We were near the desert, somewhere past the Salton Sea, when Daniel (Dany) Mehlman, a 48-year-old Conservative rabbi, summed up the situation.
Lupe Medrano, her daughter Naara, and Nancy Fajardo say the blessings. Photo by Roberto Loiederman
"OK," he said, "we're going to rendezvous with a man I've never met, go with him to a Mexican city I've never been to, then spend the weekend with people I don't know."
"Sounds perfect," I said.
In El Centro, a California town about 100 miles east of San Diego, we met Jose Orozco -- smiling, middle-aged, wearing a kippah. We followed him across the international border to Mexicali.
At a modest house in a residential area, Alfredo and Lupe Medrano came out, greeted us warmly and introduced us to their children and grandchildren, as well as to relatives and friends who come to the home every Friday night to celebrate Shabbat.
By sundown, the living room overflowed with several generations, from babies in arms to those older than 80, and everything in between.
There were at least a dozen in their teens and 20s. Kippot were distributed to the men, candles were lit, small plastic cups filled with wine, prayers recited. The brachot were led by Orozco and Lupe Medrano, as well as by Lupe's daughter, Naara, and her friend, Nancy Fajardo.
During the Hamotzi, everyone either touched the braided, homemade challah or someone nearby, so that all were connected.
Mehlman had gone to the Mexicali home because this community wants Spanish-speaking rabbis to visit them and give them guidance. Through a series of connections, Orozco learned about Mehlman, who's Argentine-born and has sponsored many conversions, and invited him for the weekend.
Mehlman teaches at New Community Jewish High School in West Hills and at the University of Judaism in Bel Air, in addition to being the spiritual leader at K'hilat Ha'Aloneem in Ojai and part-time rabbi at Beth Shalom of Whittier.
When Mehlman told me he was going to visit a group of Mexicans practicing Judaism on their own -- no rabbi, no shul -- it sounded fascinating; I asked if I could come along.
I wondered what had led these people -- born into Catholic families -- to follow Judaism. More than that, I wanted to see Judaism through their eyes. What do they feel when they say the prayers? What is the source of their faith?
This was not the first time I'd asked these questions. During the High Holidays, I had attended services at Beth Shalom, where a vibrant group of Latino converts has revitalized that shul.
I'd seen their dedication and commitment. But the Whittier group lives in Los Angeles, where it's not hard to practice Judaism. The people in Mexicali, on the other hand, risked alienating themselves from their families and their society. Why?
This question was on my mind as I watched the three women -- one middle-aged, two in their 20s -- cover their heads, close their eyes, wave their hands and say the brachot.
Afterward, Mehlman led the kabbalat Shabbat service. Some could read Hebrew, others knew the prayers by heart. All sang niggunim.
The feeling was warm and affable, even joyous -- a large extended family welcoming Shabbat. When the service was over, Mehlman asked that each person say a few words about the path that led him or her to Judaism and to this home.
Dr. Mario Espinoza, a Mexicali obstetrician-gynecologist, spoke about his certainty that he's descended from Jews forcibly converted to Christianity centuries ago. He used the Hebrew word anousim (constrained people or forcibly converted) rather than Marranos, which means "swine."
For Mexicans who trace their lineage to anousim, the Inquisition is not ancient history. It continued in Latin America, including Mexico, from the 1500s until the 1800s. During that period, those whose ancestors had been forced to convert from Judaism to Christianity were harassed, tortured and sometimes killed if they were discovered to have continued Jewish practices, which is why those practices continued in secret, if at all.
Espinoza commented that he has learned to read and speak Hebrew, and he brought with him several siddurim in Hebrew and Spanish. He and his wife, Lucia, who made the challah, are raising their four children as Jews.
Orozco said he grew up in Mexico and lives in El Centro, where he works for a social welfare agency. Recently converted to Judaism, he goes across the border regularly to spend Shabbat with the Medrano family and friends.
He said he's been drawn to Judaism since childhood.
"When I was little," Orozco said, "I'd listen to Jewish music, to Israeli music, and be deeply affected by it. I felt that this was the music of my heart, of my soul. I remember, as a child looking at photos of the Western Wall and crying."
Several offered anecdotes that indicated that they, like Mario Espinoza, had ancestors who had carried on Jewish customs. Lucia Espinoza mentioned a grandmother who lit candles on Friday night. Lupe Medrano said that when she looked through her late grandfather's effects, she found a tallit hidden in a box.
