|THE JEWISH LISTS:
Jewish Chicagoans of the Year 2009
RUTH ADLER: Living long and prospering
The 20th century was barely out of diapers when Ruth Adler was born. Now she's making her mark on the 21st.
At age 104, Adler still keeps in touch with a legion of friends, still worships at the synagogue she has attended for more than half a century, and still joins other "girls" at a weekly sewing and knitting club that provides garments and blankets for hospitalized and underprivileged children.
But doing extraordinary things is nothing new for Adler.
She grew up in Chicago and quickly displayed an independent streak, according to Jody Weinberg, a cousin to whom Adler has become like a cherished grandmother.
"She drove at 18," Weinberg says, recalling family stories. "She didn't know how to back up, so she would stop people on the street and ask them to back up the car for her. She had a sheltered life but she was a go-getter and very smart." (And she must have learned how to back up, because she continued driving until she was 90.)
Adler married husband Sidney, an advertising man, at a young age and settled into the life of what she calls "a clubwoman," a typical role for a middle-class mid-century Jewish woman.
Then, at age 50, "I got tired of it," relates the still remarkably peppy Adler in her frank, direct style. "I belonged to every club, but I wanted to start on a career." She saw an ad in the newspaper seeking women to do market research, a field then in its infancy, but decided instead to start her own firm.
"I started with nothing, a few people on the phone calling other people to find out what they were doing," she says. Eventually the company became Adler-Weiner Market Research; Adler retired at 82, but the firm continues on with branches in Chicago and California.
"Ruth took on a partner, but she was really the driving force," Weinberg says. "She had charm and she was a diligent worker." At a time when most women with children didn't work outside the home, "Ruth found these Jewish stay-at-home moms who needed to earn extra money," Weinberg says. "They needed money to send their kids to summer camp, to supplement their incomes. These women became devotees to Ruth and some still are to this day."
In business, "Ruth was a taskmaster," Weinberg says. "If she didn't like the way something was written, she would hand it back to you. People were afraid of her. She got a reputation in the business community for being very professional and very demanding. She wasn't easy to work for because she demanded perfection, but she was kind to (her employees), and she had this incredible heart."
Adler and her husband performed many unsung acts of kindness, Weinberg says. "I remember one family who had a daughter with serious medical needs. Late at night, Ruth's husband would often show up at the door with money." The Adlers were married 62 years when Sidney died.
Jody Weinberg's mother and Sidney Adler's mother were cousins, but the relationship the two family branches have formed is much closer than that. Weinberg, her husband, Rabbi Michael Weinberg of Temple Beth Israel in Skokie, and their children and grandchildren "became like (Adler's) children," Jody Weinberg says. For her part, Adler says the family "adopted me. If I had given birth to those children, they couldn't be any more wonderful to me."
"She is a deeply spiritual person," Weinberg says. "She talks about G-d a lot. We talk a lot about what's next. She is very reflective, introspective, and she knows herself well."
Attributing her long life simply to her genes, Adler still keeps up with many friends and still enjoys making "gorgeous things" with members of her sewing club, who not only sew and knit, but have lunch together every Tuesday. "It's such a wonderful group of people; we love each other," she says.
Weinberg is not surprised. Adler, she says, "always has high energy. She is witty and interested in what everybody is doing. She uses her charm to bring people closer to her, and people see that she is not just an old woman. She has personality, and she makes people pay attention to her."
REP. SARA FEIGENHOLTZ: Compassionate wonk
In her 15 years in the Illinois legislature, Rep. Sara Feigenholtz has become known for championing legislation in such fields as health care, women's issues, stem cell research and adoption. The reasons, she says, lie deep in her childhood.
Feigenholtz likes to tell a story that illustrates, she says, "what brought me to public service." It starts with her late mother, Florence Buky M.D., an extraordinary Jewish woman who graduated from medical school in 1932, at a time when no hospital would allow a woman on its staff.
"One day, when I was a small child, this person came knocking on our door just as we were finishing dinner," Feigenholtz recalls. It was a man with a very ill child, whom Dr. Buky examined and treated on the family's kitchen table. Many years later, in the last weeks of her mother's life, a man came to visit her in the hospital while Feigenholtz was there. It was the father of the child, coming to thank the dying woman for saving the toddler's life.
