Prairie Culture, Jewish And Otherwise

Prairie Culture, Jewish And Otherwise

The caucuses are over. The candidates have moved on to New Hampshire and South Carolina. Iowa’s cornfields lie still under a layer of snow — flat, vast expanses of white punctuated by the bare limbs of a tree, a farmhouse, a silo.

It’s mid-February, and Iowa’s 15 minutes of quadrennial fame are over. The international news media has packed up. Donald Trump’s room at the Hilton is once again vacant.

Which makes this as good a time as any to consider the quiet charms of Iowa City and Des Moines, key pit stops for the cross-country road-tripper. Both lie right on Interstate 80, the Teaneck-to-San Francisco highway that cuts through America’s heartland and bisects the Iowa prairie.

From time to time, I like to revisit the kinds of places most New Yorkers wouldn’t get on a plane to visit (unless they’re running for president), but that merit a look when passing through. Iowa’s dual metropolises, rich in historic architecture and fine art, fit squarely in this category.

And while election season brings a reliable chorus of fretting over Iowa’s much-diminished Jewish numbers, it’s worth remembering that Iowa City was home to the first Jewish mayor in the United States: Moses Bloom, a French-born immigrant entrepreneur who was elected in 1873. The cosmopolitan Bloom would doubtless be pleased to see his city recognized by UNESCO as a City of Literature, the only such designation in the United States.

Indeed, Iowa City’s outsize reputation — as well as its significant Jewish presence — owes largely to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the signature MFA program of the University of Iowa. Numerous Jewish writers are among the literary luminaries associated with this program, from Philip Roth and Nathan Englander to, most recently, Lena Dunham — whose fictional character on the hit TV show “Girls” headed here to pursue the writing life.

All this novelistic ferment means the campus is abuzz with cultural events: readings, lectures, concerts. The university is also worth a stop for its art collection, with holdings unparalleled in the region; particular strengths are 20th-century European and American paintings, including major works by Kandinsky and Picasso and a Jackson Pollock mural donated by the legendary Peggy Guggenheim, along with an impressive array of African and pre-Columbian Native American art.

A 2008 flood forced the University of Iowa Art Museum to vacate its longtime building, and a new permanent facility is in the works. Meanwhile, exhibitions are on view in a gallery at the Iowa Memorial Union building and at spaces around campus; most of the collection is temporarily housed at the Figge Art Museum in nearby Davenport.

Another top attraction on campus is the Old Capitol Building, a national historic landmark from the era when Iowa City was home to state government. Free admission includes entrance to a small museum and a tour of this graceful, classical edifice full of rotundas and filigree.

The current State Capitol is arguably even more impressive. Atop a hill in Des Moines, with sweeping views over a resurgent downtown, Iowa’s most ornate building looks like a mash-up of the Kremlin and the Florentine Duomo. It boasts no fewer than five shimmering gold and green domes, lots more gilt, myriad columns and porticoes, and enough façade ornamentation for an epic game of Where’s Waldo.

In the very center of the city, another vintage landmark is the Moorish-influenced Temple B’nai Jeshurun. Founded in 1873 as an Orthodox congregation, B’nai Jeshurun was the city’s first synagogue; later on, it became the first Iowa temple to affiliate with the Reform movement.

Today, despite a declining Jewish presence in the Midwest, the congregation is a thriving hub of young families and older residents active in Jewish life. For visitors, the highlight is a sanctuary whose brilliant stained-glass windows, blue-and-white color scheme and soaring central dome evoke the glory days of synagogue architecture.

Nearby, three of the 20th-century’s biggest starchitects were involved with Des Moines’ surprisingly ambitious Art Center — Eliel Saarinen, I.M. Pei and Richard Meier; each contributed a wing to this landmark complex. Fans of post-Impressionist and Modern Art will savor a collection that includes major works by Hopper, O’Keefe, Rothko, Sargent, Matisse and Warhol.

With a new public sculpture park and major construction projects, downtown Des Moines is undergoing a renaissance that’s palpable even after the caucus hubbub. Independent shops and cafés line the streets of the East Village neighborhood, a walkable, chain-free oasis stretching east from the Des Moines River. On winter days, people head here to ice-skate at Brenton Skating Plaza, a block from the riverbank, or for a sunlit lunch amid the palms at the Botanical Garden’s geodesic dome café.

They may even chat about politics — but between the art, the architecture and those glorious prairie sunsets, Iowa offers plenty of other distractions.

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