La Muertita—the Little Dead Woman—sets up her quesadilla stall every evening on a busy commercial thoroughfare called Prolongación in the hilly neighborhood of Bosques de Reforma on the western outskirts of Mexico City. She and her staff of eight drive 90 minutes across the largest metropolis in the western hemisphere to get here by 5:30 p.m. and set up her tent, tables, chairs and cooking station with military efficiency.
La Muertita repeats this ritual every evening of the week. Every evening, that is, except Friday. Celia (she won’t tell me her surname; it’s unclear why) isn’t Jewish, but 90 percent of her customers in this wealthy suburban enclave are, and Friday evening is Shabbat. Like any good businessperson, Celia makes her clients’ habits her own.
Since she first started selling quesadillas 58 years ago, La Muertita has followed Mexico City’s 40,000-strong Jewish community in its gradual migration across the city, from Polanco, near the city center, to Tecamachalco, just over the city line into the neighboring State of Mexico, and finally to the wooded suburbs of Interlomas and Bosques de Reforma. In its drift to the west, the Jewish community has left behind a constellation of eateries scattered along an eight-mile swath of Mexico City’s vast urban landscape, some now serving their third and fourth generations of customers.
The first Jews in Mexico came to the New World aboard the ships of the conquistadors at the time of the Spanish Inquisition. Even in Mexico, far from the Crown, their faith was punishable by death (the Inquisition kept offices in the colony, as well), so they created an underground network of support and prayer.
The best-known crypto-Jew of the time is Luis de Carvajal, who was burned at the stake in 1596 after being outed by a family friend. His journal—the oldest Jewish document in the New World—was returned to Mexico this March, 82 years after its mysterious disappearance. Leonard Milberg, a New York collector of Judaica, recognized it two years ago at a New York auction house, bought it, and donated it to the Mexican government.
Thirty years after gaining its Independence from Spain in 1810, Mexico underwent an important political reform movement that brought new protections for religious freedom, but it would take another fifty years for the Jewish community to make itself visible. Like their counterparts in cities across the Americas, many Mexican Jews spent the early part of the 20th century in downtown tenements. Working as peddlers, clothing vendors, and tailors, they built their lives around La Merced, at the time, Mexico City’s primary wholesale market and most important immigrant quarter. Those early immigrants came to Mexico primarily from France and the Ottoman Empire. The first synagogue in Mexico City, Monte Sinai, was established in 1918, primarily by Jews arriving from the Middle East.
From the 1920s through the end of the Second World War, a steady influx of Eastern European Jews came to Mexico from countries like Poland, Ukraine, and Germany, largely to escape the rising tide of anti-Semitism. Most considered Mexico a stopping point on their way to the United States, but many ended up staying when the U.S. capped immigrant quotas. Turkish Jews, fleeing heavy minority taxation by the Turkish government, and Syrian Jews, mostly seeking who economic opportunity, followed in the 1950s. Most recently, Mexico City has seen an influx of Latin American Jews escaping economic and political crises in Argentina and Venezuela.
To this day there are schools and synagogues that cater to every variety of Jew
Through those many decades of immigration, Mexico City’s Jewish community has created sub-communities according to their country or region of origin. To this day there are schools and synagogues that cater to every variety of Jew, be they Sephardim who trace their lineage to the sixteenth century exile from Spain, Ashkenazim from Eastern Europe, or Jews coming from Aleppo and Damascus, understood in Jewish Mexico as two distinct communities despite their shared origins in modern-day Syria.
As Jewish businesses grew and the community became wealthier, they moved, like most upwardly mobile Mexicoans, to newly-established middle-class neighborhoods like Roma, Condesa, and, later, Polanco. The first two, now the center of the city’s growing reputation as the hippest in the hemisphere, used to be typically Jewish. There were Yiddish bookstores and coffee houses where Polish and German women would sit to discuss the news in Europe. Even today there are five active synagogues in the Roma and Condesa frequented mostly on the high holy days by Jews coming down from their mountain suburbs.
Despite making up a miniscule percentage of Mexico City’s 24 million people, Jews have contributed immensely to the city’s public life, particularly in the last quarter century. Two of the most famous chroniclers of Mexican history, Enrique Krauze and Friederich Katz, are Jewish. The face of the media giant Televisa for three decades, the journalist Jacobo Zabludovsky, was an Eastern European Jew born in La Merced; his brother, Abraham Zabludovsky, designed the Central de Abastos, which replaced the Merced as the city’s wholesale market. Some of Mexico City’s most important contemporary buildings were designed by Alberto Kalach, while Felipe Ehrenberg, Pedro Friedeberg, and Boris Viskin helped define Mexican art in the 20th century.
In 1985, a massive earthquake leveled the city center. Many Jews moved to the outskirts, following a trend of suburbanization that had begun in the U.S. decades earlier. The city had been growing exponentially for years, and many in the Jewish community decided to take their businesses to the emerging industrial zones at the urban periphery.
