The first Jews who came to the Chicago area and stayed arrived in 1841, a few years after the city was incorporated. They were fleeing discrimination and persecution in Germany. One family went out to what's now Schaumburg and farmed, but most settled in the center of town. They worked as peddlers and eventually opened small shops and lived above them. The Kluczynski Federal Building stands on the site of their first synagogue. They built it in 1851 and called it K.A.M.--the Congregation of the Men of the West. You'd know all this if you had ever taken Dr. Irving Cutler's tour of Chicago's Jewish neighborhoods, or if you'd been one of his geography students at Chicago State University. I learned it by flipping through his handy new book, Jewish Chicago: A Pictorial History. It's sort of an MTV version of Cutler's hefty 1996 volume, The Jews of Chicago: From Shtetl to Suburb--the text has been pared down to bare necessities and it's got a lot more pictures.
Chicago's German Jews served in the Civil War (Company C of the 82nd Illinois Regiment, which saw action at Gettysburg, was all Jewish) and, like other residents, suffered through the great fire. In its aftermath they moved south of the downtown area--eventually to Hyde Park, Kenwood, and South Shore. K.A.M. built a new temple at 33rd and Indiana in 1891. It was designed by Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler, whose father was the congregation's rabbi. The Standard Club, founded by German Jews in 1869, contributed some of the money to launch the University of Chicago. The south side was home to Sears chairman and world-class philanthropist Julius Rosenwald, who established the Museum of Science and Industry and had the good taste to decline to put his name on it. It was also home to blue-collar Jews: Chicago's oldest continuously used synagogue, built in 1902, still stands at 8927 S. Houston, near the old steel mills, and is now Beth Shalom B'naizaken, an Ethiopian Hebrew congregation.
The city's most famous Jewish neighborhood, Maxwell Street, was populated by later-arriving Jews from Eastern Europe. From 1880 to about 1920 it absorbed a massive influx, mostly from small rural towns. They lived two and three families to a house, worked in the sweatshops of the rapidly industrializing city (80 percent of the workers in a 1910 garment industry strike, for example, were Jews), and built 40 synagogues in the area, including the landmark 1910 structure at Polk and Ashland, now Saint Basil's Greek Orthodox church. Though much has been made of the gulf between the early and later arrivals, in 1891 the established German Jews built one of the nation's first vocational schools, the Jewish Training School, at 12th Place near Clinton, to help the struggling newcomers. They also supported a Jewish community center, the Chicago Hebrew Institute, which opened on Taylor Street in 1908. The scrappy Maxwell Street environment produced offspring that included jazz innovator Benny Goodman, Admiral Hyman Rickover, CBS founder William Paley, and community organizer Saul Alinsky.
After 1910, Maxwell Street Jews started to move west, into the apartments and two-flats of Lawndale, which at one point had 60 synagogues. The Hebrew Institute followed, becoming the Jewish People's Institute, at Douglas and Saint Louis. The librarian at the local public library was a young Golda Meir. Mount Sinai Hospital, which offered a kosher kitchen, went up in the neighborhood, and on hot nights residents slept under the stars (in safety, Cutler notes) in Garfield Park and along the Douglas Boulevard parkway. At the same time, a smaller number of Maxwell Street residents moved north and northwest into Humboldt Park, Logan Square, Albany Park, Lakeview, and Rogers Park. After World War II they moved again, mostly to West Rogers Park and to the north and northwest suburbs.
Jews were closed out of places like Kenilworth and Lake Forest, but came early to the wooded bluffs of Highland Park. They helped make it the most vital cultural community north of Evanston, so it's a little strange that in recent history it's been a town without a full-service bookstore. Adam Brent (whose father, legendary bookseller Stuart Brent, makes an appearance in The Jews of Chicago) noticed the vacuum. Two months ago he opened Brent Books & Cards at 1849 Green Bay (847-681-1563). Irving Cutler will be there to present a free slide show Thursday, October 26, starting at 6:30, and he'll repeat his show in the city at 7:30 Monday, October 30, at Barnes & Noble, 1441 W. Webster (773-871-3825).