A story that sounds like a legend

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We know of legends that sound like history. I had the opportunity of reading Leo Tolstoy’s masterpiece “War and Peace”, a monumental novel which narrates Napoleon Bonaparte’s fatal vicissitudes while attempting to conquer Russia after having dominated almost all of Europe, with the exception of England. We know about Napoleon’s 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 Napoleon’s legend into history. Nowadays, Bonaparte’s 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 Hirsh’s 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 left.

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 Baruj’s 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 children’s 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 synagogue.

‘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 Tenembaum’s 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 a legend.

* Zvi Kolitz is a 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 Toker).

This story was published in Spanish by Las Noticias de Panamá online newspaper and Mundo Israelita of Argentina.