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Land of milk and Houdini: A Wisconsin Jewish heritage tour

By Andrew Muchin
Special to The Chronicle

August 31st, 2009

To learn about Swiss immigrants to Wisconsin, visit New Glarus. For the Welsh, it’s Mineral Point. Cedar Grove is the town for Dutch heritage. Belgians, not surprisingly, are remembered in the hamlet of Brussels.

To fully experience Wisconsin Jewish history, however, you must plan a statewide road trip. The Dairyland-scape is dotted with former synagogues large and small, all with intriguing histories. Jews are remembered in dedicated museums in Milwaukee and Stevens Point, at an apartment building near Hurley’s former red-light district and in business districts from Ashland to Beloit.

In the years since 1793, Jews have lived in more than 300 Wisconsin communities as hardy settlers, ubiquitous main-street merchants, dedicated public servants, your occasional felon and drinkers of their fair share of milk, though not necessarily with their meat meals.

 
Start your engines

Our Wisconsin Jewish heritage tour begins in the state’s oldest community. Green Bay was a growing riverside settlement of British and French fur traders when Jacob Franks arrived in 1792 or ‘93 representing a Montreal fur company. In 1797, he went into business for himself, calling for his nephew, John Lawe of Montreal, to clerk for him.

You can literally step into their rustic life at Heritage Hill State Historical Park in Green Bay. The living-history museum has preserved a fur trader’s cabin built circa 1800 on land that neighbored Lawe’s.

It’s not hard to imagine that Franks and Lawe visited the combination home and trading post built with hand-hewn logs. Shelves hold replicas of the jewelry, jugs of alcohol and tools that the traders would have exchanged for beaver, otter and mink pelts.

A traveler described Franks and Lawe as “Jews extensively embarked in the fur trade.” They weren’t extensively embarked in Judaism, though Lawe heeded the Torah’s call to pursue justice as a member of the Wisconsin Territorial Legislature in 1836 and a justice of the peace.

To reflect on another pioneering Green Bay landsman, make the short drive to the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame at Lambeau Field.

The sleek, interactive museum features several photos of Nate Abrams, a Jewish cattle dealer who at 5 foot 4 inches was the shortest Packer in history. He appears in the 1919 team picture with fellow Green Bay Jew Charlie Sauber. In life-size photos of the earliest teams, Abrams is the little dark haired man usually peeking over a teammate’s shoulder.

Unfortunately, the museum ignores Abrams’ most important contributions to the Pack. You’ll find no information that he captained the Green Bay city team that arguably became the Packers or that he owned the Packers in the early 1920s when he lent his old friend Curly Lambeau $3,000 in exchange for title to the cash-strapped team. Lambeau continued to operate the Packers and bought back the team by raising money from the public.

For noncontroversial history, see the Hall of Fame silver plaque honoring all-pro lineman Charles “Buckets” Goldenberg, a Milwaukee Jew who played for the Pack from 1934-44 after starring at the University of Wisconsin.

 

Times were a-changin’

Let’s pause to consider how Wisconsin Jewry expanded from Jacob Franks to a peak of nearly 40,000 Jews before World War II and a current estimated population of 26,000.

From 1840-70, up to 2,000 Jews from Germany and, to a lesser extent, Hungary, settled in Wisconsin seeking economic opportunity and political and religious freedom. They established Wisconsin’s first Jewish communities in Milwaukee, Madison, La Crosse, Appleton and Wausau.

From 1881-1924, an estimated 15,000 Russian and Eastern European Jews came to Wisconsin, part of a migration of 2.25 million Jews to America. Also seeking opportunity and freedom, they dispersed throughout Wisconsin, establishing congregations in 23 communities,.

That century of transformation begins in the emerging trading and industrial center of Milwaukee. A handful of German Jews arrived in 1842. Within five years, the tribe had grown large enough to support worship services at homes and then above a grocery store. Congregations, cemeteries and benevolent societies soon followed as Milwaukee’s Jewish community rapidly assumed its permanent position as the state’s largest.

