From China’s Rice Terraces to Reb Zusya of Hanipol….a Yom Kippur Sermon

If you have an aversion to all things even remotely religious, then you might want to skip this post.  On the other hand, this sermon I gave on Yom Kippur at Shir Libeynu, the wonderful congregation I’m a part of ( has thrills, chills, travel adventure and a couple of really good Hasidic stories. 

For those of you unfamiliar with Jewish liturgy, context will allow you to get much of this, but one quick note.  “Shana Tova” translates literally as “a good year” and is how Jews commonly greet one another from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur.

Congregation Shir Libeynu

Yom Kippur Sermon

5772 / 2011

Lorne Blumer

Shana tova.

My fists are clenched.  My knuckles are white.  I’ve forgotten how to swallow.

It is May of this year, and I’m travelling through China.

At the moment, more specifically, I’m on a bus from the city of Kunming to the Yuanyang rice terraces.  Visiting the rice terraces had seemed like a great idea when I’d been back home.  The many photographs I’d pored over told of a landscape too surreal to believe and too beautiful to miss; small plateaus of rice fields filled with water, carved into the sides of mountains, and ascending one above the other to form a green and glimmering contour map.

But if you’re going to take a bus to mountainside rice terraces, that means riding a bus through mountainside highways. 

On the way to the rice terraces

After two weeks in China, I thought I’d gotten used to its reckless roads, but the ante has just been raised – sheer cliffs, one blind turn after another, guardrails few and far between.

Unlike me, the driver is fearless, operating by three rules:

Rule number one.  Never take your hand off the horn.

Rule number two.  Never ease up on the gas.

Rule number three.  Always, always, always pass any vehicle in sight, even if that means…

…Rule number three-A.  Swerving across the solid yellow line towards oncoming traffic.

I look over at the locals, hoping to find calm in their faces.

Instead, the guy across the aisle from me is losing his lunch.

The driver yanks hard on the wheel.  He’s passing a car, which is passing an eighteen-wheeler truck.  We are one of three vehicles squeezed into a two-lane road with almost no shoulder, oncoming traffic closing in, and an abyss on our left.  There’s a guardrail ahead, and about as much clearance between us and that guardrail as the smaller of my two clenched fists.  If we hit the wrong pebble at the wrong time, all that’s going to be left of us tomorrow is a sad story on the internet.

We pass the car.  We pass the eighteen-wheeler.  Everyone’s honking at everyone.

I try to remember what it’s like to breathe, while the driver, emboldened by his victory, seeks out new challenges, roaring through more blind turns and lurching us back-and-forth across the solid yellow line.

My mouth opens, and I whisper.  “Shema Yisrael, Adonay Elohaynu, Adonai Echad.”

A voice in my head says, “Come on.  Really?  The Shema?  Sure it’s tradition to recite it when you’re about to die, but do you really think the Shema has any bearing on how you leave this world?”

The only response I can muster is, “Shema Yisrael.  Adonay Elohaynu, Adonai Echad.”

“Or are you using the Shema as an amulet?” the voice goes on.  “Like taking an umbrella with you on a cloudy day to keep it from raining?”

Shema Yisrael.  Adonay Elohaynu.  Adonai Echad.”

This dialogue between head and something else – call it faith, call it fear, call it the thing I don’t really have words for – is one I often experience when it comes to prayer.  Including the prayers we recite on the High Holy Days.  It’s a dialogue I think many of us experience.  It’s a dialogue, in fact, that I began to explore a few years ago from the bima at Cecil Street.  With your permission, to quote John Lennon, “let me take you down” as I come at it from a somewhat different angle and hopefully, a little more deeply.

Toronto Islands, where I often walk to prepare myself for the Jewish High Holy Days

Outside the context of a prayer setting, from a more distant, dispassionate place, I can look at Avinu Malkeynu, and see many a reason for resisting it, starting with its very refrain.

