Jewish culture adds spice to Santa Fe

Santa Fe has a lot more than great cuisine and an art scene to intrigue travelers — this New Mexico town is more than 400 years old and the oldest state capital in America. And for Jewish travelers, it contains surprises that cross all of these areas.

Some of the first Jewish settlers to arrive in New Mexico in the 1600s were descendants of Spanish and Portuguese forced converts, or conversos, who fled the Inquisition, according to the New Mexico Jewish Historical Society. Although these early settlers publically practiced Catholicism, they secretly practiced their families’ generations-old Jewish traditions. 

In the 1800s, Jewish trappers and merchants passed through the area, and when New Mexico became an American territory in 1846, Jewish families were permitted to settle permanently.  

One of the first settlers was Solomon Jacob Spiegelberg. According to the city of Albuquerque’s Web site, he established the first Jewish family enterprise and first major economic empire in the territory. Numerous relatives later joined him. 

Later, German-Jewish businessman Abraham Staab began his life in Santa Fe, eventually setting down roots in high society. He built a comparatively lavish home for his wife, Julia, and surviving parts of the building are integrated into La Posada de Santa Fe Resort and Spa, which is now, among other things, a popular destination for Jewish weddings and bar mitzvahs. 

While churches and pueblos make the city’s architecture iconic “Southwest,” there is a Jewish influence to these, too, according to La Posada’s resident art historian Sara Eyestone, who is Jewish. Her afternoon art lectures often cover how and why the Staabs bankrolled two of Santa Fe’s most significant Catholic and Episcopalian churches: taking an active role in local society and community building, and giving back to those who befriended them on the frontier. 

Santa Fe Archbishop Jean-Baptiste Lamy became close friends with Abraham Staab en route to Santa Fe. Later, he was a regular at the Staab home and delighted in helping Julia — whose ghost is said to still occupy La Posada — plant her beloved garden. He is said to have paid tribute to his Jewish friends’ generosity and friendship at St. Francis Cathedral with the Hebrew inscription for the name of God above its entrance.  

While Georgia O’Keeffe’s later works are synonymous with Santa Fe and New Mexico, it is important to remember her husband and professional champion, the photographer Alfred Stieglitz, was Jewish. Stieglitz famously empowered O’Keeffe to ultimately find herself as an artist, and she did just that in Santa Fe. 

Today, her larger-than-life-presence lives on at a museum bearing her name, with some photos of her by Stieglitz interspersed with her canvases. Elsewhere in Santa Fe, her legacy lives on through artists who have followed their bliss in a similar fashion. Stroll up Canyon Road, the city’s “arts district,” and you will find several galleries owned by or representing Jewish artists. 

A streetscape in Santa Fe, N.M.

Painter Sara Novenson and mosaic artist Joshua Kalkstein are among several Santa Fe Jewish artists attracting international acclaim. Novenson’s works were displayed at the Skirball Cultural Center in 2011 and can be found decorating the lobby of the Jewish-owned La Fonda Hotel and the Inn and Spa at Loretto. Kalkstein, meanwhile, is responsible for a stunning mosaic mural created for the mikveh commissioned by Chabad Rabbi Berel Levertov and his wife, Devorah Leah Levertov. The “Waters of Eden” mosaic depicts four rivers flowing from Eden and lists the names of the four matriarchs wrapping around the main immersion pool.  

It was estimated by a 2011 Hadassah Magazine story that between 2,000 and 7,000 Jews live in this city of 65,000, with a total of five Jewish congregations. There are no stand-alone kosher cafes, but the Levertovs stage Shabbat dinners via prior arrangement ( The Chabad Jewish Center of Santa Fe also offers catering services and prepared kosher meals to go. 

Meanwhile, the Levertovs are working to pull together a cafe with the same pioneering spirit as their 19th-century counterparts. This corner of the Southwest has left its own mark on even traditional Jewish dishes they serve.

“What makes New Mexico cuisine special, and why I love it so much, are the flavors,” said Devorah Leah Levertov as she checked on her green chili matzah ball soup prior to a Friday night gathering that draws a mix of visitors, artists and academics. 

“The way we prepare food on the holidays and every day is a mix of traditional (Ashkenazic) kosher food and New Mexican components, such as the fresh green and dried red chiles, corn and grilled meats,” she continued. “Every year, we purchase a big stack of green chile when it is in season in fall, and we use both kinds throughout the year in everything. Although roasting chiles takes effort, the smell alone is worth it. We do chile-based stews for major holidays and events, and occasionally offer a chile cholent.  

