Crossing Borders, Claiming a Nation: A History of Argentine Jewish Women, 1880-1955

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In Crossing Borders, Claiming a Nation, Sandra McGee Deutsch brings to light the powerful presence and influence of Jewish women in Argentina. The country has the largest Jewish community in Latin America and the third largest in the Western Hemisphere as a result of large-scale migration of Jewish people from European and Mediterranean countries from the 1880s through the Second World War. During this period, Argentina experienced multiple waves of political and cultural change, including liberalism, nacionalismo, and Peronism. Although Argentine liberalism stressed universal secular education, immigration, and individual mobility and freedom, women were denied basic citizenship rights, and sometimes Jews were cast as outsiders, especially during the era of right-wing nacionalismo. Deutsch's research fills a gap by revealing the ways that Argentine Jewish women negotiated their own plural identities and in the process participated in and contributed to Argentina's liberal project to create a more just society.

Drawing on extensive archival research and original oral histories, Deutsch tells the stories of individual women, relating their sentiments and experiences as both insiders and outsiders to state formation, transnationalism, and cultural, political, ethnic, and gender borders in Argentine history. As agricultural pioneers and film stars, human rights activists and teachers, mothers and doctors, Argentine Jewish women led wide-ranging and multifaceted lives. Their community involvement-including building libraries and secular schools, and opposing global fascism in the 1930s and 1940s-directly contributed to the cultural and political lifeblood of a changing Argentina. Despite their marginalization as members of an ethnic minority and as women, Argentine Jewish women formed communal bonds, carved out their own place in society, and ultimately shaped Argentina's changing pluralistic culture through their creativity and work.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

Crossing Borders, Claiming a Nation is a pioneering work, providing historical analysis of the multidimensional experiences of Jewish women in Argentina. It is a valuable and original piece of scholarship.”—Mariano Plotkin, author of Mañana es San Perón: A Cultural History of Perón’s Argentina

“Sandra McGee Deutsch has written a remarkable book, filled with compelling details and prodigious analysis, rich oral histories and archival research. The stories she tells come alive in ways no other scholar has achieved. Crossing Borders, Claiming a Nation is poised to become a classic.”—Temma Kaplan, author of Taking Back the Streets: Women, Youth, and Direct Democracy

Hispanic American Historical Review - Raanan Rein

"In her remarkable book Crossing Borders, Changing a Nation, Sandra McGee Deutsch sets out to recover their voices and tell several of the untold stories of the hitherto silent half of the Jewish population in that region.... [T'his book is highly recommended to anyone interested in Latin American ethnic studies or the history of women in this region." 
The Outlook - Marjorie Agosin

“I found this book almost impossible to put down. It is written in clear and elegant language, with a balance of historical archival research and personal oral histories… Her book is a magnificent historical meditation that explores a variety of topics in nation-building narratives, ranging from the roles of Jewish women in rural areas and their participation in establishing farms and communities to the roles of urban women in education, politics, and the arts… I am certain that this exemplary book will be a model for future historians interested in gender studies of immigration and Judaism, as well as the specific experience of Jewish women in Argentina… It is the work of a passionate and brilliant historian who is at the same time objective, accurate, deeply personal, and deeply human.”
American Historical Review - Jadwiga E. Pieper Mooney

“Sandra McGee Deutsch’s book is a pioneering contribution to Latin American histories of immigration and state formation; it represents the first scholarly monograph to tell the story of immigrant women of any background in the region…. This is a fascinating and highly readable book that should inspire new research to determine just how exceptional Jewish Argentine women really were, and how their stories of national belonging compare to those of other immigrant and women’s groups in Latin America.”
H-Judaic, H-Net Reviews - Donna Guy

“The publication of Sandra McGee Deutsch’s Crossing Borders, Claiming a Nation marks a major contribution to the history of Jews in Argentina as well as to women’s history. Her nuanced and engaging stories of women from the right, the left, and the center of the Argentine Jewish community and their efforts to distinguish themselves beyond the realm of hearth and home represents the first major monograph on Jewish women in the Southern Hemisphere.”
Choice - J. D. Sarna

“This pioneering volume traces the history of Argentine Jewish women from the beginnings of Jewish immigration in 1880 through the presidency of Juan Perón. . . . Highly recommended.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822346494
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 6/28/2010
  • Pages: 396
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Sandra McGee Deutsch is Professor of History at the University of Texas at El Paso. She is the author of Las Derechas: The Extreme Right in Argentina, Brazil, and Chile, 1890–1939 and Counterrevolution in Argentina, 1900-1932: The Argentine Patriotic League.

