JOHN YDSTIE, host: Now, to Argentina and a story about keeping old traditions alive. In the 1890s, Russian Jews by the tens of thousands fled to the remote Argentine Pampa. They spoke Yiddish and built synagogues and traditional Jewish schools. And they became farmers and gauchos, the mythical Argentine cowboys. Now, only a dwindling number of their descendants remain, but they're intent on saving the Jewish culture that flourished for decades. NPR's Juan Forero reports from Entre Rios province, epicenter of Argentina's rural Jewish communities.
JAIME JRUZ: (Spanish spoken)
JUAN FORERO: Jaime Jruz roams his ranch on horseback.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOGS BARKING)
FORERO: Rounding up cattle on the plains of northeast Argentina.
(SOUNDBITE OF COW MOOING)
FORERO: This farm on the outskirts of Carmel goes back more than a century - bought on a payment plan by his grandfather. He'd arrived in Argentina aboard the Bismarck, a ship carrying Jews seeking a new life in the New World. Jruz is now 65. He says he's lost a step or two and he's one of the last Jewish gauchos around. Many of his friends have given up the back-breaking work and his three daughters, like most young Argentine Jews, live in the city. But Jruz says the past, and what he owes his ancestors, weighs heavily on him.
JRUZ: (Spanish spoken)
FORERO: I couldn't abandon this, Jruz says. I know the sacrifices they made to make it here. Just before the 20th century, whole Jewish towns packed up and fled czarist pogroms. In what's now a footnote of history, a German-Jewish philanthropist, the Baron Maurice de Hirsch, envisioned a Jewish homeland not in Palestine but in the Americas. He bought up vast tracts of farmland here, which he leased out to Jewish arrivals - 50,000 of whom came over a 40-year period. They built up dozens of towns, communities with names like Sajaroff, Sonnenfeld and Moises Ville. Some towns had two or three synagogues, agro-cooperatives like the ones in Russia and schools that taught in Yiddish and Hebrew.
PATRICIA ACST: (Hebrew spoken)
FORERO: Chalk in hand, Patricia Acst still teaches in Hebrew, and her young charges pay close attention - the two of them. This school, in the nearby town of Villa Clara, has one of the few Hebrew schools left. When she started teaching, in 1983, it was far different.
ACST: (Spanish spoken)
FORERO: There was class every day, from one to five, she says, and 18 students showed up. It was all in Hebrew, from geography to history to Talmudic studies.
(SOUNDBITE OF TABLE DRAGGING ACROSS FLOOR)
FORERO: At the Jewish cultural center in the town of Basovilbaso, Enrique Salomon and Jose "Tito" Roimiser, 78 and 84, respectively, rummage through knick-knacks once owned by their ancestors. They're in a musty storeroom filled with old, framed photographs of men in black hats and long beards, wooden clocks, heavy metal typewriters, old deeds and titles. There's also a battered baby tub, once owned by Ezadik Shlomo Ezra Jalvinitz.
ENRIQUE SALOMON: (Spanish spoken)
FORERO: All of it is important, Salomon says, it all has history, it can all be traced back.
(SOUNDBITE OF CLICKING)
FORERO: Keys in hand, Salomon and "Tito" Roimiser then unlock the Torah ark at the Tefila L' Moises synagogue.
SALOMON: (Spanish spoken)
FORERO: Here are four, six, seven sacred scrolls, Salomon says, which we take out on the holiest holidays, read and then put back.
(SOUNDBITE OF CLICKING)
FORERO: They came from Russia, the two men note, and must receive the utmost care. Now, across rural Argentina, there are fewer than 10,000 Jews left. Salomon and Roimiser describe themselves as keepers of the flame. They want to do all they can to preserve what's left of the town's Jewish culture.
TITO ROIMISER: (Spanish spoken)
FORERO: We try to maintain, says Tito Roimiser, but we are so few, so few, at least from my era. Still, they have fresh ideas, such as a museum that would go in an old synagogue, now abandoned. Even so, there is still enough Jewish life here - just enough - to make it feel like it once was.
(SOUNDBITE OF SINGING)
FORERO: On a Friday night, the old Jewish residents arrived at the Tefila L' Moises synagogue. On this night they had a minyan, the quorum required for Sabbath services.
(SOUNDBITE OF SINGING)
FORERO: As a rabbinical student sang, the congregation joined along. And it seemed like old times again out here in Argentina's Pampa. Juan Forero, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
YDSTIE: You can find photos of Argentina's Jewish villages on our website, NPR.org. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm John Ydstie.