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 http://www.zianet.com/lascrucesbulletin/archive/10.24.96.settlers.htm 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.''