Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
Carlos Salas Diaz. “You’re crazy,” Rabbi Henry Fisher told Salas. “You’re going to have nothing but heartache.”
1. The Story of Hernando Alonso
Ciudad de Mexico, 1528 — A bell clangs and he, with the great difficulty of an old man with stiff limbs and creaking bones, sits up in the dark, awakened from a sleep that had taken him far away from the high stink of his own urine and the stench of his own ordure in the far corner of the cell, away from the shouts and cries of madness and pain in the night.
“Are you coming in?” Mrs. S. said, half-inquiring, half-inviting. “Not under your conditions,” I said.
Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
Hernando Alonso is back.
He had been dreaming a strange and fluent dream, an excursion to far places to which he had found himself flying like a bird, at one point soaring over an entire fleet of brigantines and knowing, even as he looked down, that it had been his own armada, the very ships that had so long ago carried him and all of the troops of Hernan Cortes from Hispania to Cuba and then to the shores of this territory that he had called home for nearly ten years.
“We’ll pay you not to write the story.”
Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
There had been battles along the way, and there had been forests, and the conquerors on horseback had won the battles, with some help from tribes angry with the ruling Aztecs, and, after winning, the soldiers had cut down many trees, so that the plain would look more like home, and set the pigs to rooting, which had the double effect of feeding the troops and destroying more trees. In the rising noise of the prison in early morning he could still hear the barks and screams of those early wars.
He had been born in Condado de Niebla and grew up in Cadiz, a city of water and sails, one of three sons of a carpenter named Joseph.
How ironic, yes! The same name as the father of the Savior. And it was his father who had taught him, beginning at an early age, his trade, carpentry, and then working with metal so that he had become a smithy. And initiated him into the secret religion of their forefathers, one of whose rules was that he should eat no pork.
The old rules had made for a lot of trouble in the old land. The time in which Hernando Alonso grew into manhood was filled with stories of funeral pyres piled with burning logs and Jews on fire! Not until he was in his 30s, still unmarried, his father having died and left him the shop and the tools, one brother having disappeared in the middle of a voyage to Africa, the other brother a success in the ships-handling trade, did good news arrive. It came from across the water. An expedition mounted by the Crown had returned with word about New Lands, new territories on the other side of the great ocean.
Ever since Hernando had been a small child he had listened avidly to the stories of the voyages around the coast of Africa made by Portuguese explorers, and then, after he came into his manhood, to news of the Spanish voyages to the New World. In his heart, he felt a deep longing, more like a tingling that worked through his chest when he thought such things, to sail away from this place of subterfuge, silence, and the fearful flames.
But in the end, it hadn’t been his heart that had taken him across the sea to the New World, it had been his hands. When the call went out along the docks, he was a man in mid-age, but still it seemed natural for him to sign up as a ship’s carpenter on the royal expedition led by Hernan Cortes. His brother had known for years the ship’s captain who would pilot one of the galleons in Cortes’s fleet and had made it possible for Hernando to sail west with the would-be conquerors. Gonzalo stood weeping at the dockside and Hernando’s own eyes turned wet, but he did not let the tears flow, fearful that the rough sailors who passed along the rail would take it as a sign of weakness. When the land sank down beneath the waters to the east, a large part of his heart felt that it was sinking too.
The passage was rough, the ships meeting awful, heaving seas. Alonso, along with many others, suffered moments of cold and disabling fear. With the winds blowing hard and the great waves breaking across the bow of the brigantine, he dropped to the planking and put his hands to his face, saying quietly, “Please, dear Lord, Lord of Abraham and Isaac, spare me a watery death! Oh, spare me, spare me, I pray You.” And then, just to be sure, he would reach for the crucifix that he wore about his thick neck and hold it cupped in his hands as the salt waves broke over his feet. The wind howled about the tops of the masts, the voices of evil hellhounds chasing after his soul.
“Spare me, oh, Lord,” Alonso prayed, “and I will dedicate my life to the duties of your Holy Person.”
Hernando Alonso is the first Jew to have his presence in the New World set down in a historical record. Some historians speculate that other Jews came as Hernando Alonso did, on board one of the Spanish oceangoing ships, a few of them, it is presumed, with the early expeditions of Columbus and others with Cortes’s fleet, but Alonso is the first to be noted. There are also some romantic-minded interpreters of history who would argue that Columbus himself was a hidden Jew, but no one has ever proved this. As for Hernando Alonso, he had signed on as a ship’s carpenter. But once the need became apparent, during the year of war between the Spaniards and the various eastern Mexican tribes, he put to use his skill as a blacksmith, repairing the steel of weapons, reshoeing the horses so necessary to the victories over the Indians.
On the night of the great battle in the city in the middle of the lake against the Aztec rulers of Tenochtitlan, the night the Mexicans have come to call the Noche Triste, Hernando Alonso’s talents served the army well. The ship’s carpenter oversaw the construction of the 13 bridges to the city so that the Spanish troops could enter in force. He had crossed the main bridge himself just behind the archers.
For his part in the conquest of the Aztec capital, Alonso was awarded land and cattle and some Indian captives to be used as slaves. These he set to work clearing a ranch where he raised imported cattle and, forgive him, Oh, God of Abraham and Isaac, hogs for sale to the army for meat. His brother had come to join him. Only two years after Hernando had sailed for the New World, the Spanish court issued the Edict of 1523, forbidding Jews, Moors, or other heretics from taking up residence in New Spain. So his brother had used his friendship with another sea captain and a forged document to gain entry to these new lands under the name of Morales.
Morales: And do they know you are a Jew?
Alonso: I am what I am. I have never hidden anything. I believe what I believe and I have gone to Mass in the church that we have built on the place where the Aztec temple stood.
Morales: It is a crime for a Jew to cross the border into New Spain. We are both criminals in the eyes of the Crown.
Alonso: I have helped the Crown win mighty victories.
Morales: You raise swine for the soldiers of the Crown. And in turn they would call you a hog.
Alonso: No one calls me anything but my own name.
After the first Mass had been served in that church where the pagan temple had stood, few of the old soldiers attended. But Alonso became enamored of one of his female slaves and freed her and married her in this same church. His first child was baptized there, although when he returned home after the ceremony, Hernando, much to the dismay of his wife, who feared that a servant would see him, dipped his fingers in wine, splashed it on his child’s brow, and then drank the rest of the wine in the cup. Staring down at the child’s naked body, he thanked the old Hebrew God that a daughter had come to him instead of a son, because he did not have to worry about the problem of circumcision. If the child had been a boy, would he, Hernando, have had to make the cut himself? No, no, he would have asked his brother. But would he have done it?
Nights on the ranch on the high plateau, skies filled with burning stars, the sound of the animals lowing in the corrals — he thought himself so fortunate that he had removed himself from the turmoil back home. Once the army had defeated the Indians here, a great calm had settled over the center of the territory. He had given all of his servants their freedom, all of them staying on to work at the ranch. But when he and his wife strolled in the center of the city he noticed the conquerors, turning fat and gray some half-dozen years after the end of the war, shouting at Indians, kicking at them, in one instance punching one to the ground for not getting out of the way quickly enough. He had come to love his wife, and it disturbed him to see her fellow Indians, her family, treated in such a manner.
But there was nothing he could do except behave in the best way he knew how toward his own servants. In the quiet of their bed he would tell her stories from the Five Books of Moses, stories he had learned as a child, and gradually she understood that though they both attended Mass, he still valued the old ceremonies of the Jews. Although the news from Spain had it that the Inquisition’s fires were burning brightly, fed by the bodies of Jews, here on the high plateau of Mexico Alonso felt so distant from such matters that he scarcely gave it a thought. Here was a place where he could grow old in peace. The Franciscans were avidly attending to the business of converting the Indians. They didn’t seem to have time to worry about the faith of the old soldiers and their retinues.
