The Arty Semite

Yiddishkeit on the Pampas

By Benjamin Ivry

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Although long considered a target for comedy, the concept of a Jewish cowboy has been taken more seriously after translations of “The Jewish Gauchos of the Pampas,”, a 1910 story collection by the Argentine Jewish author Alberto Gerchunoff (1883-1950), became available.

Gerchunoff’s Russian family moved to a settlement in Argentina, founded by philanthropist Baron Maurice de Hirsch as a haven for Jews fleeing Europe’s pogroms, only to find further violence in the New World; Gerchunoff’s father, Rab Gershon ben Abraham Gerchunoff, would be murdered by a gaucho. Last October, a fascinating volume appeared from Brill Publishing, “Returning to Babel: Jewish Latin American Experiences, Representations, and Identity.”. Among its chapters is “Should We Bury the Jewish Gaucho? A New Gerchunoff for the 21st Century,” a landmark essay by Edna Aizenberg, author of “Books and Bombs in Buenos Aires: Borges, Gerchunoff, and Argentine Jewish Writing,”, out from Brandeis University Press in 2004, and 2003’s “Parricide on the Pampa?: A New Study and Translation of Alberto Gerchunoff’s Los Gauchos Judios”.

“Should We Bury the Jewish Gaucho?” discusses “Star of David,” a little-known and still-unpublished late work by Gerchunoff. Composed of around fifty articles written during the 1930s and 40s, “Star of David” is a militant anti-fascist screed and ardent defense of Yiddishkeit, what Aizenberg terms an “intensely Jewish text without nostalgia.” Writing editorials instead of novels, Gerchunoff announced at a 1936 anti-Fascist meeting in Buenos Aires: “I miss my literature very much… but the Fascist monster still hasn’t died, and the time for rest still hasn’t come!… I’ve become a soldier of liberty; I’ve fought against the sinister ideas that threatened to transform the world.”

One 1949 article pays homage to Tuvia Kushnir, who died in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence as part of the ill-fated Lamed Hei (35) operation, so called because it consisted of thirty-five combatants killed while trying to bring aid to besieged Gush Etzion settlements. An earlier essay praises Europe’s notable Jewish refugees, especially Sigmund Freud and Stefan Zweig. Although mostly written in a hard-boiled journalistic style, after Israel’s statehood is declared in May, 1948 Gerchunoff cannot suppress a lyric impulse, and quotes Psalm 98:1: “O sing unto the Lord a new song; for he hath done marvelous things.”

As Aizenberg cogently describes it, Gerchunoff’s unpublished book sounds like a marvelous thing, and we can hope an enterprising publisher will take on the project of making it available in English translation soon.

See Edna Aizenberg speaking about Latin American Jewish literature in 2008 here

And see a reminiscence of the 1948 Lamed Hei operation here


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