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Treasures and Tombstones: Jewish History through Archives and Commemoration

By Patricia Westlake*

Archives are the houses where memories are stored. Photographs, documents, and books retain the stories of the past; waiting to be unearthed, retold, and remembered. Far back, in a climate-controlled room and behind two locked doors, rests the archives of the New Mexico Jewish Historical Society (NMJHS). Painstakingly organized by volunteers and members of the Society, these records tell the rich story of Jewish people in New Mexico and the history of the Society created to preserve these memories.

Researchers use archives but often do not take into account how and why the records they are using came into existence or the archival issues of preservation, accession, and custodial integrity of documents. Understanding the context in which records are attained, stored, and preserved can only give historians and the citizens of New Mexico a better sense of New Mexico history generally but also the history of the repository and organization that keeps and preserves the documents. This is true regarding the story of Jewish American archives generally but more specifically of the New Mexico Jewish Historical Society.

The NMJHS archives are not limited to merely educating researchers on American Jewish history, they can also serve as a starting point for researchers interested in archival studies generally. Elisabeth Kaplan researched the history of the American Jewish Historical Society in her article, “We are What We Collect and We Collect What We Are: Archives and the Construction of Identity” to address crucial questions about constructing identity through archival research. Kaplan’s essay discusses the power of archival collections in establishing a collective identity but also the pitfalls of accepting the records of the repository as unvarnished truth. Institutional archives have been systematically created by founders with a distinct mission. This idea helps to structure my examination of the New Mexico Jewish Historical Society records.

What this essay is seeking to do is look at how Jewish history has been remembered in New Mexico. I will use archival and historical theory to describe the status of Jewish Historical Society in New Mexico and its establishment and contributions New Mexico Jewish history. Their records, buildings, and gravestones construct the social memories for Jewish people and historians in New Mexico. The creation of social memories, within the context of archives and photo collections, reinforce the tradition and closeness of the Jewish community. Jack Kugelmass, in a discussion of folk ethnography, writes “for American Jews, a symbolic ecology of books constitutes not so much the individuality of the owner but a sense of membership within a collectivity, a vital link increasingly significant given the absence, or fragmentation, of other communal institutions.”[1] This vital link is also strengthened by the construction of an archive that is representative of the history of Jewish immigrants.


In Search of the “Mystic Chords of Memory”- The Establishment and Necessity of the New Mexico Jewish Historical Society[2]

An organizational meeting was held on October 28, 1986. By the end of the meeting, the New Mexico Jewish Historical Society came into existence, complete with its first President, Vice-President, Secretary, Treasurer, and Board Members. James Mafchir became the Societies first President and Stanley Hordes the first Vice-President. [3] The minutes were signed by Rabbi Leonard A. Helman, Peter Hess, Stanley Hordes, Walter S. Kahn, James Mafchir, M. J. Rodriguez, Jerry Wertheim, Michelle Zackheim, and A. David Scholder.

Vice-President Stanley Hordes, Ph.D. wrote the Statement of Purpose or Mission Statement for the Society.[4] At this first meeting, a field trip to Las Vegas was planned in an effort to evaluate the Montefiore Cemetery and what would be necessary to restore this important cultural monument. More than twenty years later, the annual clean up of the Montefiore Cemetery, is still a priority for the NMJHS.

During this first and significant meeting, Allen Hurst was appointed to be in charge of member recruitment for the Society. A discussion was had about procuring the member list of the Temple Beth Shalom and a decision was made to make a conscious effort to “keep other Jewish Societies in the West advised of the activities of the New Mexico Society.”[5]

In many ways, this meeting was similar to a meeting almost one hundred years prior. On June 7, 1892, forty-one men met at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City to discuss the creation of a national Jewish historical society. By the end of that meeting, the American Jewish Historical Society (AJHS) had come into existence.[6] The AJHS was created for two basic reasons: to combat what founders saw as a rise in anti-Semitism and to create a cohesive American Jewish identity. Elisabeth Kaplan writes, “The AJHS founders turned to archives as a means by which to construct identity and in doing so they expressed their extraordinary confidence in the power of the document.”[7]

The New Mexico Jewish Historical Society formed an archive committee on May 27 1987 to begin the task of processing the records that had previously been accessioned to the society. Suzan Campbell, a member and future President of the NMJHS, put in copious hours organizing the archives, and when money ran out, she continued to work on a volunteer basis. Other volunteers would continue the processing of the records in future years and funding from the New Mexico Historical Records Advisory Board allowed members to become familiar with archivist work.[8] Volunteers were sent to workshops and taught the fundamentals of arrangement, description, and processing. The advisory board hired a Certified Archivist to create a collection management policy and explain the volunteers’ roles in processing the documents.[9]