"When somebody tells you something like that, it kind of closes the circle," Feigenholtz, who is 52 but looks at least a decade younger, observes. "It's experiences like that, knowing that health care is a right and not a privilege, that drove me to fight for the voiceless and gave me a desire to be a public servant."
Her Jewish background influenced her in the same direction. "Judaism has very much been a guiding light in my life, has very much driven what I do and how I operate," she says. She soaked up a Jewish background not only at home, but at the schools she attended, Arie Crown Hebrew Day School and Ida Crown Jewish Academy.
Feigenholtz went on to graduate from Northeastern University, then briefly worked for the Israeli Consulate - "the last 'job job' I had," she says with a smile. Her political life began shortly afterwards, including serving as chief of staff to Illinois Sen. John Cullerton for a number of years. Since 1994, she has represented Chicago's 12th District, which includes the neighborhoods of Lakeview, Lincoln Park and the Near North Side.
Earlier this year, she set her sights on a bigger prize, the U.S. House seat that was vacated by Rahm Emanuel. She lost in the primary, but says she has not given up on the idea of joining her friend and colleague from the Illinois legislature, President Barack Obama, in Washington.
"There's a part of me that is considering other things I could do to contribute, while Barack Obama and many of my other friends are working in Washington, to make life better for people in Illinois, which was ultimately my goal in the first place," Feigenholtz says, noting her attachment to "geeky-wonky-nichy stuff but also some broad-based stuff," particularly concerning health care issues.
For now, though, describing herself as "unmarried for the first time" in a number of years, she's content to shuttle back and forth between Chicago and Springfield, where she chairs the House Human Services, Appropriations and Adoption Reform committees. In Chicago, many progressive, involved and informed constituents - and her elderly, beloved cat, Habibi - await her return.
Feigenholtz's presence on the Adoption Reform committee is particularly significant to her. She was adopted herself; meeting her birth mother years later, she discovered that her adoptive mother (whom she considers her "real" mother) had delivered her and her brother, then gone on to give the children the kind of life their birth mothers were not able to.
So that other adoptees, birth parents and adoptive parents could have similarly positive experiences, she has sponsored model legislation dealing with adoption that other states have copied, including a bill that made Illinois one of the first states in the country where all adoptions are strictly not-for-profit. "I think I've improved the system, but we still have a long way to go," she says.
That goes for many areas, especially health care, and while she admits that she's looking toward Washington as a new arena, her priorities will remain the same wherever she is. Looking back over her career, she says, "it's been a great ride." But she's not getting off the train just yet.
RABBI CHAIM GOLDZWEIG: Hero of the hechsher
They call him the kosher Columbo.
For anyone who remembers the TV show about the humble, rumpled detective who solved cases by making his adversaries believe he was something less than a genius, the nickname fits.
Only Rabbi Chaim Goldzweig's adversaries don't commit murder. They're more likely to be clueless company executives who unwittingly slip a non-kosher ingredient into a product that is supposed to be kosher.
Don't try that with Goldzweig around.
The kindly Chicago man's modest demeanor and self-deprecating manner can't hide the fact that he is known in the world of kosher certification as the super-mashgiach (kosher supervisor), a giant in his field who has traveled around the world checking out products and ingredients for the Orthodox Union, making sure that the highest standards of kashrut prevail.
"He is extraordinary," says Rabbi Menachem Genack, the chief executive officer of OU Kosher, the national organization's kashrut division. Genack worked with Goldzweig for 29 years and calls him "probably the world's greatest kosher expert in terms of ingredients and procedures. He comes in with a rumpled coat, and has this tremendous knowledge."
Goldzweig's kosher odyssey began in 1960, when he was just out of Telshe Yeshiva in Cleveland and newly married. "I was looking for something to do, and my father" - Rabbi Moshe Goldzweig, a master of Jewish mysticism from Safed, Israel - "suggested I go into kashrus," he explains. He accepted a job with the OU as a rabbinic field representative for Proctor & Gamble, checking product ingredients.
"The public didn't know about ingredients in those days," Goldzweig said in an interview on oukosher.org. "As long as the ingredients panel didn't list lard, everybody thought it was fine."
