Then & Now | Hebrew Cultural Garden

That two of the three founders of the Cultural Gardens movement in Cleveland were Jewish perhaps explains why the first cultural garden to be dedicated, in 1926, was the Hebrew Cultural Garden. The driving force behind the gardens was Leo Weidenthal, editor of the Jewish Independent. In 1916 Weidenthal established a Shakespeare Garden for the tercentenary of the playwright’s death. A decade later, Weidenthal began discussions about expanding the concept into a chain of gardens the length of Rockefeller Park. His compatriots included Charles Wolfram, a leader of the German community, and Jennie K. Zwick, a longtime Jewish leader and activist. Zwick founded a women’s group, Gan Ivri (Hebrew for Hebrew Garden), to lead a fundraising effort through concerts, meetings with visiting authors, and lectures.

Weidenthal, Wolfram, and Zwick attracted the attention of local and international figures and achieved significant recognition. Visiting Cleveland in May, 1926, Chaim Nachman Bialik, the foremost Hebrew poet of the day, planted three cedars of Lebanon and gave a speech in Hebrew. In 1927 the Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann came to plant trees; Weizmann later served as the first President of Israel. The presence of such prominent figures suggests the importance city leaders accorded the endeavor of the Cultural Gardens.

For Weidenthal, the Hebrew Cultural Garden was meant to reflect “a bit of Palestinian loveliness” and all kinds of cultural activities. Designed with a fountain of pink marble at its center, the Garden eventually included a Philosophers’ Corner and a Musicians’ Corner. A separate section also recognized the many achievements of Jewish women. Inscribed on the fountain was a selection from Proverbs 9, “Wisdom hath builded her house, she hath hewn out her seven pillars.” The paths around the fountain formed the shape of a six-pointed star, while outlying areas were set aside for additional memorials. A model for other ethnic groups, the Hebrew garden provided both open space for public movement and more private corners in which to congregate.

In supporting this dynamic initiative to celebrate America’s absorption of immigrants, Cleveland’s ethnic leaders rejected the notion of the melting pot. For example, Rabbi Barnett Brickner of Anshe Chesed (today, Fairmount Temple), said he preferred the metaphor of a hope chest, suggesting that immigrants come here to realize hopes and dreams that cannot be fulfilled elsewhere. In a presentation to a local lodge, reported on in The Jewish Independent in March 1927, Brickner proclaimed, “Because my grandfather missed the Mayflower and came over on the next boat he could get does not mean that those who came over on the Mayflower are in any way either racially, mentally, or spiritually superior to those who did not.” The Cultural Gardens became a way for the city’s ethnic groups to declare their specific identities and also to assert their equal stature with other groups.