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Romance of a People: Jewish History in Chicago 1833-1933


On July 3, 1933, 125,000 people filled Soldier Field to celebrate 3,000 years of Jewish history. The event was called "The Romance of a People," featuring 6,000 actors, singers, and dancers. The elaborate pageant was the Jewish community's moment in the spotlight at the 1933 World's Fair and marked 100 years of Jewish history in Chicago.

From the city's incorporation in 1833, Jews had made vital contributions to Chicago's growth. Fleeing the hardships and persecution they faced in Europe, they transplanted themselves and their way of life to Chicago, where it took root on the shores of Lake Michigan.

Jewish Day Shook Chicago - A Local Perspective
By Walter Roth
President, Chicago Jewish Historical Society

The greatest Jewish spectacle ever staged in Chicago took place on Monday evening, July 3, 1933 at Soldier Field. Sponsored by the Jewish Agency for Palestine, The Romance of A People was the culminating event of Jewish Day at "A Century of Progress," the World's Fair held along Chicago's lakefront. Over 125,000 people attended the performance of The Romance.

The Fair was a colossal effort. In the planning for over five years, it took place during the Great Depression. Yet by its emphasis on American technology, science and industry, the Fair was designed to show the strides made by the United States, and particularly the progress made by the city of Chicago since its founding in 1833.

Why a Jewish Day and why sponsorship by the Jewish Agency for Palestine? The Fair Committee had designated over two dozen special days to spotlight the nationalities that made up the immigrant population of Chicago, and was building a Hall of Religion for displays by Chicago's religious groups. For some of Chicago's Jews, their nationality was Zionism and Palestine. The Jewish Agency was the body designated to represent Jewry in its dealings with the British Mandate authorities in Palestine. To Meyer Weisgal, the Executive Director of Zionist activities for the Midwest (and later Chaim Weizmann's private secretary), the Jewish Agency was the obvious choice as the representative of Jewish national aspirations. In his autobiography "So Far," Weisgal writes that in the early 1930s he formulated plans for an annual Chanukah pageant at Chicago's Opera House. The pageants became so successful that by 1932 he could proclaim: "the Zionist Organization is today on the lips of every Jew and non-Jew in the city of Chicago."

According to Weisgal, the Jews of Chicago had been asked to participate in the World's Fair. Negotiations went on for months as to whether the Jews were a race, a religion, or a nation; and if so, could they be represented by a building; and if a building, what kind of building? After the success of his 1932 Chanukah pageant, Weisgal felt inspired: "not a building, not an exhibit, but a pageant portraying five thousand years of Jewish history. It would have everything-religion, history, the longing for Zion, the return to Zion, and it would be called The Romance of a People." Weisgal went to Rabbi Solomon Goldman and Judge Harry Fisher, two of Chicago's Zionist leaders and received their support. Weisgal, according to his own account, went to see Rufus C. Dawes, President of the Fair, a deeply religious man who loved his Bible. Weisgal was able to convince him that Jews had "four thousand years of history, from Abraham down to the present: that no one has!" Dawes agreed to schedule a special Jewish Day at the Fair, the grand finale of which would be a huge spectacle produced by Meyer Weisgal.

In addition to the Jewish Day program, a Jewish exhibit, to be housed in the Hall of Religion for the duration of the Fair, was organized by non-Zionist Reform Rabbis Louis Mann and Gerson Levi. It consisted of a display of Jewish artifacts and portraits of famous Jews through the ages, to illustrate Jewish contributions in the fields of social science, education, religion, literature, medicine, philanthropy, agriculture, statesmanship, music, art, drama and child welfare. The design and planning was done by the architectural firm of Alfred S. Alschuler and Company. Panel murals were painted by artist A. Raymond Katz.

Weisgal made the pageant his full-time business. By his account, he was the man in charge. He followed the general pattern of his earlier Chanukah festival, but on a grander scale. Instead of simply telling a single holiday tale, The Romance was to tell the story of mankind from the Creation to the modern day. The authors of the prose for The Romance were said to include Weisgal, Rabbi Solomon Goldman and also Maurice Samuel, a gifted writer, leading Zionist and close friend of Weisgal. The music director, who also wrote the score, was Isaac Van Grove, a composer who had been a conductor of the Chicago Civic Opera and who had worked with Weisgal on the Chanukah celebrations. Cantor Avrum Matthews, who was also an opera and concert artist, was the leading singer.

