Behind Mexico City, known for its street tacos and Lucha Libre, there is an unexpectedly Jewish story. Over winter break, I had the opportunity to explore Mexico City and much of what it offers– from Teotihuacano pyramids to kosher sports bars.
Mexico has a long history of Jewish immigration and integration. Jewish history in Mexico traces back to the fourteenth century, when many Spanish Jews fled persecution during the Spanish Inquisition. As a Spanish colony, Mexico served as a familiar cultural and lingual climate for these religious refugees.
In 1571, the Spanish Inquisition spread to the New World. Mexican Jews faced a similar fate of forced conversion or death. As such, Mexican Jews adopted one of two identities: converso or marrano. “Conversos” were Jews who fully converted to Catholicism, while “marrano,” a derogatory term for “swine,” describes those who continued to practice Judaism in secret. As a result, each generation grew further from their Jewish roots, and Jewish customs discretely infiltrated Mexican Catholicism.
From grub to saints, Judaism has influenced mainstream Mexican culture. Exceptionally similar to the long held Jewish custom to light candles on Shabbat, some Mexicans light a candle on Friday nights. This tradition stems from Jewish origins, in which these Crypto-Jewish families continued to practice their faith in secret. Interestingly, the biblical heroine Queen Esther, who hid her Jewish identity from the Persian king to save her people, resonated with the “Crypto-Jews” because like Esther, they had to hide their identity from the public in order to protect themselves. So, the Fast of Esther became more prominent for Mexican Jews than the holiest fast of the Jewish year, Yom Kippur. The glorification of Queen Esther eventually became incorporated into the Mexican church, and her image is painted on the walls of holy Catholic sites.
In the north of Mexico, where Jewish populations were prominent, beef is the traditional meat option, whereas in other areas, pork is the preferred choice. This is because consuming pork goes against the Jewish dietary laws of Kashrut. Although in secret, these Crypto-Jews continued to preserve their traditions while influencing the gastronomical identity of the region.
Modern Mexican Jewish life
Mexico experienced a resurgence of Jewish immigration in the twentieth century. Jews from Europe and the Ottoman Empire flooded the city with Yiddish and Arabic, where many worked in small businesses. Jewish life began to flourish in the historical center of the city.
In the city center, a humble synagogue hides between Aztec temple ruins and the impressive Metropolitan Cathedral. Aptly named Jesus Maria Street, the street was once lined with Jewish establishments, featuring kosher butchers and Jewish day schools.
By the early twentieth century, there were four main Jewish communities in Mexico City: Ashkanazi, Sephardic from the Balkans, Syrian Jews from Aleppo and Syrian Jews from Damascus. While they worked together to build the city’s first synagogue in 1923, the community split soon after. Legend has it that the Askenazi Jews did not invite the Sephardi community to their Purim celebration.
Today, around 80% of Mexico’s Jewish population resides in Mexico city. Modern Jewish life concentrates in the municipality’s western neighborhoods of Polanco and Lomas de Chapultepec. Kosher restaurants take front stage, from Dog’s Bar, a popping sports bistro, to Tamar Jerusalem Kitchen, which features fancy Israeli cuisine.
If you’re planning a trip to Mexico City and want to learn more about the city’s Jewish history, check out Toursimo Judaico for a premiere tour on the culture and history of Mexico’s Jews.
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