Thursday, 26 December 2013

Jewish Mexico City - a step back in time

Picture of Jewish staff in clothing shop from Judios pro Herencia Mexicanos pro Florecer by Paloma Cung Sulkin 
When Hernan Cortes arrived in Mexico in 1519, amongst his entourage were a number of conversos, or Jews forcibly converted to Christianity in Spain in 1492. Conversos, also known as anusim, later emigrated in large numbers to what was then known as New Spain and despite the presence of the Inquisition, attempted to secretly maintain Jewish customs including the dietary laws, circumcision and keeping the sabbath. 

During my recent visit to Mexico City, I spent three hours in the company of Monica Unikel-Fasja who guided me around the city's Centro Historico including to the site of the Inquisition which operated until as late as 1820.  The Inquisition encouraged people to identify friends, neighbours and even relatives suspected of "judaising", that is, of secretly practising Judaism. Suspects were routinely tortured, tried in public and in many cases publicly burned at the stake often through evidence secured with the most extreme torture. The building that housed the Inquisition still stands on one of the corners of Calle Republica de Brazil and Calle Republica de Venezuela, facing Santo Domingo Plaza. Unusually for Mexican buildings, it has a slanted corner, the intention being that it should be visible from all directions upon entering the plaza.

There remain many Mexicans who can trace their descent from conversos.  Some have tried with varying degrees of success to be accepted into the country's established Jewish communities. Perhaps the most famous claimant to a Jewish identity through the converso link was renowned artist Diego Rivera. In 1935 Rivera wrote "My Jewishness is the dominant element in my life. From this has come my sympathy with the downtrodden masses which motivates all my work".

Site of the headquarters of the Inquisition in Mexico, facing Plaza Santo Domingo
Until the nineteenth century, the majority of Jews in the city were conversos but in 1865 during the short lived monarchy,  Emperor Maximilian issued an edict of religious tolerance, opening the way for Jewish immigration and open practice of the faith.

The first decades of the 20th century saw an influx of European Jews escaping the prejudice, pogroms and economic misery of the old continent. Many settled in the Centro Historico, somewhat ironically, centring on Calle Jesus and Mary. In this compact area, Jews established homes, small businesses and all of the services they needed to maintain their way of life, at the same time making serious efforts to become Mexican. Monica has many fascinating stories of this community and was generous enough to share them with me on our tour.

These include the story of one eastern european Jew who settled in the city and wrote back to a relative that he had found work, that the climate was good, the Mexicans friendly and that there was even a synagogue here and inviting them to join him. When asked the name of the synagogue he wrote back saying "the Jesus and Mary" synagogue. The relative decided not to come! The community that our enthusiastic immigrant wrote of included a Jewish school, small kosher eateries, a kosher butcher, bakeries, tailors and even a small maternity hospital set up by a Jewish woman.

Site of Mexico City's first Jewish school, Calle Republic of Colombia 16
The first Jewish school was set up in a series of rooms around a tiny courtyard at Calle Republic of Colombia 16 in 1927. The courtyard is still there. Today it has resumed its residential status, evidenced by the washing hanging across the landings, but it was easy to imagine the school back in the early 1920's, with the children gathering to be learn Hebrew and to receive religious instruction. And although Calle Republic of Colombia is many thousands of miles away from their original homes in Poland and Russia, this little courtyard must have had at least some feeling of life back home and a degree of familiarity.

Renovated courtyard off Plaza Santo Domingo
This was one of a number of courtyards we visited. In Jesus and Mary Street, Monica showed me an even smaller and darker courtyard, accessed through what is today a very small and very full clothes shop. It was here that children not attending the more formal Jewish school could take lessons from a  man who became known as "the teacher", again receiving instruction in Hebrew and Torah.

