Chag Pesach sameach! A good Passover to you all. Talk about timely…I began preparing this post on the same day the world heard of a new discovery by Israeli archaeologists. Do you read about it? The Israel Antiquities Authority announced that dozens of new Dead Sea Scroll fragments were found in a desert cave and, apparently, they date back to the second century A.D. The team went on to find 2,000-year-old coins, a skeleton of a child and a basket of woven reeds—very likely the oldest of its kind. Do you recall what was going on during this time period in Jerusalem? Does the Bar Kochba Revolt sound familiar? If you answered: the Jewish uprising against Rome between 132 and 136 A.D., you are correct! That brings me to today’s guest.
As soon as this author learned of the discovery of the first-century tombstone that inspired this book, Lori Banov Kaufmann wanted to know more. She was captivated by the ancient love story the stone revealed and resolved to bring it back to life.
Before becoming a full-time writer, Lori was a strategy consultant for high-tech companies. She has an AB from Princeton University and an MBA from the Harvard Business School. She lives in Israel with her husband and four adult children
Host: Lori, this latest discovery must have thrilled you beyond belief! More fodder for a sequel, perhaps? But I’m getting ahead of myself. Welcome to the blog and my series of author interviews. I understand that your book took ten years of research and diligent care, before your dream of publishing came to fruition. Please tell us all about it.
Guest: Hi Mirta. Thanks so much for having me. I’m excited to tell your readers about my new historical novel, Rebel Daughter. It’s based on the true story of a young woman in first-century Jerusalem who survives the Jewish revolt against Rome. I don’t want to reveal spoilers but let’s just say, a lot happens! It’s a tale of family, love and courage set in one of the most important periods of human history.
Host: Lori, as you may have perceived by taking a look around my site, I am drawn to the Regency, Victorian and Edwardian eras. My books strive to incorporate Jewish characters into these typically Anglican backgrounds. Tell us why you chose this particular time period, right before the destruction of the Second Temple.
Guest: That’s a great question. I was never drawn to this time period before. I’ve always loved historical fiction but for me that meant WWII or at the very latest, the Civil War! I decided to write this story after hearing about the discovery of a young woman’s two-thousand-year-old gravestone, an exciting and important archaeological find. It was the mystery behind the stone that drew me in and made me want to know more. Who was she? How did a girl from Jerusalem become a Roman woman buried in Italy? In many ways, I feel that I didn’t choose this story. It chose me.
Host: I’m still struck by the amount of work that went into this project. Tell us about your research. I’m sure that fascinating doesn’t even come close to describing your findings.
Guest: I felt an obligation to my real-life characters to tell their story as accurately as possible. I knew that there was a lot I had to imagine but I wanted everything that happened in the book to be historically plausible. So I went to a lot of archaeological sites and consulted with some of the world’s experts on this period. I remember one visit with an archaeologist to a recently excavated site in the Old City of Jerusalem. The archaeologist showed me where the stones of the road were broken. Underneath, you could see the sewage tunnels where the Jews had fled when the Romans destroyed the Temple. He and his team had found cooking pots, coins and other valuables in the tunnels. That gave me chills.
Host: I understand that sense of obligation to one’s characters. You spend so much time contemplating their thoughts and their feelings, they became like family. Did any particular character resonate with you?
Guest: My main character Esther. Even though she lived thousands of years ago, she wants what we all do – to protect our families, live our lives in freedom and dignity, and find love! Plus, she has her faults. I definitely relate to those!
Host: Do you have a favorite scene or event in the book?
Guest: That’s an interesting question. Many events in the book were quite difficult to bring to life. I wanted the the scenes to be not only historically accurate, but also emotionally true. Some of those scenes, especially of the destruction of Jerusalem, are still hard for me to read but I’m proud of them. I feel that I captured the characters’ passions, loves and fears.
Host: As you have been at work on this project for so long, dare I ask? When did you first consider yourself an author?
Guest: A better question would be how long have I wanted to write! I thought about writing for decades but then, as many of your readers know, life gets in the way. I’m not counting the little starts and stops through the years. But I only made a real commitment to myself when I turned 50. I said, “it’s now or never.” Little did I know that I would be a debut author at 61! So now I say, “better late than never!”
Host: Absolutely! I was a late bloomer as well! My empty nest turned into a writer’s haven, so to speak. Tell me about your writing process. Are you a panster or a plotter? I know it’s the catch phrase of the day, but it does fit the bill, doesn’t it?
