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A shtetl in Mexico


HINDY NOSEK-ABELSON, The Canadian Jewish News, August 19, 2008



I recently returned to Toronto after spending 3-1/2 years enjoying a Jewish life in Ajijic, a village in Mexico not far from Guadalajara, Mexico's second-largest city. For me, it was a choice between continuing to live abroad or being near my adorable new grandson. My grandson naturally won.

An alternative mode of getting around town.

Tied with Kenya for the best climate on the planet, Ajijic and the surrounding villages provide a perpetually sunny haven for an estimated 15,000-plus retirees from the United States and Canada. Many of them are Jews who move there either as a winter retreat (as is the case with Canadians who don't want to give up their medicare) or to enjoy the richness of a full-time retirement that, while in a foreign country, provides a familiar yet exotic environment. What a diverse group they are, with former lives ranging from judges to environmental experts and every profession in between. And what a cast of colourful characters.

All are drawn by the incomparable weather, gorgeous scenery and inexpensive lifestyle. Prices of everything are roughly one-third of what they are in Canada and the United States. Housing styles range from basic town homes to luxurious villas. All are affordable on a North American budget.

As in many tropical climes, homes are generally built behind walls that conceal lush tropical gardens and colourful decor, a welcome departure from the familiar monotonous themes that grace residences in North America. Though most Canadians and Americans are attracted to Ajijic because of the low cost of living, they stay because they fall in love with the setting and lifestyle.

A solid infrastructure of Anglo organizations, galleries, outstanding international restaurants, theatres, concert halls and places of worship, including a thriving synagogue and growing Jewish community, allow retirees to resume many of the same interests and activities they enjoyed in Canada and the United States

Ajijic has been an artists' centre for more than 40 years, hence the explosion of galleries and local talent. The creative and flourishing arts traditions of Mexico also inspire many to reinvent themselves and become what they always wanted to be. They study art, drama, attend writing classes and engage in volunteer work for a myriad of causes that include orphanages, health services, old age homes or their own religious communities.

For me, it was especially important that I continue my Jewish community involvement. I gave classes on Yiddish songs and culture, delivered parshahs based on women in the Torah and served on the board of the Lake Chapala Jewish Congregation, where I made many life-long friends. We even taught the local Mexican baker how to bake challah and bagels.

Among the locals are a smattering of Conversos, whose families left Spain during the Inquisition. One of them was a lawyer who I met while selling real estate there. His last name is Cuen. When my Irish client asked him if it was originally Quinn, he proudly informed us that it actually stemmed from Cohen and that his ancestors were Spanish Jews.

Another Converso is a local ophthalmologist who, when he discovered his own Jewish lineage, converted back to Judaism along with his converso wife. Delighted to find the local Jewish community, they promptly joined our shul. The same was true of a few more Mexican members, who are currently undergoing conversion classes.

While there are no kosher food stores in Ajijic, many kosher American brands can be picked up at the local supermarket that specializes in North American foods. Kosher meats are available in Guadalajara (a mere 45-minute drive from Ajijic), where there is a small but active Jewish community of roughly 200 families. For most of the year, our congregation is lay led. For the High Holidays, Chanukah and other occasions such as Shabbaton retreats, visiting rabbis are brought in. After all, how many rabbis would refuse a gig in paradise?

Ajijic is nestled between the lush Sierra Madre Mountains and Mexico's largest lake, Lake Chapala. The weather is perfect year round and the scenery is like eye candy. Because of the altitude - approximately 5,200 feet above sea level - the air is pure, and humidity, even during the rainy season, which starts mid-June and ends some time in September, is virtually non-existent. The temperature is in the mid-70s to mid-80s year-round and it's sunny. When it does rain, it does so obediently, mainly at night. And while the seasons can appear indistinguishable, they are differentiated by the brilliant flora and fauna that seemingly pop up in the blink of an eye. The winter brings forth bougainvillea of every hue, while in spring, purple jacarandas cascade from the trees. Calla lillies and a host of other floral varieties, only available in Canada as short-lived cut bouquets, grow like weeds throughout the year.

For some bizarre reason, I felt instantly at home in Ajijic and connected at a level that I couldn't have possibly anticipated before my arrival to this picturesque little village. It took a couple of months to understand where that "soul" connection originated from.

I recall hearing the foreign yet strangely familiar sound of horses clip-clopping on the cobblestone street outside my village home. My daily walks took me past vistas of children playing freely and cheerfully on narrow village streets, unafraid to talk to strangers and obviously secure in the knowledge that neighbours keep a watchful eye on them. The locals are gentle, soft-spoken and kind. I remember my daughter laughing when I told her that you hardly ever hear children crying and that even the dogs are friendly. When she came for the first of many visits, she realized that I wasn't exaggerating.

The presence of pedlars and fishmongers, as well as artisans on every corner, also tugged on some vague ancestral memory. Here I was, a sophisticated urbane Jewish woman, living in a quaint Mexican hamlet where fathers still pass the skills of carpentry, glass-blowing, upholstering, cobbling, wood-carving and a host of traditional trades on to their sons, while mothers teach the art of sewing, weaving, pottery and a sundry of beautiful time-honored crafts to their daughters.

This is a place where most things are still handmade and labourers often sing at the top of their lungs while working, where dilapidated trucks with loudspeakers blare the news of the wares they carry to all within earshot.

