An Outsize Impact — A Review of Cleveland Jews and the Making of a Midwestern Community

Martin, Sean and John J. Grabowski, eds. Cleveland Jews and the Making of a Midwestern Community. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2020.

Reviewed by Avigail Oren

Despite having lived in Pittsburgh for nearly a decade, I love Cleveland. This is anathema in my adopted home, though the source of animosity between the two cities remains unclear to me. On my first visit to Cleveland I admired how the city felt so much larger than Pittsburgh, yet retained distinctive neighborhoods. But maybe it was just that, between the free, world-class art museum and the cozy Loganberry Bookstore, I found everything that I could ever want or need in a city. (This is the seduction of travel. I have a world-class art museum and several cozy bookshops within walking distance of my Pittsburgh apartment.)

What I did not see on my first trip to Cleveland was evidence of the city’s historic, and still quite large, Jewish community. It would take several more years, a few new friendships, and some interesting archival discoveries before I realized that Cleveland had a Jewish community to rival my familiar Squirrel Hill. So it was with some enthusiasm that I began reading Cleveland Jews and the Making of a Midwestern Community, edited by Sean Martin and John J. Grabowski. 

Like many edited collections, Cleveland Jews lacks a “centralistic projection of coherency,” in the words of Eli Lederhendler, who penned the volume’s introduction. Yet as I read through the chapters I was consistently struck by the recurring case they made for Cleveland’s national importance to American Jewry, due to its large population and strong institutions. According to the Encyclopedia of Cleveland, Jews made up ten percent of the city’s total population by the 1920s. That was much higher than the proportion of Jews in the United States as a whole—three percent. Considering that almost half of the nation’s Jews lived in New York City in the 1920s, where Jews made up a third of the population, Cleveland’s ten percent was notable. 

While many of the essays use Cleveland as a case study to intervene into debates in Jewish Studies, I will focus on those that address questions of interest to urbanists. David C. Hammack’s study of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Jewish philanthropy exemplifies how the volume’s contributors scale from hyperlocal to national trends. Hammack argues that Cleveland’s traditions of local giving and mutual aid, from small charitable societies to the establishment of large institutions like the Jewish Orphan Asylum, had an outsize impact on the national philanthropic landscape. Proportionally, Cleveland’s Jewish institutions “equaled or surpassed—in capacity and reputation—their counterparts in America’s other large centers of Jewish settlement.” Many Jewish leaders and social welfare workers spent early years of their careers in the city’s service organizations or its Federation for Jewish Charities (Federations are a unified model of community fundraising and granting that are common in the Jewish community, similar to United Way). As they left to lead other communities, Cleveland’s influence spread with them, particularly “Cleveland Jewish philanthropy[’s] … significant creative role in encouraging the separation of religious activities from the provision of most health care, education, and welfare services and in promoting the development of nonsectarian institutions alongside those that are specifically Protestant, Catholic, Jewish…” Indeed, I noticed this trend years ago while conducting my own research on the postwar Jewish Community Center movement. Sanford Solender—who went on to oversee first the JCC movement and then New York City’s Jewish Federation at a time when Jewish institutions increasingly served non-Jewish populations—was the Executive Director of Cleveland’s Council Educational Alliance in the 1940s. Hammack provides urbanists interested in religious and ethnic social welfare with valuable insight into how Cleveland’s large Jewish community, with its strong philanthropic tradition, encouraged interfaith collaboration and popularized funding models like endowments, community chests, and foundations at both the local and national level. 

Mayfield Cemetery, in Cleveland Heights, is metropolitan Cleveland’s perpetual home for the Jewish community. Tim Evanson, 2016, Flickr.

