The many faces of Jewish Mexico
By Vivienne Stanton Original Print Publication: April, 2009
Monica Unikel's tours uncover the Jewish history of Mexico City's Centro Histórico.
In the hills of Mexico City's leafy, affluent northwest, Avenida de las Fuentes weaves through the suburb of Tecamachalco, closing around it in a loop. At a junction with Fuente de la Templanza (the Fountain of Restraint Street, sagely running parallel to the Fountain of Youth Street), surrounded by blocks of high-rise luxury apartments, a gymnasium, a hairdresser, a liquor mini-mart, and a Subway sandwich store, is what residents refer to as the Distrito Federal's Little Tel Aviv. "Come by on a Friday night or Saturday morning and the streets are filled with Jews, all walking to Temple," says Shauna Leff, an American Jew who's lived in Tecamachalco for the past two years with her non-Jewish Mexican husband, Milton Jorge Reyes. "You see all the religious types-the men in hats, the women in wigs. You wouldn't know you're in Mexico."
Across the avenue, the Kosher Palace gleams, with its white, grated storefront and blaring Israeli music. On its packed shelves you can find spices from Israel, halva, Israeli chocolate spread, New York pretzels, football-size jars of pickles, frozen schnitzel, falafel, and kosher everything, from Skippy peanut butter to baby food. A little further up Templanza is the Shuky Centre, a multi-story kosher food hall with schwarma, sushi, kosher Mexican food, and separate sections for meat and milk, in accordance with Jewish law. The deli stocks Syrian lavash bread, kosher chickens, and challot. A notice board advertises religious talks by a visiting rabbi, kosher cooking classes, and entertainment companies for bar mitzvahs and weddings.
As we drive around in Shauna's fire-engine-red Jeep, she cuts through the midday traffic like a formula one driver while talking a mile a minute, pointing out other Jewish landmarks-temples, schools, where to get the best falafel. "This is where Jewish people come to do their shopping," she says, as we pass the Sinai Deli and Bakery, Sastreria Saul, butcher shops with Hebrew kosher signs, and kosher taquerias among the Mexican main street staples: florists, grocery stores, and altars to the Virgin of Guadalupe. The schools are huge, gated compounds, with security guards, no signs and electric wire fences. The synagogues and temples-at least six in Tecamachalco-are unmarked.
"The Jewish community doesn't like to draw attention to itself," says Mauricio Lulka, director general of the Central Committee for the Jewish Community in Mexico, from its headquarters inside an unmarked, yellow-walled compound in Las Lomas. This probably says more about how Jews feel after centuries of persecution than about their experience of Mexico, though it is also a security measure; perceived as wealthy, Jews have in the past been targeted by kidnappers. Yet according to the Tribuna Israelita, the analysis and opinion branch of the Central Committee responsible for monitoring anti-semitism, the incidence of discrimination in Mexico is low compared to other countries (they were unable to provide figures). This is in stark contrast to other Latin American Catholic countries with large Jewish populations like Argentina, which has suffered several high-profile anti-semitic attacks, including the bombing of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires in 1992. As perceived by the Tribuna, the main expression of anti-semitism in Mexico takes the form of anti-Israel protests, such as those in newspaper op-eds and outside the Israeli embassy during Israel's strikes on Gaza earlier this year.