VENTA PRIETA, Mexico — On a dusty street in this small town, about 60 miles east of Mexico City, Eliseo Marron Tellez points out a cinder-block building that has served as the synagogue for his new Jewish congregation.
Marron, along with many others in his town, is part of a Jewish community that was converted to Judaism by Samuel Lerer, a Conservative rabbi who manned a pulpit in Mexico City for decades. Lerer, a transplanted Texan, sought out the Crypto Jews, or Anusim, of Mexico — the descendants of Jews who came from Spain during the Inquisition and hid their Judaism by mixing in with the Indian population.
The origins of the community of about 200 Jews in Venta Prieta have been the subject of debate. A few historians have disputed the claim that they are descendants of Jews who came to Mexico during the Inquisition. Mexico’s central Jewish organization — the Comité Central de la Comunidad Judía de México — still does not recognize them as an official Jewish community or count them among Mexico’s 40,000 Jews.
Whatever the reality behind the historical debate, today there is a vibrant collection of practicing Jews living in a few dense blocks off the Camino Real de la Plata highway — and they have the
surest sign of a Jewish community: division.
Five years ago, the leaders of Venta Prieta’s Jewish community decided to move the community toward more stringent Jewish observance, and in the process many families decided to undergo an Orthodox conversion. But Eliseo Marron Tellez, 61, wanted to stick to the old ways so he, and he says about 30 other people, have slowly worked to start a new Conservative congregation called Derej (pronounced Derekh) Letzion, Hebrew for the “Way to Zion.” Right now, a number of members are in New York looking for a new Torah.
“In the place where we live, it’s too much to be Orthodox,” said Marron, while sitting in his living room under a line of pictures, including one of his wedding officiated by Lerer and another from his days as an amateur boxer.
The fault lines of this communal divide run right through Eliseo Marron Tellez’s own family. Marron’s sister, Marguerite Marron Tellez, lives in a red house next to Marron’s blue house on Calle 5 de Mayo — on the other side of her house is a store front selling fresh tortillas from an open griddle. Marguerite, 65, is one of the matriarchs of the new Orthodox community. Her husband is a former president, as is her son, David Gonzalez Marron.
Now Marguerite wears a head covering and a dress, and the brown loafers of an Orthodox Jewish matron in New Jersey. She is hesitant to talk about her community, and especially about her rebellious brother, who wears the tough clothes of a long-haul trucker and tends to his hens and chickens in the backyard next door.
The siblings still talk to each other, but Marguerite is visibly distressed by her brother’s religious choice. “He didn’t want to change himself to be recognized,” she said. “He had his own will. He wanted his own way.”
The family dimensions of this rift are not surprising. The entire community springs from a few settlers who came to this area, which is on the outskirts of the nearby town of Pachuca, in the 19th century and founded Venta Prieta as an agricultural settlement. The most celebrated of these founders was Manuel Tellez. Today nearly everyone in town has Tellez in their name. There is even one Tellez-Tellez family.
Eliseo Marron Tellez has not had an easy time breaking off from this tight family hierarchy. His three siblings who converted to Orthodoxy still go to the town’s original synagogue, Temple Negev, an elegant stone building that Eliseo Marron Tellez last stepped foot in five years ago. Marron, and about 15 other rebels, originally held services at their homes until they built the cinder-block structure a few blocks north of Temple Negev. They have no rabbi, but a cantor has traveled 150 miles from Querétaro to lead services.
Recently, however, the owner of the land on which the synagogue sits has reclaimed it as a social hall, and Marron and his cantor are fighting to win it back. In the meantime, they are sporadically holding services in their homes. Alongside the effort to win the synagogue, there are the members who are in New York looking for a new Torah to replace the one they currently have, in which words were smudged over the years.
“We already had the Conservative beliefs from before,” Marron said. “But it is very difficult [to form a new congregation], simply because the Jewish religion is very strict.”
For those who underwent the Orthodox conversion there have also been big changes. As members of the Conservative community, the women used to wear pants and eat at local restaurants. But now, without any local kosher restaurants, all meals are eaten at home.
Still, the community shows signs of flourishing.
One hundred people have gone through the Orthodox conversion process and 40 more are waiting to go before a rabbinical court. At a recent Friday night service the 40 or so males in attendance represented all age groups. A 20 year old with a powerful voice led the first round of prayers, and everyone followed along in an order and unity that is unusual at many Orthodox synagogues.
