When I tell East Coast Jews that I’m from New Mexico, the first question out of their mouths is invariably, “Are there Jews in New Mexico?” Once I’ve quashed the temptation to shoot back, “What do YOU think?” I go on to explain. Yes, there are Jews in New Mexico. Yes, there is a synagogue in Los Alamos, where I grew up. No, it isn’t Reform — it is unaffiliated, a small community’s one-size-fits-all congregation, which, when I lived there, tended toward “traditional egalitarian” (a phrase I had never heard before moving to the East Coast).
Now that I’ve lived “back East” for a decade, I’ve been reflecting on some amazing facets of Jewish life in New Mexico. There’s the character of small Jewish communities on the “periphery”: the internal diversity, the absence of a formally incorporated Jewish non-profit infrastructure, the robust participation of individual Jews in civil society and ecumenical organizations — interfaith work without an interfaith consciousness.
There’s the particular history of New Mexico’s community of anusim (also known as crypto-Jews, hidden Jews, conversos, or, pejoratively, as marranos), families of Hispanic descent with Jewish roots dating to before the Spanish Inquisition. And then there’s a phenomenon that is quite unexpected: New Mexico has proved quite the breeding ground for some of the American Jewish community’s most innovative, dynamic female leadership.
This is the topic of a 2013 dissertation out of the University of New Mexico department of anthropology: “Storied Lives in a Living Tradition: Women Rabbis and Jewish Community in 21st Century New Mexico,” by Dr. Miria Kano. Kano conducted extensive interviews with five of New Mexico’s women rabbis: Shefa Gold, Lynn Gottlieb, Min Kantrowitz, Malka Drucker and Deborah Brin. Kano relates the incredible personal and professional journeys of each woman, interspersing anecdotes with meditations on the nature of narrative, the evolving role of women in the rabbinate, and the geographic and cultural context of their work in New Mexico.
“What they have in common is that they’re all trailblazers,” Kano told me. “By virtue of who they are, each one of them reveals a different angle of the living tradition. Through their leadership, they have created spaces in Judaism that didn’t exist before.” She described each of the five: “Lynn is passionate activist, committed at every level of her being. Shefa is a mystic, who reveals things that are felt, not seen — she allows people to become vulnerable to transformation. Min is a brilliant academic, a teacher who can make knowledge accessible to community. Malka brings tradition to life in a contemporary way, so that it can be a resource for those she serves. Deborah is a stable, caring, loving counselor — the bedrock of her community.”
Having had the good fortune to study closely with two of these rabbis, and being at least cursorily acquainted with the work of the other three, I can testify to the truth of Kano’s claims. Indeed, the women rabbis of New Mexico are an extraordinarily creative, iconoclastic and accomplished bunch. But the question that I was most curious about is one to which Kano did not dedicate much ink — namely, what is it about New Mexico that provides such a rich enviroment for this crop of exceptional women rabbis?
Kano pointed out that New Mexico, like the American frontier more generally, has historically served as a “site of women’s self-reinvention,” citing figures such as Mabel Dodge Luhan and Georgia O’Keeffe. “There’s less social regulation, fewer checks and balances than in the major urban centers. And that allows for maximum creativity,” she said.
On the other hand, Kano was quick to caution that New Mexico hasn’t always been an easy place for women rabbis to do their work. “To some extent, these women were creative, not out of desire, but out of necessity. Before they came along, there wasn’t space for female leaders — let alone radical female leaders — in the organized Jewish community in New Mexico,” she said, noting that, in addition to the success stories, her subjects also received a fair amount of pushback from New Mexico’s mainstream Jewish institutions.
Jewish women’s leadership in New Mexico is not limited to the work of Kano’s five interview subjects. A quick perusal of the Jewish Federation of New Mexico’s monthly newspaper, The New Mexico Jewish Link, turns up far more articles about Jewish women in leadership than Jewish men. This spring, The Link has featured articles about Linda Friedman (the outgoing Federation president), Joanne Fine (retired chief communications officer of United Way of Central New Mexico), Robin Hopkins (Bernalillo County sheriff’s deputy, who is recovering from gunshot wounds she sustained in the line of duty last October), Hazan Cindy Freedman of HaMakom Santa Fe (who recently received cantorial smicha from ALEPH), and Erika Rimson (executive director of the Jewish Community Endowment Foundation of New Mexico), among others.
From my own childhood in New Mexico, I vividly remember the ubiquitous art by Diana Bryer, whose paintings integrating Jewish and New Mexican motifs ornamented notecards, calendars and even wall clocks. Many other Jewish artists have relocated to make their homes in New Mexico — prominent among them is the feminist multimedia artist Judy Chicago. Mystery novelist Faye Kellerman owns a house with author husband Jonathan in Santa Fe, where they spend time writing when they need a break from their other home in Los Angeles.
