The Mexican menora

A new stamp commemorates an era of cultural harmony.

noe katz 298.88 (photo credit: Marisa S. Katz)
noe katz 298.88
(photo credit: Marisa S. Katz)
Although the Jewish population of Mexico accounts for a mere .05 percent of the 106 million residents, the tiny but influential community was honored this past December with a postal stamp marking their "100 Year Presence." The commemorative stamp was designed by one of Mexico's most influential Jewish artists, Noe Katz, a second-generation Holocaust survivor whose parents found refuge in the Mexican metropolis more than 50 years ago. Katz, whose artwork can be seen around the world, was asked to design the stamp because - as prominent Mexican Ashkenazi community member and co-organizer of the historic event Perla Yeger puts it - "Noe's work was the most touching in its approach to the Mexican Jewish experience." Simply but elegantly designed, Katz's stamp has transformed one of Mexico's staple symbols, a cactus, into one of Judaism's most recognized icons, a menora. For Katz, conjuring up the idea was relatively easy. "As a child I always felt very surprised by the similarities between the menora and the cactus. And so for this project I instantly imagined bringing the two images together. I saw them each as objects that symbolize the relationship between Mexico and the Jews - they each hold a deep symbolic meaning for their community," he explains. Even though the Jewish population in Mexico numbers 53,000, the community has made a big impact since their arrival in the late 1800s. Jewish immigration to Mexico can be characterized as occurring in three separate waves, which for the most part ended around the mid-20th century. While the first and third waves were predominantly Jews of European descent, the second wave consisted of Sephardic Jews who came after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Katz's family found refuge in Mexico just after the Holocaust. While his creative talents first emerged through music as a classical guitarist, it wasn't long until native Mexican artists such as Diego Rivera inspired the young and impressionable Katz to widen his realm of creativity to include painting and sculpture. Not only has the artist achieved critical acclaim in his native Mexico, but also in far-off countries like Japan, where he was recently commissioned to create the doors of the Hiroshima-Omishima Modern Art museum. For Katz, the motivation for his work comes from the overwhelming need to actualize his wide array of ideas. "I need to see the painting, the sculpture or drawing finished - this is the thing inside of me that inspires me to create new ideas," he admits. Back in Katz's studio, he has just finished a 700-pound permanent sculpture for the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach, California. Stacks of notebooks - chock full of ideas - lie scattered around his workspace. Perhaps his abundance of ideas acts as a testament to Katz's dedication to be an artist who does not uphold a single static style, but rather one who infuses a variety of approaches in his creations. "If you get a style and sink your hooks into it, you fall into a trap of repetition," Katz once noted. "And repeating yourself means dying a little. Every artist has elements that set him apart, but he always has to look for ways to sublimate them and open up avenues for growth." Similarly, the initiative behind the stamp was to "open" the majority of the Mexican population to the nation's small but significant Jewish community. "We wanted to show the Mexican people that even though we are Jews, we are very connected to this country," says Yeger. "We wanted to remind them of the great values we have, while opening the door to let them know more about our values and culture. The stamp was made because of the necessity to seal the presence of a group of people whose influence and contribution has been very important to this country." For fellow artist Leonor Missrie, a Jew of Syrian descent, "The stamp sends the message that both the Jewish and Mexican cultures can live together and share in harmony. This harmony is reflected in the stamp, which clearly connects Mexican and Jewish symbols." As a visual artist and architect, Missrie says she feels strongly that Mexico's cultural freedom has enabled her to develop into the artist she is today. "We have contributed in many ways to Mexican life as Mexicans, but this country's people and culture have also enriched ours," she adds. In the past, Katz has described himself as someone who "seeks out interpretations of the world that have some humor and keep their distance from the obvious." When looking at Katz's stamp currently on sale in Mexican post offices throughout the country, one can easily identify not only a touch of the artist's humor, but also the delicate interweaving of two very vibrant cultures, which like the cactus and the menora, continue to survive.