October 22, 2018

Spiritual, Not Religious

Photo from Good Free Photos.

On a family trip to Mexico City last week, we decided to spend Shabbat doing one of the most unrestful activities I can think of — we hiked up a pyramid.

There is absolutely nothing Jewish about the Teotihuacan pyramids, although they once functioned as a kind of religious site, built in honor of sun and moon, and were used over the millennia for various unseemly rituals, including human sacrifice. The Aztecs stumbled upon the pyramids built by an unknown ancient civilization and named them Teotihuacan, meaning “birthplace of the gods.”

Between the polytheism and the barbarism, it was an unconventional choice for the Sabbath. Go figure, then, that we bumped into a group of yogis from Los Angeles who turned our secular exercise into a spiritual imperative.

“It’s meant to be that we’re meeting you here today,” a woman with curly hair and an Australian accent exclaimed.

Spirituality ultimately fails in its aims if limited to personal

The yogis were in Mexico City for a public meditation “superclass” to be held the following morning, led by their African-born, L.A.-based guru, Joseph Michael Levry, founder of Naam Yoga in Santa Monica. Levry is an internationally known author, speaker and teacher who draws on various wisdom traditions — including kabbalah — to teach a mind-body healing practice. On Sunday, he was scheduled to lead his fifth superclass in Mexico City, in downtown’s Zócalo central square. Thousands were expected to attend.

“You have to come!” a blonde from Belarus said.

As they offered my father chewable hydration pills for the uphill climb, they extolled the virtues of Levry’s practice and how it heals ailments, decreases crime and manifests your dreams. Sensing my innate skepticism, one of them asked, “Are you a journalist?”

“I’m a Jew,” I said.

“So am I!” the Australian said. “I mean, I wasn’t born Jewish, but I am Jewish. I’m in love with Israel. Jerusalem is the most amazing, holy place I’ve ever been.”

Turns out, Levry took his disciples to Israel for a “Divine Spiritual Alchemy Retreat,” where they meditated at sunrise by the Dead Sea and chanted for peace at the Kotel.

Maybe this is bashert, I thought.

So I set my alarm for Sunday morning and rallied the troops for meditation con Los Mexicanos. If Levry’s superclass was really capable of supernal healing power, I had a lifetime of Jewish neuroses to drain from my system.

Here’s what I didn’t expect: 10,000 people gathered in one of the world’s largest and oldest public squares, waving their hands in the air chanting, “Kadosh Kadosh Kadosh Adonai Tz’vaot M’lo Khol Ha’aretz K’vodo.”

Imagine if the Aztecs had met Joseph Michael Levry.

For the next hour, my family and I stood, sat, sang and laughed; we stretched, we danced, we chanted familiar words in dialects I’d never heard. Levry told a story about Moses, followed by a chant of “I am / I am / I am that I am.”

A few rows in front of me, a young woman wore a headscarf imprinted with shimmering Hebrew letters that glinted in the sunlight. It felt as if the universe had conspired to bring a group of American Jews to spiritual enlightenment via Mexican ruins and an African-born yoga master.

As beautiful as the moment was, though, I couldn’t shed my skepticism. The Jewish aspects only reinforced my worry that this experience might belong in the category of “spiritual, but not religious,” drawing wisdom from religious tradition while draining it of religious obligation.

Because while prayer and meditation can pry open our hearts and bring us into contact with the Divine, we make a mockery of spirituality if we spend our lives soothing our own souls and meditating on mountaintops. Jewish tradition tells us that the test of an enlightened spirit is not found in meditative bliss, but in contact with the world and other human beings.

Devotion to God can be beautiful, meaningful — even fun — but the religious life teaches us that the best way to love God is to demonstrate that love through moral action.

In a busy, crazy, tragic, broken world, it was inspiring and reassuring to see so many people engaged in the spiritual quest — the precursor to a better world. But spirituality ultimately fails in its aims if limited to personal satisfaction. Self-healing is not enough.

The religious life intentionally pairs spirituality and service, because without obligation, spiritual ecstasy is just an exercise in narcissism.

Danielle Berrin is a senior writer and columnist at the Jewish Journal.

