Losers and Keepers in Argentina
Reviewed by Daniela Goldfine
1910. A young nation celebrates its centennial with of all kinds of fanfare, tributes, and writings. One of them is a book called Los gauchos judíos (The Jewish Gauchos of the Pampas). At first sight, it seems contradictory that a gaucho could be Jewish or a Jew could be a gaucho. Nevertheless, the author of this work, Alberto Gerchunoff, knows what he is talking about. He is one of the Jewish immigrants that fled the Russian pogroms with his family dreaming of a free country and a prosperous land. The blend of the Argentinean cowboy (the previously mentioned gaucho) and the Jewish Russian immigrant happened not without hardships, but Gerchunoff had a project in mind when writing and it was to portray this combination of races, languages and religions as nothing less than what Argentina needed at the beginning of the twentieth century. His work was a success, as we are still talking about it a few years after this South American nation celebrated its bicentennial.
2001. While the U.S. is struggling to cope with the horror that took place in its own land, an Argentinean-born/U.S.-raised writer publishes Losers and Keepers in Argentina . Her name is Rocío Lasansky Weinstein, but she publishes under her penname, Nina Barragan. This decision is already a sign of a forthcoming disjuncture: that by choosing to be known by a distinctive Hispanic/Argentinean name, she leaves her Jewish-sounding name aside. There is already an identity issue when making the decision to be known with a name in Spanish thus discarding her Russian ancestors and her Anglo-Saxon home. Having left Argentina young and settling in Iowa, Barragan is left in the interesting position of repeating a migration path of new languages and cultures. What I would like to elucidate is the interconnectedness and interrelationships among the categories of gender, race, class, religious/cultural identity, immigration and assimilation, and how all this plays in the context of the Jewish Argentinean community, as well as the Jewish American one. Even though this is a work of fiction, the author interweaves her narrative with the Argentinean History of the twentieth century. What she chooses to include in her work (and what she leaves behind) is also important. In brief, I am interested in how this particular text (mis)portrays the Jewish Argentinean community, which at the beginning of the twenty-first century rests in a complex and ambiguous space.
The agricultural colony of Moisés Ville truly existed (Gerchunoff lived there). In the lowlands of the province of Santa Fe, Russian Jews escaping persecution founded this settlement in 1889 with the help of Baron Maurice Moshe Hirsch. This is where Barragan sets the majority of her work, as the village celebrates its centennial. The short contemporary stories situated in Argentina and the United States intermingle with the diary of one of these Jewish immigrants: Rifke Schulman. And here is where Barragan distances her project from Gerchunoff or, more accurately, this is where Barragan challenges Gerchunoff’s project as she presents a woman as the main character. Rifke starts the diasporic journey alone and encounters peers and friends in the new land. This twenty-first century shift of centering the story around a female character is one way Barragan presents us with a different version of the Jewish gaucho. Additionally, Rifke abandons the countryside to go to the (much bigger) city of Buenos Aires, showing us the displacement of the newly arrived immigrants from rural to urban areas. The yearning for the friendships she leaves behind starts to complicate the exile within the exile Rifke undergoes. She felt the violence cornering her in Russia, so leaving was an obvious answer. However, abandoning her comrades in Santa Fe’s farmland is due to a more intimate desire. “I‘m excited at the prospect of change,” (18) she writes en route to Buenos Aires. Displacing her handicapped body – Rifke had been born with “the left leg slightly shorter than the right” (1)— and her vivacious mind, this landless Jewish woman follows part of her community and settles in a neighborhood where her peers struggle to survive at the same time that they flourish and put down roots.
This is a reflection of the narrative in Losers and Keepers in Argentina : The cultural memory of Jewish Argentineans (and Americans) is transmitted mainly by the female characters, which are also the majority in the book—an example being Rifke Schulman, an independent, smart, and adventurous woman at the turn of the century. She writes "The Rifke Chronicles", which is what gives unity to Barragan’s project and in the body of this character—a female, handicapped, Jewish body—she positions the cultural memory of a whole people. At the very end of the book (outside the framework of her story and on the very last page), Barragan places an “Author’s Note” which reads: “Events occurred, places exist, but Rifke Schulman and her chronicles are invented, not discovered. The stories, interspersed with the journal entries, are also works of fiction” (254). Barragan also plays with the interconnection of race, gender, and identity allowing herself to be the storyteller of one community’s stories/History.
