Jewish readers of this blog may be familiar with the concept of Jewish Geography, a “game” that Jews like to play when meeting other Jews for the first time. The object of which is to figure out as fast as possible the tangible links between them, whether through people they know or places they have in common.
Now in case you think I am kidding, let me state clearly: it’s a real thing! Put two strange Jews in a room together, and I can almost guarantee that the conversation will go something like this:
Jew One: “Oh, so you are from Sydney? Do you know the Goldberg family? They live in Rose Bay, the grandparents came to Australia originally from Hungary, they have cousins who live in Washington DC and go to the same synagogue as my husband’s brother who also lives there.”
Jew Two: “No, but seeing you mention DC, my room-mate when I was at college married Rachel Silberman – I think that is her maiden name? – they met on study tour in Israel. She was from Washington and they both live there now.”
Jew One: “Did you say Rachel Silberman!?! I sat next to her at Pesach Seder two years ago when I was visiting Washington and got invited to the Rabbi’s house for lunch.”
Jew Two: “No way – it’s such a small world!”
Jew One: “Yes – small world indeed!”
In many respects, this is just the Jewish version of Six Degrees of Separation: the notion that we are all connected in ways much closer than we know. But it works especially well in a Jewish context because of the smallness, and relative closeness, of the worldwide Jewish population.
And I for one am always amazed at how quickly I can find that Jewish connection – whether in the form of a person, place, or event. Like on my recent visit to Mexico.
Several months ago I travelled to Mexico City for the first time. And, as I usually do when in a new place, I made sure to cover off on two essential items. One, I gorged on local food (scorpions, bugs and endless tacos – read about it here). And two, when I was full, I tried to find the Jews. Once again, Paula at Historico Judiaco hooked me up, arranging a local community member to be my guide (Historico Judiaco is a nifty service that connects interested visitors with local Jews across Latin America – Paula had previously arranged a most excellent Jewish visit for me in Havana, Cuba – read about it here).
In Mexico City our guide was Luis, a fellow in his early 20s who looked like he could easily have been a professional surfer. He certainly didn’t look Jewish, although as he told us, like many Latin American Jews his grandparents had come from Eastern Europe, which accounted for his distinctly Aryan blonde hair, pale skin and bright blue-eyes. Luis said he’d grown up in Mexico City, attended a Jewish day school his whole life, and completed part of his university degree in Israel. He now worked as a full-time tour guide, specializing in Jewish tours of his home town.
Luis had requested that we meet him to start the tour in the Plaza Santa Domingo, a beautiful public square right at the heart of the downtown. This square, or so Luis said, was the perfect spot to begin an exploration of Mexico City’s Jewish past, because what once was the Palace of the Inquisition faced directly onto it. In other words, a building that for almost 300 years served as the headquarters of the systematic, State-sponsored persecution of any Jews who happened to wind up in Mexico. And many of the public trials and executions by the Inquisition took place just in front of it, in the middle of the square in which we were standing.
Mind you, the only Jewish folks who wound up in Mexico in those days were conversos, Spanish Jews who had been forcibly converted to Catholicism back home, and who had fled to “New Spain” to escape the Inquisition. Only to then discover that where they went, the Inquisition went too…
What this meant was that until the Mexican Inquisition was abolished in 1812 (coincident with national independence), being Jewish in Mexico was a crime, the punishment for which was usually death by decapitation or burning. And which in turn meant that, apart from the occasional conversos, there was no Mexican Jewish history to speak of until about 200 years ago.
But once the Inquisition had faded into memory, Jews began to migrate to Mexico in increasing numbers. They came predominantly from two places: Eastern Europe, fleeing the wave of anti-Semitism that had taken hold in the Pale of Settlement, and Syria, fleeing the economic distress occasioned by the crumbling Ottoman Empire. Many of these Jewish migrants actually wound up in Mexico by accident, trying to get to the United States but lacking the necessary paperwork, visas, or bribe money (a familiar story I had encountered before in London’s East End – read here, and also in Havana, Cuba – read here).
By 1900 there were about 6,500 Jews living in Mexico City. The first Jewish communal organization was registered in 1912, when some Sephardi Jews from Syria banded together to purchase land for a chevra kadisha (burial society). As Luis explained, “Until then, the Jews in Mexico thought they were just passing through, on their way to the USA. But when they bought land for burial, it was an important symbol – a statement that they would be staying. That’s when we can say a Jewish community first appeared in Mexico City, and not just Jews.”
Four years later a group of Sephardi Jews bought land on which to build a synagogue, and a few years after that, Mexico’s first Ashkenazi synagogue was founded. Then in 1929 Mexico’s first Jewish day school was established, in a building on Plaza Santa Domingo. That is, located on the former site of the Inquisition. And while I am not sure if that counts as irony or divine justice, either way it seemed to me to be a pretty neat twist in the tale.