In Mexico City, this Jewish NGO is the go-to agency for earthquake relief

Rescuers from the Mexican-Jewish aid agency Cadena inspecting damage in Mexico City following a 7.1 magnitude earthquake on Sept. 19. Photo by ourtesy of Cadena

I was on the 11th floor of an office building here when the ground started moving. There had been a mock evacuation that same day in remembrance of the 1985 earthquake that killed more than 10,000 people, but this was no drill.

According to protocol, everyone ran toward the building’s columns — structurally the safest place to be in an earthquake. I closed my eyes as the rumbling worsened, focusing on my breath and hugging the concrete structure as ceiling lamps came down, breaking the long wooden tables. Through the window, I saw clouds of dust billowing behind the skyline.

The 7.1 magnitude quake on Sept. 19 toppled 38 buildings in Mexico City and killed over 300 people nationwide. Two buildings collapsed next to my apartment in the Condesa neighborhood, and many more in Roma — both historical centers of Mexican-Jewish life. Although most Mexico City Jews moved to the city’s outskirts following the aftermath of the ’85 temblor, which destroyed both areas, the neighborhood is still home to five synagogues, a Jewish archival center, a kindergarten and a Holocaust museum.

I realized an hour later that my house was uninhabitable — windows busted, cracks across the walls, bathroom tiles scattered on the ground — and I joined an exodus of thousands of walkers (the highways needed to be cleared for emergency vehicles) as we made our way out of the disaster zone.

I stayed at my parents’ place, returning to the neighborhood two days later. The roads had been blocked by the army and marines. The parks were turned into supply centers, with thousands of volunteers making human chains and trying to help out those stuck in the rubble.

Half a block from the Alianza Nidjel Israel synagogue on Acapulco Street, whose structure was severely affected by the quake, Cadena, a Mexican-Jewish NGO specializing in humanitarian aid, set up shop. A line of about 20 people was standing waiting to be registered as volunteers, and many more were running around fetching what was needed and loading it on trucks.

During its 12 years of existence, this small organization (only 10 people work full-time) has helped over half a million people in Mexico, Haiti, Turkey, Chile, Guatemala, Ecuador, Belize and Costa Rica. Through partnerships with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, IsraAID, local Jewish communities and other humanitarian organizations, Cadena has been able to operate nimbly and at incredible speed, mobilizing the human resources of the Jewish world to get to the most impenetrable disasters zones in record time.

In Condesa, Cadena repurposed the parking lot of a residential building near the synagogue as a warehouse for donated goods essential to the rescue operations in Mexico City and beyond. When I got there, the donations had been meticulously categorized into types of aid (“medicine,” “axes,” etc.) and there was a constant influx of trucks and vans — including police and army vehicles — coming to stock up on supplies. Some supplies were destined for the nearby states of Morelos and Puebla. Others, such as insulin packages, were sent via bicycle to help the victims of a building that had collapsed nearby.

By the time the latest earthquake struck, Cadena already was performing activities on the ground in the aftermath of a quake on Sept. 7 — the strongest one in a century. It had ravaged the south of Mexico, and Cadena was assisting those affected in the states of Oaxaca and Chiapas.

On Sept. 19, the organization deployed its Go Team, which specializes in rescuing victims from toppled structures, in the nation’s capital. In coordination with the 70 Israeli soldiers who arrived to help in the relief efforts and the Mexican army, team members visited the devastated zones.

“We are the only organization with special equipment that detects heartbeats,” Benjamin Laniado, CEO of Cadena, explained to me over the phone. “Thanks to this device we managed to rescue 25 people from underneath the rubble.”

Cadena is a Mexican-Jewish NGO specializing in humanitarian aid. (Courtesy of Cadena)

At the Condesa center, Miriam Kajomovitz, a fundraiser for the organization, had been working nonstop coordinating the delivery of the supplies even though she had been evacuated from her house after a building collapsed next to hers.

“We need hands,” she told me the day I visited as we approached the eve of Rosh Hashanah. “People are going to go home for their meals and leave us.”

The worry proved unfounded — many of the volunteers decided to forego the celebrations and continue to help out.

In a country where suspicion of government runs high, Cadena has positioned itself as an effective humanitarian alternative. Lately, the Mexican press has been running articles about the illicit use of relief funds for electioneering purposes in the state of Oaxaca. Public intellectuals like the Jewish writer Sabina Berman lambasted government-run relief efforts as inefficient and overly centralized. In the town of Juchitán de Zaragoza, Oaxaca, Cadena provided relief before any government help had arrived, according to The New York Times.

