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Funny, You Don't Look Jewish

The wedding was a traditional Catholic Mass held at 4:00 in the lovely Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel in the center of San Miguel de Allende. After the ceremony, we all hailed taxis and headed to the reception in “the campo,” the countryside, about 25 minutes from San Miguel. When we arrived, Jack and I sat at a table at the back of the room, but Lety, my tutor and the mother-of-the-bride, promptly rounded us up and moved us to the table where she and her husband were seated, along with Lety’s son, girlfriend, their three children, and the only other couple from the US, another student of Lety’s and her boyfriend.

Waiters walked from table to table taking orders for drinks. Lots of margaritas and hard liquor. By 8:30 dinner was served, and then the bride and groomed did their wedding dance, with sparklers on the dance floor stationed around them. Next came the parents and then the guests dancing with the newleyweds, just as we do in the US. But male friends of the groom danced with him too, straight men who were comfortable embracing, having a bit of fun together. Then the music changed as the signal for two chairs to be placed on the dance floor. Once seated, bride and groom were lifted high in the air, joined by a handkerchief they held in extended arms between them. Women in their evening gowns formed a circle around them and danced under their arms, and the guys did the same when the ladies had finished their turn, just like at a traditional Jewish wedding reception, except these guys tried to knock the groom off his chair, or at least pretended to. I was struck by how familiar the custom seemed.

But the hit of the evening came around 11:30 pm when people started forming a line at a cart and coming back with paper cartons that looked like Chinese take out. The cartons were filled with chilaquillas, a Mexican all day breakfast food made with fried tortills chips, chicken and a sauce, delicious and crunchy, a pick-me-up before the revelling continued.

Lety told me the next day that the chair thing is a Mexican tradition. I couldn’t help but wonder where the tradition came from, and if a connection between the two cultures was evident in this moment. Jews have had the chair thing going on for centuries, though its exact origin is also unknown. Judaism is a very old culture, and likely Jews were the first to adopt it into their ceremonies. Mexico is a very Catholic country, but the history of Jews in Mexico started in 1519 with the arrival of Conversos, those Jews who were forcibly convered to Catholicism and then became subject to the Spanish Inquisition. Persecution of Jews came to New Spain along with the conuistadors and the Mexican Inuisition was fully established, with Jews needing to hide their identity or be murdered. During this period, Jews did not keep open records of their existence, and it is difficult now to trace their history until Mexico gained its independence from Spain and the oppression eased. When Jack and I went to the city of Gunajuato for a day trip, our guide pointed out the magnificent University, telling us that a benefactor had donated that land for a Jewish academy of learning in the 1700’s, but the Church took it over when its purpose was discovered and turned it into a Catholic institution. Today the state granted the school autonomous standing. I asked the director of the Academy Hispaño Americana about the story our guide told us of the school’s origin.

“It’s entirely possible that the story is true, or it may be legend. No one knows for sure because there are no records of Jews for many years since they were afraid to admit their identity. Now, of course, no one in San Miguel cares what religion you are. All of us are the same, and many people don't know their true background.” I have felt that openness myself, but I’m still curious about our history as Jews, and whether the chair dance was a result of our influence.


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