A book I’ve been reading lately is The Jewish Gauchos of the Pampas [Los Gauchos Judíos] by Alberto Gerchunoff. Through a series of 26 interlocking stories it conveys the history of Russian Jews who emigrated to Argentina. Set in Entre Rios province this small book creates a vivid picture of the life in the Jewish farm settlements. Gerchunoff’s own grandfather was one of the original Jewish colonists in Argentina. This book was first recommended to me by a Jewish colleague of mine in Miami who grew up in Rosario. She said that the stories in this book remind her of the stories that she heard as a young child in Argentina.

Undoubtedly, while reading the book I came away with a sense of the heritage that the families brought with them to their new country. The importance of faith and ritual is stressed. Even on the farm the plowing of the first furrow in the field is given not only symbolic significance but is an act respectfully observed by the entire family. Yet, as I read I couldn’t help but wonder if these first generation immigrants from Russia wondered what were they doing here, in Entre Rios, in South America? Towards the end of the book one of the stories is about an old colonist Reb Guedali ben Schlomo. Possessing the “noble bearing” of the highly educated, Guedali served as a teacher to the narrator. As a young man, Guedali was a rich landowner. In what was still a feudalized Russian society, Guedali had socialist ideas and shared the product of his lands with those who worked it. The young narrator learns through Guedali not to question his new homeland but to be thankful:

Guedali “had journeyed to Jerusalem before, but he had returned saddened, and declared that he preferred to live in any place but the crowded square that was the sacred capital of the Jews, with its convents, its crosses and its minarets. He came to Entre Rios with the first immigrants. Here, he had realized his ideal, to work the land, to eat bread made from his own wheat and beans grown in his own garden.”

An excellent fiften page introduction accompanies the English translation of the Jewish Gauchos of the Pampas. Originally published in 1910 the Jewish Gauchos of the Pampas has been called the first significant literary work in Spanish written by a Jew. The National Yiddish Book Center in the U.S. has the book on its list of the 100 Greatest Works of Modern Jewish Literature.

In 1975 Los Gauchos Judíos was made into a movie of the same name. It would be remiss of me not to mention that a couple parts of the book (at least, the English translation) do read rather like a telenovel:

“Meanwhile, by the little stockade, Raquel went on milking the quiet cow. She was on her knees as her fingers squeezed the magnificant udders and pressed out streams of steaming milk. The dawn around them now was the pale red of autumn, but the open neck of Raquel’s dress showed full firm breasts that a hot summer sun had baked the color of golden fruit. The milk squirted into the pail with the same soft rhythm as the girl’s breathing and the light snorting of the cow.”

I’m wondering how they filmed that scene.

The Jewish gauchos also have been the subject of a 1990 documentary by two filmmakers from the U.S., Mark Freeman and his wife Alison Brysk. Freeman tells the very interesting story behind the making of his documentary Yidishe Gauchos in this essay titled Fiddler on the Hoof: The Jewish Gauchos of Argentina.