Behind the Headlines the Jews of Mexico

There are three groups of Jews in Mexico: 43,000 Ashkenazim and Sephardim in separate kehillot, and about 150 native Mexicans, who are not recognized as Jews by the first two. All three groups try to avoid publicity and don’t like to talk to foreign journalists, particularly Jewish reporters from their big neighbor to the North.

We are four reporters representing two Jewish weeklies in New York and Philadelphia, a monthly magazine and the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. We had been invited to Mexico by the government Tourist Council and Aeromexico to help celebrate what they called Jewish Heritage Week. This proved to be a publicity gimmick to increase Jewish tourism from the United States which did not sit well with the Jewish communal leaders.

“Why pinpoint us?” asked a Sephardi banker. “Why not a French Heritage Week?” (There is a substantial French community in Mexico City with a French Lycee to which some Jewish parents send their children.)

“Why not?” we asked. “Perhaps we in the United States can learn something from you. We are told that almost three-fourths of your children attend Jewish day schools, that they graduate fluent in Hebrew, that most or many of them spend at least a year after graduation in Israel, and that the small group in this room has just raised $2 million for a new building on the Hebrew University campus on Mt. Scopus.”

BACKGROUND OF ASHKENAZIM, SEPHARDIM

We are meeting in the magnificent home of Dr. David Brucilovsky, a prominent internist and head of the Mexican Friends of the Hebrew University. A new group of young couples in their thirties had just been organized by the Friends and the two generations were meeting together for the first time, one of the younger men, a doctor wearing the brown tunic of the Mayo Clinic where he had interned, answered my question.

“First of all, we are a very small community, 43,000 in a population of 70 million, not even a tenth of one percent. We are a very young community. The Ashkenasim came here only one generation ago and the Sephardim are here a little longer.”

(They came with little more than shirts on their backs. The Ashkenazim were escaping from Hitler’s Europe and the Sephardim were fleeing from the Ottoman Turkish rulers of the Levant. They began as peddlers making the rounds of primitive villages with clothing and Christian figurines. They went into manufacturing, trade and stores. The second and third generations opened supermarkets, auto agencies and property developments.)

(Some of them amassed great personal wealth and their children became academics — some 5 percent of the faculty at the University of Mexico are Jews — or achieved rapid promotion in the civil service — the head of the North American desk in the Foreign Office who accompanied President Lopez Portillo to Washington last month is 36-year-old Andres Rozental — or entered the professions like the young doctor who was talking to us.)

“We haven’t really put down roots yet …” the doctor continued. “But what are you afraid of?” I broke in. “Anti-Semitism of course. We see what is happening in Argentina. We are Mexican citizens. We love our country. It has been good to us. But we are still foreigners …” A young lady interrupted. “I am the fourth generation born here and I am still considered a foreigner. My daughter is the fifth generation and her daughter will be the sixth generation and she will still be called a foreigner.”

THE JEWS OF VENTA PRIETA

There is another group of Jews in Mexico who will never be called foreigners but most of the Jews in Mexico City refuse to recognize them as Jews. Their center is Venta Prieta, a village about 65 miles north of Mexico City.

Commonly called the Indian Jews they resent both the name and most of the articles written about them. Visiting journalists, photographers and historians depicted them as exotic primitives and derided their mythology of being descended from secret Jews who hid in the mountains during the 18th Century to escape the Inquisition.

They are no more Indian than the rest of the Mexican population. Almost all Mexicans are a mixture of Europeans and Indian genes. To call a Mexican an Indian is considered an insult. It is a pejorative name meaning lazy, unwashed and drunk.

I visited Venta Prieta together with Rabbi Samuel Lerer, a Conservative rabbi and a member of the Rabbinical Assembly. He is the only American rabbi in Mexico City and the only one that will provide rabbinical services such as marriages, bar mitzvas and circumcisions to Venta Prieta.

Since I accompanied Lerer, I was received cordially and allowed to photograph their “shahrit” service, which included the naming of four little girls by the rabbi. The president of the community, Saul Gonzales, answered all my questions until I asked about the history of the community. Our conversation was conducted in Spanish and Hebrew. The Interpreter was one of the dozen young men and women in this tiny community of less than 150 souls who have studied and worked in Israel. When I asked about the group’s origins, the interpreter told me in Hebrew:

“When I come to your synagogue I don’t ask you about your Jewish ancestry. Zeh mafria lanu. Your question disturbs us.”

GROWING CLOSER TO ISRAEL

I apologized and continued to talk to the young man about Israel. My superficial impression was that the young people of Venta Prieta are beginning to doubt the old folks tales of their Jewish ancestry, which is completely undocumented. But every group needs a mythology to account for its distinctiveness. For the young people their association with and love of Israel may have replaced the mythology.

Thus they are growing closer to the Jews of Mexico City who also find Israel a bastion. And as the young people of the village finish school and enter professions the class difference is being bridged. The process takes time. At the moment the Mexican Jews of Venta Prieta have nothing in common with the “foreign” Jews in the capital except an overwhelming desire to pray to the one God with tallit, tfillin and Torah, and a love of Israel to which a large proportion of the Venta Prieta youth have gone to study, to work and to serve in the Israel army.

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