Milwaukee, as Pesach comes

Deeply provincial. Proletarian — yet rich. And perplexing, and funky. It’s great.

“Grand Ave., Bascule Bridge, Milwaukee, Wis.” Postcard, c. 1906. Shepherd Express.

It’s Milwaukee.

Though I was born up the shore, I moved with my family to the big city, Milwaukee, when I was 10.

Today, when I get yearly or biannual leave from my monastic routine in Poland, it is to Milwaukee that I return.

Like other industrial cities that got going around 1850 in America profunda, this is a place built by sturdy European workingfolk. A not-very-nice — and thus not-at-all-Midwestern — wag might say that if Chicago, in Sandburg’s poem, is the City of the Big Shoulders, then Milwaukee is the City of the Extra-Wide Feet.

Not nice, but there’s truth in that. The place is more na’alei Golda than silver slippers.

To Milwaukee came Bauern from the Rhine and Moselle; came half-literate Slavic subjects of the Austrian empire; came Jews; came long-faced Luxemburgers smelling of curds and whey.

Where wigwams once stood among the cattails of the Kinnikinnick, Poles shifted blocks and brass railings from a defunct post office to create a Catholic basilica in the baroque mode.

Downtown, on pilings over a swamp, Germans erected a Rathaus that’s a near-copy of the one in Hamburg and a library just like Leipzig’s.

This is the town where Lawrence Welk got his start: the king of polka and corn-pop came to us from Strasburg, North Dakota.

The name of that town expresses an entire cultural universe in just three words.

Milwaukee was Mitteleuropa in the Great Midwest. And when the snow comes (always early) and frosts tavern and church and civic temple alike, you feel like humming something by Strauss.

What strikes me about Milwaukee is how much remains the same. Maybe the ice retards evolution.

But will it last?

When I go back to Milwaukee, I see more, not less, of Europe. Having lived in Poland for nearly a decade, I’m more alert to the fingers of Kaiser Wilhelm and Franz Josef that trace the lintels of old Milwaukee buildings.

I sense tones of the Old World in old Milwaukee people, too. Four, five, and six generations after their ancestors left the Continent, older folk still have a slope to their shoulders and a shoehorned sound to their vowels that tells the knowing: we come from somewhere else.

They all came from somewhere else.

I came from somewhere else. Coming from that odd and oddly-named place, I have always known it.

It won’t last.

And knowing that might have put me on some common spiritual ground with those who came out of Ur and Egypt and Babylon to find their promised land.

“We have here no lasting city,” says the ancient Christian author of the Letter to the Hebrews.

This time, this year, that’s what Exodus says to me.

About the Author
Born in Wisconsin, Erik Ross is a priest of the Dominican Order who lives in Switzerland and comes often to Israel. For many years, he was stationed in Poland. He has long been active in Jewish-Christian conversations. He writes here with the permission of his major superior.