Jewish Mexico: The Land of Chile and Honey
by Tracy Frydberg
Monica Unikel-Fasja, who has been giving walking tours of Jewish Mexico City for the last 19 years, champions the Justo Sierra synagogue at 71st street in downtown Distrito Federal.
Within moments of stepping into Mexico City daylight for the first time, this reporter’s wallet, bloated with cash, credit cards and an American passport, was lightly lifted from her backpack.
This reporter was in Mexico City filming a documentary on Latino-Jewish relations. Her crew of three made their first stop that morning at a pharmacy in Polanco, a posh neighborhood in the center of town. They parked two steps from the entrance and walked inside. Eyeing a Coca-Cola Light, she opened her backpack, zipped and clipped, only to find an empty cavity filled a moment ago by a mint green leather pocketbook.
She called Bitachon, the underground Jewish security organization that protects the Jewish community’s people and institutions. To get a temporary passport, the American embassy required a police report to be filed first. “Go to the police station, speak with the chief of police and say the Jewish community sent you,” Bitachon instructed. It was to take only minutes.
It’s good to be a Jew in Mexico City.
Mexico’s tightly-knit Jewish community boasts the lowest rates of intermarriage in the world at six percent, two percent counting Jewish conversions upon marriage. Approximately 95 percent of Jewish families are directly affiliated with the community or Jewish Sport Center (JSC), according to the World Jewish Congress. Ask anyone on the street and they’ll say there are at least one million Jews in Distrito Federal, or “D.F.” as the city is called, but the real number is closer to 35,000.
Ilan Stavans, a D.F. native and scholar, wrote that a neutral local will say the Jewish community is vive aislada, or it mostly keeps to itself. Yet more often Jews are called prestamistas, or moneylenders. This is perhaps largely due to the highly functional, insulated structure of the Jewish community of Mexico (JCM), a one-stop shop for all of its members’ needs whether it be a yoga class, education, ambulance, theater troupe, or poker game at el club.
For security reasons, only Jewish members are allowed entry to synagogues and institutions.
The Justo Sierra synagogue at 71st street in downtown D.F. is the one exception. As the only Jewish building open to the public, the synagogue has come to represent Jews’ historical presence in the city. Built in 1941, the synagogue, then called Nidje Israel, was the first Ashkenazi synagogue in the city, a replica of one standing in Lithuania.
Starting in the 50s, the synagogue was slowly abandoned as the Jewish community left for more stylish neighborhoods like Polanco. Seven years ago the community decided to restore the synagogue. Over time, Monica Unikel-Fasja, who has been giving walking tours of Jewish Mexico City for the last 19 years, became the sole champion of the campaign to revive the once vibrant synagogue.
From the exterior of the building, rubbing bumper-to-bumper traffic and screaming street vendors, it’s difficult to imagine the calm beauty that lies within. The exterior resembles a neocolonial home, modest Stars of David carved onto the doors. Push them open and an inner facade hides the synagogue pushed far back, a typical design for Ashkenazi Jews during this time.
Visitors are shocked when they finally walk into the newly renovated synagogue, Unikel said. Bright and airy, painted marble columns enclose the room. An elaborate crystal chandelier hangs over the wooden bimah, a raised platform, with carved candelabras shooting from its sides. Gold detailing surrounds the sleeping Torahs, shielded by a navy velvet curtain.
Unikel said the synagogue has become a cultural center since opening to the public.
“I think it is really important to open doors, to have a dialogue with people, to talk about the Jewish history in Mexico, what it is, how it started when the Jews arrived, why they arrived,” she said.
The first Jewish immigrants arrived far earlier to Mexico during the colonial period as conversos, hidden Jews fleeing from the Spanish Inquisition. Very little is known about this group, though some of their ancestors have resurfaced as Crypto Jews, descendants who held on to certain Jewish traditions over centuries.
The late 19th century saw a wave of Sephardic Jews, in town for business and not a community. The community was formally organized in 1912, just in time to welcome waves of Ashkenazim fleeing Hitler’s Europe.
The plan was to use Mexico as a rest stop before immigrating to the United States. Alas, this was not the case as America locked its borders further in 1924 and Jewish institution-building subsequently took off.
Creating Jewish day schools was the first priority. Today, these schools are the pride of the community.
Charged with the heavy burden of providing students with a Jewish identity, day schools educate approximately 95 percent of Jewish youth, according to Renee Dayan-Shabat, the executive director of Tribuna Israelita, the public relations agency in Mexico City.
Yiddish used to be the language of choice, but after Israel “gained prominence” after the Six Day War in 1967, schools slowly moved to teaching Hebrew.
Support of Israel has been a constant. In 1947, a group of young men flew to Israel to fight in the War of Independence, most of them returning shortly after the state of Israel was established.
Today, Zionist movements dictate the free time and political mindset of the community’s youth, and a select few join the ranks of Bitachon, keeping the spirit of those early fighters alive.
While Stavans wrote Mexican Jews can’t be described as fervent Zionists, Israel is ingrained in the minds of the community expressed through tourism and donations.
In an interview with this reporter, Stavans said there is a certain sense of contentment expressed by the relatively low rates of immigration to Israel in comparison to other Latin American countries such as Uruguay and Argentina.
Mexico, not Israel, is the land of milk and honey with a dash of chile con limon on top.
And as Mexico’s drug war begins permeating into the capital, the community is more than prepared to protect its own.
“Mexico is a country under siege by its own people,” Stavans said. “But Mexico’s Jews will be there as long as there is stability. There is a love for Mexico and that will continue no matter what.”
As for this reporter, she never had to file that police report. That afternoon she received an email from Dayan-Shabat that her wallet had been found. A woman picked it up off the street, contents spewed everywhere, and found Dayan-Shabat’s business card inside from a brief meeting at a conference months before. The gracious thief had only taken the cash, leaving a passport and all cards behind.
This reporter went to meet the woman who found her wallet at a department store the next morning. A middle-aged woman clutching the pocketbook rushed up, turning immediately to speak to this reporter’s cousin in rushed Spanish. She recognized him from photographs she had seen in her client’s apartment, the apartment where the film crew was staying.
Not only an outstanding citizen, the woman was also his grandmother’s hairdresser along with all the other Jewish grandmothers in town, solidifying this reporter’s mishap as the news of that day’s poker game at el club.