Jewish Genealogical Society of Illinois

"Rembering Jewish Lawndale" documentary film

  • 25 Aug 2013
  • 12:30 PM
  • Temple Beth Israel, 3601 Dempster, Skokie
Sunday, Aug. 25, 2013
Program starts 2:00 p.m

Remembering Jewish Lawndale
“Remembering Jewish Lawndale,” a short film about the rich history of a Chicago neighborhood, will be shown at 2 p.m., Sunday, Aug. 25, 2013, at the Jewish Genealogical Society of Illinois meeting in Temple Beth Israel, 3601 W. Dempster St., Skokie.

The 30-minute documentary introduces the history of North Lawndale, which was the core of Chicago’s great Jewish West Side during the first half of the 20th Century. The film was co-produced in 2012 by the College of DuPage geography program and the Illinois Geographical Society. Creators of the film, including historian Irving Cutler, will answer questions after it is shown.

The JGSI meeting facilities at Temple Beth Israel will open at 12:30 p.m. to accommodate members who want to use or borrow genealogy library materials, get help with genealogy websites on the Internet, or ask genealogical questions before the main program begins. For more information, visit or phone 312-666-0100.

“Remembering Jewish Lawndale” features interviews with Irving Cutler, former geography chair at Chicago State University who has written two books on the Jewish West Side, and Richard Dolejs, former head of the Little Village Chamber of Commerce and a real estate manager, both of whom grew up in North Lawndale during the era of the Jewish West Side.  Dolejs was one of the very few non-Jews living in North Lawndale instead of with his fellow Bohemians south of Ogden Avenue, the unofficial dividing line between North and South Lawndale.  He and his wife came up with the “Little Village” label for South Lawndale, which is how that neighborhood is known today.

            In “Remembering Jewish Lawndale,” Cutler documents the history of this large, significant but largely forgotten community through maps and tours of the area, including a visit to the Greater Galilee Baptist Church, which was once a synagogue and still contains many Jewish architectural features.  Cutler explains that once Jews began moving to North Lawndale during the early 1900s, its population grew to more than 110,000 by the 1940s and represented 40 percent of Chicago’s overall Jewish population.  It was also one of the two most densely populated areas of the city, the other being the south side’s Black Belt.  In addition, more than 70 synagogues were located in the greater Lawndale area.  Famous former residents included Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, big band leader Benny Goodman, jazz and blues singer Dinah Washington and the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., who lived in the area for several months while planning civil rights activity in Chicago.

            “Lawndale was Chicago’s largest Jewish community after World War I. They came from the Maxwell Street area of Chicago because they wanted improved living conditions and such things as indoor plumbing,” says COD assistant professor of geography Keith Yearman.  Yet the Jewish West Side was relatively short-lived.  By the end of World War II, the Jewish community slowly began moving out, but the exodus sharply accelerated during the 1950s.  By 1960, the area had changed over to nearly 100 percent African-American, a change that occurred without the violence and racial tension that marked similar racial shifts in other areas of the city at that time.

            The departing Jews, who left largely for Chicago’s far north side and North Shore suburbs, “wanted neighborhoods with single-family homes and better schools.  They really didn’t stay a long time in Lawndale, yet they left so much behind,” Yearman says.  Last year, “the biggest synagogue in Lawndale [Anshe Knesses Israel, aka the Russische Shul on Douglas Boulevard] was torn down, and the loss of that gem drove us to document what’s left of the old Jewish community.”

            The film was the brainchild of Yearman and two colleagues, fellow geographer Joseph D. Kubal and independent journalist Maria R. Traska.

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