Guest: I tried both ways and what I learned is that there is no right answer. Every one has to find what works for them. For me, it’s a combo approach. I need a general roadmap but then enough flexibility to take side-trips along the way. But I only discovered this through trial and error. Actually, many errors!
Host: And are you working on something now?
Guest: I’m working on a novel set in Charleston, South Carolina at the turn of the 20th Century. It’s loosely based on the life of my grandmother and her sisters. It’s fiction because no one would believe the real version! I grew up there and always knew I wanted to write a story set in the South. Charleston is another one of those magical cities – like Jerusalem and Rome – that takes hold of your heart and won’t let go no matter how far away you run or how long you stay away.
Host: Oh! That sounds intriguing, too! We certainly need more diversity in Jewish historical fiction. I look forward to reading your work, Lori. Before we sign off, is there anything else you’d like to add?
Guest: Thanks again for inviting me, Mirta. Here are my social media links:
Hello again! Today, we are in for a special treat. Renown Israeli author, Sara Aharoni joins us in this series of Authors’ Interviews. Sara has been a teacher, an educator and has worked as a school principal for 20 years. She also spent four years in Lima, Peru as an educational envoy of the Jewish Agency.
Together with her husband, Meir Aharoni, Sara wrote, edited and published a series of books about Israel, including six in English. She has also published six children’s books. Her third novel, Mrs. Rothschild’s Love (the English title is The First Mrs. Rothschild), went instantly to the top of the Israeli bestseller list. Aharoni received the Steimatzky Prize for Best-Selling Book of the Year.
I have read this work and found it inspiring and thought-provoking. As you all know by now, I am fascinated with this time period. The Rothschilds, the Montefiores…what these family were able to accomplish under that level of persecution and oppression is mind boggling! Let’s find out more.
Host: Welcome Sara. You have done a remarkable job bringing this family to life for me. Kol hakavod! Please set the stage for this project. How did it all come about?
Guest: Thank you for inviting me, Mirta. I’m excited to be here. As an Israeli, born and living in Israel, I write my historical novels in Hebrew, and I am happy that my book, The First Mrs. Rothschild, has been translated into English and distributed by Amazon Crossing. It presents the life story of the Rothschild family in the Judengasse (the Alley of the Jews) in Frankfurt, who rose from extreme poverty to a global economic empire. The story takes place between the years of 1770 to 1849; from the marriage of Gutle to Meir Amschel Rothschild, until her death at the age of 96. The idea of writing this book was born from my visit to the agricultural settlements in Israel under the patronage of Baron Edmond de Rothschild, the well-known philanthropist. The visit was intense and aroused in me the desire to get to know him more deeply. I started to read books about Rothschild, and the more I read, the more I felt like writing a novel about him. I continued reading and reached the roots of the Baron, his grandfather, Meir Amschel (or Mayer Anshel, it’s the same) Rothschild, who lived in the Jewish ghetto in Frankfurt and raised the family from a state of dire poverty to a great wealth. This inspired me to write the novel about the founder of the Rothschild family.
Host: I certainly can understand being intrigued by the family’s founder; however, your book is written through the eyes of his wife, Gutle. Correct?
Guest: Right. I wanted to place the wife in the center of the scene. During my research I discovered that historians wrote a lot about the founder and his five children, and very little about his wife, Gutle, and her daughters. I regretted that. I was curious to know Gutle’s character. So, I continued to read and find details about Gutle. Every piece of information I found was like a diamond. I collected all the details into a chart which turned into a puzzle I could piece together to discover her character. I found a very special woman: a modest, intelligent woman with a big heart, giving, helping each person. Her kitchen was a shelter. Anyone who wanted to pour out his heart to someone, would come to her kitchen. She knew her place as a woman (it was the 18th century), knew when to keep quiet and when to say what she thinks. She had a wise heart and great understanding. For example, she used to send shirts from Judengasse to her son Nathan in London. She knew that Nathan was a very rich man and could buy expensive shirts in London, so why did she send him shirts? Because she was worried her son was changed. He made contact with the high society and showed signs of vanity. She didn’t want him to forget where he came from. She knew that when a shirt from Judengasse would touch his skin–he would never forget where he came from.