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Read an Excerpt


A History of Argentine Jewish Women, 1880-1955


Copyright © 2010 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4657-9

Chapter One

"If the Water Is Sweet" Jewish Women in the Countryside

If the water is sweet, we will have a good future. -Bela Trumper de Kaller, interview

The miracle takes place: they have become Argentines. -Violeta Nardo de Aguirre, "Canto a la Colonización Judía"

Some Ashkenazi women pioneers in Argentina were known for their optimism and determination. When Bela Trumper de Kaller and her family reached their plot near Moisesville, Santa Fe, she tasted the water from the well. Although the land was barren and parched, she claimed that the sweetness of the water heralded a good future. Desolate huts surrounded by tall weeds and cattle trails greeted the first Eastern European Jews who disembarked from the train at Carlos Casares, Buenos Aires, en route to Colonia Mauricio. Yet nothing flattened the women's spirits, observed Marcos Alpersohn, one of the settlers: "When I remember those dignified and valiant women of the colonization I see them wrapped in a brilliant luminosity ... In their imagination they painted the future with the most beautiful colors and transmitted these to their husbands, believing firmly in an easy future, free and happy in the new home, sweetening with this image the sorrows of a gloomy present."

Rural experiences have been studied and celebrated more than any other aspect of Jewish life in Argentina. Many Ashkenazim remember the agricultural colonies nostalgically. "All our life was simple, clear and transparent, with the blue color of goodness and honesty," recalled one woman.

Despite these memories, most Jewish immigrants did not stay long on farms or in small towns. Starting in 1889, many Jews from the Russian empire settled in the countryside. Around the same time, Moroccans established themselves in small towns, followed by migrants from the Ottoman empire. Eastern Europeans and Germans joined the agriculturalists between the wars. But today only a tiny percentage of Jews remains in those settings. Like other Argentines, most Jews found better opportunities in cities.

While short-lived, their rural sojourn was significant. In 1895 a majority of Jews were living in the agricultural colonies, and by 1914 about a quarter lived on these lands and another quarter in nearby towns. Thus, a considerable percentage of the early immigrants became Argentines in the countryside. By proving themselves in arduous pioneer conditions, they demonstrated that they belonged in this land. Their pride in their achievements contrasted with the frustration experienced by Jews and other Argentines during the turbulent times after 1930. These factors help explain why many Jews remembered rural life as a golden era.

The positive perceptions of women reflected these achievements and their crucial roles in them, which intersect with the themes of this study. Regarding state formation, they became Argentines alongside their male relatives, imagining and constructing the nationality. Jewish women helped create the farms and stores that cemented them to their new homeland, as did the children they raised there. Contrasting the sweetness of liberty with czarist and Nazi persecutions, they linked their destinies to the nation that had accepted them. The social capital that many Jews built promoted democratic engagement and a sense of belonging. Many Jewish women not only adopted liberal and progressive beliefs but participated in shaping them.

Jewish women in rural areas negotiated borders. They lived in border spaces, where they met people of different backgrounds who acquainted them with local customs. Jewish women alternated between the new and the old, inhabiting a cultural borderland. While some scaled barriers that had confined women to domestic chores, most reinforced gender, racial, and communal walls.

Poverty, illiteracy, and gender norms marginalized many Jewish women, as did sporadic anti-Semitism. Through education and voluntary associations they trudged toward the center. Their quest for higher status in their communities and the larger society met varying degrees of success.

Eastern and Central European and Mediterranean Jewish women settled in the hinterlands. Linguistic and cultural differences separated them, as did their times of arrival. Nevertheless, all faced borders, exclusion, and the challenges of state formation in the rural milieu. This chapter moves back and forth in time to treat their encounters with these themes.

Work and Settlement

Eastern and Central European Jews became farmers and ranchers on peripheral lands in Entre Ríos, Santa Fe, Buenos Aires, La Pampa, Santiago del Estero, Río Negro, and Chaco, the first of which hosted the most settlements (see maps 1-3). The Jewish Colonization Association (JCA)-founded in 1891 by Baron Maurice de Hirsch, an Alsatian philanthropist-controlled most of these tracts and the accompanying colonization. The JCA provided families with steamship tickets, land, a primitive dwelling, livestock, seed, tools, and other necessities. The colonists had to pay the JCA for their farms and found themselves in onerous conditions. Never plowed, most of the land was of marginal quality. Allotments were often better suited for cattle than farming, but they were generally too small to make ranching feasible. Natural calamities such as droughts and locusts struck the colonies regularly. Many immigrants lacked farming experience, while others brought methods unsuited to the rough terrain. Conflicts with paternalistic and sometimes arbitrary JCA male administrators compounded the problems. It is unclear how many Jews passed through the colonies, but at their height in the mid-1920s, 33,000 Jews resided on the land and another 10,000 in nearby towns (see table 1 in the appendix). Those 43,000 people represented approximately a fourth of Argentina's Jewish inhabitants. About 300 German-speaking farm families settled in Entre Ríos, Santa Fe, Buenos Aires, and La Pampa in the 1930s, briefly replenishing the declining rural Jewish population.

