Ann Arbor is best known as a cultured college town with great sports teams and a nearby presidential library (named for Gerald R. Ford), but don't go by reputation alone. Come to think of it, although Michigan has been hard-hit by the recession, forget what you've heard about that, too.
With respects to this big "little city," you should absolutely judge by appearances, because you're probably going to be very inspired by what you see. The downtown grid unfolds as a mix of Midwest Americana, West Coast artiness and European majesty (especially near campus), making it a surprising discovery within a 90-minute flight from Philadelphia.
Traveling there in winter time? Because of the effect of the Great Lakes, winter is actually fairly benign when it comes to snow, but keep the mittens on — warming trends are only evident beginning in March.
The first striking thing about downtown and its nearby residential sections is a preponderance of restaurants that would look right at home in New York City or San Francisco. Art galleries and jewelry shops, including the Selo/Shevel Gallery and Abracadabra, fill storefronts. Many of those contain traces of Jewish life in the form of chic Judaica and jewelry.
A closer look around campus and nearby neighborhoods reveals the Jewish community's imprint on Ann Arbor, including the University of Michigan Museum of Art. Thanks in part to the contribution of Maxine and Stuart Frankel, the addition of a 53,000-square-foot Frankel Family Wing and a recent makeover render the place a treasure trove.
The transformation of the museum into a "town square" for the 21st century is also coming to fruition with the implementation of live performances, art classes and open research areas. However, the anchor piece to the religious art room — an Italian Renaissance painting depicting the story of Queen Esther and her triumph over Haman — also speaks volumes.
"What's great about Ann Arbor is that it is a rich place culturally," says Paul Saginaw, co-founder of Zingerman's Community of Businesses, and a patron of many arts and community charities.
"You have the University of Michigan, as well as a very active Jewish Community Center. They stage the Jewish Book Fair every year, bringing in authors from everywhere," he explains. "There is a healthy, liberal Jewish community, but there is also a diverse range of opinions."
In a community defined by a distinctive food culture almost as much as its landmark university, Zingerman's goes beyond just being a local institution — so much so that Saginaw and his partner, Ari Weinzweig, have been called upon nationwide to teach what has made Zingerman's so beloved locally.
One needs to set some time aside to attend a class at Zingerman's Z Bake! (which offers Jewish baking classes), savor comfort food at Zingerman's Roadhouse, and stop by Zingerman's Deli, Creamery and Bakehouse.
And Le Cordon Bleu-trained Eve Aronoff is doing her part to keep Ann Arbor a culinary attraction through her acclaimed restaurant, named eve, as well as by making a big splash at the James Beard House in New York City.
"Traditional foods and holiday celebrations were a part of my upbringing," says this Jewish chef.
While Ann Arbor is proof that good things come in small packages, what makes it downright crafty is that visitors really do become a part of its specialness — no matter how they choose to enjoy it.