Oral Family Histories
NMJHS has been actively engaged in the collection, preservation, and documenting New Mexico Jewish family histories for more than 20 years. These histories were published in a series of fifteen Pioneer Family Pamphlets.
NMJHS decided to resume collecting Jewish family oral histories for several important reasons. While there are various documents held by various families, often in shoe boxes or unorganized files written materials simply don’t tell the whole story. It is the oral interview that often brings to light the history that written documents don’t tell. The memories, recollections, anecdotes, and insights make the history real. They also bring out the nuances of the lives and careers of the family members. Skilled interviewers who are trained to elucidate information by asking the relevant follow-on questions to open new threads of the family history and events to record.
Realizing that there were more family histories to record, Dr. Noel Pugach, Professor Emeritus, UNM and longtime NMJHS member began a series of new family interviews in 2017. To date, those family history interviewees are:
- Marian Silver, Santa Fe
- Kathryn Rubin formerly of Raton, N.M., and Colorado Springs
- Lillian ‘Sis’ & Michael Druxman, formerly of Las Cruces, now Albuquerque
- Si and Becky Goldman, Albuquerque
- Lance Bell, Santa Fe
- Jon Bell, Albuquerque
- Debra Wechter Friedman, formerly Las Cruces now Albuquerque
- Howard Friedman, Albuquerque
- Lionel Specter
- Leba Freed Pierce. Albuquerque
The interview with Marian Silver encapsulates the story of three generations of New Mexico Jews who played a significant role in the economic, social, civic, and religious life in Santa Fe. Members of the family revitalized commercial life on the Plaza with the establishment of the White House by the first generation (Uhlfelder-Blatt) and the Guarantee by the second (Petchesky). It is particularly striking that women occupied a central place in running these enterprises. Marian (Joanna Uhlfelder’s granddaughter) married Abe Silver from New Orleans and they operated the Guarantee (which took over the White House) until they sold it 1986. None of their children were interested in taking it over.
Meanwhile, Marian and Abe were founders of Temple Beth Shalom, Santa Fe’s first synagogue, and served in various positions of leadership. The Silvers were major supporters of the Santa Fe Opera and Abe served on its board of Directors for many years and was Emeritus Director until 2015. They were devoted to the Boys and Girls Clubs, the Museum of New Mexico Foundation, and many other civic and charitable institutions. They were honored as Santa Fe Living Treasures in 2008. Abe Silver died in May 2015.
Marian Silver Interview: Click here
A conversation with Kathryn Rubin yields a wealth of information and insight into the story of New Mexico Jewry. Kathryn was the daughter of Louis (Ludwig) and Mina (Kahn) Heyman. She was born and raised in Albuquerque in 1923 and knew many of the early Jewish families not only in the city, but also in Gallup and Santa Fe, notably the large Kahn clan. She married Leon Rubin and settled in Raton with him as his family owned a mercantile business in Raton. Barney later took over the store and over the years the Rubins established several important commercial enterprises in Raton. They were the town’s leading merchants. The Rubins were also members of Temple Aaron in Trinidad, to which they were devoted. They played a vital role in leading the congregation and preserving the impressive building.
Kathryn Rubin Interview: Click here
“The Family of Sam Klein”
This interview with the daughter and grandson of Sam Klein provides an important introduction to the history of the Las Cruces Jewish community. Sam Klein was born in New York, but was attracted to the Southwest, first living in Douglas, Arizona and then settling permanently in Las Cruces. Sam laid the foundation for its business community by planting his popular furniture store on Main Street. He was later joined by his cousin, Joe Rosenfeld, who built the Boston Store, a department store, and then his son-in-law, Jay Druxman who had a men’s clothing store in the area. For some thirty years Sam Klein served in various political offices: county commissioner, member of Las Cruces City Council, and mayor of Las Cruces. Sam and his wife Frances were also among the founders and leaders of Congregation Beth El, a Reform synagogue.
The Druxmans’ Interview: Click here
NMJHS received a generous grant from the New Mexico Humanities Council to undertake four new oral family histories project entitled: “Telling the Stories: The Personal Accounts of New Mexico Jews in Business and Community Life.”
The interviews of family members and their descendants are included in this section to share the stories and contributions they made to 20th Century New Mexico Jewish history and communities.
Si and Becky Goldman
Both Si and Becky Goldman arrived in the American Midwest as immigrant children from Russia at the turn of the last century. Their stories mirror the experiences of multitudes of Jewish families who departed the Old Country fleeing persecution and seeking a better way of life. Si grew up in Denver, and Becky in Evansville, Indiana. They were married in 1939, moved to Albuquerque in 1940, and immediately joined the close-knit Albuquerque Jewish community. In 1944, Si bought a general store from Sam Shalit and converted it to western wear and uniforms and named the store Simon’s. It became a fixture on Central Avenue – the place for New Mexicans from city and town to go for jeans, boots, and snap-button shirts. They were both life-long members of Congregation B’nai Israel, chairmen of the Federation and the UJA drive, and were a driving force in the local efforts to establish the State of Israel, in 1948. Si also served as president of the congregation, and as B’nai B’rith Man of the Year. He was honored by the Jewish Welfare Fund and his Employees gave him the “Best Boss in the World Award.” Simon’s Western Wear, with its iconic neon sign of a wrangler complete with horse and lasso, was sold years later to his employees, many of whom worked there for 30 years and more.
