By Anne Trubek
No, I didn’t grow up in Cleveland. This is a sentence I find myself saying more and more as the years go on and my social world becomes ever-more populated with the Cleveland-born. I have lived in Northeast Ohio for 17 years; I moved here when I was 30 to take a job in Lorain County. In 2006, I moved to Cuyahoga County.
If I stay here until they bury me in Woodland Cemetery I will still never get true Clevelander cred, and that’s okay. But I have earned enough points towards being versed in the area to enter into the hyper-local, perplexing-to-newbies debate between the east and west side. When I decided to move, I had to choose where to reside. The weird, irrational, latitude-driven divide made my choice easy.
No, it was not about class. I never understood the class argument as explaining the chasm. The only way you can make that argument is to completely elide the African-American population in the city, which is both silly and abhorrent. Nor was it a matter of race (the flip side of the class coin). What was the divide about for me? Jews.
I had three main reasons for increasing my commute from 2 to 50 minutes: better schools for my son, a more urban environment and a nearby congregation. There is only one congregation in Lorain County, an aging, small, Conservative temple 30 minutes from where I was living in Oberlin. And on the west side of Cleveland? There is also only one, Beth Israel/The West Temple on Triskett Road that I attended for a few years while living in Oberlin, but was also 30 minutes away.
But the east side! Oh, the east side! There are 38 congregations in the Cleveland area. 38! That’s a lot—not just in comparison to the west side and Lorain County, but the rest of the country—well-nigh the world. The greater metropolitan area has a Jewish population of about 80,000, and 27 percent of us live in the Heights area (Cleveland, Shaker, and University Heights). The population has held stable over the past decade or so, despite anecdotal “everyone is moving away” talk over bagels. Beachwood has, according to one crunching of numbers—and here the numbers could be crunched variously, so take this with a grain of salt— the second-highest concentration of Jews per capita outside Israel, clocking in at 90 percent of the population, or a total of about 10,000.
There are five Jewish schools, and five Jewish assisted-living organizations, and an enormous Jewish Community Center with the coolest playground this side of the Mississippi. And, of course, the food: Corky & Lenny’s, Jacks, Bialy’s, Lox and Mandel’s, Mr. Brisket, etc.
My people are huddled in masses on the right bank of the Cuyahoga, whereas across the river, they have enormous festivals of ethnic pride that, I sometimes joke to my friends, could be called “the people who tried to kill my people celebrations.” Don’t get me wrong; I am joking. I love Dyngus Day But revivals of Eastern European ethnic pride are always somewhat emotionally charged for me. Say “east/west” to me and I think: Jews.
The odd thing is, in my experience, when people talk Cleveland’s divide, Jews are rarely mentioned. At least not in front of me. Do blacks and the white working class crowd Jews out? Or are Jews what everyone thinks but no one states? At any rate, there is no rational explanation for this Balkanization, so irrational ones are all we have, and we can be illogical both in jest and in seriousness. At least that’s my attitude. I am not disparaging or outraged about this issue. Ever the outsider, I am simply explaining.
Sometimes I trip across something that messes with the too-easy categories: a star of David on the entryway to an antique store in Tremont, for example. But for the most part, the demographic lopsidedness is simply consistent: 38 houses of worship versus one, five schools versus zero.
There are only a handful of other cities of any population in the United States that can claim such a large percentage of Jews, and yet the Cleveland area’s Jewish population is densely congregated into one part of town, in the suburbs most Jews moved to when they left the city proper. But that move was decades ago. We are a generation removed, but we have not scattered.
It is a segregated place in too many ways, Cleveland (or, more precisely, the greater metro area). The charm of neighborhoods rubs against the spectre of ghettos. The ties that bind natives also constrict circulation.
This is an essential truth, for me, about life in my adopted city. There are not many factory workers who need to live near the plant, no longer enough overt discrimination to keep a given group huddled together. There have been chances to ferry across rivers, have new neighbors, and wander. But Clevelanders? They resist. For better, and for worse.
Anne Trubek is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Belt.
Image via Shutterstock/Kenneth Sponsler.
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