Her modesty is self-evident. She never left the ghetto even though her children were already living in palaces and offered her rooms there. Gutle loved Meir Amshel and supported him all along. Despite his strength and energy, he needed his wife behind him. This woman captivated me, and I decided to give her a stage and pass on the family story through her.
Host: That was what had me glued to the page — Gutle’s story and her views on life, family and their place in the world. Why do you think Jewish Historical Fiction is an important, stand-alone, genre?
Guest: As an ancient people thousands of years old that spread across the globe, we have become rich in a wide range of Jewish cultures – each diaspora and its Jewish culture: culture, language and creativity. Our Jewish history is rich in events, figures, upheavals, ups and downs – great achievements in the face of terrible tragedies. All of these are immortalized in the books of history, the first of which is of course the Bible that unfolds the history of our people and is a central focus of Jewish culture for generations. I see the historical novel as an important means of combining literary fiction with historical reality, which gives the reader an opportunity to become acquainted with the world of the Jews in a fascinating way. I sometimes hear history teachers say that the historical novel can bring students closer to history lessons. I consider it important that future generations become acquainted with Jewish history, and the historical novel is an integral part of the means of realizing this.
Host: And how would you differentiate a history book from a historical novel?
Guest: The fiction in the historical novel is adapted to the historical facts and fills in the gaps, the same gaps that the history books skip over, such as the moves of the mind, descriptions of emotions and thoughts, and the influence of these on the chain of events. For example, regarding my book, The First Mrs. Rothschild, historical sources indicate that Gutle, the wife of the founder, Meir Amshel Rothschild, gave birth to 19 children, of whom 10 survived. I must not change this basic fact. But I think as a woman, as a mother, as a writer – a mother who loses one baby feels she has lost her world. Gutle lost 9 children. The historian does not dwell on the mental state of the grieving mother. His role is to describe the sequence of events. In the historical novel I was given the opportunity to fill in the blanks and give a broad canvas to the loss. The historical novel develops in the reader an interest in the character and period. In The First Mrs. Rothschild, the historical background is woven throughout the novel: the Napoleonic Wars, the French Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, the Damascus plot. Quite a few readers turn after reading the historical novel to other sources to enrich their knowledge of the period.
Host: As an Israeli author, do you have any thoughts on what the Diaspora considers a Jewish book? By that I mean, Israel and the Jewish community at large, is a diverse and unique culture, yet—here in America—we tend to focus on two narratives: The Holocaust and Fiddler on the Roof-type themes. There is obviously so much more to talk (and read) about.
Guest: Within the Jewish story, Jewish culture is intertwined with the holidays and customs, such as Shabbat. It is not there as a title and is not dominant in the story, but is a natural part of the characters’ lifestyle and general atmosphere. It is a culture that accompanies us throughout history, it has created for us the special identity as a people, and it must be given expression. It is part of the respect for the faith and the Jewish people.
Host: Sara, tell us about your first book, Saltanat’s Love. I understand this was the impetus for your career as a historical fiction novelist.
Guest: My first novel was based on my mother’s life as a Jewish girl growing up in Iran. Through the story the reader is introduced to the lives and culture of Iranian Jews in the 30’s and 40’s of the 20th century. How did it happen? On a trip together with my mother in Europe, she told me the story of her life. I’ve already heard her story with my brothers when we were little, but in those days, it was as if my mother took a strainer with small holes and only part of reality was heard. That is, we were spared all sensitive parts. During that trip in Europe, I was already an adult and myself a mother of children. Mother allowed herself to throw away the sieve and tell me the whole story. I heard the story and remembered that when we were little, Mother used to say: ” All I went through would make a book.” And now, when I hear the whole story, including the sensitive parts, I understand that this is a story to be written. I decided to write the book as a novel. The great and unexpected success of my debut novel made me decide to continue writing novels, or rather, historical novels.
Host: Have you visited any of the locations you have written about?
Guest: After reading so much books, letters and documents, I felt a need to physically get to the places where the Rothschilds lived. The first place I wanted to reach was Judengasse. But I knew I had no chance, because at the end of the World War II, the United States bombed Frankfurt, and the street was completely destroyed. But where the Rothschilds’ house once stood, they set up a museum – the Judengasse Museum. The visit to the museum left a strong impression on me. I saw the miniature structure of the street with the wooden houses, the reconstruction of a section of the street, including a ritual bath, the attire and the accessories they used, and the large pictures hanging on the walls. I will describe to you one of the pictures called “The Jewish Sow.” It was a relief placed above the gate of the city of Frankfurt and was in front of the passers-by every day. The picture shows a large sow on which a rabbi is riding. The rebbe raises the tail of the sow so that another rabbi will eat from its feces. There are Jewish children sucking from her nipples, and on the side, the devil stands and watches with pleasure.