This visceral certainty about their Jewish roots may or may not be backed by hard evidence, but it's what they feel, in blood and bone, fueled by family traditions -- a feeling made all the stronger by the empathetic bond they have with those who, over the centuries, were unjustly coerced into professing a faith that was not theirs.
More than one person said that being at the Medrano house on Friday nights is like "coming home." By being together on Shabbat, by performing Jewish rituals and saying the prayers, they're confirming their deepest-held sense of who they are. They've looked into themselves -- and at their family history -- and have returned to their true nature, which had been overlaid with alien rituals and faiths for hundreds of years.
A few at the gathering were born Jewish. Michael Schorr, in his 70s, said that he was a child when his family left Poland before World War II. He was brought up in Argentina, has lived in Israel and now teaches engineering at a university in Mexicali.
"I'm not Orthodox, Conservative or Reform," Schorr said. "I'm Jewish."
Schorr paused, obviously moved: "I can't tell you how wonderful it is for me to be here, to celebrate Shabbat here. This group has welcomed me into their lives, and I feel that I've been adopted by them, that I have a new family now, a new set of children and grandchildren."
Schorr fought back tears and several people touched him warmly.
After everyone had spoken, all 35 of us put our arms around each other and sang "Hineh Ma Tov Uma Na'im." How good and pleasant it is to dwell with kinsmen in harmony.
In a room brimming with conversation and laughter, with toddlers running between legs and babies being passed from one set of arms to another, Schorr pondered why Judaism, Christianity and Islam all came out of the desert.
"The desert is a place of vistas that appear seamless and infinite," he said. "No beginning and no end. That's why it has given rise to thoughts of oneness: of a single, holy, omnipotent spirit."
On Saturday morning at the Medrano house, it was a quieter gathering, about a dozen people, including several who had not been there the night before.
After the service, Mehlman asked if there were questions. Several wanted to know about the brit milah (circumcision ceremony). A month earlier, a Spanish-speaking Reform rabbi, Jacques Cukierkorn -- whose congregation is in Kansas -- had been in Mexicali and had told this group that as far as he's concerned, the brit milah is not a requirement for conversion.
Mehlman -- perhaps feeling that this was a touchy subject for a group embarking on what will be a long process -- opted for an amusing story.
"On Argentine TV," he said, "there used to be a comedy show called, 'Don Jacobo,' about a Jewish family in Buenos Aires. Well, Jacobo's daughter is engaged to a man who isn't Jewish and isn't circumcised.
And every week, there's a running gag. Whenever Don Jacobo gets together with his future son-in-law, he always winks and asks him, 'Come on, are you sure you don't want to make that ... small sacrifice?'"
The Mexicali group laughed.
At the same time, Mehlman was careful not to mislead or misinform.
"Look," he said, "maybe there's been some confusion about this in the past, and it's true that some Reform rabbis have said that the brit milah is optional. But nowadays, at least where I live, all groups agree that conversion for men should involve ... that small sacrifice. However, now is not the time to deal with this issue. We can talk about it in the future."
Mario Espinoza asked about what happens at the beit din (rabbinical court).
"Both men and women go before a group of three rabbis. One of them is your sponsoring rabbi," Mehlman said. "You answer some questions about Judaism, but it doesn't take place until you're ready. It's a friendly situation, you'll see. They'll behave reasonably and with heart."
Espinoza wondered about the mikvah.
"Yes, men and women both go through the ritual bath," Mehlman said.
"You go in and out of the water quickly, three times, then say the Shema. It's a meaningful step."
Espinoza said it was his understanding that conversions done by Conservative or Reform rabbis were not accepted in Israel. Mehlman explained that this had changed. The Israeli Supreme Court ruled that if someone has gone through any kind of Jewish conversion anywhere in the world, that person can enter Israel as a Jew.
"There are some issues, like marriage, still controlled by the Orthodox rabbinate, but I don't want to get into bureaucratic controversies now," he said.
They talked about taking a trip to Israel as a group. Mehlman proposed the fall of 2008 and said he would go with them and make it a Jewish pilgrimage, a spiritual quest in the Holy Land. A couple of the younger people also mentioned aliyah. Since these people live a pleasant life, it was clear that for them, aliyah would not be undertaken as an escape from economic or political oppression -- as has happened with others who have immigrated to Israel -- but rather as a positive return to their heritage, taken away generations ago.
Espinoza again signaled that there was another issue on his mind.