In NM Jewish Historical Society minutes from December 14, 1988, Hordes reported that the Society’s records were being stored at the New Mexico Records Center and Archives.[10] At this time, ownership remained with the Society but the documents were on permanent loan. In 1997, the records moved with the rest of the State Archives from Monteczuma Street in Santa Fe to the State Archives new location on Camino Carlos Rey. Sharon Needleman wrote in the January Society’s newsletter, “According to a new signed agreement, the NMJHS archive will receive the benefit of insurance and state of the art document preservation while maintaining its independent, long-term status.”[11] For purposes of preservation and access, NMJHS formally gifted the records to the New Mexico State Records Center and Archives in 2002. Volunteers still play a crucial role in processing the NMJHS records and the Historical Society still accepts donations of documents and other records.[12]

The records of the historical society tell the story of Jewish immigrants in New Mexico. Most of these immigrants traveled from Germany, looking to establish themselves as successful entrepreneurs in the Southwest. The immigration of German Jews to New Mexico dates back to the last half of the nineteenth century when they helped to build successful, flourishing communities in Las Vegas, Santa Fe, and Albuquerque along with other cities in New Mexico. The New Mexico Jewish Historical Society Collection at the State Archives has been used to illustrate the lives of Jewish Pioneers in the Jewish Pioneers of New Mexico exhibit at the New Mexico History Museum, the Jewish Pioneers Oral History Project, and in the publication of many Jewish family histories. The family histories include the Ilfelds, Speigelbergs, Bibos, and others.

Archival theorist Mark Greene writes, “Ultimately, the archival mission is about meaning— perhaps a better shorthand word than “memory.” When we speak about memory, of corporate needs, etc., we are really talking about documentary material that has meaning— meaning that transcends the immediate purpose for which the material was created and suggests the appropriateness of making it accessible for the long term.”[13] This quote really speaks to the mission of the New Mexico Jewish Archives. The records that are being accessioned ‘transcend’, in some instances, their immediate purpose, and help to preserve a story to be told later.

Constructing a Jewish Archives: Putting the New Mexico Jewish Historical Society within the Context of Jewish Archives in the United States
Randall C. Jimerson, former President of the Society for American Archivists writes, “When the disenfranchised find themselves excluded from existing archives, they sometimes create their own archives,” as was the case with the American Jewish Historical Society in the nineteenth century.[14] Since preserving records within a repository is literally “deciding what is remembered and what is forgotten, who in society is visible and who remains invisible, who has a voice and who does not,” undertaking the preservation of records is not a neutral task.[15] When the New Mexico Jewish Historical Society was founded in 1985 to preserve the histories of Jewish settlers, it pointed out that scholars and the citizens of New Mexico had limited knowledge about Jewish history in New Mexico.

Archives have their own history. Peter Fritzsche writes, “Archives are not comprehensive collections of things, the effects left behind by the dead, nor are they arbitrary accumulations of remnants and leftovers. The archive is the production of the heirs, who must work to find connections from one generation to the next and thereby acknowledge the ongoing disintegration of the past.”[16] It is important to recognize Fritzsche’s use of heirs in two distinct meanings. One meaning is the heirs of the donor or the donors themselves of the papers of a family member, often the actual interpretation of the term. Another meaning, more Fritzsche’s point, is the heirs to the memory and history of the archives. As the inheritors of history, people must evaluate and reinterpret the past continuously.

Fritzsche also points out “The heirs also distinguish themselves as such: a cultural group that knows itself by cultivating a particular historical trajectory.”[17] This is an interesting supposition in regards to neutrality and objectivity within the archives and assumes that Jewish Americans (and all other groups) create their cultural identity through their own unique interpretation of the past. If each interpretation is distinct, separate, and valid, then a cultural repository and the research and interpretation that come from it are not only valid, but also essential. Each piece of information and its interpretation creates a more complete picture of the group’s history and memory.

To conceptualize their group identity, Jewish Americans and other groups reconcile ideas of national, religious, and cultural identity. An ethnic social memory consists of a whole community, not merely prominent figures. Jacob Rader Marcus, the founder of the American Jewish Archives, and other prominent individuals of the Jewish community believed “As American Jewry entered a new and significant stage in its cultural development, it was imperative that the community be furnished with the resources it required to sustain the field of American Jewish historical research”.[18] Marcus strongly believed that American Jewish history had intrinsic inspirational value and that it reinforced a Jewish identity and increased Jewish pride. Henry Feingold wrote, “in order for a community that develops within the culture and space of another nation to survive, it needs to be aware of its special historic experience, which contains a sense of its worthwhileness.”[19]

Forging an identity with the use of an archival repository is a conscious effort. Materials are sought out in a methodical approach with appraisal being a primary strategy. This makes the archivist or in the case of NMJHS, its members, active participants in the construction of their history. The simple act of choosing what to collect and what to dispose of is making a conscious decision about history. Accessioning a collection for an archive is deciding, often without precedence, what information will be valuable in the future. Records from the NMJHS archive show that in many instances the Society was contacted by individuals or families interested in donating their papers for inclusion in the collections of the NMJHS. These actions show how communities, individuals, and families take active roles in constructing archives and history.

