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Preserving Jewish History in Mexico City

Monica Unikel has been leading tours for 23 years. But she’s also helped to create a cultural center inside one of the oldest synagogues in the Mexican capital.

Alan Grabinsky
October 30, 2017
Photo: Zony Maya
Monica Unikel in the Justo Sierra Historical Synagogue.Photo: Zony Maya
Photo: Zony Maya
Monica Unikel in the Justo Sierra Historical Synagogue.Photo: Zony Maya

To mark Day of the Dead on Nov. 1, thousands of Mexican families will flock to the Pantheon of Dolores, one of Mexico City’s biggest cemeteries, to light candles, play mariachi songs, and eat food on the graves of their dead relatives. Right across the street, in the smaller Ashkenazi cemetery, Monica Unikel will be leading an exclusive tour to make up for the lack of Jewish-Mexican rituals to mark the day. Unlike most Mexicans, Jews in Mexico don’t set up altars to their deceased ancestors or visit cemeteries for Day of the Dead, so her annual Jewish tour is, according to Unikel, “a one-of-a-kind opportunity for Jews in Mexico to participate in the festivities and show the wider world how we think about death.”

Unikel has been organizing monthly walks through La Merced, Mexico City’s immigrant quarter of the early 20th century, for more than 20 years. From the 1920s through the end of WWII, a steady influx of Eastern European Jews—including Unikel’s family—came to Mexico, escaping anti-Semitism in countries like Poland, Ukraine, and Germany. Most considered Mexico a stopping point on their way to the United States, but many ended up staying when the U.S. capped immigration quotas. They settled in La Merced, working as cloth hagglers, tailors, and small-business men.

Unikel also runs the Justo Sierra Historic Synagogue, a cultural center based in Nidje Israel, the original name of one of the oldest synagogues in Mexico City; according to Time Out, it is one of the top destinations to visit in capital’s massive downtown.

A second-generation descendant of Ukrainian and Polish immigrants who came to Mexico in the 1920s, Unikel was always obsessed with the Mexican-Jewish story. Since there was no Jewish-studies degree available in Mexico City, she studied sociology more broadly at the Universidad Iberoamericana and focused all her projects on Jewish themes.

Unikel met her husband of 32 years in Mexico’s Inquisition archives while she was researching the Carvajal family, whose members were burned at stake in an auto-da-fé not far away from Justo Sierra, in 1594. “I think it’s the most romantic story to have ever come out the Inquisition,” she told me, laughing.

After the birth of her son Jacko, Unikel took a trip to London, and it was there that she took her first Jewish tour. While she was a research associate for an oral-history project funded by the Hebrew University in the late 1980s, she had heard incredible stories of Sephardic Jews who had lived in Mexico City’s downtown tenements, so after her trip to London, she decided—taking into account her experience—that she would lead the same kind of tour back home.

She gave her first tour on Nov. 20, 1994. Now, her tours are a regular part of the Mexican-Jewish schools’ curriculum.

“It’s not enough to take care of historical spaces,” Enrique Chmelnik, head of the Jewish Center for Documentation and Research of Mexico City, told me about these visits. “Monica is going beyond this, bringing life to Mexico City’s Jewish past in ways that no one else is doing.”


I joined a group of 10 visitors, members of Asylum—a network for Jewish artists—on a recent Tuesday morning for one of Unikel’s walks. She was dressed in a black shirt and jeans, with bronze triangle earnings, waiting for us with a carpet in her right hand.

Our first stop was Jardin de Loreto Plaza, where two churches face off with two of Mexico’s oldest synagogues. Unikel took out an old black-and-white picture from her carpet—she’s been using the same one throughout the years—and pointed behind us to Monte Sinai, the first synagogue in Mexico, established in 1918 by Jews primarily arriving from the Middle East.

