T O P I C
BRIEF HISTORY OF THE JEWS IN MEXICO
by Mel Goldberg
Jews have lived in Mexico since the sixteenth century. In 1492, Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain ordered the conversion or exile of all Muslim and Jewish subjects. Jews who had converted to Catholicism were called New Christians, or Conversos. Also known as marranos, they often continued practicing Judaism in secret after they had officially converted.
Historians believe Hernán Cortes had converted Jews among his men when he conquered the Aztecs in 1521. In 1531, a group of Spanish Jews and Conversos who had originally found refuge in Portugal, emigrated to Mexico, then called Nueva España, under the rule of Royal Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza. In the New World, they believed they could retain their historical Spanish identity and continue to practice Judaism. Because Mendoza was a common name among Spanish Jews, some historians suggest the Viceroy himself had a Jewish or Converso background.
Until 1571, those who had immigrated to the New World were able to practice Judaism openly. But that year marked the beginning of the Mexican Inquisition, an extension of the one in Spain. Again, both practicing Jews and Conversos lived in fear. During the Spanish Inquisition, thousands had been burned as heretics. The Mexican Inquisition was not as bitterly hostile as the Spanish. Records indicate that fewer than one hundred were denounced as heretics and executed by burning.
In 1579, King Philip II of Spain established the Kingdom of Nuevo Leon (present day Nuevo León, Tamaulipas, and South Texas), a colony north of Nueva España to be governed by Luis de Carvajal, a Portuguese/Spanish nobleman born in 1539 to Jewish converts. To help populate the colony, both Conversos and practicing Jews were welcomed. Caravajal was later accused by the Inquisition of heresy and died in prison. Monterrey still bears some of the customs of his Jewish heritage, particularly the regional specialty of cabrito (roast goat, based on the Jewish cuisine of the founders of the city) and some Sephardic family names like Garza.
But within sixty years, according to historical evidence, the descendants of the original settlers moved to what is now New Mexico, Arizona, and California, then still part of Mexico, bringing with them vestiges of Judaism which survive to this day.
One family, named Villarreal, freely acknowledge their remote Jewish ancestors and have written about them from the point of view of the Conversos. The family, with branches in South Texas and Mexico, make it clear that they will remain Catholics.
Another example is that of Father William Sanchez of Alberquerque. As a boy, he never understood why his Catholic family spun tops on Christmas, shunned pork, and spoke quietly about ancestors who left Medieval Spain. After watching a genealogical television program, Father Sanchez tracked his DNA and discovered that he and his family were part of New Mexico's crypto-Jews, descendants who maintain some Jewish traditions of their ancestors while adhering to Catholicism. Today about 20,000 Mexicans are able to trace their Jewish ancestors.
Two genealogical studies of the eighteenth century, the Archivo General de la Nacion de Mexico and the Ramo de la Inquisition, suggest that Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, the father of Mexican Independence, had a Converso background and that Bartolome de las Casas, a Bishop who fought to free slaves in Nueva España, also had Jewish ancestors. Although their families were sincere converts it is ironic that expelling the Jews from Spain precipitated events that eventually led to Spain's loss of Mexico.
Between 1700 and 1865, some adventurous Jews immigrated to Mexico to escape the grinding poverty and anti-Jewish attitudes of life in the Old World. While they were not allowed to become citizens, a right granted only to Catholics, many who came during the one hundred sixty-five years many carried housewares, clothing and novelties to remote villages of Mexico on the backs of burros or mules, similar to those who traveled to the West of the United States.
In 1865, Emperor Maximilian I issued an edict of religious tolerance and invited a number of German Jews to settle in Mexico. Few accepted the emperor's invitation, because two years later, an official count listed only twenty Jewish families in Mexico City although there were probably more in the rest of the country.
After Maximillian was executed by firing squad in 1867, Benito Juarez became the president of Mexico. His liberal rule enforced the separation of Church and State. Non-Catholics were allowed to establish themselves in Mexico. In 1882, after the assassination of the Tzar Alexander II, a significant number of practicing Jews from Russia entered the country.
