Jewish Neighborhoods: Mexico City

Jews first arrived in the then Catholic colony of Mexico at the time of the Spanish Inquisition. There, many Spanish and Portuguese Jews were met with violence and imprisonment and were threatened with forced conversion. While practicing Judaism was outlawed during the colonial period, some Jews took refuge in rural towns to congregate in secret. After Mexico gained independence in 1821, Jewish life gradually moved into the public eye.

In the 1860s, under a policy of religious tolerance, Judaism was officially recognized by the government. But it was not until the late nineteenth and early twentieth century that a wave of Sephardi, Ashkenazi, and Mizrahi immigrants established a significant presence in Mexico City. Jews brought trade and technology that influenced the city’s development. A Mexican Jewish organization, Alianza Monte Sinai, built the city’s first synagogue, in its center, in 1918. World-renowned artist Frida Kahlo painted portraits and still lifes that invoked her Jewish heritage. Her husband, Mexican artist Diego Rivera, collaborated with poet and activist Isaac Berliner on a book of Yiddish poetry, La Ciudad de los Palacios. A coalition between Yiddish secularists and Marxist intellectuals and artists called attention to the social hierarchy that placed Jewish and indigenous communities toward the bottom. Joined by Yiddishists Moses Glikovski and Jacob Glanz, Berliner began the literary magazine Der veg and proposed an integrated approach to Mexican Jewish identity based in folklore, secularism, and indigenismo—the indigenization of oneself.

In 1930 Mexico City’s Jewish population was estimated at 21,000, with the hub of Jewish life along Jesús María Street. Following World War II, another wave of Jewish immigrants fled to the city, growing the population to where it is today, at 40,000 Jews. While the Jewish community in the capital is not large compared to the total population of the mega-metropolis, its presence is certainly strong with over 20 synagogues downtown. Into the beginning of the twenty-first century, Yiddish was taught at Jewish day schools. A Jewish community center known as El Deportivo is a central hub of Jewish life in the city, providing social, cultural, religious, and educational services to Mexican Jews.

Enjoy the clips below, and for more stories like these, you can browse our YouTube playlist of Mexico City stories.

To Be Jewish and Mexican

Arturo Kerbel-Shein, Yiddish-language activist, discusses his identity as both a Jew and a Mexican, and how the two coexist.

The Jewish Geography of Mexico City

Ilan Stavans, academic and writer, describes the growth and development of Mexico City’s Jewish community, including the neighborhoods where different generations lived.

Reality of Poverty in Mexico

Becky Rubinstein—writer and niece of Isaac Berliner, the founder of the Mexican Yiddish newspaper Di Shtime—describes the collaboration of her uncle and Diego Rivera on Berliner’s book La Ciudad de los Palacios, illustrated by Rivera.

“This Is Me!”

Talia Margolis Chomstein, a Yiddish activist based in Mexico City, describes how she discovered Mexican Yiddish literature and how it inspired her to be more involved in the Mexican Jewish community through Yiddish.

Jewish Immigrant Life

Jaya Torenberg—the former director of the Colegio Israelita de Mexico, a Yiddish school founded in 1924 in Mexico City—describes immigrant life in downtown Mexico City for Ashkenazi Jews in the 1920s and ’30s.

 “We Were Isolated Then”

Thelma Oldak Finkler, Yiddish translator and English teacher, describes the differences between the various Jewish schools and Jewish communities in Mexico City during her childhood.