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A History of the Jews in New Mexico: book review and then some

Updated on November 29, 2013
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I started writing for HubPages after moving from the Midwest to the Southwest. The Southwest is exceptionally interesting, if hot and dry.

The 1540 Invasion, following 1492

Artifacts at Coronado Monument, Bernalillo, NM
Artifacts at Coronado Monument, Bernalillo, NM | Source

They Went West

When seeing the USA in whatever vehicle you choose, you might find your way down to the lonely State of New Mexico. And if you do, you will likely as not also find your way to Albuquerque. And then, if you care to check out Old Town or another touristic attraction, chances are you will stumble upon a book written by James J. Tobias basically for visitors on the subject of Jews in New Mexico. This is an interesting history, beginning with the Spanish in the 1600s, then moving to the influx of German Jews in the 19th century. It is easy enough to understand how conversos arrived in an area being claimed on behalf of the Spanish crown. But the German Jews were basically merchants. I would not have thought that an area so underpopulated and so far from New York City or, for that matter, Mexico City, would have beckoned to or held much promise for businessmen. But this book sets the record straight. There were indeed opportunities and impressive profits to be made. The personal wealth of these pioneers in 1860 ranged from $15,000 to $50,000. Estimates vary as to the value of the 1860 dollar, but one can count on its having been much stronger than today.

To think that these small fortunes were made in 1860 Albuquerque, Santa Fe, and Las Vegas is truly mind bending. The book does not go into great detail, but does explain that there were forts and reservations in addition to Anglos and Hispanos with whom they conducted their affairs. They obtained contracts, arranged for transportation, and then entered into transactions at rates favorable to their interests. They also had additional endeavors such as banking, land-holding, and sheep-raising. Their main occupation was, roughly stated, merchandise, and this could have been seen by the proliferation of stores, both generalized and specialized, spread out through the state. They adapted exceptionally well to an economy that was somewhat amorphous and rudimentary, as well as held their own in a diverse population that was often at odds with itself, as will happen in any competitive nexus.

They had their limitations, too. When the railroad enters the picture in 1880, they remain aloof. Further, as the author points out, the center of gravity of the economy changed from mercantile to industrial. Whatever the situation, these German Jewish entrepreneurs managed, shifting from furniture and clothing, for instance, to Indian art, rugs, blankets, and jewelry. Outside Gallup, they mined coal. As I look about in the areas of New Mexico I am familiar with, I wonder, after reading this book, if I have not myself overlooked their potential in terms of commerce. It has always seemed to me that the major towns of NM, however limited in size, are basically spoken for -- that they resist development or renovation. In the visible marketplace of stores, boutiques, or services, fewer opportunities seem to lurk than elsewhere. But then, I am not cut from the same cloth as the men this book addresses.

Also, the land of lots of history you won't find elsewhere.
Also, the land of lots of history you won't find elsewhere. | Source

Religious Synergy

The Spiegelbergs were among the largest contributors to the building of St. Francis Cathedral in Santa Fe. Their relations with Catholics were very stable. But almost none of the German Jewish merchants of the 19th century seemed to have been devout in any sense of the word. In fact, though they did in fact celebrate holidays and retain cultural ties, not only to Judaism but to Germany as well, the temple finally erected in Albuquerque circa 1897 prompted another to be built later that was more observant. An Orthodox congregation was established in 1921. The older Temple Albert is defined as Reform. B'nai B'rith enters into this mosaic in 1883, as well as the Ladies Hebrew Benevolent Society. As the author points out, in so many words, there is always trouble in any paradise. By the end of the 1860s Jewish merchants are already going to court over lawsuits from co-religionists. But these do not seem on the surface to have been personal so much as having to do with business rivalry. Attacks do appear in print every now and then by non-Jews who felt an urge to express a sense of resentment.

