Have you traveled to Israel? Maybe more than once. Also bought a State of Israel Bond or planted a tree there. All good, but what did your grandparents and great-grandparents do to support the country, well before it existed?
My mother handed me a faded brown folder, stuffed thick with old family photos. One antique image stuck out from the rest. It was much larger (10xl4) than the other early Brownie snapshots and was professionally matted. Why? The black and white photo captured a fragment of Milwaukee’s early Zionist history that later evolved into a country.
The browned image is now over 100 years old. The celebratory faces in the photo are fresh and formal. Standing, some sitting and angling for the camera, they are wearing their best evening wear, anticipating a sumptuous dinner on the hotel’s fine tableware. Folded upright napkins, bouquets, silverware and filled water glasses framed the place settings.
The photo’s caption boldly states: “First Annual Banquet Zionist Recreation Club” and “Republican Hotel Milwaukee Feb. 27, 1921.”
Built in 1836, The Republican House (Hotel) was located on the northwest comer of Third and Kilbourn. It was known to have the first billiard table in Milwaukee, as well as the first hotel in Wisconsin to install electricity and build a convention hall in its own building. In 1930, it unfortunately burned down, possibly due to a cigarette in the laundry chute.
But on that February night in 1921, the weather was 2 degrees Celcius, windy and snowing. Less than three years earlier, World War I had ended. Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford and Rudolph Valentino were the celebrities of Hollywood. Milwaukee’s mayor was Daniel Hoan and John Blaine was the governor of Wisconsin.
The photo was given to me because my still unmarried grandmother, Getrude Leeb (Kahn in 1927) and her brother, Paul Leeb, were sitting up front in the image. Weighted against living in a Milwaukee winter in the early 1920s, I appreciated that their attendance at the Zionist gathering was no small effort.
In a time when the most dependable transportation may have been walking, riding a city streetcar or an early version of the automobile, they traveled to downtown Milwaukee in the harsh February winter of 1921. The attendees were dressed to the nines for a banquet dinner at a hotel built in the early 1800s. Their first annual Zionist event was downtown— in the open. I can only imagine the discussion and decision to publicly demonstrate their support for a cause that at the time, received a mixed public response.
My grandmother wouldn’t have owned a car and since her brother was an established attorney, I presume that he arranged their transportation to the event, braving the snow and unplowed “roads.”
On that frozen night, the Zionist Recreation Club gathered in determination and support for a desert land on the other side of the earth. Even unseen, they believed it was the Jewish homeland. The attendees may have never visited it, but their dream was real. Hope was the bridge to a future Jewish state. A fancy ribbon on their dresses and suit jackets probably showed that they belonged to the local Zionist movement. In the background, 48 stars were on the boldly displayed U.S. flag. I figured that it was all together in one photo, as a message.
Seeing photographic evidence of a well-supported Milwaukee Zionist organization in 1921, opened my eyes. Who were these inspired people? Maybe you know one of them? A distant relative from another era: pre-Prohibition; silent movies; pre-Depression; pre-WWII – you get the idea. Recognize anyone? With a magnifying glass, take a good look at the photo here or open the Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle website for access to a digital copy.
Looking at the faces at the Zionist banquet from 100+ years ago, I wonder what they would say now, if they could see and visit Israel. I have always thought that a dream is never personally owned, but best shared and constructively relished until a reality. I remain thankful for their Zionist vision and resilience to see it happen.
Years from now, maybe your descendants will be looking at a 100+ year old photo of you at an event. What would you like them to see about your efforts pursuing meaningful activities and passions? Even without Zionist banquets, there are definitely ways to express your support for Israel. Choose one, then follow you predecessors’ footsteps into the future.
Positive change rarely seems to occur on its own. Pursue your inspiration and be there up front for the next photo. Smile to your descendants.
Jeffrey N. Gingold, Milwaukee, is the award-winning author of “Tunnel, Smuggle, Collect: A Holocaust Boy,” published in 2015.