There is a children’s song that my children used to listen to called: “Wherever you go, there is always someone Jewish”. And that’s true. So when I travel abroad, I feel compelled to explore the Jewish community of my foreign destination. I’ve been doing it for years – in Cuba, Jamaica, Aruba, Italy, Greece, South Africa, France, Argentina, Spain, China – you get it. Connecting with other Diaspora Jewish communities and learning their history ensures a more fulfilling travel experience, as well as opportunities for interpersonal relationships within the global Jewish community.mishpacha.”
My sister and I traveled to Mexico City last spring to participate in a Spanish immersion program. For me, it was a no-brainer that I would strive to gain a deeper understanding of the Jewish community there. To be honest, I knew very little about Mexican Jews. I’ve only encountered a handful in my life and never bothered to explore their roots.
In anticipation of the trip, I remembered an essay in Spanish that I had read many years ago, written by Ilan Stavans, professor of Latin American and Latin American culture at Amherst College, in which he described his childhood experience of Januca (Hanukkah in Spanish) in Mexico City. Although I don’t know him personally, I contacted him and he graciously connected me with Monica Unikel-Fasja, a leading expert on the Mexican Jewish community who has been offering Jewish heritage tours in Mexico City for 25 years. year. . She was not available on such short notice, but referred us to a wonderful graduate student, Luis Sokol, who enlightened us with relevant historical context while taking us to visit the historic old synagogues downtown – an Ashkenazi and a Sephardim – as well as for the sites of other historic Jewish business ventures in a similar area on New York’s Lower East Side.
So what have we learned about Mexican Jewish history and where is the community today? It is a complicated and unique story.
Shortly after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, groups of “crypto-Jews” from Spain and Portugal forcibly converted to Catholicism first settled in Mexico in the early 16th century. (You may know them as “Conversos» or by the pejorative term «Marranos.”) The Spanish Inquisition made its way to Mexico in 1571, when Conversos were tortured and burned at the stake by the Catholic Church. The Inquisition was only officially abolished after Mexico’s independence in 1821.
Fast forward to the end of the 19th century, when Jewish immigrants began to arrive, first Ashkenazim from Russia, followed by waves of Sephardic and Middle Eastern Jews from Syria and the crumbling Ottoman Empire. Immigration increased after 1917, when the county’s anticlerical new constitution was ratified. The immigration rate increased in 1921, when the United States imposed quotas on its own immigration. Many Jewish immigrants to Mexico preferred to go to America and initially considered themselves pending in Mexico. Over time, and once members of their community began to die and realize that they needed to establish cemeteries, these relative newcomers came to terms with the fact that Mexico had become their home.
Although there were a few Jewish communal institutions established early on, Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews remained socially distant from each other. Curiously, the Syrian community itself was, and continues to be, divided between the Jews of Aleppo and the Jews of Damascus.
Today, there are approximately 40,000 to 50,000 Jews in Mexico, in a country of 129 million people. The vast majority live in Mexico City. There are more than 20 synagogues, of which only two are considered “liberal”. We arranged to attend Shabbat services at Comunidad Bet-El, a conservative synagogue. The service reminded me in many ways of my conservative shul at home, before becoming egalitarian about 25 years ago. While the seats were mixed and the dress very casual, no women were allowed on the bimah for whatever purpose. The rabbi is Argentinian, having been educated at the Seminario Rabinico Latinoamericano, which is the source of many rabbis across Latin America and in New York, for that matter. In the Polanco neighborhood where we stayed (one of the neighborhoods with a strong Jewish presence) and which housed the synagogue, we observed many Orthodox Jews walking to and from the synagogue on Shabbat. At times it almost felt like Jerusalem!
The Jews of Mexico are a very insular community. About 90% of their children attend Jewish day schools and there are very few intermarriage with non-Jews (about 3%). This phenomenon seems to be a two-way street. In this very Catholic country, I was told, it would be frowned upon for a Catholic to marry a Jew, and vice versa. This social phenomenon reminded me of the American society of my parents’ generation, when non-Jews were also less likely to consider marrying Jews. According to my anecdotal sources, young Jewish adults do not necessarily isolate themselves from the general population. They attend university with non-Jews and have friends and acquaintances outside of religion, but ultimately they rarely marry.
