez’s first term, Levy became part of the national election commission, and his main job was to create an electoral system in Venezuela by researching neighboring countries and how they had transitioned to democracy. His job took him all over South America and made him a respected man in the movement—a guerilla who had become a key policymaker. But despite the fancy title and the place he earned in history, Levy still mourns the failures that prevented Venezuela from becoming the socialist paradise he envisioned. I get a sense that Levy yearns for the time of the struggle, the wild and idealistic times before the formation of the current republic, but he never tells me that he thinks that the beautiful cause has failed, nor does he express an ounce of resentment at his movement’s leaders.
Now an old man, somewhat scarred by life, Levy says he still has faith but that it has become harder to go to synagogue because of the country’s polarization. The people in his community respect him, but they know he is a Chavista, and sometimes there is just one argument too many. “But they still use me for a minyan, you know, and that’s the beautiful thing. No matter how much they may hate my politics, when they are nine men, they still call me, and when I show up, they cheer and hug me.”
Levy chuckles when he imitates the warm embrace of his fellow shul-goers, and I laugh along with him. When he goes to shul, he goes alone. His current wife, as he puts it, is not Jewish, and his Jewish children have little interest in Judaism. Now that he is retired and has left the world of party politics, he needs community, but the life he chose has in many ways alienated him from his Jewish roots. And so, he is a man between two worlds, a man who played a role in Jewish and Venezuelan history, living a quiet life in the chaos of Caracas.
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