Isaac Artenstein, Justo Sierra School, Tijuana, 1958
Isaac Artenstein, Justo Sierra School, Tijuana, 1958

In his documentary Tijuana Jews, Isaac Artenstein chronicled the lives of Eastern European and Turkish immigrants who settled in Mexico’s fabled border city, many of them—including Artenstein’s own father—by chance. At its peak in the 1960s, Tijuana’s Jewish numbered around 600, and included a synagogue, any number of men’s and women’s clubs, and a recreation center that served as the community’s lively social hub. By the time Artenstein—who learned English by working in his father’s curio shop—began filming, in 2000, the enclave had thinned dramatically, as a younger generation left for Southern California, often to pursue educational opportunities. Artenstein’s film—which has been making the rounds of festivals for the past two years—looks back on the heyday of this singular community, which managed to maintain a strong sense of cultural identity (Yiddish can be heard spoken on the streets by a few old timers to this day), while embracing the traditions and politics of Mexico (Jewish charros, traditional Mexican cowboys, roamed those same streets).

What was it like growing up as a Jew in Mexico?

Being a Jew in Mexico had the added particularity for me of growing up in the Tijuana-San Diego border region, which has its own layers of culture, and which is somewhat different from the Mexican Jewish center of Mexico City. When I was growing up and would visit my cousins in Mexico City, the Sephardic and Arabic Jewish communities were separate from the Ashkenazi community. Tijuana, being smaller, really couldn’t afford those divisions. I myself am of mixed Ashkenazi and Sephardic origin. I think my mom and dad were among the first “mixed couples” in Tijuana, at least.

Another thing that sticks out for me is that there was, and to some extent there still is, a separation of church and state. So as a Jewish boy growing up in that environment, not to say that there wasn’t some anti-Semitism, but it was minimized. The huge influence of the church in Mexico’s colonial history was minimized after the civil war of the 1850s. I was a beneficiary of that. For instance, the word “God” couldn’t be said in a classroom. Education was very secular.

In Tijuana Jews, one of the interviewees, who was born in Eastern Europe, says that the two most important things in her life are being Mexican and being Jewish. Given that the largest wave of Jewish immigration to Tijuana took place around the 1940s, it’s amazing that Jews came to identify so strongly as Mexicans in such a short generational span.

I can only speak from my personal experience, and that of my relatives and friends, but Mexico is a very exciting country, and there’s a long tradition of foreigners going there and writing extensively about the country. So Mexico itself is a very compelling country culturally, geographically, gastronomically, and we Jews do like to eat. It’s also a land of incredible opportunity, at least it was when my parents were coming up. Ellis Island immigration quotas began in 1924, but Mexico still had an open door policy to immigrants. The country treated us well.

And as I mentioned, the secular tone of public life was also key. There’s always a real concern in the Jewish consciousness about complete assimilation into a different culture. And in Mexico, you could be Jewish and you could be Mexican. It was a process of negotiation that happened over many years. Now we’re seeing a generation of Mexican Jewish politicians, but that did not happen instantaneously.

And yet the Jewish community in Tijuana is dwindling.

Since so many of the Tijuana Jewish families have moved over to the American side, the Jewish Community Center that I grew up with is really having a struggle staying alive. The Mexican Jewish community, right now, I would say about 80% lives on the American side. When I was growing up, my parents were wondering where we would go to college—it was either coming to the U.S. or going to Mexico City. So a move started in the 60s of families moving to the other side of the border. My own family moved in the mid-late 60s. Tijuana and its Jewish community have both changed so much over the years, and growing up, for me, it was a very special place. The film has a very nostalgic feel, because of it.

Do you think you would have undertaken the project if you didn’t have such a close personal relationship with the community?

In fact, I’ve asked myself the question, “Why did I wait so long?” I think for an artist it’s sometimes more difficult to explore your own personal background because of your closeness to it. But I was engaged with the stories of my grandfather Fishl, who became Feliciano in Mexico, and his generation was dying off, so I knew I had to put those stories on tape.

When you tell people in the U.S. that there are Jews in Mexico, they look at you kind of cross-eyed. And when I tell them there are Jews in Tijuana they just think you’re crazy. So another impetus was shedding light on this community that people didn’t think was a real thing.