Roll forward to today, where Mexico has a Jewish population of about 50,000, the majority of whom live in Mexico City. According to Luis, the community is growing, and has a strong sense of identity and cohesiveness. Thus intermarriage is almost non-existent, almost every Jewish child attends a Jewish day school, and the community supports a full range of very active social and cultural institutions.
Luis gave as an example a member of his family, who’d lost his job close to retirement age. “The situation for his family could have been terrible. But we have a Jewish charity that arranges jobs for members of the community – if a Jewish-owned business needs new people they match them with a Jewish person who needs a job. In Mexico, we Jews look after each other.”
Over the decades Mexico’s Jewish community has also become relatively wealthy. And along with this has come a move from the center of Mexico City, most Jews nowadays living in the more affluent suburbs on the city’s western outskirts.
But our tour that day was a historic one – a two-hour long stroll through a warren of tangled downtown alleyways and streets, in an area known as La Merced. Streets that had once been the epicenter of the Mexican textile industry, and also the heart of the Mexican Jewish community. Like in so many other cities where Jewish migration spiked in the early part of last century, where you found shmattes (the rag trade), you’d also find the local Jews.
We began our walk on Calle Jesus Maria – a street which one hundred years ago had been considered one of the worst in town, so land was cheap there. And hence a lot of poor Jewish migrants had first settled there, never mind the name.
As we strolled, Luis pointed out the Jewish “history” of each building, often supplementing his commentary with old photos and maps. Like at #21 Jesus Maria, which was where the Rabbi had lived. And next door was the former home of a woman known only as Hanna the Cook. According to Luis, she was a mystery: “No-one knows where she was from, or even what her surname was, and she had no children. All we know is she ran a take-out, preparing food every day and selling it out of her kitchen window.”
The next house along was where Goldberg the Baker had lived. Directly across the road was the site of what had once been Mrs. Kovsky’s grocery store. Not only a place where people came to buy their favorite Eastern Europe Jewish foods like herring and pickles, but also a place where women liked to gather to gossip and match-make. Next door to the grocer’s was a domino hall where men would meet to do their own gossiping, and next door to that, a store that had once been a kosher butcher, owned by a reclusive Syrian Jew.
At #26 had lived the dentist – a woman, which was notable in that few women were professionals back then. And the next house along was Mr. Klip’s, the community mohel (circumciser). Moving down the street we came to the former home of a lady whose job was to cater for one of the nearby synagogues. Luis smiled, and told us a little story about her. “She only cooked European Jewish food. And at the end of every day, she donated whatever food was left over to a nearby mental institution. Can you imagine it? 100 years ago, Mexican men in a Mexico City mental home weren’t eating tacos, but gefilte fish!”
Turning onto Columba Street, Luis pointed out what had been the home of Krause the Tailor, then what had once been the home of the community’s midwife, and then that of Mr. Libmanowitz, who had worked as a kosher slaughterer at the nearby market. “5 cents to kill a chicken, and for 2 cents extra, he would pluck it too!” Luis chuckled.
We peered into a courtyard of what had once been a Jewish kindergarten, and around the corner from that, a shop that had once been a Jewish-owned mixed goods store, selling everything from bow ties to shoelaces to taco presses. As Luis explained, “Many Jewish migrants, once they’d saved some money, opened a store. But typically they started out as aboneros [a Spanish word for hawkers]. They would wander around town selling on the streets. Usually the goods they had to sell were provided to them on consignment by more established Jewish merchants, as a way of giving the newcomers a start. You see, even back then, the community looked after each other.”
I could go on, but you get the point – in the blistering sunshine of Mexico City, I was rather unexpectedly walking around a place that had once been a Jewish village. Just like a shtetl in Poland, or a medina in Morocco, only now transplanted to Central America, of all places.
Although far more than this incongruity, I was struck by how ridiculously familiar the whole thing felt to me. I may have been in Mexico City for the first time, yet I was also in a place I had visited countless times before.
I mean, I could have been on a walking tour of Cyrildene, Johannesburg, the suburb I grew up in which, in the 1970s and 1980s, and which at that time had been predominantly Jewish. And where, like Luis was doing in Mexico City, I could just as easily have pointed out to a visitor the homes of the Rabbi, the Jewish baker, and the Jewish dentist, all on the same block as ours.
Those Jewish aboneros who plied Mexico City’s streets more than a century ago? No different really to the armies of Israeli kids you find working at outdoor stalls all over the world nowadays – from Bondi Beach to Tokyo to London – earning their travel dollars selling soaps and wind-chimes and assorted other crap. Thanks to a network of Jewish-Israeli wholesalers who supply the travelers with not only merchandise and a job, but also often things like flights, visas, and a place to live.
