Jewish Culture Thriving In The High Desert

Jewish Culture Thriving In The High Desert

Cool adobe nights, fiery hot chili peppers: in Santa Fe, some things are classics. As 2012 winds down, New Mexico is celebrating its first 100 years of statehood, and the emphasis is on what makes this region timeless.

Much of the festivity takes place in Santa Fe, where the contrast between New Mexico’s relative youth and the city’s 400-year-old heritage is particularly sharp. A century ago, after all, the Palace of the Governors was already three centuries into life as America’s oldest public building; the plaza had bustled for generations with artisans and traders.

But in a town that has long been a magnet for artists and pioneers, there’s always something new. Recent years have added a Jewish film festival, a crop of Judaica galleries and a local history museum to the scene.

Santa Fe is only the fourth-largest city in New Mexico, a state not known for its metropolises to begin with. Nonetheless, this town of fewer than 70,000 — home to one of the country’s most vibrant art scenes — has had an outsize hand in both the growth and the celebrations of New Mexican culture. And as New Mexicans turn a spotlight on their heritage, the role played by generations of Santa Fe Jews comes into focus.

Observant visitors to the city’s fabled St. Francis Cathedral, an ornate landmark on the central plaza, will notice a small Hebrew inscription tucked into the façade; according to local lore, it’s a tribute to the generosity of Jewish merchant patrons.

The Palace of the Governors is now part of a complex that includes the recently opened New Mexico History Museum. The Jewish imprint is evident here, too — from the Spiegelberg Shop, named for one of Santa Fe’s most prominent Jewish merchant families, to the Alfred and Ethel Herzstein Gallery. Endowed by local Jewish philanthropists, the gallery is currently showing “Contemplative Spaces,” a photographic tribute to New Mexican sacred sites.

A hundred years ago, many of the merchants around the plaza and the Palace were German-Jewish settlers. To this day, many of the businesses are Jewish-owned, and the artisan tradition is represented by locals like Jim Cohen, a former D.C. lawyer whose Jewish-themed metalworking — including mezuzahs, candlesticks and jewelry – has an earthy, sculptural aesthetic.

Nearby at the New Mexico Museum of Art, the centennial will be feted with a Nov. 9 concert that includes “Caprichos,” a commission by Roberto Sierra for Ensemble Music New Mexico/Chatter 20-21, along with “Pierrot Lunaire,” a classic by German-Jewish composer Arnold Schoenberg, which premiered a century ago this month. A work by the contemporary musician John Adams rounds out a program befitting the state’s pioneer legacy.

Until a few years ago, the NMMA was known as the Museum of Fine Arts; the new name better reflects its mission as repository of the state’s singular arts heritage. “It’s About Time: 14,000 Years of Art in New Mexico,” a centennial event on view into 2014, is an ambitious survey of Southwestern art from paleo and pueblo times through Spanish colonialism to the era of statehood. The show highlights the multifaceted legacy of this desert region, including the contributions of major Jewish artists such as Bruce Nauman, who have worked here. Just east of the city center, Canyon Road is the picturesque hub of Santa Fe’s gallery scene. There’s quite a bit of Judaica and many Jewish artists here in the shadow of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, where ceramics, turquoise, metalworking and desert landscapes are perennials.

You can easily lose a day among the quaint adobes on Canyon Road, where street musicians and coffee shops invite lingering. Off the Wall Gallery, at No. 616, is popular both for its Judaica and its pleasant café.

Just a few doors down is the studio/gallery of Sara Novenson, a New York-trained painter whose modern takes on Jewish folk art have put her work in collections around the world. This is the place to see her popular Women in the Bible series, alongside giclee prints of Israeli and New Mexican landscapes, some adorned with Hebrew prayers.

Visual art may be what Santa Fe is best known for, but cinema is raising its profile here. October saw the opening of the Santa Fe Jewish Film Festival’s third season, after a sellout first season and double the audience last year.

Rather than an intensive weeklong event, the festival screens Jewish-themed works every month or two at the Center for Contemporary Arts; a movie might be followed by a live Skype interview with the filmmaker or a discussion over bagels. Coming up in November is “Brothers,” a provocative film about the Israeli military-service debate.

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