A homeland for the Jews

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Apr 10 14:53:41 MDT 2002

Alberto Gerchunoff, "The Jewish Gauchos of the Pampas":

During their first years in the colonies of Entre Ríos, the Jews knew very
little about the new homeland. Their conception of the Argentine people and
customs was a confused one. They admired the Gaucho, and feared him, and
they conceived of his life as a thrilling amalgam of heroism and barbarism.
They had misinterpreted most of the gaucho tales of blood and bravery and,
as a result, and formed a unique conception of their Argentine countryman.
To the Jews of Poland and Bessarabia, the Gaucho seemed a romantic bandit,
as fierce and gallant as any hero of a Schummer novel. The factory girls in
Odessa had avidly read Schummer after their hard day's work. Now, the farm
girls in Entre Ríos did the same thing.

In the synagogue-constituted by one or another ranchhouse in Rajíl-the old
and young men discussed their ideas about Argentina. The enthusiasm they
felt for the free life here-something they'd dreamed about during the dark
days in Russia-had not softened a bit. All felt a fervent love for this
country, however new and unknown it seemed. The hope they felt was as fresh
as the new black earth their plows turned; the new hope and the new earth
made their own selves feel new, their bodies young.

On Saturdays, until midday and after, the men would stand at the door of
the synagogue-not far from the corral in this instance-and recall their
sufferings and exodus, as if the immigration from Imperial Russia had been
the historic Exodus of the Bible.

They talked; they argued. José Haler, who had done his military service in
Russia, once maintained that Argentina had no army.

"What do you know about that?" Reb Isaac Herman almost shouted at him. Reb
Herman was a bent old man, palsied and infirm, who taught the children of
the colony their prayers. He opposed José energetically. "You don't know
anything, you! You're a little soldier boy, that's all. What do you mean,
Argentina has no army?"

"Anybody can understand that, Reb Isaac," José said. "Here in Argentina,
the Czar is a President and he doesn't need soldiers to defend him."

"And what about those that we see at the railroad station at Domínguez?
What about those, eh?"

The question confused José. It stopped him. He could not satisfactorily
explain the presence in Domínguez of the sergeant whose saber in its rusted
scabbard was so frightening to the children.

On another afternoon, a neighbor brought news of a coming festival in
Villaguay. He told of the arches and flags and banners being erected in the
streets of the municipality. This news was commented on everywhere and
another colonist proposed that they find out the reason for the festival.

The colonists did not know a word of Spanish. The young men had quickly
taken up the dress and some of the manners of the Gauchos, but they could
manage only the most basic Spanish phrases in their talk with the natives.
It was decided, nevertheless, that their  Gaucho herdsmen, Don Gabino, a
comrade of the great Crispín Velázquez and a veteran of the Paraguayan War,
should be consulted about the matter. Don Gabino thought that the
preparations might be for some local fiesta, or might be for a coming
election, perhaps. This idea seems very logical at first, but it was later
rejected. Finally, it was the Commissary for the colonies, Don Benito
Palas, who cleared up the matter of the preparations for the Jews and
explained to the Shochet, in eloquent yet simple form, the full
significance of May 25th, Argentina's Independence Day.

The idea continued to interest the colonists of Rajíl, and in the nightly
conversations and rest periods of the day they talked about the date. Each
one had his own idea about the significance of what had happened on May
25th, but all felt its genuine importance. Finally, it was suggested that
the colony celebrate the great anniversary.

It was Israel Kelner who first offered the idea. Israel had once gone to
Jerusalem to organize the immigration sponsored by Baron Rothschild. An
eminent Hebraist who had been publicly praised by the Shochets of Rajíl and
Karmel, Kelner enjoyed great prestige in the colonies, and often delivered
the principal address at ceremonies held in the colony. Now, he took a trip
to Las Moscas and learned from Don Estanislao Benítez all the necessary
details about the 25th of May.

The commemoration of the day was decided upon, and the Mayor and Shochet
were designated as organizers for the festival. Jacobo, the Shochet's
helper, who was the most acclimated of all the young men, put on his best
pair of gaucho pantaloons and rode from house to house on his smart little
pony to announce the holding of an assembly that very night in the synagogue.

At the meeting, the details of the celebration were discussed and it was
decided first not to work on the holiday, of course, to bedeck the doorways
of the houses with flags, and to hold a big meeting in the clearing, at
which Reb Kelner would deliver an appropriate speech. It was decided,
furthermore, to invite the Commissary to the festival  as well as the
Administrator of the colonies, Herr Bergmann, a harsh and unsocial German
who had little feeling about the occasion to be commemorated.

During the preparations, a further difficulty arose. It was discovered that
no one knew the colors of the Argentine flag. It was too late to do
anything about it now, and so the preparations had to go on. Finally, the
great day came.

The dawn found Rajíl bedecked like a ship: the doorways were covered with
flags and banners of all colors. The Argentine colors were there, too,
though the colonists did not realize it. A mild sun shone bright but not
too warm as it lit up the flat countryside and bathed the yellowed shrubs
and the white walls of the huts with its new warmth. The Commissary sent
his little band, and they swept into the music of the National Anthem as
soon as they arrived at the colony. The hearts of the Jews filled with joy
at the sound and, though they were still confused about what this date
meant, the thought of this patriotic festival they were celebrating in
their new homeland filled their spirits with a new happiness.

The service in the synagogue was attended by all the men and women. Their
Jerusalem tunics shown white and resplendent in the sunlit room as they
listened to the Rabbi bless the Republic in the solemn prayer of
Mischa-beraj, a special prayer in praise of the Republic.

After the reading from the Sacred Book, the Mayor spoke. He was a less
learned man than the Rabbi, but he knew how to keep people enthralled. He
used many gestures of the synagogue preachers, and he would often tear at
his chestnut-colored beard. Immediately after the Mayor's speech, the
people left the synagogue and gathered in the clearing. The wild flowers of
this season shone brilliantly on an improvised arbor near which the band
stood and played the Anthem, lustily and continually. The young men of the
colony were showing off their horses, and the native boys from the
breakwater district stood in a group, watching silently, but keeping
themselves well supplied from the trays of sweets and pastries. The
demijohn of wine waited on the arrival of the Commissary for its opening.

It was growing late when Don Benoit Palas appeared with his escort,
carrying the Argentine flag. The ceremony began. The Commissary drank his
cup of wine and Reb Israel Kelner stood on the dais to speak. In the simple
Yiddish of the people, and in the name of this colony, he saluted this
country "in which there are no murders of the Jews," and illustrated his
feelings with the parable of the two birds-a story that his neighbors had
heard on many occasions.

"There was once a bird imprisoned in a cage of iron. He believed that all
birds lived as he did, until a certain day when he saw another bird flying
freely through space and flitting from tree to rooftop and back again. The
imprisoned bird grew very sad; he rarely sang. He thought so much about his
imprisonment that he finally got the idea of breaking out and picked at the
bars of his cage until he was free."

Jacobo explained the story to Don Benito, who, being a native, could make
little of the involved discourse. In his answer to Reb Kelner, Don Benito
recited the stanzas of the Anthem.

Louis Proyect
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