Avinu, Malkeynu.  Our Father, Our King.  So much for a non-gendered vision of God.

Chawneynu va’a-neinu ki-  Be gracious and respond to us because-

-ein banu ma’asim.  Our machzor translates this as “we have too few good deeds.”  But a more literal translation is, “we have no good deeds.”

And we have every right to say, “Come on.  Really?  No good deeds?  None?  So who is it that passes that homeless guy by my office every day, and drops a dollar in his cup, and not only that, don’t I usually make eye contact with him and wish him well?  And what about all those days I don’t want to go to work in the first place, in fact I don’t even want to get out of bed, but I do because I have a family depending on me?  And who calls her parents every day, and never misses a Shabbes dinner, even though the odds of being asked questions about her dating life are much greater than she’d care for?  And hold on.  I’m not done.  Let me pull out my credit card statements and show you my donations to charity even though I’ve been hit hard by the economy like everyone else, and I’m more concerned about my retirement than I’d ever imagined possible.

“So don’t tell me about no good deeds.”

The Unetaneh Tokef.  Different prayer.  Equal grounds for resistance.

B’rosh Hashanah yikateyvun uvyom tzom kippur yechateymun.  “On Rosh Hashanah, it is written and on Yom Kippur it is decided.”  Who by fire.  Who by water.  Who by drought, by famine, by barbiturate.  All this written on Rosh Hashanah and decided on Yom Kippur?

Again, we might say, “Come on?  Really?  Evidence, please.”

More from the Toronto Islands

We could keep going, page by page, prayer by prayer, and find reasons to resist them all.  A lot of us do, and for good reason.  But many of us don’t.  We can’t.

There’s a Hasidic tale that helps me understand why I can’t.  Rabbi Alan Lew tells it this way, in his exceptional book on preparing for the High Holy Days, with the bracing title of This Is Real And You Are Completely Unprepared:

Every year before the Days of Awe, the Ba’al Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidic Judaism, held a competition to see who would blow the shofar for him on Rosh Hashanah.  Now if you wanted to blow the shofar for the Ba’al Shem Tov, not only did you have to blow the shofar like a virtuoso, but you also had to learn an elaborate system of kavanot – secret  prayers that were said just before you blew the shofar to direct the shofar blasts and to see that they had the proper effect in the supernal realms.  All the prospective shofar blowers practiced these kavanot for months.  They were difficult and complex.  There was one fellow who wanted to blow the shofar for the Ba’al Shem Tov so badly that he had been practicing these kavanot for years.  But when his time came to audition before the Ba’al Shem, he realized that nothing he had done had prepared him adequately for the experience of standing before this great and holy man, and he appled.  He choked.  His mind froze completely.  He couldn’t remember one of the kavanot he had practiced for all those years.  He couldn’t even remember what he was supposed to be doing at all.  He just stood before the Ba’al Shem in utter silence, and then, when he realized how egregiously – how utterly – he had failed this great test, his heart just broke in two and he began to weep, sobbing loudly, his shoulders heaving and his whole body wracking as he wept.

“Alright, you’re hired,” the Ba’al Shem said.

“But I don’t understand,” the man said.  “I failed the test completely.  I couldn’t even remember one kavanah.”

So the Ba’al Shem explained with the following parable: In the palace of the King, there are many chambers, and there are secret keys for each chamber, but one key unlocks them all, and that key is the ax.  The King is the Lord of the Universe, the Ba’al Shem explained.  The palace is the House of God.  The secret chambers are the sefirot, the ascending spiritual realms that bring us closer and closer to God when we perform commandments such as blowing the shofar with the proper intention, and the secret keys are the kavanot.  And the ax – the key that opens every chamber and brings us directly into the presence of the King, wherever he may be – the ax is the broken heart, for as it says in the Psalms, “God is close to the broken hearted.”

