The Immigrant Jew in America

Home       l       Site Map      l      Exhibitions      l     About the Museum       l      Education      l     Contact Us       l      Links


The Russian Jew in Chicago*
by Philip Davis, A. B.
Resident Civic Service House, Boston

* - From "The Immigrant Jew in America"-- issued by the National Liberal Immigration League, New York City, 1907.
Also included in earlier
1905 edition of "The Russian Jew in the United States."

"Two families," writes Prof. Zueblin in an article on “The Chicago Ghetto,"1 "constituted the Jewish population of Chicago in 1843," when the first refugees from the German persecution found their way to Illinois. In 1848 a society was chartered under the name Kehillath Anshe Maariv (Congregation of the Men of the West). In 1849 a synagogue was erected on Clark Street between Quincy and Jackson. Thus were laid the foundations of German Jewry, and, a little later, of German reform Jewry of Chicago. Russian and orthodox Jewry of Chicago has a later origin and perhaps a more dramatic history.

The few who came before the eighties were unquestionably the lighter element of the Russian Jewish communities--the chaff, so to speak, driven by the playful winds of adventure and gain. These early Russian Jewish settlers were actuated not so much by the conditions which they left behind as by the prospective chances of the new land. They resembled more the stray adventurers of a newly discovered gold field than an organic group of early settlers bound together by strong communal interests.

It is only when the storm of the so-called "May Regulations" of 1882 (and again of 1892) broke upon the Russian Jewish communities with the vehemence and force of a hurricane that solid parts of these communities were moved and carried off to American shores. These masses brought with them not merely a dominating desire for personal welfare, but also strong social ties. It was these natural pre-existing relations which made social life and the organization of congenial groups possible.

Recent additions to Chicago Jewry come from Roumania and Bessarabian parts of Russia. The fact of extreme importance from the American point of view in connection with these earlier and later tides of immigration is that they all originate in persecution. They have been unable to get along not because of shiftlessness or economic reverses due directly to themselves, but because of the action of the government.

The present size of Chicago Jewry, including all elements, Portuguese, German, Russian, and Roumanian, is variously estimated. The best judges, however, agree on 60,000 as being the fairest approximation. These are distributed over the whole city area forming colonies at each of the four corners--a fact worthy of note in a consideration of the Chicago Ghetto, which to the minds of some people still suggests an iron-barred fence encircling a limited area wherein all Jews dwell.

Chicago Jewry is scattered all over the South Side as far as Sixty-third Street, on the East and North-East Side up to the Lake, the North-West Side, where it numbers nearly 15,000, and finally the West Side where there are at least 30,000 Jews, mostly Russian and Polish.

A more exact idea of the location of the various Jewish centres in Chicago may be had by designating the places of our foremost synagogues: The Sinai Temple on Twentieth Street and Indiana Avenue; the Temple Kehillath Anshe Maariv on Thirty-third Street and Indiana Avenue and many others on the South Side; the Temple of the North Side; Hebrew Congregation, on La Salle Avenue and Goethe Street on the North Side; the synagogue of Anshe Kenesseth Israel on Clinton and Judd Streets, and a host of others on the West Side.

It is the West Side of Chicago that is commonly called the Chicago Ghetto. In fact the city is supposed to have two Ghettos, a lesser and a greater. The lesser "is found in the Seventh Ward bounded by Twelfth, Halsted, Fifteenth Streets and Steward Avenue, where ninety per cent. of the population are Jews. The greater Ghetto, including an area of about a square mile, comprises parts of the Nineteenth, Seventh and Eighth Wards, and is bounded by Polk Street on the North, Blue Island Avenue on the west, Fifteenth Street on the south, and Steward Avenue on the east." Roughly speaking, this is almost co-extensive with the “slum district" as defined in the Seventh Special Report of the Commissioner of Labor on the Slums of Great Cities. It is this Ghetto; then, in the slum of a great city, which is the home of the great majority of Chicago Jews. How it looks to the "outsider" may best be judged from the following description of Prof. Zueblin:2

"The physical characteristics of the Ghetto do not differ materially from the surrounding districts. The streets may be a trifle narrower; the alleys are no filthier. There is only one saloon to ten in the other districts, but the screens, side doors, and loafers are of the ubiquitous type; the theatre bills a higher grade of performance than other cheap theatres, but checks are given between the acts, whose users find their way to the bar beneath. The dry goods stores have the same `cheap and nasty' goods within which may be found elsewhere. The race differences are subtle; they are not too apparent to the casual observer. It is the religious distinction which every one notices, the synagogues, the Talmud schools, the `kosher' signs on the meat markets. Among the dwelling-houses of the Ghetto are found the three types which curse the Chicago workingman,--the small low, one or two story, "pioneer" wooden shanty, erected probably before the street was graded, and hence several feet below the street level; the brick tenement of three or four stories, with insufficient light, bad drainage, no bath, built to obtain the highest possible rent for the smallest possible cubic space; and the third type, the deadly rear tenement with no light in front, and with the frightful odors of the dirty alley in the rear, too often the workshop of the `sweater' as well as the home of an excessive population. On the narrow pavement of the narrow street in front is found the omnipresent garbage-box, with full measure, pressed down and running over. In all but the severest weather, the streets swarm with children day and night. On bright days, groups of adults join the multitude, especially on Saturday and Sunday, or on Jewish holidays. A morning walk impresses one with the density of the population, but an evening visit reveals a hive."

One thing which excites the wonder of the investigator is the vitality of the Jew in spite of his living under the
double curse of slum and Ghetto. The Seventh contains the largest Jewish population and the lowest death rate.3
The same remarkable vitality as is shown by the low death rate in the ward containing a large Jewish population is
observed in other Jewish centres, and this vitality, let it be remembered, is not only "purely physical." Hand in hand with the energy of the body goes an energy of mind which is equally challenging,--as a description of the various forms of industrial and social activities plainly shows.

Traditionally the Jew is a tradesman. But in this country, at least, the Jew's range of industrial activities has been wonderfully extended. There are not only merchants and manufacturers, not only the familiar tailors and cigar makers, but great and ever growing numbers of brick layers, carpenters, painters, decorators, and machinists, and, in some instances, thoroughly trained engineers, graduates of prominent technical schools. The Lewis Institute and Armour Institute have helped not a little in opening up these particular avenues of useful knowledge to the Jewish youth. But the institution which is especially responsible for a high standard of industrial education is the Jewish Training School, situated in the very heart of the Ghetto.

The number of clubs of a more social character indicate a welcome departure from the old mode of self-centred living among the Jews. Of all the Jewish clubs of Chicago to-day, the Standard is the oldest, most prominent and most influential. It was organized in 1869. The Lakeside is next in prestige, and is but fifteen years younger. These and the Unity Club are all situated on the South Side. The West Side also has a number of very fine old club rooms, as the West Chicago Club, the Lessing Club House, the Lasalle Club. The last two are especially responsible for the educational leaven on the West Side. Other educational agencies are Hull House, the evening schools, the Jewish press, the Jewish theatres, and the like. The intense intellectual life which the Jew leads in the midst of all these institutions is only further proof of his enormous vitality. The true explanation of this vitality may now be suggested: Is it not likely that the Jew possesses qualities which are too fine for the slum and Ghetto soil in which they are planted, the result being a redoubling of energy to overcome a particularly nasty environment? That he has not succumbed to the distressing environment is still a cause for wonder.

1Hull House Maps and Papers, P. 91.
2Hull House Maps and Papers, P. 94.
3Ibid., p. 90.







Copyright © 2008-9. Museum of Family History.  All rights reserved. 
Image Use Policy.