JOURNEY OF RENEWAL
A Mexican Chanukah
(Editor’s note: The author, a psychotherapist and musician, gives lectures, performances and workshops on Jewish life-cycle events.)
Late one night, while wending my way through a dense paperwork thicket, my home-office jungle yielded a true treasure — a neglected frequent-flyer coupon. Alarmed by its imminent expiration, I quickly telephoned the airlines. The agent vigorously explored qualified international destinations, finding Hawaii and Mexico still available. A perfumed recollection of Hawaii’s outrageous pleasures on a trip there some years earlier remained etched indelibly into my life-gallery of all-time favorites. Why, then, did I choose Mexico? Kulanu.
This decision had been sourced by a fascinating article in a recent Kulanu newsletter. Mexico, it had informed me, was the home of several indigenous crypto-Jewish communities. Those in Puebla and Veracruz, part crypto, part converso, had recently been featured. To say I felt a strong affinity with the descendants of Inquisition survivors in the New World was an understatement. Despite half a millennium of oppression, repression, coercion, and assimilation almost to the point of extinction, the current generation of crypto-Jews was retrieving its Hebraic identity successfully. Even with the Holocaust to serve as their most recent historic disincentive, neither could they, nor would they, be denied their Jewish heritage any longer. I sensed we had something in common.
As a woman, I too had known marginalization in Judaism. Lighting the chanukiah in Puebla at the winter solstice would be a joyful affirmation of the Life Source during the darkest time of the year. We could, together, celebrate the power of hope, the miracle of survival, theirs and mine, and the renewal of Jews who, like myself, might have turned away, but didn’t. Instead, our quest for wholeness required full tribal recognition, in our own contexts, Kulanu (all of us).
I knew these communities were not entirely accepted by mainstream Mexican Jews and were looked upon with considerable suspicion by Israel. I admired their tenacity. By reconnecting the unraveled fringes of our people’s cloth of continuity, we Jews have repaired ourselves time and again. Recovering and rediscovering forgotten ancestors, the crypto-Jewish story-strands were being re-attached daily, like tzitzit, into the total Jewish garment. I knew it took dedicated leaders with courage, vision, patience, and most of all, faith. This is holy work. I hoped our visit and songs might offer comfort, affirmation, connection, and new threads of meaning to these groups’ challenging retrieval process. Aware our encounter would further define my own role and responsibilities as a contemporary Jewish woman, song writer and liturgist, I prayed for a Chanukah blessing in Mexico.
The memory buds of Hebraic heritage, tribal custom, and religious practice had, in large part, lain dormant in Mexico for many centuries. Selectively maintained by the subtle interrelationship between what could be said and done and what could not, parents, teachers, and the communal norms of each succeeding generation had carried the seeds of tradition from town to town, shaping the crypto-Jews’ consciousness. Withstanding each cultural, political and industrial shift in historic Mexico, these potent seeds of tradition, though inert, contained a robust Jewish possibility. From time to time they would be activated by certain events or unanticipated confluences. Occasionally this potentiality flowered fully within one exceptional, charismatic individual. My quick review of the Kulanu article suggested that the founder of Puebla’s Beth Shmuel, Ignacio Castelan Estrada, was such a person.
Speaking little Spanish myself, I invited Allan Griff, a friend fluent in the language and my Jewish singing partner, to help with travel plans and to accompany me on this journey. We placed phone calls to both Puebla and Veracruz. Soon we realized that both communities bore the same name: Beth Shmuel. This was, of course, no coincidence. Over the years, a now elderly Conservative rabbi, Samuel Lehrer, spiritual leader of Beth Israel Community Center in Mexico City — a large congregation comprised mostly of Ashkenazim, but with considerable Sephardic and “Marrano” representation as well — had made numerous visits to both Puebla and Veracruz. To honor Rabbi Lehrer’s blessings, and to show appreciation for his officiating at various life-cycle rituals (marriages, bris, mikvehs and conversions) these two congregations had been given his name.
We had hoped to meet Rabbi Lehrer in person but were disappointed. He told us on the telephone that he would be out of town during our entire holiday stay, as would most of his beach-bound congregants.
