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 3 of 4)

Many of the artists exhibited here clung strongly to their Jewish identity and created art from within vibrant Jewish artst communities. According to curator Ilana Segal’s note, at this time Chicago had its own Yiddish literary group; one oil painting by Geller shows a portrait of the soulful-eyed Yiddish poet Ben Shalom. Artists spoke Yiddish at cafes, and Geller hosted Friday night get-togethers in his studio. All of the artists were members of the Jewish arts club “Around the Palette,” which was founded by Geller.

Until recently there has been near-silence about Jewish identity in art history. Art critic Margaret Olin has attributed this reluctance to mention the Jewishness of artists in art criticism as an assimilationist tactic, a reaction to the anti-Semitism intrinsic to modern art theory. As she writes, “assimilated Jews express themselves in the visual arts as individuals, not ‘as Jews.’” Part of what is so fascinating about this exhibit is that it captures a brief time when these Chicago artists were newly confronting their adopted homeland, still clinging to their Jewish identity and not yet concerned with assimilating. Their poor immigrant status meant they were still outsiders; they identified with the avant-garde, and with the worker and labor movements.

These artists were straddling two worlds, Jewish and assimilated, yet in that straddling, they made an effort to declare their Jewishness in their artwork. Geller encouraged his younger colleagues to incorporate Jewish subject matter into their work. Geller’s “Had Gadya” print and a handmade puzzle of a Hebrew aleph are presented alongside his completely secular works, such as a gorgeously colored landscape of a gritty steel Chicago.

One artist, A. Raymond Katz, successfully bridged the non-Jewish and Jewish art worlds: As Sandor, the European name for Alexander, he drew covers of The Chicagoan, a New Yorker–style magazine. There was no ostensibly Jewish content in these covers, and the artist Sam Greenberg even caricaturized Katz as a shaygetz, a non-Jew. Yet, after a trip home to Hungary, Katz was inspired to promote the use of Hebrew letters in modern Jewish decoration, specifically in stained glass designs for synagogues; he argued that the letters were more meaningful than standard Jewish motifs such as the Star of David. On display is his abstract print, “Holy Holy Holy & Final Mem.”


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!
  • The rose petals have settled, and Andi has made her (Jewish?) choice. We look back on the #Bachelorette finale:
  • "Despite the great pain and sadness surrounding a captured soldier, this should not shape the face of this particular conflict – not in making concessions and not in negotiations, not in sobering assessments of this operation’s achievements or the need to either retreat or move forward." Do you agree?
  • Why genocide is always wrong, period. And the fact that some are talking about it shows just how much damage the war in Gaza has already done.
  • Construction workers found a 75-year-old deli sign behind a closing Harlem bodega earlier this month. Should it be preserved?
  • "The painful irony in Israel’s current dilemma is that it has been here before." Read J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis of the conflict:
  • Law professor Dan Markel waited a shocking 19 minutes for an ambulance as he lay dying after being ambushed in his driveway. Read the stunning 911 transcript as neighbor pleaded for help.
  • Happy birthday to the Boy Who Lived! July 31 marks the day that Harry Potter — and his creator, J.K. Rowling — first entered the world. Harry is a loyal Gryffindorian, a matchless wizard, a native Parseltongue speaker, and…a Jew?
  • "Orwell would side with Israel for building a flourishing democracy, rather than Hamas, which imposed a floundering dictatorship. He would applaud the IDF, which warns civilians before bombing them in a justified war, not Hamas terrorists who cower behind their own civilians, target neighboring civilians, and planned to swarm civilian settlements on the Jewish New Year." Read Gil Troy's response to Daniel May's opinion piece:
  • "My dear Penelope, when you accuse Israel of committing 'genocide,' do you actually know what you are talking about?"
  • What's for #Shabbat dinner? Try Molly Yeh's coconut quinoa with dates and nuts. Recipe here:
  • Can animals suffer from PTSD?
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels. http://jd.fo/g4cjH
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • 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.