These institutions moved and evolved along with Cleveland’s Jews as their population shifted towards the city’s eastern suburbs. Todd Michney’s chapter on Jewish-Black relations in the Cleveland neighborhoods of Glenville and Mount Pleasant draws its argument from his excellent book, Surrogate Suburbs, a must-read for students of Cleveland history. Michney attributes Cleveland’s mostly non-violent neighborhood transitions to the city’s sizeable Jewish population. During the 1940s and 1950s, upwardly mobile Black families began to buy homes in Glenville and Mount Pleasant just as Jews began moving to the inner-ring suburbs of Cleveland Heights and Shaker Heights. “While partly attributable to racial anxieties,” Michney argues, “additional factors were Jews’ above-average rates of upward mobility and their generally smaller, more ‘portable’ institutions.” The chapter describes several attempts by neighborhood residents to “promote racial tolerance” in the forms of community councils, but overall Black and Jewish residents of Glenville and Mount Pleasant lived in parallel—friendly in public places but protective of their private, intimate spaces. Jews did not refuse to sell to Black homebuyers or terrorize their new Black neighbors, but Michney demonstrates that this was because they were already looking ahead to the new communities they desired to form in the suburbs. Cleveland’s exceptionally large Jewish community enabled Black “surrogate suburbs” like Glenville and Mount Pleasant to form.  

Mark Souther picks up where Michney leaves off, tracing the Jewish community’s residential and institutional movement to inner ring suburbs and beyond, leaving the city of Cleveland largely devoid of a Jewish population. Souther shows the pushing and pulling that went into this process. Some Jews and institutions eagerly forged eastward, despite facing antisemitism in the real estate market, while others felt more ambivalent about abandoning their Jewish neighbors and remained in the old neighborhood. The former eventually pulled the latter into the suburbs, but in the interim the latter kept the former engaged in city life. Souther’s case study thus underscores Lila Corwin Berman’s finding in Metropolitan Jews (2015), that even after moving north of Detroit’s Eight Mile Road, Detroit Jews retained an investment in the city—what Berman calls a politics of “remote urbanism.” 

Temple on the Heights, built in the 1920s in Cleveland Heights. Just a few notable people who grew up partially or in full within metropolitan Cleveland’s Jewish community are Andy Borowitz, Judith Butler, Alan Freed (who coined the term “rock n’ roll”), Paul Newman, and Harvey Pekar. Warren LeMay, 2018, Flickr.

There are many other notable essays in the collection on the topics of Jewish politics, education, and activism that are worth reading. Two essays, although they intervene in debates in American Jewish history more so than urban history, deserve special mention. Samantha Baskind’s study of Harvey Pekar’s sequential art explores representations of postwar Jewish identity. Baskind focuses on the centrality of both Cleveland and Jewishness to Pekar’s pessimistic worldview, arguing that his self-portrayal as a working-class Cleveland Jew made Pekar an “everyman” that Clevelanders championed as one of their own. Rachel Gordan uses Suburban Temple in the Cleveland suburb of Beachwood as a case study of how Jews adapted Judaism to postwar suburban culture. Suburban Temple, a Reform congregation, did so by intentionally teaching youth about Jewish religion and culture without emphasizing the rituals and practices of Judaism. Gordan compares Suburban Temple to the Jewish community of Park Forest, Illinois, to show how many suburbanizing Jewish families desired to be in relationship with other Jews and to “have religion” like their Christian neighbors, while also bristling at how Judaism conflicted with middle class norms. Suburban Temple became a national model for a “‘historical’ approach to studying Judaism”; just one more example of Cleveland’s outsize impact on American Jewry.

For scholars working on topics at the intersection of religious life and metropolitan history, Cleveland Jews has much to offer. It may not add up to something larger than the sum of its parts, but its parts are strong nonetheless. 

Avigail S. Oren is co-editor of The Metropole. She received her Ph.D. from the Department of History at Carnegie Mellon University in 2017, and has been an independent scholar and entrepreneur ever since.

Featured image (at top): In 1918, Cleveland had the fourth largest Jewish population in the nation (after New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia). Low, Jet, “Shaker Rapid Transit Tracks on Cleveland City Streets, East Side,” 1927, HAER, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

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