They say geography is destiny. The hills of Greece, according to some historians, encouraged the locals to carve them into city-states. England, “bound in with the triumphant sea,” as Shakespeare put it, inherited the oceans. The Jews were born to a desert land besieged by mortal enemies and afflicted with drought and famine, and then they were exiled from it. You might say they inherited from their ancient geography and homelessness a somewhat toxic brew of existential fear and messianic longing. And they wrote about it.
The city of Cleveland does not have mortal enemies, unless you count Pittsburgh or Cincinnati, and it certainly does not suffer drought. It hasn’t recently been pillaged, unless you count Art Modell moving the Cleveland Browns to Baltimore, or perhaps the exodus overseas of the heavy industries that once made Cleveland the biggest city between New York and Chicago. But Cleveland does have “the Lake Effect,” and with it, I believe, begins the affinity between Clevelanders and Jews, whose identities depend in so many ways on twin catalogs of historic misery.
What is the lake effect? Well, it describes a weather pattern wherein moisture rises up off a lake, cools and condenses, and finally forms clouds, rain and snow. Because weather generally travels west to east at Cleveland’s latitude (due to the Coriolis Effect — look it up), northern cities that lie to the east of a body of water suffer particularly from the lake effect. Chicago endures the full force of the prairie winds that lie to its west, but having been built on the western shore of Lake Michigan, it doesn’t suffer the lake effect. Cleveland, on the other hand, lies on the eastern shore of Lake Erie — like Buffalo, which was constructed in the apocalyptic crotch of Lake Erie’s lake effect — and the lake water consequently punishes Cleveland with many overcast, rainy skies.
During my childhood, when temperatures were colder, the lake effect also meant gulag levels of snow. Lake Erie would offer up its fresh water to the sky, and the predatory Chicago winds would freeze it, push it over our heads and bury us to the nipples. In my house, this meant water drops falling into saucepans aligned in the doorway between the den and the porch, the placement necessary to catch the run-off from our rooftop iceberg.
Granted, leaking roofs pale in the face of ransacking Amalekites and cattle murrain, but plain old foul weather of the sort endured in Cleveland still inspires reflection about how humanity is dwarfed by nature. Such resignation bears at least a family resemblance to Jewish gloom culture. Could that be why so many Jews call Cuyahoga County their home? Were they drawn by shtetl memories of Baltic mud-ice on their shoes? In fact, there are more Jews per capita in Cleveland than in Chicago, and Cleveland’s Jewish population is only a little smaller in absolute terms than that of Westchester County in New York. Cleveland Jews furthermore strongly embrace the notion of the Jewish people as an extended family. This is reflected in their fine corned beef sandwiches. Corky and Lenny’s delicatessen on Chagrin Boulevard makes Chicago, Boston and Philadelphia look about as Jewish as Moab. (Yes, we have a Chagrin Boulevard in Cleveland, and also a Chagrin Falls.)
And yet, Cleveland’s fundamental Jewishness has nothing much to do with its Jews. Lenny Bruce said that if you’re from New York, you’re Jewish even if you’re Catholic. He understood that being Jewish has less to do with the foreskin and more to do with the forebrain. New York makes you Jewish in one way, and Cleveland does so in another. Cleveland, like the Bible, like the Jews, has had vulnerability burned into its memory, and it’s consequently liturgical about pain.