When the second child came, again he dipped his fingers in wine and dripped some of the liquid onto the girl’s forehead — oh, yes, thank the Lord, another girl! — saying some old but newly recollected words in the Ladino tongue. Other memories jittered flamelike in his mind. One Sunday just before Mass, with his wife in her monthlies, he told her to stay at home.
“Senora,” he is reported to have said, “in your present condition thou wouldst profane the Church.”
His wife replied, “These are old ceremonies of the Jews which are not observed now that we have adopted the evangelical grace....”
When the priest inquired about her, leaning down to pat one of the children on the head, Alonso said, “She is ill.” It became his custom, asking her to stay away from Mass when she was in that condition. Whether or not the priest noticed, he never said anything more about it.
Another few years went by, all those ink-black nights passing beneath the hot and burning stars, the children grew, he and his brother increased their cattle and swine herds tenfold. Alonso had competition in the bidding, but the city council recognized his seniority by accepting his bids over some lower proposals. It didn’t hurt that the acting governor of New Spain was an old shipmate, Alonso de Estrada.
Did his rivals speak badly of him? Did they make clear that they knew he was a secret Jew and thus undeserving of special privilege? It didn’t matter to him. He was getting to be an old man and thought that he deserved such deference. Think back to the Noche Triste and how it might have been if he hadn’t built those bridges to the center of the city. Now and then he would see his old commander at Mass. The graying warrior looked over at him, as if to ask, Why does a Hebrew man like you suffer this inscrutable pageantry? Old soldiers still kept up their brawling in the taverns and the streets, sometimes even right up to the steps of the churches. The priests spoke to Cortes, but he pleaded for his men. Would the Church itself be here in Mexico without these soldiers?
And then came the spring of 1528 and the arrival in the city of the Dominican Friar San Vicente de Maria, sent to Mexico to act in all matters against the Faith as well as to establish the first monasteries. A number of conquistadores were hauled in before a church tribunal to answer for blasphemies and other insults. Still, Hernando Alonso did not worry about himself because his old commander would look after him. Then in May Cortes returned to Spain to plead some grievances before the Crown and Alonso was left without a protector.
It didn’t take long before they came for him in the night, leaving behind his sobbing wife and sleeping children. His priest-confessor stood to one side while a Dominican friar conducted the proceedings. The charges against him were composed of three counts: (1) that his children were baptized twice, once by a Franciscan friar and then again “according to the ritual of the law of Moses,” (2) that he refused to permit his wife to attend Mass when she was having her menstrual period. The third charge: a witness, one of his own former slaves whom he had freed, stated that Alonso poured water over the head of one of his children and then drank the water in mockery of baptism. According to the records of the archives of the Mexican Inquisition, the witness stated also that Alonso sang a psalm that referred to Israel’s Lord God of Egypt, “o una cosa de esta manera.... ’’Thus he was found guilty of “Judaiz-ing,” the punishment for which was death by fire. Days went by and then his brother was thrown into the cell with him.
“The fire that burned in Spain,” Gonzalo said, “it has almost caught up with us.”
“But why?” Alonso asked. “I have made a good life here, and I have done good things for the territory.”
“It is a matter of blood,” his brother said.
“Do they want blood? I’ll give them some of my blood in exchange for life.”
“Our blood is no good to them,” his brother said. “They say it is different from theirs. It sullies their veins. They want to purify the bloodlines of New Spain just as they have in the old country.” “Why is our blood impure?” Alonso said. “Why?” he said when they came for him on the last morning and slipped the ritual garment over his head. He walked slowly along the route to the pyre, his head bowed with that question weighing heavily on his mind. Surely they were not going to execute him just for being who he was? He, who had crossed the ocean sea border to help defeat the pagan Aztec? And my children, my children, what of them, what will become of them? Such questions haunted him until the very instant that he smelled his own flesh burning.
2. More Fuel for the Flames
Hernando Alonso was the first Mexican Jew, and, as the records of the Mexican Inquisition reveal, the first Jew to be killed in the New World. But not the last. By the end of the 16th Century so-called conversos, or people with Jewish family roots who converted to Catholicism, were going to the fires with some regularity in the Kingdom of New Spain, with the greatest number of people accused as Jews burned at the stake in the Great Auto de Fe of 1649. Merchants, monks, pharmacists, doctors, actors, weavers, constables, jewelers, shoemakers, handymen, mostly men, some women, nearly a hundred in number. According to the records of the time, one woman was the sister of a Jesuit priest and mother of a Dominican monk. As historian Judith Elkin has written, though the woman was raised in a Catholic household and had raised her children as Catholic, she still had not sufficient warranty that as a cortverso she could take her place in Mexican society.
From the lowest to the highest in society, few escaped the scrutiny of the Inquisition. Take the case of Luis de Carvajal y de la Cueva, the first governor of the province of Nuevo Leon, recently glorified in the San Diego Opera production of The Conquistador. Carvajal was not a Jew, nor were his parents, though his maternal grandmother and his wife were Jewesses. While never found guilty of being Jewish, he was convicted by the tribunal for not reporting to them that his nephews and niece observed Jewish rites. As historian Samuel Liebman has noted, their Judaism stemmed from their father, and their mother adopted or was converted to Judaism by her husband. Dishonored, stripped of rank and office, Carvajal escaped the flames but died in jail. Others like him went to prison for extended terms or spent years as galley slaves, their lives ripped asunder by the wrath of the Inquisitors whose task, as they saw it, was to establish the purity of the bloodlines of the Kingdom. The chemistry of the Inquisition seemed apt. Flames were a good instrument for purification. Those who escaped into the countryside or left for the north were burned in effigy. Others who had died in their cells before they could be turned over to the secular authorities for execution had their bones disinterred and roasted in the pyres, their names inscribed on the church walls and in church ledgers, which is how we have such a precise record of just how many Jews went up in flames: Alonso, Carvajal, Castro, Fernandez, Garda, Gomez, Gonzalez, Leon, Lopez, Machado, Mendez, Nunez, Paz, Pena, Pereira, Perez, Rodriguez, Rosa, Suarez, Tinoco, Torres, Villegas, Zarate. A few of the names of the hordes of so-called crypto-Jews or hidden Jews or Judaizers of the New World who went to their deaths by fire. On the same locations where once the Aztecs sacrificed thousands of victims to their old gods, the Church now burned hundreds of old believers for the sake of the new God.
3. A Young Man with a Long Beard
In Tijuana, at the Centro Social Israelita, the compound that houses the local Orthodox sanctuary, fears of such inquisitions turn otherwise sound minds toward paranoia 400 years after-the-fact. The facade of the center, located on a narrow one-way street just south of the Tijuana business district where the neighbors include the local Lions Club, a gritty liquor store, and second-class motels, is drab and unobtrusive, masking, in typical Mexican fashion, the complex behind it. Beneath the green awning of the entryway is the only sign -out of the ordinary in this Catholic neighborhood: a small cardboard Star of David taped behind the glass door. When I visited there this spring, the governing board of Tijuana’s Jewish center seemed to be torn between welcoming an inquiring journalist and hiding themselves from the public eye.
The rabbi, an earnest young man all of 25, who is on his first pastoral assignment, betrayed no fear whatsoever. His name is Mendel Polichenko, and he is a fresh-eyed fellow born in Argentina, educated in Israel and New York, and married to an Orthodox girl from a rabbinical family of 11 children, whose somber dress can’t hide her still girlish energy and expectations. World Judaism is divided into three main groups: traditional Orthodoxy; the more liberal Conservative movement, which arose in the late 19th Century; and the distinctly American Reform movement. Rabbi Polichenko belongs to Chabad, the zealous Orthodox sect with its center in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn where for decades its leader — many revered him as their Messiah — the late Rabbi Schneerson, held sway. When I met Rabbi Polichenko on a weekday, dressed as he was in a dark blue double-breasted blazer and slacks, his long dark beard reaching down over the knot of his necktie, he might have been a first-year graduate student about to take a deep breath, check the knot in his tie, and plunge into a room to teach his first class in religion. On the Sabbath, he appeared in the traditional long coat and made the very picture of a youthful Orthodox leader, certainly someone whom the friars of the Inquisition could never have imagined flourishing on Mexican soil.
