Walter Roth, president of the Chicago Jewish Historical Society, says the 1924 book History of the Jews of Chicago is a story of certain “mainstreams” within the Jewish community. “It’s not the work of a professional historian. It preserves certain historical patterns.”
Roth says the author–Jewish printer, politician, and Chicago renaissance man H.L. Meites–didn’t have much interest in writing about people such as barroom dancer Dora Kaplan. She married big gambler and Democratic Party leader Mike McDonald and converted him to Judaism. But he turned back to Catholicism on his deathbed–after Dora was tried for shooting a young lover to death.
“There are a lot of interesting omissions like Dora Kaplan,” says Roth. Then he adds wistfully, “[McDonald] was a good Jew for about 15 years.”
Yet Roth thinks the omissions are insignificant compared to the information Meites did collect and record for all time. “Certain events in the Jewish labor movement aren’t mentioned in the book,” he admits. “And certain labor leaders at Hart Schaffner & Marx–they were Jews, and he doesn’t treat that. He doesn’t mention Leopold and Loeb or the Franks boy. They were all from prominent Jewish families in Kenwood. Meites believed Jews should be good to each other. We did have Jewish gangsters and hoodlums, but they didn’t get any space. I guess that’s understandable.” Meites made an exception for gangster Samuel J. Morton, a shady Jewish cohort of mobster Dion O’Banion who also happened to have an outstanding military record during World War I.
So why has the historical society chosen to reprint Meites’s seven-pound, three-inch-thick tome, a Jewish history book filled with gaps? A book that tells hundreds of stories and has hundreds of photographs, none of which is less than 64 years old (it was updated in 1927)? “It’s like a book of your family history,” says Roth. “It tells you all about your family, where they grew up, who they knew, and who they were.” Unless, of course, your Jewish ancestors were hoodlums or troublemakers–without military records to redeem their honor.
When the book was originally published, only 500 copies were printed, and they were given to people who made hefty contributions to the original Chicago Jewish Historical Society (the current society was chartered in the 1970s). According to Roth, who is also a corporate attorney with D’Ancona & Pflaum, those copies, when they can be found, go for $200 to $1,000 at used-book stores. The republication was paid for by two of Meites’s great-grandsons, Tom and Jerry Meites, who put up $25,000 for 1,000 copies. They’ll sell for $48.95, and proceeds will go to the society.
“Having lost my own place of birth, I happen to think it’s extraordinarily important for people to know their past,” says Roth. “It gives people a sense of history and a purpose for the future.” Roth fled Germany in 1938 as a little boy, and his family settled in Hyde Park, near where he still lives. His father, who had been a miller, took up butchering at the stockyards.
According to Roth, 65 percent of the descendants of the Jews mentioned in the book now live outside Chicago, though still in the metropolitan area. “All knowledge of grandparents and great-grandparents is lost unless we preserve it,” he says. “I really enjoy it when young people [read the book and] come back to me and say they discovered things about their grandparents. They tell me about the hours they’ve spent tracing their ancestors and their ancestors’ acquaintances and what they’ve learned about the roots of their community. Meites had literally every synagogue, every Jewish institution that existed at the time in the book. And there are thousands of individuals.”
Meites also made statements American Jews from other cities might find surprising. He claimed that the formal American Zionist movement began in Chicago–and that he was the first member. He also stated that the American Jewish Congress started in Chicago in 1916. And he said that the land that now encompasses the state of Illinois was purchased by Jewish fur traders in 1747 for $37,000. Such a deal.
“It’s a concept I find charming,” says Roth. “He wanted so badly to be ‘American.’ With the purchase story, what he was really saying was, ‘It’s wonderful–we can show the goyim how important we are.'”
It appears Meites also tried to gloss over some of the divisions in Chicago’s Jewish communities in the early part of the century, primarily the cultural and economic tensions between the educated, established, and well-to-do Germans and their poorer brethren, the newcomers from Eastern Europe. Some of these differences are still subtly preserved today in the way Jews perceive each other.
“Meites tried to becalm those areas of tension in his book,” says Roth. “The thrust of his book showed interaction between Jews. He closely identified with ‘established’ Jewish settlers [he was Russian], but he moved with ease between the groups.”
Meites also had a great interest in certain gentiles he felt supported Jewish causes and helped preserve their identity. For instance, he devoted a whole chapter of the book to an evangelist preacher, William E. Blackstone, because Blackstone was such a fervent supporter of Palestine as an official Jewish homeland. Of course Blackstone’s ultimate goal in repatriating Jews to the Promised Land was to hasten the coming of Armageddon–a certain number of Jews had to be in Israel in order to fulfill the prophecy of a certain number of Jews being “sacrificed” before the Second Coming. But Meites welcomed support for a Jewish homeland, no matter what the motive.
He also thought highly of the U.S. senator James Hamilton Lewis, the attorney who had defended Dora Kaplan and insured her acquittal. In fact, Lewis gave a speech at the first publication party for the book. According to Roth, Lewis got up and talked about how Jews have contributed to every good cause in the history of the world. “Wherever you go, you find Jews. Name one place you go where you don’t find Jews.” Roth says a little old lady got up, looked straight at Lewis, and said, “You can go to hell, sir.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.