In her work, Barragan introduces us to every crucial historical moment in Argentina, especially those moments that touched Jews’ lives in significant ways: from the only pogrom in Latin America – part of what is called Tragic Week in 1919— to the Zwi Migdal (an illegal organization of Jewish criminals who trafficked and prostituted women from the shtetls in Eastern Europe to Argentina and other countries, from the 1860s to 1939). One by one Barragan intersperses these events throughout her book and gives us a history lesson. Unfortunately, these moments feel forced and the good intention of providing material to acknowledge this community in the diaspora fades out right through the pages. Barragan’s attempts deliver uneven results when she leaves behind "The Rifke Chronicles" and concentrates on a series of short stories.
The first short story is “The Assimilation of Solomon Teper”, where Solomon returns to Moisés Ville for the centennial celebration, leaving behind (in Iowa) his soon-to-be former wife and two daughters. It is the story of the successful immigrant to the United States, as it was the success story of his grandparents to Argentina. The core issue is the assimilation talked about in the title. It was done so effectively that languages, for example, were lost—Solomon doesn’t speak Russian and his daughters don’t speak Spanish. However, Solomon, bearer of a biblical and powerful name (Solomon was a King of Israel), could not follow his ancestors steps by leaving Judaism as a legacy to his children. Solomon reflects in Moisés Ville’s synagogue what “he had not given to his children—never mind his heritage, his language, his culture” (36). He recognizes that his failure to pass on his cultural/religious identity might have been through fear, “ fear that his two blond daughters might stake their claims, and that this past would no longer be his?” (36). By trying to protect his past in exile, Solomon neglected his children’s history and, like King Solomon, the wise, wealthy and powerful king, this Solomon also falls into the sin of turning away from God finding his end in the solitude of the Argentinean pampas. Here Barragan leaves her stamp on the complex matter of meta-assimilation that happens within the Jewish communities that migrate from generation to generation. In this case, the Russia-Argentina-U.S. triangle is one too common (Barragan herself is part of it) and leaves the difficult issue of dealing with the unifying factors, language and religion being the most salient, within families.
Immigration and assimilation—two faces of the same Jewish question—are found in this passage when Solomon arrives to Moisés Ville and he sees the allegorical monument that was built to celebrate the centennial: “This was what his mother had written about. This would commemorate one hundred years of existence, with its menorah and immigrant ship twisted into an abomination of cement and steel” (29). Solomon’s reaction is of obvious embarrassment, even though he does not stop to think and reflect of the real meaning of the monument as an assimilation that he was part of and that he continues to experience in yet another land—the difference may befall in the symbols, but the questions remain the same: How does one live the diaspora in the diaspora? How can one break free from the cycle of escaping/leaving due to violence, economic crisis, or religious persecution?
Another short story may begin to elucidate these subjects, as it is the only one in Losers and Keepers that weaves the thin threads of north-south relationships, indigeneity, and gender equality (or the lack of). “Manhattan Outreach” is the name of the story, which is located in the aforementioned city, and portrays two women as the main characters: one is Eva, an Argentinean-born immigrant who is described as “small, more child than woman in size and shape, and because my black hair is straight and my skin brown, and my broad, flat features are like Papá’s the Indian from Jujuy.” On the other apparent extreme of the spectrum we find Mrs. Stern, a Jewish woman who lives on Park Avenue with her husband. These two characters are connected through work, as Eva is the Sterns’ housekeeper. Barragan explores race issues by depicting Eva’s so-called indigenous physique in detailed manner and adding Eva’s husband’s heritage to the mix. Juan Carlos Forsyth Botero and his family members are described as being “a tall, fair tribe and consider themselves Anglo-Saxon, though resident Argentineans for generations”(198). In a country proud of its whiteness, acquired through European immigrants, it is not uncommon to find families that feel like the Forsyth. Nonetheless, placing these notions within a larger frame of Jewish Argentinean narrative translates into a problematic discourse of race in this country. Even though a work of fiction ( Losers and Keepers ’ subtitle), Nina Barragan/ Rocío Lasansky Weinstein is playing with the knowledge –or lack of—of certain key concepts that underlie Argentina’s socio-political fabric. What is troublesome for the reader is the donning of the role of insider/outsider, where as insiders we can scratch the surface of this short story to find the nuances that enrich the literary lives of Eva and Mrs. Stern. But, as outsiders, our naivety can prevent us from plunging deeper into the story and the meaning behind Eva’s husband’s refusal to work, Eva’s insightfulness and apparent Jewish past, and Mona Stern’s dilemma of accepting a born-again Christian into her family. The explanation of the story’s title, “Manhattan Outreach”, comes when Mrs. Stern reflects:
Interestingly, this is the most challenging way Barragan takes us through her writing and her viewpoint, as she is asking us to challenge the primary definition of assimilation while destabilizing the notion of fixed space for convergence of any certain people. In this case, we talk about Jews in diaspora, in Argentina and in the United States, as well as descendants of indigenous people and of European immigrants also immigrants themselves. So, what forms a community? When looking at their family, the Sterns see their rabbi grandparents on one side and their born-again Christian granddaughter-to-be on the other. Eva sees maybe Russian Jewish grandparents on one side and an Indian (as Barragan chooses to call him) father on the other; plus now her Argentine-born children are growing up in the U.S. The questions are there, but there is a lingering feeling that Barragan does not deal fully with the implications of representing these unbounded communities.
