Caught in the scrum of day-trippers haggling over brightly colored glazed ceramic skulls and $20 cigars purportedly from Havana, the reverberating amplified guitars blasting hard rock from the two dozen or so bars lining both sides of Hidalgo Avenue, and the scent of fresh churros and bacon-wrapped hot dogs drifting through the humid air from vendor carts across the plaza from the Church of the Immaculate Conception with the towering statue of the Virgin Mary for a steeple, it’s not long before your Ashkenazi sixth sense of heightened cognitive dissonance kicks in.
First you come upon the hand-lettered messages in cursive Hebrew slapped across display windows and easels poking out of sidewalk restaurants and loncherias, $35-a-night hotels, dive shops, day spas, ice cream parlors, jewelry showrooms, and bikini boutiques. Then an advertisement for today’s special, shakshuka, the North African tomato, garlic, and vegetable dish popular with young Israelis, comes into focus from a post inside the New Age Mogagua coffee shop.
Two blocks over, across from the island’s 24-hour health clinic and divers’ emergency hyperbaric chamber, your eyes home in on the black hand-painted lettering of the “Kosher” sign running the width of a seashell-white balcony overhanging the entrance to the Café Maya with its all dairy and vegetarian menu, fresh baked bagels, and backpacker-friendly free Wi-Fi.
Only then do you catch sight of the stubble-cheeked lanky young man in jeans with the buzz cut and black-striped white tzitzit vest, knotted fringes billowing languidly in the Caribbean breeze, racing to inhale the final draws of a last cigarette before sundown and the arrival of Shabbos off the Yucatán coast.
A 20-minute, $5.50 ferry ride from Cancún, Isla Mujeres is a five-mile long, half-mile-wide island that got its name from the figurines of partially clad females discovered by 16th-century Spanish explorers among the ruins of the Temple of Ixchel, the Mayan goddess of fertility, located on the island’s southernmost shore. Now it’s a fishing village, home to a Mexican naval base, and tourist venue.
With its cool-to-the-touch granulated coral and shell beaches, calm waters, accessible reefs and abundance of marine life, Isla Mujeres is a popular destination for snorkelers and divers, families wanting a less hectic and more affordable alternative to Cancún, day-trippers seeking glimpses of indigenous culture from behind the wheel of a rented gasoline-powered golf cart, and backpackers lured by the $11.75-a-night dormitory beds, ocean-side bar, juggling and yoga lessons, volleyball, hammocks, and casual hook-ups featured at the Poc-Na hostel, where you can score an approximate gram of local pot from a nearby bartender for $15 U.S. On a recent night, someone stapled a notice near the hostel entrance seeking to fill out the crew of a 42-foot sailboat departing for Cuba in three days, no experience, skills, or nautical qualifications specified.
In season the number of people on Isla Mujeres can approach 30,000, but the island’s year-round population hovers at around 13,000. Counted among these permanent residents are approximately 15 Jewish households, including 1960s adventurers, Israeli entrepreneurs, and Lubavitcher Chasids.
In some ways it’s a micro-diaspora very much like the one depicted in the old joke about the desert island with two Jews and three synagogues: mine, his, and the one nobody ever sets foot in.
If Jewish Isla Mujeres has an aristocracy, Miriam Nates Greenstein—proprietor of the Su Casa Beach Cottages on the Sac Bajo road overlooking the bay—would be its grande dame. Slight of build, with gray hair teased out in an elegant anachronistic bubble, her piercing gray eyes, tight straight lips, and clipped New York accent convey the impression that this is a self-possessed well-traveled woman who doesn’t suffer fools. If she doesn’t know everyone on the island, most everyone, Jewish of not, certainly knows her.
Born 90 years ago in New York City to Yiddish-speaking Polish and Lithuanian immigrant parents, Miriam regards herself as a secular socially conscious Jew. The first thing you notice entering her apartment, which has the comfortable musty feel of your grandmother’s place off the Grand Concourse, is a glass mezuzah attached to the right doorpost. Everywhere you look you see framed paintings, books standing upright and lying on their sides, hand-woven baskets, and island ceramics. Sitting up in her upholstered love seat, comfortably attired in a native white cotton chemise with intricately laced loose quarter sleeves, Miriam is quick to point out that living quarters on the island need to approximate “boat condition,” which means taking appropriate precautions against moisture and making sure that every item is stowed in its own secure place.
It was her late husband Joseph’s love of Mayan culture, acquired after first reading explorer John Lloyd Stephens’ Incidents of Travel in the Yucatan at the age of 12, that first brought the couple to Isla Mujeres in the mid-1960s from their home in Woodstock, New York, where they operated a small summer hotel and Joseph (“Yussy”) ran a successful homebuilding business. Back then, ferries ran only twice a day—instead of every half-hour from 5:00 a.m. to midnight—once in the morning and once at night. There were no paved roads, no running water or sewage system, and electricity worked only four hours a day. Miriam doesn’t remember her and her husband ever making the formal decision to stay on Isla Mujeres, but over the years they found themselves spending more and more time here.