This courtyard was also home to a Jewish bakery and a small kosher restaurant run by a woman called Chana. The bakery was very important. To have the rye bread or chollah that they had been used to in Europe must have been a comfort and a reminder of home to the early immigrants. It was also an alternative to the local breads which would have been foreign to the newcomers. The restaurant occupied a tiny space in the courtyard where Chana prepared Jewish food at very cheap prices. There was no sign outside the courtyard to advertise the restaurant, but as with every immigrant community, her presence and skills became known by word of mouth - and no doubt by the aromas seeping out to the street, attracting customers in.

Some of these courtyards have been subject to renovation and are now desirable residences. One such courtyard is located just off Plaza Santo Domingo. Today it is very attractive with its repainted surfaces, cleaned up wooden window frames and many plants on the walkways. Jews would once have been residents here. Today's courtyard would have seemed very luxurious to them compared to back then.

Courtyard on Calle Jesus and Mary, once home to a Jewish teacher, bakery and kosher restaurant
At Calle Jesus and Mary 22, there was a Jewish grocers run by a woman called Sarah Makovsky. Sarah was famous for her pickles and herrings - staples of Ashkenazi Jewish diet. The shop is now long departed. Interestingly there is a statue of the Virgin Mary above the space where it was. Little things like this  demonstrate the pragmatism of the community and its desire to adapt to its surroundings and become Mexican Jews. Women feature strongly in the story of this community. One of my favourites is the owner of the already mentioned maternity hospital. She had ten beds and allowed the women to stay for two weeks - one week before the birth and one week after. There are stories of mothers declaring their stay there to be one of the most treasured times of their lives and one of the few occasions where they had much rest! How different to today's modern maternity care where mothers often leave hospital on the day of the birth.

Detail from one of the murals in the Mercado Alberto Rodriguez
As well as telling the Jewish story of this part of Mexico City, Monica sets the context of communal life  for the first half of the twentieth century and the tour included a short visit to one of the earliest cantinas in the area, primarily frequented by men who go to drink, eat and talk - and nowadays to watch the ubiquitous television that crops up in so many restaurant here (unfortunately). We also had a quick look at the Mercado (market) Abelardo Rodriguez, built in 1934 with many modern features including a day care centre and an auditorium. It is also interesting for the presence of a number of murals, commissioned by the then government and painted by pupils of Diego Rivera. The murals were intended to extoll the virtues of the 1910 Mexican Revolution and to promote the government's socialist policies. Jews would almost certainly have worked and shopped in this market.

Today, very few Jews live in this part of the city although several still work or maintain businesses here. Monica told me that she sometimes sees mezuzot in shop doorways, indicating Jewish ownership. There are also two synagogues in the area, one operating as a house of prayer, the other, gloriously restored thanks to  Monica's phenomenal work and commitment, is now a  cultural centre. 

The Monte Sinai synagogue on Calle Justo Sierra was founded in 1923 due to efforts led by Salonica born Isaac Capon of the Syrian Jewish community. Capon was responsible for many charitable works for the community and is commemorated with a plaque inside the synagogue. I understand that he died in poverty having given away much of his fortune. Many members of this community came from the lands of the former Ottoman Empire as it crumbled in the early years of the twentieth century and then completely collapsed in defeat at the end of the First World War. The community welcomed other Jews to the synagogue and both Sephardim and Ashkenazim prayed there. It has recently undergone extensive renovation which has involved losing some of the original features. The exterior is beautiful. Once covered in cement to conform with the rest of the street scape, the original facade was uncovered some years ago and makes the building stand out from its neighbours. There is still a daily minyan at the synagogue and it is possible to visit and view the interior as part of an arranged tour or with a pre-arranged appointment.

Interior, Monte Sinai synagogue, Calle Justo Sierra.
During the 1930's and 1940's, a number of the Jewish residents of the Centro Historico found themselves in improved economic positions. After years of hard work, often beginning as itinerant salesmen, not speaking or fully understanding Spanish, they managed to establish their own businesses and to gain a new confidence. Ironically, as the situation for European Jews deteriorated rapidly, their synagogues and businesses seized or destroyed, Mexico's Jews found themselves able to build a new synagogue, just along the Calle from Monte Sinai.

