Jews in Mexican Cinema

Hybrid Culture. Those words resonated with me because I was brought up in a hybrid culture. On Wednesday, May 9th, there was an interesting “platica” [discussion] given at the Lawrence Family JCC by Isaac Artenstein, a well-known producer, writer, and director of such movies as “A Day without a Mexican” and documentaries like “ Jews”. Artenstein also teaches at UCSD. His passion is documenting life on both sides of the border. He is also a product of a hybrid culture, a Jew who grew up in Tijuana, and graduated from UCLA. This event was sponsored by the Mexican Consulate, and the ADL of San Diego.

In his discussion about “Jews in Mexican Cinema” and the influence they had, Artenstein said that most of the great producers in Mexico [as in the United States] were of Jewish descent.

He showed clips from various films, starting with “Baisano Jalil” starring Joaquin Pardavé. It is about the life of a good hearted Middle Eastern peddler. The movie was made in the early 1940’s during the “Golden Age” of Mexican Cinema. In 1942, the producers were nervous about openly showing a Jewish peddler to the general population, so Jalil was portrayed as an Arabic immigrant. On a side note, my ex-husband was a Mexican actor in the 1960’s who was encouraged to change his last name, so it “would not sound Jewish”.

The first movie that portrayed the Jewish immigrant experience in Mexico, “Novia Que Te Vea” [“May I see you as a Bride”] was made in 1994. Based on the book by Rosa Nissan and directed by Guita Schyfter, that movie is a personal favorite of mine because it reminded me of my older sister. Also, Angelica Aragon, who plays the mother, and I went to school together in our youth, and it was fun to hear her speak in Ladino. The movie affectionately displayed the experiences of immigrants arriving in Mexico as well as their Mexican-born children. It showed how Jews growing up in Mexico lived between two worlds: Catholic and Jewish.

It also examined the new modern world clashing with old fashioned traditions, and the tensions between Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews, something that happened much more in Mexico than in the United States. I wish Artenstein had spoken more on this subject as he himself is a product of a “mixed marriage”.

Finally, one of the families portrayed in the movies was Turkish, thus part of the movie was in Ladino, a language that has always fascinated me. I highly recommend this movie and it was a good choice to show us.

The next two movies were dark comedies, set in present day Mexico. “My Mexican Shiva” can be summed up as Mariachis meet Kletzmer, a funny movie about the experiences of a family sitting shiva and all that happens during those days of mourning.

“Nora’s Will” is also about how a mother’s suicide affects her divorced husband, and her family. That movie won several “Arieles” which are the Mexican Oscars.

Both movies touch upon culture and the collision of Jewish and Mexican ways, and their strong beliefs and superstitions about death. They are a good introduction for someone who wants to know more about Jewish experiences in Mexico.

The last film discussed was a wonderful documentary by Artenstein himself. It is called “Tijuana Jews” and it is a personal look at the lives and history of the Jews in Tijuana. I found it so interesting, I bought the DVD!

Artenstein gave a charismatic presentation about a subject that is near and dear to his heart.


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Jews in Mexican Cinema
Miriam [Mimi] Pollack was born in Chicago, but moved to Mexico City when she was five years old. She lived and worked in Mexico for over 20 years. She currently resides in San Diego and worked as an ESL instructor at Grossmont College and San Diego Community College Continuing Education until June 2018. She writes for various local publications.