Even closer to home, it struck me that but for the luck of the dice, any one of those aboneros could have been my grandfather (read his story here). Only he went from Lithuania to South Africa, not Mexico. Where he first waited on tables in African eating houses, and then hawked bicycles door-to-door, until he had saved up enough money to open his own mixed goods store near the South African goldfields. And in which he too sold everything from bow ties to shoelaces, although probably not taco presses.
We finished our tour at Plaza Loreto, a compact tree-lined square just off of the former Jewish barrio. Luis explained that Plaza Loreto was unique in that around the square were not only two churches, but also two synagogues – one Ashkenazi, one Sephardi. He said that the Sephardi synagogue remained in use today, and even though few Jews still lived in the area, there were quite a few Jewish merchants with stores in the nearby textile district. “They pay to keep the synagogue running so they have a place to pray and rest during the day. There is also a kosher restaurant nearby to feed them. Like I told you, our community is very hermetic.”
The Sephardi synagogue was closed, but we paused to look at the exterior – a small but beautiful structure that looked a lot like a Masonic temple, with rounded columns, arched windows, and Stars of David as the dominant decorative motif on the doors, and set into a circular window at the very top of the building.
From there we wandered a short way down the busy Calle Justo Sierra, to where the historic Nidjei Israel Synagogue stood. It was Mexico’s 2nd Ashkenazi synagogue, the congregation first starting up in 1922, although the current structure was built sometime later, in 1941.
From the outside, the synagogue looked like any other building on the street – boring offices, or a block of drab flats, perhaps. This, according to Luis, was not accidental: “The Sephardi Jews who came to Mexico had no problem being identified as Jews – that is why their synagogue just up the road looks, from the outside, like a religious building. But the Ashkenazi Jews who came to Mexico were fleeing pogroms and persecution, and were nervous to openly show their Judaism. So they built their synagogue to look plain from the outside. They did not want to draw attention to it as a place where Jews gathered. The inside mattered much more than what could be seen from the street.”
As if to prove his point, Luis led us through a side door, and we discovered that the structure facing onto the street was little more than a façade – almost a fake wall designed to look like a building. But behind of which was a small courtyard, and onto it fronted the much more imposing hidden-from-view synagogue. The courtyard walls were cleanly white-washed, interspersed by panels indicating stained-glass windows.
We went inside, to find ourselves in a truly beautiful little shule. Luis told us it is no longer used for religious purposes, but was comprehensively restored as a museum of sort in 2008/2009, and it showed – fresh paint, a beautiful parquet floor, a carved wood pulpit in the center, marble-clad columns, and an ornate chandelier hanging down into the center of the space. Colored light was flooding in through the stained-glass windows, giving the whole place a warm, inviting feeling. And everything faced towards a gorgeous ark at the far end of the room, its features highlighted by gold gilding and flanked on either side by decorative arches and tall gold menorahs (candelabras).
But the real highlight was to look up, to a glorious mural that covered the whole of the synagogue’s vaulted ceiling. It occupied every inch, consisting of geometric shapes, stars, Jewish symbols and images, and a lot of gilding. The workmanship was delicate and artful, so far from being tacky the ceiling looked incredibly refined. Conveying the sense of the sky – and the Almighty – being right there above us. Which, I suppose, was the whole point.
So what’s the punchline?
Well, just as we were leaving Luis pulled out an old photo and showed it to me. It looked like the Nedjei Israel Synagogue, although the tagline said it was a photo taken in the 1920s, whereas the synagogue had only been built in 1941. Luis explained that the photo was actually of a famous synagogue that no longer existed, in Lithuania.
That is, of all the possible places in the world, the Nedjei Israel Synagogue in Mexico City just happened to be a replica of a synagogue that had existed once upon a time in Lithuania, a faraway country on the other side of the planet. Only a country that my maternal family hailed from, once upon a time before the onset of WWII (read my grandmother’s story here).
Wandering around the streets of the former Jewish barrio of Mexico City, I felt a strange sense of connection. The story told by those streets was the same as the stories of so many Jewish people I know, all over the world.
More than that, those streets echoed my grandfather’s story, and even the story of own formative years. And a synagogue in downtown Mexico City had, rather unexpectedly, turned out to be a mirror image of a former synagogue in Lithuania. In which, I’m pretty certainly, members of my mother’s family had once prayed, more than a century ago.
Somehow, a short stroll around a few streets in central Mexico City had effortlessly linked together places as disparate as Lithuania, Israel, South Africa, and Mexico. And without me even asking, I had been included in the story, too.
That’s Jewish Geography, at its finest.