In an Eilat city park, Anita joins me to share the story of her recent aliyah. She arrived from Mexico City two years ago, and has begun to put down roots in this beautiful resort city near the Red Sea.
Anita, who just turned 31, grew up in a suburb of Mexico City, the daughter of a prominent Jewish businessman. Like most Mexican-born Jews, her family lived outside Mexico City in a large, elegant home with a manicured lawn – all surrounded by high walls and tight security. She attended Jewish schools there, then completed college and medical school. As her academic studies drew to an end, she made another important decision: “I wanted to have a medical career in a country where there would be a job for me,” Anita explains. “I also wanted to see the world outside the walls of our compounds.” She alludes to the fact that the Jewish community in Mexico City leads a somewhat insular life, due largely to security concerns.
“I chose Israel,” Anita continues, “because my Jewish identity is important to me. I had visited here several times, and I have cousins who live here.” After completing aliyah, Anita elected to settle in Eilat, where she had the opportunity to work in pediatrics in a local practice. “I have a great job, a great apartment, wonderful new friends from many countries, and a new husband!” Anita summarizes, holding up her ring finger to emphasize her most recent accomplishment. Her parents will be coming out for her wedding, and she thinks they will retire here in a few years – especially after she lures them with grandchildren! “Their lives in Mexico are still comfortable,” she says. “But they love Israel, too.”
The Jews of Mexico
A Jewish presence has been in Mexico since the sixteenth century, when Hernan Cortes brought several “Christianized” Jews with him during his conquest of the Aztecs. These “Converso” Jews had converted to Catholicism to escape the Spanish Inquisition. Other Spanish Jews followed, including those who continued to secretly maintain their religious practices to avoid persecution. They came to be known as “Crypto” Jews. After the first waves of immigrations from Spain, the next wave of Jewish immigration came in the late nineteenth century, when large number of German Jews settled in the area. In the twentieth century, Ashkenazic Jews fled pogroms in Eastern Europe and Russia, and Sephardic Jews fled the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, bringing immigrants from Turkey, Morocco, and France. The last wave of Jewish immigrants fled Nazi persecution during World War II.
Given its broad array of immigrant cultures, the Jewish community in Mexico today is surprisingly close knit. The widest divergence occurs between the latter-day European settlers and the earlier Converso and Crypto Jewish populations, who intermarried with the native Mexicans and were not recognized as being Jewish for centuries.
Mexico has been a generally hospitable country for Jewish immigrants. Overt anti-Semitism has not been a significant problem in Mexico, and most Mexican Jews have comfortable middle-class or affluent lifestyles. But unease has increased behind the façade of stability and opulence. Mexico is still a third-world country, with high unemployment and crime rates. And the price of security is often building razor-wired enclaves and hiring private security.
Approximately 40,000 Jews reside in Mexico today. Social life there is built around families and local Jewish organizations. Up to 90 percent of Mexican Jews marry within the faith, and the same high percentage attends Jewish schools, around which much of Jewish community life is built. In the Mexico City community, the Jewish community network includes a dozen or more schools, over 20 synagogues, and a large sports center.
Mexican Jews in Israel
The Mexican Jewish immigrant community in Israel is relatively small. Larger numbers of immigrants have relocated to the nearby United States. But Mexican Jews have always enjoyed a supportive relationship with Israel, and many families have visited Israel over the years. A large number of the Jews leaving Mexico today are younger professionals, like Anita, who are seeking professional opportunities in a country that honors their cultural and religious traditions.
Anita plans to continue Mexican Jewish traditions in her new family. For example, this Hanukkah she will serve bunuelos (fried fritters) instead of latkes, and her cousins’ children will spin a toma todo (dreidel). Anita will also hang a dreidel-shaped piñata full of holiday treats for the children.
For Mexican Jews, maintaining some of the customs of their first adopted country brings richness to their lives in their new and final homeland.