With regard to anti-Semitism, I gathered a few different impressions. We were told that in general anti-Semitism is not a major problem, although of course it exists because “anti-Semitism still exists wherever there are Jews”. An older woman we met said she felt much safer as a Jew when she lived in the United States for six years. Her older sister-in-law disagreed at all! All in all, it seems that the wealth of the Jewish community is the greatest source of animosity in a society of stark differences between haves and have-nots. We were told that the wealthiest groups in Mexico are the Spaniards, Lebanese, and Jews, in that order.
Although we have no experience of the violence and crime that is commonplace in Mexico, there are apparently frequent thefts, including “kidnappings” in the city. (They seem to leave tourists alone, we were told.) After the trip, I learned from a Mexican-Israeli friend that his brother, who is a restaurant owner in the Polanco neighborhood, had been the victim of such crime: he was kidnapped for a short time and instructed to withdraw money from an ATM, then released. Had his captors realized he owned a restaurant, he would likely have been held longer and a large ransom demanded. The point here is that he was targeted for his money and not for being Jewish.
Ilan Stavans offered a slightly different take on Mexican attitudes toward Jews in his essay on Hanukkah. He noted that when he was a child, his Catholic neighbors asked him if he had personally killed Jesus Christ and considered him the Messiah. Stavans has written elsewhere that another aspect of anti-Semitism stems from the impact of Zionism on Israel’s Arab neighbors and the association of Jews with Israel. According to my Mexican Israeli friend, there is a measure of anti-Israeli sentiment that stems from Mexicans’ view that Palestinians are outsiders to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, similar to the status of native Mexicans who see themselves as victims of colonialism. European. . Moreover, Israel is closely linked to the United States, considered an enemy by some Mexicans. As usual, it’s a complex picture, but nonetheless there is a general consensus that anti-Semitism is not widespread in Mexico.
And speaking of Israel, I learned that the majority of Mexican Jewish high school graduates go to Israel for a three-month experience known as Hagshama. The goal of the program is to foster the connection and involvement of young Jewish adults with Israel. It’s hard to say what the impact of this program is, as we were told it had become less meaningful over the years – more of a party atmosphere. At its beginnings, immigration (aliyah) in Israel was considered a goal, but that doesn’t seem to be the case now.
There are of course Mexican Jews who have made aliyah, but not in substantial numbers and they do not appear to remain a self-identified group in Israel. In the only family I know of in Israel, both Mexican-born parents speak Spanish at home with their two young adult sons born in the country, but the young men themselves speak Hebrew among themselves. The parents did not choose to do so much aliyah, because they ended up in Israel for great higher education opportunities and never left.
Dr. Dalia Wassner, director of Latin American and gender studies at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, described the Mexican Jewish community as a “community of communities,” a term that resonated with me. Wassner described efforts to unify the community, including the recent establishment of a centralized archive based in the beautiful Syrian Synagogue that my sister and I had the privilege of visiting. Given how insular and small the community is, it seemed counterintuitive that it was so fragmented, but there you go. This situation seems to be changing somewhat among the younger generation, according to Wassner.
I write this article with a good dose of humility and hesitation because I am not an expert in Mexican Jewish history and I may have missed many nuances, but I hope it will awaken at least the curiosity of those of you who travel to Mexico (or anywhere else in Latin America, for that matter) to pay attention to the story of our Diaspora Jewish brothers and sisters “south of the border” , whose story is so captivating and important to understand.
As Jews, we are all links in a chain and part of an amazing mosaic of culture and heritage which, anyway, is endlessly fascinating to me. I continue my Spanish studies, mainly motivated by the desire to connect with more other Americans whose native language is Spanish. In the process, I also hope to improve my ladino, just another collateral blessing of our rich Jewish heritage.
On another note, if you are planning a trip to Mexico’s famous beaches or the Yucatán Peninsula, consider spending time in Mexico City, a wonderfully rich environment with so many interesting places to see, things to do and people to meet who are extremely friendly and helpful. And if you like languages, consider the Spanish immersion in Mexico with the Fluenz language program which we loved.
Meeting Jewish Mexico was the icing on the cake.
El proximo año en mexico! Next year in Mexico!
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