By Diego Melamed
BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (JTA) — Say “Hindu” in Argentina and people are more likely to think rugby than religion. And if they do think religion, it’s probably Judaism.
That’s because last month Hindu, a rugby team associated with a country club popular among Buenos Aires Jews, won the most important rugby tournament in the country.
With its 29-17 victory over defending champion CUBA (not to be confused with the country Cuba), the Hindu team (the club’s name refers to an Indian play performed by its founders) won the title in the Buenos Aires Rugby League (URBA).
Amid the cheering and excitement at the decisive game were two Jewish fans holding up Israeli flags and one jubilant Hindu fan dressed as a haredi Orthodox rabbi. (Another was Pope Francis.) The revelry – including a photo with a kipah-wearing fan — made the cover of the Sunday supplement of La Nacion, the Argentine daily newspaper known for its rugby coverage.
The Hindu triumph was a notable moment for Argentina’s Jews, a population that numbers 185,000 (strictly halachic definition) to 350,000 (having a Jewish grandparent), depending on how strictly one defines Jewishness, and is based largely in Buenos Aires.
It signaled for them a newfound visibility in rugby, a sport brought to Argentina by British immigrants in the mid-19th century and once the exclusive domain of the country’s most elite.
Argentina’s Jews, most of them immigrants from Europe, gravitated to soccer in the early 20th century in part as a way to assimilate, according to Raanan Rein, a vice president at Tel Aviv University and author of the forthcoming book “Futbol, Jews and the Making of Argentina.”
“In an effort to became more Argentinean, Jews sought the sports considered as national Argentine sports, like soccer,” Rein told JTA. Rugby, because it was considered an “elite” sport, had “an almost nonexistent participation of minority ethnic groups, including Jews,” he added.
The sport’s elite history and reputation is alluded to in a chant that Hindu supporters have sung joyfully at several recent games: “We don’t have friends, we are black and Jews.”
By “black,” the chant refers not to people of African descent but as a slang term for people who are low class or have darker skin than average, in contrast to the stereotype of blond, aristocratic rugby players.
Not only do Hindu fans and players refer to themselves as Jews – even though only a handful of the players are Jewish — but others also call them Jews.
Even in the second half of the 20th century, as Argentine Jews became more prosperous and began starting their own country clubs and sports facilities, few took up rugby.
“Rugby wasn’t traditionally a very Jewish-friendly environment” said Javier Veinberg the president of FACCMA, the Argentine Federation of Maccabean Community Centers, which recently organized its first juvenile rugby competition.
Today, Jews are becoming more visible in Argentine rugby at both the top strata and the grassroots level. Not only are many fans and some players of the Hindu team Jewish, but growing numbers of Jews are also participating in amateur rugby.
Hebraica, the only amateur rugby team under the auspices of a Jewish institution (the Hebraica country club/community center), and its players still draw occasional anti-Semitic slurs from fans of opposing teams, spurring parents of its under-15 team to complain to the coaches two months ago, demanding more security during the games. However, Hebraica coaches told JTA that anti-Semitism in rugby is becoming less frequent.
The team is currently in Argentina’s D league, the lowest of four, but it has larger ambitions. It is aggressively recruiting new players, offering free bus service with pickups in five sections of Buenos Aires and inviting Jewish players from other clubs to participate in special activities.
Hebraica has also begun sponsoring weekly rugby classes at primary Bet El, a Jewish elementary school. In September, the FACCMA’s National Maccabean Youth Games featured rugby for the first time. Since Hebraica is the only Jewish club to have a rugby team, it competed against non-Jewish clubs in Rosario, the host city for this year’s national Maccabi Games. The youth team has grown this year from 10 players to more than 40.
FACCMA is also talking about sending a rugby team to the international Maccabiah Games.
At a celebration marking Hindu’s latest victory, fan Eduardo Poplavski told JTA that he is a “strong supporter” and “also a Jew.”
“I feel very happy that the club is identified by other as ‘the Jews,’ so I’m celebrating now the championship and my identity as a Jew,” Poplavski said.