August 19, 2010 by Amy Elliott Bragg
Workmen’s Circle Cemetery
In the early 1920s, my grandfather Isadore came to Detroit from what is now Belarus. My great-grandfather Yehuda was already here, building houses on the east side for the rapidly expanding community of other European immigrants settling at the boundaries the city.
Yehuda died in 1954. He was 86 years old. (If you want to skip the mental math, he was born in 1868. Time marches on.)
He’s buried at Workmen’s Circle.
I never would have known this had a reader not pointed out to me (at a really fun backyard party, after some champagne) that he’d noticed an out-of-place Orthodox Cemetery near Roseville, nestled between Wal-Mart and a Hampton Inn, or something. I forgot about it for a few days. (Thanks a lot, champagne.) Then I asked my dad where his parents were buried. He said they were at Beth El, at 6 Mile and Middlebelt, but that he thought his grandfather was somewhere around Mt. Clemens, at a Jewish Cemetery on Gratiot.
Let the games begin, right?
Detroit’s Jewish population in 1920 reached 35,000, a 10-year growth of almost 250%. In the city and all over the country, the climate was right for new congregations, new community organizations, new social clubs and new political movements.
Workmen’s Circle, a progressive Jewish fraternal organization dedicated to social justice and (at least today) a “big tent approach” to Jewish culture and community (see their website), was founded in New York in 1900. Rooted in the labor movement, progressive socialist politics and the Eastern European Jewish tradition, Workmen’s Circle was a big hit in Detroit. By 1917, the Detroit branch of Workmen’s Circle was the largest branch of the fraternity in North America and, by far, Detroit’s most popular Jewish organization. (See the Jewish Virtual Library’s entry on Detroit.)
Workmen’s Circle Cemetery was established in Clinton Township in 1919, with separate sections designated for member organizations, including several local congregations, Jewish lodges and friendship societies.
It’s one of the most distinctive (and well-kept!) cemeteries I have ever seen. Many of the burial sections have their own signs and gateways:
The search for my great-grandfather had barely begun when I found the Irwin I. Cohn Michigan Jewish Cemetery Index, a digitized and searchable database of over 64,000 burial records from the mid-1800s to 1999 for almost all of the Jewish Cemeteries in Southeastern Michigan. My dad cross-referenced, and within a week I knew that Yehuda was at rest at Workmen’s Circle, buried with his congregation in the Beth Schmuel section of the cemetery.
Dad casually mentioned that Yehuda had helped build, literally, Beth Schmuel. Founded in 1926, the congregation operated out of a rented hall for a few years before buying a house at Blaine and Twelfth from a bank for $2500 cash. Yehuda, a charter member of the congregation, helped convert the home into a synagogue, with apartments upstairs for the rabbi and his family. (More on the 40-year history of Beth Schmuel here. The congregation, which had grown wildly to a membership of more than 400 families, built a new synagogue at Dexter and Buena Vista in 1948, where they stayed until the congregation disbanded in 1959.)
Standing at Yehuda’s grave — lightning from a receding thunderstorm flickering in the sky — I felt an unusual chill. Readers of the blog will know that I’ve been visiting relative strangers at cemeteries since this project began. Why would Yehuda be different? He’s a relative. But a stranger. I know more about most of the dead people I’ve written about here than I know about him. If we were to meet, I’m not sure he’d feel much of a connection to me — an agnostic ethnic mutt, decidedly not Jewish (or anything else), a child of the comfortable suburbs.
But I am the daughter of his grandson. Our lives, and our experiences of the world, are completely removed from each other, but that fact remains.
It’s a funny feeling. Maybe that’s all there is to it.
In the Jewish tradition, I left a small stone on his grave marker. Like a hard, ancient, uncorruptable calling card:
Someone was here to see you.