Reclaiming Jewish Traditions in Mexico

MEXICALI, Mexico – We were near the desert, somewhere past the Salton Sea, when Daniel (Dany) Mehlman, a 48-year-old Conservative rabbi, summed up the situation.

“OK,” he said, “we’re going to rendezvous with a man I’ve never met, go with him to a Mexican city I’ve never been to, then spend the weekend with people I don’t know.”

“Sounds perfect,” I said.

In El Centro, a California town about 100 miles east of San Diego, we met Jose Orozco — smiling, middle-aged, wearing a kippah. We followed him across the international border to Mexicali.

At a modest house in a residential area, Alfredo and Lupe Medrano greeted us warmly and introduced us to their children and grandchildren, as well as to relatives and friends who come to the home every Friday night to celebrate Shabbat.

By sundown, the living room overflowed with several generations, from babies in arms to those older than 80, and everything in between.

There were at least a dozen in their teens and 20s. Kippot were distributed to the men, candles were lit, small plastic cups filled with wine, prayers recited.

Mehlman had gone to the Mexicali home because this community asked Spanish-speaking rabbis to visit them and give them guidance. Mehlman teaches at New Community Jewish High School in West Hills and at the University of Judaism in Bel Air, in addition to being the spiritual leader at K’hilat Ha’Aloneem in Ojai and part-time rabbi at Beth Shalom of Whittier.

When he told me he was going to visit a group of Mexicans practicing Judaism on their own — no rabbi, no shul — it sounded fascinating; I asked if I could come along.

I wondered what had led these people — born into Catholic families — to follow Judaism. More than that, I wanted to see Judaism through their eyes. What do they feel when they say the prayers? What is the source of their faith?

This was not the first time I’d asked these questions. During the High Holidays, I had attended services at Beth Shalom, where a vibrant group of Latino converts has revitalized that shul.

I’d seen their dedication and commitment. But the Whittier group lives in Los Angeles, where it’s not hard to practice Judaism. The people in Mexicali, on the other hand, risked alienating themselves from their families and their society.

Dr. Mario Espinoza, a Mexicali obstetrician-gynecologist, spoke about his certainty that he’s descended from Jews forcibly converted to Christianity centuries ago. He used the Hebrew word anousim (constrained people or forceably converted) rather than Marranos, which means “swine.”

For Mexicans who trace their lineage to anousim, the Inquisition is not ancient history. It continued in Latin America, including Mexico, from the 1500s until the 1800s. During that period, those whose ancestors had been forced to convert from Judaism to Christianity were harassed, tortured and sometimes killed if they were discovered to have continued Jewish practices, which is why those practices continued in secret, if at all.

Espinoza commented that he has learned to read and speak Hebrew, and he brought with him several siddurim in Hebrew and Spanish. He and his wife, Lucia, who made the challah, are raising their four children as Jews.

Orozco grew up in Mexico and lives in El Centro, where he works for a social welfare agency. Recently converted to Judaism, he goes across the border regularly to spend Shabbat with the Medrano family and friends. He said he’s been drawn to Judaism since childhood.

Several others, like Mario Espinoza, had ancestors who had carried on Jewish customs. Lucia Espinoza mentioned a grandmother who lit candles on Friday night. Lupe Medrano said that when she looked through her late grandfather’s effects, she found a tallit hidden in a box.

More than one person said that being at the Medrano house on Friday nights is like “coming home.” By being together on Shabbat, by performing Jewish rituals and saying the prayers, they’re confirming their deepest-held sense of who they are.

On Saturday morning at the Medrano house, it was a quieter gathering, about a dozen people, including several who had not been there the night before.

After the service, Mehlman asked if there were questions. Several wanted to know about the brit milah (circumcision ceremony). Mario Espinoza asked about what happens at the beit din (rabbinical court) and the mikvah (ritual bath).

Espinoza again signaled that there was another issue on his mind. “Pardon the question,” Espinoza said, “but if someone were to be converted in Mexico, would he be accepted as a Jew in the U.S.?”

“Of course,” Mehlman said. “Certainly.”

Clearly, some in this group were concerned about what would happen after conversion. Even if they satisfied all these seemingly rigorous demands, would they then be recognized as Jews by other Jews? Most of all, would they be accepted as Jews by other Mexican Jews?

The short answer is: not likely.

The group that has coalesced around the Medrano home is not the only one like it in Mexico. Far from it. The Web site of Beth Hatefutsoth, the Israel Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv, lists a number of communities of “native Mexican Jews” — located in various parts of Mexico — who trace their origins to anousim.

How many descendants of anousim are there?

“It’s hard to figure out exactly,” said Rabbi Stephen Leon of Congregation B’nai Zion in El Paso, just across the border from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. “I’d only be guessing, but I’d say the number is very large. I have personally ministered to 40 such families. In the 20 years I’ve been here, not a week goes by that I don’t meet someone who tells me about childhood memories of crypto-Jewish practices.”

The Diaspora Museum Web site points out that even after converting to Judaism, “native Mexican Jews” have not been accepted by “traditional Mexican Jews,” nearly all of whom are Orthodox and descended from those who immigrated to Mexico from Europe and the Middle East in the early 1900s.

A few at the Shabbat gathering the night before were born Jewish. Michael Schorr, in his 70s, said that he was a child when his family left Poland before World War II. He was brought up in Argentina, has lived in Israel and now teaches engineering at a university in Mexicali.

“The desert is a place of vistas that appear seamless and infinite,” he said. “No beginning and no end. That’s why it has given rise to thoughts of oneness: of a single, holy, omnipotent spirit.”

Mexicali too is at the edge of a desert.


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