Chef Matt on Crypto-Jews and Hannukah

Jews have a long history of immigration to Mexico, the first arriving soon after the Spanish conquest in the 16th century. This group, known as “Crypto-Jews”, practiced their religion in secret. They were forced to convert to Catholicism during the Inquisition, but many viewed the opportunity to come to the new colony in Mexico as a way to maintain their identity in secret further from the intense scrutiny of the Spanish crown and the church. Most of this initial wave of immigrants ultimately assimilated fully into Mexican society, discarding their Jewish identity. While few of them practice the religion, 20,000 modern-day Mexicans have traced their heritage back to these “Crypto-Jews” or “Conversos”- persons who had converted to Catholicism to avoid death. The surnames Mendoza and Garza were common names among Jews in Spain, and those in Mexico with such surnames today are likely descended from “Conversos”.

A second wave of Jewish immigrants arrived during the second half of the 19th century, after religious freedom was granted in Mexico. The majority of the 50,000 or so Jews that identify as such today are descended from immigrants that arrived between 1881 and 1939. Two distinctive groups, Ashkenazi Jews that fled pogroms in Russia, and Sephardic Jews fleeing from the collapsing Ottoman Empire in Syria and Turkey (they had previously fled here from Spain during the inquisition) arrived during this period, setting up their own communities and following their differing customs.

While there are Jewish communities today in Tijuana, Guadalajara, and San Miguel, 75% of Mexican Jews live in Mexico City.   While initially settling in the historic center of the city, after establishing themselves as merchants many moved to the tree lined suburban neighborhoods known as La Condesa and Roma, two of the hipper neighborhoods in modern day DF.

Hannukah is definitely one of the lesser Jewish holidays, but its chronological proximity to Christmas and the sense of exclusion among American Jewish children has built it up in American culture beyond its historical importance. The holiday celebrates a small band of soldiers known as the Maccabees who defeated their much more powerful Greek rulers. Amidst the siege occurred a miracle: what should only have been enough oil to keep the eternal lamp lit for one night in the temple lasted for eight days and nights. It is for this reason that Hanukkah is celebrated for eight nights, and why a candle is lit on the menorah each night. The oil is represented in the foods that are eaten as well. Fried foods are called for, such as potato latkes and donuts.

Passover Dinners have become a yearly tradition at Comal. This year, we will be hosting 2 nights of Hannukah dinners. Taking the lead from the Jewish immigrants in Mexico, the idea is to create a mash-up of traditional dishes and Mexican flavors. This is a fun, secular event; the dinner will not be kosher, but obviously no shrimp or pork will be served. Dinner will be served family style in our private dining room, “Abajo”. Seating will be limited to 20 per night on Monday, December 7 and Tuesday, December 8. Purchase your tickets early, as based on the popularity of past Passover dinners, it will likely sell out quickly. I look forward to seeing many familiar faces, and hopefully some new ones too.