Tag Archives: Janesville

Milwaukee – Melting Pot within the Melting Pot


December, 1962.  Christmas week.


I was 6 years old, halfway through the first grade, with three younger siblings.


My parents must have been crazy.  Or maybe moving the family with four little children made them crazy.


I could not remember ever being so cold, even though I was running a torrid fever and with a dreadful sore throat.


That was my first experience of Milwaukee.




“The time has come,” the Walrus said,
“To talk of many things…”
Lewis Carrol, Through the Looking Glass



Since experiencing a violent car crash seven months ago, I’ve spent quite a bit of time resting, recovering and reflecting.  Like the Walrus and the Carpenter, I’ve thought on many things. I’ve reflected on my life. I’m reminded again that it is temporary.

I’ve contemplated on not a few parts of my life, what I’ve experienced, what I’ve learned, and what it all means.  I remain a committed skeptic and agnostic, yet I’m more open to new possibilities.  I’m more aware of mankind’s struggles, even down to the individual level.

And some thoughts turned to my youth – those formative years.  I pondered how I could weave my youth – or more precisely, my hometown as a child – into my current running theme of early 20th century history, especially the period 1900-14, which I call the Edwardian/Pre-war era.

This is a sort of Thanksgiving essay.  I’m so very thankful for the support I’ve received from my wife, family and friends – and at work.  And so very thankful that recovery continues to reach new levels.

  • During a very, very relaxing week in Calgary to celebrate Canadian Thanksgiving with our son and new daughter-in-law (Mazel Tov!) I was able to begin to stitch together some patches of memories, some research and facts into a working outline.

  • During this US Thanksgiving week, I’ve finally felt well enough to work that patchy outline into an essay about my boyhood memories and my boyhood hometown and state: Milwaukee & Wisconsin. I hope you enjoy it as much as I enjoyed writing it. It is a bit longer than my usual works.



The United States, despite its disgraceful xenophobic phases and elements, has quite rightly been referred to as The Great Melting Pot.  Her welcome to arrivals from around the world – who come with different values, cultures, beliefs and languages – is renowned.  They continue to be  welcomed to a land that makes individual rights superior to the will of the majority; and individual rights superior to the will the state. [1] Her welcome is inscribed upon the colossal statue of the Roman goddess Libertas – that 19th century gift from the French – that looks out over New York harbor to hopeful, dreamy immigrants: “Give me your poor, your tired, your huddled masses yearning to be free!”[2]


In this, the 7th essay discussing the significance of events during the Edwardian/pre-war ear (approximately 1900-1914), we’ll investigate this Melting Pot phenomenon in the state of Wisconsin, and especially its largest city, Milwaukee.



1. Milwaukee, 1960s – the Catholics



I think it was December 26, 1962.  We arrived in Brown Deer, Wisconsin, a small suburb that abuts Milwaukee’s northern limits: six of us packed in a station wagon, bundled and huddled together against the bitter cold – twelve degrees below zero.  Gosh, I was sick with a rotten cold, and miserable … and lonely; we’d left all my friends behind.  Some boys in the new neighborhood were eager to make my acquaintance.  They’d have to wait; about two weeks later another arctic front dropped the temperatures into the minus 20s, and I just could not shake that awful cold.  But, patience paid off: the group of young lads accepted me as if I’d been there all along, and 52 years later I still have friends among them. [1]


The Girard family soon added two more children. We resided in Milwaukee until the day Nixon became the first (and hopefully only) US president to resign the office, in August, 1974.  Just over 11-½ years.  Milwaukee is the city of my childhood and childhood memories.


Upon settling in Milwaukee, we quickly became part of a local Catholic community, Our Lady of Good Hope – affectionately called OLGH. I was enrolled mid-school-year in the 1st grade at its parochial school, staffed mostly by nuns from the Sisters of (I think) the order of Saint Francis.


Not many school years rolled by before I became aware of the wide array of surnames.

  • There was O’Shea and Collins and McCarthy and FitzGerald and Riordon.
  • There was Kaminski and Lezniak and Jabloski and Lesznewski.
  • There was Schmidt, … and Ritter and Rector and Kohlschmidt and Mueller and Messmer and Bessmer. And Schroeder and Vogel, too.
  • A Vincenzi, D’Amato, Fiorenza, and Pucci and Puccinelli and Sardinia.
  • Even a Martinez family, decades before the great influx of Hispanics

All of these families came from very different places! Not all Catholics are the same! They all have different backgrounds and stories. For some reason this was a revelation to me.



