Daniel Greene
Northwestern University


Jewish immigrants from German lands established an institutional presence in Chicago during the 1840s, soon after the city was incorporated. Chicago’s Jewish population remained relatively small, however, until the influx of immigrants from eastern Europe between 1881 and 1924. At the time of the World’s Parliament of Religions, many of these new Jewish immigrants from Poland, Russia, and the Ukraine had settled on Chicago’s West Side, in an area known as Maxwell Street. Chicago proved a very popular destination for Jewish immigrants. It had the third largest Jewish population in the world by the 1930s, trailing only New York City and Warsaw.

Questions surrounding the acculturation of eastern European Jewish immigrants to the rapidly growing city preoccupied Jewish communities during this dynamic era. While Chicago’s religious diversity put peoples of many religious traditions into contact for the first time, the city’s immigrant population also generated new internal religious diversity as well. For example, the majority of Jewish immigrants to Chicago between 1881 and 1924 spoke Yiddish and adhered strictly to Orthodox religious practices, which distinguished them from mid-nineteenth century Jewish immigrants who attended congregations like Sinai, who spoke English or German and followed Reform Judaism. Tensions between established Jewish communities and immigrant newcomers animated many of the efforts on Maxwell Street. In 1893, just four years after Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr founded the Hull-House settlement, Chicago’s Jewish community established the Maxwell Street Settlement House at 1214 South Clinton Street. As lawyer and historian Philip P. Bregstone recounted in his 1933 book Chicago and Its Jews, German Jewish benefactors saw themselves as more “enlightened” than the new Jewish immigrants, and they questioned the value of the religion, language, and culture that immigrants brought with them. Bregstone reports on a meeting to discuss the Maxwell Street Settlement House, at which Jane Addams said that “ill-feeling” within Jewish communities exceed that between Jews and Gentiles—a remarkable (even if somewhat sarcastic) statement considering the significant antisemitism in the United States during this era. 

This transformative period in Chicago’s Jewish history also was marked by generational and religious tension, as evidenced in the memoir by Hilda Satt Polacheck (1882–1967), I Came a Stranger. The Satt family immigrated to Chicago in 1892, at which time Mr. Satt insisted that he would not work on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath. (Sunday, the Christian Sabbath, was the common day of rest for the majority of the nation’s laborers.) Polacheck (née Satt) recalled her father’s determination to maintain religious customs, writing, “I am sure that he would rather have starved and let the family starve before he would desecrate the Sabbath.” Mr. Satt’s work as a tombstone engraver—which was, coincidentally, owned by a member of Jenkin Lloyd Jones's All Souls Church—is also instructive for understanding the establishment of Jewish communities, which tended to found burial societies as one of the first communal organizations upon arrival in any area. The burial societies fulfilled a critical commandment for Jews—seeing that the deceased were prepared properly for burial according to religious obligations. Polacheck also reported that her father could read multiple languages, and thus could effectively serve the multilingual, diverse Jewish community in Chicago. Both this adherence to religion and to language demonstrate that Jews did not cast off their distinctive cultures even as they embraced opportunities that Chicago provided.

Jewish immigration to the United States slowed to a trickle after the Immigration Act of 1924, effectively closing the doors to southern and eastern European immigrants. With few if any Jewish immigrants arriving in Chicago, Maxwell Street’s importance for Jewish communities waned. Yet the area remained a subject of study, evidenced by University of Chicago sociologist Louis Wirth’s (1897–1952) groundbreaking 1928 book, The Ghetto. Wirth’s book rests on the premise that Jewish character and culture are forged from living in densely concentrated neighborhoods. Wirth envisioned three possible outcomes for Chicago’s Jews following the breakdown of the ghetto: first, Jews might assimilate completely into the American scene; second, nostalgic memory of the ghetto could prove a cohesive force for scattered Jewish communities; third, a rising tide of antisemitism could bond Jews together in a collective fight against prejudice. 

