Wanted: Mexican Mezuzah
By Hila Ratzabi
Perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised that I couldn't find a Mexican mezuzah. But when my boyfriend and I decided to move in together, amidst apartment hunting, collecting boxes, and searching for the perfect glass leftover containers, I decided I wanted a Mexican mezuzah. I figured someone had already had this idea. But when I googled "Mexican mezuzah," all I could find were jewelry Web sites selling both mezuzahs and Mexican sterling silver crosses.
My boyfriend is Chicano, born in California, and raised both there and in Mexico. I am Jewish, born in Israel, and raised in New York. The term "interfaith" is an easy catch-all, particularly for Jews in relationships with non-Jews. But it doesn't quite fit: my boyfriend is an atheist and rejects Christianity. I am Jewish, semi-practicing, with faith in a wild, creative, unknowable deity.
The term "intercultural" is also inexact. My boyfriend strongly identifies with Mexican culture (not Latino, he emphasizes, but Mexican). He makes art with Mexican themes, is rightly snobby about good Mexican food, and throws around Mexican-isms like "guey" (untranslatable). Many Jews identify as "cultural," which usually means atheist or agnostic, with some tie to Jewish identity as an ethnicity. This term doesn't work for me, as I couldn't say that I've rejected all religious/spiritual aspects of Judaism.
The mezuzah is both a religious and cultural symbol. Affixed to the doorposts of Jewish homes, it contains within it a reminder (a rolled up mini-scroll of Torah verses) to keep the teachings of the Torah in our hearts. It is also commonly considered to be a token of good luck and blessing for the home.
The day I Google "Mexican mezuzah" and don't find what I'm not sure I'm looking for, I call my boyfriend and hesitantly say, "I was thinking about getting a Mexican mezuzah. A mezuzah is that thing--" "I know what a mezuzah is," he interrupts. Of course--I forget that he knows more about Judaism than I tend to expect. He's been to synagogue, met Hasidic Jews, even learned the basics of the Hebrew language. He corrects me on obscure facts like the prohibition of Jewish priests (cohanim) from marrying non-priests (who knew the prohibition against intermarriage could get that specific?).
I tell him I want us to have a Mexican mezuzah in our apartment. But there aren't any online, I tell him, I checked. And if we made our own, how would we decorate it? The colors of the Mexican flag? What's a good, solid Mexican cultural symbol?
The Virgin Mary, apparently. More specifically, Our Lady of Guadalupe (Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe), who was said to have appeared miraculously to Saint Juan Diego near Mexico City in the 16th century. My boyfriend explained that it is a ubiquitous cultural symbol in Mexico, and its connection to Catholicism is secondary--at least for him. For me, it would be a problem. Don't get me wrong, I am a fan of many of the things Jesus said. But I can't look at a cross without being reminded that some people think my ancestors had something to do with killing Jesus.
The mezuzah discussion opened a Pandora's Box: what about a Christmas tree? Another cultural symbol that to many is devoid of religious meaning, yet it still screams Jesus to me. No Christmas tree. I can't do it.
And besides, as a strict atheist, how can my boyfriend embrace a cultural symbol still carrying with it the residue of religion? A self-defined cultural Jew on Hanukkah can't erase the reference to "miracle" from the dreidel, but still enjoys lighting the chanukiah. Our Lady of Guadalupe once represented a miraculous religious event; now it means cultural pride. In the same way that religion connects human beings to the Unknown, culture connects us to our internal unknowns--the unexplainable feelings generated by images that have become part of our unconscious. Familiarity, shared history, belonging to something greater than ourselves: like the two of us, fumbling through our own histories which we are building together. Awkward and stumbling, without a ready-made symbol proclaiming who we are, we are molding something, as of yet unknown, piecing the mystery together.
Hila Ratzabi is author of a book of poetry, "The Apparatus of Visible Things" (Finishing Line Press, 2009).
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