There’s a youngsters’s tune my children used to take heed to entitled: “Wherever You Go, There’s All the time Somebody Jewish.” And it’s true. So once I journey overseas, I really feel compelled to discover the Jewish neighborhood of my overseas vacation spot. I’ve been doing so for years—in Cuba, Jamaica, Aruba, Italy, Greece, South Africa, France, Argentina, Spain, China—you get the purpose. Connecting with different Jewish diaspora communities and studying their historical past ensures a extra fulfilling journey expertise, in addition to alternatives for people-to-people connections inside the international Jewish “mishpacha.”
My sister and I traveled to Mexico Metropolis this previous spring to take part in a Spanish language immersion program. For me, it was a provided that I’d endeavor to realize a deeper understanding of the Jewish neighborhood there. In truth, I knew little or no about Mexican Jews. I’ve solely met a handful of them in the midst of my life, and had by no means bothered to discover their roots.
In anticipation of the journey, I recalled a Spanish essay I had learn a few years in the past written by Amherst School professor of Latin American and Latino tradition Ilan Stavans, during which he described his childhood expertise of Januca (Hanukkah in Spanish) in Mexico Metropolis. Although I don’t know him personally, I reached out to him and he graciously put me in contact with Monica Unikel-Fasja, a number one skilled on the Mexican Jewish neighborhood who has been providing Jewish heritage excursions in Mexico Metropolis for the previous 25 years. She was unavailable on such quick discover, however referred us to a terrific graduate pupil, Luis Sokol, who enlightened us with related historic background whereas taking us on a tour of the previous downtown historic synagogues—one Ashkenazi and one Sephardic—in addition to to the websites of different historic Jewish industrial ventures in an space much like New York’s Decrease East Aspect.
So what did we study Mexican Jewish historical past and the place the neighborhood is at right now? It’s an advanced and distinctive story.
Not lengthy after the expulsion of the Jews of Spain in 1492, teams of “Crypto-Jews” from Spain and Portugal who have been forcibly transformed to Catholicism first settled in Mexico within the early a part of the sixteenth century. (Chances are you’ll know them as “Conversos” or by the derogatory time period “Marranos.”) The Spanish Inquisition made its strategy to Mexico in 1571, at which level Conversos have been tortured and burned on the stake by the Catholic Church. The Inquisition was solely formally abolished after Mexico gained its independence in 1821.
Quick ahead to the late nineteenth century, at which level Jewish immigrants started arriving, first Ashkenazim from Russia, adopted by waves of Sephardic and Center Japanese Jews from Syria and the crumbling Ottoman Empire. Immigration intensified after 1917, when the county’s new anticlerical structure was ratified. The speed of immigration elevated in 1921, when the US imposed quotas by itself immigration. Many Jewish immigrants to Mexico most popular to go to America, and at first thought of themselves in a holding sample in Mexico. Over time, and as soon as members of their neighborhood started to die and perceive that they wanted to ascertain cemeteries, these relative newcomers got here to phrases with the truth that Mexico had change into their residence.
Although there have been just a few Jewish communal establishments created early on, the Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews remained socially distant from one another. Curiously, the Syrian neighborhood itself was, and continues to be, divided amongst Jews from Aleppo and Jews from Damascus.
At this time there are roughly 40,000-50,000 Jews in Mexico, in a rustic of 129 million. The overwhelming majority dwell in Mexico Metropolis. There are over 20 synagogues, solely two of that are thought of “liberal.” We organized to attend Shabbat companies at Comunidad Guess-El, a Conservative synagogue. The service in some ways jogged my memory of my Conservative shul again residence, previous to turning into egalitarian about 25 years in the past. Whereas the seating was combined and the apparel very informal, no ladies have been allowed on the bimah for any objective by any means. The Rabbi is Argentinian, having educated on the Seminario Rabinico Latinoamericano, which is the supply of many rabbis all through Latin America and New York Metropolis, for that matter. Within the Polanco neighborhood the place we stayed (one of many neighborhoods with a big Jewish presence) and which housed the synagogue, we noticed many Orthodox Jews strolling to and from shul on Shabbat. At occasions, it nearly felt like Jerusalem!
The Jews of Mexico are a really insular neighborhood. Roughly 90% of their youngsters attend Jewish day faculties and there may be little or no intermarriage with non-Jews (about 3%). This phenomenon appears to be a two-way avenue. On this very Catholic nation, I used to be instructed, it could be frowned upon for a Catholic to marry a Jew, and vice versa. This social phenomenon jogged my memory of American society throughout my dad and mom’ era when non-Jews have been additionally much less prone to even think about marrying Jews. In accordance with my anecdotal sources, Jewish younger adults don’t essentially isolate themselves from the final inhabitants. They attend college with non-Jews and have associates and acquaintances outdoors the religion, however ultimately they not often intermarry.
