¡Yiddish Tango!

Friday, March 07, 2008
On my first trip to Argentina in 1994, beginning a mining job, I stayed at the old Sheraton in downtown Buenos Aires. Leaving my room for my first walk around downtown, I accidentally pushed the wrong button in the elevator. At the ballrooms above the lobby, the doors opened and I caught a glimpse of a huge, boisterous Jewish wedding reception. Too bad I wasn’t invited. As the doors closed, I realized that there was probably much more to this city than met the casual eye. The pogroms of the late 19th century started the emigration of about 300,000 Russian and Eastern European Jews to Argentina, a pattern that persisted through the 30s. Most came to Buenos Aires, a town that in the decade before World War I had a per capita income as high as any European city. Mix the Afro-Argentine-Italian music of the stevedores and meat packers, some klezmer tunes, and a Buenos Aires nightclub and you get tangele - Yiddish tango.

Many tunes were straightforward romantic ballads much like their Hispanic counterparts, but some were clever parodies of those more melodramatic Argentine works that always threaten to teeter off to the ridiculous – a la Groucho and Margaret Dumont. Here is one called “Rivka Ben Zabes.” You don’t need to know Spanish or Yiddish to appreciate the kind of music this is satirizing. Tango spread to Yiddish theater in America and Europe and accompanied Jews to the camps. At least some of this immensely saddening music has been preserved. Argentina’s Jewish community began a slow decline after the war and the July 1994 Iranian bombing of Buenos Aires’ Israeli community center – which I heard from our office a mile or so away – triggered a gradual emigration to Europe, Israel, and America, accelerating with Argentina’s economic collapse in 2000 and an increase in traditional anti-Semitic (and anti-American) attitudes. But in recent years there has been a revival of Yiddish tango in America and Europe, led by tango singers like Lloica Czackis (above) and by shows like Una Noche Idishe in LA. It is often beautiful stuff.