|First Ashkenazi synagogue of Mexico City. It is a nearly exact copy of a Lithuanian synagogue with a mural showing the influence of Mexico.
Mexico City lies in a valley high in the mountains. When Teotehaucanans built their pyramids, Aztecs had not yet become a force and by the time Aztecs invaded, the city already laid in ruins.
Converso Jews came with first explorers and conquerors and eventually intermarried as did most of the Moranos. This loss of culture through dilution, is partially the reason for adherence of the current Jews of Mexico to not intermarrying. The other is the immigration from Nazi occupied Europe and muslim Syria. The Jews of Mexico stick to their own and to the ancient customs as if to defy all who tried to extinguish the flame of a people in a continent known for extinguished cultures.
Today there are about forty synagogues in the city. The Ashkenazy post war synagogues follow the East European tradition of being hidden from view whereas the Syrian are clearly evident like the Magen David synagogue with ten meter (30ft) star of David made of stone and elevated by stone pillars. And yet, it is the Syrians who are closed and Ashkenazi who are more open.
This confuses the public in Mexico who distrust the Jewish society as many other cultures. Jewish religious population keep themselves separate and at the same time the Jews believe themselves to be Mexican while white and non-white Mexicans often think otherwise. My couchsurfing host told me that their refusal to marry, the fact that they cannot go into the synagogue even if they offer no risk and the fact that their ways are unknown to most Mexicans while their wealth and power is clear and evident, bring resentment in the local population. They are not antisemitic per se as the have nothing against the Jews but they don’t feel that the two work in concert for the good of the nation, the two don’t feel that they are one country and one people that white and mestizo Mexicans feel in-spite of the difference in Spanish and Native roots. They seem them as strangers in their native land.
The Syrian Jews, who live in and around Polanko, where one may confuse Mexico for Crown Heights or Jerusalem mixed with LA’s Rodeo Drive, had come from severe isolation in Syria, living in a Muslim dictatorship state, came to Mexico not because they couldn’t come to Israel but because they refused to, often being strongly anti-Zionist. They are so far removed from world Jewry that they go so far as to not associate between each-other: Aleppo and Damascus Jews do not intermarry or visit each-others synagogues for fear of excommunication from their own community. Their security checks seem little to do with security as they do with looking for the right Jews. In spite of knowing people in their community I did not pass the Jewish test, a five page questionnaire that asked to translate Hebrew, talk about dishes used for holidays, Jewish affiliation and all other information including all the schools attended and jobs held.
Other communities are not much different. I needed to know people to go into a conservative synagogue and a learning center. The only place that was open to me was the Chabad as always and so resistant is the rest of the community that the Rabbi of Chabad had been assaulted by Jews when he first opened the Chabad. However once inside, people are kind and welcoming, offering rides and places to stay and of course, delicious kiddush meals.
Chabad is one of the only places besides a very American Beth-Israel that allows Converts to come and pray. Beth-Israel did not return my emails and so I cannot speak for the Conversos there. I did meet a convert: Yerachmiel Soto and his son Moshe. Yerachmiel, a kosher butcher and meat supplier, only after his conversion found out that his dad was half Jewish. He lived in Los Angeles but born in Costa Rica serves kosher meat for virtually all of Mexico City community. He and I discussed our mutual belief that people don’t convert to Judaism, they simply come back to a culture their ancestors tragically lost. His son Moshe is around 20 years old but seemingly much older. He is a photographer working with Sergio Kopeliovich, a famous painter who also attends the Chabad and painted dozens of portraits of world leaders as a side-gig while sticking mostly to Architecture as do three of his other brothers and their father.
Sergio’s father a kind older man with a thick moustache came up to me after the Friday service as a man with a small nose and squinting glare and lack of humility and honesty in speech spoke to me about marrying rich. Sergio’s father said to me: “on Pesach I will be married 53 years!” as if to show this man that marriage is about happiness not money.
Similarly to the community of South Africa, the community suffers the life of living among the poor: it is not only closed but it is afraid. It is afraid of every Mexican coming to rob and kill them. There is little understanding of the country they live in as they rarely associate with the poor and venture out of their protected areas. Like South Africa, they are guarded by high walls, electrified fences and security guards. They have bodyguards and cars that can withstand a hit from a missile? They choose to spend money on security to guard from the poor rather than create better conditions to lift the poor.
Mexico is no cake walk; my friend Jessica had been kidnapped by a cab driver at gunpoint, luckily unhurt but her money taken. There are security guards everywhere with their fingers on a trigger. Sebastian, a German couchsurfer admitted being nervous that these half trained men look like they may shoot and kill with a stray bullet at any time. Mexicans or the Defans as they are called in Mexico City, so used to these armed guards that they do not notice them.
The city itself however feels fairly safe, most areas I felt fine walking at night and metro being safe as well. There are many areas with bars with varying public depending on the part of the city. Parks are full on any given day with local families playing and lovers lip locking at every turn. However taking a bus out of the city, you realize that the colorful Coyuacan and the posh Polanco is not the norm when passing miles and miles of what looks like slums, concrete stacks without color. There live the working poor, or the 50% of Mexico that earn bellow the poverty line of $5 per day. This is where the migrants arrive from countryside and from where crime stems. There is no clean water in Mexico city tap and in the slums can’t even dream about it. High rate of illiteracy due to the low wages make it impossible for parents to afford school which is not free or compulsory. Even private schools often don’t teach English making most Mexicans ignorant of the world outside of Mexico. They see the constant barrage of dead bodies in the news and so their only happiness is that they are not dead, their only faith is church and their faith in law and politicians is non-existent. Yet, in spite of that all, it is one of the world’s top economies and one of the richest cultural places in the world. People often smile, are kind to strangers and very happy to help.
And that made me wonder looking at the vast difference between Jewish and Mexican communities. This help Mexico offered to the Jewish community who left imminent death in Europe and Middle East; this the Jewish community owes Mexico and the people of Mexico their lives. They moved with very little, settling in historic center tenements, climbing the ladder thanks to education and benefits of white skin, some bettering country in many ways and yet many seemingly uninterested in showing gratitude or helping common man. This lack of communication means that most Mexicans are completely unaware of the Jewish contribution. For that reason, Diego Rivera’s and Frida Kahlos Jewish heritage is unknown in the public and unmentioned in the museums. It is because Jews from around the world come to live in Mexico to make a better living and avoid military service as some Israelis openly said to me. It is a vibrant close and yet closed community in Mexico city. Wealthy, flourishing and yet prospering from the labor of the Mexican. I hope they learn from their previous mistakes for when the foreign Jew lives well and the local suffers, the days of Jew in that land are short and numbered. Especially when the Jew is split, stratified and fighting one against another.