Jewish home on the range

A once-thriving Jewish community in Basavilbaso, Argentina now has few remaining members, but they are committed to the cowboy lifestyle while holding on to their faith.

Gaucho 521 (photo credit: Hillery Smith Garrison/Fort Worth Star Telegram/MC)
Gaucho 521
(photo credit: Hillery Smith Garrison/Fort Worth Star Telegram/MC)
BASAVILBASO, ARGENTINA – Carlos Hecker’s body tells a story, and it is one of a lifetime spent doing hard work in the fields. The 54-year-old farmer’s face is weathered and creased. Under his thick brown shag of mustache, just one front tooth pokes out from his top gum. His hands are red, swollen, creased. Dirt is permanently caked under his yellowed fingernails. These are the signs of years spent striving to bend the earth to his will, to yield crops from the soil and to draw milk from cows.
Hecker has won that fight day in and day out, but now he faces another battle he fears he can’t win: to pass down to his children a legacy of surviving off the land while preserving an ancient faith.
Hecker is one of the last Jewish gauchos, or Argentinean cowboys. He is the great-grandson of Russian immigrants who came to this region of rough open plains to escape pogroms and build a better life. Along with hundreds of other religiously devout city dwellers, they rolled back the pampas to create farms, learned how to ride horses and herd cattle, raise livestock and reap harvests, all while re-creating the small communities of shtetl life where they could hold onto their beliefs.
Economic crises, corporate farming, too little land and increased industrialization and urbanization have all played their part in eroding this lifestyle. But Hecker’s battle is also against time and evolving priorities, as younger generations strike out for university and the city and don’t come back, the sacrifice of their forefathers not enough to lure them to return to a unique heritage – and back-breaking labor.
For the local Jewish population, Hecker says through a translator, “The farming tradition is over.”
And the broader Jewish community in Basavilbaso – which supports the farmers and identifies with them even if they don’t still farm themselves – is dwindling. Hecker sends his younger children to the one Jewish school, whose meeting hall he sits in now as he reflects on his community’s past and its uncertain future.
“They will grow up and there won’t be a new generation to fill this school or maintain the Jewish life here,” he worries.
Still, Hecker says, he’s proud to be a gaucho and remains committed to this tradition.
“I am in the place where my great-grandfather came. It’s already been four generations, and I was breast-fed on this since I was a child,” he says, “on the sacrifice of our elders to bring up all the families and to really support this life.”
And so, he continues, “You can’t let it collapse. You must support it.”
By way of explanation he asks, “If someone is sick, will you let him die or will you help him?”
The experience of the Jewish gauchos has always been a struggle. The first small handfuls of people came to Argentina in the 1880s to escape a different kind of hardship in Russia, namely virulent anti-Semitism that often flared into violence. They ended up in the country’s hinterlands primarily because a German Jewish philanthropist, Baron Maurice de Hirsch, purchased land for them here in order to start anew.
Some of the earliest settlements were right near Basavilbaso, and eventually Hirsch and his Jewish Colonization Association would help set up more than a dozen colonies throughout several Argentine provinces. The colonies helped spur development of the nearby towns and many members of the Jewish community settled in centers like Basavilbaso while still staying connected to the farming culture. Basavilbaso and a handful of other rural towns still boast a Jewish population and provide a community for those who have hung onto their farms.
Hirsch on the one hand wanted to save Jews in need and on the other wanted to put into practice ideological concepts about the “New Jew,” the effort to replace the idea of the old-fashioned Torah scholar with one of a modern man of action.
“There was this new idea of a Jew not as a victim but as an actor,” explains Adriana Brodsky, associate professor of Latin American and Jewish history at St. Mary’s College in Maryland. “Working the land is imagined as a way of regenerating the Jewish body that’s out of shape... as providing a way for the Jews to become useful to society, to become physically fit.”
Nora Fistein, a Basavilbaso high school history teacher who has done extensive research on Jewish gauchos, points out that the idea also held sway “because in Europe they never had the possibility to have land, to be owners of the land.”
The idea of the New Jew was also embraced by Zionists who sought to bring such Jews to Palestine, but Hirsch devoted most of his energies to settlements in the New World.
Hirsch bought land for colonies in Brazil and the United States too, but only those in Argentina really took hold. That was in large part because the Argentinean government wanted the immigrants to come almost as much as the immigrants themselves wanted to come. The state was committed to settling the countryside with Europeans in order to increase agricultural production as well as to Europeanize the population. Accordingly, they provided cheap land and other incentives to smooth the way.
The Jews were just one group of foreigners that came during that time and adapted to the agrarian lifestyle of rural Argentina. They were not necessarily the Europeans the central government had in mind. However, since these waves of newcomers became an integral part of the Argentinean national story, the Jews were included in that story, too.