Both factions in Venta Prieta — one of several Jewish communities aided by Lerer — can be seen as an extension of the Conservative rabbi’s mission. He is said to have converted more than 3,000 people in Mexico. Like much about the Venta Prietan community, the name used to describe them is a matter of disagreement. In the past, they have been described as Crypto Jews, Indian Jews, Conversos and Marranos. But the name they currently favor is Anusim, which is Hebrew for “forced one” — as in forced to convert to Catholicism.
The history is equally disputed. A few outside historians have claimed that the Anusim of today were locals who converted to Judaism during the 19th century. But the oral histories in the community all agree that the founders of Venta Prieta descended from Jews who hid during the Inquisition by mixing with the Indian population. In the 1920s, after a more liberal constitution was adopted in Mexico, the community began to openly practice a local form of Judaism. They built a synagogue and celebrated Passover with a feast involving a whole roasted lamb. Tortillas replaced matzoh during Passover, and milk and meat were never mixed. It was only when Lerer came during the 1970s that Jewish practice became more conventional.
Lerer’s retirement in 1999 was a major factor behind the conversions to Orthodoxy. Before that time, Lerer had regularly visited Venta Prieta and was available when religious questions came up. When he retired the community lost its lodestar.
“When Lerer left it hit all these communities that he supported extremely hard,” said Max Heppner, the American organization Kulanu’s coordinator for Mexico; Kulanu is dedicated to aiding “lost and dispersed remnants of the Jewish people.” Heppner was in Venta Prieta in 2000, when the women were still wearing pants, and he said, “without having a rabbi to reassure them that they’re doing well — that it’s the journey to Judaism that counts — some people were strongly influenced by Orthodox rabbis who told them they were doing everything wrong.”
In most far-flung Jewish communities, any move toward Orthodoxy is usually the result of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, which sends it emissaries around the world seeking out Jews. But in Venta Prieta the only available rabbis were the Orthodox ones in Mexico City. These rabbis did not make it easy for the Venta Prietans. They insisted that members of the community convert under Orthodox rules, and that all the conversions be performed by a rabbinical court in New York. A new mikvah — a ritual bath for women — also had to be built with money raised by the community.
The Venta Prietan community has always had a push-pull relationship with the established, more wealthy and European Jewish community in Mexico City. Leaders of the Mexico City community have always questioned the Jewish roots of the Venta Prietans, and have publicly said that the Venta Prietans are Indians who converted to Judaism. This has resulted in a predictable wariness among the Venta Prietans toward outsiders.
Many members of the community in Venta Prieta, however, say that it was exactly the suspicions of the outside world that fueled their desire to gain greater acceptance by becoming more stringent in their religious observance. The word “recognition” is one of the most common words used when describing the reason for the Orthodox conversions.
“After Lerer left we were knocking on many doors because we needed recognition,” said David Gonzalez Tellez, Marguerite’s son and the president of Temple Negev when the Orthodox conversions began in 2000. “Only one of those doors that we knocked was opened.”
Today a Sephardic rabbi drives the two hours from Mexico City each weekend to lead services. Lerer had taught the community Ashkenazic traditions, but now the Orthodox members are proudly moving toward Sephardic traditions. The pronunciation of Hebrew has changed, and the bimah — or prayer table — has been moved from the front of the synagogue to the middle.
There is speculation in the community about what the long-term results of the shift to Orthodoxy will be — aside from the creation of a breakaway Conservative congregation. Aharon, a burly 21 year old with braces, and ritual fringes hanging from his shirt, went on a 10-day Birthright Israel program last winter with one other young man from Venta Prieta. Aharon’s brother is now studying at an Orthodox yeshiva in Israel.
It used to be that the young people like Aharon would marry locals who converted to Judaism, leading the community to grow. (All of Marguerite’s children married converts, as did her brother.) But now that the community has become Orthodox, the young people say, locals will not be willing to convert. So young Jews in Venta Prieta looking for spouses increasingly turn to Mexico City and Israel.
“They will move to Israel — that’s the final result,” said Eliseo Marron Tellez, adding that his Conservative congregation would have better luck maintaining a Jewish community in Venta Prieta.
For now, his priority is reclaiming the cinder-block synagogue.