Weisgal soon involved many of the Chicago area's Jewish institutions, particularly Jewish schools. 3,000 Jewish youths made up the chorus. The cast consisted of 3,500 singers, actors and dancers gathered from Jewish performing arts groups in Chicago, Milwaukee, Waukegan and Indiana Harbor. Among the Musical Directors were Hy Reznick, director of the Halevy Choral Society and musical director of the Board of Jewish Education in Chicago, and Evelyn Harris Fox, a prominent community leader. The Broadcasting Director was Ralph Schoolman. Among the Stage Directors were Ben Zion Gordon and Ralph J. Halperin. Nathan Vizonsky directed the dancers.

Soldier Field was a huge place to fill, having a feating capacity of nearly 100,000. Weisgal reflects in his autobiography that as his father and brother were cantors, he had learned from them how to stage a show with singers and dancers-particularly on the Jewish holidays. So Weisgal decided that he needed a famous speaker for the "Yom Kippur services in order to attract its congregants." Who was the most famous Zionist Jew in 1933, and a brilliant orator on top of that? Chaim Weismann, of course.

Weisgal decided to telephone Weizmann, who was then living in London, England. Weisgal describes their conversation as follows:

WEISGAL: "Hello, Dr. Weizmann, this is Meyer in Chicago."

WEIZMANN: "Vos, bistu meshugge gevorn? Have you gone out of your mind?"

WEISGAL: "No, but it will be when you come here. I want you to come to Chicago for Jewish Day."

WEIZMANN: "What's that?"

WEISGAL: (I explained as fast as I could.)

WEIZMANN: "What's in it for the movement?"

WEISGAL: (with impressive emphasis and prayer in my heart) "If you will come to Chicago for one day, and make only one speech, even if for only five minutes, I will give you $100,000 for any Zionist fund you designate."

WEIZMANN: "Put it in writing."

Weisgal put it in writing with the warning that he was to make only one speech. If two, the fee would go down to $50,000; if three, to $25,000. Weisgal promised to raise $100,000 for Weizmann's Central Refugee Fund, which was designated to help German Jews settle in Palestine, and Weizmann agreed to come to Chicago.

Weisgal now had his star. Suddenly national Jewish organizations decided to participate in Jewish Day in Chicago. The Zionist Organization of America shifted its convention to the Palmer House in Chicago; the B/nai B'rith shifted its annual meeting to Chicago, and national youth groups, including Avukah, the Zionist youth organization, scheduled a rally for July 3 in Chicago.

In the days preceding Jewish Day, Jews flocked to Chicago. On Jewish Day itself, throngs of Jews came to the Fair. Hundreds of extra police had to be called to the fairgrounds to handle the crowds. By the afternoon, thousands of Jewish Chicagoans marched and danced in Soldier Field in preparation for the evening's event. Harry Berkman, a Chicago Jewish organizer and athlete of note, led 3,000 Jewish youths in marches and performances in the afternoon. In addition to Chaim Weizmann, many other Jewish dignitaries came to Chicago, including Nathan Strauss, Jr., the famous philanthropist from New York.

The Romance began at 8:15 p.m. Under a banner front page headline, "125,000 Witness Jewish Spectacle," Chicago Tribune reporter James O'Donnell Bennett wrote: "One hundred and twenty-five thousand men, women and children of Chicagoland's Jewry unrolled on Soldier Field last night a gigantic scroll emblematic of the resounding Pentateuch and thereon they read the story, now tragic, now triumphant, of their race's march down forty centuries to the new Palestine of today."

The giant Torah was placed on a huge four level stage located at the center of the arena, on which a chorus of thousands of singers and dancers stood massed. In an innovation for the times, 46 performers were positioned in a small room under the stage, unseen by the audience. Except for the massed chorus, these hidden performers supplied all the music and sound for the pageant. Twenty of the performers were singers, mostly cantors, and the rest were orchestra members, except for Ralph Schoolman, who read the narrative and was the Voice for The Romance. They were led by a conductor, who in turn watched Maestro Van Grove, who stood in the center of the stage conducting the entire proceedings. The stage itself was decorated with Stars of David and the blue and white flags of the new Jewish Palestine. A huge six-pointed star towered over the entire stage, so that is seemed that even the legions of Rome could not win in this place. 750 dancing girls strewed flowers around the Torah. The Tribune report continued: "The solemn, weighty voices of cantors intoned in Hebrew the opening lines of Genesis-And God said Let there be light-and there was light. Trumpets and multitudes of voices heralded the coming of the earth's first dawn."

The pageant lasted about 90 minutes. It was a tremendous success. The Chicago Tribune devoted fourteen columns to describe the event. The newspaper's management was apparently so impressed that they undertook to underwrite a reenactment of the pageant for the following Thursday evening, July 6. This was done, writes Weisgal, with Herculean efforts by the entire cast, but this time before a crowd estimated to be about 55,000 persons.