Sometime in the early 1970s the Greensteins built a house on the island and then later the eight studio efficiencies and hacienda that now comprise the Su Casa rentals. Miriam tells you that Jewish life here, such as it is, centers on home celebrations and family. Since the first wave of Jewish settlers was comprised mostly of couples well into middle age, there were no kids to educate for b’nai mitzvot and no thought given to establishing a synagogue, Hebrew school, mikveh, or other religious institutions. Miriam explains that Judaism on the island is “very individual, not communal,” and you get the sense that’s just how she’d like to keep it.
Another long-time Jewish family lives nearby, Miriam tells you, and one of the newly arrived rabbis and his wife and infant daughter rent a place just up the road. “I guess you could call this the Jewish neighborhood,” she laughs.
As for anti-Semitism, Miriam says that “it exists everywhere in the world. Everyone reads the papers, but it doesn’t generally affect me.” If anything, Jews present a curiosity for the people here, something she attributes to the island’s inadequate public education system. Among native islanders there is a sort of incomprehension and astonishment that Miriam belongs to a religion of people who don’t believe in Jesus. They can’t fathom it.
Miriam tells you straight out it’s all she can do to keep up with the family and friends who frequently visit here, but her greatest apprehension for the future is about the new arrivals who settle here for “the wrong reasons”—speculators and developers with money and an unearned sense of entitlement who have no appreciation for the local people, culture, environment, and customs. “They’ll buy a tract of land, subdivide it into four lots, try to make a killing, then leave.” Of course, Miriam is quick to admit, she bought cheap and could make a killing too if she wanted, but that’s not why she’s here.
As for the continuing development and increased tourism on the island, Miriam says without a trace of mawkishness or self-pity that she hopes “there’s still a little something left of the culture and natural environment here after I’m dead.”
Lior Ben-Shafrut and her husband Yaron Zelzer arrived in Isla Mujeres from Herzliya in 2004 set on starting a business of their own in a climate “less complicated” than the one back home, which may be more a commentary on the exasperations of navigating Israeli bureaucracy than an endorsement of Mexican efficiency.
Their first venture was a café and bookshop catering to backpackers, but the couple learned soon enough that you can’t make money serving young people who don’t have any. Four years later they opened Olivia, an upscale “Mediterranean“ restaurant that serves some of the most exquisitely prepared and sophisticated cuisine on the island.
With her long straight blonde hair, greenish brown eyes, and elegant over-the-shoulder-tattoo, and his flawlessly groomed salt-and-pepper beard and trim physique, Lior and Yaron present the picture of a very put-together, confident, and photogenic cosmopolitan couple who could be at home in anywhere in the world.
Like Miriam, Lior’s manner is direct and to the point, friendly and engaged but devoid of excessive chitchat.
She is quick to inform you that she’s a second-generation Israeli with Sephardi origins tracing back centuries to Cordova. In some sense, settling in a Spanish-speaking country means a return to her linguistic roots, except that while her ancestors traveled east over generations, she headed west instead.
Lior’s father is a veteran of both the Turkish and Israeli armies, and her mother’s side immigrated to Israel from Bulgaria. Olivia’s menu features family recipes for baba ganoush, labane, moussaka, olive chicken, shishlik, and fish cooked in Moroccan spices. These traditional preparations are Lior’s way of preserving and sharing her cultural identity, which she defines as “Israeli first, Jewish second,” leaving you to wonder what exactly this means, and how many post-Shoah Ashkenazi Jews would likely answer the same.
While pondering this you notice the Hanukkah menorah displayed prominently between a lit candle and the book of Zohar on a shelf near the restaurant’s entrance, then ask Lior about the challenge of remaining true to her heritage this far from home. “Pesach is the hardest time of the year,” she answers. They make do by attending Seders with some of the island’s original Jewish inhabitants, visiting friends on Cancún, and through periodic trips home. Now that their daughter is school age, Lior and Yaron have “imported” a Montessori teacher from the United States and started their own school, which now has six students.
As for anti-Semitism, Lior explains that the local Catholic population regard Jews with some measure of respect as “people of the book.” Then she tells you about the swastika smeared in black paint across Olivia’s door while the family was on a visit to Israel. The wood surface was immediately sanded and refinished by a carpenter friend, a Catholic, who made sure no trace of the hateful symbol was visible when they returned. It wasn’t until months afterward that Lior learned of the incident through another friend’s slip of the tongue. The carpenter, apparently embarrassed by the desecration and wanting to spare the family’s feelings, had pledged all their acquaintances to secrecy about the swastika and its erasure.
Lior and Yaron maintain cordial relationships with the island’s old-guard Jewish families, but for the most part they travel in different social circles. Lior has visited the Chabad House and offered some practical advice to the newcomers but otherwise doesn’t have much to do with the Lubavitchers, whose mission she sees as having more to do with outreach to itinerants than with blending in.