In his essay “Remembering the Future: Appraisal of Records and the Role of Archives in Constructing Social Memory,” Terry Cook points out “appraisal imposes a heavy social responsibility on archivists.”[20] Archivists are now recognizing their collective responsibility in also telling the stories of the marginalized people within history. In the case of NMJHS, this responsibility is still in the hands of the Jewish community and members of the Society.

Collection Policies: Putting the New Mexico Jewish Historical Society’s Collection Policy and Mission into the Larger Context
The collection policy is an integral part of an institution’s message to the external and internal forces that affect the archives. The collection policy gives potential donors clues to what the repository is seeking and serves as a reference point for the internal workings of the archives. The policy is also a construction that clearly delineates the scope of the repository and sets boundaries that shape the archives in a distinctly subjective manner. As Elisabeth Kaplan writes “The archival record doesn’t just happen; it is created by individuals and organizations, and used, in turn, to support their values and missions, all of which comprises a process that is certainly not politically or culturally neutral.”[21] This subjectivity is not an inherently negative aspect and, within the scope of Jewish American archives, should construct a means of cooperation and support among the many repositories within the United States.

The collecting policy embodies the relationships that the repository shares with the public, the collections, the donors, and other repositories. The collection policies are also descriptive and represent an important part of the outreach program of a repository. The purpose of a collection policy is to delineate collecting practices both internally and externally. A good collection policy is specific and informative. It should inform users and potential donors of the collection needs of the repository and “should define not only the geographical  or linguistic limits of our collecting focus and all the rest, it must also include a more specific definition and analysis of whatever phenomena we are hoping to document.”[22] The clear collection policy also facilitates communication between repositories and limits competition.[23]

The New Mexico Jewish Historical Society papers state that the purpose of their archive is to “acquire materials relating to Jewish families and enterprises in New Mexico. This program has two vitally related components: the acquisition and preservation of documents and objects, and oral histories of Jewish New Mexicans. The purpose of acquiring and preserving this material is to provide support through a comprehensive collection for historians and others who wish to gain insight into the understanding of the Jewish experience in New Mexico.”[24] The document goes on to specifically describe the types of acquisitions that are accepted and valued as “photographs, personal and business correspondence, books, diaries and journals, business records, creative products, and other memorabilia.”[25]

The NM Jewish Historical Society website presents a different collection policy from that stated in their administrative papers. The online policy states:

The New Mexico Jewish Historical Society welcomes donations of historical materials that document the Jewish presence in New Mexico. Materials should adhere to the following collection guidelines:

1. All documents (photographs, maps, record books, etc.) will have both Jewish and New Mexican content and significance.

2. Preference will be given to pre-1945 materials.

3. Only documents will be accepted into the collection. Audio and video tapes are accepted media.

4. The NMJHS has the right to reject parts of the donation, which either duplicates material already in the collection, or does not fit the collection guidelines.

5. If it becomes necessary to de-accession materials from the collection, every effort will be made to contact the donors for appropriate disposition, unless the donor waives this option at the time of donation.[26]

As a professional collection management policy, the NMJHS list has several problems: #3 for example, states that “only documents” will be accepted into the collection but then states that audio and video tapes are “accepted media” making policy #3 unclear. The policy does not mention the use of language parameters relevant to New Mexican and Jewish history. However, the first guideline does a good job of giving cultural and spatial limitations and guidelines four and five clearly state the Society’s control over the accession and de-accession of records. Since the inception of the Society, there was a joint effort from the members of the society and the community to seek records that were valuable in sustaining the rich history of the Jewish presence in New Mexico and of welcoming disparate donations as word of the Society intentions spread through communities. A lack of clarity within the collection policy could affect the control of collections and support from potential donors.

A good collection policy is imperative to a repository because as Timothy Ericson writes: “There is little virtue in mere acquisition if it is divorced from intelligent purpose.”[27] Jewish American archives have the benefit of already having a specific focus, “the acquisition of papers that document the lives of Jewish people in the United States,” but this does not exclude them from the necessity of a professionally written collection policy. Frank Boles states, “Theme-oriented archives, because they collect across various institutions and individuals in an effort to gather together documentation relevant to the theme, usually cannot use a records-management approach in gathering documentation.”[28] Jewish American archives should delineate their scope of interest in order to promote the constructive acquisition of collections within the vast networks of Jewish archives and historical societies. Limiting group’s collection interests to regions, cities, counties, states or topics within Jewish culture, evident in the NMJHS’s collection policy, makes for a more coherent collection. This approach allows the New Mexican Jewish Historical Society to collect selectively and yet exist concurrently with other societies such as the Arizona, Texas, and Colorado Jewish Historical Societies, whose areas of interest are specific yet overlapping.

