Story by Diane Joy Schmidt
When Paula Amar Schwartz first announced last year that she was going to make a feature- length ninety-minute documentary about the Jews of New Mexico, and call it Challah Rising in the Desert, and raise thousands of dollars to do it, responses ranged from polite encouragement to disbelief. Today many of us doubting Thomases are eating some crow, happily.
Challah Rising in the Desert: The Jews of New Mexico debuted in a thirty-minute work-in- progress screening to a full house during the spring meeting of the New Mexico Jewish Historical Society at the Jewish Community Center on Sunday afternoon, May 15. Before the film, Paula, a long-time community leader, poet, and, in an earlier incarnation in this life, behavioral psychologist, led the audience in the Shehechiyanu blessing, traditionally said whenever doing something for the first time in the New Year.
The Film’s Strands
Paula first enlisted and filmed the challah bakers of Congregation Albert, who in braiding the five-strand challah create the metaphor of the five major strands of Jewish life from colonial times to the present for the film:
Starting with the earliest strand, the Jews who fled north to New Mexico to escape the Inquisition in Mexico in the 1500’s and maintained their secrets over the centuries, three members of today’s Converso/Anusim/Crypto-Jewish community artfully tell their stories; and a narration from the 20 th century memoir of a hidden Jew, just found after decades lost among a rabbi’s papers.
Next strand: the German-Jewish pioneers who came up the Santa Fe Trail in the early 1800’s is told through the engaging story of the wealthy but unhappy Julia Staab, whose ghost today haunts the La Posada hotel, originally her home, told with archival photos and by her great-great- granddaughter, Hannah Nordhaus, whose nationally acclaimed historical biography of Julia, American Ghost, was just published.
For the third strand, the merchants who arrived in the latter part of the 1800’s, Paula negotiated a special interview with Governor Vallo of Acoma Pueblo, who graciously welcomed them to Sky City. In the 1880s Jewish German settler Solomon Bibo opened a mercantile there, learned the Keresan language, married into the tribe and was made governor, the only non-native ever to do so, to help protect their lands and dealing with the federal government,
The fourth strand, the professionals of the twentieth century, is told, so far, in interviews with a scientist who worked on the Manhattan Project with J. Robert Oppenheimer at Los Alamos, with physicist/rabbi Jack Schlacter at Los Alamos National Labs, and the fifth strand is the current Jewish community, which, Paula points out, stands on the shoulders of the first four, and which numbers upwards of 24,000 across the state, as revealed by the Federation’s 2014 population survey.
The film hopes to complete filming this August to include many more voices and New Mexico’s scenic locations, edit in the fall, and create the full feature-length 90 minute documentary, to be released in early December. “Everything about this has been beshert (meant to be)’” said Paula, taking a moment to reflect on the project. “If it continues this way, the money needed to complete the project will be found, and the Challah will rise,” she added with a twinkle in her eye.
Photos of crew on location at Julia Staab’s bedroom La Posada Hotel, Sky City Acoma Pueblo, archival photos: J. Robert Oppenheimer, center, Manhattan Project, Los Alamos; Julia and Abraham Staab, courtesy Paula Amar Schwartz.