When Unikel first saw the building, the facade had no decoration. Then one person showed her the picture that she held in her hand and “blew her mind off.” It turns out the facade had been homogenized with the surrounding buildings in 1980s, when Pope John Paul II came to Mexico. It was restored in the 1990s. The space is structured like a Masonic temple—many of the first Jews in Mexico were Masons—with checkered floors and U-shaped benches.

Synagogues in Mexico City are nicknamed for the streets they are on (hence the name “Justo Sierra”) and on our next stop, Unikel told us a story about a man who wrote home to his parents telling him that they prayed at Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. (“It must have been quite a shock.”)

Monica Unikel in the Justo Sierra Historical Synagogue. (Photo: Zony Maya)
Monica Unikel in the Justo Sierra Historical Synagogue. (Photo: Zony Maya)

We walked past the crowded streets and blasting loudspeaker to a sunny corner where a kosher butcher shop used to stand. In order to build her tour, Unikel delved into old Yiddish newspapers printed in the downtown area and focused on the ads. This is how she arrived at Soledad Street, No. 20, a little shop that now sells children’s dresses but used to be Fuller, one of the city’s first kosher bakeries and a household name for Mexican Jews of the day. She showed us newspaper clippings: the names of the shops—Warsaw, Rusia—reflecting immigrant nostalgia. Then, we came full circle to Nidje Israel, the headquarters of Justo Sierra Historical Synagogue. (The synagogue was closed for a week following the earthquake that hit Mexico City last month, but it reopened with approval from the city; none of the buildings on the tour sustained damage.)


When Unikel started doing her tours, the street was packed with informal markets; it was almost impossible to get to any of the synagogues. “It was like a war zone, ” she told me. Nidje Israel, the second synagogue in the city, established by Ashkenazi Jews in 1922, was equally uncared for: In the early 1930s, the community started moving out of the center and into the newly established middle-class neighborhoods of Roma, Condesa, and, later, Polanco. Eventually, they moved even farther away; since the 1980s, the 50,000-strong community has been living mostly on the city’s outskirts, in gated communities up in the mountains.

Despite its downtown location, Nidje Israel remained active even after the community moved, thanks to the Herrera family, a group of Jewish converts who provided food to whoever came to pray. The space wasn’t only used for prayer: A woman named Raquel had a kosher winery in the basement, and another man, Isaac Betech, prepared za’atar (according to Unikel, the best one in town) in the entrance to the hallway. “Every time I came with the group, the reaction was: ‘What an incredible space. Too bad that it is so abandoned,’” said Unikel.

In 2007, at an event organized by Mexico City’s Downtown Authority, Raul Pawa, a member of the Jewish community, talked to the head of the Authority, Moreno Toscano, about the state of the synagogue. The city was beginning to invest in downtown and was going to design a trolley bus that would visit the neighborhood. Toscano suggested that they renovate the synagogue. Unikel was summoned into a meeting with the leaders of the city’s Ashkenazi community, and they asked for her input. It was contentious: The synagogue was underused, and Unikel argued for opening to a wider public, but some religious leaders opposed opening it as a cultural center under the banner of “a synagogue,” because it would not be used for prayers. Regardless of its eventual use, Unikel acted as a sort of prophet, arguing that restoration was urgent: It would weigh on the community’s consciousness, she argued, should the temple collapse in disrepair.

The synagogue opened in 2010 as a museum and is the only synagogue in the city that allows access to non-Jews. It’s a beautiful space, with golden furnishings and long, elaborate Greek columns. Unikel ends her tours by showing visitors the synagogue in Eastern Europe that served as a model for this one.

After we finished, I approached a tour participant who was on a two-week vacation with his wife. He had read about Unikel’s tour on a website and had waited for her confirmation (he was not a member of the Asylum crew). He told me he felt a sense of connection with Latin American migration because his father had traveled from Poland to Uruguay and then New York. “It was fascinating,” he told me, looking up at the mural on the synagogue’s ceiling, in awe, “being able to walk the streets where other Jews arrived.”


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Alan Grabinsky is a freelance writer and journalist based in Mexico City, covering Jewish life and urban issues for international media.