Cooperation is crucial among groups with specific interests but whose collections overlap regionally and nationally. Archives may view their collections as self-sufficient but this is often an illusion: “each collection and each repository [should become] part of a larger collection— our nation’s collection.”[29] This idea embodies the true mission of Jewish American archives: To create a national collection, within the scope of networks of Jewish archives.

Outlining a repository’s priorities should represent a crucial part of the collection policy.[30] A clear announcement of purpose helps not only the repository but also the public in their dealings with the archives. Collection scope is the most straightforward way of informing the public about the holdings and needs of a repository. The NMJHS does this with the first and second point of its online collecting policy, stating that the documents must be relevant to the history of Jewish Americans and New Mexico, as well as stating that preference will be made for documents prior to 1945.

Photography and Jewish History in New Mexico
Photographs are an integral treasure that the New Mexican Jewish community can utilize. Visual images often inspire people in a way that textual documents are unable to accomplish. If Susan Sontag is correct when she states “Photographs are often invoked as an aid to understanding and tolerance…the highest vocation of photography is to explain man to man,” [31] then collecting and preserving visual images of Jewish history in New Mexico is a crucial component. While there is little doubt that members of NMJHS understand this, the online collection policy does little to explain this component of their archives. Cary Herz, a photographer who has captured crypto-Judaism through images of descendents, said the following about the purpose behind her book of photographs:

I have created a photographic diary of individuals who have a hidden past that they question, embrace, and treasure….The crypto-Jews are catching up with their past, a past that has not been erased but is incomplete. By acknowledging their complex history and speaking out, they become a visible tribute to the ordeals and courage of those ancestors who were forced into secrecy and silence. It is my hope that this book will be supportive to those who are beginning to acknowledge their histories and identities; that it will help them stand up and be seen as those other people who needed to be hidden for so long.[32]

Susan Sontag wrote of photography, “To photograph is to appropriate the thing being photographed. It means putting oneself in a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge— and, therefore, power.”[33] That is what Cary Herz was doing, offering power and recognition to the secret Jewish heritage of these individuals.

The New Mexico Jewish Historical Newsletter
A proposed NMJHS Newsletter in March 1987 was to establish an “image and identity for the society,” something that members wanted to give to this new historical society.[34] The newsletter would notify subscribers of events and include valuable pieces of the history of Jews in New Mexico. Biographies and scholarly articles in the newsletter would give the community a greater understanding of the rich history that was available in New Mexico.

The establishment of the Newsletter and the other projects of the NMJHS followed a long tradition of Jewish historical societies throughout the country promoting education and a knowledge of American Jewish history. The mission and privilege of Jewish historical societies was to make people “conscious of the role [they] were playing in American history.”[35] The American Jewish Archives also held strongly to the conviction that education and scholarship was a fundamental purpose for the archives.

The American Jewish Archives (AJA) is the home of the scholarly American Jewish Archives Journal. The journal is an active participant in the scholarly world of Jewish studies and publishes on a semi-annual basis. One of the useful components of the journal is to notify the public of new accessions within the repository at the end of each publication period. Primarily, the journal is a venue for the publication of primary documents but it also supports scholarship within the field of Jewish American studies. The journal is one of the leading voices of Jewish Studies and its advisory board is made up of some of the luminaries in the field: Jonathan Sarna, Gary P. Zola, Marc Lee Raphael, Pamela Nadell, Kevin Proffitt, and others. The journal is an example of an archive sponsoring research.   

Jacob Rader Marcus, the founder of AJA, also made it clear in his “Program of the American Jewish Archives” that the primary purpose of the repository was to equip scholars with the essential research tools to tell the stories of the Jewish Americans. Further, Marcus encourages scholars to “promote the study of those materials which will further a knowledge of the American Jew, not only for understanding this present period…but also so that we may grasp the ethos of Americanism and thus make another contribution to the history of humanity.”[36] This has been the case as well with the NMJHS. They have continuously supported talks and workshops that promote a growing knowledge of Jewish history in New Mexico.

On April 8, 1991, Joyce Hoffman wrote a letter to the Newsletter saying, “Perhaps it is because I read every word and enjoy it enormously, that I notice an inordinate number of typos in the Newsletter. I am by no means a professional proof-reader… but if you would like an extra pair of eyes to proof before you go to press, I would be happy to do so.”[37] Suzan Campbell responded that they would “be delighted” if Hoffman would become a member of the newsletter committee.[38] This interaction illustrates the role that the newsletter plays within the Jewish community of New Mexico. Hoffman’s letter of concern and offer of assistance was active involvement in the Society at the grass roots level that brings ownership to the organization.

