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.
The 270-plus community histories in the ISJL’s Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities contain countless stories of Jewish-owned businesses. Often, these stories are fairly typical: a small dry goods store grows into a big department store or maybe even a regional chain of shopping emporiums.
But in Norfolk, Virginia – just one of 23 Virginia encyclopedia histories we recently unveiled – I came across a unique story with an explosive ending (literally).
Dudley Cooper was an optometrist who got his start going door-to-door fitting people for eyeglasses. He later moved into various real estate ventures, and in 1942 he bought the dilapidated Ocean View Amusement Park. Cooper bought it for its prime ocean front property, and had plans to tear it down to develop the site. It was during World War II, and Norfolk was home to a large naval base with several other military installations in the area. The military brass was concerned by the dearth of wholesome recreational activities for off-duty sailors and soldiers in Norfolk, and in a bid to distract them from the bars and brothels in the area, convinced Cooper to reopen the amusement park. Their plan was evidently a success, as the rate of venereal disease among area military personnel sharply declined by 1943. Ocean View remained in business after the war and became a summer ritual for generations of children and their parents.
During the years of legal segregation, Ocean View was for whites-only. But in 1946, Cooper partnered with three prominent black businessmen to establish the Seaview Beach Amusement Park exclusively for African Americans. With both black and white staff and managers and nice new rides, Seaview was the nation’s only major amusement park for African Americans. In a 1950 newspaper article, Cooper called it “a victory sociologically but a dud financially.” After Ocean View was integrated in the 1960s, Seaview was closed.
By the 1970s, Ocean View began to lose money due to high maintenance costs and increased competition from newer amusement parks in the area. In 1976, the Hollywood movie “Rollercoaster,” starring Timothy Bottoms, George Segal, and Richard Widmark, was filmed at Ocean View, which brought attention to the park, but was not enough to save it. By 1978, Cooper had decided to close the park.
When he sold the property to the City of Norfolk, it was his responsibility to clear its structures, which would be a difficult and expensive undertaking. Enter film director Michael Trikilis, who was looking to shoot a disaster movie set at an amusement park and had heard about Ocean View’s demise. He proposed to Cooper’s son, Joel, and to his nephew, Richard Miller, that the family allow Trikilis to blow up the rides for his TV movie to be entitled, appropriately, “The Death of Ocean View Park.” The Coopers agreed, and the rest is Norfolk and TV movie history.
Destroying the Rocket rollercoaster was not as easy as it looked in the film. The ride was so well-made that two attempts to detonate it left The Rocket standing. Finally, after its supporting beams were cut and pulled down by a large tractor, The Rocket gave way. Thanks to the magic of Youtube, you can witness the exciting climax of “The Death of Ocean View Park.” As you watch it, try to forget the bad acting and think about the important legacy of Dudley Cooper and his mission to provide wholesale entertainment to the people of Norfolk:
You can read more compelling (if less explosive) stories about the history of Jews in Virginia here.
Want some insights into a historian’s dilemma? It involves cultural identity. Geography. And NASCAR. (Well – sort of.)
The Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities now contains 250 community histories from 11 different southern states. As we get toward the end of our researching and writing, we are beginning to reach the edges of our territory, where the borders can get a little fuzzy. Covington and Newport, Kentucky, for example, are considered part of the south, but just across the river, Cincinnati, Ohio, is not.
Virginia, which will be completed and online this fall, presents an interesting case. Richmond, with Confederate statues lining Monument Avenue, remains culturally southern, while Alexandria feels little different from the suburb of any northern metropolis. Our encyclopedia history of Alexandria will tell the story of how the southern river port with a small Jewish congregation became enveloped by the expansion of Washington, D.C. after World War II. If one defines the south culturally and historically, rather than simply geographically, then Alexandria was once southern, but is no longer.
The shifting southern-ness of northern Virginia foreshadows the next big dilemma for the encyclopedia: Florida.
Originally, Florida wasn’t even included in the ISJL’s territory. But a few years ago, we took in the Sunshine State as our “12-state region” became the “13-state region.” We don’t serve the entire state, just the panhandle, which is sometimes affectionately called “Lower Alabama.” But after Virginia goes live in the near future, Florida is the last frontier for the encyclopedia. How much of Florida is southern, and which communities should we include in our encyclopedia?
When I give lectures about southern Jewish history, I usually cite recent population statistics, but I always exclude Florida. The main reason for this is that the explosion of the Jewish population of south Florida, fueled by retirees and northern transplants over the last several decades, has little to do with the history of Jews in the South. South Florida’s Jewish community has far more connections and cultural similarities with the Jewish community of New York than with Pensacola, Florida, let alone Greenville, Mississippi. The columnist Leonard Pitts, writing from Miami, once declared that south Florida was the only part of America where you have to go north to get to the South.
Also, far more Jews reside in south Florida than live in the entire South. When the last national Jewish population study included Florida as the South in its regional breakdown, we learned nothing about southern Jewish life, only south Florida Jewish life.
Once, when I was speaking to a group in Sarasota, I was nervous about so easily excluding Florida from the South. So I decided to ask my audience whether they consider themselves to be southerners. Only two people amongst a hundred or so raised their hands: one woman originally from Waco, Texas and a man from Georgia. The rest of the audience, all residents of Florida, had no identity as southerners. While this impromptu poll made me feel a little better about excluding Florida from my population figures, the problem of Florida and how we define the South has always gnawed at me.
Now it’s time to face this issue head on. Will I have to visit Key West and Miami Beach on my next research trip? Was Seinfeld’s portrayal of the Florida retirement community “Del Boca Vista” a humorous portrait of southern Jewish life? Were Morty and Helen Seinfeld southern Jews? I haven’t figured out the answers to these questions just yet, and would love to read your opinions on the subject. In the meantime, I am working on a theory about drawing the South’s border somewhere between Daytona Beach, home of the Daytona 500, and Orlando, home of Disney world. After all, the Walt Disney Company, run from a nice Jewish boy from New York seems Yankee – and what’s more southern than NASCAR?
Do you think of Florida when you think of “the South”? Why or why not?