Jewish gaucho tradition fades in Argentina

Through the years, they’ve seen Jewish schools and synagogues close and said tearful goodbyes to the young who migrated to cosmopolitan Buenos Aires.

But in hamlets with names like Sajaroff and Sonnenfeld, a tight-knit community of Jewish elders, some in their late 80s, fights to hold back time. On Argentina’s endless plains, only a few Jewish cowboys still ride. Synagogues once filled with pious congregants now stand forlorn on the edge of soybean fields.

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Yet the collective memory of Jewish leaders here — of the stories their grandparents told of arriving in this remote land to build a vibrant Jewish enclave — remains fresh. And the ones who feel the links to the past deep in their bones, as Jaime Jruz, 65, passionately puts it, say they owe a debt to their ancestors to keep the old traditions alive.

“This is a story we have to treasure, that we have to keep alive for our grandchildren,” Jruz, one of the last of the Jewish gauchos, or cowboys, said on the same farm his grandfather first settled. “I cannot abandon this knowing the sacrifices they made.”

Today, the story of their arrival in Argentina’s outback is all but a footnote in the history of the Jewish diaspora. But in the 1890s, as whole towns of Eastern European and Russian Jews began packing, the offers of a new life in the New World seemed like providence.

With escalating czarist pogroms against Jews a foreshadowing of the calamities to come, the logical promised land was not Palestine but the wide-open spaces in the Americas — at least in the mind of an eccentric German-Jewish philanthropist and railroad financier named Baron Maurice de Hirsch.

So at the same time as the father of modern Zionism, Theodor Herzl, was marshaling support for a Jewish state, Hirsch was busily buying up huge tracts of land in the United States, Canada and Brazil. His Jewish Colonization Association, though, had its greatest success here, acquiring a a swath of farmland equivalent in size to Delaware and parceling out plots to 50,000 immigrant Jews over four decades.

Sparsely populated Argentina wanted the new immigrants, assigning Argentine agents in Russia the job of “promoting the Israelite immigration from the Russian Empire,” as recounted in an 1881 presidential degree.

They came en masse here to Entre Rios province in the country’s northeast starting in 1894, men in black hats and long beards, women holding newborns, the families lugging trunks of belongings.

Each family took over a 123-acre plot, started to pay off the land over 20 years and began to farm and raise cattle. The last group came in 1936, German Jewish families narrowly escaping extermination, to start a colony called Avigdor.

What they built here was a sort of Argentine Borscht Belt, 16 colonies encompassing dozens of towns where residents spoke Yiddish, introduced Eastern European-style agricultural cooperatives and laid out hamlets not unlike the shtetls that the immigrants had called home back in Russia, said Osvaldo Quiroga, a Catholic who runs a small museum and is considered an expert.

Religion bound the communities together.

“They were strict, I mean strict, about the Sabbath,” recalled Jose “Tito” Roimiser, 84, a former gaucho whose father was a baby when he arrived in Argentina. “Complete respect. And we had to walk to the synagogue. You could not ride your horse.”

Pieces of history

The bric-a-brac from Roimiser’s long life — and that of other families in the town of Basavilbaso — are piled high in the storeroom of the town’s Jewish meeting hall. There are old wooden clocks, framed documents, an old tub to bathe babies in before circumcision and a cabinet of menorahs. Then there are the grainy photographs, of the man everyone here calls the Baron Hirsch and the young Jewish settlers of the 1890s, with their furrowed brows, high, stiff collars and fedoras.

“All of it is important, all of it has a history, all of it has a reason, all of it has an origin,” Enrique Salomon, 78, a former trucker, said as he and Roimiser rummaged on a recent afternoon.

Salomon and Roimiser, friends for decades, talk about the traditions that survive: the use of a few words in Yiddish or Russian, the preparation of gefilte fish, knishes and other Jewish food. They say they want to keep the fire alive, if possible with help from foreigners.

But the numbers are not on their side: The hamlets around Basavilbaso once had thousands of Jews. Now there are perhaps 400. There were once 10 synagogues operating, in town and in the surrounding countryside; now there are two, the rest of them little more than monuments to the past, boarded up and dilapidated.

Traditions upheld

Of course, there are still signs of life across the Jewish circuit.

On a recent night, Roimiser and Salomon joined about a dozen others who managed the quorum needed for Friday-night services at the Tefila L’Moises synagogue, officiated by a rabbinical student who came in from Buenos Aires. And in Villa Clara, a nearby town, Patricia Acst gave Hebrew classes to a couple of girls in the Baron Hirsch school.

A couple of blocks away is the village synagogue, lovingly restored and featuring five torah scrolls that Abraham Kreiser­man, a 64-year-old butcher and community leader, says go back to the early 19th century. Under the tutelage of Quiroga, Villa Dominguez’s Museum of the Jewish Colonies holds the region’s best collection of Jewish artifacts, from registries and deeds to century-old prayer shawls, books and farm machinery.

Jaime Jruz, the gaucho, often drops by; the museum features a photograph of his paternal grandfather, Moises Koselevich, with a bushy beard and fedora.

When he looks at the photograph, Jruz said, he recalls the hardships his forefathers overcame to make a life here: a perilous migration out of Russia, droughts, floods and back-breaking work.

“Our ancestors came from Russia with nothing and they made it,” he said. “You have to respect that.”

 
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