Wisconsin: Land of milk, Houdini and Jewish heritage

Remember this classic New Yorker magazine cover (March 29, 1976) where Saul Steinberg’s “View of the World from 9th Avenue” demonstrated a view of the country? There was New York, something on the West Coast, and some other places in the middle.

One of those something-in-the-middle states is wholesome Wisconsin, where Jews have lived since 1793.

Andrew Muchin has written a great story on the Wisconsin Jewish story here.

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.

The state’s oldest Jewish community is Green Bay. British and French fur traders were already there when Jacob Franks arrived in 1792/3 as a Montreal fur company rep. He formed his own business in 1797 and his nephew John Lawe, also of Montreal, came out to help him.

In Heritage Hill State Historical Park, the living-history museum has a fur trader’s cabin built c1800 on land near Lawe’s. Inside, the home and trading post has shelves displaying jewelry, alcohol jugs and tools that traders would have given for pelts.

In the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame, are photos of Nate Abrams, Charlie Sauber and a Milwaukee MOT, Charles Goldenberg.

From Jacob Franks and his nephew, the state’s Jewish population increased to some 40,000 prior to WWII and to today’s estimated 26,000. Milwaukee’s fledgling community began with a few German Jews arriving in 1842 and it eventually became the largest in the state.

Some 2,000 German and Hungarian Jews arrived during 1840-70, founding the state’s first communities in Milwaukee, Madison, La Crosse, Appleton and Wausau.About 15,000 Russian and Eastern Jews arrived 1881-1924, and eventually founded congregations in 23 localities.

Milwaukee’s history is on display at the Milwaukee Jewish Museum. The article mentions congregations in Madison, Appleton (home to both author Edna Ferber and Erich Weiss AKA Harry Houdini), Stevens Point and Hurley.

In Hurley, a far north city, which Muchin calls “bordello central for the miners and loggers of northern Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula by 1890.” Some 200 Jews lived there and worked mainly as merchants in the early 20th century. They worshipped in Sharey Zedek (1895-1940). The building is a short walk from the old Silver Street bordellos. A plaque marks it as Iron County’s only synagogue, and the house next door was the mikvah site. The local Iron County Historical Society displays religious items from the synagogue.

Some 20 communities have at least one Jewish cemetery. “Most hold more Jews than currently live in the city,” writes Muchin, who also mentions additional communities with other attractions.
Muchin is a freelance writer and programming director for the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life in Jackson, Mississippi.

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