I’m convinced if you’re a Milwaukee-born Jew, we’re related. We’re family, not just in the broad Jewish familial ancestral, patriarchal sense, which is also important, but literally, we’re cousins.
This actually should come as no surprise to any Jew who lives in Milwaukee. Meeting a newfound Milwaukee cousin might not happen every day, but it occurs more regularly than one might think.
As a child I’d dine with my Auntie Phyllis Blackman (of Glendale). Almost every time we went into a restaurant, Auntie Phyllis would point out to me, “Do you see that lady? Do you see that man? That’s a cousin.” Auntie Phyllis wasn’t embellishing; she’d tell me exactly how and through whom we’re related.
My wife, Ellen Becker (of Whitefish Bay), sits on a bench outside our son’s school while he climbs on the playground at Cumberland School in Whitefish Bay. There, Ellen became friendly with a woman named Margery Krueger, another Whitefish Bay resident, who watches over her neighbor’s kids at the playground.
Ellen introduced me to Margery on a sunny day after school. In the process of Ellen and Margery’s conversations, they discovered they are Jewish.
As I fancy myself a writer, I happened to have a rough draft of a Jewish article I was working on in my pocket. I wanted a more objective opinion than my wife could offer. So I shared my writing with Margery, despite just having met her for the first time. We exchanged emails so she could follow-up with comments about my writing.
Margery emailed the next day, not to comment on my article, but to ask, “Are you related to Muriel Becker?”
Muriel Becker (formerly of Fox Point) is in fact my grandmother, my father’s mother, who married my grandfather, Ed Sweet. Margery is related to Ed, and hence Margery and I are cousins. Ellen and Margery are now close friends (and relatives).
I know what you’re thinking: “Wait a minute, Margery is technically a really ‘distant’ cousin.”
But I take issue with the word “distant.” We’re family, period. We’re connected. And if we dug a little deeper, we’d discover we’re related to so many more Milwaukee cousins.
My wife and I belong to a synagogue on the East Side of Milwaukee called The Shul East. On a Shabbat afternoon, I was watching my son play on the synagogue’s playground while I overheard a second grade girl say, “I’m going to see my cousin A. J. [Langer] later.”
I thought to myself, “Wait a minute, I’m also related to A. J.” I told this out-loud to the second grader and later to her mother, Mindy Forbes (of Milwaukee), and lo and behold we’re related.
Although Mindy and I have been friends for many years previously, we never knew we had this connection. A. J. and I are related through my Auntie Phyllis’ husband, Uncle Stu. A.J.’s grandmother and Uncle Stu’s mother are sisters.
Recently, Mindy, A. J. and I enjoyed a Shabbat day meal together at the home of Rabbi Yisroel and Rebbetzin B. Devorah Shmotkin (of Milwaukee). As all of us sat around the kitchen table, Mindy was telling how she and A.J. are related, and I piped in that I’m also related. Rebbetzin Shmotkin grinned and said, “Only in Milwaukee.”
I asked permission to use the name of everyone who was mentioned in this article, and when I described this writing endeavor, everyone “related” to it. Every person said how true it is that this phenomenon happens in Milwaukee.
In addition, everyone I spoke with had their own stories of how “chance” acquaintances led to the discovery of newfound Milwaukee cousins.
Our Milwaukee is a microcosm of the Jewish people as a whole. You may have heard the notion that everyone in the world is just six degrees removed from knowing each other. Between Jews, there is no degree of separation. That patriarchal connection I referred to is just as real as the closeness I feel to Margery, A. J. and Mindy.
What’s true of a family is also true of the Milwaukee Jewish community. We don’t always agree, we may even at times be contentious with each other, but when peeled back to its essence, there’s no escaping, we’re family.
And that profoundly means something. For me, it’s being thankful to be called a Milwaukee Jew.
By the way, if you happen to be one of those rare Milwaukee Jews who wasn’t actually born here (like my wife whom I imported from our second homeland, Florida), stick around a few years. I’ll see you on the other side of the marriage canopy.
Love, your Cousin Josh.
Joshua Becker is a Spanish teacher for Shorewood Public Schools and a freelance writer. His website is joshuabecker.info.