Fútbol has provided a unique arena for immigrants to immerse themselves in Argentinian culture.
Colombia's President, Juan Manuel Santos, asked Colombia's soccer coach, the Jewish-Argentine Jose Pekerman, to stay on after leading the national squad to and through the most successful World Cup in history. Pekerman is the most recent example of Jewish Argentines' involvement in football since its early days in South America.
There was no Hank Greenberg, Red Auerbach, Moe Berg, or Mark Spitz in Argentina, although this does not mean that no Jews made names for themselves in Argentine sports. Prominent Jewish footballers have included, among others, Leopoldo Bard, the first team captain and president of River Plate; Ezra Sued, a striker on both the Racing and national teams; Aaron Werfiker, stopper on the River and national teams (his fellow players had trouble pronouncing his name, so they called him “Pérez”); Miguel Reznik, who played for Huracán; and, more recently, Juan Pablo Sorín, midfielder for River as well as a Spanish team. All these figures challenge the still very common myth that Jews did not participate in Argentine football. At any rate, simply buying a ticket to a game, learning the names of all the members of a team, following the sport in the media, or rooting for your favorite team or player was enough to make you an active participant in Argentine popular culture.
Most books about Argentine football tend to claim that religious and ethnic differences have not been issues in Argentina's national sports. This claim is not confined to sports history. The fact is that many intellectuals in Latin America reject ethnicity as a significant analytical category (unless they are discussing the indigenous population or people of African descent), even if they themselves are part of an ethnic minority. Thus, football is presented as a channel of social mobility based on talent alone and as the sport that best represents some of the most cherished Argentine values and character traits, irrespective of the players’ ethnic origins.
Since the 1920s the notion of a criollo style of football has developed and spread. This was reflected in the pages of the popular sports weekly El Gráfico as well as in the sports sections of the daily newspapers. The Argentine style of football was supposedly epitomized by the art of dribbling, which showcased the individual player's ability and creativity, and this style was presented as a contrast to the allegedly rigid, robotic style of British players. Matthew Karush quotes several articles from the popular daily Crítica that mentioned the "picardía y astucia" [craftiness and cunning] of Argentine players in the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam. These articles generally referred to Argentina's football players as criollos (Argentine natives), regardless of their ethnicity.
Nevertheless, one of my contentions in Fútbol, Jews, and the Making of Argentina is that in sports, as in other social activities, Jewish Argentines struggled to strike a meaningful balance (which differed from one individual to the next) between ethnic values and tradition and the hopes they wanted to fulfill in the Promised Land of the Río de la Plata.
Jews in Buenos Aires participated in various sports and also joined the throngs of spectators at ball games during a time when organized sports were gradually becoming an important social institution and a major part of leisure consumer culture in Argentina. Football in particular topped the list as the single most popular sport in the country. As a result, for immigrants, and especially for their children, sports became a critical space where majority and minority groups intersected. Jews and other minorities could eradicate their foreignness by embracing the national sport. At the same time, as personal testimonies show, it was also a meeting point for immigrant parents (the mothers as well as the fathers in some cases) and their children. The various demands of the workplace, life in the crowded conventillos (tenements) and later in small apartments, and the occasionally intolerant social atmosphere all tended to limit opportunities and choices for Jews. Sports, in contrast, as a leisure activity that they chose themselves, became one component of their lives over which they were able to exert control. This was especially true for Jews born in Argentina, who enjoyed life in a society far freer and more open than anything their immigrant parents had ever experienced in either Eastern or Central Europe or the Mediterranean basin.
Thus, for parents, young adults, and children, participating in sports in one way or another could counteract feelings of helplessness and alienation and strengthen their identities as Jews and as Argentines. Furthermore, in Argentina as in the United States, participating in a common national experience helped Jews, consciously or not, to dispel all kinds of stereotypes and beliefs about Jews being aliens who could not or would not assimilate. As Peter Levine says about Jews and sports in the U.S., "The experience of participating as the majority in an American game also carried special meaning for participants and spectators alike, especially for second-generation youth who found in the game opportunities of freedom, mobility, and choice not always available to their fathers and mothers."
Sports were an additional way for them both to shape their own collective and individual identities and to contribute to the shaping of Argentine national culture, since in the realm of sports Jews were part of the interaction between generations oftheir fellow Jews as well as between ethnic minority and majority cultures. In a sense, then, they simultaneously adapted their traditional practices to new local realities and ethnicized their Argentine experiences. The Club Atlético Atlanta is a good microcosm of these processes, since for many Jews participating in this club both confirmed a meaningful Jewish identity and helped them gain social integration and acceptance. Football clubs and their stadiums speak to many people across generations and give them a focus for imagining their collective past and future. Like other stadiums, Atlanta's stadium, named some ten years ago after the club’s legendary president León Kolbowski, has provided many Villa Crespo Jews with a public space that has shaped their collective social and ethnic memories.
This article was adapted from Rein's forthcoming book, Futbol, Jews, and the Making of Argentina.