One day years ago, as I rode my bike through the old Chicago neighborhood known as Wicker Park, I glimpsed at what looked like Hebrew lettering on a brick building with a blue cross. I stopped to investigate and discovered the building formerly housed Temple Beth-El. I was stunned, because that was the name of the temple I attended from age five to 18 — except it was located in West Rogers Park.
I looked up the website for Temple Beth-El — it’s now in Northbrook — and learned that it was on Crystal Street from 1902 until 1925, when it moved to Logan Square. The congregation moved again, in 1956, to the Touhy Avenue building where I spent a good part of my childhood. Intrigued, I then delved into the history of Chicago’s Jewish neighborhoods and found that every generation of Jews has migrated from one part of the city to another. In the 1960s, as I was growing up in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood on the North Side, the Jews were on the move again, this time to the suburbs.
People leave, the buildings stay behind Frederick J. Nachman has posted his collection of 282 photographs of former Chicago synagogues on Flickr, and I’ve copied several to my blog today. Nothing has given me a feel for what was left behind the way these remarkable photographs do. I’m surprised there are so many former synagogues, surprised there are so many grand and imposing buildings. I interviewed the photographer (FJN) by email to learn more about how he went about finding these buildings.
Frances: How many former Chicago synagogues have you photographed?
FJN: About 90.
Frances: How long have you been photographing Chicago’s synagogues?
FJN: I started 15 months ago. The first was the former KAM on 33rd and Indiana, which sadly was almost destroyed by fire. The inspiration came from Chicago’s Forgotten Synagogues by Robb Packer.
Frances: Do you always go inside the buildings if they are open to the public?
FJN: Almost never because of time constraints. I photographed the interior of the former Anshe Sholom in Lawndale because the caretaker told me about the original stained-glass windows.
Frances: Many old synagogues on the South and West Sides were larger and more ornate than the ones built in later years on the North Side. Do you know why?
FJN: I believe it’s a combination of the North Side synagogues being built after the era of ornate architectural styles and the relative wealth of each congregation.
Frances: I noticed on Flickr you’ve tagged these photos to various groups. Have you found other photographers who share your interest in former Chicago synagogues? What do you like about being able to share on Flickr?
FJN: One in particular, Elizar Appleton, has been very helpful. Not only has he pointed out a few I missed, he’s also translated Hebrew inscriptions. Flickr has brought insights from people outside Chicago and the U.S., including a woman from New York who belonged to the same congregation in Brooklyn as my wife and has published a book on lost New York synagogues.
Frances: Do you have a favorite?
FJN: One congregation, two synagogues: The First Roumanian Congregation. The Douglas Boulevard temple is simply beautiful and features cornerstones for both the synagogue and the present church. The previous one is the last remaining former synagogue in the Maxwell Street area, and my grandparents worshipped there after coming to the U.S. in 1900.
Frances: Do you have an emotional response when you see these buildings, and has that evolved over the duration of your project?
FJN: Each building is unique and evokes an emotional response. It might be that family members worshipped there, a distinctive architectural feature, the size (large and small) or the setting within the neighborhood. Even as I reached my 90th structure, I still felt the excitement of actually seeing the former synagogue before me, rather than on a photo on the Internet, and imagining the time Jews worshipped there.
Frances: On Flickr you commented that you use the Chicago Ancestors Collection at the Newberry Library and Google Maps street views for this project. How exactly do you go about finding former synagogues?
FJN: The Chicago Ancestors Collection has the most extensive list of former synagogues. Entries vary from having almost no information to data on construction dates, movements and the like. The American Jewish Yearbook from 1919-1920 also includes a list of Chicago congregations. I entered each address on Google Maps and found one of the following in the Street View: an empty lot, a building that definitely was not a former synagogue or one that most likely housed a temple. Once I arrived at a site in West Rogers Park and found the building had recently been torn down.
All photographs courtesy of Frederick J. Nachman and found on Flickr.