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Home on the Mesa

There are only a handful of Jews in New Mexico. Why are so many of them running for Congress?

March 30, 2000 | 7:00 pm

Some folks say New Mexico is the face of America's future. A barren moonscape of rocky peaks and desert mesas, it's a study in contrasts, a high-tech haven amid some of the nation's worst poverty. It's home to the Los Alamos nuclear labs and the ancient Acoma pueblo, America's oldest continuous human settlement. It's where the eternal meets the unexpected.

That's never been truer than it is this spring. Democrats in Albuquerque, the state's largest city, are angling to capture the local congressional seat for the first time in decades. The primary race is becoming a nasty, four-way brawl. It's also becoming, in a mysterious way, a vision of American Jewry's future.

The front-runner is former U.S. Attorney John Kelly, who entered the race in January. Before that, some Democrats joked that they didn't even need a primary. "We could have just spun the dreidel to choose the nominee," says local attorney John Wertheim. His point was that the other contenders -- former city councilor Sam Bregman, former state legislator Bob Perls, Wertheim himself -- are all Jewish.

It's not unusual for American Jews to play an outsize role in politics. But Albuquerque's three-fourths-Jewish House race goes beyond outsize. New Mexico has only about 12,000 Jews, less than 1 percent of the state's 1.7 million population. Something else is going on.

For some Jews, it's simply doing what's right. "We have a tradition of mitzvah," says Bob Perls, the only unaffiliated Jew in the race. "We were raised to step out and be counted, to stop injustice wherever we can."

That draws a harrumph from organized Jews. "People who are interested in politics go into politics," says Cantor Joshua Pearlman of Conservative Congregation B'nai Israel. "I don't know that it's anything more than that."

But it is something more. It's part of a pattern. The Albuquerque House seat was held for years by Capitol Hill's best-liked Jewish Republican, Steven Schiff, who died of cancer in 1998. A citywide outpouring of grief greeted his funeral at the Albuquerque's Reform temple, Congregation Albert.

(The temple was named in 1897 for a donor, one Albert Grunsfeld. Frontier synagogues were commonly named after big donors. New Mexicans evidently never heard the part about using the donor's Hebrew name.)

Before Schiff entered Congress in 1988, he served a decade as district attorney. His predecessor and his successor as D.A. were both Jewish, too. One of them is currently running for appellate judge. He faces a Jewish opponent.

It gets pretty intimate. Schiff's last campaign, in 1996, was against a member of his own temple, John Wertheim, who's running again this year -- and again facing a fellow congregant, Democratic rival Bregman.

Local Jews say they never much noticed the Jewish political pattern, but they're not surprised. "There's a wonderful symbiosis here," says Rabbi Joe Black of Congregation Albert. "Jews were largely responsible for bringing the railroad to New Mexico. They've been deeply involved ever since. The first president of our congregation was the first mayor of Albuquerque, Henry Joffa."

Black is bullish on New Mexico Jewry. He ticks off a list of achievements, from a Solomon Schechter school to brisk teen Israel travel. "We're not a backwater," he declares.

There's a melancholy behind the bullishness, though. Day schools and Israel trips touch only a fraction of local Jewry. The things that do speak to them -- desert culture, politics, the arts -- draw disdainful comments from the community's leaders. The gulf separating rabbis and Jews nationwide is an abyss in New Mexico.

"People don't move here to be Jewish," says Cantor Pearlman. Most never even contact a synagogue, he suspects. "We have, I'm sure, a very large community of hidden Jews."

With Schiff's death in 1998, Democrats expected to claim his seat (in Congress, not in shul). The district, once solidly Republican, had slowly been turning Democratic, thanks to Hispanic registration and an influx of newcomers -- academics coming for the nuclear labs, artists for the scenery. Only Schiff's personal popularity held off the Democrats.

But in 1998, Republican Heather Wilson squeaked in, taking 45 percent in a three-way race against a Democrat and a Green Party insurgent. Analysts say the Greens split the Democratic vote and got Wilson elected.

Greens insist they're not spoilers. "We brought out a lot of new voters who didn't like the major party candidates," says the Greens' statewide co-chair, Hebrew teacher Elisheva Crowell.

Perhaps, but the Greens' spoiler role seems a recurring one. Their biggest showing ever was in a special 1997 House race in Santa Fe, after Democratic incumbent Bill Richardson was named U.N. ambassador. Green candidate Carol Miller won a whopping 17 percent. The Republican won the seat.

Miller later served as the Greens' state co-chair. She was succeeded this month by Elisheva Crowell. Crowell says she and Miller occasionally compare notes on the difficulties of raising kids Jewish in New Mexico. Both grew up back east, moving west after college. Both married non-Jews. Both have taken the kids' religious education on themselves.

Miller has it particularly tough. She doesn't live in Albuquerque but in the sparsely populated north, where she works in public health. The nearest synagogue is 35 miles away, in Taos. She rarely goes. Instead she seeks out other experiences for her daughter. They spent last Passover in Venice, attending Seder and services in the old Ghetto.

She's found ancient Jewish messages in the canyons of New Mexico, too. Many of the state's first Spanish settlers were secret Jews fleeing the Inquisition. Their presence still haunts the desert: Hebrew gravestones, families lighting candles in basements Friday night without knowing why. "Years ago I was working in a small village," Miller says. "One day I heard somebody say to someone else, 'I'm bringing the charoset, what are you bringing?' At first I thought I was hallucinating."

Despite decades of research and outreach, contact between Marranos and mainstream Jews remains spotty. A handful join synagogues. Most keep to themselves.

Partly they're deterred by the chasm between Anglo and Hispanic cultures, says University of New Mexico researcher Stanley Hordes. "For them to come over and affiliate with Congregation Albert, it's a very difficult cultural path to cross."

Partly, too, they're deterred by centuries-old habits of secrecy. "The more people know and care about their secret Jewish origins," says Hordes, "the less they're going to talk to me or anybody else about it."

Two communities of Jews who don't know how to talk to each other. Sounds a lot like everywhere else.


J.J. Goldberg writes a weekly column for The Jewish Journal

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