Had he ever held fears about revealing his Jewishness in Tijuana? Never, he replied. Was he worried about Mexican anti-Semitism? Not at all, he said. Growing up in Buenos Aires, he explained, he was sometimes “made aware” of being Jewish when he went out on the street. But most of his life there he spent within the silk-lined ghetto of the thriving Jewish community. His parents, immigrants from Eastern Europe, crossed a number of borders to reach the New World, but aside from his study visits to Israel, Polichenko has spent most of his time in North America.
He first arrived in Tijuana as part of a Chabad internship while he was still a rabbinical student. For two summers, he assisted in the life of the center, which had been without a regular spiritual leader for some years. After his ordination, he returned to work full-time for the Jews of this hectic border city, now administered by the Catholic-oriented political party pan, the last place in the west where you might expect to see the figure of an Old World rabbi, broad-brimmed hat, long coat, devoted wife at his side, walking along the roadway while dented vintage Chevys and Oldsmobiles roared past, spraying noxious exhaust fumes.
4. Reaching for America
It is a bit of an anomaly, if not a miracle, that Rabbi Polichenko is the current spiritual leader of the majority of the Jews in Tijuana. It’s also really quite amazing that the center has held together for as long as it has, considering the strains upon its membership and its peculiar location. Aside from an occasional Jewish businessman who came to Baja California from north of the border, Tijuana’s Jewish community was virtually nonexistent until the end of World War II. As for the country at large, a first wave of Jewish immigrants arrived in Mexico from Eastern Europe after the Napoleonic Wars and then in a second wave around the turn of the century. The majority of these people had the United States in mind as their ultimate destination; most of them had to settle in Latin America. As one Jewish-Mexican social psychologist told me, surveying the scene below from the 17th floor of his Mexico City office building, “My father came here from Poland as poor as any of the peasants in those shanties down below. What did he know? He wanted to come to America and spent his last money for the passage. And he reached America — but it was Latin America. The port where he landed was Veracruz. He sold pots and pans in the streets and eventually came to Mexico City. There he met my mother, who was also born in Eastern Europe.”
From Mexico to Argentina, tens of thousands of old country Jews arrived to work as itinerant peddlers and shopkeepers, making new families in the relatively liberal atmosphere of the New World. For many of the Ashkenazis, the Jews of Eastern European origin who now number about 60 percent of the community, Mexico was regarded at first as a way station on the route to the United States. For the Sephardim, the Jews of Mediterranean origin who arrived from Turkey, Bulgaria, Lebanon, and Syria, Mexico seemed more hospitable with respect to both climate and language.
Settling mainly in Mexico City and Guadalajara, these Jewish immigrants numbered approximately 8000 between 1905 and 1910, with another surge of immigration between the World Wars that added another 15,000 people to the Jewish community of Mexico. Many Jews from Germany, Russia, Poland, and Hungary (the four main Ashkenazi communities) who were trained in various crafts found no market for those occupations and adapted their skills to the country’s needs. They parlayed small beginnings into large entrepreneurships in the manufacturing world. The father of my social-psychologist friend, for example, went in his lifetime from peddler to warehouseman to warehouse owner.
A lot of the Sephardim entered the clothing trades, moving from jobs as machine workers to manufacturers. Members of the Zaga family of Mexico City are a case in point, progressing from immigrants to a household name in one generation by virtue of their widely advertised men’s shirts.
About 60 percent of the economically active Jews in the large Mexico City population entered into the manufacture and sale of footwear, underwear, men’s clothing, and paper products. Some 25 percent produce other staples such as furniture, textiles, and electrical appliances. The remaining 15 percent include professionals, clerks, and civil servants. All the newcomers followed the tradition of the closely knit, self-helping family, which they had brought along with their baggage. With as much skill and tenacity as they applied to the burgeoning business world, they also organized the Jewish community.
Each geographical and tribal group established its own kehillah, the democratically constituted central body of the community. When the Ashkenazim in Mexico City set up the Nichde Israel about 50 years ago, Yiddish was their preferred language most of the time. Under this umbrella, German and Hungarian immigrants founded two different kehillot, the Hatikva Menorah and the Emuna; their respective mother tongues were spoken there. The Sephardim created the Union Sefardi de Mexico, and this Arabic-speaking group divided according to regions of origin, with Jews from Damascus in one kehillah and those from Aleppo in the other.
These organizations helped develop an extensive Jewish school system, which since the 1920s has provided a fully rounded program in religious as well as secular subjects from elementary through high school levels. About 65 percent of Mexican-Jewish children currently attend these schools. The curriculum includes secular subjects prescribed by the Ministry of Education and Jewish studies, usually in an equally balanced combination. By means of this extensive educational network, the Jewish community succeeded in passing oh its heritage to each succeeding generation.
They achieved this in the face of some difficult social and psychological barriers. As historian Judith Elkin has written, these people were “triple strangers” in Mexico, by dint of their religion, their ethnic origin, and their historical expe-rience. However, over the decades of their adjustment and settlement, their lives were affected by distinctively Mexican factors. Of major importance are laws passed in the wake of Mexico’s liberation early in the 19th Century from Spanish rule, which bar the foreign-born and their offspring from elected political office and other key posts, such as rectorships In universities. One result has been that Mexican Jews have expressed themselves politically almost solely within their community, first creating potent bureaucracies for the synagogues and other institutions, and then organizing central bodies. Today the Comite Central Israelita de Mexico, originally the Committee for Refugees, founded in 1938, reflects the kaleidoscope of nationalities and religious practices and represents Mexican Jewry as a whole to the government, other Jewish organizations, and the world outside.
Because Mexico’s liberal modern constitution decrees separation of church and state, the Jews were not confronted with overt, Church-generated anti-Semitism, as has been the case in other Latin American countries. But anti-Semitism still exists at the popular level. The brisk sales of such violently anti-Jewish publications as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which appear on newsstands alongside pornographic publications and sports papers, attest to this. Although the Jews, going from peddlers to manufacturers, played a noticeable role in the industrialization and modernization of 20th-century Mexico, when the Depression hit and the price of silver dropped they were treated as foreigners. For instance, on March 27,1931, during the annual Day of Commerce parade in Mexico City, Jewish merchants were forced out of the Lagunilla Market. “Buy from Mexicans — Boycott Jews!” That was the motto of the day.
Anti-Semitic sentiment in Mexico came to a head during the late ’30s and on into the war years as nationalism sometimes turned to antifor-eign sentiment. Nationalists grouped the Jews with outsiders. Anti-Jewish propaganda fostered by the German diplomatic corps encouraged this line of attack.
DAILY GLOBE intelube lon-dres presse collect following yesterdays headcoming anti-semitic campaign mexpress propetition se tee emma mex-workers confederation proexpulsion exmexico quote small jewish textile manufacturers unquote twas learned today per-reliable source that german legation mexcity actively behind the campaign etstate-ment that legation gone length sending antisemitic propaganda mexdept interiorwards borne out propamphlet possession local newspaperman stop pamphlet asserts jews influence unfavourably any country they live etempha-sises quote their belief absolute power etthat they gain their ends without conscience or consideration unquote stop....
We get some of the flavor of this trying period in the cable sent by Hugh Firmin, a British citizen working as a news stringer in Mexico, in Malcolm Lowry’s novel Under the Volcano set in Mexico in 1938. In the streets and in the cantinas, as Lowry depicts the time, the accusations combined xenophobia with drunken delusions. “You no wrider,” says a rural police chief, taking Lowry’s main character by the throat. “You Al Capon. You a Jew chingao....”