Those few of them who have kept their businesses downtown now commute up to two hours each way, depending on the traffic, to attend to the jewelry, textile, and hardware factories established by their fathers more than half a century ago. If they spend the day there, they have few options for a kosher lunch.
Tucked into a commercial building on one of the historic center’s busiest avenues, Pita Grill looks like a no-frills diner in a suburban mall, its bright green walls dotted with mirrors, its chairs upholstered in black plastic. Save for the word “Kosher” written in tiny Hebrew lettering below the restaurant’s name, the only indication of the place’s Jewish ownership is the mezuzah on the front door.
The menu is bizarrely eclectic, offering everything from tacos to sushi to falafel. One of the specialties is the Chile Jalapeño Tempura, a twist on Mexico’s national dish, Chiles en Nogada. A seasonal delicacy available only in August and September, Chiles en Nogada is made by stuffing poblano chile with some permutation of beef, pork, and dried and fresh fruits, then smothering it in walnut cream and garnishing it with pomegranate seeds and parsley. Rather than using meat, the Chile Jalapeño at Pita-Grill is stuffed with tuna, cream cheese, fish eggs, and beets. Instead of walnut cream, it’s doused in eel sauce.
I wasn’t adventurous enough to try the dish, but according to Joseph Levi, a Jewish manager of Syrian descent, most customers aren’t either. “They come here because we give them their traditional Arab-Jewish food, like Kipeh and Kofte.” Ninety-five percent of the clientele is Jewish, Levi says, and they know about the place strictly through word-of-mouth.
There are tacos of beef pastor, Arab sausage, and fajitas, all made without pork or cheese
A block south, in a building that seems on the verge of collapse, is a restaurant called Shalom, its name a clear advertisement to its target audience. With its red chairs, surly waiters, and walls adorned only with the patterns left by chipped gray paint, it looks, more than anything, like a suburban Italian joint that’s seen better days, but the menu is thoroughly Mexican. There are tacos of beef pastor, Arab sausage (a spicy, beef-based chorizo), and fajitas, as well as tortas and enchiladas, all made without pork or cheese. Like similar restaurants in the Centro, Shalom serves what’s known as comida corrida, a fixed-price, three-course menu popular with the Mexican working class. Though typical comida corrida can run anywhere from 40 to 200 pesos, most places around this part of town serve lunch for no more than 150 pesos. Shalom’s prices skew higher to cover the costs of kosher meat.
Shalom serves 120 people a day, most of them businessmen that work in the surrounding warehouses and factories. When I arrived on a recent afternoon, the cashier, Guillermo Torres, was taking orders for a delivery to Atzcapotzalco in the city’s industrial outskirts, an hour’s drive from the center in peak traffic. Shrugging indifferently, he admits that his customer base has dwindled over the last few years. When he started working at Shalom eight years ago, there were only four Kosher restaurants in the city. Now, he says, there are likely more than fifteen, most of them located far from the center, in Bosques and Interlomas. As for Jewish businesses and the people who run them, Guillermo recognizes that the best strategy would be to follow them out of town. “The rent is going up for the warehouses,” he says. “Most of the businessmen are moving out.”
The neighborhood of Polanco has changed significantly since the 1950s, when the Jewish community first made it the core of both secular and orthodox life. Then a middle-class neighborhood, Polanco has since been taken over by galleries and designer boutiques and high-end restaurants. International culinary darlings Pujol and Quintonil are both here; so is the Museo Soumaya, the giant silver molar that Carlos Slim, the richest man in Latin America, built for his wife’s private art collection.
Though many Jews have long-since left Polanco, there’s still a strong Orthodox presence in the neighborhood. Bearded men dressed in black suits walk hand-in-hand with their children on their way back from the many yeshivot (religious schools) in the area. There are kosher stores on every other block, including one two-story kosher supermarket, and five active synagogues attracting more regular worshippers than Condesa and Roma (although their numbers are also decreasing as the community moves out of town).
Polanco’s most famous avenue is Masaryk, a recently remodeled strip dotted with ad agencies, car dealerships, and high-end restaurant and clothing chains. Among the glittering show windows for Louis Vuitton, Montblanc, and Armani, there remains one important relic of the neighborhood’s past life: Klein’s.
In 1962, Edward Klein, an American Jew who had served in the Army during the Second World War, decided to quit his family’s textile business and establish an old-fashioned diner serving hamburgers, milkshakes, and hot dogs. It didn’t take long for the dishes prepared by Edward’s gentile wife, Andrea, to make their way onto the menu. Originally from Puebla, Andrea’s home specialties included chilaquiles, tacos, chicken consomé, and the celebrated mole of her native city.
On a recent Friday morning, I met Edward and Andrea’s son, Charles, at the restaurant. “I was born in the kitchen,” he said happily, surveying the packed dining room from our table in the back. Young people sat on the yellow plastic chairs out front, smoking. Inside, families sipped at milkshakes and elegantly dressed older ladies chatted eagerly, sharing the neighborhood gossip: all four generations of Klein’s customers still represented.
