Some retirees make aliyah to San Miguel de Allende
This coming week, Angelenos of all races and creeds will join in Cinco de Mayo celebrations that the local Mexican American community has adopted as its major holiday (even though it is different from Mexico’s actual Independence Day, which is Sept. 16; May 5 marks a victory of the Mexican army over French invaders during the U.S. Civil War).
Two weeks later, the Jewish community will celebrate Israel’s 60th birthday, which falls on May 14, according to the Gregorian calendar but is celebrated on 5 Iyar, or May 18, this year.
Although the history of Mexican-Israeli relations has sometimes been strained — while several Central American countries voted in favor of the U.N. partition plan creating the State of Israel, Mexico abstained — the two L.A. communities get along just fine. Moreover, a growing number of American Jews have chosen to retire to Mexico, creating a different kind of dual allegiance than the one usually associated with moving to Israel.
Two of the largest American expatriate communities are located in the charming city of San Miguel de Allende, three hours north of Mexico City, and Ajijic, a lakeside community near the city of Guadalajara. The latter has a retired Reform rabbi to lead the community, while the former has gone through some turbulent times while attempting to establish lay spiritual leadership.
Just like the proximity of the Mexican and Israeli celebrations this month, in the early fall, the Jews of San Miguel de Allende celebrate Sukkot, while the city as a whole celebrates its name day. Jews join in, as well, because unlike many of Mexico’s often religiously tinged fiestas, San Miguel de Allende’s autumn celebration is not marked by pilgrimages carrying crucifixes and religious images. Instead, native residents from the state of Guanajuato and beyond flood into the narrow, cobble-stone streets of historic San Miguel dressed in traditional Native American garb, typically wearing flamboyantly feathered headdresses and dancing with abandon to occasionally frenzied drumbeats.
It is a three-day spectacle that rivals the most famous of the world’s storied carnivals, and it is capped off by a spectacular display of fireworks, featuring whirling rockets that take off from temporary pillars erected in the city’s fabled central square.
The Jewish community of San Miguel de Allende is almost as unique as the city itself, which has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site because of its distinctive beauty and history as a cradle of Mexican independence. Virtually all of its members are North American retirees: San Miguel de Allende is consistently ranked by American publications as one of the top retirement cities outside the United States for its affordable quality of life and pleasant year-round climate.
With but a few exceptions, no Jews lived in San Miguel de Allende prior to 30 years or so ago; nor has there ever been any more than the handful of Jewish children that are there today.
It is not surprising, therefore, that there is no synagogue in San Miguel de Allende. Organized Jewish life was never a priority for American Jewish retirees relocating here, compared to the city’s other attractions, including a vibrant arts community. For this reason, it is extremely difficult even to estimate the number of Jewish residents. The best guesstimates are several-hundred souls marginally identified as Jews. In the winter months, known as the “season,” the arrival of American and Canadian snowbirds multiplies this number several times over.
In recent years, an organized Jewish community of sorts has emerged. For several of the initial years, the community identified more or less with the Jewish Renewal movement. Then a traditional, egalitarian American Conservative-style minyan began operating on Shabbat mornings. For some reason, as tiny as the number of actively engaged Jews is, a serious schism developed, with the result that today, these two groups do not talk with one another.
The mantle of an organized Jewish community now rests on an entity called Shalom San Miguel, which itself has already seen splits and defections among its small board of directors. Nevertheless, Shalom San Miguel has managed to score some impressive accomplishments: It has secured a meeting place at the downtown Quinta Loreto Hotel, where services and adult education classes are held, and a sukkah is built in the courtyard.
Twice weekly classes in Talmud and Kabbalah are led by Shalom San Miguel President Larry Stone, formerly of Pittsburgh. He and his wife, Carole, also teach Hebrew to the community’s children. According to Stone, the crowning glory of Shalom San Miguel’s activities is the weekly Torah study shiur held at 11:15 a.m. every Saturday.
“In the season, we have been known to attract more than 50 people to Torah study,” he noted, adding that High Holy Days services drew similar numbers from residents in San Miguel de Allende and cities up to several hours’ drive away.
The star of High Holy Days services is clearly the Jewish community’s elder statesman, Sidney Yakerson. At 91, he blows the shofar effortlessly, sounding clear blasts whose length would be the envy of many a younger man.
Stone envisions Shalom San Miguel as an umbrella organization comprising secular individuals, as well as groups representing both Reform and Conservative services: “Ideally, we would like to see a Reform Friday night service that would complement nicely the Saturday morning Conservative service,” he said.
In the meantime, according to the organization’s weekly e-newsletter, several Shalom San Miguel families, including the few who drive to Mexico City from time to time to purchase kosher provisions, are planning to hold monthly Kabbalat Shabbat services and dinners in members’ homes. The community also occasionally invites visiting scholars-in-residence and receives visits from Chabad emissaries. .
Finally, San Miguel de Allende may not have a synagogue, but it does boast an interesting landmark building in the downtown area with the intriguing name of Casa Cohen. Adorned with a Magen David and a frieze referencing the Arca de Noe, Casa Cohen houses a decorative metalworking shop where a shopper may find a chanukiah or mezuzah for sale.
The building is owned by a Sephardic Jewish family with roots in the large Mexican city of Guadalajara. True to Mexican form, whether or not the local Cohens choose to travel to Guadalajara to celebrate the Jewish holidays, they would not be found worshipping with Ashkenazic Shalom San Miguel de Allende.
Buzzy Gordon is a travel writer who writes frequently about Jewish communities around the world.