5. “A New Sort of Ghetto”
In the minds of the central Jewish community in post-World War II Mexico City, Baja California was the last frontier, a place wide open for the tough-minded entrepreneur, where Jews were unknown and conventional biases might fall away. However, two Jewish businessmen, one arriving from the north, the other Mexican-born, had already played a prominent role in the development of this territory. Just after the American Civil War, at a time when Mexicali did not exist and Tijuana was still a ranch, a Polish-born, polyglot Anaheim resident named Louis Mendelson, a veteran of the Fourth Missouri Volunteers, almost single-handedly blazed a trail in this new territory. Mendelson, already a successful California lumberyard owner, went south when he heard the news of a gold rush in the San Rafael Valley, about 25 miles east of Ensenada. There he opened a general store and quickly established himself as one of Baja California del Norte’s most prominent residents, buying a part-ownership of the major gold mine, raising sheep, marrying Carmen Lamadrid, a young woman from a local family, and entering local politics in Real del Castillo, the mining town that became the new capital of the region.
Mendelson made traversing the nearby border a way of life, often traveling north to see family and to use his good knowledge of Hebrew while officiating at Sabbath services at Congregation Beth Israel, the small Jewish congregation that was founded in San Diego in 1861, which was often without a regular rabbi. As historian Donald Chaput reports, as early as 1882 Louis Mendelson traveled up from Baja and his brother Max Mendelson came down from San Juan Capistrano and together they led the High Holy Day services. By the time the San Rafael Valley gold mine began to fail, Mendelson had become attorney general of Baja, serving at the same time as an agent for the Connecticut-based, London-financed International Company, the foreign developers of the region. He worked with and eventually took over the management of the company’s local office from another Jew, the Mexican-born Max Bernstein who was employed by the company from 1886 into the 1890s. Mendelson turned his acquired legal expertise to good use in a successful customs brokerage in San Diego with an office on the docks at 1345 G Street and a residence at 1335 18th Street, where he spent the last several decades of his life. Mendelson died in a Los Angeles hospital in 1908 and was buried in L.A., but his wife, Carmen Lamadrid Mendelson, remained in San Diego until her death in 1948 at the age of 81.
To cite one notable contemporary example of Jewish immigration to Baja, the father of well-known Tijuana businessman Jose Galicot — a Jew of Turkish descent — worked as a peddler in the state of Chi-huahua before moving his young family to Tijuana in the late 1940s. Tijuana, currently at more than a million people, had a population then of only about 20,000. One of the most prominent forces in the town at the time of the arrival of the Galicots was a Jewish chemist named Leon Blum. Blum and a few other friends organized concerts and exhibitions of the work of local artists and established a Jewish social club called the Mogen David or Star of David Club and later the Hatik-vah Club, after the national anthem of the state of Israel, clubs that evolved into the present Centro Social Israelita.
Another classic example is that of the Goldsteins, co-owners of Dorian’s department store. The elder Goldstein, born in Romania, survived internment in a Nazi concentration camp and, after spending some time at the end of the war in Italy and Marseilles, arrived in Tijuana in the late 1940s and sold wrist-watches on the street. His son Gregorio Jr. was born in Tijuana and, in what is not an untypical story for-many young Tijuana-born Jews, traveled across the border to attend high school and college in San Diego. He met his wife, a Jewish girl from Guadalajara, while working as a counselor at the Jewish summer camp established by the Centro’s religious leader at the time, Max Furmansky, and went into the family business.
The Jewish community of Mexico City stabilized in this period at a level of about 37,000, with about another 800 to 1000 or so in Guadalajara, a similar number in Monterrey, and then another hundred or thereabouts in Acapulco. For 20 years the Jewish community in Tijuana absorbed numerous families emigrating from these places, and the families already in place produced a second generation. As Gregorio Goldstein Jr. puts it, “Tijuana in those days was a magnet for people who wanted good business opportunities.” The Jewish community grew as the city grew, as Jewish businessmen put their savings and new loans into the development of some of Tijuana’s most visible commercial enterprises, such as Dorian’s and the Sara’s chain, ushering in a golden era for the Jews of Tijuana.
Businessmen like Jose Galicot were quite visible and active in local clubs and charities and kept up good relations with the local bishop. Not even Mexico’s notorious support for the 1975 United Nations resolution equating Zionism with racism put much of a dent in the life of Jewish Tijuani-ans. For most of the Jews living there the city became for a while, in Galicot’s words, “a new sort of ghetto,” a magical, privileged place, with the proximity of San Diego, where many Jewish families had, as Galicot calls it, a “nest” to which they could retreat for vacations. Business was good, and the community grew in size, according to most estimates, to somewhere between 150 and a little over 200 families, a number of them living on the U.S. side of the border and traveling down to Tijuana every day, all of them committed, nonetheless, to the well-being of the Tijuana Centro.
There were, of course, a few problems, and it was precisely that same proximity to San Diego that seemed to create some of them. The Centro just couldn’t seem to find a spiritual leader who wanted to settle here. Rabbis came and went, mainly visitors from the north. It wasn’t until the early ’70s that Max Furmansky arrived from Buenos Aires with his family to live here and lead the congregation. Furmansky was a Conservative Jew rather than Orthodox, and he was not an ordained rabbi but was trained as a cantor to lead the musical parts of the Sabbath services. Despite the fact that most of the local families came from Orthodox backgrounds, they welcomed a man who was willing to make the commitment to stay in place.
Furmansky went to work, leading the Sabbath services, organizing classes in Jewish law and history for the children in the community, and inaugurating a month-long Jewish summer camp that enrolled hundreds of children from Mexico City and Guadalajara as well as Jewish kids from Tijuana, housing the visitors in local homes. The camp conducted numerous trips north across the border to such attractions as Sea World, and a week of camping in the countryside of Baja California. Furmansky’s son, Josef, now a successful San Diego software entrepreneur, remembers his first four years in Tijuana as “a beautiful time,” with the Jewish community center as the focal point of his activity. In 1977, Furmansky moved his family to San Diego but remained at the head of the congregation, and young Josef, though he now attended Hebrew Day School in San Diego, traveled with his father nearly every day to the Tijuana center where he studied martial arts and played soccer on the Jewish team. Even in the heat of the playing field where the Jews went head-to-head against Catholic teams, he claims that he never heard any anti-Semitic slurs. This, and a roof over the family and food oiv the table, for a Jew counts as a sort of paradise.
6. Turmoil in Paradise
The real turmoii in the Jewish community here came from within. As business conditions improved in Tijuana from the end of the Second World War on, there had been a regular influx of families from Mexico City and Guadalajara, and a number of these people were Sephardic.
The Sephardim, as I previously mentioned, are Jews of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern origin, with family links to the original tribes of Israel, and their locale has stretched from the cities and deserts of old Persia and Syria (some having migrated as far east as India) to the antique cities of Italy, Greece, and Spain. Physiologically many of them resemble their Arab cousins in facial features, hair, and skin coloring. The Jews of the Kingdom of Spain were Sephardic Jews who, along with the Moors, formed two-thirds of the great religious triad of the Golden Age of Iberian culture. The Ashkenazis also claim direct descent from the original Israelites, but physically they seem distinct from the Sephardim, and their origins are lost in the cloudy era of the early Middle Ages. How to account for the advent of Jewish peddlers and merchants in the Kingdom of Old Russia in the 11th and 12th Centuries? The most imaginative and compelling argument comes from the late European writer Arthur Koestler, who speculated that these Jews were descended from the Central Asian tribe called the Khazars who, when their ruler converted to Judaism in 740 A.D., all converted along with him.
Because of the historical separation of the Sephardic Jews from the Ashkenazis, the Sephardic religious service evolved in some distinctive ways from the services of the other community. This is most pronounced in the melodies used to sing certain prayers. For the Jews of Mexico City, where each of the groups prayed in their separate ways, such distinctions never proved to be points of contention. In the early 1980s a Sephardic family named Adato moved from Mexico City to Tijuana and having no choice about where to pray joined the Centro, starting a small war over the religious practice of the Sabbath service. They began a campaign for separate religious services at the Centro for Sephardim that tore the community apart. By the time the Adatos moved back to Mexico City, the once-numerous Jewish community of the Centro was reduced to about 50 or 60 families and was without a regular spiritual leader.
