The Last Jewish Gaucho Rides Into the Sunset

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

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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]."

The beginning of the end for the Jewish gaucho began with the worldwide depression of the 1930s, when plummeting prices for agricultural products forced many Jews to leave the countryside for the cities. After World War II, some gauchos settled in the new state of Israel to work on collective farms known as kibbutzim.

Romanticizing the past

But the main reason for the Jewish gaucho's demise was education. Most families sent their children to universities in the nation's largest cities, where they stayed. Borodovsky, for example, has two daughters, a doctor and a lawyer, both of whom live in Buenos Aires."There's an old Jewish saying in Argentina," says Mark Freeman, a San Francisco-based filmmaker who made the 1989 documentary "The Yidishe Gauchos."

"We planted wheat and grew doctors. Looking for Jewish gauchos now is an exercise in romanticizing the past."

He never liked the city

But romanticizing the past is just what Borodovsky does these days.

He lives in the same farmhouse near Basavilbaso where he was born, and where he tends to his 260-acre ranch, 100 cows, and 12 horses. "I never liked the city," he says. "In Buenos Aires, there are no mosquitoes or flies to bite me."

On most days, he is sought out by historians, television crews, filmmakers, journalists, and urban Jews. "Excuse my vanity," he tells a reporter, "but there is no one left like me. People see me as a piece of living history."

His popularity is due to two reasons, according to historian Weinstein. When rigid censorship imposed by the military dictatorship ended in 1985, it enabled authors, filmmakers and the media to note that "Jews also took part in forming this country," she says.

In July, for example, the government of the province of Entre Rios launched its government-sponsored book, "Land of Promises," about the first Jewish colonies in that province.

Ms. Weinstein also says the 1994 Buenos Aires terrorist bombing of the country's largest Jewish cultural center, which killed 87 and wounded 200 persons, played a major role in motivating Argentine Jews to seek out their roots.

As part of the "tour," Bordovsky shows each visitor the nation's only functioning "ranch synagogue," or temples that were built on farms in the isolated Jewish communities. Surrounded by evergreen and eucalyptus trees on Borodovsky's property, the synagogue was built by his grandfather in 1894 and still contains the original Torah (Jewish laws), porcelain oil lamps, and silver candlesticks brought from Russia.

"I always come here, alone or with my dogs. I will never abandon it," he says. "Perhaps that is why God takes such good care of me."

In the meantime, the last Jewish gaucho is looking forward to attending the 50th anniversary of Israel in 1998, a country he has never visited. He has been invited to represent the Argentine gaucho and plans to donate his favorite saddle to that nation's Diaspora museum.

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