January 2, 2004
100 YEARS AGO
• All of Chicago is in mourning after a massive fire broke out in the Iroquois Theater, killing more than 600 people — mostly women and children — during a matinee performance. A spark from an electrical cord set a chorus girl’s costume on fire, which led to the explosion of some lights, in turn setting the curtain on fire. The audience panicked and began running, only to find that most of the exits had been locked. Thousands of people crowded into the streets, searching for missing family members. More than 200 of the victims were unrecognizable. Fathers are going from one morgue to the next in search of their children.
75 YEARS AGO
• In Boston’s main criminal court, where detectives and policemen come and go, bringing all kinds of criminals and underworld types in and out of the large hall, sat a long row of Orthodox rabbis, among them, a number of well-known rabbis from New York and Philadelphia. On another bench sat nearly all of Boston’s cantors, and on yet another bench sat a large number of Boston’s synagogue presidents and staff. All were assembled for a case in which nearly all of the cantors in Massachusetts stood accused of breaking state law in regard to the way Jewish weddings are officiated. The charge itself was made by the rabbis, who don’t think the cantors should be allowed to officiate. The reasons for this rabbinical-cantorial battle stem from the fact that most of Boston’s Jews have moved out of the old immigrant neighborhoods and into newer, more comfortable quarters, where they have built large temples and hired modern, educated rabbis and cantors. Because of this, the income of the Orthodox rabbis and cantors has been reduced significantly. In the end, the case against the cantors was thrown out. Afterward, the two groups held a conference, during which it was decided that rabbis and cantors will have to officiate together.
50 YEARS AGO
• Writing under a pseudonym, Isaac Bashevis Singer asks, “How does a language die out?” Answering his own question, he writes that first the intelligentsia stops using it, leaving only the peasantry to speak it. Then the peasants stop using it and only a few words remain in the language that has overtaken it. Then philologists show up to figure out what happened. But, he says, it doesn’t work that way with Jewish languages. “A Jewish language can be on its deathbed for 500 years, listen to a thousand eulogies, read a thousand obituaries about itself, see innumerable tombstones put up for it. Then it feels a pang of regret and decides that it’s better to live. So it occurred, for example, with Hebrew.”