(then there was the time I went poking around the pampas of Argentina…)
If time doesn’t stop in this small town at the northern edge of the Argentine pampas, it certainly takes a breather.
During siesta, the high sun blanches the colour from the trees, and sears its way into every pore of your skin. Stray dogs sprawl in silent streets, too spent to pant. The squealing of a child’s overburdened swing can be heard a block away.
And during the late afternoon rush hour, the traffic consists mostly of men performing bicycle acrobatics, grocery bags and children dangling from handlebars and shoulders. The dogs, a genetic hodgepodge that includes a Jack Russell Terrier condemned to wear a Boxer’s head, assemble for social outings of street-roaming and multilateral bum-sniffing.
Just like any of a number of sleepy towns you might find in Argentina.
But this one has streets named Estada de Israel (State of Israel) and Tehodoro Herzl, and a library named after the Jewish philanthropist Baron Maurice de Hirsch. And the most imposing building on the square, typically a church in the pampas, is instead a former Yiddish theatre.
Welcome to Moises Ville. Mosesville, in English.
The first and most successful of dozens of Jewish agricultural colonies that once dotted the Argentine prairie, Moises Ville has been home for
over a century to Jewish farmers and horsemen. In researching my own grandfather’s life as a Jewish gaucho, I have discovered that he married his first wife here. I have come to Moises Ville to see what more I can learn of his gaucho life, and to discover what has become of the town itself.
Had the immigrants who would one day establish Moises Ville known what they were in for, they might well have stayed home. But home was a Russia where pogroms reduced Jewish houses to ashes, and where the tsar’s army habitually abducted Jewish children for twenty-year tours of duty. So in 1889, having heard of a country at the southern extreme of the Americas so hungry for European settlers that it was taking the unusual step of soliciting Jews, 136 families boarded the S.S. Wesser, bound for a promised land where they would leave shtetl life behind and reinvent themselves as farmers. They arrived, however, to discover that the price of the land near Buenos Aires they’d arranged to buy had been raised beyond reach. Pedro Palacios, an advisor to Buenos Aires’ small Jewish community, offered to sell them his land instead. When the Wesser refugees got off the train at the Palacios depot in Santa Fe province – 400 miles from Buenos Aires and on the other side of the universe – none of what they had paid for was waiting. No farm implements, no livestock, not even the food that was supposed to sustain them until their first harvest. L iving on railroad cars, they were reduced to begging from rare passers-by. Most of those who could, broug ht themselves by hook or crook to surrounding villages, Buenos Aires or even back to Russia. Six ty children died of disease that winter, fuel cans serving as their coffins.
From there, things got better. Palacios finally delivered the supplies, and the fifty remaining Wesser families, following a trail cut with the harrow of nearby Italian farmers, made the ten-mile march to the place that would become Moises Ville. Then, with the help of Baron Hirsch, a European philanthropist beginning to establish Jewish agricultural colonies throughout the Americas, they became successful farmers and cattlemen, withstanding drought, famine and midnight marauders. They established the first agricultural cooperative in Santa Fe province and perhaps all of Argentina, four synagogues, a seminary for Hebrew teachers, and the Kadima Theatre, where Yiddish-language plays would get a trial run before moving on to Buenos Aires.
But there would be a price for this success.
The colonists, it is said, “planted wheat and grew doctors,” sending their children off for higher education. Between their newfound professions and the growing mechanization that reduced the labour-intensiveness of farming, few had reason to return. By many measurements – individual achievement, integration into the broader society – this was a victory. However, this victory has seen Moises Ville’s population drop by nearly half to 2,700, and its Jewish population shrink to 300, a small fraction of its former strength.
I am guided around town by Ester Falcov, who’s remained steadfast to Moises Ville for over thirty years despite the departure of her parents and siblings for Israel.
She points to the grove of trees where the Litvishe synagogue once stood and the agricultural cooperative building that has gone out of operation.
Then she takes me to the Escuela Hebrea Iahaduth, the Jewish day school, where she reminisces about a time when the classrooms were full, Jewish children joined by non-Jewish playmates, whose parents preferred them to receive an extra half-day’s education over idling at home. I am invited to speak to the primary school students. My Tarzan-level Spanish (present tense only, limited vocabulary, thorough difficulty with prepositions) is met with quizzical stares and laughter. But there are only a dozen kids in the class to be amused by my deficiencies, and in the afternoon, they will be replaced by but a dozen secondary schoolers.
