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Land of Enchantment

As New Mexico marks 100 years of statehood, one woman looks back on her great-aunt and -uncle, who helped spur a century of Jewish life there

Naomi Sandweiss
March 07, 2012
Courtesy of the author
Meyer & Meyer clothing store in downtown Albuquerque in the 1940s.Courtesy of the author
Courtesy of the author
Meyer & Meyer clothing store in downtown Albuquerque in the 1940s.Courtesy of the author

As people across New Mexico commemorate 100 years of statehood in 2012, I’d like to celebrate two people who helped secure a century of Jewish life in my home state: David and Annie Meyer, my great-uncle and great-aunt.

In 1912, when much of the nation still regarded the Southwest as a land of outlaws and Indian raiders, Louis and David Meyer, Yiddish-speaking brothers from Latvia, made their way to New Mexico, the nation’s newest state. With their wives, sisters Yetta and Annie, the pious tailors settled in Albuquerque. The bustling town of 15,000 supported a hospital, university, streetlights, and several moving-picture theaters. And despite the fact that Jews made up less than 1 percent of the population, New Mexico’s largest city had already elected two Jewish mayors.

Albuquerque’s Jewish life revolved around the Reform synagogue, established pre-statehood in 1897 by German-born Jews who arrived in the 1880s, when the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway transformed the sleepy agricultural village into a commercial center. Congregation Albert—named by a local merchant in exchange for a winning auction bid of $250—held Friday night services in its spacious Moorish-style building in Albuquerque’s downtown commercial district.

After statehood came, Moise Bergman was the town’s only rabbi. Educated at Hebrew Union College, Rabbi Bergman used his pulpit to persuade Albuquerque’s leaders to quarantine the town during the influenza epidemic of 1918, much to the distress of his business-minded congregants. Bergman was immortalized by New Mexico author Erna Fergusson, who recorded an amusing exchange between the rabbi and his Catholic counterpart, Father Mandelari:

The [charity] committee had done its job and found extra money on hand. It met to decide what to do with the surplus cash. Father Mandelari, dean of Albuquerque’s clergymen and beloved by people of all denominations, rose. “Gentlemen and ladies, I move you that this extra money be used to buy a Christmas present for Rabbi Bergman.” The rabbi, equally popular and quick, though much younger, leapt to his feet. “No, no,” he cried. “I offer a substitute motion. I move, Mr. Chairman, that we apply this surplus to the purchase of a wedding present for Father Mandelari.”

While anti-Semitism was minimal, Jewish life in Albuquerque wasn’t always easy for observant Jews like the Meyers. The couples were astonished to see a rabbi in a clerical collar and worshipers without tallit. Tired of ordering kosher meats to be delivered from Denver by train, Louis and Yetta eventually moved out of state.

But David and Annie remained in Albuquerque. There they transformed their tailor shop into a fine men’s clothing store, involving themselves in numerous business and civic organizations, including the Masons, Shriners, and United Charities.

Along with other recently arrived Jews from Eastern and Central Europe, the soft-spoken couple began to organize religious services in living rooms and rented halls. In 1921, David Meyer was one of five men to charter Albuquerque’s second synagogue, Congregation B’nai Israel. Without a building or funds to hire a rabbi, B’nai Israel relied on laypeople to lead services. Annie helped to found the Ladies Auxiliary, an enthusiastic group of women who organized rummage sales and fundraisers featuring high-profile performers, such as Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington. (Luckily, Albuquerque was on the main East-West train line.) Dedicated to serving kosher meals at congregational events, Annie and other Auxiliary members prepared home-cooked kosher dishes, schlepping them to a rented hall, month after month.

David and Annie’s only child, Jack, whose first languages were Yiddish and Spanish, attended the congregation’s makeshift Hebrew school and celebrated his bar mitzvah in 1924. Finally, in 1937, the Auxiliary purchased a lot, and in 1941, 20 years after the congregation was founded, David and Annie joined other congregants in celebrating B’nai Israel’s new white stucco synagogue, complete with a kosher kitchen.

The couple remained devoted members of the shul until their deaths.

A hundred years after New Mexico’s statehood and the Meyers’ arrival, Albuquerque today encompasses a variety of Jewish expression, from Crypto-Jewish to Chabad-Lubavitch. What would David and Annie make of the existence of Albuquerque’s Jewish day school and newly built Jewish Community Center, the annual klezmer festival, or Spanish-language services? I’d like to think that my great-aunt and -uncle would celebrate modern Albuquerque’s many Jewish options.

And while my own Jewish observance differs significantly from Uncle Dave and Aunt Annie’s (I am a member of a Reform congregation), I deeply admire their stamina and devotion to their ideals. In remote locales such as New Mexico, it is all too easy for newcomers to abandon the past completely or to self-segregate, never fully involving themselves in the community. But as Uncle Dave, Aunt Annie, and their contemporaries illustrated a century ago, it is also quite possible to build a life in which traditions live and breathe alongside full engagement with the larger community.

Naomi Sandweiss is the author of Jewish Albuquerque, and a past president of the New Mexico Jewish Historical Society.

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