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Jewish Cultural Life in Chicago

The post-Civil War era saw a rise in the number of civic organizations, political clubs, mutual aid societies, social clubs, and cultural circles in America. Many national and local women's organizations sprang up, reflecting new attitudes about women's roles. Belonging to such organizations became part of the American middle-class way of life. Jews, like others, eagerly participated in these social activities as can be seen in these excerpts of Hanna Greenbaum Solomon's memoirs.


Hannah Solomon describes the Chicago Jewish social scene in the 1860s-90s.

My grandparents celebrated their golden wedding anniversary in 1868, with a tremendous affair given at the Concordia, then the most popular Jewish social club, of which Uncle Henry was a founder, as well as its first president. All of the pioneer Jewish families were invited, as well as many friends and relatives from other cities, all of whom joined enthusiastically with the children and grandchildren of the family in celebration. . . .

Mother was a remarkable mater familias, yet in spite of her many home duties, she found time to befriend all who needed her. In 1883, she called together a group of women to form Chicago's first Jewish Ladies Sewing Society, where they made garments for the poor and aided the unfortunate. It was a source of deep gratification to us that Mother's ability and quality of leadership were recognized and honored when a sister branch . . . was organized in 1907, and named the Sarah Greenebaum Lodge. . . .
In addition to being involved in Jewish organizations, the Greenebaum family were enthusiastice participants in other Chicago cultural and civic groups.

The Apollo Choral Society was foremost among the many amateur music organizations existing in those early days, particularly among the German-born groups. The Beethoven Society, another of the leading singing associations, was the one to which Mary [Hannah's sister], Henriette [Hannah's other sister] and her husband, Henry Frank and I belonged. No affiliation brought us greater pleasure than those hours we devoted to singing with the large mixed chorus, preparing for the public concerts and oratorios we presented from time to time, and in which many renowned musicians participated. . . .

Uncle Henry Greenebaum was the Beethoven Society's first president. Indeed, it would have been difficult to find a roster of any educational, cultural or philanthropic organization of that day which did not include his name. . . . His wide interests brought him prominence in civic affairs, as well, and he was a leader, too, in Jewish and German circles. . . .

  In 1877, Hannah's father, Michael Greenebaum, organized a Jewish literary group for youth.

Music remained, for a number of years, one of our few prescribed means of self-expression, until--in 1877--my father proved again his understanding of youth and his instinctive gift of answering its needs. He called a meeting of all the young Jewish folks of the West Side and organized for us, the Zion Literary Society. . . . I served on its first
board. . . . Our whole circle of associates were active members of the Zion Literary Society until it was disbanded in 1892. . . .

  Also in 1877, Hannah and her sister were invited to join the Chicago Women's Club, one of the many women's organizations established in the U.S. after the Civil War.

Our entrance into the Chicago Woman's Club was significant for the organization as well as for us, as we were not only the first Jewish women invited into it, but were probably the only Jewesses many of the members ever had met. To join an organization of "women"--not "ladies"--and one which bore the title "club," rather than "society," was in itself a radical step, but my parents approved, for they wholeheartedly endorsed its educational value. We met either in a hotel or in private homes; occasionally at that of the president and founder. . . .

Those were the days when politics (including, of course, woman"s suffrage) and religion were taboo as subjects for discussion in the Club but in 1892 the program committee asked me to present its first paper on religion for which I chose the subject, "Our debt to Judaism."
Several Jewish women involved in women's clubs, including Hannah, became motivated to found a specifically Jewish women's organization. In 1893, they established the National Council for Jewish Women, a philanthropic and educational organization still active today.