Out of sight

A word used again and again by both Jews and non-Jews to describe the Jewish community in Mexico to me as I researched this story was cerrada--closed. "Wealthy" was another. "They live in Polanco," one taxi driver told me knowingly, speaking of the swanky Mexico City neighborhood where Orthodox Jews in black hats share park space with manicured Mexican mommies and synagogues share blocks with high-rise hotels and Hummer dealerships. "They help each other out," was another lay opinion. As with most stereotypes, I found elements of truth in all of the above. What I wanted to know was whether Jews have integrated into Mexican culture, or are just another group who happen to live here. More explicitly, what makes Mexican Jews different from Jews anywhere else in the world?

Image:Gunther Saghún

Monica Unikel's tours uncover the Jewish history of Mexico City's Centro Histórico.

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Gunther Saghún

Mexico’s 40,000-strong Jewish community is rich in history and culture. Take a look at this slideshow to get a glimpse of the community. View Slideshow >>

Mexico's 40,000-strong Jewish community is unique and varied, and made up of several communities, each with distinct flavors and traditions. They were also incredibly welcoming to me. As an Australian Jew living in the Distrito Federal, I was invited to eat cholent (a traditional slow-cooked stew served on Sabbath) at a Kiddush after a Saturday synagogue service; to join in several Shabbat dinners (which I regretfully had to turn down); and even attend a Jewish women's cooking class, a frenzied extravaganza in a Polanco synagogue where 300 religious women, most in long skirts and wigs, sat before a giant stage for a multimedia class on how to concoct kosher delights such as "Extraordinary Rice" and home-made challot, traditional plaited bread loaves. I'm not sure how much this welcome was because I was Jewish, and therefore accepted into the tribe, or was a Jewish adaptation of the Mexican standard "mi casa es tu casa." If the latter, it was one of many mexicanisms that the Jewish community has adopted, ranging from mariachis at weddings to gefilte fish a la Veracruzana.

"If you compare Mexico to any other place where Jews live it's a little paradise," says Jessica Kreimerman Lew over tea and banana bread at CasaLuna, an interfaith community center with a plant-filled courtyard, wind chimes, and a welcome sign on the door in Hebrew and Spanish. A self-described "insider/outsider" to the Jewish community, Kreimerman is a tall, slim woman with flowing, light brown hair and intense green eyes. "They came with the idea that anybody who works can do well, and they did very well, and they had the religious freedom many could only have dreamed of in the countries they came from." Before I leave, she wraps a piece of banana bread in a napkin for me to take home, just like my Jewish aunt would do.