Message #7:
From: AzTeC SW Archaeology SIG
To:   "'Matthias Giessler'" 
Subject: Jewish Settlers in the Mesilla Valley
Date: Thu, 02 Jan 97 12:32:00 MST
Encoding: 53 TEXT

Jewish settlers played big role in Mesilla Valley
To Elsa Freudenthal Altshool, Mesilla Valley history is peopled with movers 
and shakers, scoundrels and scalawags. Most of them Jewish.  She hopes to 
shed some light on the Jewish contribution to southern New Mexico at the 
annual conference of the New Mexico Jewish Historical Society, which will be 
in Las Cruces this year. Altshool is co-chair of the conference.  Take Henry 
Lesinsky. The German-born adventurer, after failing in a number of 
get-rich-quick schemes, had settled in New Mexico to help a relation with 
his carting business. Lesinsky happened to own a couple of worthless copper 
mines in Arizona. When Edison's light bulb suddenly made copper wire 
valuable, Lesinsky imported most of his extended family to help him with the 
business -- including Altshool's grandfather.  Also in the family was Willi 
Jacobi. ''He worked for Las Cruces and conspired to rob the city of its 
whole treasury of $75,'' Altshool said. Jacobi fled with the cash to 
California, where he became a judge. ''It took my family years to pay off 
the $75,'' she said. ''The city minutes are full of it.''  But the Mesilla 
Valley didn't have a Jewish community as such: Plans for the first 
congregation were not started until the early 1960s, Altshool said, and the 
first Jewish Bible school only preceded that by about five years.  The 
Jewish presence in Las Cruces was so low-key, Altshool said, that her father 
used to tell her he didn't know who was Jewish until they died.  ''That 
meant he knew how to read the gravestones,'' she said. The Star of David was 
not a common symbol on headstones before the 1920s; more  often, the markers 
would be decorated with an illustration of a quill pen or an open book -- or 
by draperies, symbolizing the curtains that covered the books of the 
Testament.  ''The emphasis was on learning'' in Jewish families, Altshool 
said. A frontier family that put emphasis on learning to read was probably 
Jewish, she said.  Although they didn't parade the fact, Altshool's family 
knew perfectly well they were Jewish. The conference will also examine the 
story of Mesilla Valley's crypto-Jews -- descendants of refugees from the 
Spanish Inquisition. One theory goes that as much as 80 percent of the 
Spanish settlers in the New World were fleeing the Inquisition, Altshool 
said.  These conversos kept their life-threatening religious secret to 
themselves, not even passing the information on to their children, who were 
brought up Catholic. But the heritage did live on in the form of up-to-now 
unexplainable family tradition -- not traveling on Saturdays, for example -- 
that mimicked Jewish law.  A featured speaker will be Frances Hernandez of 
the University of Texas at El Paso, author of ''History of Crypto-Jews in 
Southern New Mexico.'' Another speaker will be Las Cruces author Denise 
Chavez, who discovered Jewish roots in her own family.  According to Claire 
Grossman, president of the New Mexico Jewish Historical Society, southern 
New Mexico was particularly tolerant of its Jewish settlers. ''People were 
known as individuals, rather than as members of a specific ethnic group,'' 
Grossman writes in the conference program.  That's true as far as it goes, 
Altshool said. But the main difference in southern New Mexico, she said, was 
not that they were ''tolerated'' but that nobody cared if they were Jewish 
or not.  ''Nobody ever hid the fact of where our families came from or what 
they did,'' she said. The religion simply ''was not germane.''