This evening marks the start of Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights.
So, after the sun sets tonight while some of us may be seasoning our turkeys and preparing our Thanksgiving side dishes, thousands of New Mexicans may be also lighting Menorahs and reciting blessings.
How many times has Hanukkah coincided with Thanksgiving? It has widely been reported that it has never happened before and isn’t likely to happen again for thousands of years. Some Jewish organizations maintain through some date conversions that it has happened before, at least three times, and it could happen again as soon as 2070.
On this Thanksgiving-Hanukkah – or Thanksgivukkah as it has been popularly deemed – we’re recognizing New Mexico’s Jewish population.
Jewish families and descendants of Jewish families have lived in New Mexico since the days of colonization. Historians believe some colonists may have outwardly converted to Christianity during the Spanish Inquisition but secretly held on to their Jewish faith.
In the 1800s, Jewish pioneer families were drawn to the communities of Las Vegas, Santa Fe and Albuquerque, some also settled near Carlsbad, Taos and Fort Sumner.
In 1881, the large Jewish community in Las Vegas established the Montefiore Cemetery, which was one of the first Jewish cemeteries west of the Mississippi river. Just three years later, the first Jewish synagogue in New Mexico Territory – Congregation Montefiore, also in Las Vegas – was established.
In the 1860s, it is said Jewish families in Santa Fe helped complete a building that has become one of that city’s iconic and most beloved structures: The Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi. According to tradition, Jewish families in the area contributed money to finish the grand cathedral, which includes a Hebrew Tetragrammaton above its main entrance.
Some notable Jewish residents and families who’ve left their mark on New Mexico include
– Charles Ilfeld a pioneer and Las Vegas merchant
– Yetta Kohn who owned a handful of stores and businesses and even served as a postmistress before founding a ranch that became the T-4 Cattle Company (and whose son attended the state’s Constitutional Convention)
-The Seligman family who forged relationships with Pueblo and Hispanic communities that remain today
The New Mexico Jewish Historical Society is working to archive stories of these settlers and families in order to draw a more complete picture of Jewish life in New Mexico and influence on the area.
This Thanksgivukkah, we’re thankful for all the Jewish families who have contributed so much to New Mexico’s history and who will continue to enrich our communities.