I saw this picture in many books I read. But in the museum, I stood frozen in front of the big picture for a long time that I cannot measure, but long enough for me, to express the novel in this picture. On the journey to the Rothschilds I also reached London and Paris.
Host: I can well imagine being paralyzed standing in front of such an atrocity. The cruelty of being forced to live under such conditions, of being constantly reminded of what the outside world thought of you and your people…it is a testament to their faith and perseverance that the Rothschilds, and others of that generation, were able to overcome such prejudice and persecution. You describe these daily events so well. I was transported. I love this quote: “Dignity is a powerful thing. We shall use it to break through the walls of the ghetto and set ourselves free.” Do you have a favorite scene from the book?
Guest: My favorite scene is Gutle’s visit with her mother in the Forbidden Public Park. Every leaf, butterfly, branch and shrub is a world in its entirety for someone who has dreamed of coming to the garden all her life but the garden was on the list of prohibitions imposed on her and the Jews of Frankfurt. This scene makes it possible to raise the difficult reflections regarding the injustice done to the Jews. Here is excerpt:
“Look, Gutaleh, how pretty this garden is.”
Mama tightened her grip. Her eyes sparkled. I looked at the glory of the garden. A carpet of beauty spread before me, as if to say, “Here I am! And where have you been this whole time?” My eyes took in the sights. All the wonders of the world could not compare to the splendor of this place. I felt I had to hurry up and drink in this luscious view.
Suddenly, I felt sad. The thought of all we had been deprived of until now filled me, pushing away the brilliance before me, threatening to take hold of my mind. Our people’s cruel fate was knocking on the door to my heart. I watched my mother, her burning eyes. She was living the moment, leaving the past behind. I must be like her, enjoy these moments to capacity. I mustn’t wallow in darkness. I must regain my senses. At that moment, I recognized that other smell. It was the aroma of freedom. Freedom smells intoxicating, superior to all other scents. I would always remember my first whiff of freedom.
Host: That was a powerful scene! Tell us, are you working on something now?
Guest: I am in an advanced stage of writing the next historical novel, about a Jewish historical figure. I hope it will also be translated into English.
Host: Thank you for joining us today, Sara. It was such a treat! Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Guest: Thank you very much for interviewing me. I’ve enjoyed sharing this time with you. If you want more information about me or my book, here is the link to Amazon:
Joining us today is author Carola Dunn. And when I say author, I mean AUTHOR.
Ms. Dunn has penned 32 Regency novels, several collections of Regency novellas, 23 Daisy Dalrymple mysteries set in England in the 1920s, and 4 Cornish mysteries set in Cornwall around 1970. She was born in England but has lived in the United States for many years, presently in Oregon.
Though I am presented with a wide selection of titles, it can come of no surprise that I choose to focus on one of the author’s novels in particular: Miss Jacobson’s Journey. Set during the Napoleonic wars, Miss Miriam Jacobson finds herself in quite an imbroglio with Jakob Rothschild, Isaac Cohen and Felix, Viscount Roworth. There is adventure and intrigue, of course, along with romantic angst and personal growth. There is a significant nod towards 19th century bigotry which the author addresses with honesty, and even, humor.
Host: Thank you for participating in this series of interviews. Being that you are such a prolific author, I’m especially interested in learning how Miss Jacobson’s Journey came about?
Guest: Thank you for inviting me, Mirta. Let me give you some back ground, starting with the Jewish connection: My father was Jewish, born in a town then in Germany, now in Poland. I never learned about Judaism from him, as he was not religious and my parents split up when I was 6. My mother was an English Quaker and I went to a Quaker school. A friend there also had a German Jewish father and English Quaker mother. We both had relatives in Israel, and we spent the summer there between school and university.
Now on to the Regency background: I started writing Regency romance in 1979. (The Regency was the period in England between 1811 and 1820-21 when George III was mad and his son reigned as Prince Regent; it spawned its own genre of romance.) In pursuit of historical accuracy, I did a lot of research, both specific to whatever book I was writing and general reading about the period. I wrote about 20 before Miss Jacobson’s Journey was conceived.
