--by Judith Rafaela
From LECH LECHA as printed in Jewish Poetry of New Mexico: Another Desert
Are we commanded by God to wander?
or driven by a restlessness of spirit?
Abraham and Sarah sent out by God’s command.
Did their friends feast them before leaving,
and with subtle hostility enumerate the perils?
I can see them in the desert
The history of the Jews in New Mexico encompasses many stories of Jews in
diaspora. The conversos traveled from the Iberian Peninsula of Spain and Portugal
in the 14th and 15th centuries fleeing the threat of the Inquisition. Jews coming to
the state in two separate waves of immigration in the 1850s and 1880s were from
Germany, Eastern Europe and Russia looking for economic, political, and religious
freedoms. The state’s Jewish history also includes more recent arrivals of Jews
from Russia and Eastern Europe around the turn of the 20th century, refugees
from Nazi persecution before and during World War II, and Jewish scientists
coming to live and work in Los Alamos. Jews still arrive in New Mexico today,
hoping to escape the urban sprawl of the East and West coasts.
Though the Jewish population in the state has always been minuscule when
compared to the total population, the accomplishments of its Jewish residents have
been extraordinary. They have built places of worship, become involved in politics,
created social institutions to care for the low income and elderly, and become
involved in music, art, drama, and education of all members of society. The early
history of Jews in New Mexico, though beginning to come to light through work of
today’s historians, anthropologists, genealogists, and ethnographers, remains very
much a mystery. It is only material evidence such as the Jewish stars on the alter of
San Felipe de Neri Church in Old Town Albuquerque and the Tetragrammaton, the
four consonants of the ancient Hebrew name for God, found above the entrance to
St. Francis Cathedral in Santa Fe, that provide undeniable proof that the Jews have
been living, working, and making contributions to the economic and cultural fabric
of New Mexico for hundreds of years.
Guide for teachers
VOCABULARY/HISTORICAL FIGURES/ TOPICS FOR RESEARCH
The Spanish Inquisition
SUGGESTIONS FOR STUDENT ACTIVITIES
Write a research paper on one of the above topics.
Visit the New Mexico Holocaust and Intolerance Museum. Give a report in
class or at home.
Go to Old Town Albuquerque and find the Stars of David in the church.
Visit the Jewish Community Center.
Pioneers came here before New Mexico was a state. Make a timeline of New
Mexico history. Mark when families arrived. What period was it? When did
New Mexico become a state? Mark when the railroad came to New Mexico.
Many of the pioneers became merchants. Pretend you are a merchant of the
day. What would you sell in your store? Draw a picture of the inside of your
store (investigate the products of 1880 New Mexico with those of today).
What languages did people speak in New Mexico in the mid-1800s. What
languages did the pioneers speak? What are the most popular languages
(other than English) spoken in New Mexico today?
As a group, brainstorm questions for a pioneer. What do you want to ask
them about their lives. Each student should write a letter to the class,
answering three of the questions.
Write diary entries for one week from the perspective of a pioneer.
Write a letter from the New Mexico territory to relatives back in your
homeland. What do you tell them about your experiences? How do you
describe the land and the climate?
Design a travel brochure for New Mexico in the 1870s. How would you
convince travelers to come. What would you advertise? What should they
bring? Include drawings.
One pioneer traveled across the country with her piano. Why was music
important to her? What item or object would you be willing to transport a
very long distance. Explain why it is important to you.
Read Abuelita’s Secret Matzahs by Sandy Eisenberg Sasso.
Invite a rabbi or Torah student to speak about some aspect of Jewish tradition.
Ask a classmate preparing for bar or bat mitzvah to share experiences.
Ask the Human Rights Office to conduct a cultural sensitivity training.
1. Can a crypto-Jew also be a converso? Explain your answer.
2. What is the Iberian Peninsula and how does it relate to this topic?
3. What is the Jewish Bible called?
4. What is the claim to fame of Solomon Bibo?
5. Name Albuquerque’s first mayor.
6. Where was New Mexico’s first Jewish congregation?
7. Why was a spot near Los Alamos chosen to build a laboratory to create a
8. What was the Holocaust?
9. Who is the circuit-riding rabbi in New Mexico? State one fact about him.
10. What organization, founded in 1913, exists to fight hate, discrimination,
and anti-Semitism worldwide?
Gilbert, Martin. Jewish History Atlas, 3rd Edition, Weidenfled and Nicolson, London,
Hordes, Stanley M. To the End of the Earth: A History of the Crypto-Jews of New
Mexico. Columbia University Press, New York, New York, 2005.
Jaehn, Tomas, ed., compiled. Jewish Pioneers of New Mexico. 2003.
Logghe, Joan and Miriam Sagan, eds. Jewish Poetry of New Mexico: Another Desert.
Sherman Asher Publishing, Santa Fe, New Mexico, 1998.
Museum of New Mexico, Palace of the Governors (pamphlet). Jewish Pioneers of
New Mexico, 1821-1917.
New Mexico Jewish Historical Society, booklet series. Jewish Pioneers of New
Mexico. 2004, 2005, 2006.
Tobias, Henry J. A History of the Jews in New Mexico. University of New Mexico
Press, Albuquerque, New Mexico, 1990.