|Friday, December 07, 2001
Six bears for every Jew
By BERT STRATTON Special to the CJN
Calumet, Michigan ... one of the odd things about Calumet is it has a Jewish presence. The last rabbi left in 1920, but there is a functioning synagogue nearby.
The town has no Jewish doctors or lawyers, but it does have a Jewish mechanic named Jake.
Calument is in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. When my klezmer band, Yiddishe Cup, flew in to the regional airport, we were greeted by Jake - that is what the embroidered name tag on his gas-station shirt read. However, right off, Jake told us he wasn't Jake but Jonathan Pressel, 46, originally from Cleveland Heights. (His family moved to Ann Arbor when he was a child. His grandparents, Lillian and Louis Levin, left Bendemeer Road in Cleveland Heights, in 1968.)
Jonathan invited the band to his house for Shabbat dinner. On the mantle he had Artscroll commentaries, a Hertz Chumash (Torah commentary), and books about kashrut (dietary laws). His kitchen had two dishwashers (one for milk, one for meat) and three sinks (meat, milk, pareve). This, in a town that has only two Jewish famillies. The red Formica counter was for meat, the blue counter for dairy. He had done the remodeling himself. Meanwhile, Jonathan's wife, Pat, brought out more kosher turkey, which she had gotten in Green Bay, Wis., the closest big city, about 200 miles south.
Eventually the obvious came up: How did a klezmer band wind up in Calumet?
The answer is the National Endowment for the Arts partially subsidizes the arts in "rural, economically distressed areas; "Yiddishe Cup is on the NEA's roster of approved acts, and the director of Calumet's opera house had read the NEA roster.
Calumet, no doubt, had seen better days economically. A copper-mining boom town in the 1920s, with a population then of 30,000, it now has only 800 people. There is a shuttered Slovenian church and French-Canadian church. An Italian social hall burned down in 1913.
Several houses had signs in the front yard: "small-engine repair" and "beauty salon." It seemed many people were taking in each other's wash, so to speak.
There were also signs prohibiting snow plows in certain areass. The area's average snowfall is triple that of Buffalo, N.Y., but because Calumet is not a major metropolitan area, it doesn't get the covod (honor).
The Jewish hub of the region is Temple Jacob, a Reform congregation founded in 1912, located in Hancock, several miles south of Calumet. The synagogue has 13 dues-paying families, many of whom are academics from nearby Michigan Technological University in Houghton.
After Shabbat services, Harley Sachs, a retired professor and writer, summed up the demographics of the region: "There are six bears for every Jew here. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources counted 600 bears in the Upper Peninsula, and we have 100 Jews."
For kiddush we had smoked Lake Superior whitefish.
Temple president Susan Burack, originally from Connecticut, said, "Everyone is Jewish in their own way here. This is the only show in town.
Temple Jacob has beautiful stained glass windows and is in excellent condition. Many former members, living out-of-town, still contribute to its upkeep. The temple's bulletin notes, "Winter deaths are a problem because the burial doesn't happen until spring."
Members alternate leading the services, so sometimes the services are entirely in English. The congregation meets twice a month - one Friday night and one Saturday morning.
Jonathan, our host, said he sometimes traveled to Green Bay or Minneapolis for more traditional services. The last wedding at Temple Israel was Jonathan's and Pat's in 1978.
In the evening, the band took a five-minute hike from Jonathan's house to its hotel, and then across the street to perform at the 101-year-old opera house. (Everything is a five-minute walk in Calumet.) John Philip Sousa once appeared at the opera house. So did Douglas Fairbanks.
In the 1970s the opera house was refurbished with grant money, and it now looks resplendent, as if John Wilkes Booth might jump out of the balcony in a top hat. The klezmer concert cost $14; meanwhile, across town, the armory featured a country band/polka extravaganza for $3, plus beer on tap.
Yiddishe Cup got the arts crowd. About 135 people, maybe 25 Jews among them. Afterward the Jewish community threw a reception. At the reception, Bill Hazzard, the Calumet Theatre/opera house director, said the show was "different and wonderful." For the Jews, apparently, it wasn't different - more like a touch of home, and not Eastern Europe, either. Try Great Neck, N.Y. Congregant John Gershenson, formerly of Great Neck, said, "Klezmer is mainstream. You see it at all the folk festivals."
Bert Stratton is the director and clarinetist of Cleveland's Yiddishe Cup Klezmer Band.
Copyright 2001 Cleveland Jewish News