Our luck improved with Ignacio Castelan of Puebla and Saúl Ruiseco of Veracruz. Both were not only able but happy to celebrate our visit with special Chanukah feasts and candle lighting. Both warmly extended home hospitality. We accepted, offering to sing for our supper and bring gifts for the children. My vision had taken root. We would indeed spend Chanukah with our Mexican extended family. Kulanu.
The Visit to Veracruz
Saúl Ruiseco, from Veracruz, is extraordinarily proud of his Spanish ancestry. Displayed prominently over his bedroom mirror, an 8th century crested coat of arms hangs, complete with the Ruiseco family name. Under the watchful eye of his ancestors, Saúl sleeps, perhaps joining with those who went before in dream-time. The total effect of this is quite dramatic. Saúl is a slender, terse, yet pleasant man, probably in his late 30s. He is light-skinned, tracing his origins back to Spain and Portugal. Saúl, his mother and elderly grandmother graciously greeted us, even though our arrival was inconveniently late.
Though our party wasn’t scheduled until the day following, Saúl’s mother shyly requested a private concert in her kitchen over tea. I couldn’t have been happier to agree. She listened to my niggunim (wordless melodies) and her reserve dissolved. A deep, intimate, common well of feeling opened between us, lifting our veils. From her shining eyes tears of joy flowed and were reflected in mine. The words of Shnear Zalman of Ladia, a hasidic rebbe, echoed as we sang. “The songs of the Souls, at the time they are swaying in the high regions, drink from the well of the Almighty.” Sentimental smiles of tribal recognition as Jewish women passed between us. One human being to the other, one Jew, one woman, one Source. One. Kulanu.
The next evening we walked to the beachfront synagogue of this southern coastal town. The sea air blew wind in warm, sibilant gusts around the corners, brazenly ballooning the ladies’ skirts. Ruach! The chazan, embracing a well-dressed Torah, wailed familiar Sephardic melodies in a sanctuary of the same ambiance. When the dark wooden ark once again protected its precious contents, we all retired upstairs to the social hall. Our feast consisted of tamales, cake, pasta, and the ever present rice and beans. Our rendition of a Flory Jagoda song in Ladino, Una Kandelika, lent itself well to our multi-generational sing-along. Then, with the expert assistance of Saúl and the smallest community children, the little windows of a large Chanukah “Advent” card were opened. Counting out the eight days of Chanukah, the Maccabee story was retold. Finally, when our bonding through story and song was done, all the lights were dimmed. We lit the chanukiah, and silence filled the darkness. The magic of the glowing tapers spread in a shining, expanding circle. As I sang a song from my commercial tape, The Solstice Chanukiah, (Like a Tree: Songs and Life-cycle Celebrations for All People ) we were joined together in the mystery of our separate, linked histories. Kulanu!
And the echoed voices harmonize an ancient melody,
Our Ancestors in Unity stand with us as we light,
Sing with us as we light
Dance with us as we light
Pray with us as we light the Chanukiah,
Dark winged Shechina, Etz Chayim, Tree of Life, Amen!
Hold our Souls!
The Visit to Puebla
For personal reasons, we had to ask Ignacio Castelan Estrada and his lovely wife Mary to accept us a day early and extra, to which they graciously agreed. After a late start, the enthusiasm with which we had begun the two-hour journey from Mexico City to Puebla faded. Long shadows grew quickly, bringing the deep solstice darkness up right behind. Arriving in Puebla, a city the size of Washington, DC, we started to ascend ultra-steep hills, a cobblestoned territory with no crest in sight. Night fell. Higher and higher we climbed into what appeared to be an increasingly unsavory neighborhood. The unavoidably numerous speed bumps of unimaginable height seemed to leap out of the pavement without warning like ominous pin-ball ghosts. The odds of our rental vehicle’s underbelly being marooned atop a particularly large bump seemed high. Decreasing our speed seemed to have little effect on the constant banging and scraping. Gradually, our uneasiness transformed into fear.
Suddenly, a pleasant Hispanic voice called out in melodic singsong, “Señor Allan! Señora Nancy!” Like the proverbial circus car, a tiny VW beetle, piled to overflowing with grinning people in party clothes, beeped wildly. It pulled up next to us and a stunning beauty in a cocktail dress hung out of the window up to her waist and waved her hands at us frantically. “I’m Ada, Ignacio’s daughter! I knew you must be lost. I told the others we should go out to find you. And now, here you are!” she chirped. “Follow us!” she gestured gaily, turning the Volkswagen on a dime and gunning it down the steep incline into the night.
