How Jewish Artists Helped Reinvent Chicago

After The Great Fire, a People and City Remade Themselves

In Sickness and in Health: Leon Garland’s 1932 painting ‘Wedding in the Cemetery’ is based on an old legend that if orphans marry in a cemetery during a cholera epidemic, their dead parents will intercede to stop the scourge.
Courtesy Spertus Museum
In Sickness and in Health: Leon Garland’s 1932 painting ‘Wedding in the Cemetery’ is based on an old legend that if orphans marry in a cemetery during a cholera epidemic, their dead parents will intercede to stop the scourge.

By Laura Hodes

Published November 23, 2012, issue of November 30, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(page 2 of 4)

What is striking about the exhibition is the sense of reinvention that all these artists share, despite their diversity in style. All were first- or second-generation Americans. This was a unique time period when the great mass migration from Eastern Europe of Jewish immigrants coincided with the rebuilding of Chicago after the Great Fire of 1871. Chicago was the fastest growing city in the world; Jewish immigrant artists identified with its spirit of rapid re-creation.

These artists saw a parallel between Chicago’s rebirth and their own reinventing of identity. Modernism, just like emigration, gave them the opportunity to transform themselves: Artists tried on new styles, experimenting with Cubism, Surrealism, simplified Naturalism and with different materials — dropping and rejecting styles and materials as they saw fit. Reacting to the conservative standards of the Art Institute of Chicago, they learned to create from their own points of view.

This act of using art as a means toward personal reinvention and identity transformation is encapsulated in the small bookplate of Louis M. Stein on display, which was drawn by Todros Geller, the “Dean,” or father-figure, of Chicago Jewish artists in this period. Stein was born Yitchak Leyb Fradkin in Ukraine in 1883.

But when he immigrated to Chicago in 1907, he adopted a new name and established a printing house that published high-quality art books, many of which were collaborations between Yiddish authors and Jewish artists. Among the more notewothy examples was “Land to Land,” a collection of Geller’s woodcuts. Geller’s fanciful bookplate depicts Stein as a turbaned man on a magic flying carpet, escaping to exotic worlds far away from the Ukraine shtetl or even the new shtetls of Chicago.

Geller also reinvents himself in his artwork in his adopted city. On the title page of “Land to Land,” a goat stands on the shore of Lake Michigan with Chicago’s skyline in the background. In Geller’s art, the goat is a motif representing the artist himself — the rugged Eastern European figure, here reflecting his status as a successful transplant from Eastern Europe to Chicago, the New World, still holding on to the old country.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "Dear Diaspora Jews, I’m sorry to break it to you, but you can’t have it both ways. You can’t insist that every Jew is intrinsically part of the Israeli state and that Jews are also intrinsically separate from, and therefore not responsible for, the actions of the Israeli state." Do you agree?
  • Are Michelangelo's paintings anti-Semitic? Meet the Jews of the Sistine Chapel: http://jd.fo/i4UDl
  • What does the Israel-Hamas war look like through Haredi eyes?
  • Was Israel really shocked to find there are networks of tunnels under Gaza?
  • “Going to Berlin, I had a sense of something waiting there for me. I was searching for something and felt I could unlock it by walking the streets where my grandfather walked and where my father grew up.”
  • How can 3 contradictory theories of Yiddish co-exist? Share this with Yiddish lovers!
  • "We must answer truthfully: Has a drop of all this bloodshed really helped bring us to a better place?”
  • "There are two roads. We have repeatedly taken the one more traveled, and that has made all the difference." Dahlia Scheindlin looks at the roots of Israel's conflict with Gaza.
  • Shalom, Cooperstown! Cooperstown Jewish mayor Jeff Katz and Jeff Idelson, director of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, work together to oversee induction weekend.
  • A boost for morale, if not morals.
  • Mixed marriages in Israel are tough in times of peace. So, how do you maintain a family bubble in the midst of war? http://jd.fo/f4VeG
  • Despite the escalating violence in Israel, more and more Jews are leaving their homes in Alaska to make aliyah: http://jd.fo/g4SIa
  • The Workmen's Circle is hosting New York’s first Jewish street fair on Sunday. Bring on the nouveau deli!
  • Novelist Sayed Kashua finds it hard to write about the heartbreak of Gaza from the plush confines of Debra Winger's Manhattan pad. Tough to argue with that, whichever side of the conflict you are on.
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.