Another example of the newsletter’s mutual relationship with the community includes an unsolicited letter regarding the death of an influential member of the New Mexican Jewish history, Carmen Freudenthal. Sometime after her death, NMJHS received a letter that read: “I wish to report that one of the members of the Society, Carmen Freudenthal, died at ninety-two on July 14. Mrs. Freudenthal was one of the most prominent citizens of Las Cruces for more than fifty years. She established the Women’s Improvement Association, the League of Women Voters, and Planned Parenthood. She started the library, the non-denominational cemetery, and Pioneer Women’s Park…”[39]

NMJHS received another letter on February 12, stating, “Thank you for the nice words that you had written about my mother, Carmen Freudenthal… unfortunately the information that you used is almost entirely untrue….” The daughter, Elsa Altshool, went on to explain the discrepancies published in the newsletter[40] that had taken the original biographical letter at face value, in a piece dedicated to Freudenthal. So, aside from a few growing pains, the Newsletter (now called Legacy) has been a powerful tool for strengthening the Jewish community in New Mexico and allowing the archival records of the historical an outlet to speak to people who might otherwise might never have examples of the rich history of Jews in New Mexico.

WPA Writers’ Project
After reading an interesting history piece in the Newsletter, Harriet Rochlin wrote to Suzan Campbell: “I was intrigued by James Burns’ talk on Bertha Gusdorf in your recent newsletter… I’d like to write to Mrs. Gusdorf.”[41] Bertha Gusdorf had been a German immigrant who ultimately became a bank president in Taos after her husband’s death. Campbell’s response was: “I was delighted to see your letter, because it demonstrates how, with the right approach, history can come alive! The article on Mrs. Bertha Gusdorf was written in 1936 as part of New Mexico’s WPA project. She has been dead for quite some time now.”[42] This interaction embodies the transcendent power of history and the theoretical objective of the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP), to preserve the history of Americans and create a national identity.

James Burns was one of the thousands of writers sent on the mission to capture American culture and history. In August 1935, over six million dollars was allocated for the Writers’ Project, employing sixty-five hundred writers across the nation.[43] There was a group of writers located in every state within the country and each state project answered to state and national administrators.[44] Of the hundreds of interviews taken in New Mexico, there seem to be three that relate to Jewish immigrants in the state: Bertha Gusdorf, Albert Ziegler, and Henry Lutz. Each of them had emigrated from Germany to New Mexico.

The mission of some of the state interviewers was to research, interview, and write about only certain aspects of the history of their state, aspects that were of minimal consequence to state heritage but were more nationally relevant.[45] Interviews in New Mexico might focus on sensational topics like Billy the Kid, ‘Indian encounters’, and migration that had more impact outside the state. The writers programs in the Southwest were extensive and as Daniel M. Fox suggests:

Projects in these states were generally larger than in other states and employed more writers with extensive knowledge of the local and regional scene. Many of the Mid-Western and Mid-Atlantic FWP State Directors seem to have been relatively unimaginative, and were handicapped by small and inexperienced staff. Perhaps this was only an accident. More likely, it was a result of the movement of American writers to large cities or areas richest in local folklore.[46]

To perpetuate the cohesive vision of the United States that was being structured by the WPA, one account on the “ethnic elements” of New Mexico stated that “The Semitic and Syrian minorities like most of the other Mediterranean and north European groups, have very largely merged identities with the American culture in the common worth of settling a new land.”[47]

Scholar Horace M. Kallen titles the struggle between American culture and ethnic identity as “cultural pluralism.” He says that this struggle leads to the necessity to reconstruct an identity that supports strong ethnic traditions but allows for the influx of new ideas from the outside. Kallen says that “Jewish ‘identity’ has come to mean memory, which is reshaped daily in the dialogue between the varying branches of Jewry,” and controlling that social memory could create a sense of heritage and community.[48] He believes that cultural identity is constantly changing through moral choices and re-evaluations of accepted norms and that a congruent social memory gives substance and validation to beliefs and traditions. 

There is a fear among some groups that the dominant culture of the United States can engulf and remove the unique cultural identity of their religion and homeland. Some early Jewish immigrants felt that “their inherited cultures, which had given them a parochial but nevertheless moral vision, were now challenged by the industrial city, while they and their children absorbed America’s democratic practices.”[49] Jonathan Sarna, an influential Jewish historian, says that there exists “a long-standing fear that Jews in America are doomed to assimilate” but dismisses the idea that American Jewish history is the history of assimilation and lost Jewish identity.[50] The way to combat and alleviate this fear is to construct an identity that incorporates the ethnic identity within the national identity. This construct accepts new beliefs without losing sight of the importance of old traditions and ideologies.

Memory Markers- The Montefiore Cemetery, Las Vegas, and Jewish History in New Mexico
While documents, oral histories and photography are ways of commemorating an ancestral past, cemeteries are another. Each marker is a reminder of those who have been here before. The gravestones can also provide interesting and important archival information. Information on the dates of birth and death and relationships with other family members can be determined by there location in a cemetery. Scholars of Crypto-Jewish history search New Mexico cemeteries for information that might lead to clues of individual or family Jewish affiliation.

