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Rural Argentina is not where one would expect to find entire villages of Russian Jews.

However, National Public Radio’s Juan Forero recently visited several such hamlets in a remote corner of the Argentine Pampas — broad grasslands very suited for cattle ranching.

Back in the 1890s, Russian Jews fleeing anti-Semitic violence and discrimination arrived here by the thousands.

“They founded hamlets similar to the shtetls they left behind,” reports Forero. “They spoke Yiddish, built synagogues and traditional Jewish schools — and became farmers and gauchos, the mythical Argentine cowboys.”

They arrived in about the same time period as the classic Broadway play and Norm Jewison film Fiddler on the Roof is set.

“Now, only a dwindling number of their descendants remain, but they’re intent on saving the Jewish culture that flourished for decades,” writes Forero. “In Entre Rios province, the center of Argentina’s rural Jewish communities, there are still gauchos, Hebrew lessons and sacred scrolls to be found.”

Forero reports:

Jaime Jruz is among those who consider keeping the old traditions alive a debt owed to those who first settled the region. He roams his ranch on horseback, rounding up cattle and keeping track of his goats. His farm, on the outskirts of Carmel, goes back more than a century.

It was bought on a payment plan by his grandfather, who had arrived in Argentina aboard the Bismarck, a ship carrying Jews seeking a new life in the New World. Now 65, Jruz says he has lost a step or two and is one of the last Jewish gauchos around.

Many of his friends have given up the backbreaking work, and his three daughters, like most young Argentine Jews, live in cities. But Jruz says the past and the work his ancestors put into the farms of Entre Rios weigh heavily on him.

“I couldn’t abandon this,” Jruz said, “I know the sacrifices they made to make it here.”

In the late 19th century, entire Jewish towns packed up and fled czarist pogroms. In what’s now a footnote of history, a German-Jewish philanthropist, the Baron Maurice de Hirsch, envisioned a Jewish homeland not in the Middle East but in the Americas.

Through his Jewish Colonization Association, Hirsch bought up vast tracts of farmland.

“He felt that the future of the Jewish people was in America,” says Osvaldo Dominguez, a Catholic who runs the Jewish Colonies Museum in Villa Dominguez and is considered a local expert on the Jewish history of rural Argentina. “But he had his greatest success here in Argentina.”

Some towns had two or three synagogues, farming cooperatives like the ones in Russia and schools that taught in Yiddish and Hebrew

Remnants of that vibrant past remain. In Villa Clara, Patricia Acst still teaches in Hebrew. Her young charges pay close attention — both of them. A couple of blocks away is the town synagogue, lovingly restored after Jewish leaders were able to drum up enough in donations.

Abraham Kreiserman, a butcher who helped spearhead the renovations, shows off the temple’s scrolls, some dating back to the early 19th century, as well as artifacts such as a shofar, or ram’s horn. He blows the shofar for a foreign visitor, smiling and explaining it is the first time he has done so.

“Just a few of us are at the forefront of this,” he said, referring to efforts to keep the synagogue going. “But despite the obstacles, we think we are doing a good job in the face of limited resources.”

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