There’s a children’s song my kids used to listen to entitled: “Wherever You Go, There’s Always Someone Jewish.” And it’s true. So when I travel abroad, I feel compelled to explore the Jewish community of my foreign destination. I’ve been doing so for years—in Cuba, Jamaica, Aruba, Italy, Greece, South Africa, France, Argentina, Spain, China—you get the point. Connecting with other Jewish diaspora communities and learning their history ensures a more fulfilling travel experience, as well as opportunities for people-to-people connections within the global Jewish “mishpacha.”
My sister and I traveled to Mexico City this past spring to participate in a Spanish language immersion program. For me, it was a given that I would endeavor to gain a deeper understanding of the Jewish community there. Truthfully, I knew very little about Mexican Jews. I have only met a handful of them in the course of my life, and had never bothered to explore their roots.
In anticipation of the trip, I recalled a Spanish essay I had read many years ago written by Amherst College professor of Latin American and Latino culture Ilan Stavans, in which he described his childhood experience of Januca (Hanukkah in Spanish) in Mexico City. Though I don’t know him personally, I reached out to him and he graciously put me in touch with Monica Unikel-Fasja, a leading expert on the Mexican Jewish community who has been offering Jewish heritage tours in Mexico City for the past 25 years. She was unavailable on such short notice, but referred us to a terrific graduate student, Luis Sokol, who enlightened us with relevant historical background while taking us on a tour of the old downtown historic synagogues—one Ashkenazi and one Sephardic—as well as to the sites of other historic Jewish commercial ventures in an area similar to New York’s Lower East Side.
So what did we learn about Mexican Jewish history and where the community is at today? It’s a complicated and unique story.
Not long after the expulsion of the Jews of Spain in 1492, groups of “Crypto-Jews” from Spain and Portugal who were forcibly converted to Catholicism first settled in Mexico in the early part of the 16th century. (You may know them as “Conversos” or by the derogatory term “Marranos.”) The Spanish Inquisition made its way to Mexico in 1571, at which point Conversos were tortured and burned at the stake by the Catholic Church. The Inquisition was only officially abolished after Mexico gained its independence in 1821.
Fast forward to the late 19th century, at which point Jewish immigrants began arriving, first Ashkenazim from Russia, followed by waves of Sephardic and Middle Eastern Jews from Syria and the crumbling Ottoman Empire. Immigration intensified after 1917, when the county’s new anticlerical constitution was ratified. The rate of immigration increased in 1921, when the United States imposed quotas on its own immigration. Many Jewish immigrants to Mexico preferred to go to America, and at first considered themselves in a holding pattern in Mexico. Over time, and once members of their community began to die and understand that they needed to establish cemeteries, these relative newcomers came to terms with the fact that Mexico had become their home.
Though there were a few Jewish communal institutions created early on, the Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews remained socially distant from each other. Curiously, the Syrian community itself was, and continues to be, divided among Jews from Aleppo and Jews from Damascus.
Today there are roughly 40,000-50,000 Jews in Mexico, in a country of 129 million. The vast majority live in Mexico City. There are over 20 synagogues, only two of which are considered “liberal.” We arranged to attend Shabbat services at Comunidad Bet-El, a Conservative synagogue. The service in many ways reminded me of my Conservative shul back home, prior to becoming egalitarian about 25 years ago. While the seating was mixed and the attire very casual, no women were allowed on the bimah for any purpose whatsoever. The Rabbi is Argentinian, having trained at the Seminario Rabinico Latinoamericano, which is the source of many rabbis throughout Latin America and New York City, for that matter. In the Polanco neighborhood where we stayed (one of the neighborhoods with a large Jewish presence) and which housed the synagogue, we observed many Orthodox Jews strolling to and from shul on Shabbat. At times, it almost felt like Jerusalem!
The Jews of Mexico are a very insular community. Roughly 90% of their children attend Jewish day schools and there is very little 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 American society during my parents’ generation when non-Jews were also less likely to even consider marrying Jews. According to my anecdotal sources, Jewish young adults do not necessarily isolate themselves from the general population. They attend university with non-Jews and have friends and acquaintances outside the faith, but in the end they rarely intermarry.
With regard to antisemitism, I picked up a few different impressions. We were told that in general antisemitism is not a major issue, though of course it exists because “antisemitism always exists wherever there are Jews.” One elderly woman we met said she felt much safer as a Jew when she lived in the United States for six years. Her elderly sister-in-law completely disagreed! All told it seems that the affluence of the Jewish community is the greatest source of animus in a society of stark differences between haves and have nots. We were told that the wealthiest groups in Mexico are the Spaniards, the Lebanese and the Jews, in that order.
Although we had no experience at all of the violence and crime that is commonplace in Mexico, there are apparently frequent robberies, including “drive-by 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, was the victim of such a crime: he was kidnapped for a short period and instructed to withdraw money from an ATM machine, and then released. Had his captors realized that he was a restaurant owner, he probably would have been held for longer and a large ransom would have been 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 about Hanukkah. He noted that when he was a child, his Catholic neighbors asked him whether he personally killed Jesus Christ and whether he considered him the Messiah. Stavans has written elsewhere that another aspect of antisemitism 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 some measure of anti-Israel sentiment that stems from Mexicans’ view of the Palestinians as the underdogs in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, similar to the status of indigenous Mexicans who see themselves as victims of European colonialism. Also, Israel is closely linked to the United States, which is regarded as an enemy by some Mexicans. As usual, it’s a complex picture, but nonetheless there is general consensus that antisemitism is not rife in Mexico.
And speaking of Israel, I learned that the majority of Jewish Mexican high school graduates travel to Israel for a three-month experience known as Hagshama. The purpose of the program is to foster young Jewish adults’ connection to and involvement 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 like a party atmosphere. At its inception, immigration (aliyah)to Israel was seen as a goal, but it 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 don’t seem to remain a self-identified group in Israel. In the one family I happen to know in Israel, the two Mexican-born parents speak Spanish at home with their two native-born young adult sons, but the young men themselves speak Hebrew to one another. The parents did not so much choose to make aliyah, as they found themselves in Israel for great higher education opportunities and never left.
Dr. Dalia Wassner, director of Hadassah-Brandeis Institute’s Latin American & Gender Studies, has described the Mexican-Jewish community as a “community of communities,” a phrase that resonated with me. Wassner has described efforts to unify the community, including the recent creation of a centralized archive based in the beautiful Syrian synagogue that my sister and I were privileged to visit. Given how insular and small the community is, it seemed counterintuitive that it is so fragmented, but there you have it. This situation seems to be changing somewhat among the younger generation, according to Wassner.
I’m writing this article with a healthy dose of humility and hesitancy as I am no scholar of Mexican Jewish history and I may well have missed a lot of nuances, but I hope it will at the very least ignite curiosity among 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 history is so captivating and important to understand.
As Jews, we are all links in a chain and a part of an amazing mosaic of culture and heritage that to me anyway is endlessly fascinating. I am continuing with my Spanish language studies, which was primarily motivated by a desire to connect with more fellow Americans for whom Spanish is their mother tongue. In the process, I hope to improve my Ladino as well, just another collateral blessing of our rich Jewish heritage.
On another note, if you’re planning a trip to Mexico’s famed beaches or the Yucatán Peninsula, consider spending some 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 warm and helpful. And if you love languages, consider Spanish immersion in Mexico with the Fluenz language program which we loved.
Encountering Jewish Mexico was the icing on the cake.
El proximo año en mexico! Next year in Mexico!
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