Jewish communities across the Diaspora are often incredibly diverse from one another, speaking different languages, eating different food, and practicing different traditions. However, there are a few unifying characteristics shared by all. In most countries where Jews live, one will find certain basic elements necessary for organized Jewish life, with at least a synagogue, a cemetery, a mikve or ritual bath and a kosher butcher, and in many cases a community center, sports center, and an elementary Jewish school. Together, these serve as the building blocks for a ‘Kehila’ or Jewish community.
In most cases, you will also find a sense of dual pride among community members, of being both Jews as well as citizens of their respective countries. In Mexico, where I live, the Jewish population numbers approximately 44,000, which is organized in 10 different Kehilot (plural of Kehila). Six of those Kehilot are located in Mexico City and four in different places of Mexico.
One of the most unique things about the Jews in Mexico City is that we organize ourselves according to sub-communities, based on religious practice and the places our grandparents immigrated from more than 100 years ago — primarily Europe or the Arab world.
Syrian Jews in Mexico
The Jews who arrived from Arab countries, such as Syria and Lebanon, created two Kehilot: Monte Sinaí, representing the Jews of Lebanon and Damascus (such as my family), and Magen David, representing the Jews of Aleppo. Both are orthodox communities. The Jews who immigrated from eastern and central Europe before and after the Second World War are affiliated with the Kehila Ashkenazi and the Jews who immigrated from the Balkans and Greece are together in the Kehila Sephardi, both orthodox communities. Finally, there are two more Kehilot affiliated with the Conservative Jewish movement, known as ‘Beth El’ and ‘Beth Israel’.
My grandparents came to Mexico from Beirut and from Damascus, and while I have not visited either of those cities, I was raised with a certain affiliation and pride in the land of my ancestry.
Throughout my life, I heard older people speak wistfully about their days in their old country. They talked about their schools where they learned Arabic, French and Hebrew; about the beautiful city and the warm weather; and about the delicious food they missed. My grandparent always used to say: “There's no place in the world with better fruit than Lebanon”.
When my grandparents arrived in Mexico, they helped fund the Kehilot so that we would have the basic services needed for a Jewish life.
In my community, we have our own school, where we follow the Mexican state curriculum and also learning English, Hebrew and Jewish history. My parents went to this school, followed by my brothers and me, and now my son is a student of the same school. This is true tradition, in the spirit of our Arab heritage.
Proud of Arab traditions
As a Mexican Jew with Arab influence, we have traditions for everything. The Jews who descended from Europe or Greece also have traditions of course, but not to the same extent and intensity as the Lebanese and Syrian Jews do. For us, tradition is part of our way of thinking.
My favorite tradition of the Mexican-Jewish-Arab Kehilot is that we give our babies the same name as that of our parents. This differs from the Ashkenazi style, which considers it bad luck to call a child after a living relative. In my ‘kehila’, the first-born receives the name of the parents of his/her father, and the second baby is named after the parents of his/her mother. So the kids’ names are the same as their grandparents. My name is Adela, just like my grandmother (the mother of my mother, which means that I have an older sister who has the same name of the mother of my father). My husband, Charles, is named after his grandfather and our son, Jack, is named after my husband's father, Jacques.
Despite the pride we have in our Arab heritage, most people in my generation never learned the Arabic language, as the alphabets and pronunciation are so different from Spanish, which makes it quite difficult to pick up. However, there are some words or basic phrases that all Mexican Jews of Arab descent are familiar with, such as: Sefra Dayme, Sajten, Ahla Usahla, Alamakon, Sebi Andak, Yalla. On finishing a meal at a big event, the guests greet the hostess with the words ‘Sefra Dayme’, wo which she replies with the expression, Sajten. Of course, these greetings sound better in Arabic than in Spanish.
Speaking of cuisine, there are many great Arabic dishes that are part of our daily diet. The main courses include Kipe, Tabuleh, Let-Cusa, Lebne, Hummus, Manaish, and many others. In our community, we mix Arabic dishes with Mexican complements, and it tastes fantastic! At a typical Mexican Jewish table, you can´t eat Kipe without avocado and spicy sauce; you can't eat Let-Cusa without a warm tortilla and also avocado. Some people even prepare the Lebne in a Mexican style, with tomato and onion.
Ultimately, we have a very strong Mexican-Jewish identity. We are unique around the world among Jewish communities, in how we organize our Kehilot based on our ancestors’ country of origin. But even that may be changing. One hundred years ago, there were many fundamental cultural differences between Jewish immigrants from Europe and Syria, but our generation appears more unified. Undoubtedly, this is one of the challenges that my generation will have to face when it is our time to lead the community while maintaining our traditions. Until then, I say to you goodbye my friends and Alamakon.
Jews who arrived from Arab countries, such as Syria and Lebanon, created two Kehilot: Monte Sinaí, representing the Jews of Lebanon and Damascus (such as my family), and Magen David, representing the Jews of Aleppo.