Meet the Catholic grocer who helps Mexican Jews keep kosher
Noe Trinidad Chavez sat at a small card table gutting zucchinis with a metal corer knife, preparing them to be stuffed with meat and cooked into platillo a la jardinera, a traditional meal eaten by Sephardic Jews.The 56-year-old, a native of the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, was born and raised Catholic. He had never met a Jewish person in his life until he was 10, when he ventured off to Mexico City for work. There he got a job helping Jewish families with day-to-day needs, such as cleaning and cooking.
Now he’s the owner of two Jewish food shops, including this one that’s no more than 6 feet by 14 feet with a lime-green awning adorned with a Star of David.
The store’s unlikely name: “El Tope,” or speed bump, a tribute to his humble beginnings and where he set up a food cart as a street vendor.
His shop is stocked with produce and packaged products common to Mediterranean diets — eggplant, grape leaves and tamarind syrup he prepares himself.
“It’s hard to find such unique things like these,” Chavez said. “It’s a very small but very important store in the life of the Arab and Jewish community.”
Although Mexico may be known for being the second-largest Roman Catholic country in the world, it’s also home to a small but thriving Jewish population of about 40,000, concentrated mainly in Mexico City. El Tope is among dozens of shops in the town of San Miguel Tecamachalco, west of Mexico City, catering to a Jewish clientele.
Chavez can thoroughly explain what keeping kosher entails — what his customers can and can’t eat and when, under Jewish law. He can’t read the Hebrew on the labels of the products that fill his store, but he knows which ones signify they are certified kosher.