Many people are surprised when they learn there were Jewish pioneers in places as far from big Eastern cities as Santa Fe, New Mexico. But there were German Jewish merchants there as early as the 1850s. One of those pioneering merchants was Bernard Seligman, the inspiration for Amy Bess Cohen’s newest family history novel, “Santa Fe Love Song.” Bernard was her great-great-grandfather, and her novel is based on her research of his life and that of her great-great-grandmother, Frances Nusbaum.
Cohen, an experienced family historian and genealogist in East Longmeadow, has spent 10 years researching her family and publishes a blog about her research at brotmanblog.com. She’s a natural born storyteller.
Her “Santa Fe Love Song” weaves together a vivid description of the settlement of the American Southwest during the mid-1800s with a warm and inspirational love story of a new immigrant from Germany and a woman born in Philadelphia.
Taken from Cohen’s own rich family history, the book carries the reader into the nascent world of Santa Fe through the eyes of her great-great-grandfather from the day he arrives in America, unable to speak a word of English, an ambitious and brave 19-year-old Jew from a small town in Germany.
With Bernard, we travel from Philadelphia into the rough and exquisite Southwest, along the Sante Fe Trail, via train, horseback, and wagon caravan, enduring Comanche raids, overpowering heat, vicious rainstorms, and runaway oxen, just to mention a few of the obstacles this hardy traveler faces and overcomes.
But it is Bernard’s loves that draw the reader into his world. First, it is his love of the exquisite beauty of Santa Fe and its surrounding mountains and plains that captivate the reader. But it is his love for Frances that offers the true soul of this beautifully written book. A fascinating story for any adult, it also presents a historical and stirring story for younger readers. A natural selection for book clubs with its page-turning events, it offers multiple topics for discussion.
This is a book not to be missed for its historical gift as well as its family story. The Jewishness of its characters never fades. Bernard’s first Yom Kippur in Santa Fe, the Mikvah Israel synagogue in Philadelphia, the struggle to observe Jewish holidays in a pueblo settlement in the New Mexico territory. Unquestionably, the fact that Cohen’s ancestors are Jews trying to form a Jewish life in a new world adds a warmly familiar flavor to her story.
Long after the last page is devoured, the story of Bernard and Frances Seligman and Santa Fe will linger, reminding its readers of an America of the past, filled with hope, optimism, hard work, and natural beauty that made our country what it is today. An extra treat is the sketches created by Cohen’s young grandsons, Nate and Remy. These charming drawings reinforce the family perspective while perfectly illustrating the old-fashioned beauty of the story itself.
Cohen, a graduate of Harvard Law School, taught contracts, copyright, trademarks, and antitrust at Western New England University School of Law for 32 years. She is married to Harvey Shrage, a professor at WNEU College of Business. They have two daughters and two grandsons.
“Santa Fe Love Song” is available on Amazon in both paperback ($15) and e-book ($10) format.