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'Chosen Towns' documents small town Wisconsin Jewish life

By Andrea Waxman
of The Chronicle staff

September 10th, 2008

UWM student Gary Donaldson (right) interviews Ed Elkon of Rhinelander for the new documentary film, "Chosen Towns: The Story of Jews in Wisconsin's Small Communities."

UWM student Gary Donaldson (right) interviews Ed Elkon of Rhinelander for the new documentary film, "Chosen Towns: The Story of Jews in Wisconsin's Small Communities."

Although he started off with the expectation that his organization’s research might find that Jews have lived in some 100 Wisconsin communities, a local historian has been surprised by evidence of Jews living in more than 300 villages, towns and cities throughout the state.

Most of the 300 towns have no Jews left in them, said Andrew Muchin, director of the Wisconsin Society for Jewish Learning’s Wisconsin Small Jewish Communities History Project.

“There are Jews, that I know of, in fewer than 100 communities right now and where there were synagogues in maybe 21 or 22 communities at the peak, outside of Milwaukee and Madison, I think it’s 11 now that have synagogues and some of them are, frankly, fading — synagogues  in aging communities.”

Muchin’s research will result in a soon-to-be-released documentary film, “Chosen Towns: The Story of Jews in Wisconsin’s Small Communities,” made in collaboration with docUWM.

The one-hour film will be aired statewide on Wednesday, Oct. 15, at 7 p.m. on both Wisconsin Public Television and Milwaukee Public Television. It can also be seen at eight public preview screenings in seven cities and towns around the state beginning Sept. 18 (see complete schedule below).

“Chosen Towns’ tells the story of the Jews of Wisconsin’s smaller communities through the voices of nine Jewish families spanning the breadth of the state and 150 years.

Many were merchants, some were farmers and others pursued other commercial endeavors including cattle brokering, and the wholesaling of furs and scrap metal. They lived in Arpin, Sheboygan, LaCrosse and Appleton, among other communities.

“These are very brave people,” Muchin said of the Jews who left larger communities in search of economic opportunities. “Even if you are Christian, just to move into a town and sort of gamble your future on people you don’t know…”

Though there were certainly experiences of anti-Semitism, “in general Jews found it a positive experience to live in small towns,” Muchin said.

 Collaborating with docUWM

The idea of a documentary film was not part of Muchin’s vision, initially, he said. Back in the mid-1950s, when WSJL was founded, one of its projects was to research state Jewish history, Muchin explained.

In 2001, then-WSJL-president Dan Weber put a committee together to resuscitate that project. Muchin first served as the committee chair and then was hired to direct the project.

Having grown up in “the hinterlands” of Manitowoc, and also having worked as the editor of The Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle for about a decade Muchin was well-suited to the task.

But he credits Howard Berliant, a member of the committee, for the idea of creating a documentary, after reading about Milwaukee documentary filmmaker Brad Lichtenstein in the Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle (issue of May 13, 2005).

Lichtenstein is the founder and director of docUWM, a documentary media center based in the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Peck School of the Arts Film Department. He also runs an independent documentary film company called 371 Productions.

When the Wisconsin Small Jewish Communities History Project approached him in 2005, Lichtenstein was just launching docUWM with the goal of teaching undergraduate and graduate film students how to make documentaries using projects that emerge from the community.

[“Brad] is an excellent filmmaker,” Muchin said, “He’s a brilliant guy. He’s a great teacher and a great motivator. He was absolutely the person to have on the professional side — on the filmmaking side.”

To fund the film, docUWM and WSJL requested and were awarded a two-year grant totaling $125,000 from the Helen Bader Foundation. They received additional support from The LE Phillips Family Foundation and The Lucy and Jack Rosenberg Philanthropic Fund.

Using several project models, Lichtenstein’s students make documentaries as course projects in filmmaking classes. “The project leader runs it like a professional production company,” Lichtenstein said.

In this case, eight students, none of whom are Jewish, began the project two years ago in the fall term of 2006. Muchin provided the initial research leads and directed the research on a continuing basis.

“And we leaned on him to find the music and images," Lichtenstein said. "We leaned on him quite a bit. We were talking and e-mailing on a weekly basis for two years."

Muchin and the committee, along with Kathy Jendusa, executive director of WSJL, worked with the students to evaluate the project throughout the filming and editing stages, Muchin said.

But the students mostly conducted the interviews and filming independently, sometimes traveling to the east and west coasts to meet with subjects.

Having reached this milestone, the project hopes to raise more funds to create a small Jewish communities curriculum for public and Jewish schools, a museum-quality portable exhibit that will travel throughout the state and possibly a book.

“Chosen Towns” will be aired statewide on Wednesday, Oct. 15, at 7 p.m. on both Wisconsin Public Television and Milwaukee Public Television.

Free public screenings, featuring a question-and-answer session with student filmmakers and local experts, will be held in seven cities prior to that date. Muchin and Lichtenstein will speak at the Milwaukee screenings.

The schedule is:

·      Thurs., Sept 18, 7 p.m. at Discovery World in Milwaukee (sponsored by MPTV)

·      Sun., Sept. 21, 2 p.m. at Mt. Sinai Congregation in Wausau (co-sponsored by WPTV)

·      Tues., Sept. 23, 7:30 p.m. at UW-Madison Memorial Union Play Circle (co-sponsored by UW Center for Jewish Studies and WPTV)

·      Thurs., Sept. 25, 7 p.m. at Moses Montefiore Synagogue in Appleton (co-sponsored by WPTV)

·      Sun., Sept. 28, 7 p.m. at Congregation Sons of Abraham in LaCrosse (co-sponsored by WPTV)

·      Thurs., Oct. 2, 7 p.m. at Beth Hillel Temple in Kenosha (co-sponsored by WPTV)

·      Mon., Oct. 6, 1 p.m. at Jewish Museum Milwaukee

·      Sun., Oct. 12, noon at Congregation Beth El in Sheboygan (co-sponsored by WPTV)