Argentina’s Vibrant Jewish Community

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By: Bill Katz

Argentina has one of the largest, most vibrant Jewish communities in the world.  You might think, “That’s impossible!  Argentina is at the very end of the world!” The truth is that many Argentine Jews have made incredible contributions to our world in the fields of music, entertainment, science, and politics! Consider the next time you hear the familiar tune of “Mission Impossible.”  It was composed by Boris “Lalo” Schiffrin, an Argentine Jewish man born to a family of musicians, who immigrated to the United States where he composed not only the super famous “Mission Impossible” theme song, but also the soundtrack for the Dirty Harry movies.

Argentina is a country that saw a large Jewish immigration between 1890 and 1930. Sadly, many fields of society were not open to Jewish people, and many Jewish Argentinians had to hide their Jewish identity in order to succeed. There were others, however, who fought the tide of anti-Semitism and achieved success openly as Jewish people. Cesar Jaroslavsky, for example, was one the few Jewish people who defied the idea that a Jewish person could not serve in government.  Born in Entre Rios in 1927 in one of the many Jewish agricultural colonies where Jewish people arrived from Europe, he rose to the ranks of president of the Union Civica Radical, one of the two main political parties in Argentina and served as a congressman for eight years. He was one of the constitutional delegates during the Constitutional Assembly of 1984 and introduced important legislation during his years in office.

Have you ever held a ballpoint pen in your hand?  Many people refer to it simply as a “BIC pen.”  The history of this very common writing instrument has to do with a Hungarian Jewish man named Laszlo Biro, who immigrated to Argentina in 1943.  Working as a journalist in his native Hungary, he became increasingly frustrated because the ink used in newspapers would dry too fast.  After immigrating to Argentina, he perfected the pen he had already been working on in Hungary and received the patent for his invention when he formed the Biro Pens of Argentina company. He lived the rest of his life in Argentina, and died in Buenos Aires in 1985. Until today, Argentines call any ballpoint pen a birome.

Argentine Jewish people have also made significant contributions to science.  In 1984, Cesar Milstein received the Nobel Prize for helping the world to better understand the human immune system and how antibodies are produced.  Dr. Milstein was born in 1927 to a family of Ukrainian Jewish immigrants in Bahia Blanca, about 500 miles south of the capital city, Buenos Aires. 

During World War II, being Jewish and successful in Argentina could pose a serious problem.  Mr. Jaime Yankelevich discovered this when he was forced to sell his radio station to the government in 1943.  Mr. Yankelevich was a Bulgarian Jew who was one of the pioneers of Argentine radio.  He revolutionized the radio business by devising radio programs that would keep families glued to the radio in the evenings by developing new types of shows.  Although he lost his radio station, he never gave up, and in 1951 he brought television to Argentina, making the first broadcast that year.

As has been the case in many other countries, Jewish people in Argentina have made great careers in show business.  Unfortunately, many famous Jewish actors, actresses, and directors chose not to reveal their Jewish ancestry because of the intense anti-Semitism within Argentinian society. That is probably why Paloma (Dove in English, very similar to the way it is said in Hebrew) Efron was just known as “Blackie.” Ms. Efron was one of the first female TV interviewers in Argentine TV after a long career in theatre.  Also, known as “the most beautiful eyes of the world” Amelia Bence was of the most famous divas of the Golden Age of Argentine cinema.  Ms. Bence did not often share the fact that her real name was Maria Amelia Batvinik, the daughter of Belorussian Jewish immigrants who arrived in Argentina in 1912.

The Argentine movie, “The Official Story”, was the first Argentine movie to win an Academy Award in 1985.  This story, which narrated the sad story of the dictatorship in Argentina between 1976 and 1989, was directed by Sergio Renan. Very few people know that Mr. Renan’s real name was Samuel Kohan, and he was - you guessed it — Jewish!  Just like Mr. Jaroslavsky, his parents had immigrated to one of the Jewish agricultural colonies in Entre Rios.

However, there is one Jewish man who significantly changed the image of Jewish people in show business, particularly in television. That man was Mauricio Borensztein, better known by his stage name Tato Bores.  Mauricio was first-generation Argentine, born to Jewish immigrants who fled to Argentina from Poland.

Tato was famous as “the first comedian of the nation” (making an ironic comparison to the title “first lady of the nation” or “first minister of the nation.”)  He was a master of political humor, and in a country that is usually in political turmoil like Argentina, he always said he did not need to work hard for new material!  For decades, the country would tune in on Sunday evenings at 9.00 PM to hear Tato deliver his ironic political monologues at warp speed.  He could speak at a prodigious speed and never make a mistake making millions (right wing, left wing politicians, and common people) laugh hysterically at his impressions of political life in Argentina. 

One of the most incredible things about Tato is that he did not hide the fact he was Jewish . . . in fact, he emphasized it!  He introduced Argentine audiences to Jewish jokes, and to many Yiddish words (he popularized the Yiddish word for backside in Argentina, "tuchus").  He would tell jokes and talk about Israel, circumcision, and Abraham or Moses.  He would make fun of the fact that those of us who are of Ashkenazi background are called “Russians” even though we have never been to Russia. He would have skits in his show with other Jewish actors who played rabbis and even sometimes even spoke in Yiddish like many of our grandmothers did!  And all during one of the most watched TV programs of the week!

Despite the incredible contributions of Jewish people in Argentina over the last century, there is sadly a significant increase in anti-Semitic attacks in Argentina: rabbis are attacked out of the blue; Jewish gravestones are defaced, and Jewish clubs need to hire private security.  More than ever, the disciples of the Messiah should be praying for the safety of the Jewish people in Argentina. Let us also pray that the Argentine Jewish community will continue to contribute and bless the country of Argentina.


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