Book review: There Used to Be a Synagogue Here

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If you grew up Jewish in Chicago and are of a certain age, say, 50 or older, there’s a good chance the synagogue where you went to Hebrew School has moved to a new location or no longer exists. Either way, buildings were left behind in neighborhoods that no longer have a Jewish population.

In his new book of photographs, There Used to Be a Synagogue Here, Frederick J. Nachman shows us the enormous, awe-inspiring religious buildings as well as ordinary two-flats that once housed Chicago synagogues. While Nachman has uploaded more than 300 photographs of former Chicago synagogues to his flickr acccount, he selected 100 images of the better-known or architecturally interesting former synagogues for his book. In the accompanying text, he offers both a public history and a personal account of his family’s connections to several synagogues pictured in the book. (Disclosure: I received a review copy of There Used to Be a Synagogue Here courtesy of the author.)

Six degrees of separation

The histories of Chicago synagogues read like a family tree. This synagogue merged with that synagogue. They changed their name. They moved to a new location. The resulting web of related synagogues criss-crosses the city and suburbs, stretching from the mid-1800s to the present day. Example (and there are many):

  • Beth Jacob Anshe Kroz, built in 1927 at W. 15th Street and S. Drake Avenue.
  • Merged with Congregation Ahavas Achim of the Maxwell Street area.
  • Renamed Beth Sholom Ahavas Achim, currently located at 5655 N. Jersey Avenue. In my old neighborhood, on the block where one of my classmates lived.

Modern ruins

When I first came across Nachman’s photographs in 2009, I was surprised by the number, size and grandeur of more than a few synagogues on the South and West sides. Even in their current dilapidated condition, these structures are a powerful reminder of the strength of religious communities..

They periodically appear in the media, these old buildings that once housed synagogues, churches or, more often than not, both synagogues and churches at different times. A building’s architecture may attract the attention of preservationists, as happened in the Spring of 2012 before the demolition of the former Anshe Knessess Israel Congregation/ Shepherd’s Temple Baptist Church that was located at 3411 W. Douglas Boulevard. Later that same year, we heard of the possible demise of the 137-year-old St. James Church on the South Side.

The problem is, of course, money. But, even if we could afford to save these old religious buildings, why should we try?

Frederick J. Nachman photograph by Erin Nekervis

Frederick J. Nachman photograph by Erin Nekervis

In the case of the former First Roumanian Congregation, located at 1352 S. Union Avenue, it’s a matter of historical, not architectural, significance. For Nachman, the historical significance is public and personal: this is the last remaining former synagogue in the Maxwell Street area and it is where his father’s family worshipped. The University of Illinois-Chicago wants to demolish the building. Nachman believes, and others agree, it should be saved as a monument to both civic and religious history.

What do you remember?

Following Nachman’s lead, let’s remember the synagogues of Chicago. Where did you go and where was it located? I’ll go first.

Temple Beth-El, 3050 W. Touhy Avenue.

 

Scan0002There Used to Be a Synagogue Hereavailable online at blurb. Hardcover: $50. Softcover: $42.

For multiple copies, please contact Fred Nachman directly by email at: fnachman (at) marjancommunications (dot) com.

Check out Fred Nachman’s blog, The View from Brule Lake.

More about former Chicago synagogues in my blogpost, Backward Glance.

 

 

 

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29 Responses to Book review: There Used to Be a Synagogue Here

  1. Harriet Miller January 22, 2013 at 10:20 pm #

    Temple Beth-El is now located in Northbrook on Dundee Road. We inherited a book from my father-in-law “History of the Jews of Chicago” published ib 1924. It has pictures of the firsrt congregations of Chicago. My husbands great-grandfather lead B’Nai Moshe Synagogue at Paulina near Taylor Street. The pictures of these beautiful and architecturally magnificent buildings – even in black and white are amazing.

  2. Andy Romanoff January 22, 2013 at 10:32 pm #

    My temple was Shaare Tikvah on Kimball avenue and I remember the old building when it was new. I was Bar Mitzvahed there around 1955, and still remember the feeling of being up on the bimah that day, awkward and uncomfortable. The congregation was well off and we were not. My father had passed away suddenly and very young a few years before. To me, the people standing outside on the high holidays were rich hypocrites and I wanted nothing to do with them. Many years later I learned my mother did laundry for the temple so my brother and I could go to religious school a few days a week, but for me in my youth it was torture.

    The school was on the second floor and my classroom faced West towards the alley. From where I sat there was a telephone pole just a few feet away from the window. it seemed possible to me that I could jump from the window, grab the pole, shinny down and be free and I spent many hot afternoons planning my escape. I never did it of course. I escaped instead by becoming a teenager and a troublemaker and temple was no longer any part of my life.

