Tag Archives: history

South(west)ern & Jewish

photo (1)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.

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Posted on May 9, 2014

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From the Collection: A History Mystery

I recently solved a history mystery, and it started with a tiny pencil.

I was looking through a box of old minutes from Congregation Beth Israel in Meridian, Mississippi, when the smallest, most dainty pencil, attached to a small ribbon, fell from a folder. It looked like something that would be found with an old fashioned dance card, or some an extravagant wedding idea found on Pinterest.

meridian program 1

It was attached to a program from the 1927 convention of the Mississippi Federation of Temple Sisterhoods, which had been held in Meridian that year. But then, moving my attention past the dainty pencil, I noticed that the pencil had been used to scratch out the April date and replace it with November. Clearly, the women in Meridian had spent a lot of time and money on putting together such a large gathering. I was curious as to why they postponed the conference till later in the year. After all, they had already printed programs! Why the date change?

It was a mystery!

Luckily, we have all the minutes from the Meridian sisterhood in our collection, so I was able to find the notes from 1927 to try to see what had transpired. It didn’t take long for all the light bulbs to go off in my head. You’ll notice in the page from the meeting on May 2nd that Miss Sarah Marks, President of the State Federation, announced that “the Executive board rules to postpone the State Convention until fall due to the disastrous flood conditions.”

meridian minutes

The Flood! Of course!

The flood of 1927, which I have written about before on this very blog, had stuck again. In another letter, Miss Marks continues: “Due to the flood condition that prevented a large number of delegates and visitors from attending the convention and out of sympathy and respect due those vitally interested in Sisterhood work, we deemed it wise to postpone our convention until the fall.”

For those of you who have been involved with conference planning, you only imagine the expletives that didn’t make it into these minutes. But you’ll be happy to know that a few pages into the future, on the meeting of December 7th, 1927, the committee reported that the conference was a major success and that everyone was pleased with Meridian’s beautiful hospitality.

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Posted on January 24, 2014

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History EXPLODES in Virginia! (Literally)

ocean-view-skyrocket-6 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.

00oceanview 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.

Posted on October 28, 2013

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

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