It felt like a time warp in which no one is in a rush and where what doesn't get finished today might get done tomorrow. Expatriates quickly learn that "manana" is actually a euphemism for "whenever." The concept is so infectious that most "gringos" eventually stop fretting and simply learn to go with the flow.

In Ajijic, three and four generations still live under the same roof. People are poor but happy. Seniors are honoured for their wisdom and contributions to society. And, the faces, especially of the elderly, emerged like something out of my mystical past. Each one was worthy of a portrait. Old, wizened and permanently etched with the lines of experience, hard work and sacrifice, there wasn't a smidgen of vanity among them.

In Ajijic, every month brings yet another fiesta - a yom tov and simchah or two to celebrate - providing yet another excuse for itinerant mariachis to play under your windows, just like our klezmorim, the itinerant musicians of eastern Europe.

That's when it hit me that I, an urban modern Toronto Jewess, was actually living in a shtetl, similar to that which my ancestors hailed from and fled - but with an infinitely more humane Mexican twist.

Although Mexican villages are predominantly Catholic, the Mexican brand of Catholicism is a unique blend of the religion conquistadors brought from Spain, with indigenous Aztec and Mayan tribal traditions. Despite the efforts of the Catholic Church at indoctrination of the population, there is a profound lack of fanaticism in the piety of the locals who have an easygoing live and let live mentality. Even the Church has been forced to adopt this same tolerant attitude toward the traditions that villagers stubbornly cling to from their indigenous past.

Some scholars suggest that the ancient Aztec and Mayan belief in many gods is what accounts for this relaxed attitude to other beliefs. That could well be why, despite the pre-eminence of the church, Mexican Jews have lived relatively free from persecution. For educated Mexicans, the Catholic Inquisition against Jews is comparable to what they view as the heinous destruction of their own indigenous cultures by the conquistadors and their church.

I remember reflecting that this was the kind of shtetl my ancestors could only dream of and pray for. No Cossacks. No pogroms. Friendly neighbours. Had this been the environment in Europe, many of us would still be there.

Unexpectedly, there were even some local traditions that I, as a Jew could relate to. The lavish quinze annos that poor Mexican parents save for in order to throw a party for their daughters' 15th birthday is rather like a bat mitzvah without the religious connotations - but with an equal amount of naches shepped.

When the Lake Chapala Jewish Congregation went out looking for cemetery land, we explained the Jewish burial requirements to the Mexican officials. They not only understood but eagerly informed us that villagers also bury their dead within two days.

I remember walking by a home where some 50 chairs were put out on the street for family and friends to pay their respects in shivah-like fashion. I, a stranger passing by, paid my respects with a traditional "los sientos" (my sympathies). Everything is communal and out on the street, raw and open to the entire village - weddings, holidays, parties and even death.

A perfect example of a modern manifestation of an ancient Aztec tradition, and often misrepresented, is the Day of the Dead. Mistakenly characterized as similar to Halloween, the Day of the Dead could more accurately be likened to an aboriginal fusion of Yizkor and Purim - all wrapped in a flimsy Catholic disguise.

Like Yizkor, it is a sacred day reserved for remembering those who passed away. Homemade shrines with pictures of the deceased, fronted by plates piled high with their favourite food, are set up in front of every home. After days of preparation, villagers descend on the cemeteries to pay homage - just as Jews do before Rosh Hashanah. Here, however, the similarity ends. Carrying baskets brimming with their loved ones' favourite foods, families actually picnic at gravesites, which are elaborately decorated with flowers and photos.

They celebrate the deceased's lives with an irreverence that, while accepting the inevitability of death and tragedy, levels an ironic wink and collective finger at the Angel of Death with a "you can'?t scare us" chutzpah. Here too, as on Purim, the intrepid mariachis - just like our klezmoriam did - leave their soulful musical mark. Revelry ends the day with the triumph of survival and life. We drink to blur the line between Haman and Mordechai. They feast to blur the line between life and death.

While there are comparisons between Ajijic and the European shtetl, there are thankfully differences as well. First of all, Ajijic is much more prosperous than most Mexican villages or their eastern European counterparts. This is not only because Americans and Canadians have descended in droves over the past 20 years but also because the area around Lake Chapala has always been the "Muskoka" for wealthy Guadalajarans, many of whom have lavish villas there. Consequently, now more than ever, the locals enjoy full employment and a relatively high standard of living.

Unlike the religious antagonisms of the shtetl, there is symbiosis between the "gringos" and villagers. Along with the growing number of expats, modernity has come to Ajijic in the form of high-quality shops, galleries and restaurants. Even Wal-Mart is raising its dubious head there. Economic prosperity has resulted in a growing middle class with more professionals, private schools, access to higher education, consumer goods and other benefits of modern life. By being exposed to so many expats who bring different traditions, cultures and lifestyles into their midst, the villagers have gained as much financially as those who choose to spend their retirement years there have gained in wisdom and a new outlook on life.

Despite these changes, like the Jews, the locals have managed to preserve their unique culture and hold onto their time-honoured traditions. I'm convinced that Ajijic will continue to be the sunny Mexican shtetl that Jews can comfortably and safely retire in.

For more information on Ajijic, contact Hindy Nosek-Abelson at 416-534-4234 or at hindyabelson@hotmail.com.