Religion, Art and Human Rights

Religion, Art and Human Rights


Howard Adelman

Yesterday, we did not go back to the Museum of Anthropology as planned. Instead, we had an easier day with far less walking. Further, Nancy was getting very impatient to visit the restored Nidje Israel Synagogue in the very old part of Mexico City at 71 Justo Sierra two blocks to the north and several blocks to the east of the National Palace. Nancy had been in continual correspondence with the woman behind the restoration, Mónica Unikel. We understood she would not be available to conduct any public tours this week, but, by chance, just when we arrived at the synagogue, she was conducting a tour for Mexican museum specialists and a Mexican Ministry representative. (If you are interested in a tour, email sinagogajustosierra@gmail )

Preserving Nidje Israel is akin to preserving synagogues in the Kensington area of Toronto, such as the St. Andrew Synagogue (Anshei Minsk or Minsker Shul) that I attended as a young boy when we lived on Kensington and then on Baldwin. Like the St. Andrew St. Synagogue, as we ironically called our synagogue, Nidje Israel is best known by the street name on which it is located – the Justo Sierra Synagogue. As kids, we never caught onto the irony of calling a synagogue by the name of a Catholic saint. Calling the Nidje Israel Synagogue the Justus Sierra Synagogue had a different irony since the street on which it is located was probably named after the famous nineteenth century Mexican politician and writer, Justo Sierra Méndez, or his father, the novelist and historian, Justo Sierra O’Reilly, a Mexican historian and novelist. Trust Nancy to trace down a synagogue called after a transplanted Irishman.

Nidje Israel, unlike the Minsker Shul, has been restored much as another synagogue in Toronto in the Kensington Market has been restored, the Kiever Synagogue on Denison Square. The Nidje Israel Synagogue was restored starting in 2008 and completed in April 2009 at a relatively modest cost of US$400,000 as Mónica told us, though, in Mexican terms, this was probably a much larger sum than when calculated in American (or Canadian) dollars. The synagogue was officially opened to the public in January of 2010. A poor quality video of that opening can be found at and very good photos of the restored Romanesque-styled synagogue can be found at: and

Nidje Israel is a much newer synagogue than the Kiever Shul since it was the first Ashkenazi synagogue in Mexico founded in 1941 by European Jews who had escaped the Shoah. As in Toronto, These Jewish immigrants to Mexico started tailor and other trade shops in the neighborhood. As in Toronto, as these Jews became more prosperous, they moved into better areas of Greater Mexico City in Polanco, Lomas de Chapultepec, Santa Fe and Huixquilucan and built new synagogues and centres of Jewish cultural life. As in Toronto, the old synagogues were often abandoned or torn down.

Nidje Israel is particularly interesting because it has a totally nondescript exterior. However, after you pass by the entrance and the offices of the synagogue, you enter a large interior courtyard in which a very attractive synagogue has been built as a totally separate building. Clearly, Jews in Mexico City wanted to be discrete – more because of their experiences in Europe than anything taking place then in Mexico City at the time. Though Judaism has had a notorious past before the 1860s when the first arrivals from Spain in the sixteenth century were Marranos or Crypto-Jews forcibly converted by, but in flight from, the Spanish Inquisition, and though the Inquisition was more feebly enforced in New Spain, by and large the Marranos were allowed to live and thrive. Eventually they more or less assimilated, but it is interesting, as I mentioned in a previous blog, that Diego Rivera’s mother was a descendent of conversos and he personally was very conscious of his Jewish past. In spite of a few incidents in the 1930s, the persistence of persecution is more part of non-conscious inherited stereotypes rather than any policies or practices in daily life. For example, when we attended the Mexican Folkloric Ballet on Wednesday evening, in one segment there was a cartoonish Shylock character (as well as a Black Sambo, much to the embarrassment of a West Indian fellow sitting next to Nancy).

In colonial Mexico, the laws of the Inquisition were followed and Jewish immigration was not permitted until the latter half of the nineteenth century. The equal status of Jews in Mexico was confirmed by laws passed under the Benito Juárez government. Ashkenazi Yiddish-speaking Jews began migrating from Europe and Sephardic Ladino-speaking Jews from the crumbling Ottoman Empire at the end of the nineteenth century and through the first half of the twentieth century. The community grew from a few hundred at the beginning of the twentieth century and 21,000 in 1930 to the 40,000-50,000 Jews in Mexico today, 90% in Mexico City. There are also a small number of descendants of conversos who deliberately returned to Judaism. Further, unlike the USA and Canada, the percentage of intermarriages in Mexico is very low.

