Super-Shtetl in the South: Mexico City Is Rich with Life

(Originally published in Presentense Magazine, October, 2009)

If you look up Mexico City, DF (Distrito Federal) on Google Maps and zoom all the way in, you will be gazing from a bird’s eye view at what is historically considered the city center. The problem nowadays is to determine what it’s the center of. If you try to find the city limits, each new click of the “zoom out” button redefines words like “monstrosity.” The megalopolis Mexico City consists of around 25 million people living in a valley surrounded by volcanoes at an altitude of 2,000 meters above sea level. Scrabbling around like ants in a concrete ant-farm made of pollution, traffic, and crime, these people will probably be studied as a rare breed by anthropologists in centuries to come.

Since the times of the Spanish Inquisition, Jews have been a part of this unique landscape. Crashing into the tropical, weathered streets of the Zocalo from all sides of the world, Turkish, European, and Arab Jews were forced to interact with the welcoming, if curious, poor indigenous classes of Mexico City. Since then, Jews’ continuous movements around the city have reflected the city’s own changes. In the “Mexican Miracle” of the 1950s and 1970s, second and third-generation Jews became middle-class citizens. They started prominent businesses and settled into quieter and wealthier outlying neighborhoods, where they mixed with the city’s social elites.

Today, 90 percent of one of the world’s wealthiest Jewish communities lives in a mountainous area: the Beverly Hills of Mexico City. Ironically referred to by many young Jews as “the ghetto” or “the shtetl,” this luxurious neighborhood meets every need. If you’re Jewish, you go to the Jewish school next to your house in the morning, the JCC in the afternoon, and then the nearby synagogue in the evening. You see the same people, move in the same circles, and talk about the same things. While the community’s isolation reinforces a strong sense of identity, it also perpetuates a fear of the outside world.

“It’s literally a world within. The community has become more self-involved than ever out of fear due to the growth of the city and the decaying economic conditions within it… Drug dealers, kidnappers, cops, and politicians—there’s plenty to be afraid of,” said Gina Zabludovsky, sociologist at Mexico’s Autonomous University (UNAM).

As positive as community self-involvement can be when confronting issues like assimilation, continuity, and security, it has also given Jews a sense of isolation from Mexico City’s buzzing culture. “I feel that there’s a growing tolerance to geographical distance. But [Jews] manage to create microbubbles at their workplaces, so they don’t really interact with the city,” says Paul Feldman, a student mastering in economics at ITAM University. His campus is far from the shtetl and closer to Mexico City’s cultural life, even though attending such far-flung universities is seen as a bold venture and is often met with disapproval. Like Feldman, some of us as younger Jews increasingly feel the need to become a more active part of the vibrant life of the city. A small number of young Jewish adults are choosing to support Mexico City’s gentrification of old neighborhoods, returning to what was once the neighborhood of their parents—now a trendy, buzzing place full of nightclubs and cafés.

This is where I live, smack in the middle of this monster of a city. Unlike in the suburbs, through the tightly-sealed windows there’s the atmospheric buzz of helicopters, honks, hammering, whistles, and narco-influenced cumbias andcorridos songs, even at 9 a.m. on a Saturday.

“This city is never quiet,” says Nicole Lebenson, a 2009 graduate from Brooklyn College, in Mexico on a fellowship to help Mexicans study for master’s degrees in the U.S. To give her some perspective, I’ve been having ongoing conversations with her about the Mexican Jewish community’s peculiarities. “Orthodox Jews are easy to spot. But it’s much harder to find younger, secular Jews in the city,” Lebenson commented over a dinner of arroz and pollo con mole.

One Mexican Jew, Emilio Betech, is working to bring a new take on Jewishness to Mexico by running the only Jewish-themed national radio show. Most of his 30,000+ listeners are non-Jews, offering Jews an opportunity to dialogue with Mexican society at large. Yet many traditional leaders of the Jewish community are not supportive. The search for sponsors for his radio show has been surprisingly daunting, given the high amount of philanthropy within Mexico’s Jewish community.

“There’s still a deep-seated fear of speaking openly about what it means to be Jewish,” Betech said. “Mexico is a country where, historically, there has been very little anti-Semitism, and to insist on maintaining a secluded existence as a Jewish community is, at best, old-fashioned.”

Betech is also an active member and councilor of the Salon Mexico City project. The Mexican branch of The Jewish Salons Project, Salon Mexico City, is an initiative led by young people including myself who feel the need to engage with their Jewishness in much more open and dynamic ways. “Mexican society has always been very open, curious, and warm towards its Jewish members. It is encouraging that the young Jews are much more willing to participate in mediarelated, cultural, political, and artistic endeavors outside of the mainstream Jewish community,” Betech said.

Our events are open for anyone who wishes to get a taste of global Jewish culture and advertise: “You’re living in one of the world’s greatest cities! Take a chance to explore it!”

While only one side of the multi-faceted Jewish world of Mexico, a growing number of young people feel we should take advantage of this magnificent city, while still taking the necessary precautions to survive as a community. Mexico City has given a lot to us, and now might be the right moment for us to give a little bit back.

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