Mónica led my mother and me down to Calle Justo Sierra to Nidje Israel, the first Ashkenazi synagogue in Mexico, built in 1941. From the outside the visitor would not guess that it’s a Jewish prayer house. The architecture is rather rectangular and dark.
Inside, it has tall arched ceilings and is decorated in blue, gold and maroon with a large chandelier hanging down, reminding me of 18th-century East European synagogues. The gothic style fits well in colonial Mexico. Short columns serve as support for the second floor, reserved for women. Cloister-like windows make it seem as if you’re in a convent. In fact, without the Jewish paraphernalia (the bima in the middle of the room, menorahs, an illuminated crown sitting atop the Aron Kodesh, the holy ark, above which are the Ten Commandments) I would have sworn I was in a church.
As we were leaving, Monica told us that Nidje Israel will be the epicenter of a large-scale project to renovate Jewish sites in downtown Mexico City. Apparently, I wasn’t alone in my desire to understand my roots.
Hungry, the three of us stopped for a tentenpié, a pick-me-upper, from a street vendor who was heating elotes in a large tin bucket. A fixture of my childhood, the sweet corn-on-the-cob is first boiled for several minutes. A wooden stick is inserted in one of its ends. The elote is then covered with either cream or mayonnaise, rolled on finely grated farmer’s cheese and seasoned with salt, lemon and chile piquín.
As we ate our delicacies, we walked toward Colombia #39. Today, it is a crowded vecindad, an older building which has been subdivided into apartments, like many others in the Centro Histórico. Day laborers struggling to make ends meet for their families live in vecindades like this, with crumbling walls, broken pipes and scarce electricity. A couple of boys were playing soccer using a door as their goal.
Monica brought us here because this is where the Yidishe Shule was once located. My father had briefly gone to school in this building. I thought about the modern building in the suburbs that I attended. The school’s pedagogical approach emphasized the Holocaust. A large picture of Mordecai Anielewicz, a hero in the Warsaw ghetto uprising, hung in the patio of the Yidishe Shule. On Yom Hashoah, all of the school’s 700 pupils gathered in the auditorium to sing Holocaust-related songs. In other words, our communal icons were Old World partisans. We were ignorant about Mexico’s early Jewish history: the conversos who struggled to hold onto their faith. The message was clear. Our heart was in the Old World. Mexico was a temporary home.
Mónica now led us to the Calle Jesus María, where early Mizrahi and Ashkenazi immigrants had established businesses. Many Jews lived and worked here, the equivalent of Delancey Street in New York City. Mónica helped make the street come alive for us by telling us about Rabbi Shlomo Lobatón, from Aleppo, Syria, who in 1913 opened up his own home for prayer services since the community could not yet afford to build a synagogue.
If Mexico City ever had something resembling a judería, the medieval Spanish word for the Jewish quarter, it is this street, which, ironically, is named after Jesus and Mary. Today, it is known as the garment district. Numerous stores are still owned by Jews, who can walk to the Monte Sinaí synagogue, built in 1923, for afternoon prayers.
The tendency among the newly arrived Jewish immigrants was to sell portable, easy-to-handle items: razor blades, ties, shoelaces. My paternal grandfather, Zrulek Stavchansky, was among those who eked out a precarious living as a peddler. With the merchandise hanging on their shoulders, they would walk from Calle Corregidora to Tacuba and onward to Jesus María. When they discovered an over-abundance of aboneros in the city, a handful opted to take their goods to the states of Guerrero, Hidalgo and Morelos, among others. When they finally came back to the capital, it was to open big stores downtown. Some remain to this day, including La Esmeralda, in itself a symbol of Mexico’s prosperity and immigrant courage.
In the 1920s, Calle Jesus María was home to kosher butchers, hardware stores, bakeries, tailor shops, Talmud Torahs. Some early Yiddish writers first wrote poems about Mexico on this site. Mónica said there were no mikvot then, so immigrants cleansed themselves in public baths. I was finally at ground zero. It was to here that Jews had come from the Old World. And it was from here that they moved forward with their lives.