Jewish Cowboys in Argentina

            August/September 2012    
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The Jewish Gauchos Of Argentina

By Clara Lazimy

What are gauchos? The epic poem "Martin Fierro", by the Argentinean poet José Hernandez paints a mythical figure, larger than life. His gaucho was comparable to the John Wayne cowboy - tanned by the elements, at home in the prairie, knowing his way across the dessert, and able to have an almost symbiotic relationship with his horse. Socially he wasn't so great... The gaucho of legend had the social graces of a ruffian, and human life was never dearer to him than his perceived honor. I say "perceived", because an insult didn't necessarily have to be real to trigger his quick temper and bring out his "puñal", a long blade knife, worn on his belt.

Reality was quite different. In a strict sense, a gaucho was a man who hired out to do farm or cattle work. Anyone who lived in a rural area and didn't own his land was, in fact, a gaucho.

In 1853, after a bloody civil war that devastated the young Argentinean society, a Constitution was finally drafted and approved. The country was ready and eager to receive immigrants, and there were plenty of those waiting in Europe. Not only Jews came to Argentina, there were Welsh and Irish, some Spanish, and Germans, all coming in "waves". The bulk of the immigration, though, came around the turn of the century. Italians escaping hunger and poverty, and Jews trying to leave behind the hardships of Eastern Europe. They all had something in common: they were ready to work very hard and make a good future.

At this point in time (around 1890), a Jewish businessman, Baron Maurice de Hirsch, was looking for a way to help his fellow Jews in need. His only son died, and he wanted to do something worth of his memory. The Argentinean government had recently opened the gates of their country to immigration, and was desperately in need of funds. Hirsch purchased some of the most fertile land in the world, (along with some that wasn't...and that's what my grandparents got...) and started his huge undertaking to bring European Jews to settle the Argentinean wilderness.

According to the stories that I heard time and again, when the first contingents of colonists arrived, they were greeted by a representative of the Baron who gave each family a small plot of land, a shovel and a bag of seeds. Looking around them, they could see ant hills the size of small houses, some trees, and grass the height of a big man. They were humble artisans in their native Rumania, Russia, or Poland. They had no knowledge of agriculture, they were not familiar with the seasons or the language in this, their new and strange land. But they knew that they would be free of persecution, their children would not be drafted at a young age to serve in the Czar's army, and they could practice their Judaism without fear. So, they were ready to work hard and long, to learn how to wrestle fruits from this alien land, and to earn their newfound freedom. The land was incredibly fertile, but it required more knowledge and experience than the newcomers could muster in order to open itself to them and give forth its fruits.

I only had a chance to know my maternal grandmother, and she died when I was two years old. What I am talking about I learned mostly sitting on my father's knees, on hot summer nights in Rosario, Argentina. We had a large tiled roof, and at night, that was the only place to be: cool, with a soft breeze, and full of stars. He would tell me of how his parents and Mother's parents sat huddled together on the pier, waiting to board the boat that would bring them to "Amerique". They hadn't known each other before, but their friendship would last several lifetimes.

Once they arrived to their destination, near Moises Ville, in the province of Santa Fe, they procured a building for the school. It was a one room school, where all the grades, first through fourth studied together. They had two teachers: one for Spanish and Arithmetic in the mornings and one for Hebrew and Hummash in the afternoon. They walked approximately 6-7 miles each way, keeping their shoes in their satchels, so the yuta and canvas they were made of wouldn't come apart. They remembered fondly the childish pranks they played on the Hebrew teacher, and how hard they worked in school. Those teachers must have done something right, though, because both my parents, and everyone else that I remember from their circle, were avid readers, and many went on to high school in the city, some even becoming doctors and lawyers.

I don't know much about what happened after most of the Jewish colonists left in the 1920's and 30's. Moises Ville is still a small town, with its rich Jewish life, and a great Jewish School. Most of the Jewish population of Argentina nowadays is concentrated in the big cities, and the Jewish Gauchos are today little more than a memory of a world that is no more.


from the August/September 2012 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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