In the course of research, I came across a mention of the Rothschilds, upstart international bankers who smuggled gold across France to Lord Wellington’s forces fighting Napoleon’s army in Spain. This immediately struck me as an intriguing background for a story. The Rothschilds being Jewish suggested the possibility of creating Jewish protagonists. Traditional Regency romances tend to be set among the British upper classes. But I already had middle-class people among my heroes and heroines, and black characters, and the heroine of The Frog Earl is half Indian. It didn’t seem like too much of a stretch. My editor gave her approval. Miriam Jacobson and Isaac Cohen were born.
Host: That’s why I feel your novel is an important addition to the genre! As you say, traditional Regencies tend to be set among the British upper classes; but at that point in time, it didn’t necessarily mean they were all Anglican. The contributions to society by the Anglo-Ashkenazi and Sephardic communities should not be discounted or ignored. So, I say to you: Well done, indeed! I understand Miss Jacobson’s Journey has two sequels. Does the Jewish theme continue throughout?
Guest: To a lesser extent, yes. In the second, Lord Roworth’s Reward, Miriam and Jacob are no longer the main characters, having been happily married off to each other. Felix, Lord Roworth, who travelled with them through France, is the hero. The heir to an impoverished peer, he is now working for Nathan Rothschild. Part of the reason I gave him the job is that, while researching the Rothschilds, I came across some wonderful stories about Nathan, the brother who settled in London. I simply couldn’t resist using them, which became possible with Felix as his employee.
Miriam and Jacob do reappear in this book. Mr. Rothschild has sent Felix to Belgium to await the result of the impending battle between Wellington and Napoleon. There he meets a young soldier, Frank Ingram, and his sister Fanny. When Frank is seriously injured in the Battle of Waterloo, Felix helps them get to England and takes them to the Cohens, as Miriam is a healer and the Ingrams have nowhere else to go. In the third of the trilogy, Captain Ingram’s Inheritance, Miriam appears only off-stage.
Host: I will make sure to read them both! I have always been an Anglophile, even as a child, and am inexplicably drawn to the culture. As a native Briton, what intrigued you about this time period?
Guest: Miss Jacobson’s Journey takes place during the Regency because that was the period I was already involved with and, obviously, that was when the initial impetus for my story occurred: the Rothschilds’ coming to the rescue of the British government when their ships carrying the army’s pay were regularly being sunk in the Bay of Biscay by Napoleon’s navy.
It was an interesting time for European Jewry. Many were influenced by the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, moving away from the customs of their forefathers, while others clung to the old ways. On the Continent, Napoleon was attempting to free Jews from the ghettos (Boney wasn’t all bad). In Britain, they still endured the restrictions shared by Catholics, Quakers, and other dissenters from the Anglican church—they couldn’t attend Oxford or Cambridge universities, nor stand for Parliament, among other disabilities. Yet, like the Quaker founders of Barclay’s Bank, the Jewish Rothschilds were able to start building a highly influential business in Britain as well as on the Continent, and were eventually ennobled. David Ricardo, a Sephardic Jew who married a Quaker, wangled a seat in Parliament and became an important economist and reformer and, fictionally, a friend of Isaac and Miriam Cohen!
Host: I don’t want to give away any more of the storyline and can only encourage others to take up this charming book! Thanks again for joining me today. Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Guest: I’ve enjoyed sharing this time with you. I’d like to include my social media links, Mirta, and an excerpt for your audience.
Lord Felix, a caped greatcoat of drab cloth now concealing his elegance, watched in angry puzzlement as Herr Rothschild showed an impassive Mr. Cohen some papers.
“These are your passports,” he explained in Yiddish. “You are Swiss admirers of Napoleon, traveling for pleasure to see the country. You and the Fräulein are brother and sister, and milord is your cousin.”
With a mocking grin, Mr. Cohen glanced at Lord Felix.
“What is it?” demanded his lordship. “What is the wretched little Yid up to now?”
“According to our passports, you have joined our family.”
“The devil I have! Do I look like a bloody Jew?”
“Jews come in all shapes and sizes.” He shrugged. “You have a different surname–we’ll be Cohens but you’ll be Rauschberg—so perhaps your father was a goy.”
“Rauschberg? Why not my own name?”