2. Milwaukee Immigration


European immigrants were drawn to Wisconsin and Milwaukee even during its simple beginnings in the 1830s and ’40s.  Conveniently located in America’s vast fertile heartland, with the best natural harbor on Lake Michigan’s western shores providing transportation [1] through the Great Lakes – and via the Erie Canal to the eastern states and the world – and then via the railroad explosion, Milwaukee provided what immigrants always wanted: freedom with a wide open chance to succeed, to ascend, without any pretense required, and without anyone really caring where you came from or what you thought.  As long as you were willing to work.


Immigrants continued to roll in throughout the 19th century.  By the dawn of the new century, Milwaukee was the country’s 14th largest city – its population nearly 300,000, over 80 percent of whom were either immigrants or first generation Americans.  If you were to overhear random denizens having a conversation in their first language, there was a 50-50 chance it would not be English; almost as likely was German [2]. After that, Polish, Norwegian and Italian. The ethnic cultures, habits and cuisine that still makes Milwaukee and Wisconsin famous – sausage, beer, cheese, a card game named Sheepshead (Schafskopf) – were well established by this time.


In 1901, when baseball expanded to have a second Major League – the American League – Milwaukee was deemed significant enough to be awarded one of the founding franchises: the original Milwaukee Brewers.  The stands at the Lloyd Street stadium, between 16th and 18th streets, were seldom very full; despite a well-developed network of citywide streetcars, they were unable to attract many of the hard working immigrants who hadn’t quite taken to baseball yet, and had better things to do: like pursue opportunity.  Milwaukee was decades away from being able to support a major league team.  They finished dead last in the American League and drew fewer than 2,000 patrons per game.  The Brewers left the next year for St Louis to be renamed the Browns. [3]



3. Milwaukee 1960s and ‘70s – the Jews


In the 7th grade I started a part time summer job: caddying at a local golf club.  In the 8th grade I was recruited by an Irish-Catholic friend to move my caddy career to another nearby golf club, Brynwood Country Club.  Brynwood was an almost exclusively Jewish club, and I subsequently worked on and off there for the next four and a half years.


I had not met many Jews, but I considered myself pretty aware of Judaism through extensive religious, as well as history, education at OLGH.  Still, I had regarded Jews as all, more or less, the same.


At Brynwood I again became aware of the wide variety of surnames.

  • There was Berlin, and Stein; Wagner and Bernstein; the Grossmans and the Reismans; Adler and Ackerman; several Siegels, Epsteins and variations on Meier. Rosen and Rosenberg and Rosenthal.
    • I’d studied enough to know these were all German names.
  • Then: all the Levin, Levine and Levy families.
  • But what about Schlimovitz, and Markovitz and Hurwitz and Abramowitz?
  • And then the Razansky, Lewinsky and Posen and Posner families.

All of these families came from very different places! Not all Jews are the same! They all have different backgrounds and stories. For some reason this was a revelation to me.



4. Milwaukee Immigration – the Jews


Jews also came to Milwaukee from Europe, almost since the city’s very beginnings in the 1840s, and throughout the 19th century.  Most came from Germany.  They were intelligent, and used the precise, sharp, hard guttural consonants of a well-educated and well-spoken German.


Although never more than 2 or 3 percent of the city’s populace, and usually much less, they had considerable influence as entrepreneurs and professionals – starting businesses, practicing law and engineering. They considered themselves German, and integrated well within the disciplined, hardworking, generous German-speaking non-Jewish Milwaukeeans.


Things began to change dramatically in the 1890s and early 1900s.  Pogroms in Central and Eastern Europe motivated many Ashkenazi Jews to leave their homelands and towns and come to America – and to Milwaukee.  Think “Fiddler on the Roof.”  Not as economically well-off or educated, and speaking a slang-ish “soft” dialect loosely based on German, but about as much like German as Ebonics or Creole Pidgin is to English, they were not accepted by the educated, sophisticated and integrated Jews of the time.


