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‘Passionate storytelling:’ Film follows strands of NM’s Jewish history

SANTA FE, N.M. — In the new film “Challah Rising in the Desert,” the five waves of Jewish populations moving to New Mexico are explained using a five-stranded loaf of challah. One of the scenes, from Albuquerque’s Congregation Albert, shows the volunteer bakers prepping for Shabbat dinner, but not without putting some New Mexico flair on the traditional Jewish bread by mixing the dough with green chile.

San Diego director Isaac Artenstein worked with Paula Amar Schwartz to interview New Mexicans about the state’s Jewish population and history. (Courtesy of Paula Amar Schwartz)

When the challah analogy came to producer Paula Amar Schwartz, it was a way of showing how different Jewish populations intertwine and interact seamlessly. With that framework in mind, Schwartz, a board member and former president of the New Mexico Jewish Historical Society, teamed up with San Diego-based director Isaac Artenstein to create the documentary depicting the state’s Jewish population from the 1500s until today.

This week, the film will screen first at Albuquerque’s New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science on Saturday and then Sunday at the New Mexico History Museum in Santa Fe . The Santa Fe screening will be followed by a Q&A with Schwartz and Artenstein.

“We’re bringing [people of New Mexico] information many people are not aware of, and people in other states aren’t aware of. When I talk with people from other parts of the country, they say, ‘Oh, there are Jews in New Mexico?’ It’s bringing a lot of people information they don’t know,” said Schwartz.

The challa strands among New Mexico’s Jewish populations include the Conversos, who escaped from the Spanish Inquisition in the late 1500s, later to be followed in the 1800s by German-Jewish settlers who came along the Santa Fe Trail. The third strand is the merchants who settled in large cities like Albuquerque and became part of Native American communities, including Solomon Bibo, the only non-Native governor of a Pueblo tribe. The fourth wave was those who came in the mid-20th century as university employees, doctors and scientists, and the fifth and final strand represents those here today, descendants of those who remained.

Though he’s never lived in the state, Artenstein, who has done films on other area’s Jewish backgrounds, said he has always been fascinated with New Mexico history, specifically how its Judaism goes as far back as colonial times. Over the past two and a half years, he and Schwartz traveled the state interviewing scholars and citizens who recall the history of their families or their own lives.

What interested him most was how “cross-cultural” people’s stories were, how their Jewish identity intertwined with the state’s other major populations and created unique perspectives.

“That cultural fluidity is an interesting thing to examine from the prism of Jewish New Mexico history,” he said.

Schwartz, who found most of her sources through word of mouth and mutual friends, said people were eager for ways to tell their stories, which translated into their passionate storytelling. “It does create an emotional journey,” said Artenstein. “I hope I can translate that for the audience when they see it on the big screen.”

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