History is very much the study of commemoration. When artifacts of any sort are lost, the community loses a piece of its history. On December 28, 1988, firefighters arrived around three a.m. at the Charles Ilfeld Memorial Chapel which was engulfed in flames.[51] The building was on the National Register for Historic Places since 1985 and on the New Mexico Cultural Properties listing since 1984.[52] Arson was immediately suspected. James Mafchir, a member of the NMJHS contacted Las Vegas Fire Marshal Robert Gonzales and urged him to investigate the fire as arson and expressed NMJHS’s “shock and horror” regarding the fire. Mafchir was first informed that there would not be an investigation into possible arson at the Chapel, but after further conversations with the Fire Marshal,[53] NMJHS was informed of several previous, smaller fires due to vandalism and trespassing. Marshal Gonzales stressed that these incidents occurred because “the building was not properly secure” and that “adults as well as children had access to the building.”[54]There had been several prior investigations.

Tombstones may be the only physical reminder of a person’s legacy or their impact on history. “The Seligman sarcophagus, [at the Fairview Cemetery], contains the remains of Governor Arthur Seligman (1871-1933), his wife Franc Seligman (1867-1937) and son Otis P. Seligman (1898-1943). No other resource represents the Seligman family in Santa Fe. Their Palace Avenue home is gone and their business locations are remodeled beyond recognition.”[55]

One of the difficulties of forming or reinforcing an “American Jewish identity” is the diversity of Jewish immigrants. Their arrival in the United States from different European countries and communities and with strong independent beliefs has rendered a single “American Jewish identity” difficult. There are often language barriers and distinctly different cultural and religious beliefs. New Mexico has a long history of German Jewish immigrants, an emerging focus on the Spanish-speaking crypto-Jews, as well as the establishment of other groups of European Jews. The NMJHS has the opportunity to contextualize New Mexico history in a way that incorporates each of these groups. Marcus and Kevin Proffitt have called for an “intra-Jewish assimilation” that would bridge the gaps between the Jewish people of Germany, Spain, Eastern Europe and elsewhere.[56]

The NMJHS archives, newsletter, and other outreach programs have helped to construct a shared experience for Jewish Americans in New Mexico. According to Wulf Kansteiner, “Although collective memories have no organic basis and do not exist in any literal sense, and though they involve individual agency, the term “collective memory” is not simply a metaphorical expression. Collective memories originate from shared communications about the meaning of the past that are anchored in the life-worlds of individuals who partake in communal life.” [57]

NMJHS follows a great tradition of Jewish Historical Societies around the country. Rand Jimerson writes, “… these dual responsibilities [of protecting the rights of citizens and preserving cultural heritage] give archivists significant power, not only over questions of recordkeeping in today’s society but in future generations.”[58] The NMJHS archives shoulder this responsibility, preserving and cultivating Jewish history in New Mexico.

The preservation of Jewish records by the NMJHS is creating a history. As Richard Cox wrote in an article for the American Archivist, “…documentary heritage does not appear magically, but it is the result of many factors, incidents, and accidents”[59] Through a conscious effort, like-minded New Mexicans began the work of collecting and preserving New Mexico Jewish history at a meeting in October of 1986. The dedication of members of NMJHS pays homage to those who have worked at a similar project, the American Jewish Historical Society founded in 1892. Both entities work together for the preservation of Jewish History.


* Patricia Westlake is a recipient of a New Mexico History Scholars' Fellowship.

[1]. Jack Kugelmass, “Jewish Icons: Envisioning the Self in Visions of the Other” in Jews and Other Differences: The New Jewish Cultural Studies edited by Jonathan Boyarin and Daniel Boyarin (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997): 46.

[2]. President Abraham Lincoln, during his first inaugural address, evoked a startling imagery with “[t]he mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.” The idea of ‘mystic chords of memory’ are often inferred when archival records and collective memory are discussed.

[3]. “Minutes of Organizational Meeting, Board of Directors, The New Mexico Jewish Historical Society,” 1986, New Mexico Jewish Historical Society, Administrative Records, New Mexico State Records Center and Archives, 1988-052, Box 13, Folder 2.

[4].  After some editing from its original inception, this is how the Mission Statement stands today (as acquired from the NMJHS website and present within the Newsletter):   The New Mexico Jewish Historical Society seeks to promote greater understanding and knowledge of the Jewish experience, and the ongoing role it plays in the general community. The Society’s public programs examine the state’s Jewish heritage in all its diversity, and strive to present this heritage within a broad cultural context. In order to fulfill this mission, the Society sponsors lectures, films, field trips, conferences, preservation of historic cemeteries and genealogy workshops. In addition, it maintains a permanent archive documenting the state’s Jewish history. The Society is a secular organization, and solicits the membership and participation of all interested people, regardless of religious affiliation.

[5].  “Minutes of Organizational Meeting,  Board of Directors, The New Mexico Jewish Historical Society,” 1986, New Mexico Jewish Historical Society, Administrative Records, New Mexico State Records Center and Archives, 1988-052, Box 13, Folder 2, page 4.