It wasn’t just the squabble between the Sephardic Jews and the Ashkenazi Jews that led to the shrinkage of the Centro’s membership. In a dispute over his contract, Max Furmansky resigned from his post as spiritual head of the congregation in 1983, leaving the community without a regular religious guide for many years.
The economy was also a force in the dissolution of the Tijuana Centro. A major devaluation of the peso sent a number of prominent Jewish-Mexican Tijuana families north across the border to establish themselves in the more stable U.S. economy. Just as commuting back and forth from Tijuana to San Diego has become a way of life tor more than 50,000 Mexican service workers, commuting in the opposite direction became the rule for many Jewish-Mexican businessmen. More than half of the Centro’s congregants have moved to San Diego County, and many of these, while keeping some affiliation with the Centro, have joined other congregations in their new California home.
That’s why you can hear so much Spanish spoken at the Conservative Temple Adat Ami in Mission Valley. Nearly half the congregation of the Conservative Temple Adat Ami led by Argentinean-born Rabbi Arnold Kopikis used to belong to the Centro in Tijuana. Tijuana’s drought has led to Adat Ami’s deluge. Rabbi Kopikis speaks with pleasure of the way that the Jews who wandered over the border have enriched the religious and social life of his congregation. As for the hopes for the Tijuana Centro’s survival, he is not sanguine. Rabbi Polichenko, for all of his good intentions, is “a nostalgic reminder of the Old World” rather than someone who can hold the rapidly shrinking Tijuana Jewish community intact. “It’s not a natural coupling,” Kopikis explains. (In fact, rumors have flown as far as the Jewish community in Mexico City to the effect that some of the exodus from the Centro to San Diego congregations comes in part from the discomfort on the part of some Tijuana Jews with Polichenko’s Old World demeanor and approach.)
“When they were in chaos down there,” Rabbi Kopikis continued, “Chabad sent help in the person of Rabbi Polichenko. It’s holding steady for a while. But how long can they hold out? Their financial resources are not great. They’re having a lot of money problems within the Centro, and they’re not a big hope for donations the way the Chabad people might have thought. Eventually Chabad will withdraw Polichenko and someone from up here will e-mail the Sabbath service to them down there.”
In the past few years the growing disintegration of Mexican middle-class life has led to even further Jewish emigration from Tijuana. Kidnappings are on the rise in the major cities, and while no Jews from Tijuana have yet been the target of such plots, fear of these matters has led to the growth of a strain of cautiousness to the point of paranoia on the part of some members of the Centro.
7. At the Centro Social Israelita
Rabbi Polichenko had been hospitable and forthcoming with me, pleased to take me on a tour of the Centro’s facilities. But all of his good cheer could not put a good face on the condition of the compound, its drab classrooms, the large sanctuary whose glaring light suggested more a high school auditorium than an Orthodox synagogue, the bedraggled children’s playground, the grass ragged and ungroomed, the small swimming pool a rather pathetic imitation of the grand Olympic-size pool that you find at the glorious Jewish Sports Center in Mexico City. Clearly, there was something lax about the upkeep of these facilities, something that went beyond the possibility that the congregation lacked the funds to maintain the grounds in pristine fashion. On the Lower East Side of New York City, there are centers like this in the city welfare system, where the barest amount of money is put aside for maintenance so that the city’s poor children might have a place to play after school. On the Lower East Side of New York City there are other places, now abandoned, or turned into Pentecostal churches, where the grandfathers fresh off the boats from the Old World once gathered to say their ancient prayers in the New World air.
But I kept these reservations to myself and was pleased that at the end of our meeting the rabbi invited me to the next day’s Sabbath service and the community supper that would follow. Perhaps my first impressions were mistaken and this was a place still full of life rather than a location where slow decay ruled and old traditions had been cast into a corner to waste away from lack of maintenance. Unfortunately, I wasn’t going to have much chance to look at these matters in the best light. When Rabbi Polichenko had me follow him up the stairs to a meeting room where the board of the congregation was just finishing a session, I was immediately met with great suspicion.
“Do you have any identification?” The woman cochair of the board — let’s call her Mrs. S., since she asked me not to use her name — made this demand as though she were expecting an infiltrator from the Mexican provincial police. A plump and stumpy figure in a plain dress, she stood squarely between me and the other members of the board in the meeting room on the second floor of the Centro. When I explained that my mission was to write a story about the Jewish community of Tijuana, her face closed and the board scattered.
The next day, at the approach of the Sabbath, on my visit to the center, Mrs. S. was even more direct and hostile.
“The board met and talked about your story,” she said. “We voted that you don’t write it.”
I had arrived a few hours earlier and had spent the time talking with members of the Centro, some of them Ashkenazi, some of them Sephardic, about their lives in Tijuana, and about the life of the Jewish community here. In what appears to be the dwindling latter years of the Centro, the rift between the two main tribal factions seems to have been repaired, if only by inertia. The young men present seemed dedicated to their religion and their culture. Rabbi Polichenko has obviously been a positive force in the mending of any lingering feuds and the outlook of these fellows. The only complaints from the boys I spoke to had to do with — surprise, surprise — the lack of eligible Jewish women in the community. Some of the boys had studied in Israel and were thinking about going back. Or at least to Los Angeles for a social hour with some Jewish girls up there. Like Orthodox Jews anywhere, these fellows spoke as if they lived on an island, surrounded by Gentile waters. Not that they had any problems with their neighbors. It was just their mournful thoughts about dating that came out in the form of laments. Blood! blood! The bloodline had to continue!
I had intended to continue my conversation with these young men after the Friday evening service, but now Mrs. S., the cochair of the governing board, was about to make that impossible.
“So you can come in if you don’t write your story,” she told me.
“Things don’t work that way,” I said.
“How do they work?” Mrs. S. said, as we stood in the vestibule of the Centro. “You’re writing this story for who?”
I explained again.
“How much are they paying you?”
“Enough,” I said. “Well, we’ll pay you the same amount not to write it,” she said.
“Are you offering me a bribe?” I said.
“We’ll pay you not to write the story,” she said. “You’ll pay me off?” “Please,” she said, “we don’t want any stories. It’s a bad situation here, people have had death threats made against them, there are kidnappings here and all over Mexico. We don’t want people to know our names.”
“Then I won’t use your names,” I said.
A small crowd had gathered in the lobby by now, about a half-dozen of the 60 or so people who belong to the congregation. Some of them spoke among themselves; others drifted over to our discussion.
“We’ll ask the rabbi,” a woman said.
“I’ll tell the rabbi what the board decided,” Mrs. S. said.
“But now it’s time for the service,” the other woman said.
“Are you coming in?” Mrs. S. said, half-inquiring, half-inviting.
“Not under your conditions,” I said. “If I come in, I’ll be keeping my eyes open. You’ve just told me that I’m not welcome to write my story. So I’m not welcome.”
“No, you can’t write your story,” Mrs. S. said.
“Then I can’t come in,” I said.
A third congregant who had been listening to us edged over to me, a slightly built, dark-haired middle-aged woman who spoke with a French accent.
“You must come in,” she said. “You are a Jew, yes?”
I thought a moment. Then I nodded, yes.
“You are invited then, story or no story,” the woman with the French accent said. “And besides, there is such a thing as free speech, which I am afraid this person doesn’t understand.” She glanced over at Mrs. S. and rolled her eyes.
“You don’t understand,” Mrs. S. said to her. “Some of us are rich. We’ve gotten death threats, there have been kidnappings. We don’t want our names in the newspaper. You don’t have money, you don’t understand.”
The French woman’s head jerked back as though she’d been struck on the jaw.
