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.
The Rust Belt city has suffered a significant decline over the past half-century, and its residents feel it. They practice a certain chummy civic dysphoria that resonates at about the same frequency as a Passover Seder. They catalog their injuries and public humiliations: the burning of the Cuyahoga River on June 22, 1969, memorialized in Randy Newman’s song “Burn On” from the 1989 movie “Major League”; the 1978 civic default; the Browns’ last-second defeat at frozen Municipal Stadium on a misbegotten play known for all eternity as “Red Right 88”; the way they called us, from Canada to Florida, “The Mistake by the Lake.”
In no form of misery does Cleveland get as religious as it does about its sports teams. There are no words in other languages for “Cleveland Sports,” though some of the psalms convey about the same sense of epochal arthritis. Think “Babylonian Captivity.” People in Cleveland don’t speak of old sports catastrophes; they chant. There is an actual litany: The Drive, The Fumble, The Shot; it sounds like a person counting off Sorrowful Mysteries on rosary beads, or enumerating the various expulsions and massacres that litter Jewish history. Cleveland has thirsted for a major sports championship since 1964, when Jim Brown led the Cleveland Browns to the city’s last title. Then the river burned and no more championships came.
We continue to wander the desert like Moses. Brooklyn Dodgers fans knew this frustration; they were Jewish even if they were Catholic. In a faint echo of “Next year in Jerusalem,” the Dodgers fans said, “Wait till next year.” We keep fooling ourselves: “Witness!” we Clevelanders said, and let Nike hang a 20,000-square-foot banner of LeBron James in a Christ-like pose in Public Square. Then he “took his talents to South Beach” in an event that promptly entered the litany as The Decision.
The dirty secret in Cleveland is that we like our misery. We relish the opportunity to add a new grievance to our “Fill-in-the-Blank” litany. We like it in precisely the same way that Jews tongue the sore-tooth of suffering — hence the extent of the Yiddish kvetching arsenal. A colleague calls this communal affection for woe and complaint “The Comity of Auto-Schadenfreude,” which ought to be translated thus: “a happy society of those who take pleasure in their own misfortune.”
Auto-Schadenfreude is not masochism, but rather the odd pleasure of that old cartoon character Ziggy, “the quintessential little guy in a big world,” invented by Tom Wilson in Cleveland in 1969. Wilson’s New York Times obituary summed up Ziggy like this: “[Wilson] liked the name because it meant the character would come last in the alphabetical order of life, a theme he illustrated — literally — in one memorable strip. In it, Ziggy is stranded on a rooftop during a flood as a rescue boat picks up people alphabetically.” My mother had a Ziggy cartoon on our refrigerator for years. It showed Ziggy looking down at a page torn from his calendar, and the caption was, “So far so good.” The torn page was “January 1st.”
Auto-Schadenfreude no doubt creates a risk of despair or wallowing, but at its best it’s a culture that relieves misery by narrating and acknowledging it. It’s the very opposite of the guy at the cocktail party who tells you how great his job is and how great his kids are. A real Jew and a real Clevelander might bore you, but not in that way. After Jews acknowledge something good, they say in Yiddish, kin eyn-hore (or kennahorra, as I heard it from relatives, to rhyme with Cuyahoga), meaning “without the evil eye,” meaning anything good could disappear the second it’s said. Now, I admit that neurosis and superstition don’t help much, but give me a little of that haimish, Cleveland humility anytime, a little of that perspective that says: “You know and I know that sometimes it snows on your head. Sometimes your roof leaks. Sometimes your kicker has a herniated disc and your river catches on fire. But as long as you know it and I know it, we’ll get through it together. Pass the bourbon.”
Sing it, Randy:
Now the Lord can make you tumble
And the Lord can make you turn
And the Lord can make you overflow
But the Lord can’t make you burn
Burn on, big river, burn on
Burn on, big river, burn on
Austin Ratner, winner of the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, is the author of the forthcoming novel “In the Land of the Living” (Reagan Arthur / Little Brown, 2013).