An Expert's Guide to Jewish Detroit

I am in the east, but my heart is in the (Mid)west, my native concrete of Detroit. I “can’t forget the Motor City,” both because its people and places are dear to me and because Martha Reeves warns me not to in “Dancing in the Street.” That you may also follow the Vandellas’ advice, and know what to do with your dancing feet when they take you to that curious city due north of Canada (I ain’t kiddin’, look at a map!), I present these suggestions, customized for your personality type.

Michael Yashinsky, Applebaum senior fellow at the Yiddish Book Center—


If you are a Pious Maskil:

Satisfy both your inclinations in one fab Friday night downtown. Following the Jewish community’s mass move out of the city in the middle of the last century, most congregations found new homes in the suburbs, and many of the old synagogues are now Baptist churches, whose origins may be recognized by the Stars of David and twin tablets lingering on their stone facades. The Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue alone remains a shul. Catch a lively kabbalat service there, enjoy the company of young Hebrews who have reversed the decisions of their forebears and moved back to Detroit, and admire the windows with their squares of many colors. They always remind me of Maria’s stained-glass bedroom door in the film version of West Side Story. I love the look. I have a love and it’s all that I have.

Downtown Synagogue

Then make like the Yiddish theatergoers of old (Friday nights were big sellers at Littman’s People’s Theater, Detroit’s once-upon-a-time Yiddish playhouse) and head from the service to catch a show in a different kind of temple. The magnificent Detroit Opera House, once a 1920s movie palace, is a hop and a skip from the shul. When I worked there as a director a few years ago, the splendid surroundings proved a daily inspiration to our creative toil. The ceiling of the auditorium is like a great star-studded Fabergé egg! And the glorious voices below reach it as to the very heavens. Wednesdays are “Access Opera” nights, with cheap tix and an afterparty for the young ’uns.

When the final curtain falls, extend the revels with late-night jazz and drinks nearby at swanky Cliff Bell’s, a club restored to look just as it might have when it opened in the art deco ’30s. Imagine yourself a Purple Gang bootlegger as you swill and swoon to the bluesy groove.

Cliff Bell's

If you are a Hungry Yenta:

Since 1962, the Stage Deli has been feeding suburban Detroit Jews who crave hot pastrami and hotter gossip. Surrounded by gleaming photographs of Babs and the Marx Brothers, take your cue from the chirruping matrons around you and get the Mark Beltaire salad, a garden of veg on which corned beef and turkey have also miraculously sprouted. If you want to really do as the Romans do, order it chopped and tossed, with dressing on the side. On the side so you can feel you’re being very good by not drenching the whole bowl; sneakily, it gives you the ability to personally drown every forkful in the signature Stage dressing, a creamy, garlicky elixir so moreish you may want to eat it off a hunk of the leather booth once the greens are gone.

The Stage Deli in its first location, in the suburb of Oak Park. Today it is in the suburb of West Bloomfield.

After your feast of eating and eavesdropping, cross the Jewish thoroughfare of Orchard Lake Road (“OLR,” in the zestful parlance of my grandmother, Elizabeth Elkin Weiss) and head to Diamond Bakery. Order the seven-layer cake, a local Jewish cousin of the Hungarian Dobos torte. Detroiters brag that in Chicago and New York "they don’t know from seven-layer cake." Come get some frosting on your nose and enter our sweet circle of trust.

If you are a Sidewalk Tzaddik:

Tread the cobblestones of the city as it looked in the nineteenth century by stepping down to the basement of the Detroit Historical Museum, the underappreciated neighbor of the palatial Detroit Institute of Arts. Its signature exhibit, Streets of Old Detroit, is the sort of immersive historical wonderland kids delight in; as I write, I realize how much I’d love to see it again with adult eyes.

Detroit Historical Museum

The next day, volunteer with Heart 2 Hart. Founded by Larry Oleinick, a suburban Jew with roots in the city, this charity prepares lunches, hygiene kits, and warm clothes, then distributes them to Motown’s homeless (including some who congregate at Hart Plaza, providing the initiative its clever name). Thus you will also get to know the streets of today’s Detroit, and a few of its strong-minded, good-hearted citizens.

The author’s grandfather, Rubin Weiss, receiving the Key to the City from Detroit Mayor Jerome Cavanagh, on November 28, 1968. Weiss, a Jewish actor, played Santa Claus for many years at the J. L. Hudson Thanksgiving Day Parade.

From Nu?, the Yiddish Book Center's alumni newsletter, Spring/Summer 2017. You can find the entire issue in the Alumni Association section of our website.