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Lasting Narrative: ‘Secret’ Jews a part of NM’s cultural roots

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Stories about forging what would become New Mexico into a center of civilization, almost always include tales about Mexicans, the Spaniards and the Native people who were here long before both arrived.

Historically much of New Mexico was a melting pot of those three cultures but a group in New Mexico wants to make sure that narrative includes the story of the state’s Jewish settlers. The New Mexico Jewish Historical Society was formed in 1985 to highlight Jewish history in New Mexico.

The Maisel family built this store along Central in 1939. It passed through the hands of several Maisel family members before closing earlier this year. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

“It was a fluke in a way,” said president Linda Goff. “Three or four people in Santa Fe got together to put on a little program about New Mexico Jewish history.”

She said the response was more than organizers every imagined. About 100 people showed up to hear the presentation. Shortly after the society the group became an official entity that today has about 300 memberships, which Goff said translates to approximately 425 people. According to a survey conducted by the Jewish Federation of New Mexico in 2015, estimated the state’s Jewish population at approximately 24,000, with more than half of those residing in Bernalillo County. The second largest concentration of Jewish people is in Santa Fe. Jewish people, Goff said, have impacted the social, economical and political landscape of the state.

“We have a bigger community than people realize,” Goff said. “We have long-established roots in New Mexico. We exist. We have an important role in this state.”

One of the founding members was Stan Hordes who wrote the 1981 ground breaking book “To the End of the Earth” while working as the New Mexico State Historian. Hordes heard stories of northern New Mexicans who would light candles on Friday night and abstained from eating pork. Hordes speculated these families could be descendants of crypto-Jews, also known as secret Jews, who fled Europe to escape the Spanish Inquisition. Hundreds of interviews, state documents and other records bolstered Hordes’ theory although many families did not know they had Jewish roots and were practicing Catholics. DNA tests in the early 2000s would confirm his findings.

The society has evolved, conducting its own research and disseminating the information to the general public. They now hold an annual conference in the fall, publish a newsletter and have developed a middle school curriculum on the history of the state’s pioneer Jews. They have also methodically collected and cataloged family papers of Jewish families, articles related to the families and other important documents that have become known as the New Mexico Jewish Historical Society Collection.

Probably its greatest endeavor, Goff said, has been preserving Jewish history by interviewing Jewish families who played an important role in New Mexican history. The society launched the New Mexico Jewish Pioneer Family project in 2002 with the University of New Mexico to not only preserve but uncover history of the state’s “pioneer” Jewish families. Retired teacher and Society member said Harvey Buchalter helped conduct the interviews. Buchalter said these pioneer Jews were mostly from Germany and came along the Santa Fe Trail in the mid 1800s as peddlers when Las Vegas and Santa Fe were the center of commerce in New Mexico.

“They then established stores in Las Vegas and Santa Fe,” he said. “But they also became ranchers.”

One of the most prominent pioneer Jewish families in Santa Fe was the Spiegelbergs of Germany. Brothers Levi and Solomon opened a mercantile store, called Spiegelberg Brothers, in the 1840s across from the governor’s palace. Brother Willi Spiegelberg became mayor of Santa Fe in the 1880s.

That next wave came after 1920s from mostly Eastern Europe. By this time, New Mexico was a state and its economic center had shifted to Albuquerque.

“The Jews played an important role in establishing Downtown Albuquerque,” said Noel Pugach, society member and UNM history professor. “They maintained dominance Downtown until the late 1930s.”

Buchalter said, Central Ave. was lined with stores owned by Jews. Among them would be the families that established H. Cook Sporting Goods (the precursor to Gardenswartz Sporting Goods), American Furniture, People’s Flowers, Pay-Less Drug, Maisel’s Indian Trading Post and the pioneer clothing firm of Mandell & Dreyfuss.

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