While Santa Fe is a haven for outdoor sports, arts, cuisine and silver jewelry, one of its greatest treasures is its unique place in American Jewish history.
If you really want your honeymoon to be a magical experience, how could you not decide to start your marriage in the state whose motto is “The Land of Enchantment”? Surrounded by ancient adobe structures, the cerulean Southwestern sky and some of the friendliest, most food-forward people in the United States, a trip to Santa Fe, one of the oldest towns in the country, is an unusually poetic way for a Jewish couple to begin their new life together.
Santa Fe is a “big” small town with an effusive character defined by its historically inclusive culture, panoramic landscape and vibrant arts scene. However, when you consider that this town is 400 years old, the oldest state capital in the United States, with the oldest house and public building still in use, the reality is that one can spend weeks here and never be bored.
What makes a Santa Fe visit so rich for the Jewish traveler, especially if you are planning a destination wedding or Bar/Bat Mitzvah, is exploring the ways Jews played a role in the town’s development. Some of the first settlers to arrive the 17th and 18th centuries were descendants of Spanish and Portuguese forced converts, or “conversos,” fleeing the Inquisition. Although they publically practiced Catholicism, they privately practiced Jewish traditions in secret. In the 1820s and 1830s, many Jewish trappers and merchants passed through the area. When New Mexico became an American territory in 1846, Jewish families were allowed to settle permanently.
One of the first settlers was Solomon Jacob Spiegelberg, who, with his brothers, opened stores, served as quartermasters for the U.S. Army and traded with Native Americans. Later in the 19th century, German Jewish businessman Abraham Staab, who began his life in Santa Fe working for the Spiegelbergs, successfully set down roots and integrated into Santa Fe high society. The lavish home Abraham built for wife, Julia (née Schuster), in exchange for her taking the leap of faith to move to the western U.S. frontier is part of La Posada (330 East Palace Avenue; 866-331-7625; www.laposada.rockresorts.com), a resort near Santa Fe’s central plaza that is, among other things, a popular destination for local and out-of-state Jewish weddings and Bar Mitzvahs.
While churches and pueblos help create the city’s architecture and iconic Southwestern atmosphere, La Posada’s resident art historian Sara Eyestone’s (Jewish and raised in nearby Los Alamos) afternoon art lectures will occasionally detail a fascinating account about how the Staabs bankrolled two of Santa Fe’s most significant Catholic and Episcopalian churches. Archbishop Jean-Baptiste Lamy, who befriended Abraham Staab en route to Santa Fe and helped Julia plant her beloved garden, paid tribute to them at the Cathedral they funded with a Hebrew inscription above its entrance. Eyestone also provides context for the popular legend of how Julia Staab’s ghost still occupies the hotel — Mrs. Staab is apparently still a stickler for good hospitality, according to La Posada marketing manager Marcia Sky.
While Georgia O’Keefe’s later works are synonymous with Santa Fe and New Mexico, it is important to remember her husband and professional champion, Alfred Stieglitz, was Jewish. Stieglitz famously empowered O’Keefe to ultimately find herself as an artist, and she did just that in Santa Fe. Today, her larger-than-life-presence lives on at the museum bearing her name (217 Johnson Street; 505-946-1000; www.okeeffemuseum.org), while 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 numerous galleries owned by or representing Jewish artists.
Sara Novenson (821 Canyon Road; www.novenson.com) and Josh Kalkstein are among several Santa Fe Jewish artists attracting international acclaim. Novenson’s works can be found decorating the lobby of the Jewish-owned La Fonda Hotel (www.lafondasantafe.com), which was elegantly and recently renovated (though you can spot some original earmarks of a Jewish presence, such as chandeliers with subtle Stars of David). Kalkstein is responsible for a stunning mosaic mural created for the three-year-old mikvah commissioned by Chabad Rabbi Berel Levertov and his wife, Devorah Leah. His “Waters of Eden” mosaic depicts four rivers flowing from Eden, with the names of the four matriarchs wrapping around the main immersion pool.
Speaking of creativity, Santa Fe has long been recognized as one of America’s pre-eminent culinary destinations. Two fantastic ways to get familiar with its magical green and red chile-focused cuisine is via the Santa Fe Farmer’s market (www.santafefarmersmarket.com) and the Santa Fe School of Cooking (www.santafeschoolofcooking.com). One of the more popular and noteworthy presences at the cooking school is James Beard Award-winning author and chef Lois Ellen Frank. While Frank has spent more than two decades documenting the foods and life ways of Native American communities throughout the Southwest (resulting in the book, Foods of the Southwest Indian Nations), she has fond memories of coming of age with the food traditions from her Jewish father’s side of the family.
“Native households are similar to Jewish households when it comes to food,” observes Frank. “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.”
Although it is estimated that approximately 7,000 Jews live in this city of 65,000, and five Jewish congregations serve the different denominations within the community, it is somewhat surprising there are no stand-alone kosher cafes. The Levertovs, who also head the local Chabad and currently stage Shabbat dinners for locals and visitors, believe there is no reason why there shouldn’t be a kosher restaurant in Santa Fe. While Santa Fe Chabad currently offers catering services as well as prepared kosher meals-to-go ($40), they are diligently working to pull the café together with the same pioneering spirit as their 19th-century counterparts.
“What makes New Mexico cuisine special and why I love it so much are the flavors,” Devorah Leah Levertov exclaims as she checks on her green chile matzoh 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 kosher food and New Mexican components such as the fresh green and dried red chiles, corn and grilled meats. Every year, we purchase a big stack of green chiles when it is in season in fall, and we use both kinds throughout the year in everything. Though 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 locals and visitors who keep kosher, Rabbi Levertov recently collaborated with the Santa Fe Tortilla Company to make their production facilities kashrut. He also made an important contribution to Nambé, a New Mexico-based design company producing artisanal kitchenware and home décor items that, not surprisingly, are highly sought-after wedding and engagement gifts. Levertov’s service as a consultant for Nambé Chanukiot, ironically, stemmed from a rare and unfortunate incidence of anti-Semitism. In December 2005, when their menorah on Santa Fe’s Plaza was vandalized, the company approached him about donating a new menorah. However, when the first menorah Nambé donated was not proportionally correct, the company took a genuine interest in creating Jewish artifacts that were appropriate for services and brought Levertov on board.
Just like Frank’s approach to cooking, the Santa Fe experience is liberally flavored with European, Native American and Mexican influences that makes it uniquely American and a completely singular destination unto itself. If time allows, you can dig deeper into this melting pot at the New Mexico Jewish Historical Society (www.nmjewishhistory.org), the Museum of International Folk Art (Museum Hill, 706 Camino Lejo; 505-476-1200; www.moifa.org), and The Peyton Wright Gallery (237 East Palace Avenue; 800-879-8898; www.peytonwright.com), which happens to be housed in the former home of Solomon Jacob Spiegelberg.
Elyse Glickman is a frequent contributor to Special Sections. This article originally appeared in Simchas, a Jewish Exponent publication.