Milwaukee Jewry’s community-building, mercantile achievements and philanthropic tradition are on display at Jewish Museum Milwaukee. The modern facility blends photos, artifacts, charts and narrative to tell a multi-layered success story. A large, colorful tapestry designed by the acclaimed artist Marc Chagall symbolically tells of the Jewish people’s ups and downs.

Seeing the museum is essential to understanding Milwaukee’s first generations of Jews, since none of the city’s earliest synagogues remain. A plaque on the Milwaukee County Courthouse indicates that Congregation B’ne Jeshurun, founded in 1856, had its synagogue on that downtown site until 1927.

B’ne Jeshurun merged with Congregation Emanu-El to form Congregation Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun. The Reform Jews built a stately Greek Revival building at 2419 E. Kenwood Blvd. in 1927. The synagogue became the Helene Zelazo Center for the Arts of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 2000. The sanctuary-turned-concert-hall’s intricate original stained glass windows and a newer set of brightly colored windows remain.

The then-Orthodox Congregation Beth Israel erected a Moorish-style brick building in 1928 at 2432 N. Teutonia Ave. that still towers over its near north side neighborhood. The sanctuary seated hundreds, with women assigned to a balcony.

Beth Israel sold the building in 1960 to Greater Galilee Baptist Church, which has preserved the old sanctuary except for reworking the pulpit and covering two of the points on two large Stars of David windows.

 
Special synagogues

The heritage tour includes several more historic houses of worship. Madison’s Gates of Heaven Synagogue, a modest sandstone and beige brick building listed in the National Register of Historic Places, was built near the State Capitol in 1863. The Reform congregation disbanded a century ago, and the building has had a number of owners.

The Madison Parks Department moved the synagogue to James Madison Park in 1970 and rents the nearly empty building for parties and ceremonies, including alternative High Holy Day services. The only permanent interior piece is an ornately carved wooden ark (Torah cabinet) that came from Milwaukee’s old Congregation B’ne Jeshurun.

In Appleton, the former Temple Zion stands on its original lot at 320 N. Durkee St. The multi-gabled wooden structure, built in 1884, is home to Wahl Organbuilders.

In the former choir loft between the two front doors, a young Edna Ferber prayed, sang and took mental notes more than a century ago. The Pulitzer Prize-winning writer’s autobiography “A Peculiar Treasure” (1939) describes Appleton Jewry of the 1890s with  precise humor.

 If Ferber were to return, she’d recognize the red and gray exterior, restored to match the original colors, according to Ronald Wahl, who is supervising the building’s restoration. The Wahls also are repairing the house next door, which congregants built as a religious school. When you stop at the temple, knock on the door. If Wahl has time, he may show you around.

The building is an ironic link to another famous Jewish Appletonian: Harry Houdini. The renowned illusionist was born Erich Weiss in Budapest in 1874. His father, Mayer Samuel Weiss, became Appleton’s first rabbi in 1878. He was dismissed before Temple Zion opened. Congregants were embracing the emerging Reform movement’s English-language worship. Weiss preached in German.

The community hasn’t forgotten its most famous son. The History Museum at the Castle, operated by the Outagamie County Historical Society, presents “AKA Houdini,” an exhibit of some of the incredible accumulation of keys and tools Houdini used to free himself from handcuffs, chains, and jail cells.

The museum also features “Edna Ferber: Her Own Words,” a display of items from the writer’s life, including a photo of her father’s shop, My Store, whose name she disliked; first editions of her books; and two of her manual typewriters.

You can see her family’s well-kept former house on a walking tour as well as the elegant Hammel House, ex-home of Temple Zion leader and Appleton Mayor David Hammel. The museum provides a map.

 

Synagogue becomes museum

In Stevens Point, the former Beth Israel Synagogue is operated as a local Jewish museum by the Portage County Historical Society. The simple white wooden structure, recently listed in the National Register of Historic Places, was built in 1904.