We soon arrived on a relatively flat dead-end street. One lovely home, with its appealing aesthetic touches, stood apart from all the others. Lovely tiles appointed the verandah. Flowers dripped from a decorative wrought-iron fence which closed with a splendid menorah gate. Behind it stood Mary, her black hair and berry brown face flashing a wide, warm welcome smile. Her husband, Ignacio, strode out to great us in full Maccabean command. Happy, if a bit hurried, he shooed us indoors where, to our amazement, sat the entire community. Dressed to the nines, they applauded enthusiastically. A great hand-cut gold banner with the words “WELCOME NANCY AND ALLAN” was strung across an elegant buffet. As we got our bearings, we saw the small sea of joyous, hopeful Chanukah celebrants reaching out to greet us with their eyes, hands and hearts. We saw also the great importance of our visit to this community, and their yearning for more connection to the Jewish world at large. Kulanu.
The evening was spent sharing stories in Spanish and English. We identified ourselves much as they do in the Bible, sharing ancestral names and places whenever possible. Several of the families were recent converts. Ignacio later told us about others who were interested in conversion as well. He had been clearly discouraged by Rabbi Lehrer from pursuing these inquiries. His desire to go to Israel with his family and the rest of the community was a delicate matter. Though he, his wife and their four children would probably be accepted for making aliyah, leaving the others behind was not a real option. Their Jewish lives and worship were genuine. To be cut off and left behind in Puebla because they were born without some Jewish lineage would be unbearable. The smallest children knew all the Hebrew words to all the songs and prayers by memory. If they were old enough to read at all, they read Hebrew. I knew few Jews in the US could make such a claim. In fact, the entire community read the text flawlessly.
Our Thursday night service-party was just an introduction, ending with jovial singing and dancing around the table. During the next two intense days, we worshipped with this group at home and in their small, simple cinderblock synagogue. Seldom had I experienced such spirit, such intense joy in a group. Particularly poignant was the reverence for their one tiny Torah, one of those eight-inch miniatures sold in Jerusalem. I prayed that this community might receive a Torah large enough to hold and to hug.
Though there was an aisle dividing the men and women, the feeling of comfort and spiritual intimacy was everywhere. Between services, we cooked, ate delicious meals, played with Ada’s baby, enjoyed chats with Jemima, their exquisite teenage girl, and played the guitar with Hartus, the teenage son. Together with his wife Mary, Ignacio, son of peasants from Jalapa, a quality-control engineer working at a local steel mill, had built a true Jewish home. Judaica was everywhere, within them and without. By the time we left, it was clear a part of us would always remain. Here, in their own words, are their feelings about our visit, as translated by Allan:
From Miriam Lior Díaz de Díaz (congregant):
I often think about Ignacio Castelan Estrada of Puebla. Perhaps he is a thorn in the sides of some rabbis or government officials who prefer to define our tribe in ways that would exclude him and his kind from the full Jewish franchise. But there is no doubt that his passionate energy, focused study, and boundless faith have created and nourished his congregants and enabled them to live full Jewish lives. The surrounding non-Jewish community has also benefited often by his volunteer school where he and his family tutored all who came, helping to erase local illiteracy.
And I often think about Saúl Ruiseco’s mother in Veracruz, whose eyes had met mine in recognition of a shared past.
My own mission is to sing from and about the feminine aspect of the deity in hopes that contemporary Judaism will honor generations of unnamed, largely forgotten Jewish women. I hope my small contribution joins others with this intention. I pray this work will flow into a larger stream, providing much needed land-fill for some of Torah’s white spaces and increasing future participation for all Jews within a balanced, inclusive, fulfilling future.
According to the Zohar creation myth, kindred spirits recognize embers of Self in the broken fragments of other vessels encountered along life’s journey. To fulfill our life’s personal purpose we must recognize and then make links with these spirits from our own talents, our own grain. To fulfill our spiritual purpose we must in some way further connect our own fulfillment with our Tribe’s destiny. With this wisdom, we act for ourselves, but not only for ourselves. In this way, Ignacio’s shining soul in Puebla and Saúl’s Jewish mother in Veracruz have everything to do with all of us. One destiny for all. Kulanu.
— 1996 by Nancy Helman Shneiderman —