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A Lone Tribe No More: A chilean Matriarch Brings her Clan to Israel


Nadav Hillebrand, The Jerusalem Report, June 16, 2003
For four centuries, Maria Argoshi says her ancestors thought they were the last Jews on earth, hidden away in a remote area of eastern Chile.

According to family history, the first members of the Torres clan reached the New World from Spain in the early 16th century, and found refuge from continuing religious persecution in and around the village of cunco - cut off from Argentina, to the east, by the rugged Andes; and inaccessible from the north because of the presence there of the Aracaunians, a native Indian people famous for their aggressive and successful resistance to the Spaniards.

Argoshi, who says she's 71 though her official Chilean government papers list her as 63, sips coffee on a Friday afternoon in a crowded, dormitory-style room in the Tapuz absorption center in Nahariyah, where she has just immigrated with 28 members of her family five of her six children, their spouses, 17 grandchildren and one great grand child.

The sprightly widowed matriarch is flanked by two of her sons-in-law, Javier and Juan Carlos both of whom, as Catholic engineering students in the Central coastal city of Concepcion, converted to Judaism to marry her daughters - as she relates her personal tale of exodus and return to Israel in animated Spanish. They listen quietly to a story they've doubtless heard many times, and respectfully refrain from interrupting even when she makes obvious historical errors (as in the statement that Cristobal Colon, known in English as Columbus, discovered Chile).

"We were like a lone tribe in the middle of the jungle," she says, describing how her father and grandfather members of a small group that called itself the "Children of Zion" earned a living in the South American forests by tree-cutting and various agricultural work.

The realization that they were not the only Jews in the world came to Cunco's Children of Zion only in 1917, when a member of the community who had settled in Santiago, the capital, returned to retrace his family's root, carrying a newspaper clipping describing the involvement of the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis with American Jewry. Argoshi says her father, Juan de Dios Torres and other leaders of the small community were stunned. And she related how her mother also named Maria, began to make contact with other Jews, in North America and among Santiago's small Jewish population.

The revelation was welcomed by the Children of Zion, who had never quite belonged; in tiny Cunco, says Argoshi, they were often called "gypsies" because, in the eyes of the locals, their Sukkot observance resembled Romany celebrations or witchcraft rituals. "Chile is a strictly Christian-dominated society," explains Juan-Pablo (now Yosef), 39, Argoshi's son-in-law, handing the youngest of his three children to wife Jemina, who has just entered the room. " There is great ignorance of any other faiths or ways of life."

He slows down his rapid Spanish, for my benefit. "Especially in isolated villages, if you're not a practicing Catholic, you're viewed as a heretic or a bizarre person."

For example, Argoshi relates, it was different for men of the clan to hold jobs. "Bosses would not permit them to take off on Shabbat and Jewish holidays," she says, "and fired them if they did."

Over the years, Maria Argoshi and her late husband began sending their children to concepcion, 150miles from cunco or to Santiago for an education and to meet other Jews. But, she says the center of the group remained in Cunco. Although there was never a synagogue, rabbi or even a Torah scroll, finding 10 men for a minyan to pray in someone's home was never difficult, shuckles son-in-law Javier (now Shlomo), 35. "The extended family was always several minyans strong." The Argoshi group's departure is a heavy blow; the Jewish community of Cunco now comprises just a few families.

Members of the Torres clan had been trying to get to Israel for over half a century. According to Argoshi, in 1951 they sent a delegation to Argentina after learning there was a Jewish Agency office that was recruiting new immigrants there. It was, she says, a religious imperative: "Not being in the Holy Land meant there were many mitzvoth we could not observe." But the would-be-immigrants had no papers proving they were Jews, and their surnames were not Jewish sounding. Their request was denied, and they returned, disappointed, to Cunco.

But not discouraged. "We remained Zionists," says Argoshi, relating how her father bought trees in Israel through the Jewish National Fund. "Everyone in our village bought trees," she says. "Those who didn't have the money sold jewelry to get it."

Over the years, other members of the extended family decided to stay in Chile, which today has 20,000 Jews. Not matriarch Maria and her brood, who worked with conservative Rabbi Angel Cramen of Concepcion on converting, to make them eligible for aliyah.

The conversions - which Argoshi says were a formality since her family, she insists, is authentically Jewish - were completed more than a year ago. But the family had to wait another 12 months before immigrating; Tuvia Solotky, head of the Jewish Agency's Latin American desk in Jerusalem, explains that the Interior Ministry, as evidence that the conversion was not purely for the purpose of aliyah and then relocation, requires the delay.

It's nearly dusk. Gershon, 26, Argoshi's youngest, enters the room holding Shabbat candles. The other men adjust their yarmulkes as the family prepares to welcome the Sabbath. Their fourth in Israel.

Keywords: Crypto Jews, Chile, conversion, Latin America, Global Jews, Global Judaism