“Roworth is too English by half, unpronounceable in any other tongue. I trust you are not going to expect to be addressed as ‘my lord’?” The last words were a sneer.
“As relatives,” Miriam pointed out, “we ought doubtless to address each other by our first names.”
They both turned to glare at her.
“I can’t see why I must be related at all!” Lord Felix objected furiously.
Argentina—the word conjures up images of fiery gauchos and romantic tangueros…or is it romantic gauchos and fiery tangueros? If your travel agent suggested this country as your next vacation destination, what would come to mind? Based on my experiences, most people respond with the Broadway song, Don’t Cry for Me Argentina. They think of crazed soccer players, or worse yet, they imagine a country overrun by escaped Nazis. I have another image; but mine is painted by a refined hand, a landscape of multiple layers of color, shadows, and dimension. You see, although Argentina is my native country; it is not my ancestral home. I’m the granddaughter of Russian immigrants—Jews fleeing the pogroms and chaos prior to the Revolution.
My Argentine travel blog would not showcase the exquisite architecture inspired by the French. Museums, theaters, cultural and government centers abound. There’s no particular need for me to point them out. I wouldn’t speak of the British influence on such things as finger sandwiches, polo or afternoon tea. Neither would I speak of how the Brits constructed the nation’s first railroad system. I wouldn’t ramble on about the grass-fed cattle or the mouthwatering cuisine heavily influenced by the Italians. I wouldn’t point out that you could visit prairies, jungles, deserts, glaciers or the majestic Iguazú Falls—larger and wider than Niagara and far more breathtaking. I understand…you want to know about all these things. You want to know about gauchos and hear about the Paris of South America, with its sensual nights of dancing tango and drinking Malbec; but in my world; Argentina is about drinking maté and eating potato knishes in my bobe’s house. Yes, I said my bobe’s house (not bubbe).
Jews in Argentina? They went there during WWII, right? No! Although there has been a Jewish community in South America since the time of Cristobal Colon (that’s Christopher Columbus), significant number of Jews began arriving towards the end of the 19th century. You are familiar with the exodus from Eastern Europe into the United States, but did you know that thousands upon thousands found their “New Jerusalem” in Argentina? Facilitated by Baron Maurice de Hirsch, the Jewish Colonization Association was created on September 11, 1891 with the intention of evacuating persecuted Jews from Imperial Russia. The J.C.A. worked in collaboration with the Argentine government by placing the immigrants in agricultural colonies throughout the rich, untapped land of the newly founded nation.
In Entre Ríos, there were over seventeen colonies, including Basavilbaso (Lucienville), Clara, Pedernal, and Villa Domínguez. In the province of Buenos Aires, there was Colonia Lapin, Carlos Casares and Rivera to name a few. Santa Fe was home of the most famous colony Moises Ville. Bernasconi (Narcisse Levin) was located in the province of La Pampa; and in the northern tip of the country, was Colonia Dora in Santiago del Estero.
Sembramos trigo y cosechamos doctores
We sow wheat and we reap doctors—that was the famous saying among the pioneers who toiled on the pampas, but birthed a new and hopeful generation of engineers, scientists, teachers and entrepreneurs.
La colectividad—the Jewish community in Argentina—is second only to the United States and it thanks to these unsung heroes, these Jewish gauchos. The colonists organized agricultural co-operatives. They built libraries, hospital, and charitable organizations. They built schools for their children to study both secular and religious programs. They built athletic organizations and impressive country clubs where families met for networking and socializing, challenging the most popular clubs of the American Borscht Belt. Their aspirations and achievements need to be heralded. Oh, and by the way, you would be remiss to think that these immigrants were all illiterate, wretched and downtrodden. Among their numbers were people of means and consequence who contributed not only their knowledge and funds, but a hearty spirit of perseverance and hope!
Not wanting to be accused of having a revisionist view of history, I can’t neglect to mention the hardships, the anti-Semitism and outright evil that Argentine Jews faced. And sometimes, it was at the hands of their own people.
A Polish organized crime group, the Zwi Migdal, established a holding in Buenos Aires as early as 1860. Their sole purpose was the trafficking of Central European Jewish women into forced prostitution. The organization was legally registered as the Warsaw Jewish Mutual Aid Society and they lured the women from their homes and families by promising a fresh start in a new country, away from economic strife and persecution. Desperate and hopeless, parents would send their daughters away thinking that they would be settled in proper Jewish homes as servants or taught some useful skill in a country that was at the cusp of becoming a leading nation. Often times, the harsh realities of their new lives began as soon as they boarded the ship.
