Mexico discovers its Jewish history
Republic Mexico City Bureau
Oct. 20, 2004
Chris Hawley

ASU delegation is trying to build link with colleges

The Arizonans came searching for their people's past and found it here, lovingly preserved in a small room in an unmarked building in the center of Mexico City.

"This is it, still in the original binding," said historian Carsten Wilke, carefully opening a heavy tome - the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings, all set down in crisp Hebrew type at a printing shop in Venice in 1568. Confiscated by the Nazis, discovered by Allied troops, it was sent to Mexico to be protected forever by Eastern European immigrants who had settled here.

The little-known story of those immigrants, and the rest of Mexico's tiny Jewish community, is what brought the nine-member delegation from Arizona State University to the Mexican capital this month. Organized by ASU's Jewish Studies Program, they are trying to build links with Mexican colleges and make ASU a center for the study of Latin America's Jews.

"We think this can be a specialty for us," said Jack Kugelmass, director of the Jewish studies program. "The university's already very strong in Latin American studies, and so this is a perfect niche."

As people from other states move to Phoenix, the Jewish population in the area has swelled to about 100,000, Kugelmass said. Meanwhile, Mexico's 50,000 Jews have been rediscovering their heritage in the past decade, opening Jewish schools and founding the archive in Mexico City's Condesa neighborhood.

The ASU delegation - two professors, three students, three donors and Mexican-American author Elva Treviņo Hart - spent a week in Mexico City and Guadalajara, visiting historical sites, touring universities and meeting with Jewish leaders and academics.

Scholars are especially interested in Mexico because of its "crypto-Jews," people who came to the New World and practiced Judaism in secret during the Spanish Inquisition. Academics have puzzled over the history of a town in Hidalgo state, Venta Prieta, where people of mostly Indian descent claim to be Jewish.

Many Eastern European Jews came to Mexico in the 1920s, after the United States put limits on immigration. Another wave came just before and after World War II. The immigrants brought Yiddish books, founded Yiddish newspapers and created their own chamber of commerce.

"It is a very small but a very important community," said Shulamit Goldsmit, a professor of Jewish studies at Iberoamerican University.

After the 1985 Mexico City earthquake nearly destroyed an important book collection, Mexico's European Jews founded the Center for Documentation and Research of the Ashkenazi Community to preserve their history. It now has 15,000 books, hundreds of photographs and newspapers, a database of every Jew who immigrated to Mexico between 1900 and 1950, and pages of klezmer and religious music.

Many of the books, like the 1568 volume in the rare books room of the archive, were sent to Mexico after World War II for safekeeping.

In recent years, Mexican Jews have also founded a Hebrew university, opened new schools and started Yiddish classes to keep the Old World language alive, Goldsmit said. The Iberoamerican University, a Jesuit college, started a formal Jewish studies program in 2000.

Kugelmass said ASU plans to hold a conference on Latin American Jews and will invite Mexican scholars. He said the university is also discussing student and teacher exchanges, and that the Jewish Studies library has about 7,000 duplicate copies of books that it wants to trade with Mexican libraries.

Some of the U.S. visitors said they saw important parallels emerging as the Mexican and Jewish populations grow in Arizona.

"They were talking the other day about the isolation of Jews in Mexico, and Elva and I identified with that," said Ninfa Lowe of Paradise Valley, a Mexican-American donor to ASU. "As Chicanas, no one wants us. We're not wanted by the United States; we're not wanted by Mexico.

"So by studying that (Jewish) literature and studying that exile, that gives us some basis for explaining our own history."