In the early years of the twentieth century, large numbers of Jews arrived after World War I. Some were fleeing pogroms of Russia and Eastern Europe. These were Ashkenazic Jews, descendants of medieval Jewish communities along the Rhine and associated with northern Europe and Germany.
Another group, descendants from Jewish communities in the Iberian Peninsula (modern Spain and Portugal), were called Sephardic, from sephardit which means "Spanish" in modern Hebrew. They fled the collapsing Ottoman Empire, which included Turkey and Morocco. Because most of the Sephardic Jews had retained their Spanish heritage, they spoke a dialect of Spanish called Ladino, which made their lives easier than their Ashkenazic counterparts.
All immigrants faced economically difficult lives, and Jews faced the same financial problems as all Mexicans. But coming from a part of the world where their lives were hard, they had no difficulty in adapting to conditions in Mexican villages. Mexican Catholics and Jews shared an important common characteristic. In both groups, the family was the predominant social group.
Why did Jews choose Mexico as a destination rather than the United States? Mexico was attractive to them. Many had relatives or friends already who had settled in the country. And in 1921 and 1924, United States enacted laws restricting immigration.
From 1920 to 1930, Jews in Mexico enjoyed a period of stability during which they prospered.
The only recorded incidents of anti-Semitism came in the 1930s, when neo-Nazi right wingers, financed from Berlin, staged anti-Jewish demonstrations in Mexico City. The demonstrators gained little support from the Mexican people. During the 1930’s, the Jewish community battled anti-Semitism by forming the Federación de Sociedades Judías, as well as the still active Comité de Central Israelita de México.
Mexico today has a Jewish community of between 40,000 to 50,000 with about 37,000 living in Mexico city. The majority of them, Mexican citizens who practice Judaism, are descendents of people who, from 1881 to 1939, found refuge here. Because Mexican economic prosperity allowed religious tolerance, Jews enjoyed the same rights as any other Mexican citizen.
Most Mexican Jews are considered middle to upper-middle class. Even with the recent economic troubles facing Mexico and the Jewish community, this country has attracted Jews from other countries in Latin America.
In Mexico City, there are more than twenty synagogues, several Kosher restaurants and at least twelve religious schools where almost 80 percent of the Jewish youth receive their education. Jewish communities can also be found in Guadalajara , Monterrey, Tijuana, Cancun and San Miguel. Throughout all of Mexico, 95 percent of Jewish families belong to a synagogue. Mexico City also contains the Tuvia Maizel Museum, dedicated to the history of Mexican Jewry and to the Holocaust.
In early March, 2000, Pope John Paul II called anti-Semitism "a massive sin against humanity" and the Holocaust "an indelible stain on the history of the last century." In June, 2003, President Vicente Fox helped pass a law that forbids discrimination, including anti-Semitism, putting into the law what has been practiced for years.
Jews have served in positions in the Federal Government. From 2000 to 2004, Jorge Casteñada Gutman was Foreign Minister. From 2000 to 2005, Santiago Levy Algazi was director of the Social Security Institute. Others are prominent members of the Chambers of Commerce in Monterrey, Guadalajara, and Tijuana, whose former president of the City Council was Marcus Levy. David Saul Gaukil, a member of the Tijuana City Council, said, "No one [has ever] commented adversely that I am Jewish." Although Tijuana has a population of 2,000,000 its Jewish population is only about 2,000. Tijuana also has the Congregacion Hebrea de Baja California, made up almost entirely of converted Mexican Catholics. Its non-ordained leader, Carlos Samuel Salas, conducts spiritual outreach to Mexicans of Jewish ancestry.
Jews and descendents of Jews in Mexico have been well-respected journalists and artists. Jacobo Zabludovsky became a much-honored Mexican journalist and the first anchorman in Mexican television with his program 24 Horas. Frida Kahlo, was the daughter of Guillermo Kahlo, born Carl Wilhelm Kahlo in Germany after his parents moved there from Hungary. Emigrating to Mexico in 1891, he changed his name to Guillermo. The lover of Leon Trotsky and flamboyant artist maintained that her father was a Hungarian Jew and never denied her Jewish heritage. In 1935, her husband, Converso descendant muralist Diego Rivera, wrote, "Jewishness is the dominant element in my life. From this has come my sympathy with the downtrodden masses which motivates all my work." Many other prominent Mexicans, like Presidents Porfirio Diaz, Francisco Madero and Jose Lopez Portillo, have referenced their Jewish descent from Converso roots.