The second option—nostalgia—dominates Wirth’s book. In this scenario, collective memory of a ghetto experience outlasts Jews’ movement out of the physical ghetto. As Wirth writes, “The ghetto is not only a physical fact; it is also a state of mind.” Despite the erosion of ghetto boundaries, the existence of Jewish types—the capitalist, the manufacturer, the intellectual, the marriage broker, the jester, and the beggar—that were forged in the ghettos around the turn of the century and would survive in Jewish memory for generations to come. For Wirth, Jewish ethnicity lay in the continuity nourished by collective memory.

Six woodcut illustrations by modernist artist Todros Geller (1899–1949) that were included in The Ghetto depict stock Jewish character types in urban scenes, working in tandem with Wirth’s text. Neither Wirth nor Geller was religiously observant, yet both leaned on religious themes and depictions of old-world Jewish types to express something timeless about Jewish identity. 

In Geller’s Maxwell Street anonymous city dwellers go about their daily business. Most of the individuals have their heads covered—the men in hats all have beards, the women wear shawls. Except for the title of this woodcut, there are no clues that locate the scene in any particular place. This is the generic, seemingly timeless Jewish ghetto, one that could have been in Europe as easily as in the United States, and one that echoes Wirth’s nostalgia for Jews’ ghetto past. The ghetto streets also are alive and energized in Geller’s Street Musicians. Everything from the musicians’ bows to the buildings in the background is in motion, influenced by the music’s rhythm. There is significant companionship between the two musicians that suggests both joy in other’s company and tight-knit community more generally. Street Musicians depicts relationships among Jews in the ghetto as a product of tradition and shared culture, rather than just of discrimination. 

Talmudic Student accompanies a chapter in The Ghetto that explained the pre-modern Jewish ghettos in Europe. In this woodcut, we see a young man with eyes closed, emphasizing deep thinking likely within a moment of prayer. He is pensive and contemplative, with a gentle expression. The corners of his mouth are upturned, suggesting a smile—or even joy—in his practice of religion. Jews achieve dignity through prayer, as well as through hard work, as Geller suggests in his woodcut of an elderly laborer, Horseradish Grinder. Here everything is bent with weariness. It looks to be a bitterly cold day, with the grinder wearing his apron over a heavy coat. Amidst this aura of fatigue and cold, Geller communicates sympathy for this laborer’s honest toil. 

Wirth closed The Ghetto on a pessimistic note, writing, “The Jews owe their survival as a separate and distinct ethnic group to their social isolation.” Yet Wirth already had admitted that continued isolation remained unlikely. Wirth’s exclusive focus on the Maxwell Street area informed his conclusions. These would have rested on much shakier ground had he cast his gaze more widely. By the 1920s, Chicago’s Jewish population defied simple categorization. Chicago’s Jews had scattered themselves throughout neighborhoods across the city and its surrounding suburbs. Class differences were complicated by linguistic variations depending on land of origin and time of arrival in the United States. Jewish religious commitment also had fragmented considerably, evidenced by the life of Rabbi Emil G. Hirsch and Sinai Congregation (1852–1923)—who led Chicago’s radical reform Sinai Congregation from 1880 until 1923—argues that religious rituals and practices must adapt to fit modern circumstances. Not only Wirth, but any writer concerned with the Jewish population in the Chicago area by the 1920s certainly would have been hard-pressed to forge one single community out of the population of Chicago’s Jews. 

Further Reading

  • Irving Cutler, “Jews,” Encyclopedia of Chicago (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004).
  • Sarah Abrevaya Stein, “Illustrating Chicago’s Jewish Left: The Cultural Aesthetics of TodrosGeller and the L. M. Shteyn Farlag” Jewish Social Studies 3:3 (Spring-Summer 1997).
  • Susan S. Weininger, “Todros Geller,” Modernism in the New City: Chicago Artists, 1920-1950
  • Louis Wirth, The Ghetto (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1928).