During a visit to Mexico City, a friend suggested I visit La Sinogoga Justo Sierra in La Merced, a neighborhood not far from the Zócalo and Catedral de México. La Merced is an old area of the city where most Mexican Jews, from Syria, Lebanon and Europe, and many other immigrants to the new world, started out.
Though Mexico City has gotten a bad rap as of late, I found the city safe, friendly, easy to get around on the train, bus and bike and as fascinating as ever. In sum, it was an outstanding place to usher in the new year and meet a relative I had never met before. I look forward to getting back.
While like me, readers of The Times of Israel may have family or communal ties to Mexico’s large Jewish community, many may not know the history of Jewish immigration to the country and how integral Jews were to La Merced.
Arriving at the beautiful Justo Sierra Synagogue a few days before Rosh Hashanah, my immersion in La Merced and Mexican Jewry came in the form of a lecture by Professor Daniela Gleizer Salzman.
Daniela is a professor of history at the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana and her academic interests includes relations between the Mexican government and immigrants and the politics of immigration and naturalization. Her research also focuses on the history of the Jews of Mexico.
With refugees streaming across Europe and the United States weighing its own response to the Syrian refugee crisis, the lecture seemed particularly timely.
In the U.S., where we hear so much from some quarters about the need to restrict “illegal” Mexican immigration, it was interesting to attend Daniela’s lecture which focused on Mexican immigration policy in the 1920s and 30s and how it impacted Jews escaping the Nazis and Spanish refugees fleeing the Civil War. Some of the talk described homegrown Mexican xenophobia, particularly as it pertained to Jews, other Europeans and Asians. Sound familiar?
For anyone interested in Mexican Jewish history, La Sinogoga Justo Sierra (La Sinagoga Nidjei Israel) and La Merced tell critical pieces of the story. With few Jews left in this part of Mexico City, the beautifully restored synagogue plays a role somewhat like that of the Breed Street Shul in Boyle Heights, the Pico Union Project in Pico Union, and the Eldridge Street Synagogue on New York’s Lower East Side.
Programming at Justo Sierra is directed by Monica Unikel-Fasja who also offers informative tours of La Merced. Taken with the synagogue and the history of the neighborhood, I returned on Sunday morning before Rosh Hashanah for Monica’s energetic tour of the area.
I leave it to Monica to tell the full story of La Merced’s Jews but can’t help but give away the story of El Shul de Jesús María. Just a few blocks south of Justo Sierra and Monte Sinaí, a still active Syrian Jewish congregation that we visited on the tour as well, is a well known church and convent by the name of Templo y Convento de Jesús María. Beginning in the 1930s many Jews from Eastern Europe moved into the area, populating the streets around the church. On one corner was a kosher market, while nearby was a matzoh factory, a place where women went to have their children, a kosher butcher and a bakery. In researching the area, Monica came across a letter written in Yiddish by an immigrant to his relatives back in Europe singing the praises of Mexico. The climate is warm as are the people, opportunities abound and there is “El Shul de Jesús María.”
Several people I met during my time in Mexico City spoke warmly of the important, and rare, cross cultural work Monica is doing in La Merced. Most of Mexico City’s Jews now live well west of La Merced in Polanco, Lomas de Chapultepec, Interlomas, Bosques de las Lomas and Tecamachalco. Condesa and Roma, once areas with large Jewish communities, have also seen the return of young Mexican Jews seeking a more urban lifestyle.
After the tour, Monica was on to her next gig, a presentation in the cheerful synagogue about the significance of Rosh Hashanah. As I stood in the corridor enjoying some apples and honey before the presentation started, a woman asked me in Spanish to explain the significance of the mezuzah and the Shema. In an overwhelming Catholic country where there is little understanding of Jews and Judaism, Monica’s work is indeed critical.
La Merced is a short walk from the Zócalo Metro station. When you tour the area be sure to also visit the nearby Mercado Abelardo L. Rodríguez, an otherwise undistinguished market, which houses a half dozen murals painted by students of Diego Rivera under his supervision.
Click here to learn more about La Sinogoga Justo Sierra.
Click here to learn more about La Sinagoga Monte Sinaí.
This piece originally appeared in the Jewish Journal.