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Next Year in Tremont?: Cleveland’s Jews and the East/West Divide

Next Year in Tremont?: Cleveland’s Jews and the East/West Divide

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 kosher 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 the Dyngus Day revival! 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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16 Comment responses

  1. Avatar
    July 10, 2014

    great topic! I actually had two grown-ups specifically tell me not to move to the west side because “there are no Jews over there.” But besides that, no, I don’t really think many people are thinking about the Jews but not speaking up. More like off the radar.

    Reply

    • Avatar
      July 11, 2014

      Love it, Anne, great writing, very wistful and wise. Landsman here, by choice. Living in Bratenahl, how’s that for a compromise? Oy, the choices!

      Reply

  2. Avatar
    July 10, 2014

    I think that most of the various ethnic groups in the Cleveland area have moved out the major byways into the suburbs and even exurbia. So, Italian-Americans, for instance, moved gradually from the city, from Murray Hill, etc. out Mayfield Road farther and farther. Pearl Road, etc. on the West Side was/is a similar route for Eastern European ethnicities. Jews seem to have followed the same pattern, out from Glenville. African-Americans, much bigger group, but some of the same movement, but facing bitter resistance. And I am sure you could track it all through restaurants and places of worship.

    Reply

  3. Avatar
    July 11, 2014

    I enjoyed this. However, as a Jew from the “way West side” as my friends refer to me, I need to inform you of a temple in Elyria, Ohio, my hometown. Temple B’Nai Abraham. Yes, there is the West Temple and the temple in Lorain, but there was a third that I am proud to say made me who I am today (rhyme was unintended).

    To say more. . .I’ve started my adult and professional life on the East side, coming from the “way West side.” It has been shocking to say the least. Growing up at Temple B’Nai Abraham we knew everyone, it was a family, a close knit family. Here on the East side, I have had trouble building relationships with my peers and haven’t been welcomed like I thought. Those that I have become friends with are also “transplants,” but am I a transplant here? Being raised just on the other side? At times I feel lost in this massive community of Jews.

    As for Jewish life on the West side, there were no Jewish day schools and my mother spent all Jewish holidays in the public schools of Elyria teaching the other kids about our culture and traditions so it wasn’t all color by number Santa’s the entire month of December.

    People are completely shocked where I say I am from. I’ll never understand the divide among Jews or East verse West. Possibly one day it will change, but for now I think in ten years, where will I choose to raise my kids? Will I ever be able to cross over sides? Maintaining a strong Jewish identity is important, would I be able to drive my children to Jewish day school everyday on the East side while building a home in let’s say Lakewood, because I wouldn’t want to cross the line? We shall only find out. . .

    Reply

  4. Avatar
    July 11, 2014

    Funny that this should appear just after I have spent several years studying the racial divide in Cleveland and incorporating what I learned in my new novel Canoedling in Cleveland. I only minimally addressed the Jewish population. However, it may be of interest that on the back cover two out of three of my reviewers are Jews.

    Reply

  5. Avatar

    I moved to the west side when I married an Irish man, so, naturally, it was Lakewood. Before then, I lived on the east side. Not a religious Jew, I didn’t (and, still, don’t) see a problem with living in the west side. Just a stranger in a strange land for nearly 20 years. I enjoy blowing people away when I say, “but, I’m Jewish,” because the first response is, “funny, you don’t look Jewish,” as if. there’s a Jewish look. As if…

    Reply

  6. Avatar
    July 11, 2014

    Talking about the Cleveland divide does often lead to a discussion of an overwhelming black-white dynamic of the Greater US. While you’re correct that we shouldn’t elide the black community by simply discussing East/West in terms of class, we also shouldn’t elide discussion of the legacy of- and the current manifestations of- de facto segregation (redlining, blockbusting, targeted subprime lending) or workforce and service exclusion especially instilled upon black communities (e.g. ‘last hired, first fired’, Ohio’s unconstitutional school funding system). People do not ghettoize themselves by choice.

    Furthermore, the East-West divide takes on more contours when we discuss the very significant Hispanic and Latino communities on the West, and yes, East side. To the point about ‘being rarely mentioned,’ I believe there would have been a bigger and more widespread outcry if Mark Naymik had written such terrible words about the poverty of Jewish leadership after a terrible crime by one if its community members.(http://www.cleveland.com/naymik/index.ssf/2013/05/ariel_castro_is_the_least_of_t.html) The black-white binary is so overwhelming that author herself overlooks significant Latino and Asian communities that figure strongly in Cleveland’s East/West and suburban/core divides.

    Having grown up in Shaker Heights and Solon, I was always familiar with the East Side’s Jewish population, though perhaps slow in becoming aware of its density and its rather fainter West Side presence. Given the immense power of Forest City Ratner (who own our most iconic building in town), or the wealth of a nearly-wholly Jewish Beachwood, I’m confused about how the Jewish community is ‘huddled’ rather than thriving in our Eastern suburbs.

    Cleveland needs to learn from and celebrate its Jewish community, the depth and wealth of community identity, culture, and resistance to anti-semitism- current and historic, global and local . That said, such learning can only come about once we’ve better acknowledged the cultural context which we’re discussing.

