Approaching Milwaukee’s Helfaer Community Service Building, which Edward Durell Stone designed in 1973, it’s easy to be fooled by the windows. At first glance, the landscape-oriented building, nestled a block off Lake Michigan, resembles an enormous 10-by-3 wine box partition, with negative space peeking through the dividers. But however deceptive the highly reflective windows may be, the building turns out to be solid.
If the objects in the Jewish Museum Milwaukee’s mirrors are closer than they appear, its interior gallery space is smaller than one might assume. The exhibit “From Pushcarts to Professionals: The Evolution of Jewish Businesses in Milwaukee” (through December 1), which tells the story of 170 years of Jewish life in the city, occupies a single room, yet it features several gems that make it well worth a visit.
In a glass case alongside bottles of 3 Bears Grape Soda and Bon-Ton Sour Mix, and a Mug and Jug ashtray is a beer foam scraper that looks like a large, blunted butter knife. It takes some sleuthing to appreciate the full significance of the artifact.
On one of the wall panels in the exhibit, a photograph dated December 5, 1933, and titled “Death of Prohibition” shows more than two dozen people at Leeb’s Log Tavern, celebrating the ratification on that day of the 21st Amendment. Many of the men and some of the women assembled raise full beer glasses as they flank a casket fitted with a note: “Here lies the 18th amendment [Prohibition], died Dec. 5th 1933.” Set atop the coffer — between Jewish owners Max Leeb and Sam Tempkin — like tchotchkes on a mantel are a bottle of booze, a candlestick and the very same beer foam scraper.
Roberta Bloch, Leeb’s daughter, lent the scraper to the exhibit. She found it in a box of family materials that was labeled from the early 1930s. “Roberta is confident that the beer foam scraper pictured is the same one we now have on display,” said Molly Dubin, the Jewish Museum Milwaukee’s curator.
In the city of beer, Jews took to the brewing profession long before Maccabee and He’Brew. Leeb’s father-in-law, Max Gottlieb, owned another tavern, Gottlieb’s. It was located at 12th Street and Meinecke Avenue, about 2 miles northwest of Leeb’s location at Juneau Avenue and Third Street (now Dr. Martin Luther King Drive). Leeb, who changed his name from Gottlieb, later ran M&N Bar and Lounge, and his brother owned and ran Mug and Jug and later Layton Heights, a south side bar. Logoed ashtrays from M&N and Mug and Jug appear in the exhibit, although Layton Heights isn’t mentioned.
With Milwaukee’s large German immigrant population, taverns were goldmines. And when it came to outfitting those saloons with snacks to keep patrons thirsty, that, too, was a Jewish affair.