“We wanted to donate to a transparent, credible organization that was not affiliated with any political party,” said Raul Cardos, CEO of a communications firm that designed a mock Airbnb platform called Arriba Méxicoto raise funds for the victims. “When we tell people that the funds go to Cadena, they are more willing to help out.”

Clara Zabludovsky, a Mexican Jew who lives in London, found out about the destruction as her plane touched down in San Francisco. She has since raised over 17,000 British pounds ($23,000) toward a GoFundMe goal of 18,000 pounds , a lucky Jewish number — all of which will go to the NGO.

Now that a week has passed since the temblor, people who live in Condesa and Roma are coming to terms with the loss. The immediate urgency has receded, and questions about long-term damage to buildings are taking center stage. The continuing gentrification of what an American magazine recently called “Mexico City’s reigning axis of cool” is now in question.

On Sunday, Cadena shut down its emergency supply center in Condesa. In its week of operation, the center managed to send out 347 shipments to cover the needs of rescue workers in Mexico.

It’s not enough. The NGO is now organizing an international campaign to build temporary housing for those who lost their homes in Oaxaca and Chiapas. Cadena will be setting up tents with kitchen utensils, hygiene kits, water filters, beds and portable, ecological kitchens.

“There are thousands of people living in the streets, and it’s raining and cold,” Laniado, who is traveling to the state, told me. “The government reconstruction program takes too long, and in the meantime, people have nowhere to sleep.”

As for my building, it has been severely damaged. Specialists say it will take at least five months for it to be safe enough to withstand the next earthquake. I’m not taking the risk. For an unforeseeable time, I will be staying in my childhood home.

The Catholic Method

Just before the latest wave of religious fanaticism crashed against civilization, I was in Mexico City, talking about the last wave.

Not so long ago — in the long span of human history — the Catholic Church terrorized the Jews, Muslims, Protestants, Hindus and many other indigenous peoples in the lands under its control. The Inquisition, which lasted from the 11th to the 19th centuries, brought about the execution, torture and exile of countless innocents.

You can see a great movie about sexual abuse and the Church — “Spotlight” — but, so far, there hasn’t been a single decent movie about the Inquisition. So a long historical injustice that continues to influence our world lives on in the popular imagination as a really funny scene in a Monty Python comedy.

The Inquisition was initiated to weed out heretics, or what ISIS would call taqfir. It was preceded by the Crusades, which also killed thousands of Jews, and was followed by years of vicious anti-Semitism, including, in many instances, collusion with the Nazi regime.

Then the Church reversed course.

On Oct. 28, 1965, as part of the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI issued Nostra Aetate, which rejected the charge of deicide and the accusation that Jews are “eternally cursed” by God for the Roman crucifixion of Jesus. In 624 words, the Church transformed itself. Nostra Aetate rejected all “hatred, persecutions, displays of ant-Semitism directed against Jews at any time and by anyone.”

Nostra Aetate is the Gettysburg Address of religious liberation. It freed Jews from centuries of murderous prejudice, and it freed Catholics from carrying the burden of hate and perpetrating evil. It called on Catholics to engage with Jews in dialogue and mutual understanding, and, to a large extent, (the upside of a patriarchal, hierarchal religion) that’s what has happened.

To mark the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate, the American Jewish Committee (AJC) organized an early November mission to Mexico City, site of the largest and oldest cathedral in the Americas and the demographic Ground Zero of Catholicism in the Americas. The mission also celebrated the 10-year anniversary of the AJC’s Belfer Institute for Latino and Latin American Affairs, and dozens of Jews from across Latin America joined their counterparts from the United States.

I went because I belong to the first generation that can take Nostra Aetate for granted. I’d read about Jewish kids having to fight a gantlet of Catholics on the way to school and thought it almost incomprehensible — my first childhood friend, David Pietrasanta, was a Church-going Catholic. But those ancient hatreds were ordered to change on a dime, and the dime dropped just after I was born. 

“The Second Vatican Council,” said Cardinal Norberto Rivera, Archbishop of Mexico City, “was one of the most important events of the 20th century.”