In the beginning, Charles told me, 90 percent of Klein’s customers where secular Jews, mostly from Eastern European backgrounds, so there was never a need to go fully kosher (he calls his offerings “kosher-style”). Instead, Edward chose to emulate American delis like New York’s Carnegie Deli, serving corned and roast beef sandwiches and bagels and lox alongside his wife’s mole and milkshakes. As time passed, the kitchen at Klein’s started developing Jewish-Mexican fusion dishes like the salami torta and salami chilaquiles, among the most popular dishes with Jewish clientele, who, today, represent maybe half of all customers at the original Polanco location. Now Klein’s has an outpost in Bosques, following the community his parents originally aimed to serve in their gradual migration to the hills.
As the menu at Klein’s suggests, Mexico City’s Jewish community may remain insular, but after 100 years of internal migration, its eating habits are decidedly cosmopolitan. With origins in 15 countries, Mexico City’s Jews have developed an idiosyncratic culinary style, with dishes like gefilte fish a la Veracruzana, a spin-off of the popular Mexican fish dish with garlic and tomato sauce. A recent cookbook, written and printed by Fanny Maya, a Syrian-Mexican-Jew, lists 303 recipes, some of them uniquely Mexican-Jewish inventions.
But that culinary exchange has, for the most part, gone only in one direction. Alegre Smeke, a Syrian-Jewish-Mexican cook who recently published a book of 150 recipes from around the Jewish world, says it’s early yet to speak of a truly Jewish-Mexican cuisine. There are, of course, kosher restaurants that cater to the community, but they don’t sell typically Jewish food, nor has Jewish food found its way into Mexican culture in the way that it has, for instance, in the eastern United States. Unlike Jews in letters and architecture, whose visions have shaped Mexican culture for decades, Jewish cooks have yet to bring their craft into Mexico’s mainstream. “It is too small of a community, we don’t mix,” Smeke explains, “it’s very closed off.”
Four years before Klein’s opened on Masaryk, and long before she moved out to Bosques de Reforma, a 13-year-old Celia started selling her quesadillas in Polanco. When she first set up her stall, she offered the typical fillings common to quesadillas here in Mexico—cheese and chicharron alongside huitlacoches and squash blossoms. It wasn’t long before a local Jewish customer told her that she would be better off focusing on kosher ingredients. Since then, Celia has served four generations of Jewish families. “A client once said I was like a grandmother to his grandchildren,” she told me one evening as she set up shop.
La Muertita is not certified kosher (as with halal, any certified kosher ingredients must be closely guarded by religious representatives—in this case, rabbinical cooks—to ensure they meet religious standards), but over the last 50 years, Celia has earned the trust of the community, removing meat from her menu entirely (to avoid mixing it with cheese, strictly forbidden by the kashrut laws) and cooking exclusively with kosher cheeses. La Muertita has also branched out into catering, serving events—Jewish and otherwise—that range from bachelor parties to bat mitzvahs.
In the decades since she first opened in Polanco, Celia’s business and reputation have grown—there’s even a legend surrounding her name. According to local lore, there was a shooting on Celia’s corner back in the 60s. When Doña Celia didn’t show up the next day, her customers assumed she’d been shot. Celia gives a more prosaic explanation for her epigraph: “I fall asleep at the counter all the time.”
Celia’s family now has two other locations in Mexico City’s Jewish suburbs, run by her granddaughter and daughter-in-law, respectively. Four of Celia’s six children work in the business. She’s done well enough over the years to buy each of them a house. Even her primary competitor for Jewish customers pays homage to the progenitor of the business model through her own name, La Vivita, The Little Living Woman.
On a chilly Tuesday night, some fifteen customers gather around La Muertita’s stall, some standing, others huddled around her cooktop on low plastic stools. As newcomers arrive, other customers greet them warmly, old aquaintances, many of whom have been coming to Celia for 15 or 20 years. To the untrained eye, there’s no difference between La Muertita’s clientele and those patronizing nearby stands. They don’t wear orthodox black hats of kippahs, the women wear jeans or pantsuits, like anyone else. There are other ways to make a community.
Hours: 7 p.m.-12 a.m.
Closed Fridays and Sundays
Av. Stim S/N, Lomas del Chamizal
Hours: 11 a.m.-6 p.m.
José María Izazaga # 118
Klein’s: Polanco location
Hours: Monday-Friday 8:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Saturday and Sunday 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
President Masaryk # 360 B Colonia Polanco
Klein’s: Forests location
Hours: daily 9: 30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.
Paseo De Los Laureles # 458 – Pb Building Horizonte
Colonia Bosques De Las Lomas
Klein’s: Santa Fe location
Hours: daily 9: 30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.
Juan Salvador Agraz # 61 – PB Euroten Building
Antigua Totoloapa Mine