Adding to the new arrivals’ assimilation problem, most established Midwest Jews practiced Reform Judaism, modifying their customs and practices to fit with the rapidly evolving American times.  The Ashkenazi arrivals were mostly Orthodox; their religion literally directed and permeated every detail of their lives.


As the century changed from 19th to 20th, so too did attitudes toward the newly arrived Jews change, and by the mid-decade of the 1900s, new arrivals were accepted and supported by the local established Jews. They too became educated and entrepreneurial; became high achievers who contributed significantly to the greater community of Milwaukee, and the world.


Let’s take a brief look at three such local Jewish families to close out this glimpse through the Time Machine: the Mabovitch, the Kohl and the Binsock/Feingold families.


5. Goldie Mabovitch


Moshe Mabovitch knew he and his family had to move far from their home, near Kiev, Ukraine.  They needed to emigrate desperately.  The Jewish community had been victims of oppressive laws and pogroms.  But they needed money.


Moshe left in 1903, and – after a stint in New York – moved to Milwaukee in 1905, finding a steady job in the railroad yards.  By 1906 he’d saved enough to buy interest in a small grocery store on Milwaukee’s north side, and saved enough to move his family there, too.  They set about building a new life for themselves and their three daughters: Sheyna, Goldie and Tzipke. Five other siblings had not survived childhood.


Education was paramount, even for girls; it meant better opportunity.  Goldie especially excelled, achieving top-of-class status at the Fourth Street Grade School [1] – despite speaking English as a fourth (or fifth) language, and learning that language only after arriving, at age eight.


Goldie went on to Milwaukee’s North Division High School, doing well enough – despite taking time off to visit her married sister Sheyna in Denver – to gain entrance to the Milwaukee State Normal School (teachers’ college) on Milwaukee’s north side (This is now the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee, UWM)


A few years later, Goldie married Morris Meyerson (Mazel Tov!), whom she met while visiting her sister, who was recuperating from tuberculosis in Denver.  In an ironic twist, she had left Milwaukee at age 14 because her mother was pressuring her to get married.  After meeting Meyerson, she returned to North Division to graduate, and then married Meyerson in her parents’ living room. They had two children … but none of this is what Goldie is known for.


Goldie’s experience with oppression led to her indomitable desire for a Jewish homeland. Well, one thing led to another, and – to make a very long story short – in 1949 “Goldie” Mabovitch Meyerson was elected to the parliament (Knesset) of the new nation of Israel.  In 1956, as the government’s Foreign Minister under David ben-Gurion, she agreed to a request to take on a Hebrew last name. She took Meir, which means “illuminate.”


Golda Meir of course went on to become Prime Minister from 1969-74, only the third democratically chosen female head-of-state in the modern era.[2] Meir led her county through the crises of the Munich Olympics and Yom Kippur War.


6. The Kohls


I met Maxwell “Max” Kohl, and his three sons (Herbert “Herb”, Sidney “Sid” and Allen) during my five summers working at Brynwood Country Club. All were very pleasant, if somewhat reserved.


As a youth, Max lived in a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire that had mostly been historically Polish.  Although a mere teenage lad and a non-combatant, Max was captured by Russian soldiers during World War I and spent most of the war as a prisoner in Siberia.  After returning home – which had become repatriated to the resurrected nation of Poland – he immigrated to the US in 1921 when he was twenty. [1]


Settling in Milwaukee, Max met and married Mary Hiken, a Russian-Jewish immigrant.  They worked hard and saved enough money to set up a small neighborhood grocery store.  Then another, and another.


By the end of World War II the country was primed for economic explosion on many fronts.  “New” and “big” meant better: from cars, to neighborhoods and houses, to travel.  Max Kohl was ready with an idea he had experimented with in his small stores: the self-serve Supermarket, each with a stand-alone deli, bakery, and even butcher and, eventually, floral departments. The first Kohl’s supermarket opened in Milwaukee in 1946.  By the 1970s some sixty iconic stores, with their arched facade, spread out over Wisconsin – as well as a few in northern Illinois and Indiana.


[One last autobiographical note: I worked in a Kohl’s grocery supermarket in fall-spring 1973-‘74.]