To make classic New Mexican-style cuisine even more accessible for observant Jews, Berel Levertov said he recently collaborated with the Santa Fe Tortilla Co. to make its production facilities kosher.  

He also started working as a consultant for chanukiyot produced by Nambe, a New Mexico-based design company producing artisanal kitchenware and home décor items. His involvement stemmed from a vandalism incident he described as “a rare and unfortunate incidence of anti-Semitism.”

“In December 2005, our giant menorah on Santa Fe’s Plaza was vandalized,” he said. “The community came out to show their support, and following that, Nambe approached us about wanting to donate a new menorah. [However], the menorah they gave us was not [the correct shape], and when I pointed this out to the representative from Nambe, he took a genuine interest. Later, Nambe invited me to consult when they were ready to design menorahs and [other products for the Jewish market].”

From a food standpoint, it’s no secret that Santa Fe in recent years has emerged as a center of culinary art. One way to explore it is at the Santa Fe School of Cooking. Flanked by a gourmet and cookware shop, the school offers excellent walking tours featuring the city’s hottest destination restaurants as well as cooking lessons.  

One of the more popular presences at the school is chef and James Beard Award-winning author Lois Ellen Frank. While Frank — who is from the Kiowa Nation on her mother’s side — has spent more than two decades documenting the foods and life ways of Native American communities throughout the Southwest, she has fond memories of coming of age with the food traditions from her Sephardic father’s side of the family. 

“Native households are similar to Jewish households when it comes to food,” said Frank, comparing the two cultures. “When you walked into my grandmother’s house, her commands were ‘sit’ and ‘eat,’ and she would keep at you until you decided to sweetly surrender and eat. If you go into a Native household, especially on feast day at the Pueblos, there is no way you can go into a house and not eat.

“On a deeper level, food is a bridge between the two cultures. Food is about generosity, literally feeding your guests your love, and connecting with them. When your Jewish grandma feeds you, you become part of their family, and the same goes in Native homes.”

Sante Fe has always had a lot cross-cultural influences going for it. But it’s important for visitors to remember that just like Frank’s approach to cooking, the city’s experience is flavored with a rich mix of European, Native American, Mexican — and Jewish — influences that makes it unmistakably American. 

Traveler Trepidation

Of all the businesses affected by both Sept. 11 and the recession, the tourism industry is perhaps the hardest hit. Business has come almost to a standstill for travel agents and tour operators in the Los Angeles area, and nationwide.

“We have corporate clients who are still traveling, but the leisure travel business is completely down,” said Ricki Bergman, of Ricki Bergman Travel Syndicate, an American Express office, in Woodland Hills.

Reservations are down by almost 80 percent, according to Yosef Naiman, owner of Jerusalem Tours on Fairfax. The majority of his clientele travel between Los Angeles and New York and Los Angeles and Israel. At Calig World Travel and Cruises, in Woodland Hills, the story is pretty much the same.

“People aren’t flying, period, if they don’t have to,” said Jerusalem Tours President and CEO Marsha Calig.

National tour operators who coordinate trips for travelers throughout the United States and worldwide are experiencing the same thing as locally based travel companies. Kosher Expeditions, based in Atlanta, canceled its fall tours to international destinations, and cut back most of its staff to part-time. Only small groups of seasoned travelers are keeping their reservations for overseas trips.

“Kosher travel is probably the most affected. All kosher tours are planned to return home before Shabbos. If you get stuck in an airport, you may not get home in time and you’re probably going to be without kosher food. People don’t want to pay all this money for a trip only to get stuck in that situation,” said Kosher Expeditions manager David Lawrence.

Israel Discovery Tours usually operates 18 tours, sending 3,000 tourists to Israel each year. So far, those figures are down by about 60 percent for the Chicago-based company. Some families are still going on bar/bat mitzvah tours, others are afraid to leave home, according to the company’s president, Ilene Wallerstein.

“Our people flying El Al feel secure. If they use other carriers from Europe to Israel, there is a lot of security,” Wallerstein said. “Our tours are strictly Jewish. They are not anywhere near the West Bank. Security is always excellent in Israel.”

Lack of travel to Israel is a sore point for many Jewish travel agents and operators.

“Israel is in a very serious way economically because of all the terrorism. The U.S. is seeing what it’s like to live with terrorism, something Israel has been doing for years,” Bergman said. “I don’t see any outcry of Jewish organizations here in L.A., or elsewhere in the U.S. Jewish organizations not showing solidarity with Israel is really psychologically damaging to Israel.”

In spite of the huge drop in travelers, agents and operators are optimistic that business will pick up, though not for overseas travel. Instead, customers will look to stay close to home, opting for vacations where they can drive or take trains.

