From time to time, I like to revisit noteworthy stops along America’s great cross-country Interstates. Many such stops wouldn’t normally come to mind as vacation destinations, which make their offerings all the more serendipitous.
Halfway between New York and Chicago on Interstate 80, Youngstown, Ohio, is such a place. This is the heart of the Rust Belt — a region whose largest cities, which also include Akron and Pittsburgh, conjure up images of America’s bygone steel era. One of the enduring legacies of that prosperous time is a wealth of institutions, including universities whose Jewish centers have become rich community resources.
A stop in Youngstown offers the opportunity to visit one of America’s great Midwestern art collections, the Butler Institute of American Art, built nearly a century ago. In September, you can also catch the Youngstown Area Jewish Film Festival. And depending on what else is going on at the Center for Judaic and Holocaust studies at Youngstown State University, you might stick around for a program on Israeli politics or a concert of Hebrew music before getting back on the road.
This is good news, because I find the stretch of highway through western Pennsylvania and Ohio particularly tedious. It’s flat, often overcast, and lacks the bucolic cornfield charm of the heartland. But despite a foreclosure crisis that has seen its population wither as boarded-up houses multiply, Youngstown has quite a bit of culture — and a lively Jewish community.
Last weekend, for instance, the Youngstown Area Jewish Federation hosted a concert by Israeli pianist and scholar Astrith Baltsan at the DeYor Performing Arts Center, followed by a kosher dessert reception.
There’s also a JCC, a Jewish retirement home and a monthly magazine. This is, after all, a community with deep roots: German and Austrian Jews settled the Youngstown area in the early 1800s.
The 20,000-work collection at the Butler reflects the depth of this region’s cultural heritage. Housed in a McKim, Mead and White building on the National Register of Historic Places, it claims to be the oldest museum to showcase American art, founded in 1919.
Some of the most famous paintings by Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent and Edward Hopper are on display, along with Western masterworks, Hudson School landscapes and a gallery devoted to American sports art. It’s a world-class institution, but unlike its big-city counterparts, the Butler has free admission every day.
If you’re driving via Pittsburgh, you can check out events at the region’s largest Jewish studies program, at the University of Pittsburgh. Time your visit right, and there’s a lot going on here for the Jewish traveler, with public lectures and cultural events featuring scholars from around the world. This year’s lineup includes a series on Pittsburgh urban Jewish history and lectures by Fred Lazin of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.
At the university’s Cathedral of Learning, you can wander one of the country’s more unique museums: the Nationality Rooms. The rooms — from Swiss to Japanese to Armenian — are a tangible tribute to the ethnic groups that built Pittsburgh, with ongoing additions over the past nine decades. The Israel Heritage Room, inspired by a first-century Galilean stone dwelling, has inlaid floor mosaics, stone friezes, and the Ten Commandments etched into door panels.
Head west from Youngstown on I-80 and keep going straight, and you pick up I-76 to Kent, home to the eponymous university. Kent State is often associated with civil rights-era violence, but today it’s another beacon of Jewish culture along the Rust Belt route.
The Cohn Jewish Student Center is a hive of activity with numerous public events, including a Jewish learning series, plays, multimedia gallery exhibitions, Shabbat events and concerts. A recent guest was Sarah Lefton, the innovative “indie” Jewish educator and digital media maven who founded the “G-dcast” Jewish online media series.
All of this university programming starts up in September, along with another highlight of this agricultural region: harvest festivals. Plan your rest stops right, and you can be wandering through a field of candy apples and hay rides.
A quick trip to the Discover Ohio website reveals a “Made in Ohio” crafts festival in Akron, the Lordstown Apple Festival just west of Youngstown, and the Zoar Harvest Festival (with Erie Canal trail walks). Up on Beachwood, a southern suburb of Cleveland not far from I-80, there’s even a Jewish Food and Culture Festival this weekend at the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage.
‘Tis the season for apples, honey and harvests — and then back on the road.