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.
In Villa Dominguez, one of the largest remaining settlements at a population of 1,800, things are a little livelier. Here the buildings are painted in bright colors, and there are two public schools, a library, bars, gas pumps, a clinic, a grocer, several butchers, and a police department with a force of five officers. A small one-story synagogue with a dance hall for social events sits near the center of town. Locals have taken to calling Villa Dominguez the “Paris of Entre Rios” as the streets have been laid out to look like the Place de L’Etoile with the town’s agricultural coop and community fund replacing the Arc de Triomphe. Stand-alone displays branded with “SHALOM” point out famous landmarks within the handful of blocks that make up the town. I was told Villa Dominguez was once a major hub for Jewish life, and though the area felt distinctly Jewish, signs of human life were scarce. The only sound drowning out the chirping birds was the crunching gravel beneath my feet when I walked.
I headed first to the home of Elias Stavsky, an 84-year-old retired farmer who lives with his brother in Villa Dominguez. Stavsky, like many of the elder residents I would meet in the area, did not look his age. He wore thick-framed glasses, combed his hair with a side part, and left the top few buttons of his shirt undone to reveal a deep tan, looking more like a fresh retiree from Florida than a Jew who had been doing back-breaking farm work for 75 years. His home was simple and sparse, filled mostly with basic, metal furniture. But atop a large mahogany bureau were a number of family photos and small souvenirs, including a tiny gold trinket engraved with two Stars of David and the word Jerusalem.
Stavsky grew up on a farm that was given to his grandparents by the Jewish Colonization Association in the Leven colony. He worked the fields with his seven brothers and sisters and recalls a devastating plague of locusts and days spent milking cows. Religious life was active when he was a child, but he also remembers when things started to change. “When I was a boy, there was a synagogue in every community. We always respected Sabbath when I was younger,” he told me in Spanish with an accent hinting at his Slavic roots. “As time passed it became more difficult. I remember we would have go to different communities just to find enough men for a minyan.”
Until just four years ago, he lived on the Leven farm, which had belonged to his grandparents, but he had to leave because everyone in the colony had either died or moved away. “There was once more than 3,000 people in the colony,” he said. “They all took to the road. Everyone. I was the only one left. I had to leave.”
Neighboring Carmel, where Jruz lives, is also depopulated and can no longer be found on many maps. The hamlet is accessed through a wide dirt road flanked by tall stalks of maize, and only a few houses remain in good repair. Most of the people previously living in smaller settlements like Stavsky’s and Carmel left for more populous areas in nearby towns. Jruz told me the 1950s were particularly unkind to the colonies, and tens of thousands left for Israel and the United States in fear of President Juan Perón’s Nazi sympathies. According to Osvaldo Quiroga, the director Villa Dominguez’s Jewish museum, today there only 30 Jews remaining in Villa Dominguez and only about 20 Jewish families still living on farms in the province—almost all of them elderly.
Back at home on the farm that was given to his grandfather over 100 years ago Jruz is packing things away into his shed after a morning spent tending to his animals. There are tools everywhere, dogs running around, his tractor is parked under a tree, and many of the structures on site are the original ones built by Jruz’s grandfather. Upon finishing his morning routine, Jruz offered to show me some of Carmel’s important landmarks. We jumped in his truck, and he took me down a long and bumpy road, stopping at a graveyard, not too far from his home, enclosed by bright white brick walls and a large black Star of David painted above its entrance.
The small synagogue that sits beside the cemetery was erected in 1923 in the middle of a grassy plot; it is the same one Jruz’s parents and grandparents used to visit every Saturday to pray. When the community was thriving in the 1920s and 1930s, he says, more than 100 people would attend the temple’s Friday night Shabbat services. Today, the synagogue only opens for Jewish New Year and the Day of Atonement when an officiant travels from Buenos Aires to conduct services.
The cemetery itself is quite spectacular, filled with hundreds of graves, each one mapping the history of the colony over the past hundred years. On one end are tombs pre-dating 1900, which are sealed with corrugated metal roof, a material the settlers used when they didn’t have enough stone for construction. On the other end, are tombs marked with beautiful marble sculptures and hand-painted ceramic photos of the dead. The oldest grave is dated 1894 and bears the name Nusimovich Bernardo. All of the graves look east toward Jerusalem.
Jruz recalls celebrating Sukkot by building little cabins from weeds; a young girl came by to teach his family prayers. “My mother stayed true to all of the Jewish traditions, and she always respected the Sabbath,” he told me. “Every Friday night she would light candles and cry.” He also remembers a community where Jewish plays were performed and big parties hosted more than 50 families and musicians from across all of the colonies. A sulky or horse-drawn carriage would arrive at each home, collecting men, women, and children for a night of music and dancing. He lamented that there is nothing like that in the area today, and he feels saddened by what has been lost after all the sacrifices made by his ancestors.