    Many years later, living in California I came to temple at my wife’s gentle urging and grew to like it and understand its place in my life. And so a few years ago I came back to Chicago to see my ailing aunt Sophie and found myself on a Saturday morning saying to my wife “Do you want to go to services at the temple I went to as a boy?” We drove down to the neighborhood and went inside, finding a much reduced congregation holding services not in the grand old sanctuary but in a chapel I didn’t remember.

    Nonetheless we were welcomed and we prayed with them and while I was there I found out the buildings days were numbered as Shaare Tikvah. And this saddened me and I was surprised by that. How could it be the end of this place I had disliked so much could make me unhappy?

  3. Merle Monroe January 22, 2013 at 10:43 pm #

    Congregation Shaare Tikvah, then located at 5800 N. Kimball Ave.

  4. Merle Tarnoff Simon January 23, 2013 at 3:41 am #

    We lived in Albany Park until 1957, when we joined Shaare Tikvah. Before that, we belonged to Mt. Sinai Congregation. My father was president for a few years and my mother sang in the choir. It was a very traditional synagogue, and we went to services every Friday night. My first kiss was in the social hall, while our mothers sang, at an embarrassingly young age. I think it was on Kedzie, near Montrose. The rabbi was Adam Neuberger and we all lived in the same apartment building on Troy and Cullom. The janitor lived in the garden apartment, and they used to have all of us over ( including the almost orthodox rabbi and his family) to help decorate the Christmas tree, and the janitor helped build the sukkah in the courtyard.

  5. Frances Archer January 23, 2013 at 7:52 am #

    Hi, Harriet. In Nachman’s book he includes photographs of two of Temple Beth-El’s earlier locations–Humboldt Park and Logan Square. It’s one of the congregations that has moved around a lot. Thanks for adding the name of your husband’s family shul.

  6. Frances Archer January 23, 2013 at 7:56 am #

    Andy, thanks for this remarkable collection. You’ve recaptured the intensity of your thoughts and feelings at the time. I wonder if you would have felt more comfortable at Lev Someach on Bryn Mawr? Less fancy?

  7. Frances Archer January 23, 2013 at 7:56 am #

    Thanks for contributing Merle.

  8. Frances Archer January 23, 2013 at 8:01 am #

    Merle, thanks for this wonderful memory of how closeknit the neighborhood shul was. I looked up Mt. Sinai and it is located at 4710 N. Kedzie.

  9. Iris Rothstein Johnson February 17, 2013 at 1:15 am #

    Hi Francis,

    I remember you from a long, long time ago. We were in some classes together at Peterson School. I attended Hebrew school at Shaare Tikvah for a while. My family moved to the suburbs in 1966. I have many fond memories of the community. My husband has a hard time believing that where I grew up practically everyone one was Jewish,

    I lived at 5710 North St Louis in a six flat with an oak tree in front.

  10. Eileen Millstein Stern March 29, 2013 at 4:42 pm #

    Thank you for your blog. My brother told me about it. I remember going with my Orthodox grandparents to a shul with a balcony for the women and I believe it was on Kimball near Lawrence. Do you know what Shul that was?

    My girlfriend from those days – Marilyn Sachet – I believe her grandfather was the Rabbi there. Just curious.

    Thanks!
    Eileen Millstein Stern

  11. Frances Archer April 5, 2013 at 8:42 pm #

    Hi, Eileen. Not sure, there were a lot of shuls. There is a book that lists all the former synagogues. If I can find the name I’ll let you know.

  12. GARY HOFFMAN May 4, 2013 at 7:14 pm #

    I THINK THAT WAS THE DRAKE SHUL ON DRAKE AND WILSON OTHER THAN THE ALBANY PARK SHUL ON WILSON AND LAWNDALE I THINK THAT WAS THE ONLY OTHER ORTHYDOX SHUL IN THE AREA THE RABBI WAS RABBI SEGAL

  13. Debbie Fishbain July 8, 2013 at 5:32 am #

    We went to a shul on Foster south of Kedzie, Mikra Kodesh Anshe Tiktin, not sure if that’s spelled right. After that became, I think a Korean temple, we joined Share Tikva. I never went to Hebrew School, my mom didn’t believe in it for girls, I did go to the Workman’s Circle School on California near Devon to learn Yiddish. You’ve brought back some interesting memories, Frances.

  14. Eileen Millstein Stern July 8, 2013 at 5:44 am #

    @Debbie…. my brother and I went to Workman Circle Yiddish school. We didn’t make it there very long. I sort of remember a teacher throwing a book at my brother. The shul you went to… did it have a balcony for the women? Mikra Kodesh? My family (Mom, grandparents, aunts, uncles) are all buried at Workman Circle section of Park Forest cemetary. What was your maiden name?