Classic Kohl's Supermarket Facade

Classic Kohl’s Supermarket Facade


In 1962, the Kohl family also began opening a string of general merchandise stores.  By the time I met them, around 1970 or ’71, sons Sid, Allen and Herb were managing the business, Max was in semi-retirement, and the controlling interest in the business was being sold off for many millions of dollars.


Herb and Allen stayed on to manage the business until 1979, when the family became fully financially divested from the Kohl’s label.  In 1985, when the Milwaukee Bucks (Milwaukee’s National Basketball Association franchise) threatened to leave the city, Herb Kohl wrote a check to buy the team.  It turned out to be quite a bargain, at only $18 million.  (He sold the franchise in 2014 for $550 million). Allen stayed with the new Kohl’s company as an executive, helping manage the company’s booming department store expansion from coast to coast to become America’s largest retail store chain, currently with over 1,100 stores in 49 states.


Of more consequence, however: Herb Kohl served as one of Wisconsin’s two senators, representing the state in Washington for four terms. He was elected in 1988, 1994, 2000 and 2006, declining to run in 2012. He’s tied for 2nd with Alexander Wiley at 24 years of senate service; only William Proxmire has served longer in the Senate for Wisconsin.  With nice bookends, Kohl campaigned in 1988 on the theme “Nobody’s senator, but yours”; and announced his retirement saying: “The office doesn’t belong to me. It belongs to the people of Wisconsin, and there is something to be said for not staying in office too long.” [2]


7.  The Binstock/Feingold Family


Around 1900, the Binsock family immigrated to the US from Poland [1] settling in Memphis, TN. The Feingolds arrived from Russia, settling first in New York, later in 1917 in Janesville, Wisconsin.  Their first generation children, Sylvia and Leon, met – like Golda Meir and Morris Meyerson – in Denver, Colorado.  Unlike the Meyersons, they were married there, too, in Denver; my current home metro-area.  Mazel Tov!


Leon and Sylvia relocated to Leon’s boyhood town, in Janesville, about 70 miles southwest of Milwaukee, near Wisconsin’s southern border with Illinois, in the 1940s.  Janesville, as a rich agricultural center, was important enough to Milwaukee that a wood-plank road was built between them in the mid-19th century.[2]


Leon practiced law; Sylvia worked in the township land office.  Four children arrived, including two sons: David and Russell.  David, the oldest, influenced Russell to be interested in politics…which he had some success at.


In 1992, Russell “Russ” Feingold was elected to represent Wisconsin in the US Senate.  He vowed to never take a cent of Political Action Committee money; and he didn’t.  He was re-elected twice, in ’98 and ’04, serving a total of 18 years, before being defeated in 2010 by Ron Johnson. He was a very principled and humble senator, and both he and Wisconsin can take pride in his service. (There are some highlights of his career in the footnotes). [3]




8. Wrapping Up


Even with the great numbers of Jews in places like New York, New Jersey and Florida [1]<, there must be something special about Wisconsin, that melting pot within a melting pot. For it was Wisconsin that became – at the same time as California – the first state to have both senate seats held by Jews.[2]  And it was Milwaukee, Wisconsin that provided the fertile setting for a little immigrant Jewish girl to blossom and eventually become a head of state – the first female head of state of a western nation.





Perhaps, then, it comes as no surprise that Emma Lazarus – the great American poet who penned the lines “Give me your tired, your poor” with which the Statue of Liberty welcomes immigrants – was Jewish, from Sephardic descent.


Gazing back through the decades, I’ve grown to be proud of my childhood hometown.  It is a special place within a special country: where anyone, including immigrants and their descendants can ascend to dizzying heights within one or two generations.  Let’s keep it that way.


Shalom Havarim!


Joe Girard ©  2014




[1] First ten amendments, and amendments thirteen, fourteen and fifteen, to the Constitution of the United States.


[2] From the Sonnet “The New Colossus”, by Emma Lazarus:


“Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.


