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The Last Jewish Gaucho Rides Into the Sunset

Argentina and the world bid shalom to the end of its legendary kosher 'cowboys'

By Jack EpsteinSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / September 4, 1996



BASAVILBASO, ARGENTINA

Leon 'Cito' Borodovsky recalls the days when he and his friends rode the Argentine pampas with daggers at their waists, eating challah, and yelling at their cows in Yiddish.

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While the scene sounds like something from a Mel Brooks movie, it was once commonplace in Argentina to find Jewish gauchos riding the vast flatlands that are the nation's heartland. Now, Mr. Borodovsky, a septuagenarian, may be the last of his generation.

"Cito is the last Jewish gaucho," says Jaime Arcusin, a resident of Basavilbaso, a town of 9,000 residents founded by Jewish immigrants 192 miles north of Buenos Aires.

Escaping Russian pogroms

It was Mr. Borodovsky's grandfather, Solomon, who immigrated to the desolate and empty Argentine pampas to escape the pogroms of czarist Russia.

Solomon Borodovsky was well-suited for the pampas, having been a wheat farmer on the Russian steppes.

At the turn of the century, he and other Jewish immigrants introduced Argentina's first farming machinery, agrarian cooperatives, and new crops such as sunflowers.

Most other immigrants were Orthodox Jews, who wore long beards and dark clothing, observed the Sabbath, and ate kosher food.

At first, they kept their distance from their Gentile gaucho neighbors, who were clean shaven, wore baggy pants called bombachas, sashes with silver daggers strapped around their waists, leather boots, and wide hats.

The Jewish gaucho didn't appear until the years just before World War I, when the first immigrants' sons began to shave, wear gaucho dress, croon gaucho songs, attend country dances, and fight with knives.

For Ana Weinstein, director of the Buenos Aires-based Mark Turkow Center for Information and Documentation of Argentine Judaism, this chapter in local Jewish life has great significance in a country where anti-Semitism is common and Jews are often not considered true citizens.

"The Jew has always been depicted as an exploitative merchant with suspect loyalties," she says. "The gaucho, on the other hand, is the epitome of someone who has penetrated the cultural life of the country - the quintessential Argentine."

Gauchos are as much a legend in Argentina folklore as the Western cowboy is in the United States.

In literature, the gaucho - of mixed Spanish and Indian ancestry - broke horses, raised cattle, fought Indians, used daggers instead of pistols, ate only beef and drank mat tea in a gourd through a silver straw. Every November, "gauchismo" is celebrated in the week before the "Day of Tradition."

Initially, Jewish gauchos were frowned upon by community elders, who worried that they might assimilate into Argentine society. But the Jewish gaucho never abandoned his religious traditions, most experts agree.

"The gauchos taught us Spanish, how to survive in the wilds and drink mat tea," recalls Mr. Borodovsky. "But we taught them how to say meshuggenah [crazy] and how to eat knishes [meat-filled pies] and kreplach [dumplings]."