Rivera, Mexico’s highest-ranking prelate, spoke seated in front of the gold altar at the Metropolitan Cathedral, where the group gathered for a formal ceremony. He said Pope Francis would be very happy to see Jews and Catholics gathered together in Mexico’s central cathedral.

The Church officials kept emphasizing that Nostra Aetate offered a way for “enemies” to reconcile. The Jewish speakers, meanwhile, saw the landmark declaration as the Church finally coming to terms with its anti-Semitic teachings.

Rabbi David Rosen, AJC’s Director of Interreligious Affairs, sat at the altar beside the cardinal and AJC Executive Director David Harris. “What we are celebrating is true teshuvah,” Rosen said, using the Hebrew word for “repentance,” though its root meaning is “return.” “The Church is returning to its origins.”

After the speeches, the assembly filed out onto a large tented patio, where the cardinal hosted a reception — soft drinks and tuna tartare. The next evening, the AJC, which functions as a kind of unelected but entirely reliable representative of the Jewish people, hosted a formal dinner with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto. There were many toasts to friendship and prosperity, with the president making sure to praise — twice — the Jewish community’s pro-immigration stance.

I leaned over to a new friend, a successful Mexican-Jewish manufacturer, and noted how warm our reception in Mexico had been.

“The people were never anti-Semitic,” he said. “The Church was.”

It’s the nature of fundamentalism, I suppose, to populate imaginary worlds with real enemies. The cardinal said Nostra Aetate concluded centuries of animosity. I couldn’t help wondering if he realized the hate was always one-sided. 

That night, back in my hotel, I Googled, “Inquisition Mexico.” Sure enough, it tore through the country, destroying thousands of lives in its wake. The Inquisitor’s court operated from 1571 to 1820, just blocks from where the cardinal received us. Its most tragic victims were the family of Luis de Carabajal y Cueva, founder of the town of Nueva Leon. A convert to Christianity, Luis was accused of secretly practicing Judaism. On Dec. 8, 1596, his wife, Francisca, their four children and four young relatives were tortured and burned at the stake on the main square in Mexico City. 

Nostra Aetate put an end to a history that had long since been erased. “Star Wars” fans know more details about their pretend world than we do about the lost world of Spanish and Latin American Jewry. 

But, hey, look at the bright side. Things can change. Extremism can ebb. And in those places where, even now, a different religion has released a new scourge, its leaders could take a page from the Church and declare an end to a war none of us has chosen to fight.

Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @foodaism.

Designer embraces the bright, bold

“I like meaning,” Karen Frid-Madden declared as she walked through the downstairs of her one-of-a-kind Santa Monica home, which she designed in collaboration with family members. It’s a space that reflects lives deeply and thoughtfully experienced, and it’s a far cry from the detached minimalism that’s often splashed across the glossy pages of contemporary design magazines. 

It’s also a space that perfectly represents this designer, who has come to include so many different cultures in her work through Bikasa Designs — a business she created after starting her own line of shirts featuring pre-Columbian symbols. 

A collection of hamsas are mixed in with select items of children’s art inside a pale aqua niche by the front door. Opposite the home’s main entrance, a bronze-painted, Moorish-inspired pointed arch frames the de facto living room, which Frid-Madden, 46, more specifically calls “the music room,” in reference to an upright piano and jumble of instruments gathered on the floor atop assorted vintage kilim rugs. Ornately carved, stark-white wooden dining chairs upholstered in hot pink and turquoise fabrics surround a long dining table that’s ideal for large, festive gatherings.

Art on the multicolored and wallpapered walls includes pieces by her friends, such as renowned artist Patssi Valdez, who was a founding member of the groundbreaking Asco Chicano collective from East L.A. that made waves in the 1970s art world; and Larry Hirshowitz, whose black-and-white photographs of brooding Australian rock icon Nick Cave and Buena Vista Social Club singer Omara Portuondo are on display. The home’s open plan highlights the show-stopping kitchen in which Frid-Madden chose magenta countertops, lime green cabinets and tangerine-colored accent walls. 

“Architecture reflects who we are as a people and as a society,” said Frid-Madden, a native of Mexico City with a cascading thicket of long, curly, sandy-blond hair and hazel-green eyes. It’s a philosophy she’s learned through many channels during her eclectic career and rich family history. 