Zia Symbol on the NM Flag

New Mexico Zia Sun Symbol identical to that of the Zia Pueblo
New Mexico Zia Sun Symbol identical to that of the Zia Pueblo | Source

Rich in History

The book goes on to comment on the 20th century, during which many changes occur in the Jewish communities of New Mexico. It is not uninteresting at all, especially the small congregation spawned by the secretive scientific research of Los Alamos. But for me, the two most fascinating subjects are crypto-Judaism and German Jewry. The former was brought to national attention during the 1970s and has to do with people who, from one generation to the next, remain basically suspended between two faiths. The latter has to do with a culture achieving a great deal of prestige in Europe that became, in effect, an American import. Not only did it produce a handful of renowned geniuses who actually changed the world, but it was also able to penetrate many commercial enterprises that had traditionally been closed off to Jews from other national heritages. On the other hand, it can be said that their staid brokerage firms and private clubs were made of the same snobby stuff as any superior-minded ethnic group. And yet, somehow or other both these topics inform the history of New Mexico in a substantial fashion. Other matters, such as the Americanization of New Mexican Jews, owing to intermarriage or assimilation, are more the concern of scholarship and the like. Certainly, from the beginning of the 20th century on, the picture changes, including Central and Eastern European immigrants into the larger framework. Some were recruited into the ranks of Zionist activity, following the Balfour Declaration of 1917. Some remained more secular and less political, while pursuing careers distinctly New Mexican in character, such as working for research and/or training in White Sands or various laboratories. In sum, their history here in the southwest does not present a mirrored image of the more well-known and much more populated history of the Colonial East as it eventually spanned across the continent toward the West, mainly California, in most cases skipping over New Mexico altogether.

1st the West, and 2nd Hollywood

Outside Santa Fe, a movie set was built to film westerns, also bringing in tons of money.  But this was a more multi-cultural event involving many ethnic groups.
Outside Santa Fe, a movie set was built to film westerns, also bringing in tons of money. But this was a more multi-cultural event involving many ethnic groups. | Source

The stickler when it comes to history books may well bemoan this very fine literary work. It is indeed sketchy, purposefully so, but not skimpy or in any way a hack job. My viewpoint is that it is a type of book that is extremely helpful in terms of enlightening the general public. It deals with the bare facts and in doing so covers enormous ground from the initial Conquistadors to its publishing date, 1990. It is also a publication by the University of New Mexico, and therefore had to pass muster. This book belongs here, and anyone who makes the trek, which cannot be easy from almost anywhere, is well advised to obtain a copy. The reason for this is that it will increase one's awareness of a part of the country whose historical roots are extremely pertinent, going well back into pre-Revolutionary days. While so much commotion was being stirred up in Boston or Fort Sumter, for that matter, things were happening here, though the case can be made that it was originally a foreign country. A case can also well be made for the fact that Western history is just as essential to the understanding of the USA as more conventional histories that concentrate much more on the East.

Land of Green & Plenty

There is more promise here, apparently, than can be seen by the naked eye.
There is more promise here, apparently, than can be seen by the naked eye. | Source

That Was Then, This is Now

The Santa Fe Trail and the railroad are past tense.  Balloons now are all the rage.  Think tourist trade, too.
The Santa Fe Trail and the railroad are past tense. Balloons now are all the rage. Think tourist trade, too. | Source

On Hierarchies

In 1880, President Rutherford B. Hayes arrives and spends the night with the Spiegelbergs. He did not come by way of the Santa Fe Trail but rather by train. Again one can see by this fact alone just how highly regarded Jewish German merchants were. I can only speculate, since I am not a student of this strand of European-American history, but it is at least an educated guess that Polish and Rumanian Jewish merchants were not granted as much honor. These New Mexicans from Germany were not tailors or pushcart salesmen. Instead, they were the créme-de-la-créme. Twenty years before the President visited, their main contacts were their brothers and fellow kinsmen. Read a few novels about early Jewish immigration and you will discover that many Jews, possibly resembling in attitude those who went to New Mexico, chose to move on after competing with their own kind in New York, Philadelphia, and elsewhere along the Atlantic. Chicago was a recipient of this fallout. To this day, it remains an alternative to coastal cities along the Atlantic, though California rather than Illinois or Michigan, still seems the state of choice for the motivated transplant. Still, none of this compares to the handful of German Jews who forfeited their own native land with its highly sophisticated cities, as well as what America had to offer in the way of same in the middle of the nineteenth century. No, its streets were not paved with gold. But the Santa Fe Trail, it turns out, was. And they adapted, not unnerved by the Civil War, Indian Wars, and the gun-happy Wild West.

Forts, the Santa Fe Trail, and Contracts

Forts, in addition to all else, were a source of income.
Forts, in addition to all else, were a source of income. | Source

Crypto Judaism


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