There’s an old Jewish saying, “Absence makes the heart grow fonder … and your Jewish…
the wandering jew – Joshua Lewis Berg
Back After Almost 30 Years … I’ve found the future of Jewish Detroit
Let’s start with a little backstory.
“Detroit” is the answer I always give when asked where I’m from. Maybe I imagine claiming, for a fleeting moment, vicariously but completely undeserved, a romanticized “street cred,” conjured up by its reputation as a tough urban city. I know the follow-up question will inevitably be, “Detroit, really?” compelling me to explain the truth, that I actually hail from the suburbs and, during my adolescence, visited Downtown Detroit maybe as many times as I can count on the totality of my manicured digits. I still say I’m from Detroit. But, most Jewish Metro Detroiters claim our city with pride … from a distance.
Like most Detroit Jews of my generation, I grew up in the ’70s and ’80s in Oakland County, farther from Downtown than Jews living in Windsor, Canada, eh? Returning now, both the Big D and the Big D2 (Detroit Diaspora) are much the same and also very different. I have fond memories of visiting the RenCen and Greektown, proud to call Detroit my home. I also remember the distant guilt I felt as I read, from the comfort of my suburban home, about Coleman Young’s curfew, established after countless arsons lit one Devil’s Night, blackening the city and its reputation.
My Detroit and my Jewish relationship to it were very different than that of my grandparents’ generation when “urban” was as synonymous with “Jew” as it is with “black” today. It wasn’t my parents’ relationship either. Mom and Dad moved out of the city but could still recall specific neighborhoods and landmarks populated by Jews: the original Dexter Davison, Boston-Edison, Palmer Woods, Mumford High School and Zukin’s ice cream parlor. They continued to struggle with the guilt of white flight, or Hebrew hegira, in their case.
By the time I came of age, Jewish Detroiters no longer slept in the city. We were living large in the suburbs, building large homes and attending contemporary, largely tent-shaped places of worship. Our hearts were still tethered to the city but, physically, the coops we flew were now abandoned, or else converted churches. We were now “Metropolitan” Detroiters.
Detroit proper was a city struggling to keep its head above water and recover from a good lashing by deindustrialization, siphoning of federal funds, systemic racism and the aforementioned white flight, which killed schools, decimated employment opportunities, and fed homelessness, crime and poverty.
Today, in this, the umpteenth revitalization attempt, add to that more municipal corruption and blunt force trauma from inept state and now federal government. But, the picture is not entirely bleak. Detroit and Detroiters are fighters and, against great odds, I see positive changes and signs of hope that this could be “the” recovery.
One of the first days back, my mom drove us Downtown to see the pride of the city, Shinola. The area around it revealed plenty of new retail shops, restaurants and urban blight reimagined as rustic millennial hip. I was impressed but hesitant. Although I hoped it brought jobs and money to the city, somehow it felt wrong that most native Downtowners could likely afford nothing actually sold there.
Gentrification, privatization and capitalism can catalyze some good change but are certainly not panacea and, left unfettered, can divide more than they integrate (is my political slip showing?). What truly inspired me, however, was the fact that a month before I arrived, all of Detroit’s streets finally had streetlights. All of them. Maybe we were finally seeing the light!
On the way home, my mom drove us through the old Jewish neighborhoods and talked about where she grew up and lived as a young adult. I was shocked, not by the state of things, but by the fact that, at age 46, I had never seen any of this! Living here as a youth, my Detroit Jewish subconsciously racist suburban self imagined that below 8 Mile Road lay the 7th, not mile road, but circle of hell.
Yes, urban blight did still abound, but I was now seeing the most amazing architecture and areas I never imagined existed. One thing I also noticed in these erstwhile Jewish ’hoods was that, although there were new street lights, the nerot tamid were gone.
Just around the same time I was resigning myself to the conclusion that there were no Jews left in Detroit proper, the Detroit News landed on my kitchen counter with the headline, “Detroit Synagogue Gets First Rabbi in 16 Years.” The almost century-old Downtown Synagogue, the last remaining actively Jewish structural presence Downtown, at long last, hired a permanent rabbi. The brilliant Rabbi Ariana Silverman was now the sole resident rabbi with a permanent pulpit Downtown. Where there is a rabbi, there must be Jews.
Were these the trailblazers of our Detroit Jewish future of which I speak? I wasn’t sure, but it engendered and motivated a more in-depth search.
My search commenced where all searches logically begin, Google. This brought up the erudite Lila Corwin Berman and her book, Metropolitan Jews: Politics, Race and Religion in Postwar Detroit. I located it in the JCC of Metro Detroit, where I already knew I would have my first sighting of the not-so-elusive current Yidus Detroitus in their natural habitat … West Bloomfield.
Driving out there, breathing the rarified air of upward mobility born of hard work and white privilege, my suspicions were confirmed that finding Jewish Detroit would take me quite far from Detroit proper. I was a full 25 miles and at least a generation or two away from the first Jewish neighborhood down by the river, what used to be Hastings Street.
Over the next few weeks, I networked, toured, attended, partied, fundraised, gala-ed, invoked, celebrated, Shabbaton-ed, group meditated, spiel-ed, and kibitzed, collecting enough material to write a third testament. I finally found it, the future of Jewish Detroit … to be revealed in my next column.