Frid-Madden is the daughter of Israel Frid, an architect in Mexico City; her brother, Alejandro Frid, is an architect in Tel Aviv. (The name “Frid” is the Spanish spelling of the surname more commonly known to Americans and Europeans as “Fried” or “Freed.”) Her grandparents were young children when they emigrated from Eastern Europe between the two world wars, during a period of what turned out to be major economic expansion in Mexico.

She grew up in a Spanish-Yiddish multilingual environment, with enough Hebrew to be admitted to Hebrew University. But her linguistic learning curve was steep when she arrived in Jerusalem as a college student. That said, she thrived learning Hebrew, as well as English and other languages. 

Living in Israel “was my experience translated to all these different cultures. What it is like to be an Italian Jew? To be a Honduran Jew?” She completed a degree in history and philosophy while traveling extensively, including spending time with Bedouin communities. This was essentially a continuation of her family life in Mexico, because her father, she said, “gave us the love of other cultures, and we traveled a lot.”

She returned to Mexico in 1994 to work with a government agency that protected indigenous people’s sacred sites. Encouraged by UCLA professor James W. Wilkie, whom she met in Mexico, she relocated to Los Angeles to pursue a doctorate in Latin American studies. She didn’t plan to stay in Los Angeles, but changed her mind when she met the man who would become her husband.

Frid-Madden didn’t complete the doctorate, but instead explored other avenues, such as joining the cultural affairs staff of the Consul General of Israel in L.A. and working at the Iturralde Gallery, which was an important dealer of Latin American art. She even dipped her toe into the fashion world, starting a line of shirts with bold color motifs and pre-Columbian symbols to tie into her ongoing cultural research into Latin American cultures. 

Broadly speaking, however, these professional experiences were all part of a wider search to “blend my artistic side with my academic side,”  she said. 

When her father encouraged his daughter and son-in-law in 2010 to replace their compact one-story Sunset Park-area bungalow with a larger home to better accommodate the couple and their two daughters, now 9 and 10 years old, and have room for guests, she agreed. It helped to have architects in the family; over the course of one weekend in Tel Aviv, Frid-Madden’s father and brother together designed what would become the framework of the new Santa Monica residence. 

Envisioning and logistically orchestrating the home’s interior design and exterior color scheme brought Frid-Madden to what felt like her calling. She thought about light and color, and, wanting to reflect her family’s heritages, shaped a home that recalls the brightly hued modernism of famed Mexican architects
Ricardo Legorreta and Luis Barragán, along with nuances of Jewish Diaspora and Israeli life.

Disappointed with the color choices in the U.S., Frid-Madden traveled to Tijuana to buy exterior paints that best matched the chromatic splash of Frida Kahlo’s famed La Casa Azul in Mexico City. After she finally found the traditional “Colonial blue” she was looking for, Frid-Madden then spent hours at the
Tijuana paint shop blending the right pink and marigold shades to bring back to California. 

Frid-Madden takes in the view from her Santa Monica home. 

Family members agree that Frid-Madden’s career path makes perfect sense for her: a woman who intensely engages with other cultures and individuals, whose skill set, sensibilities and curious eye dovetail perfectly in the field of interior design. “It’s a little bit of everything,” she observed. “You get to know people. You have to build for the client, because they’re going to live there. It’s a long process.”

Under the firm name Bikasa Designs (bikasadesigns.com), which she formed the same year she began planning the new house, Frid-Madden has created interiors for clients mostly on the Westside, as well as at properties in Echo Park and Highland Park. She also transformed her family’s weekend home in Pioneertown, an artistic desert enclave located near Joshua Tree. She makes a line of pillows and cushions using textiles from indigenous makers around the world, too. 

“You should live your life with integrity,” Frid-Madden said. From her standpoint, this means taking risks rather than prioritizing what someone else might like down the road to optimize resale value. 

“Be brave, and go for it. It’s scary.” She paused for a beat. “Well, for other people,” the designer said, as she stepped out onto her dazzlingly blue roof deck. 

Confessions of a Harry Potter hoarder

It took 15 years for Menahem Asher Silva Vargas to break the Guinness World Record, but now, not even Voldemort can stop him: The 37-year-old Mexico City lawyer is the proud owner of the biggest Harry Potter collection in the world. 

Vargas started collecting in 1999 when he bought his first piece of memorabilia, an exact replica of Professor Dumbledore’s wand. Now, 3,096 items later, he’s crushed the previous record of 807.