“Oh,” she said, “you know nothing about me. Nothing at all.” She turned away from Mrs. S. and pleaded with me to come into the synagogue.
But I could not enter their sanctuary, knowing that I was going in not only as a Jew and a guest but also to gather impressions for this story. The French woman said that they would speak to the rabbi about this matter. I told them that I would wait to hear his decision.
While waiting in the vestibule I mulled over the many ironies of the situation, for me and for these people. While I had nodded in assent to the woman’s query about whether or not I was Jewish, I had in my own mind many questions about this question. I had been born into a Jewish family, yes, and circumcised in the first few days of life. I had attended religious school, though my parents never did more than practice the minimum amounts of Jewish ritual, my mother lighting candles on the eve of the Sabbath, my father attending the services at the Orthodox synagogue only on the High Holy Days in the autumn of the year. I practiced for my bar mitzvah, the male coming-of-age ceremony celebrated when a boy turns 13. But after high school I had fallen away from the religion. In the past 40 years I had been to synagogue once, and that, ironically enough, had been in 1976 in Mexico City, where I had attended a Saturday morning service in a small synagogue near a freight crossing in a workers’ district in the north part of town, a small, plaster-walled structure with poor lighting and meager accouterments. This was the place of prayer for the self-proclaimed “nucleus of Mexican Jewry,” a small group of men and boys, women and noisy, rollicking children, presided over by the aging Rabbi Baltazar Laureano Ramirez, all of them mestizos who claimed to be descended from the first Jews to set foot on Mexican soil, Jews like those in the family of Hernando Alonso.
So if I had paid only one visit to a synagogue in 40 years, at least it had been an interesting place!
The only other official ceremony I had attended was the burial service for my father at his graveside some 14 years ago. And I had raised none of my children as Jews; certainly none of them had a Jewish mother. But the Ashkenazi tribe and its culture was my birthright, and I had been more than mildly interested in the debates going on in Israel about the nature of Jewish identity. Who was a Jew? The strict Orthodox rabbis of Israel, who presided over the country’s official religion with no less iron in their hands than the ayatollahs of Iran, made it clear that they would not recognize marriages of Jews by blood to converts to Conservative or Reform Judaism. In the current debate in Israel about Jewish identity, the ruling Orthodox rabbis assert that only an Orthodox conversion makes for a “real” Jew.
And over the course of this very week, speaking to various rabbis and Jewish lay people here and in San Diego, the question of the religious identity of converts to Judaism stayed with me. A name kept coming up, the name of a man in Tijuana, Carlos Salas, who was supposedly a Conservative rabbi or cantor who was converting Tijuana Catholics to Judaism. An Orthodox rabbi from the San Diego Chabad movement, Rabbi Michael Lieder, dismissed the possibility that anyone who wasn’t converted by Orthodox procedures was a real Jew. To him, and the rest of the Chabad members, there are two kinds of Jews, those who were Jews by birth and those who are converted by the Orthodox means. By that standard, I was Jewish. But is an observant Jewish convert to Conservative Judaism less a Jew than I am? According to the recent radical declaration of the fundamentalist Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States and Canada, Conservative and Reform Judaism are “a different religion,” and therefore any convert to those branches of the faith is not, in the eyes of these fundamentalists, a Jew at all.
A few small children, the hope of the congregation, ran through the vestibule and out into the courtyard where the sanctuary stood, crossing a line that my ethics would not allow me to pass over. I recalled the many hours I had spent as a child, playing out the long boredom outside the synagogue on the High Holy Days while the adults within prayed themselves into a sort of chanting, humming, buzzing, mumbling mass of supplicants to a stern, demanding God who had first appeared to the earliest Jew hidden within a burning bush and asked a father to sacrifice his son to his worship. The first rabbi I recall meeting was a sour-breathed man with five o’clock shadow, a real Old World Orthodox trooper whose way of greeting young boys was to take a fold of their cheek between his fingers and pull hard.
“You’re a good boy? You better stay good!”
Feeling the pinch and breathing in his breath, who couldn’t wait to get away?
The cantor was a huskier man, and sweeter, with a rich baritone voice that swelled the upper reaches of the synagogue on the High Holy Days nearly to bursting with the beauty of his noise; the more subtle minor meanderings of his voice in lesser keys called to mind the ancient days of the desert tribe that first invented the figure of a single, all-powerful deity who kept to himself and demanded complete fealty to his every commandment. Between the fear of getting pinched and the pleasure of such music, a small boy could live in the faith of his fathers. It was a good time, life in the cocoon of family and tribe and neighborhood and welcoming Jersey shore town, though it lasted only a few comforting years before I crossed over the border into the disquiet of uncertainty. Who am I? And what am I? And who are my people? A tribe or a group of coreligionists? What makes a Jew? His mother’s blood? Or his religious practice? And if the latter, then why care about such antique and vexing questions as the nature of bloodlines and the purity of the tribe? The People of the Book? The Jews have always been People on the Border, standing at the interface between past and present, ancient and modern, Old World and New World, between blood tribe and practitioners of a faith. And why do I feel the need for them to care about me? And why do I care about them?
The Centro’s long-time janitor, a mestizo man, lounged in a soft chair at one corner of the hall, his white skullcap perched precariously on his head. Another employee of the Centro paced in and out of the hall, his small ponytail dangling behind him. A third man stood outside, watching the parked cars. There had been some vandalism a while ago, he told me. And so he worked security. And I wondered if a Mexican Jew could ever walk outside to see his vehicle vandalized and write it off as nothing but a crime instead of as a crime against a Jew.
I look out along the corridor to the sanctuary and see that some people are coming out of the service. A man my age appears with the two young men I had spoken to upon my arrival. He is their father, younger than I am, but to my eyes he has the appearance of a much older man, and he reminds me of my father. We speak a little about his line of work. He sells perfumes. A good business. One of his sons has gone into public relations, the other still studying at college on the other side of the border but also helping out with the family business. I know these people. I feel at home with them. We are related by culture, though they are Sephardim of Turkish origin. Perhaps we’ll speak further if I am allowed to stay for the community dinner.
But Mrs. S. comes out of the sanctuary to inform me that she has spoken to the rabbi and he has said that because it is the Sabbath he doesn’t want to engage in this discussion. So the decision of the board still stands. No story. They won’t cooperate. On Wednesday, she tells me, they will meet again and discuss the situation. They will send me guidelines. Where can they fax them to me? So she has bent a little to some pressure from the others. But not enough to invite me into the meal.
I leave the building, a Jew — ? — turned away by his own — ? — people.
8. Another Sanctuary
But in Tijuana there is another sanctuary for Jews, if they will only open their eyes to see it. In the Montebello neighborhood, halfway up a hill in the southeastern section of the city, at Calle Amado Nervo No. 207, you approach the outside wall of a small compound, and if you raise your eyes you discover, of all remarkable things in this working-class Catholic neighborhood, a large menorah, the candelabra that is the symbol of the Jewish holiday of Chanukah. This is the sign upon the door that leads into the Congregacion Hebrea de Baja California, a Conservative-oriented temple presided over by Maestro Carlos Salas Diaz.
As you enter the compound, to the right you see new construction, to the left the entryway, a quiet space with muted light that leads to the archway that opens onto the sanctuary. Soft blue tiles made by Jewish artisans in Valencia line the walls and give back a gentle effusion of color. There are seats for about 75 people facing the traditional closed Ark of the Covenant in which rest two Torahs, one of them a gift from a community of Russian immigrants from Los Angeles.
