The Jewish Gauchos Of The Pampas
by Alberto Gerchunoff & Prudencio du Pereda (Translator) Forward: Ilan Stavans
Category: Fiction / Literary
149 pages; ISBN: 0-8263-1767-7
Rating: 9/10 (Ratings explained)
Reviewer: Norman Goldman
It is a wonder why this little gem of Jewish Latin American Literature had not been previously translated since its first publication in 1910!
Mr. Ilan Stavas’ foreword provides a solid history of the origin of the Jewish Gauchos in Argentina as well as some very valuable information on the author, Alberto Gerchunoff. Apparently Mr. Gerchnoff’s first language was Yiddish but he chose to write these short stories in Spanish, his adopted language in a land of opportunity.
The first in a series of charming vignettes about Shtetl life in Argentina, “The Jewish Gauchos of the Pampas” is written with shades of Sholom Aleichem, Bashevis Singer (witches), George Bernard Shaw (Pygmalion) and Cervantes.
True to his roots, Alberto Gerchunoff peppers some of his forewords with well- known sentences from the bible i.e.” With the strength of His arm, G-d liberated us from Pharaoh of Egypt.”(The Passover Haggadah). It is true that it was thanks to Baron Moises de Hirsh that a bunch of Russian pious Jews were able to flee the pogroms to Argentina.
In the foreword of his second essay, we can guess which direction these pious Jews and their descendants will take. The daily prayer will save the rabbis while consorting with the natives will make their descendants lose their Jewish identity.
This short book of 126 pages consists of 26 charming essays about Russian Jewish newcomers to a “land of plenty”! They run the gamut of emotions, from hilarious situations to tragic personal dramas in a bucolic setting.
Some are funny in their incongruousness. Imagine “greeners”(newly arrived immigrants) dressed as cowboys and joining Argentinians in the celebration of their national day singing “Amen” to a Spanish speech of independence without understanding one word! (The National Anthem)
Inevitably, the two civilizations clash. The young ones befriend and marry non-Jews (The story of Myriam), while the old ones remain in their enclave.
Written with verve and sensitivity, these enchanting stories intertwine Jewish and Spanish customs.
In some essays, superstition, old wives tales, witches, are evocative of Sholom Aleichem and Bashevis Singer’s style (The Owl and Witches).
“The plundered orchard” takes us back to the Bible and the locust plague, but love wins all in “The song of songs” (How much better is thy love then wine!)
The author does not hesitate to borrow from Cervantes, when in “The wedding feast” Camacho, which is also the name of a character in Don Quixote, suffers the same fate as the bridegroom in that story (translator’s note).
The characters are believable and very well developed for such small essays. The plots of each story are impeccably written and have real authority.
Mr. Gerchunoff has a genius for evoking landscapes and places. Many stories take place in small Argentinean villages, and the dust of the pampas as well as the boisterous fiestas, the heat and the smells, the lash of the wind, rise from the written words.
A page- turner, this collection of charming stories is highly recommended for Jews and non-Jews alike. Anyone who was an immigrant will recognize themselves in some of the characters.
Victor L. Reboffo is to be highly commended for his gorgeous wood engravings illustrating the stories.
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