After reading Kano’s dissertation, I spoke with Rabbis Gold and Gottlieb about their experiences living and working in the “land of enchantment.” Gold spoke about her connection to the glorious desert landscape. “Even as a little girl in New Jersey, I dreamt about New Mexico,” she said. “There was this longing for wild spaciousness, for the wide open sky.” She emphasized the centrality of the earth’s daily and yearly cycles in Jewish tradition: “There’s this idea that Jewish life flows from community. But in the cities, you’re inside all the time, you’re in the world that you’ve created, on the pavement or on a screen. You lose touch with the vastness of creation — which is the subject of so many of the psalms. To live my Judaism, I need to be connected with the phases of the moon, the seasons, the sunrise and sunset, which are the basis of the Jewish prayer cycle. From my house in Jemez Springs, I get to look out the window and see this grand view of the valleys, and I have the immediate sense that God is speaking to me through nature.”
Gottlieb had a more prosaic attitude. “I’m not looking for great revelations — I’m not on that kind of spiritual quest. Maybe I’m too slow-witted for that,” she joked. “Just let me gaze out at the vistas and smell the piñon smoke. Give me a good bowl of green chile stew, and that’s revelation enough for me.”
All five of Kano’s rabbis grew up outside of New Mexico and migrated there as adults (although, to her delight, Gottlieb was actually conceived in New Mexico). I spoke with Kano about the East Coast fetishization of the Southwest — “such a beautiful landscape,” New Yorkers always croon, after they get done asking me if there are any Jews there. “There’s a fantasy of triracial harmony,” Kano said. “The image is of whites, Hispanics and Native Americans living together in perfect accord — never mind the African-American, Vietnamese and Muslim populations, who also have a significant presence.”
Sometimes the Wild West fantasy turns sour. “The state’s economy depends on tourism, but locals still get annoyed when the tourists pour in for Santa Fe Indian Market,” said Kano. I remember from my own childhood how we used to scoff at the East Coast intruders, the heavily made-up women with their chunky “Southwestern-style” turquoise jewelry, and the men wearing extravagant cowboy hats without any trace of irony. “Some of ‘my’ rabbis may be from the East Coast, but they’re not like that,” Kano assured me. (On the other hand, the 2002 book “Rabbis: The Many Faces of Judaism” features Illinois native Joe Black, who at the time was rabbi of Albuquerque’s Congregation Albert, wearing a cowboy hat and standing next to a horse.)
“They’re transplants to the area, but they’re doing it right,” said Kano of Gold and Gottlieb. “I would describe them as bearers of great cultural humility. They came ready to learn and to serve, and they were received well by the communities here.”
Gottlieb in particular was profoundly involved in the local community. (She now lives in Berkeley, California.) During our conversation, she regaled me with tales of her involvement in many of New Mexico’s political controversies, including those surrounding the storage of nuclear waste on Mescalero Apache land, the construction of roads through the Petroglyph National Monument, and the erection of a statue of Juan de Oñate, a Spanish conquistador who led a brutal massacre against Acoma Pueblo in 1598.
In addition to her participation in local politics, Gottlieb also rallied diverse communities of Albuquerqueans around issues of national import. After the tragic events of September 11, 2001, she organized a Muslim-Jewish Peace Walk with Imam Abdul Rauf Campos Marquetti, which inspired similar events across the country.
One Shabbat in 2002, Gottlieb’s congregation, Nahalat Shalom of Albuquerque, hosted over 300 members of the Hiroshima Flame Walk. After an interfaith ceremony that integrated Jewish, Native American and Buddhist spiritual traditions, 40 of the walkers spent the night sleeping in the Nahalat Shalom sanctuary. “That was a special event,” she said, “but that kind of specialness was expected at Nahalat Shalom. We did stuff like that all the time.”
Gottlieb is also unusual among rabbis of Ashkenazi descent for her work with the Sephardic community, including anusim in the process of exploring their Jewish roots. Responding to the presence of Jews with Sephardic heritage in the Nahalat Shalom community, Gottlieb worked with interested community members to develop a monthly “Sephardic Shabbat,” and to incorporate Sephardic traditions into annual holiday celebrations. She also promoted Ashkenazi culture, founding KlezmerQuerque, an annual klezmer music and dance festival in Albuquerque.
Gold, in contrast, spoke about her conscious decision to focus her rabbinical work outside of the state — she travels widely, offering creative services and workshops emphasizing the use of sacred chant and energetic practices in Jewish prayer. “New Mexico is not my rabbinate,” she said, “and that’s by design. I didn’t want to have to be available all the time, to be on call for lifecycle events or for the chevra kadisha. It’s healthier for me to be off-duty when I’m at home.”
