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Jews from small communities have played a significant, but little known, role in the history of Wisconsin, a state rightly proud of its immigrant settlers. Jews have contributed to Wisconsin society as business people, farmers, teachers and students, scientists, professionals, public servants and athletes, members of congregations and aid organizations, volunteers, nurturers, recyclers and an honorary Indian chief. In turn, they have found a welcoming home in the Badger State.
Wisconsin Jewish history began in 1793, when a fur trader came to the tiny settlement of Green Bay. Jacob Franks built a fur trading outpost and established business and personal relationships with Native Americans. In 1797, he brought in his Jewish-born nephew, John Lawe, to help him. Franks built the first saw mill and first grist mill in Wisconsin -- in 1809 near what is now De Pere.
Franks left after the War of 1812 for his former home in Montreal. Lawe remained in Green Bay with his own part-Native American wife and their children as well as Franks’ Native American wife and their children. Lawe was appointed a Brown County judge and was elected to the 1836 territorial legislature. The only known born-Jew in Wisconsin for most of three decades, Lawe identified as a Christian and helped to establish Christian institutions in Green Bay.
Only two other references to Jews in Wisconsin in the early 1800s have been found: “Prairie du Chien’s Earliest Church Records, 1817” reports that Father Joseph Marie Drummon of St. Louis traveled up the Mississippi River to Prairie du Chien, where his activities included the baptism of Henry Joseph, son of known Jews. In 1820, Native Americans robbed and killed "a Jew peddler" near Kaukauna as he traveled on foot, according to a Brown County history book.
These earliest pioneers have no known direct relationship to Wisconsin's estimated 26,000 Jews in 2007. Today's Wisconsin Jewry originated to a great extent in the two main waves of Jewish immigration in the 19th and early 20th centuries. German, Hungarian and Alsatian Jews arrived in Wisconsin beginning in the 1840s, establishing communities in Milwaukee, Madison, Schleisingerville (now Slinger), La Crosse and, in 1872, Appleton. Jews in smaller numbers lived in towns throughout the state beginning in the 1850s. These newcomers quickly gained prominence:
Wisconsin’s Jewish population was estimated to be 2,559 in 1877, including 2,075 Jews in Milwaukee, 143 in Appleton, 106 in La Crosse and “approximately twenty Jewish families [living] in Madison in the early decades of the second half of the nineteenth century,” according to the late Rabbi Manfred Swarsensky.
Larger numbers of Jews began to settle throughout Wisconsin in the 1880s and 1890s during the mass migration from Russia and eastern Europe. In addition to Milwaukee and Madison, Jews settled anywhere they could identify economic opportunity. In most cases, they also created and perpetuated Jewish life.
Some set down roots in towns they discovered while peddling housewares through the countryside. The young immigrant peddler Solomon Levitan was attracted to the friendliness of the predominantly Swiss town of New Glarus. In the early 1880s, he opened a successful general store there, later expanding to Blanchardville. A justice of the peace and leader of Jewish worship at the nearby Monroe synagogue, Levitan wanted greater educational and Jewish opportunities for this three children. The Levitans moved to Madison in about 1905, where Sol opened a store and became involved in banking -- and Progressive Party politics. The longtime friend of Sen. Robert "Fighting Bob" LaFollette served as state treasurer from 1922-32 and 1936-38. Levitan often mentioned on the campaign trail that he sold LaFollette a pair of suspenders in the 1880s “and I’ve been supporting him ever since.”
Other Jews moved into small towns to open branches of a family's grocery or dry-goods store. For instance, the Chaimson family operated department stores in towns including Menomonie and Rice Lake. And by this time, the Hammels and affiliated cousins and in-laws had expanded the Appleton-based family horse-trading business to a dozen communities.
In the first half of the 20th century, scores of small Wisconsin burgs had a Jewish-owned store on main street or a Jewish-owned scrapyard. In those days, according to the late Leonard Loeb, a native of Columbus, Wis., "you could go anywhere in Wisconsin and not eat treif," or non-kosher food. The implication is clear: Jewish families were spread throughout the state and they retained Jewish practices. In fact, the Wisconsin Small Jewish Communities History Project has amassed evidence of a Jewish presence at one time or another in nearly 240 Wisconsin municipalities.
Some small-town Jewish communities grew large. Approximately 1,000 Jews lived in Sheboygan in the early 20th century. They initially worked in factories and as peddlers, eventually becoming merchants. These Jews established three Orthodox congregations, a Workmen's Circle Yiddish library and fraternal organizations for men, women and youth. Sheboygan was such a well-known outpost for Orthodox Jewry through World War II that American Jews referred to the community as “Little Jerusalem."
The Jews of Superior numbered 600, many working as merchants, in the early 1900s. The community founded three synagogues and an active B'nai B'rith lodge. Morrie Arnovich, an all-star outfielder for the 1939 Philadelphia Phillies, was a synagogue president after he retired and returned to his hometown. Pioneering photojournalist Esther Bubley grew up in Superior after spending her earliest years in Phillips.