There was even a Jewish bullfighter, Sidney Franklin, born Sidney Frumkin in New York in 1903, who fought bulls in Spain and Mexico. Hemingway, in Death in the Afternoon, wrote "Franklin is brave with a cold, serene and intelligent valor." He died in 1976, after a career fighting bulls and presenting bullfights on American TV.
The Chapala/Ajijic area is home to a group of ex-pat American Jews who have their own synagogue, The Lake Chapala Jewish Congregation, in Riberas del Pilar, which offers services twice each month on Saturday mornings and twice each month on Friday evenings. For most of my adult life I have been a member of a synagogue. I appreciate the fact that there is a vibrant Jewish community here and I have continued to have the opportunity to participate in religious services. Occasionally The Lake Chapala Jewish Congregation interacts with our Mexican Jewish counterparts in Guadalajara. We also interact with the Mexican community here in fulfilment of the religious requirement to perform mitzvot, to honor the commandments and do good deeds. The congregation also has Mexican members who have returned to their ancient Jewish roots.
The majority of Jews in the Chapala/Ajijic area are retirees from the United States, like me, or from Canada, seeking the more relaxed Mexican life-style as well as the lower cost of living. Although the Lake Chapala Jewish Congregation currently has no permanent rabbi, there are several members whose knowledge and background fulfill the role very well, enabling them to lead services. As in the past, Jews find they have much in common with their fellow Mexicans. Both groups are sincerely religious and family oriented. And historically, both have been victims of oppression and tyranny.
The combination of perseverance of Jews and tolerance by Mexicans, both official and as individuals, has permitted Judaism to put down deep roots. Ultimately, however, like all of us who live in Mexico, our future will depend on Mexico's social and economic progress.
MEXICO BOASTS A THRIVING JEWISH COMMUNITY WITH ROOTS THAT GO BACK 500 YEARS.
AISH by Dr. Yvette Alt Miller
Some of the most vibrant Jewish neighborhoods in North America exist “South of the Border” in Mexico, where over 40,000 Jews have created a close-knit, distinct community.
Here are some surprising facts about North America’s least-known Jewish centers.
EARLY JEWISH HAVEN
When Hernan Cortés first conquered Mexico for Spain in 1521, he did so with a number of secret Jews amongst his men. Judaism was banned at the time in Spain, and soon many secret Spanish Jews departed for “Nueve Espana” in the New World to try and live a more Jewish life. In fact, Spain’s first Viceroy in Mexico, Antonio de Mendoza, possessed a Jewish surname, and historians suggest he was possibly one of the secret Jews who moved to the new territory.
King Phillip II of Spain soon established the Kingdom of Nuevo Leon in Mexico (and parts of what is today Texas), and appointed Don Luis de Carvajal – a well-known Portuguese-Spanish nobleman who was born to Jewish converses, or forced converts – as Governor of the new territory. Carvajal welcomed both Jews and Catholics into his land. His nephew, Louis Rodriguez Carvajal, embraced his Jewish identity in the new kingdom, and encouraged other secret Jews to do the same.
INQUISITION IN MEXICO
The Spanish Inquisition, which forbade any Jewish practice, spread to Mexico in 1571. Many of the new territory’s Jews fled to neighboring Peru. Jews who chose to remain faced torture and execution if it was discovered that they continued to practice their faith.
Some of the earliest victims of the Mexican Inquisition were family members of the Governor Louis de Carvajal. His sister Francisca was arrested on charges of being a Jew, tortured, and burned at the stake, along with four of her children – Isabel, Catalina, Leonor, and Luis – in 1596. In 1601, another daughter, Mariana, was burned at the stake for the crime of being Jewish as well. Governor de Carvajal himself was arrested on charges of practicing Judaism and died in prison in 1595.