Si and Betty Goldman Family Interview: Click Here
The Bell Family of Santa Fe
Lance and Jon Bell
Morris Bell and his brother Barney came to New Mexico from Lithuania via Denver in 1916. Through hard work and good management, they graduated from peddling to storekeeping in Espanola. Within a few years they had eight stores in New Mexico. In 1926, they opened a general store in Santa Fe. The Great Depression forced them to close most of their outlets. But they held out in Santa Fe and turned it into a thriving enterprise that was continued by the next generation of Bells, notably Irving. The Bells represented the last generation of prominent Jewish merchants on the Plaza in Santa Fe. The business lasted until 1984 as the family abandoned merchandising. The Bells were leading philanthropists in the Santa Fe Jewish community and were among the founders of its first synagogue, Temple Beth Shalom.
Lance Bell Interview: Click Here
Jon Bell Interview: Click Here
Debra Wechter Friedman
This interview provides important insight into the early Jewish community in Las Cruces. Debra’s parents owned and operated the Music Box in Downtown Las Cruces, which greatly advanced music education in southern New Mexico. The Music Box was a mainstay of the local business community. Her father, Mark Wechter, brought serious music to the city and region, arranging for major artists to perform there. Her parents played a critical role in fashioning the Jewish community and founding Temple Beth El. Debra moved to Albuquerque and worked in real estate for many years. She was youngest associate hired by Hooten Stahl Realty, then the leading firm in the field. She is married to Howard Friedman.
Debra Wechter Friedman Interview: Click Here
Howard Friedman is a scion of an important family that left its mark Albuquerque business and Jewish community. Howard’s grandfather formed Philips Mercantile, a leading wholesaler in Central New Mexico. His father and uncle established Value House, a pioneer catalog showroom. The family was Orthodox in orientation and were major supporters of Congregation B’nai Israel. Howard managed the operations of Value House until it was disbanded. He then started a new career with Prudential Insurance, becoming a member of the Million Dollar Roundtable. He is now semi-retired. Howard served as president of B’nai Israel. He is currently on the Finance Committee of the Jewish Community Foundation. He is married is Debra Wechter Friedman.
Howard Friedman Interview: Click Here
David and Kate Spector. Their son, Lionel Spector
In an age when “no body left home” – the Depression 1930’s, Dave and Kate took a chance, leaving steady jobs in Denver and headed on to Albuquerque in a Chevy sedan with little more than their feather bed in tow.
The opportunity to take charge of the New Mexico branch of the Zeon Sign Company beckoned.
With his partner, Wilbur Jones, Dave built Zeon into the “oldest and largest full-service sign company” producing nearly all the neon signs in the state. Their signs on the new motels along the Mother Road, Route 66, lured bone-weary travelers to roadside motels and main street cafes.
As Albuquerque grew, the Jewish community grew along with it. In the 1940’s, Dave and Kate joined Congregation B’nai Israel. Dave became a prominent member of the community and was instrumental in the $75,000.00 purchase of land in the city’s Northeast heights for the Jewish Federation, where the JCC and the David Spector Shalom House for the elderly now stand.
When Dave died in 1969, son Lionel took over the business, made it prosper even more, and ushered in the age of LED lighting to largely replace neon Today, Lionel fondly remembers the early years when deals were sealed with a handshake and the businessmen in Albuquerque worked together for the benefit of the community.
Lionel Spector Interview: Click Here
Leba Freed Pierce
The arrival in Albuquerque of the Freed family by rail in 1920 and the closing of the city’s steam locomotive repair shops in 1977 are bookends for both the commercial and cultural history of the city.
In search of a dry climate, Leba Freed’s grandfather and her father Max, uncles Ben and Phil, and sister Pearl arrived at the Alvarado station and almost immediately founded a niche market for Native American produced goods – Navajo saddle blankets and rugs and Pueblo silver jewelry – which they bought in trading posts and sold nationally in department stores and museums. The business eventually expanded as the Freed brothers became major importers of shells and coral from the world over.
The iconic Freed Bros store, opened in 1971 in the heart of Downtown Albuquerque, flanking the Kimo Theater, brought locals, tourists and dealers alike to purchase exotic items – beads, tapestries, jewelry, and all sorts of one of a kind items. The Jewish merchants on both sides of the Central Avenue were part of the flourishing growth of Albuquerque in mid-century New Mexico. The Freed brothers store has been shuttered since the late 1980’s
With the closing of the old Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railways (BNSF) and facilities Leba turned her attention to the now abandoned railyards. Her vision of a Transportation Museum to house the old locomotives that brought the Freeds to Albuquerque over 50 years earlier became her passion, as she has devoted herself to collecting and displaying the treasures that reflect the transportation history of her beloved city.
Leba Freed Pierce Interview: Click Here