Finally, a major impetus for me is shedding light on the immigrant experience in general, and making people understand that if we’re going to be a country that prides itself on its immigrant past, we have to take it up to the present. The processes of trans-culturation, the negotiation of different cultures, globalism, multiculturalism—these are topics that have been hot for the past decade or so, but they’re issues that Jews have been dealing with for hundreds, maybe thousands of years. So my own personal background correlates with issues that I’m passionate about.

It sounds like there was a social justice component to this.

Well my work does have roots in social justice. One of my early films was Ballad of an Unsung Hero [1984], about the Mexican civil rights organizer Pedro J. Gonzalez. He was jailed in San Quentin on a rape charge during the Depression, but actually the charge was false and there was political motivation behind the incarceration because he was a powerful organizer, through the radio, lobbying for immigrant rights in Southern California. At the time, the case received a lot of press. It was referred to as the Mexican Dreyfus case. I met Gonzalez by chance in a senior citizen’s center, and he was a natural born folk historian. I’ve always been fascinated by Mexican history, and here at the border there are buried stories that don’t come to light because mainstream media is blind to other communities.

Right now, you’re working on a four-part series called Frontier Jews, which documents the Jewish communities of Tucson, San Diego, El Paso, and Santa Fe. How did this project come to be?

It all kind of started when we presented Tijuana Jews at the Tucson Jewish film festival. I was very surprised to learn that Tucson had a relatively large Jewish community of 30,000, with a Jewish community center, many synagogues, and a lively cultural scene. When I was there, one of my hosts handed me a book called Pioneer Jews by Harriet and Fred Rochlin. It was really an eye opener. On the cover is a photograph of Charles Strauss, the first Jewish mayor of Tucson, in the 1880s, and I found out that Tucson has had several Jewish mayors since. Two of them are still alive, by the way. So Jews had been part of the far west for many years, many generations, and I became fascinated by the subject. It really counters the stereotype of the East Coast Jew, living in the crowded tenements of New York. Nogales, Arizona, has a Jewish cemetery, and so does Tombstone. Wyatt Earp married a Jewish woman named Josephine Marcus, and is buried in the Jewish section of the Hills of Eternity Memorial Park in Colma, California , in the Marcus family plot.

As soon as we started researching and interviewing in Tucson, we noticed lines that ran through the four cities of Tucson, El Paso, Santa Fe, and San Diego that were fascinating. For instance, El Paso had these circuit-riding rabbis in the late 1800s. Since it was one of the larger communities, it could afford to part with some of its rabbis and dispatch them to Las Vegas, Tucson, Nogales, Yuma, really any little place that had Jews. The biggest of these small communities were the ones that got the rabbis during the high holidays, because they were the ones that could afford to put them up.

Will the films look at what’s happening in those cities today?

I definitely want to take the films up to the present as I did with Tijuana Jews. Many things have impressed me about present-day Tucson. For example, there’s a social action committee there that works with Mexican and Jewish teens throughout the year, bringing the two communities together, and this culminates with a weekend in Washington D.C. where the teens talk about leadership and politics. I also found out that one of the temples in Tucson was a sanctuary for refugees during the civil war in El Salvador in the early 80s. That was an incredible contemporary expression of the spirit of solidarity with other refugees that I think often defines Jewish communities.

Are there similarities between Jewish communities of the west? And other subcultures you’ve documented?

The ability to negotiate different languages, different cultures, speaks to the characteristic of not giving up, working through anything, a pioneering spirit of Jews. In Frontier Jews, we have a testimonial about Albert Steinfeld, who lived in San Francisco and received a letter from relatives in Tucson asking him to help out because the family store was expanding. He took a steamship from San Francisco to San Diego, from there a stage coach to a small town where they had to spend the day because raids from Apache Indians made it impossible to travel while it was light out, and finally the last leg of the journey, a stagecoach to Tucson. The store was nothing like what he had thought it would be, and he’d cry himself to sleep every night. But yet he made it through, and soon learned how to speak Spanish. So the multicultural experience is an asset, it makes our communities very unique, and it’s a survival skill.

But at the same time, Jews of the frontier were very cognizant of the prospects for assimilation, and they trod the line between integration and separation. It was the same in Mexico. We’re not accustomed to being outsiders, yet our own traditions are important. It’s not assimilation. It’s a distinct ability to acculturate.

Isaac Artenstein’s Tijuana Jews has its PBS premiere, on KPBS San Diego, on November 15 at 10pm.