When I met Vargas, he was pacing down Colonia del Valle, a tree-lined neighborhood in Mexico City, wearing a fire-engine red shirt that reads: “Keep Calm and Love Dogs.” He waved hello and, after brief introductions, led the way through a garage, a courtyard and into his mother’s guest house, a one-story building with two rooms and thousands of pieces of Harry Potter memorabilia.

Actually, the number of items related to the fictional boy wizard is larger than that counted by Guinness, closer to 3,500. Vargas has a very thorough inventory of all his items — which includes 40 wands, 67 books and more than 1,500 collector’s cards — to prove it. But when Guinness tallied up his collection, it used strict guidelines about which items constituted memorabilia. Autographs, newspaper clippings and articles didn’t qualify.

Since September, when Vargas was officially recognized as the record holder, his collection has gone viral, and he’s been caught up in a whirlwind of media attention interested in getting a glimpse of the rooms stacked from floor to ceiling with merchandise. 

To my right was a wall of collectible busts. It was overwhelming, all those Dumbledores and Voldemorts looking down, sneering from their pristine packaging. To my left was a bookcase filled with books, board games and Bertie Bott’s Jelly Beans, which Vargas collects rather than eats (little wonder, as the jelly bean flavors include dirt, earwax and earthworm).

A day after my visit, the collection would relocate to a storage unit with premium conservation conditions: optimal air circulation, maximum climate control and 24-hour security. But that’s tomorrow; on this day, Vargas pulled up chairs for us to sit among his impressive collection and began chain-smoking Delicados. 

“This all goes tomorrow,” he said, exhaling a gust of smoke and motioning toward the stacked memorabilia, not a piece of wall in sight. He hopes eventually to raise enough money to start a museum.

It all started 15 years ago when a friend lent “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” the first book of the fantasy series by J.K. Rowling, to a 22-year-old Vargas. He was going through some difficult times, so he spent most of his days and nights at a local coffee shop in Mexico City. In one caffeinated sitting, Vargas finished the entire book. 

Menahem Asher Silva Vargas poses with his Guinness World Records certificate.

“From that moment, I was hooked,” he said. 

Estranged from his father, Vargas completely identified with the fictional wizard’s parental absence.

“The books have beautiful values,” Vargas said. “Especially family values.”

Although officially a collector for 15 years, Vargas made a decision to take his hobby to the next level eight years ago.

“This is my legacy,” he explained. 

All his income went to the collection, every last penny. He eventually started trading professional consultations in exchange for Harry Potter artifacts. So his wife, Rocio Hermida, also a lawyer, became the breadwinner to support his habit.

As it turns out, Vargas’ most precious artifact didn’t cost him any money. 

“There,” he said, pointing to a gold-framed wall mount with Harry, Ron and Hermione’s faces encased in glass. His mother made it for him from a T-shirt their gardener gave him, but because it’s not technically merchandise, it wasn’t part of the 3,097 items registered with Guinness. Regardless, it’s the item with the most sentimental value. 

He hopes that his public recognition will help rekindle his relationship with his father, who is a practicing lawyer in San Diego. Especially on his mind is his half-sister, with whom he’s lost contact. “She must be 11 years old now,” he said.

Besides collecting, Vargas is a dog enthusiast, hence his shirt. To date, he’s rescued more than 100 homeless dogs, and at the time of this visit was sheltering 15. 

A few months previous, Vargas’ next-door neighbor locked a dog on the scorching balcony with no shade, food or water. To save the dog that was virtually abandoned, Vargas and his brother planned a rescue mission. The dog was skin and bones by the time they got him to the vet, but once restored back to full health, there was no question what they should name him: Harry. 

Israeli father and daughter found shot in Mexico

An Israeli man and his daughter were found dead in their home in Mexico City amid signs of violence.

The bodies, riddled with gunshot wounds and signs of violence, were discovered Sunday by volunteers for the ZAKA international rescue unit.

Moshe Aruh, 60, and his daughter Sapir, 24, were found in two separate rooms in the apartment by ZAKA volunteers and local police in what is believed to be a double homicide.

A relative of the victims knocked on the locked door last Friday for a long time but did not receive an answer, according to ZAKA. After Shabbat, ZAKA and police broke down the door and discovered the bodies.

