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Jewish Cleveland - Negotiating the Old and New Worlds

102-year-old Gertrude Lemel recalls that it was a challenge for her mother to maintain a kosher household. In accordance with Old Testament dictates, she tried to keep a separate set of plates and utensils for meat and milk dishes. But, whenever a maid got the silverware mixed up, Gertrude's mom would grab it and march out into the backyard of their Glenville home.

GERTRUDE LEMEL: If she would find a milk fork in the meat forks, she would take it, and stick it in the ground. You ever hear of that?

Sticking contaminated silverware in the ground was an ancient purification ritual that soon fell by the wayside. That pull between the old and the new in America was predicted in 1839 by the rabbi that blessed Cleveland's first Jewish settlers, who hailed from Unsleben, Bavaria. The rabbi's words are on a document on display at the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage in Beachwood. The museum's Education Director, Lynda Bender reads a passage for us.

LYNDA BENDER: "Be careful that you don't leave the faith that has sustained your fathers for generations behind. You're going to a place where there's no compulsory religious education. You're going to a place where there's many things that will be different and new. Hold on to your faith".

Sean Martin of the Western Reserve Historical Society says those early settlers, like any immigrant group, came here to improve their lives economically.

SEAN MARTIN: ...but also to escape persecution and government sanctions against them. The government in Bavaria had decreed that there shall not be an increase of Jewish families.

And, like many immigrants, they came to Northeast Ohio because someone they knew was already here. Fur trader Simson Thorman wrote home about the mercantile possibilities of Cleveland, strategically located where a river met a major lake. This early group of German settlers was followed by a bigger wave from Eastern Europe, in the first part of the 20th century. And, Sean Martin says, this group soon made a national impact in the clothing business.

SEAN MARTIN: It was huge, in the 1910s and 1920s, in terms of the garment industry, we're second only to New York.

Martin adds that companies like Richman Brothers and Joseph & Feiss not only kept people clothed, but also kept them employed and helped them assimilate. Immigrants of all ethnicities and religions quickly found work in the local garment industry.

SEAN MARTIN: Joseph & Feiss is probably the best example. What they really did was to sponsor all sorts of benefits for their workers. Not just sick benefits, but classes in learning English and learning nutrition. Essentially: how to be an American.

Cleveland's Jewish history has many stories about small businesses that went on to become major corporations. There was the building materials company of the Ratner family that became Forest City Enterprises --- one of the country's largest developers. There was Jacob Sapirstein, whose business, peddling greeting cards off of a horse cart, became American Greetings. And now, a new group of Jewish immigrants has come to find their own opportunities in Northeast Ohio.

YURI TSIMBLER: My name is Yuri Tsimbler. I'm from Russia.

MAGDA TSIMBLER: My name is Magda Tsimbler [then speaks in Russian] UP & UNDER

Magda Tsimbler says she came here with her husband Yuri, because they had no Jewish community in their Moscow neighborhood. The Tsimblers now live in an East Cleveland apartment complex that houses about 100 Jewish refugees from Russia. They were resettled here by the Jewish Family Service Association over the past 15 years, since the fall of the Soviet Union. Caseworker Lana Naku serves as translator.

LANA NAKU (translates): They did not have freedom of religion. They could not celebrate Jewish holidays, like Rosh Hashanah, except inside their apartment, hiding from the neighbors, because they are fearful the neighbor will find out and somebody can persecute them.

The national movement to resettle Soviet Jews in the U.S. was started by Cleveland-area activists, in 1963. And now, Yuri and Magda Tsimbler have found a new community where they are free to practice their faith.

MUSIC: "Terkisher Freylekhs" UP & UNDER

The Northeast Ohio Jewish community has also produced a number of nationally important individuals, ranging from Sally Priesand --- the first female rabbi in the country --- to influential Senator Howard Metzenbaum, who spent 19 years in Congress. Novelist Herbert Gold hails from Lakewood and Rock & Roll radio personality Alan Freed got his start as a DJ in Akron. The music of South Euclid's Steven Greenman isn't exactly rock and roll, but it still has a lot of …soul.


Greenman paid tribute to his great, great grandfather, Max, and other family members, in a collection of new Klezmer tunes he recorded in 2004. Some photos and a reproduction of Max's immigration papers are part of the package.

STEVEN GREENMAN: I thought it would be really cool to put it in the CD. Look at the bottom here, it says "Nicholas II - Emperor of all the Russias" [laughs].

Greenman says the images and the music are the way he keeps his heritage alive. He represents the latest chapter in a very old story.

STEVEN GREENMAN: This is the music of my ancestors, of my people, and all of Jewish history. The culture was wiped out in the Holocaust, in WW2. I like to think that I'm one of the ones who is keeping it going by creating new tunes and playing the music.

Photo Gallery

102-year-old Gertrude Lemel

Sean Martin, WRHS Jewish Archives

Steven Greenman, Klezmer Musician

Yuri and Magda Tsimbler, Russian immigrants

Cleveland garment industry shot from the Western Reserve Historical Society

Fine's Grocery at 3644 Woodland Avenue, circa 1915

Hoffman family, circa the Civil War

David C. Barnett was a senior arts & culture reporter for Ideastream Public Media. He retired in October 2022.