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Last Updated: Monday, 12 February 2007, 08:42 GMT
Argentina's last Jewish cowboys
The story of Moises Ville in the Argentine pampas
By Daniel Schweimler
BBC News, Sante Fe, Argentina

The gaucho is to Argentina what the cowboy is to the United States. But how did Jewish gauchos appear in an overwhelmingly Roman Catholic country?

Jewish Gaucho in Moises Ville, Argentina
Arminio Seiferheld : a Jewish Gaucho who lives in Moises Ville

You could put Arminio Seiferheld on the front cover of a calendar depicting the Argentine countryside. Piercing blue eyes look out of a brown weather-beaten sixty-something year old face.

He wears bombachas - the baggy, hard-wearing trousers used by gauchos - the Argentine cowboys. And he sips the bitter mate tea drunk in these parts through a bombilla or metal straw out of a wooden gourd clasped in his hand.

Arminio is one of the last of a disappearing breed: the Jewish gaucho.

Map of Argentina
As we drive down a dirt road near his farm in the northern province of Santa Fe he stops to talk to an elderly farm-worker in a combination of Spanish and Yiddish; an unusual mixture so far from the Jewish communities of Buenos Aires and Rosario.

"He's not Jewish," explains Arminio, as the farm-worker and his ragged, wirey dogs continue on their way. "But he worked for my father at a time when most of the farmers around here were Jewish and spoke Yiddish."

Polish pioneers

A small group of Polish Jews arrived in Argentina with the ambition of recreating a biblical dream and working the land
We pull up outside Arminio's house in The State of Israel Street in the heart of Moises Ville, a town of about 2,000 inhabitants.

It is a short walk from the town's central plaza. At first glance, it is exactly like most in rural Argentina, with the statue in the middle of Jose de San Martin, the liberator from Spanish colonial rule.

Well-tended flowerbeds form a Star of David in Moises Ville
Flowerbeds form a Star of David
But this plaza is different. On one side is the Kadima theatre, the sign written amidst the ornate stonework in Spanish and Hebrew.

Painted over but still clearly visible on the fašade of the bank are the words "Banco Comercial Israelita: the Commercial Bank of Israel" and the well-tended flowerbeds form a Star of David.

When tens of thousands of Jews fled the pogroms in eastern Europe at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries they mostly sought refuge in the cities of New York, London, Paris and Buenos Aires.

But one small group of Polish Jews arrived in Argentina with the ambition of recreating a biblical dream and working the land.

They were sold, at greatly inflated prices, large tracts of barely fertile land in the inhospitable north.

That was their first problem. Their second major disadvantage was that they had been urban dwellers and knew little about the ways of the countryside.

Very soon, after the community had been ravaged by disease and poor harvests, the remaining pioneers were reduced to living in disused railway carriages, surviving from scraps thrown from passing trains.

Cradle for Jewish immigration

Arminio's father arrived with the second wave of Jewish immigrants to Argentina, those escaping Nazi Germany
The wealthy Jewish philanthropist, Baron Maurice Hirsh, heard of their plight and decided to fund the establishment of several Jewish communities in Argentina. The first was Moises Ville, founded in 1890.

The early days were tough. Few spoke the language and not all were welcome in this predominantly Roman Catholic country.

Records tell of one Jewish woman burnt to death in her house, another resident chopped up and burnt for two-hundred pesos and some bags of flour.

Argentina's first Jewish cemetery
Moises Ville is home to Argentina's first Jewish cemetery
But they overcame their difficulties to build a thriving community boasting four synagogues, Argentina's first Jewish cemetery, the Kadima theatre, a Hebrew school and a thriving public library.

Sings of integration

Arminio's father arrived with the second wave of Jewish immigrants to Argentina, those escaping Nazi Germany.

He swapped three bicycles for three cows and began his life as a cattle farmer: an Argentine Jewish gaucho.

Arminio has continued the tradition but his four children like so many young rural Argentines - both Jewish and non-Jewish - have moved to the cities.

One son lives in Israel and all speak fluent Hebrew. His daughter, Patricia, who was visiting from the city of Rosario, where she teaches Hebrew, said: "When I first went to Jerusalem, I felt at home.

They could not believe that I came from a small town called Moises Ville that was a cradle for Jewish immigration here in Argentina."

Now only about 10 percent of the population of Moises Ville is Jewish.

However, the signs of integration after those difficult early days are apparent with non-Jewish girls attending Israeli folk dancing classes and the town's only bakery making and selling apple strudel, kamish and cholla breads alongside the more traditional Argentine breads and pastries.

Uncertain future

Argentina, which has the biggest Jewish community in Latin America, has suffered anti-Semitism which is again on the rise.

But it was also a country of immigrants with Italians, Spaniards, Russians and Germans - Catholics, Protestants, Moslems and Jews - battling together to overcome harsh terrain to help build a nation.

Synagogue in Moises Ville
There is only one synagogue that still functions in Moises Ville
At the end of a long day on the farm, Arminio rushes home to shower and change to officiate at the only synagogue that still functions in Moises Ville.

The Jewish congregation, like most in the other rural Jewish towns in Argentina, is small and elderly and does not warrant its own rabbi. The future is uncertain.

But for now at least the Hebrew prayers and traditions brought from Eastern Europe over 100 years ago still mix with the sound of crickets on a starlit night on the Argentine pampas.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 10 February, 2007 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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