“It plays into the narrative about the construction of the Argentine nation, and a lot of Jews want to be connected to that narrative,” Brodsky notes. “It allows Jews to place themselves at the center of the Argentine nation.”
Brodsky estimates that the peak of the Jewish influx to the countryside, or provinces, in 1925 was only 33,000. And even then, the group was never more than 15 to 20 percent of the Jews in the whole country, though there are estimates that in the early 20th century half of the Jews who came to Argentina passed through the provinces at some point.
Despite their small numbers, the ideal of the Jewish gaucho has loomed large ever since the aptly named 1910 book The Jewish Gauchos of the Pampas codified the concept. It resonated in part because of what it demonstrated about Jewish integration, according to Brodsky.
“It’s an example of assimilation that works. It doesn’t necessarily symbolize the end of Jewish identity because you’re able to be Argentine and Jewish,” she says, describing the stereotypical image of the Jewish gaucho as a man dressed in traditional Argentine cowboy clothes – flared cotton bombacha pants on his legs, a beret or sombrero on his head, espadrilles on his feet – with a prayer shawl draped over his shoulder as he attends synagogue.
She notes that to this day, Jewish gauchos continue to march as a proudly distinct group on Argentina’s Immigrants Day.
In addition to being a part of Argentina’s history, it is also important to the Jewish story, as part of the narrative of overcoming oppression and surviving, even thriving, against the odds. The Jewish Gauchos of the Pampas portrays the colonies as a new Jerusalem, and equating the Argentine colonization project with returning to and redeeming the land held particular resonance until the State of Israel was founded in 1948.
“This is also a story of resilience, of enduring,” says Brodsky. “How they were able to overcome, overcome, overcome: to learn these skills, to deal with the weather.”
“A lot of people left because it was very hard to get adapted, to live in the middle of nowhere with cows and nothing else,” notes Fistein, who points out that Hirsch required the colonists to pay for their land and equipment over many years. “It’s so difficult, and they suffered, so that they when they finally ‘won’ they got connected to the earth.”
The story of hardship and hard work is central to what it means to be a Jewish gaucho, and Jewish communities in places like Basavilbaso have held on to that component of identity even as religious observance has lapsed.
“We’re proud of how our grandparents fought to be here and to live here. We don’t want to let go of that, and they transmitted the love that they had for the land,” says Miguel Bajaroff, 52, who for the past 15 years has served as head of the Basavilbaso Jewish community.
“It’s the historic obligation that we have to our roots, and we’re very connected to our roots in this place. We are very proud to continue the tradition,” declares Bajaroff, dressed in jeans and a button-down shirt opened at the top to reveal a gold chain. “We continue to fight.”
He emphasized that connection endures through tradition rather than necessarily through faith.
“They lived the tradition very strongly, even more than the religion,” he says of his forebears. “For me the most important thing is the tradition.”
He describes that tradition as having been forged by connecting to the land while he maintained the same customs as his grandparents – preparing the same foods they ate and even sitting in the same seats they once did.
There is still some religious observance in the community, even if it has fallen off markedly from the strict Orthodoxy practiced by the original colonists. Though the community’s central synagogue was empty as usual on a recent Saturday morning, a table at the back of the roomy, balconied sanctuary covered with bits of halla and empty cups of wine attested to the regular Friday night services.
The community’s original synagogue – a small white plastered building that could be mistaken for any old farmhouse save for the Jewish star on its front – is dusted off and aired out once a year on Yom Kippur, when a short service is conducted there in addition to the one in the central synagogue as part of the day of prayer. Burials are still held in the historic Jewish cemetery, which now holds more than 2,000 graves under imposing granite headstones bearing both carvings of menoras and photographs of the deceased in the Argentine style.
However rare their use, these institutions are extremely important to the community, according to Fistein. “People feel these buildings are a part of their history, that it’s also a part of themselves, a part of this city.”
And Hecker describes their effect on the occasions when the community does assemble at these places: “Every time we have a celebration here, every time there is a festival with Jewish music, then you see all the people standing up and coming to dance and coming together again. In these moments you forget that your community is collapsing and you feel that everything comes to life.”
The 300-seat central synagogue, though, is misleading in its well-maintained elegance. The freshly painted exterior of Tefilat L’Moshe (or “Moises” in the Spanish rendering above the front door) was the result of work by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC).
“It’s very difficult to maintain this building,” Bajaroff acknowledges, counting just 100 Jewish families left in Basavilbaso. “Without the help from outside, the local community wouldn’t be able to support it.”
The JDC is one of the main groups providing that support, which comes not only in assistance for preserving buildings but also direct aid in the form of housing, medicine and other social services. The JDC estimates it helps around 1,300 families throughout the provinces, including in Basavilbaso, just a few hours’ drive from Buenos Aires, as well as in the first Jewish colony, Moises Ville, some 600 kilometers away.
