MEXICO CITY, MEXICO — The other day I was walking home from lunch and I stopped to look at my calendar to clear up the matter of what day it was. As I stopped, several groups of well-dressed people passed me, families. These people were different. They were Mexican like most everyone else in Mexico City, sure, but these people were Jewish. Then a man wearing a yarmulke walked by just as my calendar confirmed that it was Yom Kippur.
I grow very serious when I realize it is Yom Kippur. Sometimes I fast, and then I feel terrible about the predicament of man. Then I can go to a nice home and eat plates of food because I am eating for the many sorrows of the world that I helped to atone for during the day. In the ninth grade I spent Yom Kippur off from school. I fasted, but didn’t pray. I’m not knowledgeable enough about what Judaism is to pray effectively. But I was taking a home economics class and so I knew how to bake. Since I was fasting, I put myself through the hardest obstacle course I knew: I made muffins. When blueberry muffin batter got on my face, I wiped it off with a wet paper towel, so I wouldn’t be tempted to lick it off. And I was tempted, because there are no better muffins then Jordan Marsh Blueberry Muffins. I don’t know what I did with the muffins, but I am sure that I enjoyed several of them after sundown.
Yom Kippur is the one day I remember I am Jewish, and I get sad. So when I saw other sad Jews leaving a synagogue I never knew existed in Mexico City, only blocks from my apartment, I went to the source, the door of the synagogue. I thought I was amongst my people. But I often confuse my emotional inclinations for confidence, and the results can be devastating.
Being in a foreign city, during a period of time when your country, the country where your family and friends are, has been attacked by people who have killed themselves along with thousands of others, where the city you lived months before still smells of what the New York Times calls, “Unsettled souls,” you see your people and think you are home, at the safe place where you can go cry. Sure, there won’t be any answers, and so maybe the service will be only a distraction. And it will all be in Spanish. But at least the doors are open and there is God and Very Old Writing to gently remind you that in history, the world has been hit over and over again by evil, and innocent people die. Fine. Context would be better right now then anything.
So I was a little surprised when the man standing at the door of the synagogue asked me for ID. He was not pleased by my expired and curled up driver’s license from Washington D.C. For a moment, I read his face as saying, “You’re from Washington. You are one of Those. Welcome to our sanctuary.”
The man asked me if I had my passport, and I said no, I didn’t make it my habit to carry it around with me when I went to lunch. He said he had to pass my ID along to a superior for approval. I don’t think he did. I think he put it behind his back for a few minutes.
My Spanish wasn’t helping me here. I sounded like a rebel, and I looked even worse. My new haircut, administered first by myself and later made shorter by a professional, made me look dangerous. I wasn’t wearing a dress or high heels, like the women entering the synagogue. Over my shoulder was a bag my mother sent me. She got it in Finland. It is big and white, and on one side there are zebra stripes. I am sure now that this didn’t help my cause either.
The man asked me what I wanted. My license was back in his hands where I could see it. A tall girl in a dress appeared beside him. She didn’t say anything. I could tell she wasn’t getting any sister-mother feelings from me. While the man looked again at my license, I noticed five or six safety pins hanging from his lapel. They were the kind I assembled in summer camp, with colored beads inside them. I used to put them at the bottom of my shoelaces. His pins were the colors of the Israeli flag. I wanted to be let in.
The man asked me why I was there, and I said because it was Yom Kippur, was it not? He was starting to enjoy himself. He wanted to know whom I knew in Mexico. Since I hadn’t counted them before, and since some of the people who have given me the most love here have crucifixes in their bedrooms and wear Mary around their necks, I was at a loss. By the time I remembered some people my father had taken me to see when he was here, rich Jews who lived in houses and light fires under their teakettles to keep them warm — a politician and his wife — it was already too late.
I sputtered their names anyway, and the man looked at me as if I was lying, and what’s more, I believed that I was lying too.
The man wore an earpiece, and the mute girl beside him wore one, too. She offered me nothing but a look that said, “Go home and look at yourself for awhile. Then see what you think.”
Something similar happened to me in Spain, one afternoon when the Jewish wind inside me flared up after I saw a synagogue on the street. But that was about security. I understood that. Spain had an Inquisition, and the kind of pervasive anti-Semitism that made it necessary for me to prove my Jewishness at the door. It was the kind of history that didn’t go away, that the locals don’t forget.
The man in Mexico City handed me my license and said a quick sorry, that there were no more services today and turned me away just as another family passed me to go inside.
I left believing that mine was a desperate kind of religion, that it wasn’t religion at all, just emotions. I wasn’t the kind of Jew they were looking for. I held my face together until I crossed the street and reached the block-long car service station, where they check for safe emission levels and have a white pit bull chained to a tree. That’s where I started to cry. Though I am not a public crier, I couldn’t help myself.
It’s not that I like services. When I was a kid and went to the synagogue with my family, I was instantly bored and jumped all over the place. My mother would put her hand on my legs and hiss, “Be still.” The truth is, going to temple makes me cry. I don’t do it very often. For me it’s not about God. It’s about people. People sitting down following instructions, reading aloud, reciting back, standing up, sitting back down, remembering the dead. In some ways it reminds me of who I am. Of members of my family that I never knew.
Last Sunday my boyfriend and I went downtown, to the Metropolitan Cathedral built by the Spanish right after they destroyed the Aztec capital. They constructed it on top of where the Aztecs stacked up the skulls of the sacrifice victims. There was a store inside where nuns sold candles and miracles, and people were pinning pieces of metal shaped like elbows and knees — whatever hurts — to a piece of felt that hung from the wall. There was a chorus all around, a marble bowl of holy water, and people were lining up to take Communion. People were believing in themselves together asking for things, reciting things, while lines of children wearing the same colored bandanas tied around their necks streamed through the arches.