Monday, June 1, 2009

The soft, quiet night was spreading its peaceful influence everywhere - the surprisingly sweet The Jewish Gauchos of the Pampas

The Jewish Gauchos of the Pampas (1910) is not well described by its title. Almost none of the gauchos in Alberto Gerchunoff's collection of stories are Jews; almost none of the Jews are gauchos. I mean, there are a few Jewish gauchos. I guess most books don't have any, so I shouldn't complain.

Gerchunoff's family had moved from a Russian shtetl to Argentina when he was twelve or so. His book consists of sketches, written for a newspaper, describing life in the new Jewish immigrant community. It all makes for an interesting book, although I should say up front that this is not a lost classic.

The clash between the Jewish settlers and the incomprehensible honor culture of the gauchos provides the conflict for several of the best, or, at least, most dramatic stories. In "The Death of Reb Saul," a Jewish farmer is murdered by his Argentinean farmhand (who knows full well that the crime makes him an outlaw) because of a slight over how to properly yoke an ox. Neither the other Jews, nor the reader, have any hope of understanding what happened. The gaucho would not be able to articulate it, either: "Don Goyo walked out of the corral as if nothing had happened and moved quietly towards the other houses. He was soon out of sight."

Although the violent stories are more exciting, some of the quieter stories are just as good. In "The Social Call," Rabbi Abraham and his family visit a local rancher. The Rabbi's Spanish is weak, and the Argentinians for some reason have no Yiddish, but somehow they make do, discussing the productivity of their milk cows and hens, and watching the night sky:

"The conversation died slowly, as if the soft, quiet night was spreading its peaceful influence everywhere. The trees were in full bloom and spread their perfume over all. The daisies that were thickly spread over the orchard looked clean and white in the light of the bright moon.

'In all the world, there isn't a sky like this one,' Don Abraham said.

He explained that he had been in Palestine, in Egypt and in Russia, but nowhere had he seen a sky as intensely blue as that of Entre Rios."

Gerchunoff's book is really about assimilation, young people adopting gaucho clothes and learning Spanish, old people becoming farmers and struggling to maintain their traditions, everybody adapting in one way or another. Most of the sketches are quite gentle and charming. I thought this was an artistic problem - despite the few exceptions like "The Death of Reb Saul," I think Gerchunoff has smoothed over some of the deeper sources of conflict, and he does not provide a sufficiently rich symbolic or linguistic setting to mitigate the lack of drama.

This smiling approach to assimilation is a rare thing in fiction, and might itself be more of an achievement than I realize. Still, this seemed like a book of much higher historical than literary interest.

A note: Gerchunoff's book is only tangentially part of my feast of Yiddish literature. It was written in Spanish, not Yiddish (which makes the book itself part of its argument). Prudencio de Pereda translated it into English for the University of New Mexico Press, 1998.


  1. thanks for reviewing this. i'm going to look around for it for my library. books about jewish history in south america are always in high demand, even the older ones.

  2. Why are you called Amateur Reader? I think you should have pro status?

    I enjoyed your posts about Emily Bronte's poetry.

  3. Maybe not a "lost classic," but the title alone makes it worth having. What a conversation-starter!

  4. Of primarily historical interest - but, yes, of high historical interest!

    I would like to point readers to Marie's recent review of Rohkl Faygenberg's Strange Ways, one of the earliest novels in Yiddish by a woman. Her conclusion about that book is not that different from mine about this one - not a masterpiece, not for everyone, but, in specific ways, of real value.

    Bybee, gee, thanks. If I ever change my status - meaning, if I try somehow to make my living from books - I'll have to change my name.

  5. Not all books need to be lost classics in order to be special reads. Or even a good read. It actually sounds like an interesting book, even if there aren't as many Jewish gauchos as I'd hoped there would be...

  6. I put it on my wish list at when I first read about it here. I think I'm going to keep it on the list and see if a copy finds it's way to me.

    And I say consider yourself an amateur in the true sense of the word, one who does something for the love of it rather than for payment. Should you ever become a professional reader please let me know how to go about doing so.