“Challah Rising in the Desert” begins with, well, with challah. Three guys are making challah in what looks like a dining hall and are talking about putting green chiles in their challah because, well, you know, they’re in New Mexico, and everyone in New Mexico loves green chiles.
It’s a little startling — wonder if it’s any good — but so is this entire documentary about Jews in New Mexico.
This funny film has more unusual characters than your average small Southern town. And everyone interviewed, save one or two people, wears the silver and turquoise jewelry found in the Southwest.
We hear from old hippies, chanting rabbis, former commune members, descendants of Spanish settlers who arrived in the 1600s and transplanted New Yorkers who like the wide-open West.
We meet people who are descended from Jews who vamoosed out of Spain during the Inquisition as conversos. Some of these descendants grew up attending Catholic churches but also lighting candles on Friday nights without knowing the origin of their traditions.
Some young women with breast cancer learned about their Jewish roots in a roundabout way: a genetic analysis revealed widespread occurrence in them of the BRCA gene mutation common to Jewish women.
We learn about Jewish merchants who arrived by wagon before the Civil War and eventually established stores in Albuquerque and Santa Fe, created cemeteries, and helped start congregations.
German transplant Solomon Spiegelberg, a successful Jewish businessman, and his brothers created a wholesale business that served New Mexico and the Southwest. As a friend of Bishop Jean Baptiste Lamy’s, Spiegelberg helped pay for the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi in Santa Fe.
When Spiegelberg decided to marry, he went to Germany and returned with his bride, Julia. The couple had eight children, but Julia never adjusted to life in the Southwest. Today, their mansion is a hotel and is, the owner says, haunted by Julia.
Atlanta Jewish Film Festival screenings: Feb. 3, 6:25 p.m., Springs; Feb. 11, 6:05 p.m., Springs