Life’s Rich Pageant

By - Jul 1st, 2003 02:52 pm
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By Andrew Muchin

The memory is nearly 40 years old, yet it’s vivid and intense: I’m seated with my father and grandfather in a wooden half-pew at the back of Anshe Poale Zedek Synagogue in Manitowoc. Both the men’s pews before me and the women’s to my right are filled with worshippers dressed in their best clothing. Every man wears a black skullcap. Every woman sports a fancy bonnet or has clipped a square of black lace to her sculpted hair. The worshippers recite and sing Hebrew prayers and chat in hushed tones.

Even as a child, I know most of the 150 people who are gathered for a major Jewish holiday. My friends from religious school are seated with their parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and even great-grandparents. And 20 of them are from my extended family, comprising four generations.

The traditionally observant congregation is a true community, with all of the warm acceptance and occasional lack of privacy that the term implies. As a six-year-old, I don’t know much about Judaism, but seated with my people at the synagogue, the amber light from tall stained glass windows bathing the sanctuary, I feel part of something larger than myself.

The demise of small town Jewish culture

In those baby-boom years, Manitowoc was one of 14 small Wisconsin cities with a synagogue and active Jewish community. Just 25 years earlier, that number was 20. As the late attorney Leonard Loeb, a native of Watertown, once told me, “You used to be able to travel the entire state and never eat treif,” or non-kosher food.

In my lifetime, a fragment of the Jewish people’s 4,000-year history — those active, optimistic times I remember so fondly in Manitowoc — has been replaced by a sense of semi-doom. These days, the entire Jewish community couldn’t fill two pews in the sanctuary.

I’m part of the problem. I haven’t lived in Manitowoc since my family moved to Milwaukee in 1970. Like me, most of my religious school classmates have left. Meanwhile, the majority of the worshippers I recall have died. There’s little economic or Jewish communal rationale for young Jewish families to stay in Manitowoc or move in. Manitowoc Jewry, like the communities in Fond du Lac and Sheboygan, is slowly dying of attrition.

How soon those three populations will duplicate the demise of congregations in Arpin, Ashland, Hurley, Marinette, Stevens Point and Superior is not clear, but the handwriting is on the wall, to paraphrase Hebrew scripture (Daniel 5:5).

A past filled with colorful characters

Small-town Wisconsin’s Jewish communities — which produced Harry Houdini (maybe the most famous man of his time), writer Edna Ferber, State Treasurer Solomon Levitan, Major League outfielder Morrie Arnovich, Green Bay Packers co-founder Nate Abrams, Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.); several rabbis; and many of the state’s most important industrialists — are no longer a staple of the Badger State.

I may be front-man for a statewide Jewish history project, but I’m far from Manitowoc’s most interesting or influential Jew. The front-runners are painter/sculptor/retired Ripon College professor Lester Schwartz; the late Rudy Rotter, a dentist who has more than 15,000 pieces of his art displayed in his Manitowoc Museum of Sculpture; my late uncle Jacob Muchin, who worked for the Roosevelt administration during the New Deal; and another uncle, Arden Muchin, a retired attorney who has become synonymous with Jewish life in Manitowoc.

Wisconsin’s “Little Jerusalem”

And biased as I may be, Manitowoc Jewry’s story doesn’t compare to that of Sheboygan, a town once known to Jews nationwide as “Little Jerusalem.” Sheboygan Jewry numbered 1,000; many of them religiously observant, in the early 20th century. Sheboygan had a Jewish neighborhood concentrated around Geele Ave. in the city’s north side. Besides three Orthodox synagogues, the area contained kosher meat markets (including one operated by the father of comedian Jackie Mason, who was born Yakov Maza in Sheboygan), a religious school and a secular Yiddish library/school/clubhouse. Sheboygan Jews had established local outposts of the B’nai B’rith fraternal organization, the Zionist Organization of America, the Young Women’s Hebrew Association, the AZA boys’ fraternal organization and the Boy Scouts.

Superior has a similar Jewish history. The traditional Jewish community exceeded 200 before World War II and included Morrie “Scooter” Arnovich, who played minor league baseball in his home town and then patrolled the outfield for three Major League teams from 1936-41 and 1946. The local synagogue closed in 1995, and the remaining handful of Jews attends services in nearby Duluth.

The ecstasy and the agony: Packers patriarch and lousy soil

Wisconsin’s other Jewish sports hero is Nate Abrams, a Jewish immigrant cattle dealer and football enthusiast whose city football team became the Packers in 1919, with Abrams’ blessing. Credit for founding the Packers goes to Abrams’ friend, Curly Lambeau, but there’s no doubt that Abrams was sole owner of the Packers in the early 1920s when his loan to Lambeau kept the team afloat.

In those same years, Jews were failing to sustain an experimental Jewish agricultural settlement in Arpin, a central Wisconsin town. In 1904, with the backing of Milwaukee industrialist A.W. Rich, seven newly arrived Russian Jewish families moved to Arpin to turn 720 acres of rocky soil into the Zionist dream of land worked successfully by Jews. The settlement grew to 15 families and even housed Wood County’s only synagogue. The settlement closed in 1922, the victim of frigid winters, lousy soil and few Jewish social opportunities for children.

A thousand other tales to tell

I don’t have room here to tell you about “Uncle Sol” Levitan, the peddler and New Glarus merchant turned beloved state treasurer in the 1920s and 1930s; or Russ Feingold’s early days in Janesville; or manufacturer L.E. Phillips, founder of Presto manufacturing in Eau Claire.

These stories — and thousands of others — constitute more than a chapter of Jewish history. They are an integral part of our state’s heritage that will be preserved only through the efforts of the Wisconsin Small Jewish Communities History Project and the many volunteers — Jewish and non-Jewish — who are contributing their time, memories and resources.

If you have information to share or know of someone who does, please contact the Wisconsin Small Jewish Communities History Project at (414) 963-4135 or wsjl@execpc.com. The stories of Jews who lived and worked in more than 130 communities statewide deserve to be preserved.

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