Today things are different, with many more kosher products and companies wanting their products to be certified. "Most companies can qualify, and if they can get their products to be kosher, they can get more sales," Goldzweig says. He has spent his entire career working for the OU, where, he says, "I lived (kosher certification), ate it, dreamed it. You could say that a mashgiach is a detective for kosher food."
Genack, the OU CEO, recalls a time when he visited a plant with Goldzweig. They found an unmarked box; even the plant manager didn't know what it contained. But Goldzweig looked at the code on the package and said, "Oh, that's Durkee. He knew exactly what the ingredient was" just from the numbers.
Besides his erudition, Genack says, Goldzweig is "one of the kindest people on the face of the globe. Anybody who comes to Chicago and needs a place to stay, calls him. He's just an exceptional human being." In dealing with companies, "he would never be harsh," Genack says. "He is assiduous and fair. The point is always to correct a problem."
Goldzweig himself says that although some companies "try to pull the wool over your eyes," most mistakes are honest ones that can be corrected.
"Sometimes some of the companies like to play games, and things can go wrong. You can't just give a hechsher (kosher certification) and then forget about it. You have to be on top of it, monitor it," he says.
He has traveled all over Europe and been to China several times, but a heart attack two years ago "kind of slowed me down," he says, although he still visits plants in Chicago and throughout the Midwest for the OU. He and his wife also take time to visit their children - four girls and three boys - and many grandchildren living in different parts of the country. "For Pesach we only had three of (the children and their children) here and we had a pretty full house," he says with a chuckle.
Meanwhile, Goldzweig tries to cultivate a positive outlook in everything he does. "Everybody is trying very hard to do a good job," he says. "That doesn't mean they can't make a mistake, but we try. We're all human. We do whatever we can do, we only have two hands, two feet, one head and we can only do whatever we can do." In his case, that's a lot.
RISA GRAFF: Everything for education
It wasn't exactly the norm for girls growing up in Charlotte, N.C. to have bat mitzvahs, but Risa Graff did.
"I got very lucky with my parents," Graff says today in looking back on the relatively rare occurrence for the time. "They saw no difference between educating boys and girls Jewishly."
"Education" is the key word here and one that has defined Graff's life. Professionally, she is one of the pioneers of a still little-known educational discipline and is now the president of its national association. Jewishly, she helped her south suburban synagogue become egalitarian, headed its junior congregation as a volunteer and was one of the founders of a Jewish day school, a noble experiment that ultimately failed but proved to be a growth experience for all concerned.
Personally, she is a wife, mother, grandmother and - she proclaims matter-of-factly - a third degree black belt in tae kwon do and a world champion in sparring in her age division. To say, as the willowy, soft-spoken Graff does, that "it's been an interesting life so far" seems quite an understatement.
Graff's educational odyssey began when she was 19, newly married and living in Chicago, a city where she knew no one. A woman she met in her laundry room suggested that she become a volunteer at Children's Memorial Hospital. She took the advice and ended up working with handicapped children, an area that interested her.
After finishing her undergrad work at the University of Illinois at Chicago, she earned a master's degree in education at Northwestern University, then entered a profession that, she says, is still little known and understood: educational therapy. "It combines psychology and education, but it is not psychotherapy," she explains. "It involves looking at individuals. For a child with learning disabilities, for example, an educational therapist provides one-on-one remediation, helps parents deal with the schools and teaches people to understand their own learning styles."
Graff has had a private practice in the field for the past 35 years and now serves as the president of the National Association of Educational Therapists. She also provides bar and bat mitzvah training for children with learning or attention issues from all the synagogues in the southern suburbs. "I strongly believe every child can have a wonderful bar or bat mitzvah," she says.
The family moved south years ago to be closer to Graff's husband's machine tool business - he also publishes a magazine for the machine tool industry. Graff quickly became involved with her Conservative synagogue, Congregation Am Echad in Park Forest, where she was active on a committee working for egalitarian services.
"It seemed natural to me that of course women should have the right to have an aliyah and should be able to read Torah," she says. "But it did not happen quickly." She took a course in Torah reading at the synagogue's Hebrew high school, where she studied alongside 14- and 15-year-olds, and became the first woman to read Torah at the synagogue.