Barragan finishes her work with the short story “Losers and Keepers”, for which the book is entitled. The story deals with assimilation, re-appropriation, terrorist attacks and, of course, the overall question of who are the losers and keepers of the Jewish faith and culture in Argentina. Basically, “Losers and Keepers,” delivers an array of questions in the form of statements that the characters provide. This time there is a family living in the countryside in the province of Mendoza and a cousin who comes to visit. The relationship between Lily, a Dutch émigré who married into the Hernán family, and the narrator, a divorcé who left Argentina and his teaching position at the university for a while to write a book illustrates the tension that can transpire from the self-positioning of the professed losers and keepers contained by the Jewish Argentinean frame. Lily, with a blurry past and a preference for the hippie era, takes from Judaism what she needs to make her life and her job as an herbalist fruitful. The narrator ponders: “Vincent and I were indeed descendants of a Jewish family. But that was the past, and long ago. Like so many Argentine family histories, time and the natural process of assimilation had eroded away our differences, our memories” (240). He acknowledges the coarse surface that time leaves when sanding away differences in a new country and discarding cultural traits in favor of a smooth assimilation. Lily also brings this up when she shouts out: “In three generations you have managed to erase your roots and deny your heritage!” (243). Lily feels entitled to be the keeper of the family when it comes to rescuing the Jewish past that lies in Mendoza—she mentions, “There have to be some keepers, among the losers” (246). While the narrator’s awkwardness grows at the disbelief that being Jewish has any influence in his life and follows by denying the existence of anti-Semitism in Argentina, he adds“[…] there is no Argentine prejudice, no hatred, no anti-Semitism because everyone has assimilated!” (245). The short story finishes with the narrator leaving the Hernán household and, while waiting for the train to take him back to Buenos Aires, he watches the news in a bar. On the screen there are images of the bombing of the Jewish community center in that city (the AMIA, Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina), an event that took place in 1994. The narrator ends the story (which is also the end of the book) hinting at his awareness of his family heritage, his understanding of the socio-political environment in Argentina at last, and the interconnectedness of it all when it comes to one’s personal history and assimilation in lieu of (re)asserting one’s roots. This treacherous edge of keepers and losers is a fine line to walk, since it can alter the perception of community in one moment in time.
Nina Barragan’s assertion of a definite space for keepers and losers of the Jewish community in Argentina leaves a bittersweet taste, since there is a grey area for the ones whose assimilation process is an ongoing progression while consciously or unconsciously deciding to maintain or elude part of the identity passed on by the family and the nation. The clear-cut conception of characters that are on one side or the other of the border overcrowds our sense of identification as readers and displaces the flexible concept of community in the diaspora. Nevertheless, the worthy endeavor of digging deep into a culture that is difficult to grasp because of the array of hues from which it is composed makes us agree with Ilan Stavans (who wrote the introduction to the volume) when he says: “[…] Barragan’s characters retain a sense of pride and self-awareness that make them believe they are free to choose” (xiv). If only the Argentina that Gerchunoff wrote about was the same young nation welcoming (at least on paper) all kinds of European immigrants, Barragan would have a fair chance to demonstrate her commitment to developing a literary world where characters are too busy trying to assimilate that at times they cannot seem to discern between their own selves and the diasporic lives they have started living. However, Argentina in the twenty-first century is far more intricate and ambiguous, especially if we take into account the two terrorist events that took place in Buenos Aires in the last two decades (more specifically in1992 and 1994): both of which targeted Jewish/Israeli institutions. The unresolved cases leave a stain on the otherwise fairly peaceful lives Jews lead in this nation. The complexity of the Jewish Argentinean (or Argentinean Jewish) community starts where Barragan’s work of fiction ends: this unbounded community sifts through the seams of the nation calling attention to its uniqueness, as well as to its commonness. After all, every community has it losers and keepers; it just may be unattainable to define where one ends and the other one begins.
Bio: Daniela Goldfine is originally from Argentina and is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of Minnesota. Her research focus is contemporary Jewish Argentinean representations in the arts and a version of this paper was presented at Contingent Communities - The Annual Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature Conference at the University of Minnesota in October, 2010. Her most recent published article is available at: http://ir.uiowa.edu/mathal/vol1/iss1/3
from the June 2012 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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