Moroccan and Ottoman Jews journeyed individually to the interior; any aid they received came from family members already in Argentina. Arriving from the 1870s on, the 802 Moroccans who lived outside the capital in 1914 mostly resided in railroad towns in Chaco, Entre Ríos, Santa Fe, and Córdoba. In these locations, including JCA colonies, they established fabric and general stores that often were branches of porteño (Buenos Aires) businesses owned by relatives or friends. Reaching Argentina by the turn of the century, a few Turkish and Syrian Jews became peddlers in the interior. Some saved enough money to establish urban businesses.

Exceptions to the rule of individual settlement were the graduates of Alliance Israélite Universelle (AIU) academies whom the JCA sent as administrators and teachers to the colonies. A French philanthropic association, the AIU founded schools in Muslim Mediterranean and West Asian countries to educate and Europeanize Jewish children. The best students received scholarships to complete their studies in Paris. Since many spoke Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) or other forms of Spanish, the AIU hired its graduates, including a few women, to teach their coreligionists in Argentina.

One must place Jewish women within the context of women's work in the interior. Long involved in cottage industries and farm labor, native-born women-often mestizas, or women of indigenous descent-over time were forced into low-paying service jobs or moved to cities. Women made up 17.1 percent of agricultural and livestock workers in 1895, but only 7.9 percent in 1914. These figures probably did not include Jewish and other immigrant women farmers, who have received little attention from census takers or scholars.

Eastern European and German Jewish women shared the burdens of country life. Mothers and daughters strung wire fences, planted trees, and plowed, sowed, weeded, and harvested the fields. Against the wishes of fastidious mothers, some girls cleared the land, chopped down trees, prepared wood for sale, and herded animals. Others obeyed their mothers and confined themselves to so-called women's work in the home. A JCA administrator praised one female colonist for taking excellent care of her orchard and vegetable garden, duties common among women. Women milked the cows, gave water to the animals, and made butter and cheese. Their tasks included raising poultry and preparing food for peons and harvest workers. Often they sold eggs, dairy products, and garden crops in nearby towns. If their families prospered to the point of keeping bank accounts and financial records, some women helped manage them. Women continued these chores after their husbands died, now as farm supervisors.

Mothers and daughters also had domestic chores. They "adorned the poverty" of their homes, whitewashing and decorating walls and constantly cleaning. Women carried water from sometimes distant wells and gathered cow dung to make fires. In those days before electricity, washing and ironing were arduous tasks. Women also prepared meals, baked bread, and made jams and other conserved foods from their produce. After the evening meal, they made and repaired clothing by candle- or gas light until late. While they worked, women and older daughters minded the often numerous younger children.

The isolation and harsh conditions demoralized and marginalized many Eastern European women. Some wanted to return immediately to their homeland, despite the pogroms there. An elegantly clad resident of an Entre Ríos colony wept as she blamed her mother for sending her to a university in Europe instead of teaching her household skills. A female correspondent for El Campo, a periodical devoted to Jewish rural life, reproached farmers for not improving their wives' lot. The monotony and seclusion of the colonies also drove some Moroccan teachers and their spouses to petition the JCA to let them leave their posts.

Arriving forty-odd years after the first Eastern Europeans, Germans regarded their new surroundings with a mixture of dismay and hope. A twenty-year-old woman reached Entre Ríos after four months of rain had left mud everywhere. While she saw the difficulties as an adventure, they reduced her mother to tears, even though she had propelled the move to Argentina. It was hard for older women, who remembered the ease of life in Europe before Hitler, to adjust to poverty and backbreaking work. Relief over their escape from Nazism, however, tempered their grumbling. The newcomers Ilse Katz and her family thought they finally had their own place from which no one could expel them. Still, anxiety about loved ones who had been left behind added to fears of marginalization in an unknown land.

After clearing the land and establishing a farm, German immigrants needed cash even more than women's unpaid labor in the fields. When disaster struck the Katz family-locusts devoured their grain, foot-and-mouth disease infected their cattle, the father became ill, and debts mounted-Ilse saw employment in the city as the only solution. She and other girls went to work in Buenos Aires and sent their wages home.

Like other immigrant farming women in Argentina, Jewish women were excluded from landownership. The JCA only accepted women as colonists if they were widows of men who had received land titles; those women were among the few who joined the cooperatives that played a major role in settlement life. Farmers' daughters and other women experienced in rural tasks unsuccessfully petitioned the JCA for land. Only one woman, head of a family, had received a plot by the early 1900s. A handful of women, generally widows or Socialists, participated in cooperative meetings but were never leaders in the movement. As sometimes occurred elsewhere, widows had a greater voice and more property rights than wives did. Although the Socialist-leaning El Campo favored their involvement in cooperatives, not until the 1970s did women assume greater roles.

