Comedian Jackie Mason's rat-a-tat delivery of Borscht Belt schtick makes it unlikely anyone would figure out that he got his start in life in the sedate Midwestern town on Lake Michigan's shoreline, Sheboygan, Wisconsin (population 62,000). Born June 9, 1931, as Jacob Moshe Maza, Mason's father was a rabbi serving one of the three Orthodox congregations in Sheboygan at the time.
Sheboygan was an unexpected outpost for a completely Orthodox community. Originally the land of the Potowatomi, Chippewa, and Sioux Indians, it was first explored by the French in 1635, and in 1795 the first trading stop was established. By the 1840's the towns of Sheboygan County were being settled primarily by Dutch and German settlers. Even today the tiny towns of Oostburg, Cedar Grove, Holland, and Belgium are almost entirely populated by the direct descendents of these early Dutch settlers. This is wooden shoe and windmill country. The buildings as well as the names in the phone book reflect this.
The city of Sheboygan and other towns are heavily of German descent. It's no wonder this is the Bratwurst Capitol of the World - a place where we ordered a Sheboygan-brand double bratwurst on a fresh hard roll from our carhop at Chester's Drive-In in nearby Plymouth (pop. 6,800). Who'd expect, in the midst of this, to find a Jewish community so traditional that even today Congregation Beth El's kitchen is strictly kosher.
But back to the immigrants. It is odd that German Jews did not settle in this very German place. They opted for the much larger Milwaukee, 50 miles south on Lake Michigan. Jews arrived in 1884 from Russia taking jobs in factories or as tradesmen. Sheboygan County offered diverse opportunities in manufacturing, farming and retail. Many began as peddlers and soon opened small businesses. As news spread among friends and relatives back in Russia, more families migrated to Sheboygan. The lansmen came from small towns in the area of Russia now known as Belorus. The Sheboygan families re-established their shtetl life around their three shuls.
Each shul had a formal name and a nickname for easy reference among this very close-knit group, which at one time numbered around 200 families. They were Adas Israel or The White Shul; Ahavas Sholem or The Brick Shul; and Ohel Moshe (a.k.a. Oel Moses and Ahel Mosche Temple) or The Holman Shul. By 1900 Adas Israel 's members were already meeting in the home of Nachsun Holman.
Adas Israel's 1910 building at 13th Street and Carl Avenue was dubbed "the White Shul" because of its expansive white wooden exterior. The original structure had a large dome on top of the impressive eastern tower and two small narrow bell towers on either corner,. both with extended domes. It looked as if it had been directly imported from a Russian shtetl. The lansmen could feel at home here. Today it is the Ministry of Peace Christian Center. All vestiges of Jewish grandeur have been removed except for one stained glass Mogen David rosette window in the backside of the building. Its domes and towers have long been missing, but there's no doubt that this was the White Shul.
Ahavas (or Ahaveth) Sholem, called The Brick Shul for obvious reasons, stood one block north of the White Shul at 13th and Geele. Built before 1871 as St. Mary Magdalene, it was the first Catholic church in Sheboygan. When the Ahavas Sholem congregation moved into the building in 1903, the structure became Sheboygan's first synagogue building. Atop its front pediment was a large menorah proclaiming it as a Jewish house of worship. It was razed in 1975 and the site today bears a modern home for troubled girls.
I eagerly perused the two congregations' early minutes while I was researching at the Wisconsin State Historical Society in Madison. My efforts were thwarted. The mostly handwritten minutes are all Yiddish. I did recognize three English words; "cash", "paid", and "balance". That's America for you.
Ohel Moshe's building at 15th St. and Maria Court is no longer standing. Built in 1918, it has given way to a parking lot. One of the early and very large families, the Holmans, were enterprising and successful, opening a junk peddling business; the Holman Overall Company; Lakeland Manufacturing (outerwear); and the Reliable Shirt and Overall Company. This shul's nickname came from this influential family.
When the first generation Jews reached adulthood in the 1940's and 50's they naturally assimilated. And yet there has never been a Reform congregation in Sheboygan. In 1944 the newer generation founded Sheboygan's one and only Conservative synagogue, Congregation Beth El. During the time of the Baby Boom bubble Beth El had as many as 150 families. The full-time leader, Rabbi Barak was busy with bar and bat mitzvahs, confirmations, weddings, and funerals. The children of this generation, for the most part, moved to larger cities such as Milwaukee, and beyond. The congregation has about 40 families today. Though there is not a rabbi, Brian Serle serves as "Spiritual Leader". The president is lifelong Sheboygan resident Harold Holman.
Recently, on a hot Sunday in July, 2002 we drove up to take pictures. A man was fertilizing the well-tended trees on the grounds. Protective at first, the man asked if we needed help. When I explained that I brake for synagogues this man opened his heart as well as the building. The man, Joseph Perez, a Sephardic Jew originally from Casablanca, Morocco, is the current shamash of Beth El, and at age 59 is one of the younger members. Perez came to the U.S. with his family in 1963. He had attended ORT school in Morocco, learning to be a welder and machinist. He came to Sheboygan in 1979 for better opportunities with his trade. He told me of strong anti-Jewish sentiment at the manufacturing plant where he worked. Management made conditions difficult for him once they found out he was a Jew instead of a Mexican.
He has a deep affinity for the Jewish community, who are
his only "family" in Sheboygan. Mr. Perez, who is a custodian
at an elementary
In 1999 and 2001 Beth El hosted a Sheboygan Jewish Reunion. Each time 225 - 230 people came home to renew acquaintances and make new connections with relatives from all over the U.S. There is a web page for Sheboygan Jews so that the community can continue to make the connections. But you don't have to wait for another reunion.
Remember the movie Home Alone? The mother (Catherine O'Hara) frantically hitches a ride with a polka band, in the back of their U-haul truck that's bound for Sheboygan. The sympathetic band leader (John Candy) assures her everything will be okay. If you too should find yourself on the way to Sheboygan, you'll never be "home alone". The folks at Congregation Beth El want you to come to services any Saturday morning at 9:30, and stay for a no-bratwurst, strictly kosher lunch. I guarantee it'll be very gemutchlichkeit - that's southeastern Wisconsin's German version of hamische.
Sources for this article: Sheboygan 2002 Guide for Visitors; The Sheboygan Press; Sheboygan Jewish Community web page by Joel Alpert; phone interview with Harold Holman, July 2001, interview with Joseph Perez, July, 2002; Infoplease.com website; Wisconsin State Historical Society; Wisconsin Jewish Community Blue Book circa 1924; Congregational minutes of Adas Israel 1900-1931 and Ahavas Sholem 1908-1937