Jew­ish Maxwell Street Stories

Shuli Eshel and Roger Schatz
  • Review
By – September 28, 2012

The inter­sec­tion of Maxwell Street and Hal­st­ed Street in Chica­go once formed the hub of a teem­ing area known for its out­door mar­ket of push­carts and stands, as well as more per­ma­nent stores sell­ing every­thing from cloth­ing to pick­les. This neigh­bor­hood pro­vid­ed a res­i­den­tial and com­mer­cial launch­ing point for gen­er­a­tions of immi­grants, most notably Jews in the years from 1900 through the 1970’s.

Today, the flea mar­ket has been relo­cat­ed a half-mile to the south, and the real estate has been paved over to pro­vide an expand­ed cam­pus for the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois at Chica­go and a new, gen­tri­fied res­i­den­tial area known as Uni­ver­si­ty Vil­lage. Vis­it the inter­sec­tion of Hal­st­ed and Maxwell today and you will find a Jam­ba Juice out­let on one cor­ner and a Cari­bou Cof­fee shop on anoth­er. Although a few build­ing facades are being pre­served in a nod to the past, Maxwell Street is effec­tive­ly gone for good. 

The cur­rent book by Shuli Eshel and Roger Schatz is derived from a doc­u­men­tary film, and its deriv­a­tive nature shows. The book’s main val­ue rests in its pletho­ra of pho­tographs. The text pro­vides 38 brief vignettes, based on inter­views, of a vari­ety of Maxwell Street denizens. While it evokes some of the bustling (and hus­tling) vital­i­ty that was Maxwell Street, it leaves the read­er want­i­ng more. A suc­cess­ful por­trait of a bygone era depends on a pro­fu­sion of detail, and here the details are cloud­ed in the process of rec­ol­lec­tion. Some stand out, but many more need to be filled in to make the neigh­bor­hood come alive. The book’s brief glance at the tac­tics used by pullers’ to maneu­ver shop­pers into stores makes us want to read a good nov­el about one such entre­pre­neur. The brief sketch of the life of Abra­ham Lin­coln Marovitz, who rose from the slums of Maxwell Street to become a fed­er­al judge and one of Chicago’s most revered cit­i­zens, makes us yearn for a full-length biography.

Addi­tion­al Review by Leonard A. Matanky

Just as the Low­er East Side of Man­hat­tan defined the Jew­ish immi­grant expe­ri­ence of New York City, Maxwell Street and its push­carts and bazaars defined the late-19th and ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry Chica­go Jew­ish immi­grant expe­ri­ence. Maxwell Street was the place where Ben­ny Good­man formed his first band, and where Jew­ish entre­pre­neurs sold their first merchandise. 

This slim vol­ume, a com­pan­ion to the half-hour doc­u­men­tary Maxwell Street: A Liv­ing Mem­o­ry, The Jew­ish Expe­ri­ence in Chica­go,” expands upon many of the inter­views in that film and adds a few more sto­ries as well. Each sto­ry weaves both first-per­son tes­ti­monies along with addi­tion­al back­ground information. 

The nine chap­ters of this book include 40 rem­i­nis­cences of the way it was on Maxwell Street, from First You Sur­vive” to Aim Low” and end­ing with an Ode to Maxwell Street.” 

Today, Maxwell Street is no more, replaced with lux­u­ry con­do­mini­ums and parts of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois cam­pus. But read­ing Jew­ish Maxwell Street Sto­ries brings some of the vibran­cy and excite­ment of that time back to life.

Leonard A. Matanky, Ph.D., serves as asso­ciate super­in­ten­dent of the Asso­ci­at­ed Tal­mud Torahs of Chica­go, direc­tor of its Mor­ris and Rose Gold­man Com­put­er Depart­ment for Jew­ish Stud­ies, dean of Ida Crown Jew­ish Acad­e­my, and rab­bi of Con­gre­ga­tion K.I.N.S. of West Rogers Park (Chica­go).

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