Today’s blog is by Gabe Weinstein, a 2013 ISJL Summer Intern in the History Department. He now lives in Angel Fire, New Mexico, and is a staff writer at the Sangre de Cristo Chronicle. He shares his thoughts here on his new corner of the American Jewish world.
I never thought I would find a Jewish cemetery in Mora, New Mexico. Its miles of lush pastures are surrounded by the towering Sangre de Cristo Mountains, and most residents are Hispanic Catholics. So when I heard about the Jewish cemetery just outside town I knew I had to check it out.
I headed to Mora after participating in a cemetery cleanup at the Montefiore Cemetery outside Las Vegas, New Mexico. From the 1880’s to the 1950’s Las Vegas’ Jewish Community thrived. Charles Ilfeld and his family established one of the Southwest’s most dominant commercial enterprises in the town. Jews became active in Las Vegas’ civic affairs during the era.
Like many small towns in the ISJL’s 13 state region, Las Vegas’ Jewish community experienced a quick boom and a decline. The Jewish community dwindled over the years and the synagogue, Congregation Montefiore, closed in the 1950’s.
Mora’s Jewish community was never the size of the Las Vegas, NM community. Only a handful of German Jewish families lived in Mora and the surrounding communities of Cleveland, Ocate, Guadalupita, Sapello and La Cueva. Jewish settlers arrived in the region starting in the 1870’s and began opening general stores, butcher shops and acquired interests in real estate and livestock.
It is virtually impossible to look at a map of where I live in northern New Mexico and not find a Jewish story. Brothers Alex and Gerson Gusdorf were business tycoons in Taos. The Spigelberg brothers were among the first Jewish settlers in Santa Fe, the state’s capital. They established a successful business empire in Santa Fe and helped countless other Jewish immigrants start their lives out on the frontier. The Rubin Family of Raton and the Herzsteins of Clayton are two of the countless Jewish connections that can be found throughout northern New Mexico’s plains and mountains.
The Jewish history of towns like Mora, Las Vegas, Taos and Santa Fe share many similarities with Southern communities the ISJL serves. German Jews made up most of the early settlers in both places. Many Jewish merchants in New Mexico and the South settled in isolated after stints as peddlers. Like Southern Jews, New Mexico’s Jewish pioneers took on regional speech patterns. Instead of developing southern drawls, New Mexican Jews learned Spanish and local Native American languages.
Today, northern New Mexico has a small and thriving Jewish community. Taos, the region’s tourism and commercial hub, is home to a Chabad house, a non-denominational congregation, and a Chavurah.
Jewish life in northern New Mexico’s smaller and more remote communities is for the most part extinct. But the legacy of Mora’s Jewish residents is still very much felt. The offspring of the people buried in the cemetery still live in the Mora Valley and are active in Mora County’s political and commercial activities.
After my visit to the Mora cemetery I’m itching to hit the road and check out more places in New Mexico with unique Jewish stories. I have to visit western New Mexico to learn more about Solomon Bibo, the German Jew who served four terms as governor of Acoma Pueblo. One of these days I need to make the short trip up to the border towns of northern New Mexico and Southern Colorado where the region’s Crypto-Jews have deep roots.
If there’s one thing I learned from my experiences at the ISJL and in New Mexico it’s that Jewish history exists in every corner of the United States. From the cotton fields of the Mississippi Delta to the Sangre de Cristo mountains of New Mexico you never know when you’ll stumble upon a piece of American Jewish history.
We had another post for today, which we will share later, but in light of yesterday’s tragic shootings at two Jewish institutions in Kansas City, we offer only our prayers for the families impacted by this terrible act of violence. Places like the Jewish Community Center, open to all and committed to bettering our world, should be safe havens for everyone. An attack like this shakes us all to the core.
Particularly on the eve of Passover, we pray for freedom from violence and terror. We pray for safety, security, and over and over we will pray for shalom – at Passover, and always; in Overland Park, and everywhere.
Every year, when mid-March rolls around, the minds of so many turn to the NCAA basketball tournament and “March Madness.” Offices around the country start internal competitions to see who can pick the best bracket, and for a few weekends, we all scream at our television sets in an attempt to somehow cause the teams we picked to come out on top.
This year, to honor that competitive spirit, the ISJL has put together a little bracket of our own. Not related to basketball, this bracket will match up some of our favorite Jewish heroes, from the Bible and beyond. Our selection committee (the Education Department of the ISJL) discussed many Jewish heroes resumes, examining Torah, Talmud, and Midrash, and we have found 8 who have made it into our tournament.
Throughout March and early April, we will periodically be matching up two of these heroes, and one of our bracketologists (Southern & Jewish bloggers) will be calling the play by play, and determining in each case will move on, and who will not….
The first match up will be later this week! STAY TUNED and welcome to MENSCH MADNESS!