The assumption of these yamim noraim, these Days of Awe, I think, is that there is broken heartedness in us all.  Broken heartedness of a kind that cries out for comfort and reassurance that we are worthy of love, despite all the failures that await us mi yom kippurim zeh ad yom kippurim ha ba, from this Yom Kippur to the next.  Sometimes our lives keep us too busy to notice this ache.  Sometimes we keep ourselves too busy.  I know I do.  And then I walk into Erev Rosh Hashanah services, and Aviva says, “please turn to page twenty-six in your machzors, and let’s read together the passage that begins ‘Listening comes hard to us,’ and I am undone and I want to weep, because some days, just about everything comes hard to me.

“God is a concept,” John Lennon once sang, “by which we measure our pain.”

“To live is to suffer,” say the Buddhists.

And maybe, to come to shul and sing Avinu Malkeinu and B’Rosh Hashanah yikateyvun and ashamnu, bagadnu with full voice, whether you believe in God as monarch, God as love, or God as fabrication, is to admit to broken heartedness and trepidation.

Whatever I may think of Avinu Malkeinu in more distant, dispassionate moments, when I am singing it in this sanctuary, with this community, I connect with that part of me that knows that calling your parents most days is good, but calling them every day is better; that it’s good to lighten others’ lives with humour, but not so good when quick-wittedness becomes a deadbolt that shuts out real connection; that listening is hard, loving is hard, and when I neglect to slow down, paying attention to the richness of my life is hard.

B’rosh Hashanah yikateyvun uvyom tzom kippur yechateymun.  On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is decided.  Sounds preposterous.  But maybe it’s true.  Maybe things are written on Rosh Hashanah and decided on Yom Kippur because things are written and decided every day.  We see the cliff and the guardrail, and there’s no knowing which side we’re headed for.  And we have this prayer to remind us that while we’re still on the road, there are a lot of things we can still make right.

And trading my distance and dispassion for proximity and something resembling passion, I think I’m finally beginning to understand why I’ve been able to bear this fragility.

Partly, it’s community.

Highway above, Humber River below

As with many of you, I’m sure, the place I most often go for spiritual connection is solitude; meditating at home, or taking a walk along a quiet path in High Park, or riding the streetcar and attuning to the music of the city.  But what we do here today, I wouldn’t care to take on by myself.  A few nights ago, just to see how it felt, I tried to imagine being some place with no Jewish community and entering an empty hall to make the prayers and confessions of the High Holy Days on my own.  It didn’t feel good.  Here, together, our voices joining and vibrating and changing the air around us, we get to twin our failings with our neighbour’s, and we get to know that we’re not the only ones singing with heaviness in our hearts.

And there’s something else.  Another reason I’ve been able to bear this fragility.  In standing up for these prayers, and owning up to the many ways in which I’ve missed the mark, I think I’ve been declaring my trust, even a knowledge, that there really is a loving, forgiving force that wants us to heal.  I’ve even had occasion of late to feel that force tangibly.

Come on?  Really?

After the High Holy Days are over, perhaps I’ll come to recognize this as some kind of religious nuttiness, certain to be cured by reason and reality.  Perhaps.  But I am starting to have doubts about some of my doubts.

Now here’s something I don’t doubt.

As we prepare to leave this place where we’ve been wiping the slate clean, and return to the messy, minefield of a world in which we live, I don’t doubt the wisdom of the Hasidic Rabbi Zusya of Hanipol.

When Reb Zusya was about to die, his students gathered. They saw Reb Zusya’s eyes filled with tears. “Rebbe,” they asked, “Why are you crying? You have lived a good, righteous life, and left many students. Soon you are going on to the next world.  Why cry?”

Reb Zusya said, “I see what will happen when I enter the next world. Nobody will ask me, why was I not Moses? I am not expected to be Moses. Nobody will ask me, why was I not Rabbi Akiva? I am not expected to be Rabbi Akiva. They will ask me, why was I not Zusya?  That is why I am crying. I am asking, why was I not Zusya?”