    Reply

  7. Avatar
    July 14, 2014

    I never understood the history behind one of the oldest Jewish cemeteries in the city, hidden near W 60th and Fir Ave (one block south of Bridge Ave). There doesn’t seem to be much history of a Jewish population on the west side, as this article reinforces, so what’s the deal? Park Synagogue way out in Pepper Pike currently maintains the cemetery and you have to ask someone on the block (last I remember) for a key to open the gate… Could make an interesting read for Belt in the future.

    http://www.clevelandjewishhistory.net/ins/cemeteries-fir.html

    Reply

    • Avatar
      July 15, 2014

      Chris S., I go by there all the time (often on my way to Belt Mag’s Happy Dog U) and have wondered the same things. If you read further into the link you posted, to the PD story, it explains a little more. This is from that story:

      “The neighborhood off West 65th Street, between Lorain and Bridge avenues, has never been Jewish. Cleveland’s early Jews settled on the city’s near East Side, but some crossed the Cuyahoga River to bury their dead.”
      “Some of the earliest graves in the one-acre cemetery are Hungarian Orthodox Jews, according to Cleveland Municipal Housing Court Judge Ray Pianka, who grew up in the neighborhood and still lives there.
      “We’re learning about each family,” said Pianka, who remembers walking by the graveyard as a little kid, wondering what the strange inscriptions in Hebrew and Yiddish meant. “Each of the 850 people buried here had contributed to our community.”
      “The deceased include Polish immigrant Harry “Czar” Bernstein (1856-1920), an East Side political boss who owned saloons and theaters; Russian immigrant Rabbi Gershon Ravinson (1848-1907) of East 40th Street who was of the 10th generation of rabbis in his family; and Hungarian immigrant Fannie Lichtig (1817-1899) of St. Clair Avenue, described in her obituary as a “pious Jewish woman.”

      http://blog.cleveland.com/metro/2009/05/fir_street_cemetery_on_west_si.html

      Reply

  8. Avatar
    July 16, 2014

    Good post. No evidence here that Clevelanders resist leaving their enclaves (though they do), just that the Jewish community does and is still concentrated in one area. I am an east sider who moved west. Many of my peers are as well. Your essay doesn’t address this (not saying it should, just that I don’t know how useful generalizations are about all CLE’ers). Don’t know where you’d find this info, but I’d guess some of these staid east-west boundaries are breaking down for some younger urbanists / people who want to live in cities or urban areas. Thanks.

    Reply

  9. Avatar
    July 16, 2014

    True, lots of young folks are moving across the river. This piece is about Jews. Jews young and old who would like to live near a place of worship, religious schools and/or other Jewish organizations will find the choice between west and east side pretty stark!

    Reply

  10. Avatar
    July 18, 2014

    As someone who lives on the far south side of Cleveland (the VERY far south side), I have never understood the West Side vs. East Side rivalry. Cleveland is such a tiny, compact “big” city. You can drive from one end to the other in 15 minutes, taking I-90.

    Reply

  11. Avatar
    August 26, 2014

    If you are on the religious side of the Jewish spectrum, it is actually pretty hard to “break out” of the East Side. Here’s why: if you are a religious Jew (either Orthodox or on the strict end of Conservative) you need to be within walking distance of a like-minded synagogue, because Jewish tradition prohibits riding on the Sabbath. There are no Orthodox or Conservative synagogues on the West Side, so that’s a deal buster right there. And if you have children and want them to attend a religious school, you probably don’t want to live on the West Side if you don’t want to spend your life in your car chauffering them to school.

    At the other extreme, if you are not religious at all you might as well live in Parma or Rocky River.

    Reply

  12. Avatar
    August 27, 2014

    . Although some may claim that there is a “Jewish” look, its clear that the hereditarily “Jewish” trait is somewhat indistinguishable to the common eye. Or at least much less visible than race or family income.

    I notice the divide so clearly, as part of my job as a professional in Jewish overnight camping is to search for new pockets of Jewish youth who would enjoy a Jewish overnight camping experience….a place where they can live enveloped in Jewish values and culture if only for a few weeks. I can only nod my head to recent efforts in the Jewish community to keep the population of our camp diverse even when limiting our target community to those who seek a Jewish place to spend the summer. Whereas previously Camp Wise was able to share its offerings with people from smaller Jewish communities surrounding the greater Cleveland area like Canton and Youngstown, the ever-shrinking general populations in those areas can be seen so clearly diminishing Jewish populations in those areas. It remains important to continue to build our camp community with youth who hail from diverse geographic locations, among other dimensions of differentness, in order to maintain an environment that teaches the value of “hachnasat orchim–” the value of welcoming guests. Only so much of this value can be lived if a large majority of kids are from Shaker Heights, Cleveland Heights, Beachwood, Solon, Orange, etc.

    I want to point to an effort by the Jewish Family Service Association (JFSA) to reach out to Jewish youth who live with very little attcahment to an institutional Jewish community like a synagogue or day school . Their Campership program helps connect these youth (with income eligibility requirements) to summers at camp, free of charge. http://www.jfsa-cleveland.org/services-3/families-at-risk-2/jfsa-campership-program/

    Reply

  13. Avatar
    September 01, 2014

    As one who grew up in Lakewood whose father grew up in Cleveland Heights, I often felt having the best of both worlds, living in our Irish ghetto off of Clifton Blvd. but traveling each Sunday to dinner in the Heights and experiencing the “other” Cleveland. I wonder if anyone knows the history of a small Jewish cemetery in Slavic Village surrounded by chain link fence and resting in the shadow of St. Stanislaus Church and Cleveland Central Catholic High School.

    Reply

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