Every time he spoke, he prefaced what he had to say with a polite apology: "I mean no disrespect ..." or "Pardon me for asking ...," followed by yet another question.
"Pardon the question," Espinoza said, "but if someone were to be converted in Mexico, would he be accepted as a Jew in the U.S.?"
"Of course," Mehlman said. "Certainly."
From Espinoza's questions -- and the apologies that prefaced them -- it was clear that he felt intimidated, frustrated, even slightly angry, about a conversion process that seemed like an obstacle course or the initiation rites of an exclusive fraternity.
But there was something else. Clearly, some in this group were concerned about what would happen after conversion. Even if they satisfied all these seemingly rigorous demands, would they then be recognized as Jews by other Jews? Most of all, would they be accepted as Jews by other Mexican Jews?
The short answer is: not likely.
The group that has coalesced around the Medrano home is not the only one like it in Mexico. Far from it. The Web site of Beth Hatefutsoth, the Israel Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv, lists a number of communities of "native Mexican Jews" -- located in various parts of Mexico -- who trace their origins to anousim.
How many descendants of anousim are there?
"It's hard to figure out exactly," said Rabbi Stephen Leon of Congregation B'nai Zion in El Paso, just across the border from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. "I'd only be guessing, but I'd say the number is very large. I have personally ministered to 40 such families. In the 20 years I've been here, not a week goes by that I don't meet someone who tells me about childhood memories of crypto-Jewish practices."
The Diaspora Museum Web site points out that even after converting to Judaism, "native Mexican Jews" have not been accepted by "traditional Mexican Jews," nearly all of whom are Orthodox and descended from those who immigrated to Mexico from Europe and the Middle East in the early 1900s.
Mehlman tried to put that rejection into perspective.
"That's the way it is," he said. "Jews from Germany reject those from Russia. Jews from Syria reject those from Turkey. Those from Aleppo reject those from Damascus. And those from one part of Aleppo reject those from another part of Aleppo. But you can't let that discourage you."
Espinoza, though, could not quite let go of his concerns.
"I've studied Hebrew and I've immersed myself in Judaism," Espinoza said. "I have books, and I've read them over and over ... but I feel that I haven't gotten very far in my knowledge."
Mehlman nodded, smiled ruefully -- a Jewish gesture, as if carrying the weight of history.
"None of us have gotten very far," he said. "None of us. Halacha is a process, a road. True, conversion isn't that simple. But maybe when it's over, one appreciates it more. And it will happen. In the end, those of you who want to be Jews will become Jews. Like Herzl said, 'If you wish it, it will not be a legend.'"
Mehlman told the group that in the last few years he's been the sponsoring rabbi in nearly 60 conversions.
"And all of those people," he said, "all of them, when the final step came, they all cried. For me, conversion is the essence of my connection to Judaism. Being in contact with those going through conversion, seeing their growing attachment to Judaism, makes me feel and understand all over again why I became a rabbi."
"This weekend together is our first step: getting to know each other," he said. "We don't have an exact roadmap for the future, but we know where we'll get to, eventually."
"When I came here, I didn't know what to expect," he continued. "But what did I find? A group of wonderful, warm human beings, several generations, all wanting to practice Judaism. I can't tell you how moving it's been for me to be here. To be received so warmly, with so much love."
There was a deep silence for a few seconds, then Espinoza said that he didn't mean to be disrespectful, but he had one more question.
"Just one more," he said.
"I certainly hope not," Mehlman said.
Everyone laughed. "What I mean is, don't ever stop asking questions.
More and more questions. That's the nature of being Jewish.
So had I seen Judaism through the eyes of the Mexicali group?
What struck me is how different Friday night was from Saturday. On Saturday, there was a smaller, more serious group, and they expressed their concerns, as well as their hopes for the future.
On Friday night, however, nearly all of them were there. When they lit candles and welcomed Shabbat, it was a celebration of the present: a group of people bonded together and to their faith.
I envied what they have; not what they aspire to, but what they have now.
I thought of what Michael Schorr had said about Middle Eastern deserts: how their seamless vistas, no beginning and no end, gave rise to thoughts of oneness.
That may be, but Mexicali too is at the edge of a desert.
And where is the Holy Spirit, the sense of oneness, if not at a gathering of friends and relatives singing and praying and celebrating together?
The Mexicali community's Web site is http://groups.msn.com/CentroCulturalHebreodeMexicali; they can also be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, which stands for Jewish Cultural Center of Mexicali
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