Within the mud-brick walls of the Sinagoga Brener (Brener Synagogue), there are glimmers of life. The iron chandelier once purchased from Buenos Aires’ Colon theatre, masks of tragedy and comedy climbing its spidery arms, is anchored into the middle of a black Star of David painted onto the bright green ceiling. But what’s colourful stands out because of what’s faded. The walls and benches have grown musty. The wooden bima where services were once led, creaks under my weight. Ester points to the balcony where she used to sit, but the stairs are unreliable, and we can’t go up.
We have greater luck across town with the balcony at the Arbeter Synagogue, thanks to the rickety box she has rigged in place of an absent step. She points to an ankle-high window through which the women used to peak at the men. This is where she was married, and where her children received their Hebrew names. “I think you are happy to be here,” I suggest with my pidgin Spanish, when I catch her smiling. “Yes,” she says, “but it is difficult, too. When I think of what this used to be…” I see through the dust and shadow that her eyes have moistened.
Walking through the streets of Moises Ville the next afternoon, a Friday, I am stopped by the sound of a woman’s heels clicking hurriedly towards me and the sound of a scratchy voice calling in English, “Excuse me! Excuse me!” Only as I turn does the urgency of the clicking diminish, and I meet the small-but-undiminishable Marta Zinger. A recently retired school teacher, Marta busies herself with yoga, finding shelter for Moises Ville’s stray dogs, and giving private English lessons. Having discovered there’s a native English-speaker in town, she’s chased me down. Intuiting her magnetism, she cautions me that at more than ten years my senior, she’s too old for me, and anyways, she’s married. And she invites me to drop by her house the next day.
But first, Shabbat services.
The Sinagoga Baron Hirsch is the grandest of Moises Ville’s four synagogues and the only one still functioning, if somewhat irregularly. It may well have been where my grandfather was married. A handful of men are assembled outside, mostly retirees dressed in polo shirts and running shoes. I explain my connection to Moises Ville, and for the next several minutes all arriving worshippers receive enquiries about “Blumer” and “Toronto.” Unfortunately, no one knows anything about my grandfather, and I don’t know anything about their friends who have moved to Canada.
The number of worshippers peaks at about a dozen, several of whom have become familiar faces these last few days, like my guide Ester and Eva Rosenthal, the director of the Moises Ville museum. Most are in their forties or older. As we enter, the service leader, a bald-headed man with a flat patch at the back of his scalp, hands me a siddur and for a while I am transferred from the particularism of Moises Ville to the universalism of worship. A cluster of us give ourselves over to prayer, reaching out to God for a while. Another group stands in back and chatters, joining in for the most critical prayers. We sway, we bow, we gossip, and at the conclusion of the service, I shake hands with an ancient, man who would have been no more than a toddler when my grandfather was last here.
We assemble in back of the sanctuary for a kiddush of crackers and Coke. The service leader enjoins me to sit, and becomes quickly amused by the “ensalada” of languages – English, French, Hebrew, and Spanish – that have become co-mingled on my tongue. As we stroll through town afterwards, he likens Moises Ville to a kibbutz – one can walk in the middle of the street unconcerned about traffic, children can be left to roam freely, friendly dogs abound, and there are no skyscrapers to obstruct our view of the stars. “I don’t need anything more,” he says. “Moises Ville is enough for me.”
When I arrive at the home of Sofia Gun, my host, despite it having been made clear to me that she is only responsible for providing me with a place to sleep, she is waiting for me once again with tea, sweets and coversation.
Lunch the next day at Marta’s is kaleidoscopic. She wants to know everything about my journey and her husband, Mario, wants to know everything about my grandfather’s. They give me a tour of the adopted turtles crawling in their courtyard, and the fleet of freezers in their back room that she has been unable to persuade him she doesn’t need. When she searches for a word that eludes her in English, she grabs a broom, straddles it, and hops a couple of times, until I catch on that we are now talking about witches. Out on the sidewalk, the hefty Mario blockades the way of all comers, extending a friendly handshake, and demanding to know everything they can tell him about “Blumer.” Despite his best efforts, no one has anything to tell me.
As I pack my bags that night, my last in Moises Ville, a mystery has been left unaddressed. My grandfather’s life here remains mostly a mystery. But I have learned something important about Moises Ville itself. I have learned that a wandering Jew can emerge here from the wilderness and be made to feel welcome.
For more information about Moises Ville and its history, here are a few sources:
An essay, “Palestine of the Pampas” from the Virginia Quarterly Review – http://www.vqronline.org/articles/2001/winter/omara-palestine-on-pampas
A Wikipedia entry – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mois%C3%A9s_Ville
The website for the Moises Ville museum (mostly in Spanish) – http://www.museomoisesville.com.ar/index.html