- The Invention of the Jewish Gaucho: Villa Clara and the Construction of Argentine Identity
As Judith Noemí Freidenberg relates in the preface (xiii-xvii), her inspiration for the present study of the impact on the formation of the Argentine national identity of nineteenth century Jewish emigration from Europe to rural agricultural settlements (colonias) was a trip she took in 2001 to the Entre Ríos province in northeastern Argentina, where her parents had been Jewish gauchos in the village of Villa Clara. Freidenberg's book is much more, of course, than a travelogue: it is a comprehensive anthropological vision of the history of a nation that, in the wake of its independence from Spain, was shaped by a number of immigrant groups. Over the course of seven chapters Freidenberg elucidates how the experiences of Jewish arrivals to Villa Clara contributed to the development of the social fabric of modern Argentina.
In chapter one, "Social Memory as Part of Villa Clara's History" (1-12), Freidenberg explains that the arrival of Jews to agricultural colonies such as Villa Clara was part of a concerted effort by the Argentine government to populate rural areas with European immigrants "as an antidote to 'civilize' the native populations, who were devalued as ignorant and backward" (7). As a result of this plan, the Jewish gaucho—which "designates Jews who adopted gaucho customs... [and which] became a metaphor for the rapid and successful adaptation of Jewish immigrants" (77)—came into existence in the remote Argentine pampas (fertile lowlands) Freidenberg concludes her opening chapter with a brief discussion of Alberto Gerchunoff's Los gauchos judíos, a collection of short stories that immortalizes the figure of the Jewish gaucho.
Chapter two, "Entre ríos, mi país" (13-40), examines Argentine government's plan to recruit European immigrants (including Jews, Italians, Germans, et cetera) to agricultural colonies in remote and desolate areas, where they envisioned a brighter future then the one that awaited them in their homelands. Whether motivated by a desire to escape restrictive legislation, religious persecution or compulsory military service, these immigrants arrived in the Entre Ríos province in three waves that are reviewed by Freidenberg. Of particular interest in Freidenberg's analysis is the personal testimony that she frequently includes, some of which derives from secondary sources and some of which Freidenberg herself collected through interviews with the descendants of Jewish and non-Jewish immigrants. Also noteworthy in this chapter is Freidenberg's discussion of the role of Baron Maurice de Hirsch, a wealthy nineteenth-century banker and philanthropist, in the establishment of agricultural colonies in North and South America to free European Jews from religious persecution. To this end Baron Hirsch made a very generous donation toward the founding in 1891, in London, of the Jewish Colonization Association (JCA). This organization was entrusted with promoting the emigration [End Page 105] of Jews from countries where they faced persecution to places such as Argentina, where the JCA would create and oversee agricultural colonies.
In the following chapter, "Colonia Clara and the Emergence of the 'Jewish Gauchos,'", Freidenberg explores the establishment of Colonia Clara, one of the initial Jewish agricultural colonies in the Entre Ríos province established in 1892. The personal testimony provided in this chapter enables the reader to envision Freidenberg's description of the day-to-day operation of the many settlements located in Colonia Clara. One concept that Freidenberg explains well is the way the JCA, which was brought into existence as an expression of philanthropic principles, worked in practice as a commercial enterprise that ultimately failed to establish lasting ties between Jews and a rural lifestyle. At the same time, Freidenberg asserts that this facet of the implementation of the JCA, which functioned from 1891 until 1973, should not necessarily be considered as indicative of the institution's impact: "Although Baron de Hirsch had imagined immigrants settling in a country where they were free to farm, he had miscalculated...