Their kind of town

Chicago has been generally hospitable to a vibrant Jewish community.

chicago jews book 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
chicago jews book 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The Jews of Chicago: From Shtetl to Suburb By Irving Cutler University of Illinois Press 344 pp. $24.95 In 1930, Chicago had almost 300,000 Jews, making it the third largest Jewish population of any city in the world, exceeded only by New York and Warsaw. Today, Chicago has 271,000 Jews, placing it behind New York, Los Angeles and South Florida among American Jewish communities. Regardless of its size, the Chicago Jewish community is an important center of Jewish population, having made important contributions to American Jewry. This description of the Chicago Jewish community was originally published in a cloth-bound edition in 1996. The new paper-bound version has a seven-page preface that attempts to record developments during the last 13 years. Author Cutler is a geographer who emphasizes neighborhood histories and traces the movement of Chicago's Jews from the city to the suburbs. He provides useful maps that enable the reader to follow this population shift. Also, Cutler presents brief biographical sketches of the people who contributed to the vitality of the Chicago Jewish community. The focus on neighborhoods stresses history that insufficiently considers Chicago's common civic spirit, a development that animated Chicago Jewry as a whole. Citywide institutions are given somewhat less stress than neighborhood synagogues, schools and Jewish community centers. Cutler does a masterful job of tracing the history of Chicago's Jews from the German Jews who came in the 1830s and 1840s to the East European Jews who arrived in large numbers from 1880 to 1925. The relationship between these two groups was filled with tension demonstrated in a variety of ways, especially by the differences between the Reform Judaism of the German Jews and the Orthodox Judaism of the East European Jews. Among other things, this was manifested by the proliferation of synagogues, schools and other duplicating institutions. To this day, Jewish schools are run by two separate boards - one for the Orthodox community and one for all the others. Differences between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews still appear with regard to some other issues, but there is a damping of controversy and the old split between East European Jews and Reform Jews has far less salience. Unifying forces are the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago and the network of Jewish community centers. As the community becomes more native-born, the immigrant organizations such as landsmanshaften, Workmen's Circle and Farband have declined. Also, the move of Jews into the suburbs has diminished the identification of Jews by the neighborhood in which they live. In addition to his emphasis on neighborhood histories, Cutler devotes a good deal of attention to prominent Chicago Jews in medicine, law, sports, theater, politics, press, literature, art, music, labor and industry. Inevitably, some readers will think of luminaries he may have failed to mention or who are given short shrift but, by and large, he includes far more people than those who were left out. Chicago is a city with cold winters and hot summers. Although it has a sad history of corrupt civic politicians, it has given us our present president and it has been generally hospitable to a vibrant Jewish community. The saga of that community is well told in this excellent presentation.n The writer is the founding dean, Wurzweiler School of Social Work, Yeshiva University and dean emeritus, School of Social Work, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.