The JDC has been supporting communities and individuals throughout Argentina since World War II, but only started working with Jews in the provinces in 2000 when a financial crisis swept across the country.
The meltdown shook the entire Jewish population of Argentina as people lost their savings and their homes overnight.
When the JDC reached out to help those affected in the rural areas, the organization faced an unexpected obstacle. Communities such as Moises Ville refused to accept help if their non-Jewish neighbors weren’t included. Though the JDC has programs devoted to non-Jews – raising millions of dollars in relief funds following the Haiti earthquake, for instance – the kind of aid they sought to give Moises Ville was intended only for the Jewish community.
“In the little towns, the relationships are very tight,” explains Viviana Bendersky, who oversees the JDC’s projects in the provinces. “For them it was very difficult; imagine, two neighbors and their situation is the same and one receives food from us and one doesn’t.”
So, she says, “For them it was impossible to think of an activity that was not open for all.”
After negotiating the point, the JDC finally agreed that 20% of the beneficiaries would be non-Jewish, an arrangement that lasted until 2005 when the most acute period of the crisis had passed, according to Bendersky.
While other Jewish communities in Argentina have experienced some rocky relations with their gentile neighbors, again and again Jews in the provinces say they can’t recall a single incident of anti-Semitism.
Instead, they talk about integration, particularly in Basavilbaso where Jewish colonists were so central to the formation of the town.
They established a school for non-Jewish and Jewish children alike, and they later founded a library, a hospital, a theater and other cultural facilities.
In fact, the library is a focal point in the center of downtown Basavilbaso. Fistein points out that most Latin American cities reserve that spot for the cathedral. But here, in addition to the library, the synagogue is located along the town’s central plaza. Out front in the plaza itself is a large memorial with a menora and Ten Commandments commemorating 100 years of Jewish immigration to the town.
“In the most important part of town, the most important religious building was the synagogue,” Fistein says. “This is because of the Jewish majority.”
At one point, according to 78-year-old Basavilbaso native Enrique Salomon, half the businesses and stores were owned by Jews. They played such a major role in farming that the first document establishing the local agricultural cooperative was written in Yiddish. In addition, says Salomon, who once worked as a cow auctioneer, all the the beef used to be kosher because the ritual slaughterer butchered the meat for everyone in the town.
Tellingly, though the co-op still closes on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, not a single Jew is now a member. In the 1940s, half of Basavilbaso’s population of 5,000 was Jewish; now it is a much smaller fraction. Bendersky says it is possible to count the number of Jews who continue to work the land on her fingers.
One of them is Adolfo Schein, 73, who still dons his bombacha pants, ties his red bandana around his neck and saddles up his horse each day. Young calves follow their mothers and try to gain their footing on his verdant pastureland while chickens peck around the weathered shed filled with leather and metal farming tools.
“I’m a gaucho and I will die like this,” declares Schein, who spent just one week in secondary school before convincing his father that he should continue to pursue his passion in the fields, milking cows and riding his horse.
His wife Giselda Martinez, a Star of David hanging from her neck, nods at the truth in his words. They regularly argue when they go to social occasions because she wants him to wear trousers but he refuses to go if he’s not in his gaucho pants.
And Schein’s convictions aren’t just limited to attire. “If you put a car with zero kilometers and a plow with three horses in front of him, he will choose the plow,” Martinez asserts.
But few of the Jewish children born here today share his commitment, and he has no children of his own. Of the Jewish families that once inhabited the three houses built alongside his, none remain.
Noting the change, he says simply, “We feel alone.”
Though gauchos have traditionally been somewhat solitary figures, as are cowboys elsewhere, the Jewish gaucho tradition tried to find ways to build and emphasize community. The houses, like those that border on Schein’s lot, were set up in groups to echo the shtetl and functioned similarly to Israeli moshavim.
That arrangement helped maintain a movement whose numbers were never large and where turnover was always high. But in the last few decades, the critical mass necessary to sustain the tradition has largely deteriorated.
The first drop came as early as the late 1940s, when the Peron government began to emphasize industrialization over the agricultural sector. The shift from rural to urban life intensified in later years when the business of agriculture began to transition from small-scale farms to mass production.
Recently, following the economic crisis that devastated many of the family farms that had managed to keep going, big corporations moved in to grow a new crop, soy beans, for a new market – China. Many farmers, not just those in the Jewish community, feel renting land to these companies is the only way they can afford to hold on to their property.
Hecker is among them. He lets out 100 hectares for soybean farming to earn enough income to cultivate his remaining eight hectares, so he can feel that he still runs a farm.
“I rent them with regret,” he emphasizes. “Not because I want to.”
