In a Latin American
city of 400,000
A JEW TO BE FOUND?
About the Author
Mexican Jewish Congress said there weren’t any. How could it possibly be, we wondered, that in a Latin
American city of about 400,000 inhabitants there wasn’t a single Jew?
How then could we continue to consider moving to Oaxaca, high up in the
Sierra Madre del Sur mountain range in south central Mexico, isolated from the
significant Judaic culture of Mexico City and devoid of any ongoing Jewish
cultural tradition…no one with whom to share latkes at Hannukah, fast at Yom
Kippur or gather around the Seder table at Pesach?
was several years ago, before my wife Arlene and I had started building our
Mexican dream home into the side of a cliff, prior to having sold our North
Toronto home and my half of the Etobicoke law firm Banks & Starkman back
to Banks, and well in advance of our now 19 year old daughter Sarah having
opted to stay in Toronto and attend York University at Glendon College, rather
than give up all that Ontario had to offer her in terms of continuing to
benefit from her cultural heritage and otherwise.
had fixed our sites on Oaxaca (wah-HAW-kah)
in 1991, while on a driving vacation through the land of Benito Juárez with our then 4-year-old. Wouldn’t it be nice, we fantasized, if we could build a
house, predominantly of glass, with vistas looking out over the mountains from
virtually every level, room and angle? So
we made what many considered to be both a gutsy and precipitous decision and
took early retirement in July, 2004, not without a great deal of anxiety over
leaving our daughter behind and moving to a third world country…a mañana
society where Catholicism rules. Precipitous
in terms of separation from our daughter at such a young age (as my mother
Thelma laments, it’s different when your
child leaves you, to
attend school), and gutsy in light of 3 financial experts consigned by the
National Post, a Canadian daily, a
few years back for a “Money” section story having stated that we
couldn’t afford to do it. But
when you’re in your fifties, and friends start dropping off, perhaps being a
little impetuous is called for…after all, it is often said that those of our
generation are more selfish than our predecessors.
terms of Judaism, it was initially a struggle.
Every time we’d see a Star of David on a store front we’d inquire
if the proprietor was Jewish, only to be reminded that the star simply
signifies good luck. Upon passing
by a daycare centre named Shalom, with
it’s façade a familiar tone of blue, we anxiously asked, as we did when
happening upon the “Jerusalem” fabric outlet, in both cases being turned
away dejected, but not completely disheartened. What we were then lacking in
terms of cultural continuity we gained through the development of warm
friendships no different than those cultivated over a lifetime in
Toronto…with the same sense of trust and comfort.
did have a Jewish population from shortly after the sixteenth century Spanish
conquest until the mid-1800s, predominantly merchants involved in the
production and export of cochineal,
a miniscule insect which attaches itself to and grows on a particular type of
cactus, the nopal. When harvested
and dried it produces a brilliant red dye.
For upwards of 200 years this dye was the strongest natural pigment
known to humankind. It was
exported from Oaxaca to Europe, Asia and the Far East and used for dying
textiles, producing makeup and coloring foodstuffs (still used today in the
production of, for example, lipsticks for those with allergies to artificial
dyes, some Knorr brand soups, and Campari).
Our people thrived within the industry until the invent of synthetic
dyes, after which time both cochineal production
and the Oaxacan Jewish populace declined dramatically.
Mazuzzim on entranceways
therefore became virtually non-existent with the decline of the industry, it
was strangely enough a former California chaplain now resident in Oaxaca who
pointed to me out that there are once again a number of Jews resident in town.
Albeit not ancestors of Yidim
of years past, including the two of us there are now 9 Jews in Oaxaca, a minyan
if necessary, if one includes all the periodic visitors and several snowbird
couples. While basically
well-integrated within the broader Oaxacan community, with some still feeling
more secure within the general expat population, there is nevertheless a sense
of community amongst Oaxacan
Jews, including non-Jewish spouses. While
in Toronto most years I would attend a Hannukah party, last year in the land
of tacos and tortillas I attended two latke liaisons, one hosted by a semitic
señorita, and the other by us for the purpose of creating a tradition of
both celebrating with and educating some of our Catholic brethren.
past Passover was characterized by the conflict familiar to almost all of
us…with which family to spend Seder nights.
For the Starkmans the decision was whether to stay here in Oaxaca to
further solidify our cultural grounding with our new-found Jewish friends or
fly to Toronto to be with daughter, mother, cousins and siblings.
For us it was easy. We can
always socialize here within the context of the plethora of fiestas,
at functions such as garden club meetings, at cafés or through chance
meetings on the streets. But
reuniting with relatives for such simchas
must take precedence.
and custom regarding Jewish death and burial are entirely foreign to even the
new, purportedly non-denominational funeral home in Oaxaca.
Intent upon resting here upon our demise, we met with the director and
were reassured that the crosses in the chapel were removable.
All we had to do was advise of the steps to be followed, which would be
incorporated into a contract supporting our pre-paid arrangement. Accordingly,
in the course of a recent visit to Toronto I met with a director of Park
Memorial so as to inform myself, enabling me to negotiate appropriate
provisions with the Mexican counterpart.
While what transpired in the course of dealing with this final issue
could be the subject of a further article, suffice it to say, in the end all
will be well, and our daughter Sarah will rest easy in the knowledge that her
parents have appropriately arranged for their final Hebraic task without
unreasonably burdening her and confident that tradition will be followed.
without so much as one other Jewish family here in Oaxaca, maintaining our
identity is now not difficult at all, with our haimishe home full of shelved,
labeled boxes at the ready
to be pulled down to decorate inside and out with lights, candles, flags,
logos and emblems throughout the year. Informing and educating neighbors of
our rich cultural traditions is in and of itself extremely gratifying for us,
and helps us strengthen our Jewish identity.
¹Alvin Starkman, a former anthropologist and Toronto
litigator, resides in Oaxaca and operates a small B & B known as Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed
& Breakfast (www.oaxacadream.com).