On this day, may the brokenness in us know healing.  And in the days to come, may we be spared Reb Zusya’s tears, simply by remembering who we already are, and knowing we don’t need to be anyone else.

And in case you’re wondering, the bus driver did get us through the mountains, and the rice terraces of Yuanyang were worth every hairpin turn.  Next time, though, I think I’m hiring a taxi.

Shana tova.

Rice terraces....worth the hairpin turns indeed


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Music, Always Music, in New Orleans

Lorne Blumer

(Though I hadn’t planned to post things so casually written as the e-mail below, I think it may make  up in feeling for whatever it lacks in craftsmanship)

November 2010

Greeting from New Orleans (the night before I head home).

So before I left my B&B this morning, one of my hosts told me to “have a good funeral.”

No, he wasn’t trading in ghoulish humour.  He was just wishing me the best as I went off to join in at a jazz funeral in the Treme, now of television fame, and the home of one of the United States’ oldest African-American communities.  Jazz funerals are a tradition here, in which the departed is sent off to the cemetery with a brass band procession.  I’ve been told this celebratory note is to mark the fact that music is a part of death as well as life, and that in grief, there should be celebration that the person passing on has made it to a place where they have at long last been relieved of their burdens.

Though I’d already been assured by people from the community that it would not be an intrusion for a tourist like myself to join the procession, it was clear the moment I arrived – the only white person standing among dozens of black residents outside the church where the service was being held – that I was an outsider.

I asked one of the musicians, a big and hard-looking bass drum player if it would be okay.  “Ain’t no intruding.  This here’s the real New Orleans,” he said.  “Everything is free.  Once that music starts, you can do anything you want.  You can roll in the streets.  You can dance till you wear out the soles of your shoes.”  I did neither, but as the funeral ended and the white hearse drove off and we followed, I did bop my head in time to the music (at least I think it was in time).  You’ll see from the video I have linked below that it was a party, to be sure.  A man dancing with his crutches, a trumpet player blowing his horn from his wheelchair, people dressed up and people dressed down, lots of people with gold teeth, and, once the procession started in earnest, a few Caucasian types like myself joining in.  It occurred to me shortly after it began that I didn’t even know who it was who had died.  When all was said and done, I asked one of the other participants.  “I don’t know,” he said.  “I’m just from around here.”  That’s the way it is with jazz funerals.  It’s a community event for anyone who wants to step in.

So here are a few short videos from my last, especially musical, day on this visit.

The jazz funeral in the Treme…

A young swing band and young swing dancers in the French Quarter’s Royal Street…

And John Boutte at d.b.a on Frenchmen Street, singing the theme song from the Treme television series…

As they like to say here…



And for those interested in knowing a little more about jazz funerals –

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Adventures in Ticket-Buying (or: on the pleasures of making a Via Rail ticket agent singularly miserable)

Lorne Blumer

(This excerpt should give you an idea of what my book is about, at least in terms of narrative structure.  And if it doesn’t, it needs some serious rewriting.  For more about the book, click on “ABOUT ME.”)

The ticket agent at Toronto’s Union Station is trying to save me from myself.

“You’re going to Needles for two days?” she asks, not so much wanting to confirm what I’ve told her, as to give me the opportunity to rethink it.

“I sure am,” I say.  Needles, California is going to be my first stop out of Los Angeles on my winter’s train journey from Southern California to the sub-arctic.  And I am, in fact, going to spend two days there.

“To visit family or something?” she asks.

“To visit Needles,” I say.  “Do you know it?”

“We stayed a night there once, when we drove from Los Angeles to Las Vegas.”

I have to ask.  “Did you find it interesting it all?”

She’s old enough to be a grandmother, and has the big-framed glasses and large, round cheeks to suit the part.  When she smiles, as she does now, her cheeks elevate the glasses off the bridge of her nose.  “Noooo,” she says, with an indulgent and amused tone I suspect she normally reserves for her grandchildren.  “Needles isn’t interesting.  The only thing to see there is a giant thermometer.  Because it’s the hottest place in the country.  Besides the giant thermometer, hon, there’s nothing to see.”