After our visit to the synagogue, we went around the corner to eat at a very colourful table outside a very tiny restaurant facing a small park. The restaurant had been suggested to us by one of the museum curators we met at the synagogue who had just weeks before been in Toronto for a tour of Canadian museums. The full course meal at the restaurant cost 55 pesos, less than CAN$5. However, Nancy ordered enchiladas. She found hers to be delicious but, after a few bites, I abandoned the effort to eat as I remembered that I don’t like enchiladas and Nancy was too full to save us from embarrassment. I simply indicated to the proprietor that I was too full. Instead of finishing my meal, I sat there imaging the park, like the Denison Park in the Kensington area of Toronto in the very same period, crowded with Jews speaking Yiddish and either socializing, gossiping or conducting business as little boys like me were playing tag. There were Delancey streets in many other cities besides New York.

After lunch, we went to visit a number of art galleries adjacent to the National Palace. There were a number of contemporary Mexican artists showing their paintings, sculptures and installations. I am not a great fan of contemporary installation art, but we did see some interesting work by contemporary Mexican artists, including one artist who painted like my daughter, Shon, in blocks of pure colour in the pop tradition, only what this artist painted were two dogs (or wolves?) in a vicious fight. There was also an interesting piece with a photo cut-out of a woman’s head atop a massive, very massive, body. I do not know why it was so striking. Another painting that caught our eye was of a Mexican cowboy with a lasso in his hands and the other end tied around the wrist of a very tall young woman. In the immediate background, a child was squirming in his seat and in the far background a crane held aloft a roped cow. The rapid changes in life and society were well represented in the art, but, more often, Mexican art was oriented towards the surreal, the grotesque and the theme of death. One fascinating room displayed various shocking portraits of children that were either dead or portrayed as dead.

After tripping through these galleries in beautiful buildings on the interior with exquisite courtyards, we crossed the street to try to get into the National Palace to view a number of Diego Rivera’s murals. Unfortunately, the palace was surrounded by hundreds of police, most armed with bullet proof vests and even a cluster of riot police with helmets and shields on a side street at right angles to the palace. There were also two very large buses, one black the other white, parked on the street north of the palace where vehicles were not normally permitted. In spite of the overcast day and our first sense of pollution in the city, the motors of the buses were running. The black one seemed to be covered with armour plating. We were told that we could not have access to the building because the president was then in residence, but as we also learned, the real reason for the closure of the palace to the general public until January was the fear of riots that could develop from the protests distributed around the city. On the way to the synagogue visit two blocks away, we had passed one group of protesters and a very large police presence. I wanted to return to talk to the protesters, but we went to the art galleries by a different route.

We did not go back to talk to the protesters. I also did not get in contact with Sergio Aguayo, who had been my host on my previous visit in the late nineties. Sergio Aguayo had written a book with my co-author, Astri Suhrke, along with another expert on refugees, Aristide Zolberg, called, Escape from Violence. Sergio was then, and may still be, a researcher at the Colegio de México and a teacher at the Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas (CIDE) at the National University in Mexico and a very prominent public intellectual in Mexico. We had lost contact over the past decade. In any case, I wanted this to be a normal tourist holiday in Mexico City and not just another indulgence in my academic interests where I never get to see any of the normal tourist attractions. But Sergio or the protesters could have filled me in on the protests.

When we came home by taxi, the traffic was smooth sailing for rush hour, in radical contrast to the day before. It was indeed likely, as the driver had suggested yesterday, that the total blockage of traffic flow had been as a result of the protesters. I longed to learn more, but I am getting long in the tooth. I have sat in with protesters through the sixties, including in America and in Sweden in 1967, and had been a leader of many myself. Protests attract me like catnip for a cat. But perhaps, in addition to my age, I have become slightly disillusioned by the significant number of protesters who have become ideologically anti-Israel. Many if not most have forgotten, if they ever knew, Octavio Paz’s arguments that communitarianism as well as universalism must both be upheld and supported as complementarities rather than as contradictions.

Later that evening back in our apartment, we heard seven large explosions in quick succession. When I lived in Jerusalem I had learned to listen to sirens immediately after explosions were heard to tell whether they were just by-products of construction or of destructive protests. There was no wailing of sirens, so we had a pizza and went to bed.