The western barrio (neighborhood) of Mataderos in Buenos Aires, Argentina, is host to the incomparable Feria de Mataderos.
Once the meat-packing district, this barrio on the edge of the Pampas rocks every weekend year round to the sounds of folkloric music and dancing, A-list performers, artisan foods, crafts and antiques. It is a must for any visitor especially since few guide books even mention this treasure!
“We planted wheat and grew doctors.”Argentine Jewish saying
For a tourist, the Pampas present an endless flat grassland punctuated by small, nondescript towns and immense fenced estancias, many still owned by families that are a “who’s who” of Argentine society. Traveling through the Pampas is akin to driving through Nebraska. As often as possible during my many trips across the Pampas, I traveled on comfortable overnight buses knowing that I was not missing any “sites” during the 1,000 mile journeys.
Yet at day break, even bleary-eyed and looking out a bus window, I cannot deny the beauty of these grasslands bathed in the pink light of dawn, gossamer layers of mist hovering over the ground and the black cattle – herds of them – dotting the fields.
Gauchos are nomadic horsemen riding the plains, following herds of cattle – “cowboys” who developed their own code of honor, music, machismo and myths. Fiercely independent, they wore black hats and wide belts, and always carried a well-sharpened knife – and they still do.
As befitting an immigrant nation, the Pampas attracted its own unique settlers. Like the United States, Argentina actively recruited immigrants to fill the vast and empty country. Eight hundred eighty-four Jews arrived in 1889, escaping persecution in Russia, without tools or provisions in a geography far different than Eastern Europe.
Months later, William Lowenthal, a Romanian Jew, surveying the countryside for the Argentine railroads, discovered a ragged band of settlers living, literally, at the end of the line. Having been transported to the sparsely populated northern Pampas, they were stranded and their meager savings were soon exhausted. Lowenthal found themsubsisting on hand-outs from workers extending the line.
Appalled, he urgently appealed to the Baron Mauricio de Hirsch, banker to the Hapsburg dynasty, philanthropist and builder of the Orient Express, the legendary rail link between Paris and Istanbul. De Hirsch immediately came to the aid of the impoverished settlers. This was the beginning of the first Jewish agricultural colony in Argentina: Moises Ville (the Village of Moses).
With an endowment of $450 million ($13 billion in 2017 dollars) the Baron de Hirsch created the nonprofit Jewish Colonization Association. Between 1891 and 1932 the JCA purchased one and a quarter million acres in the provinces ofSanta Fe, Buenos Aires as well as watery Entre Rios for Jewish settlement.
The Jewish Colonization Association gave each family a 200 acre homestead, a mortgage, a few cows and some chickens. Yiddish-speaking Jews from Eastern Europe, many with beards and side curls, were transplanted to Spanish-speaking, Catholic Argentina bringing the Torah, pickled herring, building wooden synagogues and becoming farmers and ranchers of the vast pampas.
Jewish gauchos, playing guitars and sipping mate, could be seen strolling the village plazas in the Argentine colonies. Where there had been a wilderness, the pioneers built schools and libraries, hospitals and theaters, synagogues and agricultural cooperatives. The 72-minute documentary, Legacy — produced by the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation — is the second best experience other than traveling through the pampas.
Despite an element of antisemitism, which seems to be fading since the terrible events of the early 1990’s, Jewish-Argentine society has prospered, but most of the Jewish towns in the Pampas either no longer exist or have lost their Jewish populations. In the post World War II years, the younger generations migrated to Buenos Aires for educational and professional opportunities.
Today the Jewish community in the capital is over 200,000, and youcan eat kosher pizzas or grilled Argentine beef at El Pasaje Resto & Bar and at dozens of kosher delis and shops in Buenos Aires.