But that doesn’t mean she’s not involved in the local community. “There are three places where people hang out in Jemez Springs,” she said. “The library, the art gallery and the coffee shop. And when I need a break from working from home, I go out and hang out with whoever’s around.” She said that she sees her neighborhood (called “Area 3”) as a microcosm of the world. “I organize a gathering once a year. I figure, if we can make peace here, we can make peace anywhere. And,” she laughed, “if we can’t make peace in Area 3, then we might as well just give up on the planet!”
Gold also organizes interfaith rituals, including a yearly Earth Day blessing and a “gratefulness circle” at Thanksgiving. “I consider myself the chief rabbi of Jemez Springs,” she said. “I’ve trained people to tell me ‘Shabbat Shalom’ on Friday, and I take my [non-Jewish] neighbors to the hot springs and lead them in a pre-Shabbat mikveh ritual.”
Comparisons are sometimes made between New Mexico’s desert expanses and the Israeli landscape, as a way of explaining the mysterious allure of the New Mexican terrain. But, Gold said, “The similarity to Israel is not really what it’s about for me. The ancient Jewish tradition is to be connected to the land that you’re living in. I want to feel myself at home wherever I am, so I try to practice that. This is what has happened throughout Jewish history: Jewish lives are transplanted into new soil, and new kinds of Jewish lives grow out of that soil.”
“This is what I’ve learned from the Native American community,” she added. “What you’re eating right now on your plate, the ground that you’re standing on right now — that’s what is holy. I want my Jewish practice to be like that — very this-worldly, not otherworldly at all. The Jewish idea of exile is not healthy. I think it’s a bit insane to pray for rain when it’s not the rainy season in the land I live in,” Gold said, alluding to the traditional practice of praying for rain according to the dates of rainy season in the Middle East.
“Many people are drawn to New Mexico for spiritual reasons — because they are on a quest, and they distrust authority,” said Kano. “They’re attracted to the climate of spiritual openness here, and the culture of talking about ultimate questions.”
Gold also said that attitudes in the West make Judaism more attractive and accessible to people who don’t feel like they fit the mold. “If I had spent my life in New Jersey, I probably wouldn’t have stayed Jewish,” she said. “But I moved out West, where there was less pressure to be Jewish in a particular way and more permission to engage creatively. At that point, I could recognize Judaism’s unique offerings, since it was no longer the norm. And then I realized it could be fun to be Jewish.”
For her part, Gottlieb remarked that the lower cost of living in New Mexico was an asset to someone who wanted to live an activist life. “I’ve been paid by institutions at certain points in my life,” she said, “but I’ve never been willing to toe the political line in order to prevent institutions from deciding to stop paying me. It’s a lot easier to live that way in New Mexico, where I was able to buy a gorgeous house for $80,000, than it would be in New York City.”
According to Kano, none of the rabbis currently serving in New Mexico are New Mexico natives. I spoke with Melissa Klein of Philadelphia, who is one of the small number of rabbis born and raised in New Mexico, and quite possibly the only ordained rabbi hailing from Los Alamos.
“I don’t see myself moving back to New Mexico at this point,” said Klein. “I’m grateful to be living in the vibrant Jewish community of Mt. Airy in Philadelphia, where my son has friends whose parents are also rabbis.” She added, “Growing up as the only Jewish kid in my class at school was stressful and lonely.”
She does appreciate the perspective that growing up in New Mexico gave her, however: “Because our community in Los Alamos was small, we had to figure out how to work together and support each other, despite the differences in our backgrounds and approaches to Judaism. This experience has given me the faith and confidence to build bridges across difference in the communities in which I’ve served.”
Klein also spoke of the specific experience of growing up as a child of Los Alamos, a small town whose raison d’être is the Los Alamos National Laboratory. “I was tracked to become a scientist, like many other children of Los Alamos, but that didn’t call to me,” she said. “I yearned to connect to mystery, rather than focusing on understanding it and transforming it, as scientists do.”
Klein says she returns to New Mexico from time to time. She led an interfaith healing ritual in 2000 following the Cerro Grande Fire, and led High Holiday services for the Los Alamos Jewish Center in 2012, on the same bimah where she had celebrated her bat mitzvah in 1985.
“I grew up in New Mexico, and then I needed to leave in order to find a community that would support me in emerging as a rabbi,” Klein said. “This is in contrast to Shefa, who grew up in New Jersey and discovered Jemez Springs as a home that would nurture her to be her full self. We often need to leave home to discover where we belong.”
That certainly seems to be the case for the women rabbis of New Mexico — and come to think of it, for Jews throughout Jewish history, as well.
Ri J. Turner is a rabbinical student by day and a Yiddishist by night. She lives in Boston, MA and studies at Hebrew College and at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. She has blogged for Zeek, Lilith, and Torah Queeries.