“We are really looking to the drive market. People feel that, God forbid if something happens, they can jump in the car and get home,” said Yakov Stevens, president of Tripsetter, in Toronto, which specializes in group travel in Canada and the United States.

As a result, destinations like Las Vegas are expected to be popular on the West Coast. Kosher Expeditions is promoting its trips to Wyoming dude ranches, American ski resorts and a possible Disneyland Passover package.

Cruises to Hawaii, Mexico, Alaska and the Caribbean are expected to be huge draws, with many cruise lines offering deep discounts as incentive.

“Princess completely turned around its itinerary from Europe, where they did great, and instead is focusing on the domestic cruise market,” Bergman said.

Calig is moving forward with the annual travel show her company holds in January. Representatives from all major cruise lines and resorts are on hand to meet with travel agents as well as consumers. Calig is hoping the event will jump-start travel for the year.

“This is what the Taliban want — for people to be afraid. All the safety precautions are made. Security is fantastic,” Calig said. “People have to realize it’s OK to go on living, to go out there and have a good time. We’re not going to be on hold forever.” — S.F.

How Do We Egage Teens?

There are more than 30,000 Jewish teen-agers in Los Angeles — how do we engage them?

I was thinking about this a few weeks ago while visiting the Bern-ard Milken Jewish Community Campus in West Hills. The occasion was a happy one, the ground-breaking for a new youth and sports complex at the Jewish Community Center on that site. What really struck me was the enormous potential for our Federation programs to reach out beyond the traditional young users of our communal services and actively engage as many Jewish teens who live in greater Los Angeles as possible.

Among the dozens of programs and services located at the Milken campus is the JCC’s Teen Services unit. Its highly specific mandate is to reach Jewish high school youth, and its goal is quite simple: begin to Jewishly engage a group of youngsters whose options for leisure time are endless and whose future Jewish identities are being formed. These are kids who could easily drift out of the Jewish community or worse, never really involve themselves at all.

Browsing through the JCC’s Teen Services newsletter, you begin to get a sense of how complex it is to reach an age group whose members are still searching for an identity. Since one size does not fit all, the efforts to reach teens must be multifaceted and creative. This is where the Teen Services unit comes in. They are the glue that cements diverse initiatives citywide. Working together with representatives of a range of other Jewish youth organizations and involving those groups from the synagogues and Zionist movements, they are using a wide range of approaches, including educational programming, cultural activities and social-action opportunities to reach our youth. Teens can help feed the hungry at SOVA, help build a Habitat for Humanity or assist someone with AIDS through Project Chicken Soup. These projects reach the young communal activist with a message of tikkun olam.

But that might not be enough. So how about outreaching to Jewish kids in public and non-Jewish private schools? That’s where the majority of Jewish teens are found. Almost 500 Jewish teens from 18 public and private schools, including Fairfax, Van Nuys, Santa Monica and Granada Hills, meet weekly to hear speakers, celebrate Jewish holidays, practice community awareness, have fun and hang out. With collaborative efforts from BBYO, United Syn-agogue Youth of the Conservative movement, the North American Federation of Temple Youth of the Reform move-ment and the National Council of Synagogue Youth of the Modern Orthodox movement, our communal efforts are maximized to reach more teens. For many, these initiatives are their only contact with Jewish communal life, so it takes on a special importance.

So while some teens are engaged by entering a Jewish creative writing contest or participating in a weekend retreat program of the Bureau of Jewish Education, others are attracted by taking a course in CPR or learning about Jews in film. The list is almost endless. With the new technology of the Internet, we have another way to reach teens.

But what really turns on a Jewish teen? How about speaking to their needs? Since so many teens in high school are actively thinking about college, what about a program to expose them to college life? We have it. Together with the Los Angeles Hillel Council, the JCC conducts a program to explore colleges in our own backyard. The teens might visit a campus, sleep in a dorm, and learn about Jewish college life at USC or UCLA.

Since not every teen wants to stay in Los Angeles, why not help them think about attending college elsewhere? We do it. By offering a program to visit campuses in Arizona, Northern California or even Boston, we reach teens by addressing their needs.

Additionally, the annual Hillel FACETS Conference, which assists local teens in decisions about college, drew more than 500 teens and their parents to this year’s event at UCLA.

The Jewish Federation, with the support of the United Jewish Fund through its constituent agencies and lots of associated groups, is engaged in fashioning a vision for a Jewish community of the future. What we see has great hope and potential, if we can continue to secure the financial and human resources to accomplish our communal goals.

John R. Fishel is executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.