Mexico was not immune to the fascism that was sweeping Europe and other parts of the world and anti-semitic organisations existed and demonstrated against Jews, calling for their expulsion or for economic restrictions on them. However, this anti-semitism never achieved the kind of mass support it did elsewhere and did not translate itself into violence or national policy. This may in part have been due to the Jews' serious and genuine efforts to belong in Mexico which included the Macabbi sports club taking part in commemorations of the 1910 Revolution, the acquisition of the Spanish language and the display of the Mexican flag in synagogues - although the same approach in Europe did nothing to save the Jews.

Entrane to the Nidje Israel synagogue, Calle Justo Sierra.
But what of the new synagogue? Completed in 1941, the Nidje Israel synagogue is a large and impressive building at Calle Justo Sierra 71. However, from the outside and without the Magen Davids on the exterior door, it would not be possible to identify the building as a place of worship. This may be due to the synagogue being Ashkenazi and the history of persecution that the community well remembered from Europe which resulted in their desire for anonymity. The building was funded by one Zvi Kessel, a Lithuanian Jew whose only stipulation was that it resemble a synagogue in his home town of Shavli, Lithuania. The building was designed and construction overseen by the engineering Gerson brothers who took two years to complete their project.

The synagogue was the focus of the Ashkenazi community on the Centro Historico for many years but as they became more affluent and moved away to the suburbs of Roma, Condesa and Polanco, attendances dropped and the building fell into disrepair. A minyan was maintained for some years from Monday to Thursday through the efforts of the Herrera family, converts to Judaism, who would go from one business to another looking for adult Jewish men to make up the required ten for prayers. Eventually this became unsustainable and activity ceased. Since then, thanks to the amazing efforts of Monica in raising funds and securing appropriate expertise, the synagogue has been faithfully restored. Although it no longer holds services, it stages a programme of cultural events with the intention of increasing understanding of Jewish heritage and Judaism amongst the general population. The response has been extremely positive and the recent Chanukah celebration attracted many visitors - almost all of them non-Jewish.

The interior is stunning. Full of light and colour, my gaze was immediately drawn to the ceiling which is covered in Judaic symbolism such as the tablets with the ten commandments, menorahs and of course Magen Davids. The design is reminiscent of the folk art once found in the wooden synagogues of Lithuania, Romania, Hungary and the Ukraine. There is also a piece of naive art at the rear of the women's gallery adding to the charm. I have no doubt Mr. Kessel would be delighted with the revitalisation of his gift to the Jews of Mexico City. Work to attract more visitors continues and Monica and her small team are working with some local artists to establish a gallery of contemporary art in one part of the building.  I am sure it will be a success.

Chandelier and ceiling detail, Nidje Israel synagogue

Main hall, Nidje Isarel synagogue

Detail, stairs to the women's gallery, Nidje Israel synagogue

Detail, ceiling, Nidje Israel synagogue

Detail, ceiling and rear wall of women's gallery, Nidje Israel synagogue

There are perhaps 45,000 Jews in Mexico today, rather less than 1% of the country's population. The vast majority live in Mexico City, almost all outside of the Centro Historico. Other, smaller communities exist in Guadalajara, Monterrey, Tijuana, Cancun, Puebla and Vera Cruz. The community has produced some important cultural figures including writers Ilan Stavans and Margo Glantz, both of whom have written about Mexican Jewry. Stavans wrote specifically about the Centro Historico and Glantz has delivered readings in the Nidje Israel synagogue.

Visitors to Mexico can arrange Jewish tours by contacting Monica through the synagogue's website. There are also a number of books about the community that can be consulted or purchased from the synagogue. The two black and white pictures reproduced here are from Paloma Cung Sulkin's book Judios por Herencia Mexicanos pro Florecer which is about the second generation of Jewish Mexicans, their acceptance into society and their achievements. You can find the book at the synagogue.
Photo of Abremoishe Kisel taken with his Mexican born grandchildren from Judios pro Herencia Mexicanos pro Florecer by Paloma Cung Sulkin


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