The Relationship Between the Lubavitcher Rebbe and the Jewish Gauchos of Argentina (14 cents)

Of course, the Lubavitcher Rebbe is no longer alive (or is he?), but neither are the majority of the Jewish gauchos of Argentina. Is there a connection? Well, perhaps. We know if the rebbe were still around, and he knew that there were Jewish gauchos in Argentina, he would make sure that there was a gaucho Chabad House (nomadic? is that possible? like the Ark of the Covenant of old?) to serve them.

The annual Jewish literary festival is now going on at the DC Jewish Community Center and, like all festivals, there are always more activities you would like to attend than there is time for. This year, I am only getting to two of the author events – last night, I saw Professor Samuel Heilman, co-author of the new biography, “The Rebbe” speak, and today I heard U. of Maryland Professor Judith Naomi Freidenberg speak about her book, “The Invention of the Jewish Gauchos”.

The reviews of the Heilman book have been, to put it mildly, controversial – how many books do you know which have an average customer rating of 3 stars, comprised almost equallyy of 5 star ratings and 1 star ratings? I look forward to reading the book, which I purchased, and don’t know yet what I will think when I am finished. Professor Heilman is an accomplished scholar, and the winner of two National Jewish Book Awards. He is also a very engaging speaker, even if each of his spoken paragraphs run on for a sentence or two longer than they need to.

He tells the story of the survival of the Lubavitcher movement through the Second World War, the exile of the then Lubavitcher rebbe (father-in-law of the subject of the biography) from the USSR’s prison system, his removal to Latvia, then Poland, and finally to Crown Heights, in Brooklyn. He tells of the rebbe’s three daughters, and the courtship of the middle daughter by a cousin, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the future Rebbe. And he tells the story of the future Rebbe’s early years, as a home schooled son of a Lubavitcher rabbi, as an engineering student in Berlin and then Paris, and a lucky immigrant to the United States, who – according to Heilman – had a type of conversion upon reaching Crown Heights, and who devoted the rest of his life to the Lubavitcher movement.

He also discusses the movement itself, the differences between how Lubavitch operates (sending emissaries to the four corner of the world to serve Jews of all persuasions without requiring any return commitment) and other Hasidic movements, which generally keep all of their adherents in isolated and isolating communities. He talked about the messianic aspects of the Lubavitch movement, that the attempts to engage otherwise disengaged Jews in Jewish ritual is all part of a requirement to encourage the speedy advent of the Messiah. And he talked about how successful the charismatic rabbi was in furthering these goals and strengthening the movement.

The criticism has apparently come largely from supporters of or participants in the movement, who believe that Heilbron and his fellow author have showed too little respect to the Rebbe, made unsupportable assumptions about the significantly secular nature of his early life, and discounted his rabbinic scholarship and scholarly writings. Heilman acknowledges the criticism, and implies that history, based on their considerable research, simply seems to come into conflict with Lubavitcher mythology.

More to come, I guess….

As to the gauchos, I don’t know, but to the extent that there are Jewish gauchos today, they would be served by Lubavitcher emissaries.

In the mid- to late 19th century, Baron Hirsch and his foundation funded eighteen agricultural colonies in Argentina for Jews willing to emigrate from Europe and farm. During the late 19th century, these colonies held the greater proportion of Jews in Argentina, and the first generation of Jews in the country became “real Argentinians”, emulating the lower class, native, nomadic gauchos, who herded cattle across the country in the pay of the owners of the large estancias. Their children, however, to the extent that they continued to identify as Jews at least, did not by and large stay in the colonies, but moved to big cities, becoming doctors, lawyers and businessmen. The Jews’ farms, originally limited to about 250 acres, could not compete economically with the larger estancias and cattle ranches, and gradually the original families sold out.

An interesting story, to be sure, and descendants of these Jewish farmers populate Buenos Aires and, I am sure, other cities of Argentina, Israel and the U.S. A number were present at today’s session, which was held in a small auditorium in Argentina’s embassy building in Washington. But it is a historical story, very different from the contemporary story that is told in “The Rebbe”.


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