Jruz didn’t leave Carmel until he was 12 years old, he said, to attend primary school in Villa Dominguez. “When I was young I worked on the farm with my father and brother,” he told me. “We didn’t have any machinery, and there was a lot of work to be done by hand and with the horses. I chose to stay and help my family.” He recalled poor families and a lack of schooling and traditions that were lost as the immigrants adapted to Argentine food and ritual.
When I met Eleodoro Padlog, 82, president of the Villa Dominguez Cooperative for Drinking-Water, at his home the next day he echoed a common complaint that the government had abandoned the region to its fate. A son of Russian immigrants, Padlog is Jewish but not religious. His parents were staunch socialists, and while the family was well-versed in Jewish traditions, they never practiced them at home. Padlog had strong opinions against the government, all of which he said can be credited to growing up in a cooperative environment.
While the region to is still considered the “bread basket” of the nation, he says, rising costs have forced land ownership from the hands of small holders to those of industrial producers. A push in the Peronist 1950s to turn Argentina into an industry-based economy led many Jews to sell their farms and buy homes in Buenos Aires. Today there is little incentive to stay in the area, where weak infrastructure is left to rot.
Padlog blames the government, which he says has done little over the past 50 years to help the farms that were suffering. “Investment has been focused primarily in Buenos Aires for decades,” he told me. “For more than 35 years the colonies have been paying to keep the local hospital in good maintenance” through the Sociedad Sanitaria Israelita (Israelite Health Society). In 1975 the hospital came under the control of the provincial government, and according to Padlog the services it provides have been waning ever since. He also railed against high taxation and the post-military state that birthed extreme corruption, anti-Semitism, and an ever-unstable peso. Relating an anecdote from an Uruguayan friend, Padlog summed up his view of the country’s problems: “God created Argentina like a paradise, but his mistake was putting Argentine people on it.”
For 56-year-old Jorge Kohon—a father of three teens, and an executive member of the Jewish Association of Villaguay, a town of about 48,000 close to the colonies—the end of the century-old Jewish agricultural experiment in Argentina is near. “We are the last generation that will work on the land,” Kohon told me in the headquarters of the association. “Our kids will be doing other things. Our hope is that these traditions will be upheld by our children in bigger cities where more Jews have flocked and still have strong religious convictions,” such as Córdoba, Rosario, and Buenos Aires, where more than 80 percent of Argentina’s estimated 300,000 Jews live today.
The effort to maintain cultural memory of this unique Jewish community is centered in the Museo y Archivo de las Colonias, or Jewish Colonies Museum, in Villa Dominguez, which was founded in 1985. Housed in a former pharmacy and containing the world’s most complete collection documenting the immigration of Jews to Argentina, the museum is overseen by Osvaldo Quiroga, 48, who has held the curatorial position for nearly three decades. Quiroga was born in Villa Dominguez but didn’t hear much about the immigration while growing up. He left the colonies to pursue his studies in 1982 and returned shortly after. He took the job at the museum out of what he said was a necessity—he needed a job, and they needed a curator. But after 28 years, his emotions run deep.
“I’m not Jewish, but I feel close to the Jewish history because of the people in the town,” Quiroga told me as he began thumbing through a drawer in the museum’s archives. “My grandfather was one of the men who helped teach the people how to work the land they received.” He pulls out a document for me to see; typed out in English, the form is dated April 1, 1905, and promises 183 acres of land, seeds, livestock, furniture, and equipment for 6,031.30 pesos—travel expenses to the Lucienville colony included. Students attending school in the colonies and in nearby towns, such as Villaguay, are now required to pay a visit to the museum before graduation, and in the last few years groups from as far as New York and Israel have come looking to learn about this footnote to Jewish history in the Americas.
As we walked the museum together, Quiroga explained that all the contents were donated by community members, willed to him by those who have passed, or inherited from colonies that have disappeared. The main room of the museum is simple but wide, with high ceilings, and almost all the objects lay uncased. I peered at relics such as glass perfume bottles that made their way from Russia to Argentina, wedding photos, and ponchos worn by the original gauchos. An illustration of a man with a long beard, side curls, and a brown woolen coat over a poncho hung on the wall above a collection of clothing. I couldn’t help but picture him riding swiftly across the Pampas on horseback, rounding up his cattle, and then ending his day with a bowl of kreplach.
Quiroga brought me to a corner of the museum and pointed out a collection of long picks and strange contraptions with hooks, buckles, and other odd additions. I was able to make out a rusty old rifle in the bunch, but most of the pieces were foreign and all of them weathered or permanently caked in dirt. I asked him what they were. He told me they were the farm tools given to the Jews who first broke the land; those who became Argentina’s cowboys.
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