“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she

With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”



  1. Milwaukee, 1960s – the Catholics

[1] Boyhood friendships: Friendship 50.  https://sites.google.com/site/girardmeister2/friendship-50


  1. Milwaukee Immigration

[1] Milwaukee’s natural harbor (and other stuff) … http://www.themakingofmilwaukee.com/history/

[2] 38% 1st tongue German speakers in 1900.  Wisconsin German Land and Life; Heike Bungert, Cora Lee Kluge, and Robert C. Ostergren; by Max Kade Institute for German-American Studies, 2006

Several thousand more were from Switzerland, mostly from German speaking Cantons. http://csumc.wisc.edu/mki/Ethnic/ethn-his.html

About 20% of Milwaukeeans were Polish Immigrants or 1st generation Poles in 1900.  www.themakingofmilwaukee.com/people/stories.cfm,
However it is difficult to give accurate numbers, since Poland did not exist as a state from 1795 until 1918. Because of German and Austro-Hungarian dominance, many spoke German well enough to pass as Germans to English speakers.


[3] The Saint Louis Browns moved to Baltimore in 1954, becoming the Orioles and still retaining its American League affiliation.

Curious side note: in 1901 the original American League had a Baltimore franchise named the Orioles.  They moved to New York in 1903, becoming the New York Highlanders, and, eventually, the New York Yankees.


In 1901, the Milwaukee Brewers finished 48-89; a win ratio of only 0.350 – horrible. In the dead ball era, they gave up an average of over 6 runs per game, perhaps doomed by a fielding percentage of only 0.934.



  1. Milwaukee 1960s and 70s – the Jews
  2. The Jews


  1. Goldie Mabovitch

[1] This school is now named “Golda Meir Elementary School”

[2] Indira Gandhi of India and Sirimavo Bandaranaike of Ceylon preceded Meir as democratically chosen female heads of state


  1. The Kohls

[1] Some sources say Maxwell Kohl arrived in the US in 1924, some say 1921.  For instance, his bio in the Milwaukee Journal, when he passed away in 1983.

[2] Odd Herb Kohl note: at college (University of Wisconsin) roomed with boyhood friend, Bud Selig, now the commissioner of Major League Baseball. Selig is also Jewish.



  1. Binstock-Feingold Family

[1] Actually from the Polish speaking region of Galicia — a small kingdom near the junction of Poland, Ukraine, Slovakia and Hungary — with bits of Romanian culture thrown in.  Under Austro-Hungarian rule at the time, it was willfully and administratively economically depressed so as to avoid industrial development, and instead be a breadbasket for the rest of the empire. Most Jews in Galicia were not just Orthodox, they were Hasidic.

Galicia ceased to exist as a political entity of any sort at the end of World War 1.


[2] The entire route of the Janesville-Milwaukee wood-plank road still exists today.  Most of the length is still named “Janesville Road”, shortened from the original name “Janesville Plank Road.”  The diagonal section within Milwaukee County was renamed Forest Home Avenue in 1871. Plank roads went out of style in the 1860s, as railroad became more efficient, reliable and widespread.

[3] Although a loyal Democrat — a friend to hard working families — Feingold held some principled positions that many current Republicans can appreciate (besides not taking PAC money.)

  • He was the only senator to vote against the PATRIOT Act, seeing within it the possibility of an unrestrained police state — perhaps portending the massive invasive spying of the NSA exposed about 10 years later by Edward Snowden.
  • He voted against No Child Left Behind on the principle that local control of schools was much preferable to big central government control.
  • He teamed with Republican John McCain to get the McCain-Feingold Act passed; a gallant and ultimately failed attempt to get much of the dirty money out of politics.
  • Feingold always had the lowest net worth of any senator, returned all his pay raises to the treasury, and left as he came in: humble, of simple means, unapologetic and owing no one anything.



  1. Wrapping Up

[1] Jewish population by state: http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/US-Israel/usjewpop.html

— Wisconsin is near the bottom at 0.5%; California near the top at 3.2%

— Top two are: New York, 9%; New Jersey 5.7%

Nationally it is about 2%


— By pure numbers

  1. New York, 1.8Million
  2. California, 1.2Million



[2] Wisconsin is tied with California as the first state to have two Jewish senators.  In January 1993 Barbara Levy Boxer was sworn in as California’s 2nd Jewish senator, joining Diane Goldman Feinstein — who was seated the previous November to complete Pete Wilson’s term — on the same day that Russ Feingold was sworn in.

Later, Connecticut had two Jewish Senators from Jan 2011 to Jan 2013 (Lieberman and Blumenthal; Lieberman retired in Jan 2013; Blumenthal is still in the Senate).