Presiding over this sanctuary is a big, broad-faced bear of a man in his mid-60s, mestizo in appearance, who possesses an attractive mixture of humility and charisma. In another life Carlos Salas might have been an upper-echelon official of the PRI, Mexico’s ruling party, or a successful lawyer. From a pamphlet that he has had printed based on a 1995 San Diego Union-Tribune feature story by Arthur Golden, the unusual life-journey of this unusual man unfolds like a modern-day fable. Born in the mountains of the central Mexican state of Zacatecas, one of eight children of Catholic parents, Salas knew a childhood of relative tranquility. His father was a miner who worked in the gold and silver mines in nearby Fresnillo. Starting at the age of 5, young Carlos worked as a shepherd until he entered public school four years later. One of his older brothers eventually immigrated to the United States, and Salas, when he turned 18, followed him to Buffalo, New York, and found work as an apprentice mechanic for Bethlehem Steel. He remained employed there until he was drafted into the U.S. Army.
Picture the young Zacatecan in Alaska, where he served most of his tour of duty! The cold, the whiteness became a great blank screen that allowed him to turn his inquiring Mexican emigrant’s mind inward! To thoughts about the nature of spirit and mortality!
But when he returned to Buffalo, the army veteran still had a headful of the workaday world. He used his savings to buy a small hotel and married his first wife, Ariela Valdivia, a Cuban-American woman, with whom he had five children. His spiritual quest led him to enter the Methodist Institute of Buffalo, a now-defunct seminary, and he became an ordained minister, preaching at several Buffalo-area churches with Spanish-speaking congregations. Then, moved by the desire for a warmer climate, he moved to Los Angeles.
For the next decade Salas seemed to travel along two roads simultaneously, finding success in business even as he followed his spiritual bent. His boyhood ties to gold and silver pointed him toward the jewelry business. His love of scripture and writing in general led to work as a reporter for a local Spanish-language newspaper. His instincts for organization gave him the idea for another successful venture, a secretarial and translation service in the same building as the Mexican consulate in downtown Los Angeles.
Salas’s investments made him rich enough to have the time to satisfy his hunger for news about the Old Testament and its laws that his Methodist training could not satisfy. In 1962, Salas enrolled in a five-year course of study at the University of Judaism in Bel Air, the West Coast branch of the Jewish Theological Seminary. The closer he came to renouncing his Methodist beliefs and embracing Judaism as a religion, the more avuncular his teachers became.
“You’re crazy,” Rabbi Henry Fisher told Salas. “You’re going to have nothing but heartache,” another rabbi told him as Salas plunged into a second round of study. Then came his official conversion in 1967.
Jews have never been big on converting people from another religion to Judaism, at least not since the end of that turbulent period, dubbed by one classical scholar as “The Age of Anxiety,” that extended from the First Century B.C. to the end of the first century after the birth of Christ. Numerous religions, most with a compelling message, vied in those years of spiritual frenzy and misdirection for the souls of the population of the Mediterranean. Worship Astarte — or Cybele — or Jesus — or the God of Abraham — or join the ranks of the bull-worshippers from the Roman army, these were some of the choices people saw before them. And as far as proselytizing went, the Jews did not do badly, taking numbers of souls where they found them among the questing and tormented citizens of Rome and its extremities. With a thousand years of commentaries op the Old Testament, and all of its concomitant laws, still lying ahead of it, Judaism was not a terribly difficult religion to mas* ter, except for the painful requirement of male circumcision. But it was still less strenuous a choice than bull-worship, which required, among other things, a trek through the Italian outback and a bath in the blood of a full-grown bull. However, when Christianity, with its simple demand of a decision to worship Jesus as a personal savior, began to get the upper hand, Jewish proselytizing fell off. And never became a paramount concern for Jews thereafter. Then came the Inquisition, when conversions went the other way and thousands of Spanish Jews took instruction in Christianity and raised their children in the church, thinking, mistakenly as it turned out, that this would give them and their descendants shelter in a murderous time.
So conversion is not a subject that Jews think about very often, and when they do it is not usually in a positive way. Because of the large percentage of American Jews who marry outside the religion, conversion has become a topic of interest in the United States. Some spouses choose to study to become Jews. But the numbers are not large. Of the five and a half million Jews in the United States, only 185,000 are converts. Most of these are Conservative converts, at home in the United States but in Israel found by the Israeli Orthodox rabbis to be counterfeit Jews.
But whatever the Orthodox of Israel —- and that fundamentalist group of American and Canadian Orthodox rabbis — may say, the conversion process remains quite rigorous. Normally a board of three Conservative rabbis sits in judgment on those who have announced their intention to convert to Judaism, asking questions about their knowledge of Judaism and their motivations for converting to the religion. A successful session is followed by an immersion ceremony, in which the newly embraced converts are led into the mikvah, the ritual bath. In the case of Carlos Salas, seven rabbis gathered on the tribunal, evidence that the word had gotten around the Bel Air seminary that an extraordinary event was about to take place. And if some possibly had come to scoff, most stayed to praise.
Salas had scarcely dried off from his ritual immersion when he left Los Angeles for Mexico. He already owned a house and some property in Tijuana, a location that he saw as a place of promise for business and at the same time a city where many of the inhabitants suffered greatly and were in need of spiritual counseling. Or as he described it to me one recent Sabbath afternoon, a city with people “wandering in the streets, looking to the left, looking to the right, and seeing nothing.” Salas opened a school where he offered free Bible study classes, and the classes quickly filled up with interested, inquiring local people, most of them from the ranks of the ordinary work force of the town, a few of them from the professions. And like his father before him, he became a sort of miner, his bank account filling up because of an innovative procedure that he developed for salvaging gold tailings from the residue of jewelry workshop dust. He also married again, to Cristina, a now-40-year-old lawyer with the Mexican Social Security Institute, with whom he has had four children, a son and three daughters.
Elias, his son, is a slender, quiet young man, dressed neatly and with a good handshake. On the afternoon that I met him, he had a young boy in tow and a mission in mind. The child was a fatherless boy from the neighborhood whom the Salas family is caring for. Elias was taking him to the circus. By the standards of any Orthodox rabbi, whether from the fundamentalists or the mainstream or the Chabad “God Squad,” this certainly wouldn’t be classified as good Jewish practice. But when you consider just where any million Jews you might follow on a Sabbath afternoon could be heading, it doesn’t seem contrary to the unwritten laws for the care and upbringing of a fatherless young boy.
Many of Maestro Salas’s students in the Bible study classes began to follow along the path that he had first taken, away from Catholicism and toward Judaism, not so much out of rejection of the former faith as a way of getting closer to its origins. In 1984, nearly two dozen people expressed the desire to leap ahead rather than merely, walk. And so Maestro Salas led the first handful of Tijuana residents desiring to convert to Judaism up to Los Angeles where they sat before a rabbinical tribunal at the University of Judaism. As Arthur Golden has reported, the chairman of conversion affairs for the western region of the (Conservative) rabbinical assembly. Rabbi Edward M. Tenenbaum, said of the applicants that they “were reasonably well-prepared.” Rabbi Tenenbaum went on to say that “You don’t expect a convert to know everything about Judaism. What stood out was Salas’s devotion to the converts and their devotion to him....” In a dramatic gesture, the group drove to Rosarito Beach and took their required ritual bath by wading into the ocean. Two more groups of converts have gone forward since then, one in 1991, made up of 29 people, again at the University of Judaism, and in January of 1995, another class of 34 people.
Since he wasn’t born Jewish, Maestro Salas grew up without what seems to be the often endemic paranoia of the modern Jew in the wake of the Holocaust. He has good relations with the Catholic Church in Tijuana and has converted his neighbors, without their even knowing it, into a group of philo-Semites. When they hear that a visiting congregation from Southern California is driving down for a tour of the Congregacion Hebrea compound, they sweep the sidewalks and the streets and cheer the visitors when they arrive. Much of this has to do with the way that Salas has reached out to the local inhabitants with gifts of food and cash to the needy. Currently under construction in his compound is a dining hall in which he plans to feed free breakfast to the hungry every morning of the year.
