The first thing you may notice about Tucson is the profusion of flowering plants, blossoming cactus and exotically shaped greenery. “I expected it to be dry and arid, like Phoenix,” commented my mother in surprise.
The variety of flora is just one of many surprises that await in Tucson, in southern Arizona near the Mexican border. Another is the way this Sun Belt city of about a half-million can feel like a small town. From the compact lanes of its adobe historic district to its multi-generational Jewish community, Tucson has a sense of history and rootedness unusual in a land of transplants and instant suburbs.
My mother and I were impressed at how easily a family friend fell back into her Jewish social circle in Tucson, decades after a corporate move to Connecticut. Many in that circle had themselves left the city for a time, but Tucson is not an easy place to forget, and one by one they came back. They were artists who had missed the brilliant Southwestern desert light, artisans with pride in a tradition of local handcrafts, young professionals eager to be part of a vibrant, cosmopolitan Jewish scene.
That scene is especially lively during the mild Arizona winter. Last week, families from Tucson’s dozen-plus synagogues poured into the Jewish History Museum for kosher egg rolls and a program on the Jewish tradition of Chinese food at Christmas. Plates of orange chicken circulated in what was once the Stone Avenue Temple, a 1910 Mission-style building that is now Jewish Tucson’s historic centerpiece.
The chatter turned to the 21st annual Tucson International Jewish Film Festival, which is coming up Jan. 12-22. In a town so focused on aesthetics — from the ubiquitous Hopi dolls and Zuni inlaid jewelry to a cultivated landscape of desert gardens — it’s only natural that arts are a big part of Jewish expression here.
Many of this year’s films revolve around stories of Jewish exile, migration and resettlement. It’s a theme dear to the heart of Tucsonians, who pride themselves on a pioneer spirit at America’s southwestern frontier. (Already, you can see baseball hats around town emblazoned with “Shalom Pardner,” sold to commemorate Arizona’s 2012 centennial.)
The festival opens with “The Round Up,” a 2010 French drama about the rounding up of Paris Jews in 1942. From Germany, there’s “Eichmann’s End,” the story of the hunt for the Nazi killer after his flight to Buenos Aires, and from Canada “My Father Joe,” about European Jewish refugees making a new life in 1940s Montreal.
A highlight is “The Jazz Baroness,” the fascinating documentary by Hannah Rothschild about her great-aunt, a European Jewish aristocrat who mysteriously fled her comfortable postwar family life for a love affair with bebop piano great Thelonius Monk in New York City. And the festival ends this year with “Fabulous Faygeleh,” a series of Jewish films on gay and lesbian topics.
Migrations and new beginnings are a defining feature of Western identity, all the more so among Tucson’s Jews — who arrived, at various parts of the 19th and 20th Centuries, from turbulent Europe, chilly New York and even points south. Many of these journeys will be recounted during the History Museum’s Jewish Storytelling Festival, a month-long event opening in February with speaker Nancy K. Miller — a New Yorker whose own search for family heritage took her to Tucson and across oceans.
The museum is getting into Arizona’s festive mood with “Celebrating Arizona: The Centennial Exhibition.” Vintage photos of Tucson’s original Jewish businesses (some flying the 48-star flag) are part of a tribute to the state’s 100th anniversary and the role played by Jews. Last year, after the Jan. 8 shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, we read about one of those businesses, El Campo Tire Warehouses, where she had been president and CEO. Giffords’ grandfather, the son of a rabbi, founded it in the 1940s.
Stone Avenue is where Tucson Jewry began, but the center of gravity now lies a bit farther north in the Catalina Mountain foothills. That’s where you’ll find the Tucson Jewish Community Center — and once again, you’re in for surprises.
In a landscape whose jagged mesas and bent saguaro cacti have fascinated so many artists, perhaps it’s natural to come across one of the finest gatherings of sculpture in the American Southwest. Bronze, marble, steel mesh, clay, wire and wood: these materials are twisted into a spectacular array of shapes in the JCC’s sculpture garden, where both a permanent collection and pieces from the 3rd Annual Juried Exhibition are well worth a look. Indoors, the Fine Art Gallery is showing photography that reflects this community’s diverse outlook: “Synagogues of Mexico” and “Faces of Hope: Portraits of Liberia.”
While in the foothills, head over to the DeGrazia Gallery in the Sun — a landmark of Southwestern art, architecture and natural beauty. Born in Territorial Arizona in 1909, artist Ted DeGrazia bought the land in the 1950s with his wife, New York sculptor Marion Sheret.
Together they built the site — 10 acres of cactus and craggy desert trees in the shadow of the sandy Catalina peaks — into a major gallery space. The team built a Mission-style adobe by hand, drying the mud clay in the Arizona sun, patting it meticulously into the structure that today houses 15,000 rotating works of the couple’s art.
Oils and watercolors, ceramics and jewelry: the artistic output spans a lifetime of loving attention to local culture and color. Once a ranch on the edge of the vast blue sky, the DeGrazia Gallery today is part of greater Tucson and a pilgrimage for fans of art in its Western context.