Among other milestones, she counts the founding of a day school in the south suburbs in the early 1980s, when her family joined with 10 others in the endeavor. It lasted for eight years before lack of community support and funds forced it to close. But Graff doesn't count it as a failure, especially since her daughter had the exciting experience of being in the school's pioneer class. That daughter is now a Conservative rabbi living in California. There are also two sons, one a clinical psychologist (they occasionally share cases) and one a journalist and filmmaker.
And then there's the other part of Graff's life, as a martial arts competitor. For her, it's all about empowerment.
"When you're out there on a mat (competing) against another woman, it's scary," she says. "You're thinking, what am I doing, am I going to make a fool of myself? So it's really a lesson about yourself and what you can do. We women weren't trained for that. It was enough that I could get up and have an aliyah, but to get up and do something physical ....
"It's very empowering," she says. "It's changed how I do everything."
RICHARD HIRSCHHAUT: Museum's main man
Rick Hirschhaut wasn't looking for a new job.
He was happy running the Chicago office of the Anti-Defamation League, a position to which he had brought his passion for Jewish community, diversity and tolerance for 10 years.
But when he heard about the plans for a new Holocaust museum in the Chicago area - then five years away from fruition - he was intrigued.
"I had a remarkable experience at the ADL and never imagined stepping away, but as I really began to ponder and look deep within, the promise, the potential of this museum and the opportunity to be involved literally at the beginning of the grassroots creation of a major institution became irresistible," he said, still glowing about the opening ceremony of the $40-million-plus Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center, which received much local, national and international fanfare.
Finally, he decided that "I did not want to be on the outside looking in" when the museum came into being. And then there was another compelling factor: His wife, Susan, is the daughter of Holocaust survivors. In 2004, before a single foundation stone had been laid, Hirschhaut became the executive director of the museum.
The job was, in a sense, a continuation of everything he has done since he was a teenager. Hirschhaut grew up in suburban Buffalo, N.Y. but when he was 14, the family moved to Knoxville, Tenn. for his father's job. (His dad passed away just a week after the museum opened.)
In a town with a tiny Jewish community, Hirschhaut immediately became involved in the all-embracing world of the B'nai B'rith Youth Organization. "My whole life, my social life in high school, my world, my universe was through this magnificent experience of BBYO," he says. As a senior in high school, he was president of his district and became fascinated by the possibilities of leadership in the Jewish world.
At Tulane University, where he studied international relations and Jewish studies, he made a friend whose father was a legendary ADL director in New Orleans and had faced down Nazis and white supremacists. "That led me to the ADL, and I never looked back," he says. He spent three years in the Miami office, then found himself leading the San Francisco office by the time he was 26. When he had the opportunity to head what he calls "the founding office" of the ADL (the organization was created in Chicago in 1915), he couldn't turn it down.
Along the way, he met Susan, the associate director of the Los Angeles office, at a staff meeting. "We were an ADL marriage," he says. Now he credits her and their children, Rachel, 16, and Benjamin, 12, with giving him the support and nurturance that has been necessary in each of his demanding positions.
"You really can't do this work fully without the love and support and sacrifice of your family," he says, recalling the time a white supremacist went on a murderous rampage in Chicago and suburbs on the Fourth of July weekend in 1999, with the ADL in the forefront of efforts to identify the perpetrator. "Rachel was six years old, and she was asking, why isn't daddy home on the Fourth of July?" he says. "You don't forget an experience like that."
Speaking of both his old and his new positions, he says that "this work is more than a job. It absolutely has to be a calling, but without the support and involvement of your family, you cannot succeed. I certainly couldn't."
Now that the museum is open, he says what he is most proud of is not just the striking Stanley Tigerman-designed building, but "the magic of what we've achieved here, this partnership between survivors and their dreams and the acceptance of their legacy. This is more than simply the idea that you're building a bigger building, that you just ran out of room on Main Street," the former home of a much smaller Illinois Holocaust museum.
"You can never change the (Holocaust) story, but you can commit yourself to being a guardian of memory, to honor the survivors, remember the victims and be an agent against it ever repeating itself," he says. "There's an empowerment that comes with that."
