Friday, December 19, 2008

Denied in D.F.

I had planned to write a tale on Mexico City's Jewish community, about its long history and vibrant community. Alas, things didn't work out as planned because the Beit El synagogue in Polonco saw fit to deny my shabbat entrance. I will explain.

This wandering Jew brought a sidekick with him for the trip down to Mexico, as I was joined by my little brother Harry for the adventure. Our first Jewish encounter came in the form of dinner with my friend Dina, a Mexican Jew who I met at the Nahum Goldmann Fellowship. We trekked down to her place for a lovely meal with her and her mother. Harry remarked how much the place felt like home for the judaica around the place, including some things that our parents have as well. We chatted a little about Mexico City (Distrito Federal, D.F.) and its 50,000 Jews, and she recommended a place for us to go to synagogue on Friday night.

On Friday, we headed over across town to get to the shul, shlepping our way two metro lines and a long ten block walk. We wished the Jews we passed on our way a shabbat shalom and arrived at 7pm, when services were to start. We showed our passports to the guard, and he looked at them and asked us some initial questions like where we went to synagogue in the US, then took us aside to ask some more questions about what we were doing in Mexico and why we ended up at this shul. He had us sit outside the shul, while he examined our passports. 10 minutes later, another security guard came out with a two-page questionnaire for us. This questionnaire wanted to know such things like where I went to high school, where my parents went to high school, where I last worked and why I left. We completed the questionnaire and sat to wait longer. At that point, our mood was still joyous as we thought it was just a mere formality. We sat on a bench, singing "L'cha Dodi" and wishing the Jews passing by a shabbat shalom, while cars pulled up and dropped the synagogue goers off, while valets took their cars away.

After a while longer, the security came back and wanted to know who recommended the synagogue to us, and the contact info for our Mexican Jewish friend, since we were coming uninvited to the synagogue. We gave them Dina's info and sat waiting longer. At this point, we were getting a little annoyed because we had been sitting out for 45 minutes and we missing services.

Finally the guard came back and said that he couldn't reach Dina, and unfortunately, we wouldn't be allowed in. WHAT! I tried to talk to him to figure out their reasons. I asked to speak to the head of security, and he came over. He then told me that the community was on "red alert" after Mumbai and some other threat that had recently taken place. He also said that a foreigner coming uninvited to their synagogue with a passport like mine gave them worry. So for me being a wandering Jew, we were being denied entrance for shabbat. I tried to explain that I used to work for the Israeli Foreign Ministry, so I understood the need for security, and that I lived in Argentina, so I understood the need for communities to be vigilant but that that was something too far. I offered to let him search our bags, talk to our rabbi in the US, whatever else he could possibly want, but he remained firm in refusing our entrance.

In all my travels to different Jewish communities around the world, I have never experience anything like this. Harry and I left angry, shocked and saddened. I thought we had left the ghetto, but here were Jews cowering behind the walls they had built to the world, trying to keep the cossacks out. We were in complete disbelief. Here were two nice Jewish boys, with proper identification, being denied entrance into a synagogue on Shabbat! It was if something had died for me tonight- this idea that I could visit the Jewish communities the world over and always be welcomed. I'm still dejected by what has transpired, and it has sadly colored my picture of the Mexican Jewish community as being scared of its shadow.

As Harry and I set off on our journey down to Mexico, I said to him a quote by Eduardo Galleano, "The truth lies in the journey not the port." As we were waiting outside the synagogue last night, still not even remotely expecting to be denied entrance, we laughed about that notion related to our journey to get to services. Harry remarked to me later that night that the quote was even more apropos. We learned a lot last night, more than if we had simply shared a shabbat with the Jews of Mexico City. If we had been let in, it would been simply an enjoyable evening of services of a different variety; instead we learned the sad truth of how scared the Jewish people have become of the outside world, the failures that we still face as a people related to our security in the world- even with the State of Israel. Shabbat shalom from Mexico City, on what was one of the saddest shabbats of my life.

My story has a little addendum. On Saturday, I went to the Museo Mural de Diego Rivera. The museum has a phenomenal mural of Diego Rivera on the first floor, and on the second floor there is an exhbition chronicling the Spanish Inquisition in Mexico. Seeing this flooded me with the realization that the Jewish community of Mexico was born out of the fires of the Inquisitionm and still deep down bears its scars and insecurities. With this realization, I finally was able to recapture my sabbath peace.

On an end note, last night was the first night of Hanukkah (Janukka!). Out of luck, we found an Israeli named Guy, who was staying at the hostel. He just happened to have a brought a menorah, candles and dreidel. We were able to light the hanukkah candles, and we spent the night playing dreidel for pesos.

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