In Melrose, a Wisconsin town with a population of 498, the Jewish population rose to three when I was born in 1946. Ten years later, when my family, now numbering five, moved north to a larger Jewish community in Superior, the small farming town of Melrose again had no Jews.
This summer, my husband Dan and I returned to southwestern Wisconsin to see what had changed and how many of my memories of a happy and serene childhood were reflected in current reality. While I thought it unlikely that I could get through 10 days in the area without some disillusionment, I felt I had to see this part of my life one more time.
Joining her parents, Harriet and Israel Lavine, Sharon Mosenkis brought the Jewish population of Melrose to three in 1946.
First, some background. My father’s family has lived in northern Wisconsin and Minnesota since the 1890s. We assume that when they arrived from Lithuania, they were drawn there by the boom in iron-ore mining. After graduating from the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine during the Depression, my father, Israel Lavine, bought the medical practice of a retiring physician in Melrose.
My mother came from a large Latvian family that settled in Milwaukee. I was told that one of my mother’s uncles played bridge with Golda Meir. My mother’s parents, Jacob and Anna Fein Rosen, lived in Sparta, about ‘0 miles from Melrose. Grandpa Jake ran a ladies’ shoe store that went bankrupt during the Depression. Later he was a grocer, and by the time I was born, he owned a tavern. At one point, grandpa was also a town alderman. I never learned whether he was the only Jewish alderman on the Sparta town council, but he was certainly the first.
I do not remember feeling out of place because of religion. This may have been because our family did nothing to stand out from our Lutheran and Catholic neighbors, or because my father was such a needed person in the community that no one would have wanted to antagonize him, or it might simply have been that my brother, sister, and I were shielded from it. If it happened, it was never discussed in our presence.
Today the town of Melrose is dying, but the farms all around are thriving. Since the late 1960s there has been a very large influx of Amish, who, I was told, migrated from Pennsylvania because good land is cheaper in Wisconsin. Melrose has had a town doctor only sporadically since we left in 1956. It became less necessary with better roads to larger towns nearby. There was a Jewish doctor again in Melrose for two years recently, but he was assigned there by the government to be the regional physician for the Ho-Chunk Nation, a Chippewa band.
The largest city in the area is La Crosse. When I was growing up, that city had a synagogue and a rabbi, so we went there for holiday services and twice weekly, if it could be managed my brother and I were driven there for Hebrew school. I never quite caught up with the class or made friends there because, given the driving distance, there were many days when my father wasn’t available to drive us because of the demands of his practice. In addition, there were no fast highways in the area at this time.
To get around the Hebrew school problem, Dad bought some Hebrew children’s primers and taught us himself in his office, which was above a store on Main Street. That is how I first learned Adon Olam, Ein Kelohenu, and the Hebrew alphabet. After a while, Dad arranged for the rabbi from La Crosse to come to Melrose to give us private lessons.
I remembered Cong. Sons of Abraham as a huge building that was crowded with people during the High Holidays. When I saw it in July, the front looked as I remembered, but oh so much smaller than in memory. Rabbi Simcha Prombaum and his wife Karen gave us a warm welcome and treated us to a festive and kosher Shabbat dinner. (It’s still a big deal to get kosher food in La Crosse.)
The highlight of the trip for me was my aliya on Shabbat morning. When the rabbi announced that I was a former member, back after a 50-year absence, a congregant called out, "Whatever they said back then to make you mad, we really apologize!"
Rabbi Prombaum suggested I make the shehechiyanu bracha, and it was certainly one of the most heartfelt brachot I’ve ever made.