In January 1919, for the duration of an entire “tragic week” (Semana Trágica), the Jewish community in Buenos Aires experienced a pogrom—physical violence and destruction of property on par with what many had experienced in the old country. At the time, the United States embassy reported that 1,500 people were killed, “mostly Russians and generally Jews.”
During the “Dirty War” era of 1976-1983, disproportionate numbers of Jewish students and professionals were victimized, kidnapped, tortured, or were simply made to “disappear” as a hard-right military regime attempted to control left-wing extremists fighting to create a Marxist stronghold.
In the 1990’s, both the Israeli embassy and the A.M.I.A. (Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina) buildings were bombed—allegedly by Hezbollah.
When I would ask my grandparents about the anti-Semitism they would say, “Yes, it exists, but we don’t allow it to define us.” Argentine Jews faced stifling and horrific events—comparable to what was experienced in Russia and throughout Eastern Europe—nonetheless in many, important ways, their adopted country did indeed prove to be their “New Jerusalem.” There was heartache and hardship, of course, but my grandparents impressed upon me that there was no time to cry. They were too busy getting on with the business of living!
Admit it…you know the song. You’ve seen the play. Eva Peron is standing on the balcony of the Casa Rosada, arms stretched out—aching to embrace her enamored, spell-bound followers. But Argentina is more than the infamous—villainous—Perons. Argentina is more than futbol and Messi. Argentina is more than the guerilla leader, Ernesto “Che” Guevara. To me, Argentina is where my ancestors found their refuge. It is where knishes and empanadas shared a table. It is where the sweet sounds of the klezmer’s clarinet combined with the gaucho’s guitar; and later, the tanguero’s bandoneón. That is my Argentina and I want to share it with you.
Too often, we think of Russian Jews and imagine Tevye and his cohorts in Anetevka. There is nothing wrong with that—Sholem Aleichem was a beloved and brilliant teller of tales. I simply want to add to that narrative. Take the story of the Jewish gaucho and that romantic tanguero into your heart. Set them alongside the stories of Tevye and yourown ancestors, but remember: Do not cry!
An excerpt from Destiny by Design~ Leah’s Journey
Having traveled several miles deep in her own thoughts, Leah suddenly realized that the chatter and excitement, stemming from both the children and the adults, had decreased significantly. Turning her head ever so slightly to the right and then to the left, Leah witnessed the cause for the abrupt change in her family’s emotions. Lonely homesteads spotted the terrain. Farmland and open range was all one could see.
As if he could read their minds, Yosef called out from the head wagon. Cupping his hands around his lips, so that his voice would travel down the line he exclaimed, “Remember—we are free to come and go as we please. This is not the Pale of Settlement and there are no inspectors, revizors, or Okhrana!”
At that precise moment, Leah found Yosef’s astute observation very small comfort, indeed. Slow and steady, the oxen ambled on for what seemed an eternity before señor Lipinsky held up his hand, signaling the drivers to come to a stop. They had arrived.
The Abramovitz men jumped off the wagons and handed down the women and children. Dismayed, they stood solemnly in place and quietly took in their surroundings. A dilapidated wooden fence, in dire need of sanding and a new coat of paint, marked the property. As señor Lipinsky had promised, the lot and the dwelling appeared somewhat larger than those seen on the previous homesteads. León Goldfarb had mentioned that they would most likely have a cabin or a cottage, depending on their luck, along with a small barn and granary. His assumption had been correct.
“I cannot believe that we trekked across Mother Russia through Europe and across the Atlantic Ocean to end up here—to live like krepostnyye!” Naftali bellowed.
“We are not serfs, Brother. We will work the land for our own benefit—not for some nobleman,” replied Yosef. “And we will live in peace.”
“We might as well have gone to Siberia,” was Yaacov’s grim reply. “We are in the middle of nowhere.”
“‘If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by pots of meat, when we ate bread to our fill!’” Ysroel recited. “‘For you have brought us out into this desert, to starve this entire congregation to death’—does that sound familiar? We have not yet been here one full day!” exclaimed the pious brother. “Where is your faith?”
Malka nodded her agreement. “It is quite fitting that you quote Exodus, my son, for are we not the epitome of Israelites wandering in the desert? But the Lord will provide—of that I am sure!”
