Seeking out Jewish enclaves during my travels, especially in little hamlets in Arizona, is like panning for gold: I never know what treasures will be discovered beneath the surface.
This past March 29, 56 adventurers from Tucson boarded a bus that would take us to Patagonia for a visit to the “Jewish flock.” Nature gave us a break on our trip, co-sponsored by Hadassah and The Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona’s Northwest Division. With temps in the upper 60s, the weather was ideal for exploring and making a few discoveries of the serendipitous kind.
During the hour or so we spent en route to Patagonia, Mary Vuke, a former resident of the city, whetted our appetites for the area by giving us an overview of its history as well as some fun facts. First inhabited by Native Americans, visited in the late 1600s by Father Kino, Patagonia grew as a mining and ranching community; it became part of the United States in 1853 through the Gadsden Purchase from Mexico. According to Vuke, There are several theories about how Patagonia got its name, including one that grizzly bears inhabited the neighboring mountains back in the old days. The bears had large feet. The word for foot in Spanish is pata, hence the name.
With the building of a railway through the city in 1882, Patagonia saw its heyday. At present, although the city boasts the oldest continuously occupied school in Arizona, it now has fewer than 1,000 inhabitants. Between eight and 12 of them are Jews. We learned a lot from the little talks given by four of the Jewish residents, including their backgrounds and contributions to the community, which are considerable.
Adriennne Halpert told us that she spent 21 years in Tucson before deciding to live in a smaller community and chose Patagonia, where she opened Global Arts Gallery, 315 McKeown Ave. The spacious location whose motto is, “Treasures from around the corner and around the world,” features jewelry, other accessories, folk art and much more.
The main gallery opens into Lillian’s Closet, named for Halpert’s late mother. The upbeat owner stated, “As a young girl, Lillian, my very artful and stylish mother, awakened my eye to beauty.” In Lillian’s Closet, one finds an extensive “eclection” of ladies’ clothing and shoes.
Another speaker, Abbie Zeltzer, is director of the Patagonia library. Founded in 1957 by the Women’s Club, it is located in the old Patagonia Hotel, which dates from the early l900s and is the oldest public building still standing in the city. Cheers rang out amongst our group as Zeltzer mentioned that she is originally from Brooklyn.
This friendly librarian, who has been residing in Patagonia for about 40 years, can be justifiably proud of the independent town library, which boasts 19,000 in collections; these include not only books, movies and maps but also a seed lending library, the Semilloteca. Here I found dozens of jars of seeds, including tepary beans, numerous varieties of corn and even sunflower. Folks can borrow seeds, plant them and then replenish the jar when the seeds have matured.
The library’s adjoining Legacy Garden is a delightful place to read, relax and even have lunch. One can unwind in the shade of an old mulberry tree surrounded by the beauty of irises, lilacs, roses and more.
During our conversation, Zeltzer told me how the small but mighty Jewish community gathers every year during the High Holidays for a Tashlich ceremony (the “casting away” of sins) at Sonoita Creek. Virtually miraculous experiences in nature have occurred during these gatherings. One year, for example, the group was engulfed in a migration of thousands of yellow sulphur butterflies, symbolic to me of the group’s own “migration” to a higher plane in the coming year.
All too soon, it was time to board the bus. I hope to return to Patagonia soon and check out the artistry of our other speakers:
• Paula Wittner was born in Washington, D.C., and is a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design. She moved to Patagonia 34 years ago with her husband. Wittner is a modern symbolist, whose oils feature a variety of whimsical characters. In November 2015, 108 of her paintings were accepted for a show at the Museo de Arte de Nogales in Sonora, Mexico; she was the first “foreigner” to exhibit there.
• Sol Lieberman, originally from the Catskills, went to the University of Arizona. He is a sculptor, using primarily found objects as material. He named this body of work “rubble with a cause.”
After an enjoyable lunch at the locally owned Wisdom Café in Tumacacori, our group made a final stop in Tubac to look around on our own and do a little shopping. I read that Tubac has 0.0 percent Jews. Well, that’s not exactly true. I actually know several Jews who live in the city.
Dr. Michael Grousd, originally from Chicago, a semi-retired oral and maxillofacial surgeon (he jokingly refers to his title as “quite a mouthful”) moved there with his wife from Chicago in 2009. “The peace and spirituality of the area resonated with us,” Grousd explained.
Enjoying life in Tubac, which includes golf, hiking and other leisurely activities, Grousd drives up to Tucson once a week to perform oral surgical procedures at a local dental office.
A friend of his, Marty Bronstein, originally from New York, moved to Tubac in 2009. He sells 20th-century Japanese wood block prints all over the world on his website, japanprints.com. Traveling to Japan on buying expeditions three times a year, Bronstein relishes his quiet time in Tubac. He reflected, “After living through winters in New York and Chicago for 55 years, I thought it was time to get a little sun and see the beauty of Arizona.”
As we said goodbye to our new Jewish friends from south of Tucson, we couldn’t help but feel that wherever Jews are, whatever our passions and pursuits, “We are one.”
Barbara Russek, a freelance writer who lives in Tucson, welcomes comments at email@example.com.