MELISSA ISAACSON: Writes like a girl
How many people can say that Michael Jordan patted their pregnant bellies for luck before a game?
Probably only one, and that's Melissa Isaacson, a pioneering sportswriter who made even skeptics admit that yes, women could cover major league sports.
And not just cover them, but go on to a distinguished 26-year (so far) career writing about every major sport and winning major awards as well.
In 23 years at the Chicago Tribune, Isaacson was one of the few women in the country to cover sports on a major big-city daily newspaper. Earlier this year, she was let go during the financially troubled newspaper's latest round of purges. It hurt, she admits, but she has moved on to a new playing field with a book, a blog, a Web site and more to come.
Isaacson's twin passions - sports and writing - came to life as she was growing up in a Reform Jewish family in Lincolnwood, where she was the youngest of four children, two of them sports-loving brothers. "I tagged after them all the time," she says. Honing her athletic skills, in 1979 she was a member of the girls state championship basketball team for Niles West High School in Skokie, an achievement she still calls "my claim to fame."
At the same time, she says, "I loved writing, and growing up in the Watergate era, there was nothing more exciting than to be a reporter." She graduated from the University of Iowa in 1983 with a journalism degree and set out to combine her two loves.
It wasn't always easy. Her first job was covering high school football for a publication called Florida Today. "We're talking about the Bible Belt, and these men saw me coming, this little Jewish girl, and it was like, you've got to be kidding," she relates. She soon learned that it was obligatory to bow one's head during the pre-game prayer to Jesus that took place in the press box.
Years later, driving to the Chicago Bears training camp, she would hear a sports radio DJ "going on and on about how they have a woman on the beat now and she doesn't know anything about football" before she had even started covering the team.
Most of the time, though, hers was a dream job, especially when she covered the Jordan-era Chicago Bulls during their championship years in the early '90s. "To be able to sit there every night and watch not just the best basketball player in the world, but perhaps the best athlete in the world, was an absolute gift," she says. So was getting to know a softer side of Jordan and the other Bulls in the locker room. (She once chided the superstar for refusing to change his children's diapers.)
Isaacson was by this time married to Rick Mawrence, a Chicago businessman whose support (and childcare skills) "allowed me to do this work," which involved much time on the road, she says. Their daughter Amanda, now 13, was born shortly after the Bulls' 1995 season, which Isaacson covered while she was pregnant. Son Alec came two years later.
During her Tribune career, Isaacson also covered the White Sox and Cubs playoff runs, more than a dozen Super Bowls, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, the summer and winter Olympics, and reported on the Bears for seven seasons.
Her new book, "Sweet Lou - Lou Piniella: A Life in Baseball," tells the story of the colorful Cubs manager - even though Isaacson, belying her North Side origins, is a born White Sox fan.
One of her best-known and most praised stories, though, had nothing to do with sports. "Fade to Black - Something's not right with Mom ... and now, Dad," the cover story of the Chicago Tribune magazine in January 2008, told in highly personal terms the heartbreaking story of how first Isaacson's mother, then her father, succumbed to Alzheimer's disease. The piece generated so much public response that Isaacson is adding a section about Alzheimer's to her new sports-related Web site, www.melissaisaacson.com.
The Web site, the book and speaking engagements continue to occupy her. And she no longer has to prove to anyone that a woman can cover big-time sports.
ZOYA KOLKIN and JONATHAN ROSENBLATT: Voices for Darfur
Together they're changing the world.
Jonathan Rosenblatt and Zoya Kolkin, two Jewish undergraduates at Northwestern University, lead the school's Darfur action group. They are tireless workers on many fronts in the effort to inform others about the ongoing genocide in Darfur, to influence the university to divest its funds from Sudan and to spur fellow students to action.
Different paths led them to the same enterprise. Rosenblatt, a junior majoring in history, grew up in Skokie, went to Jewish day schools and spent a year in Israel before college. He wasn't involved in the Darfur issue until he arrived at Northwestern and attended a Sudan activities fair on campus. "That made me want to keep going," he says.
Kolkin, a native of the Cleveland area and a junior majoring in social policy, became involved in Darfur action in high school, through her school and her synagogue, and attended a major Washington, D.C. rally in 2006.
