Identity, Uncategorized

South Side Poetry Suite, Part I of VI

I recently wrote here about my decision to move from Israel, where I had lived for fourteen years, back to my ancestral homeland of the South Side of Chicago. Leading up to this decision, I wrote a suite of six poems about the South Side, White Flight, home, and exile, which helps contextualize this decision in some major themes of American Jewish history of the past generation. This week marks the fifth yahrzeit of Gloria Chanenson, a family friend whose death provided the initial spark for writing the poem that turned into six. Though we subsequently discovered that she wasn’t quite the last Jew on the old Southeast Side, as we thought when she died, the artistic point about the pointless demise of a robust Jewish community, and the related politics of race and class, still stand.  In honor of National Poetry Month, here is Part I of my South Side poetry suite. I will post the remaining five parts serially, each day this week.
Home on the South Side
The last Jew has died. The last Jew has died.
No paranoia diatribe of executors of tribal pride,
the chancellors of parochial life, champions of hand-me down fright,
just Gloria Chanenson, age 90, the last Jew on the South Side.
1) A friend of my grandma, I didn’t know her well,
2) I barely ever met her; not my story to tell.
3) It’s not about her, or any one person;
4) the story is power, cowards, fear merchants.
5) How did it happen, how could it be
6) that the South Side of Chi-town became Jew-free?
7) From Stony Island Ave., east to Lake Michigan,
8) 71st down to 105th and then,
9) Gloria’s people, why were they there?
10) And why did they run and drift away somewhere?
11) I’m not a Onceler or William Kunstler,
12) just a griping, sniping, rhyming hustler,
13) a bleating MC, who speaks for nobody,
14) but sojourning with the truth, b/c it makes you free.
15) Yearn to learn you, show you what you need to know.
16) You all tucked in? Heeeere we go.

  1. 1888 — a number, another summer;
  2. to the new world, full of wonder.
  3. Straight outta Kovno; what you brothers call Kaunas,
  4. the sum of the Jews in the dozens of thousands
  5. {beat} throughout, ⅓ of the district,
  6. sharp as a razor, ‘cause they were Litvaks:
  7. scholars who howled with smarts, no clowning,
  8. no ridic’lous Hasidics around them.
  9. But anti-Semitics, mad inciting;
  10. they glanced at the wall, and they saw the handwriting:
  11. Soon enough Europe be dead to us.
  12. {beat} So sue us, gonna do this in the U.S.
  13. A crew of us all go, no Where’s Waldo,
  14. landsmen bouncin’ to South Chicago.
  15. Make a new life, dreams not outsized.
  16. Setting roots, selling fruits and dried goods at home on the South Side.

1) Friends and neighbors, daughters, sons,
2) Built a shul, then built another one.
3) Nathan Bernstein, family grew
4) and his crew of new, proud American Jews.
5) Grandson, Norman, became my grandpa:
6) native Yankee, ball in the sandlot.
7) Not all great, had to fight the haters,
8) Polish kids on the way to chayder,
9) but they were neighbors, upon broad shoulders,
10) learned to roll, as they got older.
11) Sold to the Poles who worked the steel mills:
12) furniture, clothes; trust to settle the bills.
13) South side community man, every piece:
14) got sick, got prayers from rabbi and priest,
15) and minister, too, and he was Jewish and glad to be.
16) God is a fraud if He’s a bigot, He had to be.
17) Wed Adele from the Illadelph.
18) Small when she moved, like a Keebler elf.
19) Like stealth she moved with her dad all around:
20) {beat} west, north, and south and downtown.
21) He couldn’t drive, but owned a gas station,
22) so she wheeled, knew each street’s location.
23) Real estate firm, she kept the books clean,
24) business sense, bought her home, nahmean?
25) Grandma Esther, south side raised,
26) Teachers Union, strike for days.
27) Family passed as German high class
28) Sinai Temple aristocrats.
29) Party host, classy, frisky:
30) white, Black, straight, gay guests in the ‘50s.
31) Grandpa Sam, West Side born,
32) dreamed to sing, but fam too poor.
33) Ma did what she could do for kids and pa,
34) Russian army fugitive, gripped by trauma.
35) Sam nabs a job in the newspaper morgue,
36) learned the world, loved knowledge, never bored.
37) Right place, right time, at the Daily News,
38) became a night club critic and movie reviews.
39) Mr. Kelly’s — folk and blues,
40) chill with Hitchcock and Julie Andrews.
41) Paved the way for Siskel, Ebert,
42) got his start on the Yiddish Theater.
43) From Jeffrey Manor up to Pill Hill,
44) World War II vet, GI Bill.
45) Jewish Americans, not contradictory,
46) new middle class, upward mobility.
47) Ignored the north side ideologues,
48) {beat} got along, became strong, ‘cause they belonged on the South Side.

  1. The Torah Shul, the Akiba Day School,
  2. South Shore Temple, South Side Hebrew,
  3. Rabbi Goodman at Rodfei Sholom,
  4. Agudas Achim, Bikur Cholim,
  5. Latke’s Bakery — strudel, challah —
  6. B’nai Yehudah, B’nai Bezalel,
  7. {beat} Beth Joseph and Beth Am,
  8. old folks at Anshe Cheltenham,
  9. Beth Midrash Hagodol Anshe Dorom:
  10. Go say kaddish, make a quorum.
  11. Teenage lazing, Rainbow Beachy,
  12. {beat} AZA and BBG.
  13. South Shore High School, or at Bowen
  14. German Jews prayed at Habonim.
  15. CKI, that’s shul 14
  16. See what I mean? Was the scene for Jewish life on the South Side.


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