Jews were soon pursued throughout Mexico. “Suspicious” activities that could brand someone a Jew included bathing on a Friday and afterwards putting on clean clothes; draining and disposing of blood after slaughtering a bird to eat; fasting on Yom Kippur; eating tortillas (which are unleavened) during Passover; and circumcising sons. Anyone guilty of these “crimes” faced drastic punishments including torture, imprisonment, forced wearing of a sanbenito, a knee-length yellow gown, or a dunce-cap, and execution. (Visitors to the Zocalo, the main plaza in the center of Mexico City today, might be unaware that this was the main location where generations of Jews were publicly burned at the stake for the “crime” of being Jewish.)
By the time the Inquisition was abolished in Mexico in 1821, approximately 100 Jews had been killed and many more imprisoned.
CINCO DE MAYO, THE STRUGGLE FOR MEXICAN INDEPENDENCE, AND MEXICO’S JEWS
Cinco de Mayo celebrates the Battle of Puebla when a small Mexican force led by General Ignacio Zaragoza Seguin defeated a much larger French army, on May 5, 1862. (The area of Puebla might have been home to a thriving secret Jewish community of its own; see the section on Jewish-Mexican food, below.)
Despite this victory, French forces went on to conquer Mexico, and set up the short-lived Second Mexican Empire. In 1864, Emperor Maximilian I declared himself ruler and though he never consolidated his reign over all of Mexico, the short-lived monarch did make one remarkable change in Mexico: he issued an edict of religious tolerance and invited German Jews to settle in Mexico. When Maximilian was deposed and executed in 1867, his successor, Mexican nationalist President Benito Juarez, continued to enforce a separation of Church and State, ensuring that Mexico remained a haven for Jewish immigrants.
Jewish refugees began to pour in to Mexico. Ashkenazi Jews fleeing pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe came in the 1880s, establishing Mexico’s first synagogue in Mexico City, in 1885. Sephardi Jews soon followed, fleeing persecution in the crumbling Ottoman Empire. (Sephardi Jews had an added incentive to immigrate to the new nation; they spoke Ladino, a Spanish-derived Jewish dialect that helped them feel at home in Spanish-speaking Mexico.)
Lithuania, Damascus and Aleppo in Mexico City
Mexico’s oldest standing synagogue is the Sephardi Synagogue, built in 1923 in the heart of Mexico City, at 83 Justo Sierra Street. Although the Jewish community has long since moved to the suburbs, Jews who work downtown still frequent the congregation during the working week. Down the street is Mexico’s first Ashkenazi synagogue, Justo Sierra, built in 1941 as a replica of a magnificent Lithuanian synagogue. Builders worked from a photograph, copying the ornate details faithfully. Fear of crime and terrorism haunt Mexico’s Jews, making them highly security-conscious and wary of maintain the safety and security of their synagogues and other communal buildings.
Today’s Mexican Jewish community is tightly-knit and contains several distinct strands: two separate Syrian communities thrive, each with their own traditions, from Aleppo and Damascus. Ashkenazi Jews maintain the traditions they brought with them from Eastern Europe. Another group of Mexican Sephardi Jews hails from the Balkans, and keeps those memories alive through family recipes and customs. Finally, a fifth group has made its mark on Mexico’s Jewish community in recent years: immigrants from the United States, who call Mexico home now and have brought their own distinct traditions from North of the Border to Mexico.
JEW-MEX: JEWISH-MEXICAN CUISINE
A few of Mexico’s best-known dishes turn out to have surprising Jewish origins. Bunuelos, the quintessential Mexican winter holiday dish of golden, deep-fried balls of cheese-infused dough, originated as a Sephardi Hanukkah dish. The oil used to fry these savory snacks was originally meant to invoke the miracle of the oil.
Some theorize that the springtime Mexican dish Capirotada – a rich bread pudding infused with sweet cheese and drenched in syrup – also originated with Mexican Jews, as a way of disguising their consumption of unleavened bread during Passover.
Pan de Semita, the iconic sesame-seed-studded roll of Mexico’s Puebla region (the area where the Battle of Puebla, celebrated in Cinco de Mayo celebrations), has been linked to secret Jews who possibly ate it as an unleavened alternative to regular bread during Passover. Another iconic Mexican regional dish – roast suckling goat, enjoyed in and around the Mexican city of Monterrey (which also contains an established Jewish presence) – was likely Jewish in origin, as a way for secret Jews to avoid eating the roast suckling pig so popular in much of Mexico.
