15 September 2008

Wisconsin: Jewish life documentary

Although Andrew Muchin believed he would find that Jews have lived in some 100 Wisconsin communities, the local historian was surprised by evidence of Jews in more than 300 state villages, town and cities.

This story in the Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle describes a documentary on small town Jewish life in that state.

Most of the 300 towns have no Jews left, said Muchin, director of the Wisconsin Society for Jewish Learning’s Wisconsin Small Jewish Communities History Project.

“There are Jews, that I know of, in fewer than 100 communities right now and where there were synagogues in maybe 21 or 22 communities at the peak, outside of Milwaukee and Madison, I think it’s 11 now that have synagogues and some of them are, frankly, fading — synagogues in aging communities.”

Muchin’s research has resulted in a soon-to-be-released documentary film, “Chosen Towns: The Story of Jews in Wisconsin’s Small Communities,” made in collaboration with docUWM.

The one-hour film will be aired statewide on Wednesday, Oct. 15, at 7 p.m. on both Wisconsin Public Television and Milwaukee Public Television.

The state's small town Jews included merchants, farmers, cattle brokers, and fur and scrap metal wholesalers, who lived in communities such as Arpin, Sheboygan, LaCrosse and Appleton.

WSJL was founded in the 1950s to research Wisconsin Jewish history, but in 2001, then-president Dan Weber restarted the project and Muchin was hired to direct the project.

The film idea developed in 2005, when the WSJL contacted Milwaukee documentary maker Brad Lichtenstein, founder/director of docUWM at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Peck School of the Arts Film Department. He had just launched the media center to teach undergrad and grad film students how to make documentaries from community projects.

Funding included a two-year grant of $125,000 from the Helen Bader Foundation and support from the LE Phillips Family Foundation and the Lucky and Jack Rosenberg Philanthropic Fund.

Eight students - none Jewish - began the project in fall 2006, using Muchin's resources.

Future plans are to raise more funds to create a small Jewish communities curriculum for public and Jewish schools, a museum-quality exhibit to travel the state, and perhaps a book.

Free public screenings of the film in eight cities prior to the TV screening wll feature Q&As with student filmmakers and local experts:

7pm Thursday, September 18, Discovery World, Milwaukee
2pm Sunday, September 21, Mt. Sinai Congregation, Wausau
7.30pm Tuesday, September 23, UW-Madison, Madison
7pm Thursday, September 25, Moses Montefiore Synagogue, Appleton
7pm Sunday, September 28, Congregation Sons of Abraham, LaCrosse
7pm Thursday, October 2, Beth Hillel Temple, Kenosha
1pm Monday, October 6, Jewish Museum, Milwaukee.
noon Sunday, October 12, Congregation Beth El, Sheboygan.

Muchin and Lichtenstein will speak at the Milwaukee screenings. For more information, read the complete article at the link above.

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