Chicago’s Jewry
A Priceless Heritage.
by Morris A. Gutstein.
Bloch. 488 pp. $6.00.


For some time now, the historians have been urged by sociologists, economists, and their other colleagues in the social sciences to incorporate some of the latter’s methods and materials into the study of history. These urgings seem to have had some effect on Jewish historians as well, for Morris A. Gutstein’s history of 19th-century Chicago Jewry has as its purpose “to give a comprehensive and complete picture of the evolution of the local Jewish community in a sociological sense, and in light of the total economic, cultural, political, and social environment.”

The author, a respected Chicago rabbi, deserves credit for attempting such a project with the little sociological data available, yet his attempt has been only partly successful. Except for a few excellent brief analyses, his history is primarily a chronological survey of the congregations and organizations which rose and sometimes fell, but almost always split and divided, in the course of the growth of Chicago’s Jewish community from the first minyan in 1845 to a population of 80,000 in 1900.

From the author’s material we learn—though it is never stated—that for all practical purposes, there were two Jewish communities in 19th-century Chicago, a German and an East European. The latter split off from the former just three years after the founding of the first congregation; thereafter the two communities exhibited all the differences in religious beliefs and practices, socio-economic conditions, and culture which previous studies of Jewish communities have uncovered. Rabbi Gutstein’s history provides a better picture of the German Jews than of the East European Jews, in part because they seem to have left behind completer records of their activities.

Behind the impressive institutional façade of synagogues and organizations, occasional glimpses of the more informal life of the German Jews emerge from the liberal amount of primary source material included in the book, the fruit of the author’s diligent research. There are many hints to be got, for example, from the constitutions and by-laws of the various congregations. These point to the existence of activities that the community sought to discourage, and to other activities which had perhaps been performed voluntarily at one time but now had to be legislated for and commanded. Thus, the bylaws of an early Jewish day school forbade children to leave in the afternoon to attend music or dancing school. One gathers that a significant number of German-Jewish parents wished their children to acquire these accomplishments; this in turn enables us to guess how speedily these parents had adopted status symbols of the upper and upper-middle classes of the time. The extremely detailed regulations providing for attendance at the funeral services of deceased members suggest that congregational solidarity was no longer strong enough to bring about such attendance voluntarily.



The picture of the German Jews which can be pieced together from the various parts of this history bears at least a partial resemblance to that of American Jewry today. Within about three decades after their arrival, the German immigrants had become prosperous and secularized Jews. They built large synagogues (architecturally much like the well-todo Protestant churches), staffed diem with famous rabbis, but attended them much less regularly than these rabbis thought they should. (One rabbi, in fact, resigned because of his congregation’s “apathy and lethargy”!) The author suggests that their very great charitable efforts were in part motivated by the guilt they felt for having departed from Jewish traditions. The German Jews also founded numerous soda] and cultural organizations and clubs; through these they participated not only in Jewish cultural activities, but also in those of the other culture (at first German, later American) of their milieu and day.

Their desire to rise socially soon led to a de-emphasizing of Jewish education; their sensitivity about their status in the eyes of the outside world was reflected in frequent attempts to disassociate themselves from their lower-class East European brethren. Rabbi Gutstein devotes an entire chapter to the story of the Jewish Training School, a philanthropic institution founded by German Jews to train the children of their East European co-religionists for a trade—so they would not take up the “despicable” peddling of their parents. The East European community, which had become the larger of the two even before the heavy immigration of the 1880’s, kept to traditional ways much longer, though it included some elements that modeled themselves on the German Jews.



Yet when the German Jews had first come to Chicago they had been Orthodox, poor, and peddlers themselves very often. By the 1870’s, however, most of them had risen into the middle class. Their rise is symbolized by their choice of rabbis. The first rabbis were unordained men who conducted services, taught school, and acted as shochetim and mohelim; only on special occasions did they preach. They were generally hired for only a year, at the end of which they often took some sort of nonreligious job.

Two decades later we find that most of the German Jewish rabbis are highly educated men whose function is preeminently to preach. As spiritual leaders of the Reform congregations, they reflected the prosperity, education, civic leadership, and high status in Jewish and secular Chicago to which their flock aspired. In 1857 the K.A.M. congregation advertised for a rabbi-preacher at an annual salary of $1,000; in the late 1880’s the Sinai congregation was paying Dr. Emil G. Hirsch $12,000 a year.

One wonders why the preacher and the weekly sermon so quickly became the vital center of the service. The sermon then (and probably now) provided the rabbi an opportunity to address himself to contemporary concerns and needs amid the otherwise traditional and timeless themes of the service; it was perhaps the means by which this service was “adjusted” to the congregations’ rapid change in religious attitudes.

A Chicagoan cannot but be impressed with how little seems to have changed in the Jewish community between 1870 and 1950. Many of the leading congregations, institutions, organizations, and families of the 19th century are still in positions of leadership today; the picture of a prosperous and secularized community seems scarcely to have altered. Yet this similarity is deceptive, for great transformations took place in the Chicago Jewish community between 1880 and 1920, in the course of the large-scale immigration of Jews from Eastern Europe. The size of the Jewish community increased from 10,000 in 1870 to 70,000 in 1890, eventually reaching today’s figure of 300,000-350,000.

With the virtual disappearance today of all social and cultural distinctions between “German” and “East European” Jews, the two Jewish communities of Chicago have come together again; both seem to be developing in the general direction of increasing prosperity and acculturation in which German Jewry was moving in the late 19th century. Where that path leads remains to be seen.



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