We’re silent a moment.  She, because she’s hoping I’ll do for myself what she would do if only her job would allow it, and shorten my two-day visit to Needles by, let’s say, two days.  Me, because, there’s an unkind place in my heart that’s enjoying her suffering.


No, this particular trip didn't take me on the train they call the City of New Orleans...but nice image, eh?


“Great,” I say, finally breaking the silence.  “So LA to Needles on February fifteenth, then two days later, it’s Needles to Williams Junction, Arizona.”

She looks at me again.

“The closest Amtrak stop to the Grand Canyon,” I explain.

Satisfied with my answer, she books the ticket.

“And then I guess we jump ahead to my Canadian fares.”

Fortunately for her, Amtrak in the United States and Via Rail in Canada don’t communicate very well.  My North American Rail Pass, which will cover the final thirty days of my journey will kick in at Williams Junction, which means I’ll have to take care of my other US fares once I get to LA.  The less she’s forced to hear about Truth or Consequences, New Mexico and Grand Forks, North Dakota, I suspect, the happier she’s going to be.

“So what’s the first Canadian trip?” she asks.

“I’ll be leaving Winnipeg on March thirteenth for Grandview, Manitoba.”

She looks at me a moment to see if I’m going to flinch.  Maybe give away that she’s on some kind of hidden camera show.

“Grandview?” she says.

“Yes,” I say.  “Do you know it?

“Know it?  I’ve never even heard of it.”  She’s trying to look it up on her computer now, but all this does is make her sigh.

“Grandview?  G-R-A-N-”

“D-V-I-E-W,” I confirm.



“I can’t find it.”  She pulls out a couple of timetables, and hands one across the counter to me, so we can track it down together.

“There it is,” I say.  “Page ninety-two.”

“How’d you find it so fast?”

“I looked it up in the index.”  An index, in all fairness to her, that I’ve probably consulted more often in the last month than she’s needed to in all her years with Via.

“I don’t see it,” she sighs again.  “I see Gladstone.”

“About six further down.  Past Glenella, Ochre River, Dauphin.”

“There it is,” she says, relieved.  “Must be a whistle-stop or something.”

Look up...Look waaay up. And now you know (if you didn't already) where Churchill, MB is.

“It is.  If I understand the timetable correctly, it only stops on advance notice to the conductor.”  Her brow is furrowed, her computer giving her more trouble.  She’s probably not listening to a word I’m saying, but I can’t stop myself.  “In fact, it’s small enough that the woman who runs the motel where I’m staying says there’s no station, or even a depot.  And since the train only comes through in the middle of the night, and she’s not sure where it stops, she can’t even give me directions to her place.  So to keep me from freezing in the cold, she’s going to find out where I get off, and be waiting for me.”

“I need to get the expert,” the ticket agent says, getting up from her work station.

When she walks away, it’s as if I have all of Union Station’s Great Hall to myself…

[it’s here in the book that I stop to wax rhapsodic over Union Station and the experience of train travel]

…The Via ticket agent has returned, looking less burdened than before.

“The expert’s coming over as soon as he can,” she says, sitting at her computer, “and in the mean time, he’s given me a few codes to try. Nope. Not G-R-V-E.  Now do you know anyone in Grandview?”

“About as many people as I know in Needles.”

“There it is!” she shouts.  “G-V-I-E!  Okay, what’s next?”

“Grandview to The Pas, Manitoba.  March sixteenth.”

For all the difficulty she has finding The Pas, it might as well be Zanzibar.  Or Grandview.

“I’m going to be dreaming a lot tonight,” she says, “and you’re going to be giving me nightmares.”

But she doesn’t fool me.  I am now the funnest playmate she’s ever had.

The expert, a slim guy with grey skin, a pock-marked face, and a warm look in his eyes comes up to her.  “How’s it going?” he asks.

