Out of sight

Image:Gunther Saghún

Monica Unikel's tours uncover the Jewish history of Mexico City's Centro Histórico.

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Gunther Saghún

Mexico’s 40,000-strong Jewish community is rich in history and culture. Take a look at this slideshow to get a glimpse of the community. View Slideshow >>

Kreimerman's house is in La Condesa, where a small but still pulsing heart of Judaism persists. In the 1930s and 40s, the unofficial language of the Parque Mexico-today a bustling hub for the neighborhood's arty and international set-was Yiddish. The park still boasts a giant bronze sculpture of Albert Einstein's head with the inscription, "A gift from the Israeli community." A few blocks away at Acapulco 70, there's a Jewish museum, archives, and synagogue, with a kosher deli downstairs. Several more small orthodox synagogues hide inside houses on Amsterdam Street. On the corner of Montes de Oca Street and Parral, among the restaurants, boutiques, and Diego Luna's trendy new café, sits another synagogue, where Kreimerman takes me one sunny Saturday morning for the weekly Sabbath prayers.

From the street, the place looks closed, but Kreimerman punches a secret code into the door and it snaps open. Inside, before a blue-velvet curtained arc and brass menorahs, a man in a black and white prayer shawl stands swaying and praying, his soft voice running smoothly over the Hebrew words. The women sit in a small reserve of mostly empty seats at the back, closed in by curtains. In the final row, two old men sit mumbling and gossiping in Spanish, every now and then stopping to say "omein" (amen) in thick Yiddish accents. "Those two old men always sit in the corner making noise," Kreimerman laughs.

After, she takes me to the Kiddush, where two long trestle tables are set up with plastic tablecloths: one for the men, one for the women. On the table are kugguleh, traditional Jewish sweet bread marbled with chocolate; potato chips, eggplant dip, boiled eggs, sardines, a bottle of vodka, kosher wine, grape juice, and diet coke. "They usually have tequila," says Jessica. There's also lemon and chile, another example of the syncretism that sees Mexican Jews eating guacamole on their bagels and interchanging pozole for matzoh ball soup, blintzes for quesadillas. "I see us as seeds that take on characteristics of the soil," Kreimerman says, explaining the way Jewish life has taken on Mexican flavors.

"We have a double identity. We are Mexicans as well as Jews," says Emilio Betech, who, along with Enrique Chmelnik and Ricardo Silva, hosts "El Aleph," a weekly radio show about Jewish culture broadcast on Radio Red. He estimates that about 90 percent of his 30,000 listeners are non-Jewish. "There's a general sense that the Jewish community is very closed, meaning hermetic, meaning not open to the rest, which in some aspects might be true," he says. To be sure, the community has one of the lowest assimilation rates in the world: more than 85 percent of Mexican Jews marry other Jews, compared to less than 50 percent in Europe and the US. More than 90 percent of Mexican Jewish children attend Jewish schools, another statistic to make the rabbinates of other Diaspora communities drool. Growing up in Mexico City, Betech says his social circle was almost exclusively Jewish, as was the case for many Jews I spoke to. His program receives calls from listeners wanting to know about everything from the laws of kashrut (keeping kosher) to whether or not Jews are allowed to keep pets. "We found a large amount of the [Mexican] population who never had the opportunity to speak to Jewish people. There's a lot of curiosity. They seem to be very interested in religious practices, though that's not really our program's focus. They find them exotic."

"Jews are seen as an elite," says Karina Morales Martinez, a Spanish teacher who lives in Colonia Roma, which like Condesa was once a largely Jewish neighborhood. "It's a bit malinchista," she continues, referring to a Mexican tendency to revere outsiders, "but many Mexicans want to be Jewish because they're seen as foreigners. The classic idea of a Jew in Mexico is of someone blonde with blue eyes." Indeed, compared to many Mexicans, Jews are fair-skinned, and some who came from places like Turkey or Spain had red hair and blue eyes, while many who arrived from Russia or the Ukraine were blonde, a reversal of the traditional racial (and racist) stereotype of Jewish people having dark skin, dark eyes, and large noses. Several people I spoke to commented that the Jews have probably benefited from the stratification of Mexican society along lines of class and race, prejudices the Jewish community itself is often accused of reinforcing, though no one wanted to be quoted as saying so. Several times a source, alluding to an unspoken rule that Jews never speak badly of fellow Jews to the "outside world," leaned forward to whisper, "The Jewish community is very elitist, but please don't put that. I'm only telling you this because you're Jewish."