There was also a structural obstacle to keeping the Jewish gaucho tradition going: the finite nature of the land available. With each family owning relatively small parcels, parents did not have enough land for all of their children to support themselves, magnifying the need to find other means of making a living.
But these are not the only reasons for the change. As the Jewish communities grew and prospered, established roots and raised new generations of children, those children did what the children of Jewish immigrants elsewhere have done – they moved to the city to go to college and become professionals.
In fact, for even the earliest colonists, the mastery of agriculture went hand-in-hand with the education of their children.
“As Jews, the first thing they did was provide an education,” says Salomon, who himself attended the Jewish school in Basavilbaso.
“We plant in the countryside, but we want our kids to be professionals, and the universities are not here. Because Jews always want progress, after secondary school all the children leave,” says Bajaroff, the community president. “The idea is that they go to the city and come back.”
One of the few to have done so is Alicia Schvartzman who, after going to university and working as an artisan in southern Argentina, decided to reclaim the farm first cultivated by her Ukrainian grandfather. Her father continued working that land into his 80s.
“The last day he was milking the cows by hand,” the 48-year-old mother of four recalls as she sits in the garden outside her farmhouse, surrounded by plants and flowers as her dog lopes around the old wagon wheel propped nearby.
“I wanted to take care of the land that cost so much effort to get and to support,” she says of her decision. “I have a big love for the land.”
She continues, “I think one of the mistakes of the Jewish immigrants is that they left the land very easily and they didn’t transfer to the next generation the love of the land, and they moved to the city. I am trying to transfer to my children a different ideology.”
Schvartzman and her husband now run an organic farm where they produce what they consume. To make ends meet, they sell some of the fresh vegetables they grow and a line of homemade jams and honey named after her grandmother at a local farmers’ market. They use her grandparents’ rusty old farm equipment partly out of ideology – “to come back to our roots,” as she puts it – but also, she notes, “because we have no others.”
“It’s a lot of work, a lot of effort,” acknowledges Schvartzman, a handkerchief tied over her curly brown hair, “but this is our conviction, our ideology, and we want to transmit it to our children.”
So far, that seems likely. Her 16-year-old son Antu, who sits at the kitchen table where a freshly baked loaf of bread is cooling while he takes a break from helping his father plow the fields, says he intends to stay.
“For me it’s very important that if you’re born here you continue with what you have and preserve what you have,” he explains.
But the tradition he embraces is linked to agriculture alone, not Judaism. Schvartzman’s husband isn’t Jewish and she herself rarely incorporates religion into her daily life.
“When my grandparents were here we respected all the festivals, but since they died, over time we are losing these traditions,” she admits. “For me, the connection with the land is something very private, very intimate, and also for my grandparents and my parents, and in this way it’s the connection of the heritage.”
Though few Jews other than Schvartzman have returned to farm work – she herself can’t think of any – some, like Firstein, have come back to the provinces to be white-collar workers. But many more haven’t.
“It [the community] is weak because we don’t produce more Jews and the ones we produce leave and don’t come back,” is how Salomon explains it.
They don’t come back because in the big cities they can find professional jobs, which are scarce if not impossible to come by in the provinces. Salomon himself has a daughter who would like to come back to Basavilbaso but wouldn’t be able to find any job equivalent to the position she has in marketing in Buenos Aires.
Bendersky is another case in point. Her grandparents immigrated to Argentina from Russia, and gradually the generations migrated to larger and larger cities until now almost all of her family, herself included, live in Buenos Aires.
“Progress in Argentina means to go to the cities,” she says, and cities tend to mean Buenos Aires. She repeats the popular local saying: “God is everywhere, but He only gives appointments in Buenos Aires.”
So perhaps, with almost all of Argentina’s 225,000 Jews living in Buenos Aires, most of them in well-todo neighborhoods, the experience of the Jewish gauchos should be seen not as a failure but as a success – a battle won rather than lost.
“If you think of them as agricultural communities, maybe it was a failure. If you think of these colonies as part of a larger project that included educating people, allowed for the free practice of religion, and which integrated them into Argentinean society... I think they were successful,” argues Brodsky.
“The Jews have generally paid a lot of attention to education, so if these are colonies that are very removed from any sort of educational center, it’s going to be hard to convince them to stay around. But you could argue that that’s precisely the intent they had: to provide Jews with the possibilities they wouldn’t have had in Eastern Europe,” she continues. “Because it was a very successful experiment, it was destined to end in the long run.”
If Salomon could choose, he would keep his children and grandchildren in his hometown.
“I would love to have them very close as a grandparent. Thank God they are completely integrated into the Jewish community in Buenos Aires.”
But he acknowledges that their relocation represents something positive as well as negative.
“That the sons and daughters of those who worked the land are now successful is something to be proud of,” he concludes. “The pride for their success makes the hurt of the loss smaller.”