The ZAKA unit in Mexico recently completed its training.

Exploring Mexico City’s Jewish Past

For someone wandering the cobblestone streets of Mexico City’s Historic Center, where the sound of the cathedral bells fills the air and the streets have names like Jesus Maria, it’s hard to imagine that this neighborhood was once the heart of the country’s Jewish community.

But here, where the streets are now crowded with vendors selling everything from tacos to baseball hats, Mexican Jews founded their first synagogues and community centers. Centuries before that, it was the area where Jews were burned at the stake during the Inquisition.

For nine years, Monica Unikel-Fasja has given Jewish historical tours in Mexico City’s oldest neighborhood, a dilapidated area that is now under construction as part of Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s plan to revitalize what has been the city’s nucleus for centuries.

Unikel-Fasja guides groups through streets where Jewish immigrants found their first homes in converted convents and established their first clothing and jewelry stores, the places where they began their lives in Mexico.

“I think you can appreciate history more when you see it visually, when you retrace the steps,” said Unikel-Fasja, the author of a Spanish-language book that translates as “Synagogues of Mexico.”

Unikel-Fasja begins her tours at the city’s main post office, a beautifully preserved building decorated inside with ornate gilded metal.

The post office? Unikel-Fasja explains that it’s the perfect place to start because when Jews first immigrated to Mexico from countries like France and Syria, it was a gathering place — a place they would go to send and receive mail from loved ones.

“Jews laughed here, they cried here,” Unikel-Fasja explained. “Some would go every day to their post office box to check for mail from home.”

The first Jews came to Mexico in the 16th century. When the Spanish Inquisition arrived in the New World they were forced to convert or practice Judaism in secret.

Another wave of Jewish immigrants, including many from France, came during the presidency of Porfirio Diaz (1877-1911), who invited Europeans to immigrate to Mexico.

But the immigrants who form the base of Mexico’s modern Jewish community didn’t arrive until the 20th century, Unikel-Fasja said.

In the early and mid-1900s, Jews arrived from Turkey, Greece, Syria and Eastern Europe.

Today, Mexico is home to about 40,000 Jews, most in the capital, Mexico City.

Walking through the narrow streets, Unikel-Fasja says she gives tours in Spanish or English whenever people request them. In addition to her Historic Center tour, she gives a Jewish history tour in the Roma neighborhood of the city.

Most of her visitors are Jewish, but not all.

“I think it is important that non-Jews come on the tour,” she said. “Mexico is the product of a cultural mosaic, and we don’t know or understand members of other groups.”

On one recent tour, most people are Jewish, and there also is a Catholic couple that has heard Unikel-Fasja interviewed on a local radio program.

“We are fascinated with the history of other religions,” says Ofelia Hernandez, who attended the tour with her husband, Jose Manuel, and their 3-year-old grandson. “We have been to Israel, but we never knew about the synagogues in Mexico.”

Jews built their first synagogues in Mexico City’s Historic Center, but they abandoned them and built new ones and as they acquired wealth and moved to other parts of the city. Some of the old synagogues remain in the Historic Center, still owned by the Jewish congregations but rarely used.

The Sephardi synagogue at 83 Justo Sierra St. was Mexico’s first, built in 1923. Sometimes, Jews who work in the Historic Center pray there on weekdays, but usually is empty on the Sabbath.

Just down Justo Sierra is another abandoned place of worship, Mexico’s first Ashkenazi synagogue, built in 1941. There, the floor tiles are mismatched and the old wooden pews creak loudly when someone sits down, but the intricately painted ceiling gives a glimpse of its past beauty.

“It’s a piece of Lithuania in Mexico,” Unikel-Fasja says.

Unikel-Fasja’s tours focus more on Jewish life than anti-Semitism, but it’s chilling when she points to the Zocalo, Mexico City’s main plaza, and explains that it Jews were executed there during the Inquisition. Centuries later, anti-Semitic demonstrators marched there, demanding that the government expel Jews from Mexico.

But Mexico generally was a good place for Jews, Unikel-Fasja says. At times when other countries — including the United States — shut their doors to Jewish immigrants, Mexico welcomed them.

“Mexico opened the doors to Jews, gave them the freedom to set up their lives,” she said. “Gracias, Mexico.”

More information is available about the history of
Jewish Mexico City at