In Moises Ville, the Yiddish cowboys make one last stand

By Jonathan Gilbert, February 28, 2013
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Former town mayor Arminio Seiferheld (right) in his ranching days

Former town mayor Arminio Seiferheld (right) in his ranching days

Ariel Rosenthal appears a typical gaucho, the name given to Argentine cowboys who work the land and rear cattle in the country’s vast Pampas.

He wears bombachas, rugged, loose-fitting trousers; alpargatas, cotton shoes; and a boina, a beret-style cap.

He slurps continuously on maté, a herbal drink served in a wooden gourd, and reminisces about a boyhood spent galloping on horseback through his father’s farm.

But unlike most gauchos, Mr Rosenthal also speaks Ivrit, maintains the traditions of Shabbat and studied as a teenager at the Jewish seminary in Moises Ville, his home town ten hours north-west of Buenos Aires.

Mr Rosenthal is keeping alive a dying breed — the Jewish gaucho.

At 34, he goes against the grain of his generation. Most young Jewish people have now left Moises to work as professionals in nearby cities like Rosario.

Moises was the first of several former colonies established in Argentina’s interior 120 years ago by Jews who escaped the pogroms in Eastern Europe.

In 1889, Pedro Palacios, a landowner in Santa Fe province, sold plots to more than 100 families who had fled to Buenos Aires from modern-day Ukraine.

Arminio Seiferheld today, with the stirrups given to him after his barmitzvah

Arminio Seiferheld today, with the stirrups given to him after his barmitzvah

But when they arrived in the countryside, Mr Palacios never appeared. They survived the first months on handouts from railway workers and many died of disease.

They were rescued by Baron Maurice von Hirsch, a Jewish philanthropist in Germany, who bought 100 hectares of land for each family. The Jewish gaucho was born.

Local creoles — nomadic and landless, but masterful ranchers — taught the Jews how to ride horses, lasso and plough fields. The Jews also adopted gaucho customs, while the creoles learned Yiddish.

Ariel Rosenthal’s grandfather arrived in the village of Algarrobal, 20 miles from Moises, in 1939 as part of a second immigration wave of Jews fleeing Nazi persecution.

He rented land on which Mr Rosenthal’s late father, Kurt, would work as a boy milking cows. Kurt later became a true Jewish gaucho, expanding the business from milking to rearing calves and fattening bulls.

“He loved what he did, and infected me with the same enthusiasm. When I was just 12, he went away for a few days and left me in charge of the farm,” said Mr Rosenthal.

Like his friends, Mr Rosenthal was sent off to study. “We sow wheat and harvest doctors,” goes the saying in Moises. He graduated in accountancy and worked in a bank, but his love of the countryside drew him back.

Today he is one of just a handful of young Jewish gauchos in the region, while some of his father’s colleagues also cling to their rural past.

Arminio Seiferheld is 70 and a former mayor of Moises. He never studied, but spent his entire working life as a gaucho. Health problems now make it dangerous for Mr Seiferheld, who speaks both Spanish and Yiddish, to mount a horse. The gaucho within, however, has not diminished. He pulls out his lasso, tries on his old embroidered belt and inspects the leather stirrups his father gave him after his barmitzvah.

Together with around 15 other stalwarts, Mr Seiferheld attends Moises’ only regular service, Kabbalat Shabbat, every week.

The Jewish community was once 5,000-strong, but just 250 are now left, ten per cent of the total population. Ninety are octogenarians.

Vestiges of the 1940s golden era remain: three synagogues, the Kadima theatre and a Hebrew school. At La Central bakery, Italian owner Bernardino Urban sells the challah and strudel Jewish women taught him to make 40 years ago.

Around 600 people from Moises Ville have made aliyah. “The Jews are not naturally people of the land,” said Ingue Kanzepolsky, 82. “It was never in their blood.”

But Ariel Rosenthal, who now lives in Rafaela, an hour-and-a-half drive from Moises, is adamant the Jewish gaucho will not die out. He has already bought his two-year-old son, Martín, a small horse. “I want to transmit my passion to him,” he says. “I hope he can be the next generation of Jewish gaucho.”

    Last updated: 12:45pm, February 28 2013