Last night at sundown, Hanukkah began. And while it may not be the dominant December holiday in New Mexico, it is still celebrated by many — and it serves to remind us that Jews have been an important part of who we are as New Mexicans.
Hanukkah commemorates the Second Temple in Jerusalem, established after a warrior band of Jews, the Maccabees, defeated the Syrian king Antiochus about 2,500 years ago. After driving out the Syrians, the Jews took back the Temple of Jerusalem, finding only enough oil to keep the “Eternal Light” shining for one day. But, miraculously, the oil lasted eight days. That’s why Hanukkah, which is also known as the Festival of Lights, is celebrated over the course of eight days — with special songs, gifts and foods.
In the mid and latter years of the 19th century, European Jews immigrated into New Mexico. According to the book “Jewish Pioneers of New Mexico,” compiled and edited by Tomas Jaehn, many of them became successful merchants and tradesmen in this new land — and, as a result, had a tremendous impact on New Mexico’s development.
Charles Ilfeld was one. Described in the book as “the patriarch of this pioneering merchant family,” he came to New Mexico from Germany in 1865, to escape Prussian conscription. His older brother, Herman Ilfeld, was already doing in business in Santa Fe, and got Charles got his start with him. But by 1867, Charles Ilfeld was in business with the respected Jewish trader Adolph Letcher in Taos when, perceiving a settlement about 70 miles away as ripe for doing business, they loaded up their merchandise on 75 burros and moved to Las Vegas.
Much more is written about the Ilfelds in New Mexico; their presence in Las Vegas and elsewhere was significant indeed. And of course, because of their success in business, as well as their tremendous contributions to the community, the Ilfeld name is still commonplace around here — from the beautifully adorned auditorium at Highlands University to the new addition being completed (with a remodeling of the old Ilfeld dry goods and grocery store) by the Plaza Hotel.
So on this special day in Jewish life, let’s remember a people and a culture that helped — as so many other peoples did — build this city, region and state. The list of Jewish contributors to this diverse environment is ample reason to celebrate our diversity with a joyous enunciation, Happy Hanukkah!