  15. Frances Archer July 8, 2013 at 9:59 am #

    Debbie, thanks for stopping by. It is fascinating to learn the history of our old neighborhood and especially how it connects to the older community on the West Side. Did you learn Yiddish as a kid or an adult? I imagine it was a hard sell if you were a child–I know I would have been reluctant but of course now I wish my grandfather had taught me more than just a few words.

  16. Frances Archer July 8, 2013 at 10:00 am #

    Eileen, I can answer for Debbie that Fishbain is her maiden name, as we both attended Peterson Elementary School

  17. Eileen Millstein Stern July 8, 2013 at 10:17 am #

    thanks. Don’t know her. I had actually forgotten about the yiddish school we attended. I believe they had a bus that took us there? Anyway, thank you and the Alibany Park Facebook page for being a memory keeper.
    Eileen

  18. Debbie Fishbain July 9, 2013 at 7:26 am #

    @Eileen, better late than never? Frances answered the first part, Fishbain is my maiden name. I went there as a child, and yes there was a bus that took us there. I can’t imagine who would have thrown a book at your brother, the teacher was a man named Avram Gurevitz, very nice man, but it was definitely a hard sell. As a kid, i was upset I wasn’t going to have a Bat Mitzvah and collect all that money that my brothers had. LOL, It did serve me well, though. My parents could no longer speak in Yiddish to discuss things I wasn’t supposed to hear, as I could pick out enough words to understand, and it gave me a chance to write to my grandmother in Yiddish when she was away, which thrilled her. I don’t remember if Mikra Kodesh had a balcony or not, I spent most of my time trying to braid my father’s tallis.

  19. Frances Archer July 9, 2013 at 9:30 pm #

    Debbie, that is really interesting about learning Yiddish. I am tempted o look for a class for myself.

  20. len July 10, 2013 at 1:57 pm #

    MKAT moved to north side of Foster just west of California in late 50′s or early 60′s. Building is still there.

  21. len July 10, 2013 at 2:05 pm #

    maybe MKAT did not move. maybe Debbie meant east of Kedzie?? The couple of times I was there I do not remember the women and men in different sections-not positive on that.

  22. Ben Kirman July 26, 2013 at 8:45 pm #

    The Temple just west of California on the north-side of Foster was Congregation Mikro Kodesh Anshe Tiiktin. I went to Hebrew School there and had my Bar Mitzvah in May of 1955.
    It is very sad to report that the building is no longer there, replaced by an empty lot; I have no idea why.

    The temple several blocks east of California on the north-side of Foster was Congregation B’nai David which has now turned into a Korean Church. My father Harry Kirman was one of the founders of this Congregation and its first President and I am very proud of that.

  23. len July 27, 2013 at 8:47 am #

    I stand corrected-MKAT building is gone.

  24. Ben Kirman July 27, 2013 at 11:53 am #

    Just a bit of guidance for anyone who wants to see the latest info about what things look like “today” go to the new Goggle maps and use street level, it shows everything in graphic detail on all sides on nearly every street.

  25. Ben Kirman July 27, 2013 at 1:15 pm #

    len’s memory is correct about no separate sections in MKAT; it was a Conservative Temple and everyone sat and prayed together.

  26. Frances Archer July 27, 2013 at 8:56 pm #

    Ben, I’m glad you let us know about your father’s involvement in founding Congregation B’nai David. What year?

  27. Ben Kirman July 30, 2013 at 6:47 pm #

    Just a bit more information about MKAT; the congregation was already in decline in the early 1990s because of the changes in population in Budlong Woods. In July, 1994 the Temple on Foster suffered a firebombing that significantly damaged the lower-level social hall. By that time the membership was down to less than 100, many elderly. The Temple converted from Conservative to Lubavitch in 2004 and by 2007 the Foster Avenue building was sold and subsequently torn-down. What remained of the membership began meeting in the Fieldhouse of Budlong School. If there is a remaining MKAT congregation anywhere at this time, I have not been able to determine.

  28. Susan September 26, 2013 at 11:55 am #

    Does anyone know of a synagogue that used to be at Rockwell and Augusta Blvd? Moarehayim Synagogue? The Rabbi was Nathan Sackheim.

  29. Frances Archer September 26, 2013 at 9:36 pm #

    Susan, you could check out the book, The Jews of Chicago, by Irving Cutler. http://www.amazon.com/Jews-Chicago-SHTETL-SUBURB-History/dp/0252076443/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1380249163&sr=1-1&keywords=irving+cutler He has maps for each part of the city where there were Jewish communities and shows many of the synagogues. Another resource is on Flickr. Fred Nachman has a collection of photographs of former synagogues in Chicago: http://www.flickr.com/photos/brulelaker/sets/72157615593834103/with/3513980302/ I reviewed his book on this blog earlier this year. Thanks for stopping by and I hope you find what you’re looking for.

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