Filmmaker Shuli Eshel first saw Maxwell Street in 1990, as she drove through to interview some south-side artists. A recent transplant to Chicago, she hadn't been aware of the neighborhood's past as a port of entry for immigrants and a center for blues culture. Her curiosity piqued, she checked out several exhibits on the street's history. As she learned more about the area's past, she also discovered that the waves of Jewish immigrants who'd settled in it were from eastern Europe and Russia, where her own ancestors had lived before leaving for Palestine in the 1820s.
"I felt an immediate kinship, a sympathy for those from a humble background who come to a new country with no money, little skill except the determination to rise up, to make life better for their children," Eshel says. She toyed with the idea of documenting how Maxwell Street thrived, intrigued by the way its ethic of hard work and tolerance was instilled in kids who grew up to be prominent businessmen, lawyers, and politicians.
Until two and a half years ago she was sidetracked by other projects. Then, she says, "I got a call from Elliot Zashin...of the Maxwell Street Historic Preservation Coalition. They just got a $1,500 grant to record the reminiscences of those who lived there decades ago. 'If we can't preserve the street, we can at least preserve the memories,' he told me." It wasn't much, but Eshel went to work.
"When a subject matter interests me, I pursue it with a passion," she says. "I worry about the money later." In Israel, where she was born and later worked for 14 years as a documentary producer, she'd built a reputation as a committed and resourceful filmmaker as well as a feminist activist and peace advocate. In the mid-70s she made a documentary on abortion--"a candid look at how women were treated in clinics," she says. "It helped persuade the Knesset to pass a bill to legalize abortion." Five years later she weighed in with another that "exploded the myth of equality in the Israeli military," drawing on her own two-year experience in the army. "The army bought copies to show to its officers."
In the late 80s--"feeling exhausted by the tense atmosphere in Israel"--Eshel spent a year in New York, raising funds and preparing to begin a documentary on women's roles in the Arab-Israeli conflict. She visited Chicago and decided she could "use the city as a base for my projects on both social issues and artists."
For her Maxwell Street documentary, she conducted an initial round of interviews, including the last granted by the late judge Abraham Lincoln Marovitz. Then she was introduced to real estate magnate Sheldon Good, whose family had owned stores in what he and others refer to as their "shtetl." "To my surprise," she says, "Good held a fund-raiser in his office." Not only did Eshel make up her budget shortfall, she also met more sons and daughters of Maxwell Street's Jewish merchants. When the son of sporting goods seller Morrie Mages called the son of Ben Lyon in Florida, she found out that the elder Lyon was alive and well in Skokie. Through him she got the story of Lyon's Delicatessen, including an anecdote about how Nate Duncan, a black apprentice who went on to buy the deli in 1973, was taught to make pickled herring by Lyon's mother.
Eshel ended up with "32 hours of talking heads," which she whittled down to half an hour. Combining this with 90 photos and footage from newsreels and earlier shorts by other filmmakers, she created a mosaic of recollections and testimonials from local entrepreneurs. "What they tell again and again," says Eshel, "is the archetypal immigrant's saga of a vibrant community with the values of the Old World and the optimism of the New."
Eshel's half-hour documentary Maxwell Street: A Living Memory premieres this Sunday at 2:30 at the Chicago Historical Society, 1601 N. Clark. It'll be preceded by a set from the Maxwell Street Klezmer Band, which provided the score for the film; afterward there will be a question-and-answer session with Eshel and Zashin and a reception. Admission is $10; for more information call 312-808-1564.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Robert Drea, courtesy University of Illinois at Chicago, The University Library, Jane Addams Memorial Collection.