Brewing Up Memories From Pushcart Days of Jewish Old Milwaukee

It Doesn't Get Any Better Than This

This One’s For You: In 1933, Leeb’s Tavern held a ‘Death to Prohibition’ celebration.
Courtesy of Jewish Museum Milwaukee
This One’s For You: In 1933, Leeb’s Tavern held a ‘Death to Prohibition’ celebration.

By Menachem Wecker

Published September 20, 2013, issue of September 27, 2013.
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A framed July 15, 1934, issue of the Milwaukee Sentinel, which appears in the exhibit, tells of the rapid growth of popcorn sales in Milwaukee following the repeal of Prohibition. “To supply the taverns, clubs, cafes, and other beer dispensaries, about 6 tons of corn are popped and distributed weekly by some 15 ‘manufacturers,’” the articles states, singling out one of those popcorn men: Irving Solomon. Solomon’s setup, which operated about 4 miles northwest of Gottlieb’s, stocked some 400 beer-serving establishments, according to the article.

Dubin learned from Solomon’s daughter, Jane Chester, who lent the 1934 article, that the popcorn-monger hawked his wares to bar owners as a strategy for patron retention, and for keeping those patrons thirsty from the salt.

Jewish immigrants from Russia and Eastern Europe also gravitated toward other professions, such as peddling, scrap metal and shoemaking, that required little overhead. “Jews were involved with scrapping one way or another for hundreds of years back in Europe,” said Jonathan Pollack, a history instructor and the author of the chapter “Success From Scrap and Secondhand Goods: Jewish Businessmen in the Midwest, 1890–1930” in the 2012 book “Chosen Capital: The Jewish Encounter With American Capitalism.”

German Jewish immigrants to Milwaukee in the mid-19th century were peddlers, but they soon learned that there were better incentives to purchase scrap metals — particularly when much of the iron ore in the area had been mined. “People were much more receptive if they knocked on the door and said, ‘Hey. I noticed a rusting plow out in your field. Can I give you a couple of bucks for that and take it off your hands?’” Pollack said. “And people would say: ‘Oh that old thing? Here, let me help you get that out of here. Thank you for taking it.’”

“Scrap in some ways is like peddling in reverse,” added Pollack, who will deliver a lecture titled “Built on Scrap” at the museum in October. One aspect of his research has been the occupational diversity of early Jewish communities in the Midwest. When one researches who the presidents of early Zionist societies and synagogue boards were, one finds that they were all scrap dealers, Pollack said.

“If you look at old city directories and phonebooks and things like that, you’ll have a city the size of Madison that would have like 10 scrap dealers, all of whom were Jewish,” he added. “It really sticks out at a point that Madison had a very tiny Jewish community…. Everybody was in scrap.”

Jews certainly aren’t monopolizing scrap any longer, but my trip to Milwaukee suggests it’s fair to assume that beer will remain a staple of Jewish diets for the foreseeable future.

Menachem Wecker is a Chicago-based writer on art and religion. Find out more about him at http://menachemwecker.com or on Twitter, @mwecker.


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