Culinary influences have gone both ways. Mexican Jewish cooks have adapted the bright flavors and fresh fruits of Mexico to traditional Jewish dishes, adding chilies to gefilte fish and tropical spices to chicken soup. In Mexico City today, kosher consumers can enjoy Mexican staples embraced by the Jewish community such as quesadillas (corn tortillas that are filled, folded and fried), flautas (tortillas that are rolled and fried), sopes (fried circles of cornmeal dough), chalupas (cups of fried cornmeal) – all filled with Mexican delicacies such as queso (cheese), nopales (cactuse), frijoles (refried beans), salsa, and guacamole. Even street food has been available at kosher stands in Mexico City, ensuring that Mexico’s Jews don’t miss out on their country’s delicious snacks.
TIGHT-KNIT COMMUNITY, BRIGHT FUTURE
Jewish organizations reach every corner of the community’s life, providing independent ambulance services, welfare organizations, social groups – even a dedicated anti-kidnapping response group.
Intermarriage rates are among the lowest in the world: 94% of Mexican Jews marry other Jews. Approximately 95% of Mexican Jews are affiliated with the Jewish community, and about 95% of children attend one of the community’s sixteen different Jewish schools.
Rates of anti-Semitism remain low. In June 2003, then-President Vicente Fox passed a law that forbids discrimination, including anti-Semitism, adding a greater level of security for Mexico’s 40,000+ Jews. Jewish community leader Renee Dayan-Shabot was in the Mexican Senate the day the law was passed. “It came time for any arguments against the law,” she recalls, “and there was complete silence.” Then, as now, Mexico embraced its small but vibrant Jewish population.
World Jewish Congress
The Mexican Jewish Community of Mexico has a population of 40,000 people (out of 104,000,000) with most Jews living in the Mexico City metropolitan area. Other cities with significant Jewish population are:
Guadalajara: 180 families.
Monterrey: 150 families.
Tijuana: 70 families.
Cancun: 70 families.
Some 250 families live scattered all around the country.
The structure of the Community is based on a Communal Identity. Approximately 95% of the families are directly affiliated to a Community or the Jewish Sport Center. Some of the Communities were founded according to the origin of the immigrants, others because of a different Jewish denomination. The Communities are:
Sociedad de Beneficencia "Alianza Monte Sinai": Founded in 1912, it is the oldest official Jewish institution in Mexico. Although it was founded by Jews from different origins (at that time there were around 250 Jews in Mexico), today its membership is composed of Jews and descendents that came from Damascus or Lebanon. It has around 2,300 families. Orthodox.
Consejo Comunitario Ashkenazi: Founded in 1922, by Jews who arrived from Central and Eastern Europe. It has around 2,500 families. Orthodox.
Comunidad Maguen David: Founded in 1937, by Jews who arrived from Aleppo, Syria. It has around 2,800 families. Orthodox.
Comunidad Sefaradi: Founded in 1941, by Jews who arrived from Turkey, Greece, and the Balkans. It has around 1,100 families. Orthodox.
Beth Israel Community Center: Founded in 1957 by English speaking Jews. It has around 230 families. Conservative.
Comunidad Bet El: Founded in 1961 by Jews born in Mexico. It has around 1,100 families. Conservative.
There are no Reform or Reconstructionist communities or Synagogues in Mexico.
Within all the Communities there are around 30 permanent Synagogues and about 20 additional places of worship during High Holidays.
Each Community provides virtually all the services that their members need from birth until death: religious, educational, social, cultural and welfare. Poor Jewish families are helped in any needs they have: food, health care, medicine, rent, scholarships, etc.
There is a Jewish Sport Center, founded in 1950 that has more than 28,000 members from all the Communities and is the center for sports activities, as well as many social and cultural.
There are 16 Jewish day schools in Mexico, most belonging to one of the Communities. 90% of Jewish children attend Jewish day schools. There are all kind of schools, from very religious, religious, Zionist, to secular. All of them teach Hebrew and English, and three teach Yiddish in addition to Hebrew. There is one school with a Montessori system. The Jewish schools are considered among the best in the Country.