It’s the backpackers for whom Lior reserves her harshest criticisms. “After leaving the army,” she says, thumping her chest Tarzan-style, “they say ‘I can do anything,’ ” by which she means behaving boorishly, treating waitresses thoughtlessly, and tooling around recklessly in golf carts they don’t know how to drive. Israeli embassies, she says, should provide young people leaving the army with mandatory classes in respect for the customs and cultures of the nations they’re visiting.
“They don’t only represent Israel,” says Lior—who is not so far removed in age from the embarrassing young emissaries she’s talking about now—“they also represent me. Someone needs to tell them you can’t walk into a bank wearing only a bikini.”
To Rabbi Mendi Dayan, co-founder of Chabad Isla Mujeres, the backpackers represent neither an embarrassment nor a nuisance, but individual opportunities for repairing the world. Walk into the Chabad House on Hidalgo Avenue any afternoon and you’re likely to see young Israeli males in their early 20s sprawled across couches pounding their smartphones, killing time before the minyan and meal. For Shabbos dinner, you might find fashionably dressed young people in sleeveless blouses and shorts and frum mothers in ankle-length skirts and expensive wigs making their way up the stairs to the divided social hall that serves as a worship space an dining area.
As newly minted rabbis, Mendi and his Jerusalem yeshiva-mate Yossi Ben-Shimon established the Isla Mujeres Chabad House, with seed money from 770 Eastern Parkway sometime around Hanukkah 2012. Their building, formerly a three-story nightclub, may be the only thatched-roof tiki-themed-shul in all of Chabad. Male visitors are greeted with a strong handshake and a warm hug from Rabbi Mendi or Rabbi Yossi. Women get a welcoming embrace and sweet smile from the young rebbitzen, who does her best to make sure no one feels like a stranger.
The fact that by his estimate there were only eight or so Jewish families who were year-round residents of the island did not deter Mendi’s enthusiasm for coming here. Since he was a boy Mendi wanted to open a synagogue of his own, and the call to Isla Mujeres was his opportunity to fulfill that dream. “Even if there is only one Jew,” he tells you, paraphrasing the late Rebbe Menachem Schneerson, “it would be reason enough to come here.”
The first Passover on the island, Mendi and Yossi—with the assistance of two local non-Jewish women hired to help with the cooking and general maintenance—served a Seder for nearly 70 guests, including supporters from Chabad in Crown Heights, tourists from the United States, and young Israelis fresh out of the army. Last Rosh Hashanah, the number of guests exceeded 500.
Asked if most of the backpackers don’t just come to Chabad for the free eats, Rabbi Mendi smiles broadly and shrugs as if to say this should be his biggest worry.
At 23-and-a-half years old, in his broad-brimmed hat, black suit jacket and open-collar white cotton shirt, Mendi is a great bear of a young man with a swarthy complexion and a quick, easy laugh. He has the charisma you see in a much older man, but the unpredictable playfulness of a college kid. When you speak his half-closed eyes and patient smile give the impression that right now there’s nothing more important and urgent than listening to you. During Saturday morning prayers, you observe him spontaneously grab the hand of a davener who had just competed reciting the Torah blessings, squeeze tightly, then lead everyone in a table-thumping improvisational niggun.
The son of a rabbi, and the fifth of 10 children, Mendi traces his Sephardic roots to Morocco, Kurdistan, and Russia. He speaks four languages, including Hebrew, fluent Russian and Kurdish, self-taught conversational Spanish, and a smattering of English but—like Lior at Olivia—not a lick of Yiddish. Asked if he’d completed his military service before coming here, Mendi pauses, then replies “not yet,” as though keeping the option open but unlikely. “For now,” he laughs, “I’m in Moshiach’s army.”
His service involves overseeing the operations and financial solvency of Isla Mujeres Chabad, which means supervising the meal services, soliciting contributions from visitors, and securing donations from high-roller individuals and organizations in Israel and New York. Learning that the demand for fresh kosher meat in Latin America exceeded supply, Mendi undertook training to become a shochet and helps pay the bills by ferrying to Cancún every three weeks to slaughter 500 chickens at a time.
More than a year and a half ago his partner Rabbi Yossi traveled to Israel in search of a match. He and his wife Rivka, and their 6-month-old daughter Sheina rent an apartment in the Jewish neighborhood on the Sac Bajo road, leaving Mendi to occupy alone the former nightclub’s third-floor garret.
Which for now is fine with Mendi, who unlike the itinerant visitors his age, doesn’t hang out at the beach, snorkel, scuba dive, fish, or joyride around the island in a golf cart. The young rabbi says he is content to spend nearly all his time overseeing Chabad House operations, attending to visitors, negotiating with vendors and service providers, and navigating the permit and approval processes required for running the facility and its related catering and restaurant enterprises. You suspect that he’s not telling you everything and that more likely than not Mendi’s having fun.
Mendi admits to finding fulfillment in both the practical and spiritual worlds and confides without much prompting that yes, he’d very much like to find a match, marry, and have kids. Toward that end he’s already planning visits to Tel Aviv and New York.
Asked about his personal ambitions five years from now, Mendi answers dutifully, “To be in Jerusalem, with the Temple restored and the Moshiach returned.”
The same goes for tomorrow, the day after, and the day after that.
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