A few women fought to become insiders. Born in 1912 in Colonia Lucienville, Entre Ríos, Dora Schvartz shared farming duties with her father and rode horses with relish. Her readings led her to debate agricultural techniques, marketing, and cooperativism with fellow members of the Centro Juvenil Agrario, a social and intellectual group that she served as secretary, and with her fiancé. As a young single woman, she began to attend cooperative assemblies and provincial congresses of cooperatives, but she never became an officer.

It was not necessarily easier to live in towns. Luna de Mayo left Izmir, Turkey, for a one-room shack without running water in a slum in Posadas, Misiones. She and her children waited there daily for her husband to bring her his earnings from peddling so she could buy food. Well-educated and clad in Parisian silks, Señora Hassid, also of Izmir, had trouble adjusting to San Pedro, Buenos Aires, where her husband established a business. As the town lacked sidewalks when she arrived in 1928, she wondered where to put her feet as she walked.

As in Eastern Europe, Jewish women worked in family businesses and other enterprises in towns. One woman ran a lumber and charcoal business with her husband in Charata, Chaco. She was in charge of selling and often supervised the workshop; after her husband's death, she ran the entire establishment. Another widow took over her husband's peddling job in Carlos Casares, Buenos Aires. Such roles were not confined to Ashkenazim. Once her husband set up a general store, Luna de Mayo sold goods there. A fellow Izmiri, Regina Mendes de Salón, worked alongside her husband in their shop in Corrientes, tending to her babies between customers. Her husband's death and bankruptcy pauperized the illiterate Mendes, and she and her seven children found work taking care of a synagogue, moving to a house on its grounds. Mendes sewed for clients and sold home-cooked food to support her family.

Ashkenazi women also needed to earn incomes. Like Mendes, they prepared food for weddings and other celebrations and labored as dressmakers and seamstresses. Some women ran rural commissaries, while others gave music lessons. A young woman who obtained an honors music degree in Rosario returned to Moisesville, the bustling center of Jewish rural life in Santa Fe province, to establish a small conservatory in 1923. Cooperatives hired female clerical workers, and a few women supported themselves through prostitution.

Midwifery was a vital occupation. In the early years, few rural women who delivered babies had formal training. In one community in the early 1900s, the shoemaker's wife served as midwife. When called, she would stop repairing shoes, wash her hands with water, dry them on her dirty apron, and pronounce herself ready. As the lack of hygiene led to many infections and deaths, the pioneer doctor Noé Yarcho resolved to train a midwife for the colonies surrounding Basavilbaso, Entre Ríos. An opportunity arose when he met a woman from that town while treating her granddaughter. His instruction was brief, consisting of little more than showing her what to do and telling her to cut her nails and clean her hands with rock salt, as there were no disinfectants.

Deborah Davidovich-who with her husband, Miguel Kipen, came to a colony near Villa Domínguez in 1912, when she was twenty-six-was an early Argentine-trained midwife. Socialist intellectuals who had escaped from Russia for political reasons, the couple knew little about farming and fared poorly. Davidovich had studied nursing and massage in Geneva and decided to learn midwifery. Leaving their son with her husband on the farm, she took their newly born daughter to Paraná, the provincial capital, where she pursued her education. When Davidovich received her degree, they returned to the countryside, where her impoverished patients, mostly other colonists, often paid her with food rather than money. She moved to nearby Villaguay to take a paying job; the children stayed with their father on the farm, and they visited each other when possible. Economic exigency, as well as the couple's belief in women's advancement, enabled Davidovich to cross gender borders by living and working apart from her family, which was highly unconventional. Other Ashkenazi midwives studied in a less unusual manner at Russian and Argentine schools, some from Entre Ríos aided by provincial subsidies. Thus the government helped these Jewish women provide vital services and earn a living.


Excerpted from CROSSING BORDERS, CLAIMING A NATION by SANDRA MCGEE DEUTSCH Copyright © 2010 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations and Tables vii

Acknowledgments ix

List to Women xi

Introduction 1

1 "If the Water Is Sweet" 13

Jewish Women in the Countryside

2 "I Worked, I Struggled" 42

Jewish Women in Buenos Aires

3 "A Point of Connection" 73

Pathways into the Professions

4 "Not a Novice" 105


5 "A Bad Reputation" 123

Family and Sexuality

6 "What Surrounds Us Dissatisfies Us" 148

Leftists and Union Members through the 1930s

7 "A Dike Against Reaction" 172

Contesting Anti-Semitism, Fascism, and Peronism

8 "We the Women Have to Do Something" 205

Philanthropies and Zionism

Conclusion 236

Appendix 249

Notes 257

Bibliography 319

Index 363

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