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.
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Despite or even because of the energy and richness of this exhibit, while looking at these woodcuts and prints preserved behind glass I was filled with the sense of loss: What has happened, I wondered, to the bustling Yiddish-speaking cafes, the Friday night gatherings of Jewish artists? My yearning to enter this vanished world of Jewish Chicago was much like the desire felt by Owen Wilson’s character in Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” to travel back to 1920s Paris to commune with F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway.

This yearning is not mine alone. As part of the exhibit, on the second floor one can observe an intriguing selection of videos. In one from 1986, a youngish Rabbi Michael Siegel of Anshe Emet interviews Dr. Irving Cutler, author of “The Jews of Chicago, From Shtetl to Suburb,” and asks him in a plaintive voice to talk about the “good old days.” Cutler says, “You could feel the throbbing of Yiddishkeit.” As Cutler explains, the story of Chicago’s Jews is a migration from city to the suburbs, from poverty and immigrant status to relative affluence and assimilation.

To reanimate memories of Jewish Chicago, Segal has created a Chicago “Jewish Memory Map” projected onto a wall to invite people to tell their stories; a virtual pin marks each story’s origin. Ironically, upward mobility and comfort mean that Jews today have many other museums to visit and causes to donate to. Interestingly, the curator’s text informs us that Louis M. Stein’s artists’ monographs were often made at a financial loss for Stein, but “that he expected nothing else and considered them his annual contribution to Jewish art and culture.” Recently, it was announced the Sam Zell family foundation gave $10 million to Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art. (The Zell family has given generously to many synagogues as well.) The New York Times reported that the MCA would use half of these funds to pay debt incurred during its construction in the 1990s.

Just as these Jewish modernist artists succeeded in reinventing themselves, so the rebuilding of Spertus was a bold attempt to create a new identity. One aches to see this gleaming structure fulfill its immense potential and mission: It should be a museum for the 21st century not only in image but in function, with bustling crowds within its gleaming glass walls.

Laura Hodes is a writer and lawyer living in Chicago.

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