Señor Lipinsky cleared his throat and the men turned towards the agent. Aware that the Abramovitz family had begun their odyssey with a different plan in mind, he did not begrudge them their displeasure. He could only imagine the life they had led in Odessa in the upper stratums of Jewish society. It was quite a different scenario than the vast majority of colonists, but not completely unheard of. The agronomic engineer, Miguel Sajaroff and his brother-in-law, Doctor Noé Yarcho, were both learned men of means—certainly known and admired among the colonists. They, too, had come from rather illustrious origins.
Señor Lipinsky gently reminded the family that they were on the outskirts of town but, there wasindeed a thriving town–a Jewish town. The children would be required to attend public school in the morning; but the town was proud to boast of their own cheder, where Yiddish and religious studies were taught in the afternoons. The community had shops, a synagogue, a cemetery and a social hall. They would soon meet their neighbors and establish friendships with the criollos and the yiden alike.
“We—the Argentines and the Jews—live together in peace,” he said. “God has made it possible for us to make a good life here.”
“Of course, señor Lipinsky and we will do the same—may it be Hashem’s will,” replied Malka, as she turned and took in the full view of their new land. “Are these fruit trees? The orchard seems to have been abandoned, but with some work, we will have a bountiful harvest next year. This reminds me of when I was a child. It will be good for the kinder to get their hands into the dirt.”
“You most likely will find peach and plum trees. At home, we also have mango,” the land agent boasted.
“What is a mango?” Duvid asked. “May I try one?”
Señor Lipinsky laughed. “Yes, of course boychik! When you taste it, you will think it is a slice of heaven. Sweet and tangy, it is like biting into a peach and an orange at the same time.”
“Come now, children,” Malka said, as she marched to the door. “Let us enter our new home with uplifted spirits and gratitude in our hearts.”
With their mother and señor Lipinsky leading the way, the Abramovitz clan followed suit. Leah trailed behind. She willed herself not to turn around, but curiosity overruled. The gauchos were still there—hewas still there.
From atop his steed, El Moro removed his hat once more, and placed it over his heart. Knowing she owed him apology, she sunk into a deep curtsey, as if he were the Tsar himself. He laughed, not in a disparaging fashion, but with full appreciation of her good sportsmanship. He let out a triumphant holler, as the men turned their horses and raced away. Feeling herself blush, Leah laughed as well and quickly caught up with the family now entering their new lodgings.
Her mother, having removed her hat and gloves, was inspecting the building, which could not be compared to anything but the gardener’s cabin back home. Leah could see her mamá’s mind at work. She could only imagine the list of duties that soon would be imparted to each and every one. When she heard her mother speaking of chemical compounds, Leah began to understand the true magnitude of the undertaking.
“I will need a fair amount of the product, if we are to paint these walls and the fruit trees,” Malka informed the J.C.A. agent.
“Yes, of course,” Lipinsky replied, agreeing with the fine lady’s assessment. Many of the colonists applied whitewash to the trees in order to prevent sun scorching.
“My father was known to paint the entire tree trunk, not just the bottom portion, as he insisted that it kept the tree from blooming prematurely.”
“We are going to paint the trees?” Duvid asked.
“Yes, as well as the house,” said Malka. “If we can purchase a bit of blue dye—perhaps a local laundress might have a decent supply—we can color the calcimine and end up with a lovely shade of pale blue.”
“Lovely. It will be our very own Winter Palace,” added Leah in jest. Having only known the luxury of living on a grand estate, she hadn’t a clue of the benefits of whitewashing; and although she had enjoyed her lessons with watercolors, the idea of washing the grimy stone walls sounded exhausting. Noting the sarcasm in her own voice, Leah winced and waited for the certain rebuke. When none came, she decided it was in her best interest to pay attention to her mamá.
“We will cover the walls with this compound several times a year, my dears, for the coating has hygienic properties. Once we have added successive applications, layers of scale will build up on the roughhewn walls, and the flakes will fall off. Then it is simply a matter of sweeping away any remaining debris,” she said, running her finger along the wainscoting. You shall see…with fresh, clean paint, colorful curtains, and cheerful wildflowers on the table, we will feel quite at home.”
“It will be like visiting the country house!” shouted Duvid with delight.
“It will be better than visiting our dacha—we will be home.” replied Yosef.