Jews were similarly successful in congregation-building, though in smaller numbers, in Antigo, Appleton, Arpin, Ashland, Beloit, Eau Claire, Fond du Lac, Green Bay, Hurley, Kenosha, La Crosse, Manitowoc, Marinette, Monroe, Oshkosh, Racine, Stevens Point and Wausau. No synagogues or Jewish congregations remain in Antigo, Arpin, Ashland, Fond du Lac, Hurley, Marinette, Monroe, Stevens Point and Superior. The few Jewish residents of these towns adhere to an age-old custom when they seek Jewish group activity: They travel to the nearest town with a synagogue. For instance, many of the remaining northern Wisconsin Jews attend synagogue in Duluth, Minn., and belong to the Chequamegon Bay Havurah, a social and worship group that meets on major Jewish holidays.
From 1900-1960, Jews also lived in small pockets of eight to 10 families in communities as far-flung as Rhinelander, Rice Lake, Beaver Dam and Jefferson. These Jews would organize a minyan (prayer quorum of 10 men) for memorial prayers and sometimes for Sabbath worship. But like their brethren who lived as the sole Jewish family in a small town, they trekked to larger communities for High Holy Day services. Rhinelander native Ed Elkon remembers his family visiting Wausau, where the congregation had hired a rabbi for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Danni Gendelman (nee Litwin) drove with her family from Menomonie to Eau Claire, where the Jewish community rented worship space in the Knights of Pythias hall.
By the 1950s, the one-family Jewish community was on the wane. The young generation usually sought a larger community, and the parents often followed. Yet the post-World War II baby boom fueled one last surge of growth for Wisconsin's one-synagogue towns. A new generation of American-born Jewish parents bought or built new synagogues from the late 1940s until approximately 1970 in Appleton, Ashland, Eau Claire, Fond du Lac, Green Bay, La Crosse, Manitowoc, Oshkosh, Sheboygan and Waukesha. The new congregations generally were part of Judaism’s Conservative branch, though Manitowoc’s identified as Orthodox and Oshkosh’s and Waukesha’s were Reform. In many of these towns, the traditional Orthodox practices became less stringent as a new generation gained prominence.
The small-town merchant is hardly extinct, but could be compared to an endangered species. Those who remain include Mike Meadows, who owns a furniture store in Richland Center begun by his father; Joel and Judith Swartz Marcus, who own a variety store in Spring Green begun by his great-grandfather; Lloyd Orensten, proprietor of a scrapyard in Ashland that his father bought from an older Jewish family; Harold and son Kevin Hoffman, who own a flower and garden store in Sheboygan; and artist Abe Cohn, proprietor of a gallery in Fish Creek. Other small-town Jewish families own factories or distributorships: the Schwartz families of Manitowoc (foundry) and Two Rivers (factory), the Phillips/Cohen family of Eau Claire (manufacturer), the Epsteins of Millston (moss).
Small-town Jews have continued to serve in government throughout the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st. Janesville native Russ Feingold is one of Wisconsin’s two senators. Physician Steve Kagen of Appleton serves in the US Congress. Lawyer Gary Sherman of Port Wing is a state representative. Barbara Lorman and her late husband Milton of Fort Atkinson served as state senators. Jay Muchin of Manitowoc was the youngest member ever of the Manitowoc County Board. Joel Marcus is on the Spring Green Village Board. Lawyer Toby Marcovich of Superior was president of the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents.
Some other notable Jews who lived in smaller Wisconsin communities were illusionist Harry Houdini and author Edna Ferber (Appleton), columnists Eppie Lederer, aka Ann Landers, and Pauline Phillips, aka Abigail Van Buren (Eau Claire), comedian Jackie Mason (Sheboygan), Hollywood pioneer Carl Laemmle (Oshkosh) and jazz musician and scholar Ben Sidran (Racine). Two women rabbis hail from small-town Wisconsin: Dena Feigold of Kenosha (born and raised in Janesville) and Paula Winnig of Long Island (born and raised in Wausau). Contemporary Jewish scholar Sylvia Barack Fishman was a rabbi’s daughter in Sheboygan.
Today, Wisconsin's estimated 26,000 Jews include approximately 19,000 in Milwaukee, 5,000 in Madison and less than 2,000 is some 60 other communities. At the peak of Jewish immigration and settlement, as reported in a 1937 national Jewish population study, nearly 40,000 Jews lived in more than 200 Wisconsin communities.
The future of Wisconsin’s small Jewish communities looks hopeful (in the near future, at least) in Appleton, Beloit, Eau Claire, Green Bay, Kenosha, La Crosse, Oshkosh and Wausau. Other smaller Jewish communities are slowly aging and shrinking. All of their stories and more are being collected by the Wisconsin Small Jewish Communities History Project, a program of the Wisconsin Society for Jewish Learning, Inc., Milwaukee. The data will become part of the Wisconsin Jewish Archives at the Wisconsin Historical Society, Madison.Back to main page
To share information, documents, photos, home movies or artifacts, contact Leon Cohen at email@example.com or (414) 963-4135.