The congregation left behind every prayer book, Torah scroll and ritual object when, due to declining membership, it deeded the synagogue and its land to the historical society in 1985.

Historical society leader Tim Siebert led efforts to preserve the building and create a museum of local religious life. Mark Seiler, a retired professor at UW-Stevens Point, has transformed the museum’s focus to the city’s Jews.

The former sanctuary displays religious objects, old pews, photos and artifacts documenting the Jews’ mercantile, social and religious lives. Seiler, who like Siebert is not Jewish, wrote a comprehensive history book, “The Jewish Community of Stevens Point” (2008, Portage County Historical Society).

The museum is open weekends and by appointment.

Another former synagogue can be found in the far northern city of Hurley, which was bordello central for the miners and loggers of northern Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula by 1890. An estimated 200 Jews lived in the city in the early 20th century, working mainly as merchants.

Hurley’s Jews built Sharey Zedek (Gates of Righteousness) synagogue in 1895 and used it until 1940, when the population dwindled to under 50. The building, sans its onion-shaped cupola, stands at the corner of Fourth Avenue and Division Street, a short walk from the old Silver Street bordellos.

A plaque marks the apartment building as the former home of Iron County’s only synagogue. The little house next door used to hold the mikvah (ritual bath).

The Iron County Historical Society displays a Torah cover, prayer book and other religious items used at Sharey Zedek. The exhibit was built and donated by Dr. Steven Heifetz of Minneapolis, a great-grandson of a onetime Hurley rabbi.

The Hurley and Stevens Point synagogues were two of dozens build statewide by Orthodox Jewish immigrants from Russia and Eastern Europe. They’re reminders of a small-town traditional Jewish lifestyle that has nearly disappeared. Six other communities have seen their traditional synagogues close with no liberal replacement: Antigo, Arpin, Ashland, Marinette, Monroe and Superior.

 

Not dying to visit?

Visiting a cemetery is rarely a top item on a vacation must-see list. Yet Jewish cemeteries are instructive, peaceful and (at least in Wisconsin) generally well kept. Twenty communities have at least one Jewish cemetery. Most hold more Jews than currently live in the city.

Superior Hebrew Cemetery is the final resting place of Morrie “Snooker” Arnovich, a Superior born and bred All Star outfielder for the Philadelphia Phillies in 1939 and the only Jewish major leaguer to call Wisconsin home.

Arnovich co-owned a Superior sporting goods store when he died in 1959. In fact, most small-town Wisconsin Jewish breadwinners before 1970 were merchants and entrepreneurs. Some of them made it very big.

The Milwaukee-based Marcus Corporation, a major player in Wisconsin’s movie and lodging businesses, took root in Ripon in 1935, when Ben Marcus established the Campus Theater in Ripon. Seventy-four years later, the facility still shows popular movies.

Driving around Eau Claire and the surrounding Chippewa Valley, you can’t help but notice the many institutions named for the late Lewis E. Phillips, the businessman who bought a small cookware company in 1939, marketed the Presto® pressure cooker and built the business into National Presto Industries, Inc.

Eau Claire is home to the L.E. Phillips Memorial Public Library, the L.E. Phillips Planetarium in the L.E. Phillips Science Hall at UW-Eau Claire and the L.E. Phillips Senior Center. The L.E. Phillips-Libertas Centers for alcoholism treatment serve Black River Falls, Chippewa Falls and Spooner.

From fur traders to rabbis to an outfielder, from synagogues to museums to cemeteries, Wisconsin Jewish history is as rich as a pail of fresh milk. Now that you know where to see it, hit the road, Yaakov.

Andrew Muchin is a freelance writer and director of programming for the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life in Jackson, Miss. This article is based on material developed as part of the Wisconsin Society for Jewish Learning’s Wisconsin Small Jewish Communities History Project, where the writer formerly served as director.