A Coy­ote Ate My Rabbi

How the Amer­i­can South­west Has Pro­vided a Sur­pris­ingly Spir­i­tual En­vi­ron­ment for the Rab­binate

Forward Magazine - - Front Page - By Ri J. Turner

New Mex­ico, a sur­pris­ing source of in­no­va­tive re­li­gious lead­ers, is the lat­est stop in our 50 states se­ries.

W hen 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 one­size-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

‘What they have in com­mon is they’re all trail­blaz­ers.’

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 out- side 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 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 “South­west­ern­style” turquoise jew­elry, and the men wear­ing ex­trav­a­gant cowboy hats without any trace of irony. “Some of ‘my’ rab-

‘These women were cre­ative, not out of de­sire, but out of ne­ces­sity.’

bis 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 Mus­limJewish Peace Walk with Imam Ab­dul Rauf Cam­pos Mar­quetti, which in­spired sim­i­lar 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 seaalso son 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 in­stievents tu­tions 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.



Off the Road: Rabbi Melissa Klein rides her bike dur­ing va­ca­tion from Re­con­struc­tion­ist Rab­bini­cal School, circa 2003.


In­volv­ing the Com­mu­nity: Rabbi Lynn Got­tlieb tells a Hanukkah story at her con­gre­ga­tion Na­ha­lat Shalom, circa 1998.

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