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There are four synagogues in this remote farming town of 2,000 residents. The bakery sells Sabbath bread and cookies. Many buildings have Hebrew lettering and the Star of David on their facades. And children playing in the street use Yiddish words like "shlep'' and "shlock''. But there are only about 300 Jewish residents left in Moises Ville, an agricultural community founded by European Jews who came to Argentina a century ago, fleeing pogroms and other persecution in their homeland.
While Jews once accounted for 90 percent
of the population of Moises Ville, they now represent 15 percent and are rapidly
declining, as most left the pampas decades ago seeking education and fortune in
Argentina's big cities.
"This is one of the few places in the world where Jewish culture has remained dominant despite the fact that we are a small minority of the residents,'' said Ava Rosenthal, director of the town's museum. "No matter where you go in Moises Ville, it is very evident who was here first.''
Moises Ville, in fertile Santa Fe Province, was the birthplace of a new breed of Argentine cowboy, the Jewish gauchos, who introduced new crops and started the country's first agrarian cooperatives. Jewish immigrants learned to ride, herd cattle, shoot and shelter themselves against the elements. They also maintained their own customs, building synagogues, libraries and cultural centers, including a Yiddish theater where groups from Europe and the United States performed.
Today, few if any Jewish gauchos ride the range, and most of the land surrounding Moises Ville and other Argentine Jewish communities has been sold to non-Jews, and gentiles do the farming on land still owned by Jews. But nowhere is the legacy of the Jewish gaucho so deeply entrenched as it is in Moises Ville, which still shuts down for Jewish holidays even though few residents celebrate them. The library is filled with volumes in Yiddish and Hebrew, and some elderly non-Jewish residents still remember prayers and blessings they learned as youths.
"Years after the last Jewish resident dies, the people of Moises Ville will still be eating gefilte fish and taking Yom Kippur as a holiday,'' said Pablo Trumper, 76, a retired schoolteacher whose grandfather was one of the original Jewish settlers.
Omar del Beno, Moises Ville's first non-Jewish mayor, said that although most residents are Roman Catholic, like the majority of Argentines, the town observes many Jewish cultural traditions because "they are what we grew up with and have become accustomed to.'' "We are such a close-knit community that people here don't even think about what's Jewish and what isn't,'' del Beno said. "We just live''. While Argentina is well known for having opened its doors to Nazis after World War II, at the turn of the century it welcomed large numbers of Jews, who formed colonies like Moises Ville in the interior of Argentina. Moises Ville was founded in 1889 by Russian Jews who were fleeing the pograms. With the help of a French philanthropist, the Jewish colonists bought land in Santa Fe Province and named their new settlement "town of Moses.''
Ana Weinstein, director of the Mark Turkow Center for Information and Documentation of Argentine Judaism, based in Buenos Aires, said that while gauchos taught the Jewish colonists how to survive in the wild and how to work the land, the settlers in turn introduced new crops like rice and sunflowers and Argentina's first farming cooperatives.
"Jews who founded Moises Ville and other agrarian colonies came from Russia and brought with them progressive socialist ideas that led them to establish agrarian cooperatives,'' Mrs. Weinstein said. "These were different from the Israeli kibbutz because here people didn't share the earnings of production in equal parts''. Instead, the colonists pooled their resources to buy seed and tools or to sell grain or cattle. But individuals earned according to their production, Mrs. Weinstein said.
Moises Ville's cooperative caught the attention of neighboring communities. In the Moises Ville museum, there are letters from nearby towns seeking information about the cooperative.
Today, Argentina has some 300,000 Jews, the largest population in Latin America. In recent years, after the bombing of Israeli Embassy and a Jewish cultural center in Buenos Aires, many Argentine Jews have started making annual pilgrimages to Moises Ville to celebrate their roots.
"Coming here is like going to Israel except it's a lot less expensive and much closer to home,'' said Pablo Barenboim, a pharmaceutical salesman, who drove seven hours from Buenos Aires to visit the town's museum and historic buildings. "I feel renewed and will definitely come back''. Martha Levisman de Clusellas, a renowned architect whose grandparents were among the founders of Moises Ville, said the town has always provided her with a sense of relief and comfort from Argentina's big cities, where she said there is anti-Semitism.
"For me Moises Ville is a place where I go to heal myself,'' she said. "It's like a treasure chest that once opened is unending because there is a part of us all in there''. But as Moises Ville's Jewish population dwindles, many worry that the traditions will not be maintained. Dr. Juan Kazneietz, director of the hospital, said that most Jewish residents are over 50 and that there is about one Jewish birth in Moises Ville only every three or four months. "Demographics are not on our side,'' Kazneietz said.
Indeed, only one of the town's four synagogues is open, and it has not had a full-time rabbi for years. Weekly services are often postponed because there is no quorum. The cemetery, which cannot be entered without the head covered in the Jewish tradition, has 5,000 graves. Students at the Jewish seminary say that while they feel pride being from Argentina's first Jewish settlement, they can't wait to graduate so they can go to college in bigger cities. "We've been taught all our lives that education is important and that we have to become professionals, but what opportunities are there here for us,'' said Diego Kanzepolsk, 17. Fanny Trumper, 92, who was born in Moises Ville, said she remembers a town "100 percent free'' of the anti-Semitism that she said exists in major cities of Argentina. "It was a beautiful experience growing up in a community where everyone was Jewish, the doctor, the lawyer, the mayor, and no one looked down on us because we were different,'' Mrs. Trumper said. "This is the most important place for Jews in Argentina, and we need to preserve it because it is the only one made entirely with Jewish hands.''
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