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Book on Milwaukee Jewry tells a ‘family story’

By Marie Rohde
Special to The Chronicle

October 15th, 2009

Historian John Gurda has written a new book about the history of Jewish Milwaukee.

Historian John Gurda has written a new book about the history of Jewish Milwaukee.

After three years in the making, John Gurda’s history of Jewish Milwaukee “One People, Many Paths” is complete.

Gurda, Milwaukee’s most prominent historian, has published 18 previous books ranging from the stories of companies and prominent families to the ambitious “Making of Milwaukee,” a history of the city that was made into a public television series.

His latest effort is the story of families, the profound Jewish influence on the city’s business, political and social lives.

Gurda says many of the prominent Milwaukeeans from “Making of Milwaukee” are contained in “One People, Many Paths: A History of Jewish Milwaukee” — Golda Meir, the late Israeli prime minister who was reared in Milwaukee; Lizzie Kander, author of the classic “The Settlement Cook Book”; Bud Selig, the baseball commissioner; and many others in the business and political communities.

However, Gurda says the book is more than a who’s who of the community.

“For the Jewish Community, this is a family story — where the family is from, how it changed and what it’s like today,” Gurda said. “For the non-Jewish community it’s a story of the scale of Jewish contribution to the life of the city. That’s a lot broader than most realize.”

Gurda will sign copies of the book Tuesday, Nov. 10, 5-7 p.m. at the Jewish Museum Milwaukee, 1360 N. Prospect Ave., in Milwaukee. The event is free and open to the community.

‘Turned every page’

The project got its start when Jewish Museum president Marianne Lubar approached Gurda three years ago in the rotunda of the Milwaukee Public Library after a ceremony honoring Kate Huston, who was retiring as the system’s chief librarian.

Gurda was familiar with some of the Jewish community’s history from his earlier work on documenting city neighborhoods as well as his history of the city. Although he says he has long had a deep-seated interest in everything ethnic and religious, Gurda, a Catholic, had never visited a synagogue.

His research, he says, has since taken him to every synagogue in the Milwaukee area. He said he was warmly welcomed and generously introduced to the diversity of religious life of the religious community.

“I began my research for the book by reading the Torah and the Psalms,” Gurda says. “It was a necessary grounding. I was raised as a Catholic and I was familiar with what we call the ‘Old Testament,’ but it’s a different story reading when you read it from a Jewish perspective.”

He also read broadly on the Jewish history including “The History of the Jews in Milwaukee,” written by Rabbi Louis J. Swichkow and Lloyd P. Gartner. That scholarly history ended in 1950, while Swichkow still served as spiritual leader of Beth El Ner Tamid Synagogue.

Gurda said he found a gold mine of information when he discovered a database that contained thousands of news stories, many from the Milwaukee Sentinel.

“Some of what I found in the papers probably had not been read since the stories first appeared,” he said. “The stories were generally sympathetic but they documented the conflicts and the development of synagogue politics.”

Other rich resources included the archives of The Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle.

“I had no idea that the archives went back to 1921,” Gurda said. “I turned every page. I took 215 pages of notes.”

The other treasure trove he found was Jay Hyland, archivist of the Jewish Museum, which is a program of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation.

Unity and diversity

The most striking characteristic of the community today is seemingly contradictory: Its unity and its diversity.

“There is a wider gap today than there used to be,” he said. “But there has always been diversity.”

In Milwaukee, those with differing religious beliefs share other aspects of community life.

“Two schools, Hillel [The Academy] and the Milwaukee Jewish Day School, are very different but they share the same space,” Gurda says. “There are some who would not share the same wine cup on Shabbat but they will talk to each other. That doesn’t mean there is not animosity but it’s a connection you would not see happening in much of the rest of the U.S.”

There is evidence of this collegiality, if not cooperation, dating back to almost the beginning of the community. Gurda says he found references to one Orthodox rabbi who counted a Reform rabbi as his best friend back in the 1930s.

But the differences were not always easy for everyone to accept.

The first Jews to come to Milwaukee were German.

“They were very successful in business and they were also very involved in the mainstream social life of the German community,” Gurda noted. “They might have belonged to B’nai B’rith and the Masons or the Odd Fellows at the same time. They had no trouble moving in and out of these organizations.”

The second wave of immigrants came after 1882 from Eastern Europe. The German Jewish community provided food, clothing and shelter for the immigrants but the expectation was that the newcomers would fit in, just as the first wave had.

“These were Orthodox Jews,” Gurda said. “The German Jewish community called in barbers to shave the men and actually threatened to arrest one who resisted.”

While some in today’s community are returning to their roots and embracing Orthodox practices, there is a greater number who are “curious culturally but not observant” today, Gurda observed.

“In part, that’s because more than 50 percent are involved in intermarriage,” he said. “It’s also an aging community and many people are marrying later and having fewer children.”

The community has also shrunk because many younger people have moved to larger urban areas as they begin their careers. While the number of Jewish people living in the area has dropped significantly, Gurda said it continues to be vibrant.

“Others have noted that there have been concerns about the vanishing Jewish community as long as there have been Jews,” Gurda says. “But the community continues to thrive.”

For more information or to register for the book signing, contact the museum, 414-390-5730 or visit www.jewishmuseummilwaukee.org.


John Gurda