Her Jewish background made her particularly sensitive to the situation. "For most people, the Holocaust is the first thing they think of when they think of genocide, but the tendency to link genocide with the past makes it a lot harder to link it with the present," she says. "Genocide has continued to happen and very little has been done, and, as a Jew, it's my responsibility to do something about it."
She adds that, although the highly complex situation in Darfur has dropped out of the news lately, it has in no way subsided. "It's like Rwanda in slow motion," she says. "Rwanda was genocide in 100 days" whereas in Darfur and Darfuri refugee camps in other African nations, "atrocities continue every day."
"I see this as a Jewish cause and a human cause," Rosenblatt says. "Because of our history-persecution, pogroms, the Holocaust-I think we have a more visceral connection to these types of atrocities. It is a Jewish cause to help not just Israel or Jews around the world, but other people who are being persecuted."
"No one is for genocide," he adds. "We have a constituency whose mind is already made up, but the challenge is turning people's apathy into action."
To accomplish that, "we try to appeal to every sort of student," he says. That includes hosting a variety of events from a town hall-type meeting to a genocide survivor panel to a play about a Darfuri girl's experience in a refugee camp.
One partial but still significant success came after the group's efforts to urge Northwestern to divest its funds from Sudan. More than 2,000 students signed postcards addressed to the university president, and more than 100 participated in a march and rally to his office. The result was that the university has divested from four companies that do business in Sudan and has "made a pledge to continue talking with us about future divestment plans," Rosenblatt says.
He and Kolkin are close friends who have what they call "a wonderful give and take" where the organization is concerned. "Zoya does all the work and I make all the jokes," Rosenblatt says with a laugh. "No, he works too," Kolkin mock-protests. Eschewing formal titles, they call themselves simply "coordinators" of the group, which is variously known as the Sudan Divestment Task Force and as STAND, the name of a national anti-genocide organization. Their partnership, Rosenblatt says, "is illustrative of the importance of the human connection. We make it a focus in our group to try to have social meetings, to really be friends with people and maintain that connection."
Both plan to continue with the effort in some form after college. Rosenblatt is considering going to law school to work on this and similar issues in a legal arena; Kolkin is interested in working with immigrants and refugees.
"It's so important when you're doing this kind of work that you have a deep, passionate connection to what you're doing," Rosenblatt says. "I support Israel and other Jewish causes, but there's an intangible connection I have to this, and I think that is really crucial."
For Kolkin, "The mantra that one person can make a difference is really important." She and Rosenblatt have proved that adage - times two.
ABNER MIKVA: Nobody nobody sent
From his Hyde Park penthouse, Abner Mikva can look out on Chicago far and wide. There's something symbolic about that, because the breadth and depth of his life in the public arena is as breathtaking as the top-floor views.
He has been a lawyer, a state legislator, a congressman, chief justice on the influential Washington, D.C. Court of Appeals and White House counsel to President Bill Clinton. A progressive gadfly and an irritant to Mayor Richard J. Daley and the Chicago Democratic machine. A committed Jew, a law professor, a devoted husband and father to three daughters. A longtime champion of and advisor and friend to President Barack Obama - and the man whose 1990 job offer of a coveted clerkship Obama turned down.
That tale has now entered local political lore, as have many others involving Mikva. There was the time when, as an idealistic law school student, he stopped by ward headquarters in his neighborhood and volunteered to work on a political campaign. The ward committeeman, a typical cigar-chomping Chicago politician, asked who had sent him. Mikva replied that nobody had.
Taking the cigar from his mouth, the committeeman proclaimed, "We don't want nobody nobody sent." Mikva traces the beginning of his political career to that night.
Another story concerns one of his political heroes, Eleanor Roosevelt. Running for the state legislature, Mikva made no secret of his membership in Independent Voters of Illinois, a branch of a national progressive organization, Americans for Democratic Action, of which Mrs. Roosevelt was a founder. Arriving in town, she was told of Mikva's campaign and expressed an interest in helping him.
"Then someone said, 'But Mrs. Roosevelt, Mayor Daley is not for him,'" Mikva relates. "Her response was, 'Well, Mayor Daley's not a member of the ADA board, is he?' She came out and campaigned with me!" Mikva, an engaged and engaging elder statesman and world-class raconteur at age 83, still relishes the moment.
