That Gay, Jewish, Digital Nomad Life, Jewish Identity in Mexico, and a little history of Mexican Jews
Jews have been in Mexico a long time. I know, right? But Jews have lived in nearly every corner of the globe, often seeking refuge from persecution, famine, and poverty.
Here is no different, and here’s my thoughts and experiences so far after a month in central Mexico.
A Hamsa, A Star, and Tourist Appeal
Before leaving for Mexico a month ago I wondered what my experience would be. I often find myself tucking my Star of David necklace in when in certain places, just to be sure, and that’s in America. What would a different country be like?
For reference, I had not left the USA since converting to Judaism, or even since beginning to think about it. Safety is a concern everywhere, and this was a new thing for me.
Our first stop was in Guanajuato, just east of Leon, and we soon found numerous markets with Star of David jewelry. Naturally I wonder how much this is intended for Jewish tourists (which can’t be a large percentage of visitors). Some Christians wear the star, and oy, is that appropriation.
While some folks may not realize it, wearing Jewish symbols if you’re not Jewish—like using Hebrew names or even being full-on Messianic and calling yourself a “Rabbi” or a “synagogue” while worshipping JC—isn’t OK. As with other cultures, using our sacred art, culture, and texts without embracing us fully as allies and standing firmly against antisemitism and violence is, itself, violent appropriation.
There are Hamsas and the eyes associated with them absolutely everywhere here, at every jewelry stand in every place we’ve been. After Guanajuato we trekked to San Miguel de Allende and Mexico City, where we saw much more, and it always made me feel welcome. But what do these symbols mean at all, and in this context?
Unlike the Star of David, there’s a lot more wiggle room here. I knew the Hamsa—the hand shape, often with an eye to counter the Evil Eye or a Star of David embedded in it—was of middle east origin, and largely adopted and spread by Jewish and Muslim culture. But that’s not what I was seeing here. I mean, it is absolutely everywhere in a Catholic country.
As it turns out, it’s a Christian symbol here and after initial adoption by the Jews from neighboring ancient cultures, the Hamsa spread to Islam and the Catholic world, too. “La Mano de Fatima”, the Hand of Fate, or the Hand of Mary, is a common sight. I now own one ncecklace from Mexico, added to the one from Morocco I found at a fair in Seattle. And a pair of little red earrings caught my eye, too!
More photos of Guanajuato, Mexico:
Next Stop: San Miguel de Allende and The Cohen Building
A quick jaunt from either Guanajuato or Mexico City (or by air, Queretaro) is San Miguel, or SMA as it’s often typed. This 400-year old pueblo has been an artists’ colony since at least the 60s and an Expat haven for decades, too. There are a lot more North Americans here than in Guanajuato and Mexico City, percentage-wise.
One of those imports was the Cohen family:
The first known Jewish residents of the city were the Cohen family, originally from Damascus, Syria, who came in the early 1900’s as peddlers. They opened the first hardware store in town in the fanciful “Noah’s Ark”/ Casa Cohen building on Calle Reloj, 1/2 block from the Jardín. Its façade is covered with a veritable menagerie of carved animals and stars of David and is a tourist attraction; it now houses a boutique hotel and up-scale shops and restaurants.
After WWII ex-US soldiers to San Miguel’s Instituto Allende and other art schools on the GI bill. Some of the Jewish students among them gathered for holiday celebrations. A group of expatriates organized a community Seder that met for 30 years or more with up to 100 people attending.Via ShalomSanMiguel.org, the JCC of SMA
San Miguel is at once magical, rustic, welcoming, and loud. The streets of both Guanajuato city and SMA are filled with tourists, exhaust, and the occasional burro, and are easily walkable; though if you’re looking up and around at anything, you’ll quickly trip on cobblestones, steps, fall of the narrow sidewalks.
The Cohen building first caught my eye with its prominent Stars of David, and inside was a weird, fun mix of art, food, and very American spaces. It was upon return that I noticed the name “Arca de Noe”, a sort of subtitle to a building both housing art and serving as a piece of one: Noah’s Ark, it stays in Spanish, and those aren’t gargoyles, they’re all variety of animals perched atop and “holding up” balconies and other features.
Inside, past the atrium café where we ate with our dogs, is an art space featuring works by Pedro Friedeberg: a wonderful mix of surrealist imagery and sacred icons, many showing his German-Jewish heritage. His family fled Germany in 1939 and found themselves in Mexico.
His menorah stood out and surprised me, and then the many other references to his heritage including the Star of David, the tablets of Moses, and some Hebrew. Again I felt welcomed and safe.
More of stunning San Miguel here:
Mexico City, Frida Kahlo, and Stumbling Upon an Israeli Restaurant
Brian and I spent four quick nights in Mexico City and wow, what a place. I had visited in 2007 and was surprised at how old and European it felt. It’s green, it’s thriving, it’s safe, and it’s fun.
The highlight, other than the incredible history and scale of the Zocalo, the oldest part of the city built on the ancient Aztec sites, was Frida Kahlo’s home. And unexpectedly, this had Jewish history, too: her father, Guillermo, was a Jewish German immigrant to Mexico, much like artist Pedro Friedeberg after him.
I wondered how much Frida’s lineage affected her: her art, her style, her general iconoclast quirkiness. Being a Jew in Mexico City, especially at that time, must have been foundational and strange, indeed. Bein a Jew anywhere, really, can be strange and insulating.
Our next to last night we ventured into Roma, La Condesa, and Hipódromo, the older area I’d explored on my first trip. It happened to be the anniversary of my mikveh (one trip around the sun, not Hebrew date), and as we realized we weren’t finding a restaurant where I thought there would be many, I looked down a street and saw lampposts and said “let’s try there.”
We sat and it immediately began storming; what luck! Then we looked down and marveled that it was an Israeli restaurant. I took me seeing a map of Israel to realize it.
There, by pure chance, we enjoyed an Israeli meal, my Israeli boyfriend and I, on the sun-anniversary of my Jewishness. It was beautiful serendipity—kismet, I guess, though that word is Arabic and not Hebrew—and the food was great. We marveled at the coincidence, and looked forward to so many more! And we didn’t have to wait long, it happened again as we walked into a rooftop restaurant our last night in San Miguel on our return back to Guanajuato.
What waited for us on entry? A big hamsa on the wall.
Shabbat shalom, and safe journeys.
More on Jews in Mexico, Mexico Travel, LGBTQ Travel
- Traveling the world as gay digital nomads at CNN: on traveling the world as a gay couple
- From WikiPedia and ShalomSanMiguel.org:
Some “crypto-Jews” likely arrived in Mexico with the Spaniards in the 16th century. Due to the Spanish Inquisition and a strong Catholic presence, conversos, Jews who were forcibly converted in 1492, hid their Jewish roots, although some continued to practice Judaism in secret. Freedom of conscience is enshrined in the Mexican Constitution of 1857, but there were few “open” Jews in Mexico until the beginning of the 20th century, when immigration from Turkey, Syria and Europe burgeoned. In 2000, Mexican Jews numbered about 45,000, many of them leaders in education, culture and business. That number remains the estimated Jewish population until today.