A story that sounds like a legend
By Zvi Kolitz*
We know of legends that sound like
history. I had the opportunity of reading Leo Tolstoys
masterpiece War and Peace, a monumental novel
which narrates Napoleon Bonapartes fatal vicissitudes
while attempting to conquer Russia after having dominated
almost all of Europe, with the exception of England. We
know about Napoleons conquests. But, on the other
hand, we know very little about his failures.
Tolstoy is not the only one presenting the French emperor
without any scruples. In a similar fashion, the French
have built a wonderful monument, the Arch of Triumph,
in the heart of Paris, to turn Napoleons legend
into history. Nowadays, Bonapartes legends sound
like true history albeit false history strictly
speaking, but history nonetheless.
On the other hand, there are cases of true history, which
sound like legends. I am referring to a chapter in Jewish
history that is not very well known and deserves our attention.
It is about Baron Hirshs initiative to create a
community of Jewish-Europeans who had been edged out of
their countries of origin at the end of XIXth century.
The generous Baron Hirsh had doubts about the convenience
of Zionism as a solution for the suffering Jewish people.
That is why he decided that another form of colonisation
would have to be launched.
At the end of XIXth century he reached an agreement with
the Argentine government by which Jewish immigrants from
Europe would be given arable lands with the aim of creating
an area with partial autonomy. Emigration was centred
on a colony called Moisesville, located in the Argentine
province of Santa Fe.
I knew, and had read, very little about Moisesville and
about its colonisers, both those who had arrived or those
who were native, until a Jew who had been born and educated
in a smaller nearby colony, updated me on this chapter
of the Jewish people.
The name of that interesting Jew is Baruj Tenembaum. He
is an intellectual and a scholar on sacred literature
and a student of Yeshiva in Argentina. He is a man of
the world and at the same time a simple Jew who is both
smart and lucky. He is not one of those superfluous people
who are every day stars, but lack the light
for their whole lives.
He knows that there are things that can make you richer
than money itself. My encounters with Baruj Tenembaum
in his visits to Israel have always been a renewal. He
speaks Hebrew with the same fluency that he speaks Yiddish,
and his English is as good as his Spanish. With his wisdom
and knowledge he is, in brief, a true prodigy.
His father immigrated to Argentina bringing his Judaism
from Lithuania with him and setting his roots in Las Palmeras,
a very small colony 25 miles from Moisesville. I asked
my friend what he would suggest I read to learn about
the history of the Jewish colonies. Tenembaum sent me
a copy of a conference that the Argentine educator and
intellectual Máximo Yagupsky had presented at the
IWO Scientific Institute of Buenos Aires in 1996.
I rapidly realised how concerned the Jewish teachers and
members of the different colonies were about the preservation
and transmission of the legacy of the Jewish culture to
the second and third generation of Jews who had immigrated
to the Pampas.
The colonisers in Argentina settled in remote places where
there was nothing. Nevertheless, a mystical power united
them with traditions, customs and Jewish folklore.
Recently, a documentary film not yet presented
about the Jewish colonisation in Argentina has been
seen and it has moved me deeply. Its title is "Legacy"
and has been produced by the organisations "Casa
Argentina en Jerusalem" (Argentine House in Jerusalem)
and the "International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation".
At the time the agricultural and stockbreeding province
of Santa Fe was not particularly renowned for its observation
of Jewish traditions. However, it did have a large number
of scholars who sought to study the Torah, even in the
smallest colonies. In the above-mentioned documentary
film I have had the opportunity to see unforgettable pictures
of Jews in the colonies. They both look and speak as proud
and cultivated Jews. They ride horses, plough fields and
study the Torah at the synagogue, a place where hope and
the spirit of the eternal is placed.
Towards the end of the film Baruj says, in response to
a question, that he never really left Las Palmeras. The
question must be asked: How is it possible that a Jew
like Baruj Tenembaum, a man of a universal culture and
cultural national pride, an intelligent person who has
an excellent sense of humour and a deep concern for the
fate of Israel, can say of himself that, in fact, he never
left Las Palmeras?
I think I know the answer: Las Palmeras was never a town.
It kept on growing until it became an impressive metropolis.
What does impressive metropolis mean? It is
not exactly a big city full of streets and shops, but
a place with several educational options to offer a more
elevated life for Jews and men in general. Las Palmeras
is a concept, a whole universe from where Baruj never
Máximo Yagupsky tells us about his first experiences
at Las Palmeras where he arrived in his capacity of school
inspector to select students for the Majón Lelimudei
Haiahadut (Institute for Judaic Religious Studies) in
Buenos Aires. He recalls his talk with the distinguished
head of the family, Mr. Iche Tenembaum (my friend Barujs
father). The talk had the appearance of an exam, according
to his words, because the inspector examined Iche and
his wife Ite. Baruj writes, they knew that my father
was shojet (slaughter man), and that his home
was a Jewish home as God commands. However, that was not
enough for them. They wanted to know if his two sons,
Malkiel and Baruj, -whom they wanted to send to Buenos
Aires to continue their studies - could observe Kashrut
(Jewish diet), pray and stay at a Jewish residence.
So concerned were Mr. Tenembaum and his wife about their
childrens fate in Buenos Aires, that they went round
this exceptional project in a way which I suspect does
not have any precedents.
The father of the Tenembaum brothers demanded that the
inspector responsible for the education of his children
swore that he would fulfil his promise before the open
Arón Kodesh (The Sacred Ark of Law) at Las Palmeras
Deeply moved by the exceptional demand that the
parents requested me, writes Máximo Yagupsky,
I granted them their wish. I went with them to the
synagogue and before the open Arón Kodesh I swore
to them I would take care of their children, Malkiel and
Baruj, in accordance with their request. Yes, I
swear! I told Iche and Ite.
As soon as I knew about this colossal and fantastic oath
I was deeply moved. I am still perplexed by the fact that
those experiences took place in a far country, one which
is strange for me as is Argentina, and not in Israel.
When a Jew immigrated to Israel, he and his family in
the Diaspora believed that the sole fact of living in
the Holy Land assured them the continuity and observance
of Judaism. According to what we know, they were totally
wrong. That was exactly the worry of the Lithuanian-Jews
(in the Tenembaums case): that their children would
move away from the legacy of their fathers because of
the geographical and spiritual distance. That explains
the need for a compromise before the open Arón
Kodesh. Let us imagine that scene within a humble synagogue,
in a small town. An amazing oath to guarantee the future
of the estate.
It is a story that sounds like
*Writer. Professor emeritus
at the Yeshiva University of New York. Author, among other
works, of Yosel Rakover speaks with God (Fondo de Cultura
Económica, Buenos Aires, 1999. Translation by Eliahu
This story was published in Spanish
by Las Noticias de Panamá online newspaper
and Mundo Israelita of Argentina.