As for Chaim Weizmann, he arrived in Chicago on July 1. He was received by an honorary reception committee of more than 100 persons headed by Bernard Horwich, a leading Chicago Jewish businessman, philanthropist and Zionist. Weizmann delievered a ten-minute speech on July 3 before the performance of the pageant. The exact text of his brief remarks at the Fair are not quoted anywhere and appear not to have dealt with any substantive matter. He spent most of his stay in Chicago at the convention of the Zionist Organization of America, where he did give a series of substantive speeches about the situation in Palestine, pleading for funds to strengthen the refugee German Jews there and discussing his plans for dealing with the Arab-Jewish problem.

Weisgal, in his autobiography, comments that he raised the $100,000 requested by Weizmann for his trip and one speech and sent it to him, not deducting anything for the additional speeches. Immediately after Jewish Day, Weisgal attempted to take The Romance on the road, but the Jewish God who had been so cooperative in Chicago let the rains come down in New York. The pageant had to be delayed and then performed indoors, though again with great success.

As for Weizmann, in a letter dated "Chicago, 6 July 1933" to his wife Vera, he wrote: "It is hot here and difficult to work...Generally speaking, it's been a success, but there is not much money here...The Jewish Day went off well. Everyone is praising the performance, though it was not to my taste."

Though not to Weizmann's taste, The Romance of a People left fond memories for Chicagoans who were there as participants or as members of the audience. The Zionist conference at the Palmer House was debating the growing crisis of German Jewry, but at the pageant, Chicago Jews, despite the Great Depression, could still proclaim their pride and history, not yet seeing the looming tragedy for their people in Europe. It was to be the last pre-World War II public spectacle by Chicago Jewry. A few years later, such a celebration as occurred on July 3, 1933 would be unthinkable.

"The Romance of a People" by Miriam Joyce Selker

I hear the tread of a wandering race
On the flat sun-sands of a desert place,
Swaying to the beat of Assyrian drum,
Deafened by Babylonian cities' sybaritic hum,
Hesitating before the blue of Alexandria's sea-
Over oriental lands the homeless people did flee!
A century-moment Rome paused, and shackled their feet in her pride,

And the golden Caesars lived, and they died;
But Judea trod onward, weariness bound her stride;
Rome fell, and the press of feet shone clear
While the echoes of their march fell in tragic unison on each nation's ear.

Shaded by Alhambra's pillars in Moorish reign,
To Americus they sailed on the Spanish Main,
Onward, on, to furthest Cossack's frozen land,
The wanderers crept far from their white desert sand:
Hunnish faces lightened at the note

The music of their steps on Visigothic soil deeply wrote;
And vehement Gaels, slant-eyed races, dull,
The blood-rythym of a people could not lull.

And the long long cry-north, south and west-from eastern sands

Clasped the universe with wanderers' hands
That wavered and faltered-with sorrow they were wrung,
But Judean song might not long remain unsung,
For the beat of the feet in endless repeat, went on to be
Sounded in every Exodus throughout eternity,

Until at last, Judea reaped seeds, by her century-sown,
And the Exodus ceased at the heart where it had grown,
. . . The wanderers prayed and thanked their One God,
For they had returned-they stood on their own sod.

--And such is the Romance of a People.

Links for More Information on Chicago's Jewish Community
Virtual Jewish Chicago

Chicago Jewish Community Online

Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies
618 S. Michigan Avenue, Chicago
The largest Jewish museum between the coasts invites you to encounter Jewish history, religion, art and culture.

A Century of Caring
This series of articles by Harold Rosen highlights various facets of the Chicago Jewish community experience, including immigration & settling, social welfare & health care, Chicago Jewry's ongoing relationship with Israel, and more.

Guide to Jewish Living in Chicago
The Guide offers a comprehensive, up-to-date listing of Chicago-area Jewish organizations, resources, products, and services.

Chicago Jewish News Lists
Lists of "The 100 Best Jewish Sites in the Whole Wide Web World" and "Chicago's Top 100 Jews, Past and Present."

Dawn R. Schuman Institute for Jewish Learning
This is a not-for-profit organization devoted to Jewish adult education.

Additional Resources
A free monograph, "A Century of Progress for Chicago's Jewish Community," is available through the Jewish Federation/Jewish United Fund, 312/357-4845.

The Jews of Chicago: From Shtetl to Suburb, by Irving Cutler, published by the University of Illinois Press in 1996, tells the history of the cultural, religious, fraternal, economic, and everyday life of Chicago's Jews.

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