Not surprisingly, Jews in Mexico City and in the rest of Mexico, mostly in Guadalajara and Monterrey, are nearly invisible to outsiders. There are 45,000 Jews in the entire country; 40,000 of these are in the capital, concentrated in Polanco as well as Tecamachalco, Bosques de Las Lomas and La Herradura. Even these numbers, already insignificant in a country with a population of 110 million, are dwindling thanks to low birth rates and emigration to the United States and Israel. Anti-Semitism is another element: The most dangerous injector of venom in this respect is the ideological Left, which over the last two decades has become so infatuated with the Palestinian cause that the community regularly needs to fend off anti-Zionist (and, by connection, anti-American) animosity. There has been occasional graffiti and even low-key attacks against synagogues and other Jewish buildings.
Knowledge of Jewish life in Mexico is minuscule. Ask any Mexican you come across on the street, in Mexico proper or in the United States, if he has ever met a Mexican Jew. The answer you’re likely to get is “huh?” And if he has, he’ll tell you—if you’re lucky enough to get a neutral respondent—that the community mostly keeps to itself. More likely, however, the response will be far more opinionated. You’ll hear that Jews are prestamistas, money lenders. This pervasive belief stems from the unremitting anti-Semitism espoused by an ultra-conservative side of the Catholic Church. But you might also hear a resurfacing of archaic ideas: Jews might have horns. In fascist circles, Jews are believed to be the killers of Jesus Christ who pray to el becerro de oro, the golden calf.
There had been many good reasons to emigrate to the United States. But earlier this year, I suddenly felt the need to go home, and not to the invisible community I grew up in, from which, like others of my generation, I feel alienated. What I longed for was to acquaint myself with the Mexican world of my grandparents.
It was April, Mexico City’s rainy month. The sky was unusually clear that day. My mother, a psychologist and a daughter of Yiddish-speaking immigrants from a shtetl near the Polish metropolis Bia?ystok who arrived in the 1920s decided to join me in my pilgrimage. She grew up in Colonia Portales and Colonia Alamos, far from the original buildings erected by settlers downtown. Just like their counterparts in New York, who left the Lower East Side for new neighborhoods when they became more affluent, her parents wanted to raise their children far from the crowded tenements of Calle Jesus María, the main drag in the Centro Histórico. When my mother got married in 1960, she moved even farther out in the suburbs, to Colonia Copilco. Although on rare occasions she had visited the old part of the city, her connection with it was as tenuous as mine.
We took the subway from home in Colonia Cuicuilco, near the Perisur Mall, to the Parque de la Alameda, a gorgeous colonial arboretum made famous because, among other things, Diego Rivera featured it in a celebrated mural. In that work of art, he, his wife Frida Kahlo (who claimed her father, a photographer, was a Hungarian Jew, although biographers believe that Carl Wilhelm Kahlo, aka Guillermo Kahlo, may have been a German Baptist) and an assortment of the nation’s historical luminaries appear as if they were toy figures in a child’s imagination.