Jews in Mexico find it a place to thrive and serve

McClatchy NewspapersMay 21, 2009 

The Slomianski family.

EMILY SHER/PSU/MCT

  • FROM PENN STATE

    About these stories

    This story resulted from a nine-day reporting trip to Mexico City by print and broadcast student journalists from Penn State University. See all of their work here.

MEXICO CITY — On the evening of the festive Jewish holiday of Purim, the rabbi's wife, Sheila Slomianski, was ever the alert hostess. Surveying her table, she noticed some empty plates in front of her guests and summoned her daughters, Fayge and Miriam, to pile them high with tacos and tachina sauce, with grilled cactus and spicy rice.

"They're American," Slomianski said with a shrug. "They don't know any better."

The Slomianskis are part of Mexico City's 50,000-strong Jewish community, the third largest in Latin America. They're thriving, diverse and multinational, but also close-knit and unusually self-sufficient when it comes to education and social programs.

"We're involved in politics, we're involved in business, we're involved in cultural activities and academia, so the Jewish community is involved in everything," said Mauricio Lulka, the executive director of the Central Committee of the Jewish Community in Mexico.

Yet this is also a community that, Lulka said, has the lowest rate of intermarriage in the world, and where 90 percent of the children attend religious day school. Some also see an increasing polarity between the more observant and the more secular members of the community: A teenage girl might ask her parents to arrange a marriage for her, to the consternation of an older generation that had hoped she'd choose her own mate and have a career.

Jews are hardly new arrivals to Mexico. Fleeing the Inquisition in Spain, Jews were said to have been among the first Europeans who arrived with Hernan Cortes and the conquistadors in the 16th century. They didn't find the religious freedom they were looking for in the New World, and were forced to practice their faith in secrecy until Mexico's independence from Spain in 1820.

"When they knew about the new lands that were discovered in America, they decided to come here and find their freedom. It was a tragedy, because they could not find their freedom," said Monika Unikel, an expert on the history of Jews in Mexico City.

As the country became more tolerant, however, and as Jews began fleeing persecution in Europe during the two world wars, Mexico was among the places they came, often in hopes of getting visas to the United States. The first to come were Sephardic Jews from countries such as Turkey and Greece, and then the rise of the Nazis in Germany brought Ashkenazi Jews from Western and Central Europe.

"All of them wanted to get to the United States; that was America. That was the magic world," Unikel said. "But there came a time when the United States closed the doors for new immigrants, so Mexico became a new option."

The result is a Mexican Jewish community that's something of a melting pot.

It includes Pearl Tabatchnik, a guest at the Slomianski party, whose Polish parents fled the Holocaust. She was born in Mexico, as were her children and grandson, and Tabatchnik said she felt at home here.

"I feel a lot of gratitude toward Mexico," she said. "I was born here, and they treat us very well."

It also includes Esther Schmidt, who was born in Mexico to a Hungarian mother and a Mexican-born father from a Polish background, and Sal Levy, a new arrival from Israel.

Rabbi Sergio Slomianski, Sheila's husband and the leader of the Ashkenazi community here, was born in Mexico but studied in Israel and the U.S., where he met his Chicago-born wife.

He said that compared with other Jewish communities he'd seen, the Mexican community was unusual in its desire to help others, especially other Jews.

"If people are sick or need money to buy clothes or housing, the community is very oriented toward helping those needy people," he said.

On a recent quiet Sunday afternoon, when millions of Mexico City residents were taking a grateful break from the traffic, congestion and pollution of their unruly metropolis, the narrow street outside the Kosher Palace market in the Polanco neighborhood was bustling as men with dark beards and black hats waited in double- and triple-parked cars while their wives shopped for the Purim holiday.

Marcos Nacach, the owner of the Kosher Palace, is among many who have no trouble identifying themselves as both Mexican and Jewish.

As Manischewitz wine and Mishlach Manot, or traditional Purim baskets, flew off the shelves, Nacach said, "The Jewish religion is a way of life, but we live here, we pay taxes here and we are involved with politics here."

Lulka said, however, that despite Jews' involvement in every aspect of Mexican life, they weren't looking to assimilate with the Roman Catholic majority.

Lulka said that Mexico City's Jews offered many social programs ranging from welfare and anti-drug campaigns to disability aid and social activities.

This even extends to health care services, as there's a separate blood bank, donated by Jews for Jews. Lulka said that this was for no specific health advantage except to decrease the waiting time for transfusions. Despite these programs, Lulka said that the community wasn't isolated from the rest of the country.

If anything, some members of the community fear the opposite.

"There is an increasing polarity in religiousness within the Jewish community," said Renee Dayan-Shabot, the director of Tribuna Israelita, a research center affiliated with the Central Committee of the Jewish Community in Mexico.

Sheila Slomianski can see it in her own children as they've become more conservative, more observant and more traditional.

She told of her surprise when her eldest daughter, who's 17 and studying in Denver, asked to have a marriage arranged for her when she returned home, as most of the friends she went away to study with have.

Slomianski and her husband hope that their daughters become the exceptions to the rule through travel and other experiences, and pursue careers of their own. That's why they debate where they see their children settling.

"In some ways I would prefer them to be in Mexico closer to us," Sergio Slomianski said. "But on the other hand, we're happy they are able to grow and learn and to be exposed to other people and other ways of thinking."

(Sher graduated this month from Penn State University. This story was reported from Mexico City for a class in international journalism.)

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