Argentina’s Last Jewish Cowboys
Thousands of Jews fled 19th-century Russia for the South American Pampas. Can their unique heritage survive?
Jamie Jruz mounts his horse and begins swinging his lasso around in the air. “Watch this and take a photo!” he shouts. “Ayyyy!” The cows around him begin to scatter, kicking up the ground. Jruz expertly wrangles a brown heifer with his lariat and turns to face us. “Did you catch that?!” he says.
A compact man with a bit of a paunch, Jruz moves with the bravado of a young Hollywood star even though he’s almost 66 years old. As president of the Community of Villa Dominguez and Carmel, he has the key to just about every important building in the area. He’s also one of the last remaining Jewish cowboys in Argentina.
Jruz is a descendant of a group of Jews who came to Argentina at the end of the 19th century as part of a mass exodus promising escape from the anti-Semitic violence occurring in Eastern Europe. Thousands of Jews brought with them trunks filled with ornate gowns, pressed suits, fine art, and literature—and were left at the doorstep of a vast and unrestrained land in middle of South America. It was here, after back-breaking struggle, that many of them learned to tame the wild and became cowboys, or “gauchos,” of the Argentine Pampas. With a strong sense of Jewish tradition, deeply impressed by the grit of the gaucho, they created a settlement of new colonies—which they considered to be a holy land in the Americas.
I first heard about the colonies while I was living in Buenos Aires last summer. The thought of a Jewish cowboy struck me as novel, and so I set out to see one for myself, driving 270 miles north of the capital. What I discovered during my visit was even stranger: colonies with ranch-style adobe synagogues and street signs bearing names like Avenida Hertzl and Calle Saslavsky, populated by Jewish gauchos who were all as old as if not older than Jruz. All the young gauchos had fled long ago, but their elders had remained, in a geriatric Jewish version of High Noon.
In the late 1880s, a wealthy German-Jewish philanthropist in Paris by the name of Baron Maurice von Hirsch established the Jewish Colonization Association. Its goal was to provide Jews persecuted in the Russian pogroms with a safe place to practice their beliefs. Hirsch used his own money to purchase vast tracts of farmland around New Jersey, Connecticut, the western Canadian prairies, southern Brazil, and especially Argentina, where he had nearly 45,000 fertile acres set aside in the province of Entre Rios.
Argentina itself was undergoing a massive campaign to populate the Pampas and Patagonia with Europeans. During the 1870s and early 1880s, the military had violently seized tens of thousands of square miles of land from indigenous tribes in an initiative called the Conquista del Desierto, or Conquest of the Desert. The government saw Argentina as a natural extension of Europe, and they used cheap land and the promise of low taxes to entice their foreign counterparts. Generous open-door policies and favorable laws made it easy for foreigners to immigrate and, in Hirsch’s case, to experiment with Jewish colonization.
In 1889, under the guidance of Hirsch and his associates, the first wave of immigrants left their homes in Ukraine and set out to sea on a Mayflower-like pilgrimage lasting 35 days. As recounted in Shalom Argentina: Huellas de la Colonización Judía, a book retracing the settlement, on a damp and cold winter’s day in August, 813 Jews (130 families) were accepted at the port of Buenos Aires. Soon after, they were ferried northward up the River Parana and left at the foot of a rough sprawl rife with thistles and thickets. For the newly arrived Jews, the Pampas represented both the size of their freedom and their own helplessness.
Upon arrival, each family was leased a 75-hectare plot, given a set of tools, and told to dig a well. “Ninety percent of the immigrants knew nothing about working on the land,” Abram Stezlon, a 80-year-old descendant and a third-generation gaucho living and working in Villa Clara, told me. “It took more than a generation to see a community come together. And it wasn’t easy.”
Before the arrival of these Jews, the Pampas, like much of Argentina, was presided over by gauchos, who were a mix of indigenous and criollo livestock herders. The cowboys were proud horsemen, and their centuries-old traditions produced a distinct culture with its own cuisine, dress, and attitude. For work, they depended on contracts from large land-owners that required them to move cattle across the same land where the new immigrants now resided. Remarkably, a kinship developed between the pair, and the gauchos slowly but surely incorporated themselves into the settlements. They first offered help as farm hands and house-keepers but quickly found themselves teaching Jews to till the land, handle cattle, break horses, and even cure animals of disease. The fusion of the two cultures truly emerged in the second generation, when some gauchos were taught Yiddish and many Jewish men traded in their yarmulkes for cowboy hats and a clean shave.
Nora Fistein, a history teacher from the neighboring colony of Basavilbaso who has spent decades researching the immigration (which included that of her own grandparents), told me, “The gauchos started learning about European food and language from the Jews, and the Jews about gaucho clothing and drink. The gauchos had their own music, but then they started to dance to Jewish music and watch their plays.” By the third generation, this colorful gaucho culture had spread across all of the colonies, along with Jewish schools, synagogues, libraries, and shops.
A hundred years later, the scene today is strikingly different. Lone buildings adorned with Jewish stars and fading scribbles of Yiddish can be seen from main roads connecting the colonies. Weeds and plants have eaten away at the walls of synagogues and abandoned homes as if to reclaim the land. Train stations that were built and tracks laid to accommodate the transport of goods produced by each farm have shuttered—empty silos sit along hundreds of miles of track overgrown with weeds.
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