“This guy’s giving me a hard time.  Can you make him go away?”

“Really?” says the expert, giving me the once over.  “He seems like a perfectly nice fellow to me.”

“He is nice.  But my brain’s not going to be so nice tomorrow.  The places he’s going.  Hey!  The Pas!  I’ve got it!  What’s next?”

“March eighteenth.  The Pas to Churchill, Manitoba.”

“Now that’s a great run,” says the expert.  “And the crew will treat you right on that train.  Not so many people go when you’re going, though.”

As I’ve learned since first seeing Churchill on the railway map, in November, when tourists come to see the polar bears go out onto the ice, hotels there require thirty days notice for cancellations.  In late winter, when I’ll be arriving, with polar bear sightings unlikely, and the only tourist attraction being the Northern Lights – and that, only if they decide to appear – cancellations require one day.

Wisdom would dictate that I wait for more temperate weather, not only for Churchill, but for all my destinations.  But that would require patience, and at the moment, patience doesn’t interest me very much.  What does interest me is giving life to my inner soft-core deviant, determined to ride the train into Needles, California and Grandview, Manitoba in the middle of winter, and mine the experience for meaning.  In fact, I am so giddy over my plan to go to the wrong places at the wrong time that, were I less inhibited, I would jump straight into the air right now and coming down, stamp my feet in syncopated rhythm on the Tennessee marble just to see what kind of echo I could summon, and dance around the Great Hall, doing it over and over again.  I even have the illusion at this moment that, were I to think about it, I’d actually believe that self-doubt will not join me on this voyage.

“With that flag stop of yours in Grandview,” says my Via Rail ticket agent grandmother and newfound ally, “I’m going to make a note on your ticket.  ‘Throw him out on moose back.’”  She sends my tickets through to the printer, my name stamped on each one.


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Smitten…(with – what else? – New Orleans)

My friend Joan, who joined me on my last visit there,  says I have a crush on New Orleans.

My friend Joan is right.

Here are some photographs that provide a partial explanation…

And for those who would like to see more, here’s some of what I got up to on my previous visit…

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“It’s Always Interesting”: A Bus Ride from Venice Beach to Hollywood

Lorne Blumer

(an excerpt from my book…to learn more about it, click above on “ABOUT ME” )

February 2006

“Do you go anywhere near Hollywood and Schrader?” I ask the driver of the bus that’s just stopped in front of me at Venice Beach.  It’s not the one I’ve been waiting for, but the sun is sinking low and I’ve decided to explore alternatives.

Photo by "meeshubish" from

“I go along Venice,” he says.

“Well, I was hoping to catch the number ten, but I’ve been waiting forty-five minutes for it, and-”

“-and you’ll be waiting another forty-five,” he says, smiling.  “Get on.  We’ll figure something out.”

Though small-built, I quickly discover, the driver can take care of himself.

“Don’t put that in,” he warns a big man in a lime green trench coat, getting ready to slip a token into the fare box for a less costly Venice bus service.  The guy takes his chances, drops in the token, and makes his way to the back of the bus.

Which isn’t going anywhere.

“Don’t try me!” the driver shouts with a ferocity which I would have been unable to imagine only a minute before.  “I’ll call them!”

Whoever “them” is, this is all the man needs to hear.  Grumbling something about how he’s not intimidated, he gets off the bus

“I see you’ve got an easy job,” I say.

“It’s always interesting,” the driver says, his voice suddenly calm again, and now reflective.  “There are days.  Like someone gets up in the morning and decides the only thing they’re going to do today is drink on my bus.”

Photo by "" on

Or maybe stab or shoot another passenger.  He’s seen that happen, too.  Fortunately, as this particular ride inches along, speed made impossible by the responsibility of loading up every few blocks, not to mention the renowned snail’s pace of LA traffic, tonight’s passengers just want to get where they’re going.

