Exploring Mexico City’s Jewish past

Monica Unikel, right, shows a tour group a vacant building that was once the site of a Jewish community center in Mexico City. (Corrie MacLaggan)

Monica Unikel, right, shows a tour group a vacant building that was once the site of a Jewish community center in Mexico City. (Corrie MacLaggan)

MEXICO CITY, May 13 (JTA) — For someone wandering the cobblestone streets of Mexico City’s Historic Center, where the sound of the cathedral bells fills the air and the streets have names like Jesus Maria, it’s hard to imagine that this neighborhood was once the heart of the country’s Jewish community. But here, where the streets are now crowded with vendors selling everything from tacos to baseball hats, Mexican Jews founded their first synagogues and community centers. Centuries before that, it was the area where Jews were burned at the stake during the Inquisition. For nine years, Monica Unikel-Fasja has given Jewish historical tours in Mexico City’s oldest neighborhood, a dilapidated area that is now under construction as part of Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s plan to revitalize what has been the city’s nucleus for centuries. Unikel-Fasja guides groups through streets where Jewish immigrants found their first homes in converted convents and established their first clothing and jewelry stores, the places where they began their lives in Mexico. “I think you can appreciate history more when you see it visually, when you retrace the steps,” says Unikel-Fasja, the author of a Spanish-language book that translates as “Synagogues of Mexico.” Unikel-Fasja begins her tours at the city’s main post office, a beautifully preserved building decorated inside with ornate gilded metal. The post office? Unikel-Fasja explains that it’s the perfect place to start because when Jews first immigrated to Mexico from countries like France and Syria, it was a gathering place — a place they would go to send and receive mail from loved ones. “Jews laughed here, they cried here,” Unikel-Fasja explained. “Some would go every day to their post office box to check for mail from home.” The first Jews came to Mexico in the 16th century. When the Spanish Inquisition arrived in the New World they were forced to convert or practice Judaism in secret. Another wave of Jewish immigrants, including many from France, came during the presidency of Porfirio Diaz (1877-1911), who invited Europeans to immigrate to Mexico. But the immigrants who form the base of Mexico’s modern Jewish community didn’t arrive until the 20th century, Unikel-Fasja said. In the early and mid-1900s, Jews arrived from Turkey, Greece, Syria and Eastern Europe. Today, Mexico is home to about 40,000 Jews, most in the capital, Mexico City. The next stop on the tour is 15 Tacuba St. It has a nondescript facade; inside, it’s a rundown, empty building that has been under renovation for more than 10 years. The building is now privately owned, but decades ago it was the primary gathering place of Mexico’s Jews — a community center, gymnasium, event hall and place where Jews came to learn about employment and educational opportunities. Jews also took Spanish classes there. Standing in a musty room that was once a grand ballroom — the chandeliers are still intact — it’s easy to imagine the building filled with life: Unikel-Fasja shows the 10 people on the tour black-and-white photos of weddings and conferences that took place here. Back outside, Unikel-Fasja stops to point out Jewish historic sites that show no outward sign of their past. She stops at the former location of the Red Room, a Jewish-owned business that was Mexico’s first movie theater and had the city’s first escalator. She also points out the clothing store High Life — still operating on Madero Street — which was an important Jewish-owned business. “This street was the Fifth Avenue of Mexico,” Unikel-Fasja explains. “People put on their finest attire to walk down this street to see the latest European fashions from the chic clothing shops, many of which were owned by Jews.” Walking through the narrow streets, Unikel-Fasja says she gives tours in Spanish or English whenever people request them. In addition to her Historic Center tour, she gives a Jewish history tour in the Roma neighborhood of the city. Most of her visitors are Jewish, but not all. “I think it is important that non-Jews come on the tour,” she says. “Mexico is the product of a cultural mosaic, and we don’t know or understand members of other groups.” On one recent tour, most people are Jewish, and there also is a Catholic couple that has heard Unikel-Fasja interviewed on a local radio program. “We are fascinated with the history of other religions,” says Ofelia Hernandez, who attended the tour with her husband, Jose Manuel, and their 3-year-old grandson. “We have been to Israel, but we never knew about the synagogues in Mexico.” Jews built their first synagogues in Mexico City’s Historic Center, but they abandoned them and built new ones and as they acquired wealth and moved to other parts of the city. Some of the old synagogues remain in the Historic Center, still owned by the Jewish congregations but rarely used. The Sephardi synagogue at 83 Justo Sierra St. was Mexico’s first, built in 1923. Sometimes, Jews who work in the Historic Center pray there on weekdays, but usually is empty on the Sabbath. Just down Justo Sierra is another abandoned place of worship, Mexico’s first Ashkenazi synagogue, built in 1941. There, the floor tiles are mismatched and the old wooden pews creak loudly when someone sits down, but the intricately painted ceiling gives a glimpse of its past beauty. “It’s a piece of Lithuania in Mexico,” Unikel-Fasja says. Unikel-Fasja’s tours focus more on Jewish life than anti-Semitism, but it’s chilling when she points to the Zocalo, Mexico City’s main plaza, and explains that it Jews were executed there during the Inquisition. Centuries later, anti-Semitic demonstrators marched there, demanding that the government expel Jews from Mexico. But Mexico generally was a good place for Jews, Unikel-Fasja says. At times when other countries — including the United States — shut their doors to Jewish immigrants, Mexico welcomed them. “Mexico opened the doors to Jews, gave them the freedom to set up their lives,” she says. “Gracias, Mexico.” More information is available about the history of Jewish Mexico City at www.jewishtours.com.mx.

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