Exhibit on Jewish Chicago an incomplete portrait

Exhibit on Jewish Chicago an incomplete portrait

‘Shalom Chicago’ at the Chicago History Museum shows more shoddy research than the city’s rich Jewish history

Garment workers strike, Chicago Daily News, Dec. 12, 1910 (photo credit: Courtesy Chicago History Museum)
Garment workers strike, Chicago Daily News, Dec. 12, 1910 (photo credit: Courtesy Chicago History Museum)

CHICAGO — The story of Jewish life in Chicago — which has one of the nation’s largest Jewish communities today, as well as a Jewish mayor, Rahm Emanuel — begins in the 1840s, when German Jews arrived in the Windy City and settled on the South Side and downtown.

In 1865, about 2,000 of Chicago’s nearly 300,000 residents were Jews, or about one-half of 1 percent of the city’s population. And according to the exhibit “Shalom Chicago” at the Chicago History Museum (through September 2), the 19th century immigrants found Chicago an “open society generally accepting of Jews.” (One would have liked to hear more about the exceptions to that general rule, but more on that below.)

The exhibit boasts an impressive array of artifacts and knickknacks, from copies of the June 19, 1854 certificate of naturalization and 1870 Chicago Historical Society life membership card of Henry Greenbaum (1833-1914), who established his own Chicago bank and co-founded the city’s Sinai Reform Congregation, to a Star-of-David pin issued to nurses by the Michael Reese Hospital.

One fascinating thread at the beginning of the exhibit is Jewish involvement in the Civil War. Abraham Kohn (1819-1871), for example, who arrived in New York from Bavaria at age 23, established Chicago’s first synagogue in 1847 — Kehilath Anshe Mayriv. Kohn also joined the abolitionist movement and supported Abraham Lincoln for president. A photographic copy of a satin American flag, with Hebrew verses from Joshua 1:4-9 along the white stripes, which Kohn sent to president-elect Lincoln, is also featured in the exhibit.

‘Kohn, an early member of the Republican Party, considered Lincoln the Moses of American slaves and the nation’s savior’

“Kohn, an early member of the Republican Party, considered Lincoln the Moses of American slaves and the nation’s savior,” according to a wall text.

And banker Greenbaum raised the Concordia Guards, a Jewish company that served in the Civil War. After Chicago’s Great Fire of October 8, 1871, which destroyed about a third of the city, Greenbaum sold bonds to Europeans to help in the rebuilding of the city.

But as descriptive and fascinating as much of “Shalom Chicago” is, it seems to confuse some issues, and it leaves one wanting in other areas. In addition to the exhibit’s silence on some of the struggles Chicago’s early Jewish immigrants may have had with anti-Semitism, the exhibit offers just a single posted sentence about tensions between the then-established German Jewish Chicagoans and the 100,000 Jewish immigrants who arrived from Eastern Europe between 1880 and 1920.

“Deep class and cultural differences separated them from the established German Jews,” according to the wall text, which offers no further context.

But as descriptive and fascinating as much of ‘Shalom Chicago’ is, it seems to confuse some issues, and it leaves one wanting in other areas

If “Shalom Chicago” seems to be designed to celebrate Jewish achievements, rather than to air dirty Chicago Jewish laundry in public, that may be what one would expect of an exhibit at the Chicago History Museum. But some of the exhibited objects seem to be misrepresented, or at least oversimplified.

An unknown painting from around 1848 of Dilah Kohn — Abraham’s mother — shows the older woman with a white head covering, which is identified as a “mark of Jewish piety.” One wonders whether the head covering was truly something that Dilah wore all the time for modesty reasons, or if it might have just been part of her formal attire. What is clear, though, is that the exhibit’s identification of a nondescript book in her hands as “a small Hebrew bible” is a guess at best. Perhaps the book is a siddur, for example.

An 1899 “wedding Torah with inscription page and sprig of flowers” belonging to Caroline “Carrie” Greenbaum is actually a chumash rather than a Torah scroll. A ketubbah from April 18, 1871 belonging to Babette Frank and Emanuel Mandel, one of the Mandel brothers who founded one of Chicago’s leading department stores, is a handwritten text on an unadorned, lined piece of paper. Although the penmanship is attractive, the museum offers no explanation why such a wealthy couple would have such a bland marriage document.

A photograph from the museum’s collection titled “Boys carry Sabbath pots on the West Side, October 20, 1903,” offers no explanation of what in the world a Sabbath pot might be. Outside research reveals that Sabbath observant Jews once cooked cholent in communal ovens and then carried their pots home, but it’s not at all clear that the practice continued in the United States in the early 20th century. Further, a page in the American Memory portion of the US Library of Congress’ website, which includes the image from the Chicago Daily News, identifies the caption as “Jewish men and boys standing on a sidewalk with pots of food for the Sabbath,” rather than as “Sabbath pots.”

Perhaps most egregious is the section on the Jewish influence on labor protests in Chicago

Perhaps most egregious is the section on the Jewish influence on labor protests in Chicago. When “Shalom Chicago” addresses Bessie Abramowitz (1889-1970), who helped start Chicago’s largest strike, which lasted three-and-a-half months and came to include 40,000 garment workers, it features a fascinating video installation and some very provocative posters.

The exhibit mentions that Abramowitz worked at Hart, Schaffner, and Marx, and an adjacent installation celebrates the Jewish owners of that men’s clothing company — Harry and Max Hart, Joseph Schaffner, and Marcus Marx. But the viewer is left to draw her or his own connections between the two. On the one hand, the company bosses are heralded as icons, but they were also the ones who cut wages for Abramowitz and her peers, inspiring the strike to begin with.

Later on in the exhibit, a wall text tries to ambitiously teach viewers what Judaism is in merely seven lines. “Orthodox Jews maintain that Jewish law is divine in origin and must be strictly followed,” according to the exhibit description. “Reform Jews consider Jewish law a set of guidelines for living and emphasize social justice. Conservative Jews follow a middle path between the other branches.” Despite reports about the dwindling numbers of Conservative Jews, one imagines the leadership at the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism might find the movement’s characterization as merely a middle road between two other movements a bit unfair.

Finally, there is a wide range of art showcased in “Shalom Chicago.” The metalwork by the lesser-known Falick Novick (1878-1958); paintings by Samuel Greenburg (1905-1980), whose “Furlough’s End” (1942) was made the official poster of the Chicago Office of Civilian Defence; and a 1929 tanakh with an illustration of Abraham, perhaps counting the stars, on its back cover are rare and beautiful examples of Jewish art. But several examples of works by Todros Geller (1889-1949) are far less compelling, even though the exhibit hails the artist as “a talented and prolific artist who worked in many different mediums.”

A self-portrait by Geller which includes an illustration of a goat inspires the exhibit description, “goats were an important source of food” for Eastern European Jews. One hopes that the suggestion isn’t that Jews ate donkeys, which he also drew, and it’s worth noting that Geller’s donkeys barely approach those of renowned Jewish painter Marc Chagall.

That an exhibit presented in collaboration with the Spertus Institute presents Jewish apologetics and doesn’t dwell on some of the less flattering aspects of Chicago Jewish history isn’t entirely surprising. But given the involvement of an academic institution like DePaul University, whose law school was one of the first in Illinois to admit Jews, one would have hoped for more in-depth research into some of the more troubling parts of the narrative of Jewish Chicago history. That would have presented a more complete portrait.

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