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.
August 28, 2013

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 (chabadsantafe.com). 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. 

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