With regard to antisemitism, I picked up just a few totally different impressions. We have been instructed that basically antisemitism is just not a significant situation, although in fact it exists as a result of “antisemitism at all times exists wherever there are Jews.” One aged girl we met mentioned she felt a lot safer as a Jew when she lived in the US for six years. Her aged sister-in-law utterly disagreed! All instructed plainly the affluence of the Jewish neighborhood is the best supply of animus in a society of stark variations between haves and have nots. We have been instructed that the wealthiest teams in Mexico are the Spaniards, the Lebanese and the Jews, in that order.
Though we had no expertise at all the violence and crime that’s commonplace in Mexico, there are apparently frequent robberies, together with “drive-by kidnappings,” within the metropolis. (They appear to depart vacationers alone, we have been instructed.) After the journey, I realized from a Mexican Israeli buddy that his brother, who’s a restaurant proprietor within the Polanco neighborhood, was the sufferer of such against the law: he was kidnapped for a brief interval and instructed to withdraw cash from an ATM machine, after which launched. Had his captors realized that he was a restaurant proprietor, he most likely would have been held for longer and a big ransom would have been demanded. The purpose right here is that he was focused for his cash and never for being Jewish.
Ilan Stavans supplied a barely totally different tackle Mexican attitudes towards Jews in his essay about Hanukkah. He famous that when he was a baby, his Catholic neighbors requested him whether or not he personally killed Jesus Christ and whether or not he thought of him the Messiah. Stavans has written elsewhere that one other facet of antisemitism stems from the affect of Zionism on Israel’s Arab neighbors and the affiliation of Jews with Israel. In accordance with my Mexican Israeli buddy, there may be some measure of anti-Israel sentiment that stems from Mexicans’ view of the Palestinians because the underdogs within the Israeli-Palestinian battle, much like the standing of indigenous Mexicans who see themselves as victims of European colonialism. Additionally, Israel is carefully linked to the US, which is considered an enemy by some Mexicans. As standard, it’s a posh image, however nonetheless there may be basic consensus that antisemitism is just not rife in Mexico.
And talking of Israel, I realized that almost all of Jewish Mexican highschool graduates journey to Israel for a three-month expertise often called Hagshama. The aim of this system is to foster younger Jewish adults’ connection to and involvement with Israel. It’s exhausting to say what the affect of this program is, as we have been instructed it had change into much less significant over time—extra like a celebration environment. At its inception, immigration (aliyah)to Israel was seen as a purpose, but it surely doesn’t appear to be the case now.
There are in fact Mexican Jews who’ve made aliyah, however not in substantial numbers they usually don’t appear to stay a self-identified group in Israel. Within the one household I occur to know in Israel, the 2 Mexican-born dad and mom communicate Spanish at residence with their two native-born younger grownup sons, however the younger males themselves communicate Hebrew to at least one one other. The dad and mom didn’t a lot select to make aliyah, as they discovered themselves in Israel for nice larger training alternatives and by no means left.
Dr. Dalia Wassner, director of Hadassah-Brandeis Institute’s Latin American & Gender Research, has described the Mexican-Jewish neighborhood as a “neighborhood of communities,” a phrase that resonated with me. Wassner has described efforts to unify the neighborhood, together with the latest creation of a centralized archive based mostly within the stunning Syrian synagogue that my sister and I have been privileged to go to. Given how insular and small the neighborhood is, it appeared counterintuitive that it’s so fragmented, however there you have got it. This example appears to be altering considerably among the many youthful era, in response to Wassner.
I’m writing this text with a wholesome dose of humility and hesitancy as I’m no scholar of Mexican Jewish historical past and I’ll properly have missed quite a lot of nuances, however I hope it is going to on the very least ignite curiosity amongst these of you who journey to Mexico (or wherever else in Latin America, for that matter) to concentrate to the story of our diaspora Jewish brothers and sisters “south of the border,” whose historical past is so fascinating and necessary to know.
As Jews, we’re all hyperlinks in a sequence and part of an incredible mosaic of tradition and heritage that to me anyway is endlessly fascinating. I’m persevering with with my Spanish language research, which was primarily motivated by a need to attach with extra fellow Individuals for whom Spanish is their mom tongue. Within the course of, I hope to enhance my Ladino as properly, simply one other collateral blessing of our wealthy Jewish heritage.
On one other word, should you’re planning a visit to Mexico’s famed seashores or the Yucatán Peninsula, think about spending a while in Mexico Metropolis, a splendidly wealthy setting with so many attention-grabbing locations to see, issues to do and folks to fulfill who’re extraordinarily heat and useful. And should you love languages, think about Spanish immersion in Mexico with the Fluenz language program which we liked.
Encountering Jewish Mexico was the icing on the cake.
El proximo año en mexico! Subsequent 12 months in Mexico!
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