Looking toward City Hall on Woodward and Michigan from Cadillac Square. The big building left of center is the posh Ponchartrain
Looking toward City Hall on Woodward and Michigan from Cadillac Square. The big building left of center is the posh Ponchartrain Hotel

One hundred years ago, in 1917, Detroit’s Jews wondered and argued about the number of Jews residing in the city.

Community leaders estimated the figure at 35,000. Many in Detroit’s Jewish population were moving northward, and many shopkeepers were following the trend up the Hastings corridor north of Grand Boulevard. Some were opting to move as far as 12th Street, about a mile west of Hastings. (Historic Hastings Street, the main street of the early Jewish community in the city, was demolished for the Chrysler Freeway, I-75.)

On June 5, 1917, two months after the United States entered World War 1, Detroit’s males between ages 21-30 had to register for the draft. Boys in senior classes were presented with their diplomas early to allow them to graduate before they volunteered for service. Fort Wayne saw action by housing battalions of troops, and a total of 65,000 of the city’s men and women would serve in the armed forces.

Looking up Woodward and Detroit’s skyline from Canada

Jews constituted only 3 percent of America’s population in 1917. However, almost 5 percent of those serving in the armed forces were Jews. Eighteen percent of the serving Jews were volunteers, which also was above the national average. By the time the war ended almost 18 months later, more than 60 Detroit Jews would die while in uniform.

In August 1917, the Jewish Legion was organized by the British government. Its purpose was to drive the Turks, who had joined the Central Powers (Germany, Austria and Hungary), out of Palestine. Joseph Sandweiss was the first Detroiter to sign up at the Hastings Street recruiting office.

Norman Cottler, who would become well-known years later for his Dexter-Davison markets, also enlisted in the Jewish Legion to fight for the liberation of Palestine from the Turkish yoke. Cottler became a corporal and served in the same battalion with David Ben-Gurion, who would become Israel’s first prime minister.

The Majestic Building opposite Detroit’s City Hall on Woodward at Michigan, had a popular eatery in the basement

British Prime Minister David Lloyd George and his Foreign Minister Arthur Balfour were sympathetic to the right of Jews to return to their biblical homeland and to the establishment of a Jewish state. The men were friends of Chaim Weizmann, head of the Zionist movement. Weizmann requested and received a statement from the British government supporting the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. The statement, drafted by Arthur Balfour, was delivered on Nov. 2, 1917, and became known as the Balfour Declaration. It stated:

“His majesty’s government view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a National Home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”

Word of the Balfour Declaration swept across the Jewish world. Jews celebrated and danced in the streets, including in Detroit. Members of the imposing Temple Beth El on Woodward and Eliot didn’t share the excitement engulfing others in the city. For years, leaders of the Reform movement, including Beth El’s spiritual leader Leo M. Franklin, had encouraged Jews to Americanize, not to adopt the Zionist cause and to shed other levels of observance. Franklin spoke out against Jewish soldiers based at Fort Custer, near Battle Creek, for requesting kosher food. After all, Franklin stated, they weren’t in the army as Jews, but as Americans.

Joseph Papo, the first known Sephardic Jew in Detroit, arrived in 1911. Five years later, Jacob Chicorel arrived from Turkey and found a job working at the Ford Motor Company. In 1917, the Chicorels held the first High Holiday services in their home for Sephardic immigrants.

Ford produced its first truck in 1917, and more cars were seen in the streets. To relieve congestion, Mayor Oscar Marx promoted the idea of a subway, while the Detroit Free Press suggested an elevated monorail system.

To help direct traffic, the city installed an elevated platform supporting a policeman responsible for regulating traffic flow on Woodward Avenue. It provided a sense of security for pedestrians and reduced reckless driving. For those going to funerals of Shaarey Zedek members, the ride was a lot further as the synagogue purchased 50 acres on 14 Mile Road near Woodward, and Clover Hill Park Cemetery was established.

Business at Binyomin the Blacksmith and at Able Gross’ Harness and Feed Store on Hastings was declining as more Detroiters were purchasing automobiles. The House of Shelter acquired a 15-room house on the corner of Winder and Brush, today a fly ball north of Comerica Park. The new home formerly served as the Old Folks Home. Individuals or families needing temporary shelter had adequate sleeping quarters, a synagogue, reading room and library.

For those seeking more action than reading, there were many houses of amusement in the city in 1917. Along three blocks on Monroe Avenue, running eastward from Campus Martius, there were 11 theaters. Six presented live talent, and five were devoted to showing silent movies. There were many opportunities for employment in the auto industry, as 23 companies manufactured automobiles in Detroit.

Abe Rosen and his father, Sam, opened a branch of the Warsaw Bakery north of Grand Boulevard in the Westminster-Oakland area. Abe was responsible for many innovations. He placed bread on racks behind the countertops to test its freshness. He sold rolls as a baker’s dozen, offering 13 instead of 12. He installed a container of string in the ceiling dropping down for quick, handy use. Abe’s window displays of cakes for all occasions were well known in the city. What wasn’t well known, however, was that the enticing-looking cakes were made of cardboard. Abe’s brother, Dave, had another Warsaw Bakery, a half-mile east of Oakland on Joseph Campeau in Hamtramck.

Nate S. Shapero, a 26-year-old Navy pharmacist’s mate stationed in his hometown, used a borrowed $4,500 to open a drug store on the ground level of a Detroit rooming house on Cass and Ledyard. He named his new enterprise, “Economical Drug Store No. 1.” The optimistic Shapero would live to a ripe old age, but would celebrate more stores than birthdays under the banner of Cunningham.

And, 1917 was also memorable for trivia buffs as it was the year future president John F. Kennedy was born and the year William F. Cody (Buffalo Bill) died.

Irwin Cohen Special to the Jewish News


Irwin Cohen worked in the front office of the Detroit Tigers where he earned a 1984 World Series ring. The author of 10 books, including the iconic Echoes of Detroit’s Jewish Communities, is a columnist for the national Jewish press and a speaker on local and national subjects. He may be reached in his dugout at irdav@sbcglobal.net.


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