But if his relations with the Church and his Catholic neighbors are good, his ties to the Centro Israelita couldn’t be worse. At best, people speak of him as “the preacher turned rabbi.” Others prefer not to talk about him at all, or they dismiss his group as a cult. But there is an even more negative way of describing him. “It’s a touchy subject,” one prominent Jewish businessman told me. “He’s doing a good job. But they’re not Jewish over there.”
Not Jewish! Think how the Nazis studied the genealogy of populations in Germany and France in hopes of discovering some drop of Jewish blood! To be declared not Jewish was a sentence of life! Though Jewish law forbids disenfranchisement of other Jews, today the Orthodox wade through a crowd of people who believe they are Jews, winnowing out those whom they deem to have failed to meet the test of practice, symbolically killing off those whom they find to be less than observant. Obey only 400 of the 500 and some laws of the halachah, the compendium of Jewish theological practice over the centuries, and they will consider you less than what you may take yourself to be.
Is this merely a version of High Church snobbism? Or is there something in the Orthodox view that harks back to the earliest days of this desert-born tribal religion when the Hebrews found themselves singled out by a jealous God as His agent in history, showing the way to the nations of idol worshipers and unbelievers? Add the elements of racial difference to the mix and you come up with quite a complicated situation. Is Maestro Salas a Jew? Are his children, raised in a home attentive to Jewish custom and law, Jewish?
It was one thing when some years ago he was rebuffed by the board when asked if he could participate in the activities of the Centro. His children learned an even harder lesson when they went there to study in one of the Bible classes and Mrs. S. asked them to leave. They did not belong, she told them. They have not been back, and it may be that this particular act of rudeness on the part of Mrs. S. may have sundered relations between the two groups for good and all. With its undertones of racism — denying entry to the Jewish children of Mexican birth, in fact, denying the possibility that these Mexican children might be Jewish at all—the autocratic action of the woman now cohead of Tijuana’s Orthodox community makes it appear that she believes that the dark-skinned Mexican Jews, those who resemble in appearance the janitors and security guards at the Centro rather than most of the congregants, are theologically, socially, and racially inferior. And if the children of Hernando Alonso knocked at the door of the Centro, would they too be turned away?
9. Meditations on a Myth
The story of the death by fire of Hernando Alonso is a powerful thing to consider. The Jew in flames! With those bonfires fed by Jewish fuel, the great golden age of triadic Spanish culture — Catholic, Jewish, Muslim—came to an end. And you can say that such a run of destruction as the Inquisition presaged the destruction of European Jewry by the Nazis in the 20th Century, or you can just notice the similarities. After a great period of peace and inter-communal beneficence, an age of great art and music and literature, the nation, like some magnificent edifice built on unsteady soil, came crashing down into a boiling pit of race hate and murder.
Could it happen again in Mexico? More pyres? More Jews thrown into the flames? There are some who fear the worst. There are some who, pondering the current high profile of Jew-hating militias and so-called Christian Identity churches that preach a doctrine of racial “purity,” say that it could happen in the United States, the stereotype of the high-minded, dark-robed Spanish Inquisitor or the neatly tailored Gestapo officer, his nails well manicured, turning off the Beethoven on the Victrola to settle down to serious questioning of his Jewish captive, replaced by the image of a lanky, long-jawed Yank in camouflage clothes, squatting over a latrine hole, his drawers down about his ankles, an unfiltered cigarette dangling from his narrow lips, defecating on the Jew in the pit.
Disgusting! The nightmares of a neurotic-depressive imagination, and not a useful thought to consider when meditating on the millennial prospects of the Jewish immigrant. There is, in fact, a much more evocative New World story to consider, an ur-story, a myth, we have to call it, that has persisted for centuries that puts the Jew as the first to arrive on New World soil. In North America, for example, in the theology of the Mormon Church, the story persists that the Lost Tribe of Israel emigrated by ship from the Middle East to the American continent. Some early U.S. chroniclers of the mores of the North American Plains Indians wrote of the amazing similarities between the rituals of certain tribes and Jewish ritual. Anthropologists dig all over Mexico even as you read this, some of their work sponsored by the Mormons, inspired by this old story of the tie between the biblical lands and the territory of the New World, the myth that the Lost Tribe of Israel sailed from the Holy Land to Mexico, carrying with them the ancient scrolls of the Law, in the same way that Aeneas in Virgil’s great poem of the founding of Rome carried the hearth gods from the city of Troy to the shores of Italy.
Certainly a number of legitimate anthropologists and researchers have based their work on the possibility of such a voyage. Thor Heyerdahl constructed his famous raft Kon-Tiki to show that a reed boat could survive a rigorous transoceanic voyage. Ivan Van Sertima, a Rutgers university scholar, has written extensively on the oceangoing traffic between Africa, the Near East, and the Mexican coast, where the mysterious Olmecs thrived and left behind the huge stone heads with inexplicably African features. And if we can skate for an instant to the furthest rim of the links between mythology and history, consider the story of Quetzalcoatl, the Plumed Serpent, God of the Aztecs, whom theology proclaimed would arrive in the flesh from over the great waters to the east and bring to a conclusion one of the great cycles of time. As the Spanish chroniclers of the period suggest, the Aztecs mistook Cortes for Quetzalcoatl. But what if the Plumed Serpent had already arrived and the working out of the myth in the time of the conquistadors was a faint replay of an early Advent on American soil? What if the Plumed Serpent, Quetzalcoatl Himself, had been a Jew?
All these speculations, fantasies, myths, and dreams! A far cry, you may say, from the life of the Jews of contemporary Mexico, with their ties to Europe, either Spain or Germany, Poland, and Russia. And yet there are those Mexican Jews — people who call themselves Jews, as the Orthodox would say — who claim an inheritance that goes far enough back in time to link them to the period of the conquest, people who claim that their ancestors miraculously survived the period of the Mexican Inqu isition and passed along their rituals from generation to generation, these indigenous people, native in appearance, who read and write Hebrew, and participate in all of the rituals of the faith, some of whom I met myself that Sabbath morning in 1976 in the synagogue on Calle Caruso in Mexico City. In the agricultural village of Venta Prieta, in fact, there are a thousand such families who make these claims, people whose ancestors apparently went underground during the Mexican Inquisition instead of fleeing north across the border to territory that we now call the state of New Mexico, families whose grave markers display small Stars of David along with the crosses and whose lives are filled with the rituals — blessings of bread and wine, observance of the Sabbath, sacramental marriage — that have bound Jews together as coreligionists over millenia.
The story that the Lost Tribe of Israel sailed to Mexico may remain always a myth. But it opens a door onto fabulous thoughts of historical continuity and raises provocative questions about the nature of religious identity. The Indian Jews I met, and those thousands more gathered in the village of Venta Prieta, maybe the apparent descendants of the Mexican Judaizers long lost to the flames of the Inquisition, the children of Hernando Alonso, and a kind of Lost Tribe themselves, whose time may possibly have come around again.
10. Jews at the Door
On Sunday, March 16, Maestro Carlos Salas flew to Mexico City, where he met with representatives from the Jews of Venta Prieta in preparation for a trip to their village. Ignored for decades by the Jewish community of Mexico City, the Venta Prieta residents apparently wish to affiliate themselves with a central religious organization, and it seems as though the Congregation Hebrea de Baja California may be the place where they will join.
Carlos Salas already has plans to expand his Tijuana compound to accommodate a large influx of these new congregants from the east of Mexico. And what a day that will be when they arrive! A great day for these descendants of Hernando Alonso and a great day for the city of Tijuana as well! Rather ironically, it seems as though just at the time that the Centro of the Orthodox Jews, those bound to the religion by blood, is rapidly disintegrating, and the worldwide debate on the nature of Jewish identity rising to a crescendo, convert Maestro Salas is building a peaceful new little Jerusalem on a hill on the east side of this frenetic border town and opening his doors to all who wcftfld enter.
Novelist, storyteller, essayist Alan Cheuse lives in Washington, D.C., serves as book commentator for NPR’s All Things Considered, and teaches in the writing program at George Mason University.