[6] .  Elisabeth Kaplan, “We Are What We Collect, We Collect What We Are: Archives and the Construction of Identity” in The American Archivist v. 63 (Spring/Summer 2000): 126-151; 127.

[7].   Kaplan, 150.

[8].   Geri and Gunther Aron, “Our Adventures as Archivists” in the New Mexico Jewish Historical Society Newsletter Volume 15, Number 1, July 2001.

[9].   Ibid.

[10] . “Meeting Minutes” 1986, Minutes and Agendas (1986-1989), New Mexico Jewish Historical Society, Administrative Records, New Mexico State Records Center and Archives, 1988-052, Box 13, Folder 6.

[11].  Sharon Neiderman, NMJHS Newsletter, Vol. 11, No. 4, January 1998, page 3.

[12].  New Mexico State Records Center and Archives, Gift Agreement with New Mexico Jewish Historical Society, 2002.

[13]. Mark Greene, “The Power of Meaning: The Archival Mission in a Postmodern Age” in American Archivist Vol 65, Number 1, Spring/Summer 2002, pg. 42-55, Pg. 50.

[14].  Jimerson, 267.

[15]. Terry Cook, “Remembering the Future: Appraisal of Records and the Role of Archives in Constructing Social Memory” in Archives, Documentation and Institutions of Social Memory: Essays from the Sawyer Seminar, edited by Francis X. Blouin Jr. and William G. Rosenberg (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2006), 169.

[16].  Peter Fritzsche, “The Archive” in History and Memory vol. 17 (Fall 2005): 15.

[17].  Ibid.

[18].  Gary Phillip Zola, The Dynamics of American Jewish History: Jacob Rader Marcus’s Essays on American Jewry, edited by Gary Phillip Zola (Hanover: University Press of New England, 2004), 108.

[19].  Henry L Feingold, The Dynamics of American Jewish History: Jacob Rader Marcus’s Essays on American Jewry, edited by Gary Phillip Zola (Hanover: University Press of New England, 2004), xxvii.

[20].  Cook, 169.

[21].  Elisabeth Kaplan, “We Are What We Collect, We Collect What We Are: Archives and the Construction of Identity” in The American Archivist v. 63 (Spring/Summer 2000): 126-151; 147.

[22].  Ericson, 187.

[23].  Faye Phillips, “Developing Collecting Policies for Manuscript Collections” in The American Archivist v. 47 (Winter 1984): 30-42, 32.

[24].  “NMJHS Archives Program” New Mexico Jewish Historical Society, Administrative Records, New Mexico State Records Center and Archives, 1988-052, Box 13, Folder 8 (S. Campbell, President Correspondence 1987-1991).

[25].  “NMJHS Archives Program” New Mexico Jewish Historical Society, Administrative Records, New Mexico State Records Center and Archives, 1988-052, Box 13, Folder 8 (S. Campbell, President Correspondence 1987-1991).

[26].  New Mexico Jewish Historical Society. “Archive” accessed on May 26, 2009.

[27].  Timothy L. Ericson, “At the “rim of creative dissatisfaction”: Archivists and Acquisition Development” in American Archival Studies: Readings in Theory and Practice, ed. by Randall C. Jimerson (Chicago: Society for American Archivists, 2000), 177-192; 179.

[28].  Frank Boles, Selecting and Appraising Archives and Manuscripts (Chicago: SAA, 2005), 64.

[29].  Samuels, 210.

[30].  Richard Kesner, “Archival Collection Development: Building a Successful Acquisitions Program” in A Modern Archives Reader: Basic Readings on Archival Theory and Practice, ed, by Maygene F. Daniels and Timothy Walch (Washington D.C.; National Archives and Records Administration, 2004), 114-123;117.

[31].  Sontag, 111.

[32].  Mona Hernandez, “A Tribute to Cary Herz” from HaLapid Winter 2009. Accessed online at:

[33].  Susan Sontag, On Photography (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977): 4.

[34].  (Underlined in Original Text) Beverly Becker,  “Newsletter Proposal” March 23, 1987. Minutes and Agendas (1986-1989) in New Mexico Jewish Historical Society, Administrative Records, New Mexico State Records Center and Archives, 1988-052, Box 13, Folder 6.

[35].  Bloch, 434.

[36].  Marcus, 115.

[37].  Joyce Hoffman to NMJHS. April 8, 1991. Correspondence, Campbell, Pres. (1990-1991) in New Mexico Jewish Historical Society, Administrative Records, New Mexico State Records Center and Archives, 1988-052, Box 13, Folder 9.

[38].  Suzan Campbell to Joyce Hoffman. June 24, 1991. Correspondence, Campbell, Pres. (1990-1991) in New Mexico Jewish Historical Society, Administrative Records, New Mexico State Records Center and Archives, 1988-052, Box 13, Folder 9.