The school are coordinated by the Vaad Hajinuj, which also supports the Hebraic University, where Jewish teachers are trained. All the schools provide scholarships for families that cannot afford to pay tuition. About 30% of students currently receive some form of financial aid.
The inter-marriage rate is around 6%, with 74% of those converted to Judaism, which brings the rate to around 2%.
Three of the Orthodox Communities (Monte Sinai, Maguen David and Ashkenazi), provide the certification for kosher food. There are all kind of kosher products in Mexico, some made in Mexico and others imported. Kosher food can be found at kosher stores or at the supermarkets in Jewish neighborhoods. There are also a number of kosher restaurants.
Aside from the services provided by the Communities to their members there are several programs that are handled in an inter-communal basis:
Umbral: provides preventive work against addiction (alcohol, smoking, drugs, etc.) It works very closely with the schools and youth organizations.
Kadima: works with handicapped people and helps them integrate into general society. They teach the Jewish community how to interact with these people.
Fundacion Activa: helps people who are unemployed, providing services to help them find a new job. They also provide therapy for those who are depressed, and have a small business center to help people create their own company.
Menorah and "Erej" from Na'amat: These two organizations work to prevent domestic violence, and provide therapy victims and their families.
Eishel: is a retirement home in the city of Cuernavaca, some 70 kilometers from Mexico City, providing everything the elderly need. There is almost one nurse or a social worker per person. They provide kosher food and special diets for each resident. Those who can afford to pay a monthly fee do so, while those who cannot do not have to pay.
Beyajad, Atid and Kol Hanisayon: These three institutions provide activities for the elderly that live in their homes or with their families.
OSE: Provides medical facilities for the needy people in the Jewish Community. It has a clinic with beds for non-surgical cases and post-operation recuperation. It also has a pharmacy that provides medicines at great discounts and provides medical attention for free or very low cost.
There are some institutions, mainly women’s organizations that work to the outside of the Community, through education and training. They give support to hospitals, nurseries, schools and especially in natural disaster situations like flooding and earthquakes. The Women’s Federation coordinates all the women institutions. Among the most important Institutions are The Mexican Council of Jewish Women; The Mexican-Jewish Voluntary Women; Wizo; Na’amat.
Exceptional projects are handled by ORT on education and training on different fields, according to the necessities of the local population. Pro-Vivah, builds houses for extremely indigent people, in association with the local governments. While each house costs around $3,000 (US dollars), the receiving family only pays the equivalent of $700. More than 3000 houses have already been constructed in Veracruz, Guerrero and Hidalgo States.
NORTH AMERICA -
THE JEWS OF MEXICO
Jews have lived in Mexico since the sixteenth century when they were fleeing the Spanish/Portuguese Inquisitions. Until the appearance of the Mexican Inquisition in 1571 Judaism was practised openly. In 1579, King Philip II of Spain established the Kingdom of Nuevo Leon and encouraged the settlement of both Jews and conversos (converts) to populate the province
In 1867 the Emperor Maximillian was executed and Benito Juarez became the President of Mexico. His liberal rule enforced the separation of Church and State and non-Catholics were allowed to establish themselves in Mexico. In 1882, the assassination of the Tsar Alexander II and anti-semitism saw the arrival of many Russian and East European Jews. They were followed by many more at the end of WW1.
In parallel descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Jews arrived from the collapsing Ottoman Empire. This included Turkey and Morocco.
They all faced economically difficult lives, but quickly adapted as they came from a similar background. They chose Mexico over the USA as many had relatives there and the USA had passed laws in 1921 and 1924 restricting immigration.
There is now a Jewish community of between 40,000 to 50,000 with about 37,000 living in Mexico city. Most are descendents of people who, from 1881 to 1939, found refuge in Mexico where they enjoyed the same rights as any other citizen.
Jews in Mexico - Yes
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Judios de Mexico -
STORY OF THE JEWISH PEOPLE
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JEWISH NEIGHBORHOODS OF MEXICO CITY
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DISCUSSING SECRET JEWS IN
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