“And ho w are you doing tonight?” the driver asks one of his regulars.

“Happy Valenti ne’s Day,” says another as he boards.

The driver’s life ha s covered a lot of ground.  Time in the Marines.  A weakness for billiards.  And the proud owner of a Green Bay Packers’ jersey, a gift his rookie NFLer son has just given him upon scoring his first career touchdown.

As for the difficult patrons, he likes most of them fine.  Sure, with ones like the guy who’d tried to stiff him with the bad token, sometimes “them,” meaning the sheriff, has to be called in.  But he’s seen the sheriff get unduly rough, so sometimes when he radios in to report a problem passenger, he gives a location a couple of intersections away.  “It gives the passenger the opportunity to recant.  Or at least, they can get off before we reach the sheriff.”

“Don’t you have air conditioning?” demands the passenger beside me, an older man with wrinkled hands, a goatee and a cane.  He looks ahead vacantly like a blind man, but his eyes are strong, deep blue, and focused, and he seems not at all helpless.

The driver gets the air conditioning going.  I haven’t noticed a need for it, but now that it’s on, it’s welcome.

Photo by "jorgemir" on

“You should have already had it on,” the passenger says.

“Someone just told me it was too cold,” the driver answers.

“Tell them to wear jackets.  It smells like a barn in here.”

“That’s one thing about serving the public,” the driver says.  “The customer is always right.”

“I’m not saying I’m right,” says the passenger.  “But I’ve got a cane that says I’m not wrong.”

The bus has reached standing room only capacity.  One of the standees is a young woman who can’t raise her boyfriend on his cell.  The driver coasts into conversation with her.  So this is what sweet talking sounds like.  I can’t make out the words, exactly, but the tone promises an evening of lingering love.  In minutes, he has her phone number.

The driver and the man with the cane consult on where the best place is for me to get off.

“Don’t let him off near where all those women who aren’t really women are,” the passenger warns.  “He wouldn’t be safe with them.  I’ve seen them cause a lot of damage.”  Judging by the smile on his face, it looks like he’s talking from personal experience.

Photo by "jorgemir" on

“I don’t know,” says the passenger.  “Some of them aren’t too shy about pulling a knife on you.”  I can’t tell if he’s concerned for my safety, or just enjoying the process of finding out if I’ll scare.

“Just so long as the knives are for self-protection,” I say.  “If I stay out of their way, will they stay out of mine?”

“Oh, yes,” he says.  Then he smiles.  “Probably.”

“What are you frightening this fine gentleman for?” the driver says.  “You will be just fine.”

The bus stops.  I get off.  No cross-dressing, knife-wielding prostitutes to be found anywhere.  I am, indeed, just fine.

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Tales from a Jewish Cow Town: Moises Ville, Argentina

Lorne Blumer

(then there was the time I went poking around the pampas of Argentina…)

May 2005

If time doesn’t stop in this small town at the northern edge of the Argentine pampas, it certainly takes a breather.

Moises Ville or Bust

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

Star of David-shaped planter in Moises Ville's main plaza

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.

Intersection: Tehodoro Hertzl and Estado de Israel

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.

Congregacion Israelita Baron Hirsch

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 –

A Wikipedia entry –

The website for the Moises Ville museum (mostly in Spanish) –


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Some of Where I’ve Been…

Lorne Blumer

If you like, you can find out more about who I am and the plans I have for this blog by clicking above on ABOUT ME.

But if that doesn’t interest you very much, you can just take a look at some favourite travel photos or a…



Costa Rica


New Orleans


…couple of my freelance travel pieces that are on-line.

One is about travelling through African-American history via the train they call the City of New Orleans (by the way, for those unfamiliar with it, the Christian Science Monitor is a mostly secular and quite well-respected newspaper)…

And the other, Gone to the School of Greyhound,  is about riding the bus  non-stop from Toronto to the Grand Canyon (or, at least as close to it as Greyhound goes)…


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