[39].  Dr. Frances Hernandez to NMJHS. Correspondence, Campbell, Pres. (1990-1991) in New Mexico Jewish Historical Society, Administrative Records, New Mexico State Records Center and Archives, 1988-052, Box 13, Folder 9. For record, the letter also included “She is survived by her daughter, Elsa Altshool, and granddaughter, Janet Altshool. You should ask Elsa to do a complete profile on her mother, one of the most remarkable Doña Ana County this century.”

[40].  Elsa Altshool to NMJHS. Correspondence, Campbell, Pres. (1990-1991) in New Mexico Jewish Historical Society, Administrative Records, New Mexico State Records Center and Archives, 1988-052, Box 13, Folder 9. The corrections were “The Women’s Improvement Association was formed about 10 years before my mother’s birth (author emphasized) in Sedalia, Mo. The League of Women Voters formed just after my mother graduated from college and was working in Chicago. The library, here was started in the 1920s while my mother was working in San Francisco. The cemetery was established by the Masons. I’m unaware of any women who are members. It was established before my mother’s birth. My grandmother, Amalia Freudenthal was active in starting the park, not my mother. Although active in AAUW during the period that she fought for women’s testamentary rights (1940-1960) she had not been a member for 25 years before her death.”

[41].  Harriet Rochlin to Susan Campbell. January 10, 1992. Correspondence, Campbell, Pres. (1990-1991) in New Mexico Jewish Historical Society, Administrative Records, New Mexico State Records Center and Archives, 1988-052, Box 13, Folder 9.

[42].  Susan Campbell to Harriet Rochlin. February 12, 1992. Correspondence, Campbell, Pres. (1990-1991) in New Mexico Jewish Historical Society, Administrative Records, New Mexico State Records Center and Archives, 1988-052, Box 13, Folder 9.

[43].  Christine Bold, The WPA Guides: Mapping America (University Press of Mississippi; Jackson, 1999), xv.

[44].  Jerrold Hirsch, Portrait of America: A Cultural History of the Federal Writers’ Project (University of North Carolina: Chapel Hill, 2003).

[45].   In a letter from M.W. Royso to all the State Directors this issue is outlined: “Regardless of how few Greeks there are in your state, it is important that you give us the information asked for in the manual. Our job is to cover the Greeks, no matter how few there are, in order to make it a nation-wide study… You will have considerable aid in this work from the local Greeks. Requests are being sent to all Greek communities” (May 22, 1939, WPA Files 149. Box 15) Social History Ethnic Groups- 1936-1939) 1959-232 Works Projects Administration Collection, New Mexico Records Center and Archives. While this information may have been relevant in many states, Greek communities were relatively small in New Mexico. Las Vegas had thirteen Greek residents.

[46]. Daniel M. Fox, “The Achievement of the Federal Writers’ Project” in American Quarterly Vo. 13, No. 1 (Spring 1961), 3-19, 8.

[47]. C. McGinley, Carter, Otis. “Racial Elements” October 18, 1937 in Works Projects Administration Collection, Box 15, File 149-Social History Ethnic Groups, New Mexico State Records Center and Archives.

[48]. William Toll, “Horace M. Kallen: Pluralism and the American Jewish Identity” in American Jewish History v85 (1997):57-74.

[49]. William Toll, 57-74.

[50].  Jonathan D. Sarna, American Judaism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004), xiii.

[51]. Las Vegas Daily Optic, Wednesday, December 28, 1988, page 1.

[52].  NM Registered Cultural Properties by County: San Miguel, accessed online at:

[53].  James Mafchir to Robert Gonzales, January 14, 1989. Correspondence- Mafchir (1986-1991) in New Mexico Jewish Historical Society, Administrative Records, New Mexico State Records Center and Archives, 1988-052, Box 13, Folder 12.

[54].  Robert Gonzales to James Mafchir, January 20, 1989. Correspondence- Mafchir (1986-1991) in New Mexico Jewish Historical Society, Administrative Records, New Mexico State Records Center and Archives, 1988-052, Box 13, Folder 12.

[55].  Corinne P Sze, Fairview Cemetery. The New Mexico Digital History Project

[56].  Kevin Proffitt, “The American Jewish Archives: Documenting and Preserving the American Jewish Experience” in Ethnic Forum: bulletin of ethnic studies and ethnic bibliography v5 (1985): 20-29.

[57].  Wulf Kansteiner, “Finding Meaning in Memory: A Methodological Critique of Collective Memory Studies” in History and Theory, Vol. 41, No. 2 (May, 2002), pp. 179-197. Stable URL:, p. 180.

[58].  Jimerson, 254.

[59] Richard J. Cox, “Making the Records Speak: Archival Appraisal, Memory, Preservation and Collecting”in American Archivist Vol. 64, No. 2, Fall/Winter 2001, 394-404, pg. 396.