Hanukkah, which began Saturday night and lasts through Sunday, may not be the dominant December holiday in New Mexico; it is still celebrated by many and serves as a reminder that Jews have played an important role in New Mexico, and especially here in Las Vegas.
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, 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, and many of them became successful merchants and tradesmen. According to the book “Jewish Pioneers of New Mexico,” compiled and edited by Tomas Jaehn, they had a tremendous impact on New Mexico’s development.
Charles Ilfeld’s impact on Las Vegas is a prime example. Described in Jaehn’s 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 in business in Santa Fe, and Charles got his start with him. By 1867, however, 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 increased commercial activity, 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 was significant indeed. And of course, because of their success in business, they made outstanding contributions to the community. The Ilfeld name is still well known around here — from the beautifully adorned auditorium at Highlands University to the old dry goods and grocery store that’s now the eastern wing of Las Vegas’ Plaza Hotel.
So on this special week in Jewish life, let’s remember a people and culture that helped 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 Happy Hanukkah!