Not a Jew to be Found?

Changing traditions: from cross to Star of David

The 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?

That 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.

We 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.

In 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.

Oaxaca 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.

While Mezuzzot 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.

This 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.

Law 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.

Even 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.



Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast ( http://www.oaxacadream.com ) ©

Alvin and Arlene Starkman are passionate about Oaxaca. They endeavor to retain their reputation as proprietors of one of the best Oaxaca bed and breakfasts, Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast ( http://www.oaxacadream.com ). Casa Machaya, a founding member of the Oaxaca Bed and Breakfast Association, combines the attributes of quality Oaxaca hotels, with the characteristics of a more progressive and personalized Oaxaca lodging style: owners are on site 24 / 7 (it’s your accommodations … and our home), always available to guests as their personal resources, and willing to go that little bit extra to ensure value-added service.

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