So what motivates a smart Jewish boy from Milwaukee to go into politics? "I guess I always had this itch," he says. A Wisconsin program called Badger Boys State, in which high school students visited the state capital to meet with legislators, exacerbated it. "I was fascinated," he says. "This was a way to make policy."
But when he entered the University of Chicago law school, "I was told to put my political ambitions away because this was a machine town," he says, and he was fiercely independent. He tried that for a while. Then in 1956, a district reapportionment gave him a chance to run for the state legislature from the liberal, and heavily Jewish, Hyde Park-South Shore area. His campaign slogan was "Mikva for clean government"; "The Jews all got that," he says with a chuckle.
In 1969, he moved up to the U.S. Congress, where he discovered for the first time what he calls "institutional anti-Semitism." "Every time I would get up to speak, the speaker would say, 'the gentleman from New York.' I always had to remind him I was from Illinois. He must have thought it was impossible to have two Jewish congressmen from Illinois," he says. (The other was Sidney Yates.)
In 1979, Mikva traveled from the rough-and-tumble of Congress to the decorous halls of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Washington, D.C. Circuit. Stepping down as chief justice in 1994 at age 68, he spent a year in the White House as counsel to the president, working closely with President Clinton and putting in 12-hour-plus days. When he left, he told his successor, "we've got most of the crises behind us." A short time later, the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke. The irony still makes him smile.
Back in Chicago, he taught law school, enjoyed his seven grandchildren (his three daughters are a judge, a lawyer and a rabbi) and with his wife Zoe, a teacher, fund-raiser and political activist, launched a foundation. The Mikva Challenge Foundation helps inner-city high school students - 2,000 are now involved-learn about government. They serve as election judges and work on political and community projects. Mikva says he hopes to inspire them to enter a life of public service as he was inspired in his youth.
And so the torch is passed. But not extinguished.
JACOB MOROWITZ: Speaking up for Yiddish
A seminal moment in Jacob Morowitz's life: He is 11 or 12 years old, standing on the street in his Chicago neighborhood with a group of friends. They are speaking English. His father comes out and asks young Jake a question in Yiddish, the language the Morowitzes speak at home. Jake answers in English.
His father asks him the question again, in Yiddish. Jake answers again, in English. His father becomes angry. "To me you will always speak Yiddish!" he says, in Yiddish. "I don't care what your friends speak, you should never be embarrassed to speak Yiddish. To me you will always speak Yiddish!"
"I answered him then in Yiddish," Morowitz relates, many years later.
He has never again been embarrassed to speak Yiddish. In fact, he has devoted a large chunk of his life to making sure that other Chicagoans feel the same. Morowitz is the longtime president of and force behind the Chicago YIVO Society, an organization that puts on programs on Yiddish-related topics and hosts a number of other Yiddish-themed projects. It's the most active affiliate of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, the New York-based organization that was founded in 1925 in what was then Poland (now Lithuania).
It's logical that Morowitz became Chicago's number one promoter of all things Yiddish. "I grew up in a home where Yiddishkeit, the language and culture of the Jewish people was very, very important," he says. His late father, in fact, was a member of Chicago YIVO, and today Morowitz not only shepherds the local organization, but serves on the board of the national YIVO.
But if your image of a modern-day Yiddishist is your Uncle Max, wizened and white-haired, that's not Morowitz. In fact, his daily habitation seems to be as far away from the world of Yiddishkeit as one can get - it's a sleek office on a top floor of Chicago's Board of Trade Building, where he presides over a firm of some 70 traders.
Morowitz became involved in the commodities business shortly after he graduated from the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he majored in philosophy. After spending 25 years in daily combat on the trading floor, he now leaves the rough-and-tumble to the traders in the firm he founded. The business, which he relishes, "allows me the time and money to be involved in the organizations I am involved in," he says. His wife of 38 years, Susanne, doesn't speak Yiddish but is totally supportive of her husband's passions.
Foremost among them is Chicago YIVO, which has undergone several sea changes during Morowitz's tenure. In the early 1990s, "we decided we wanted to have (events) on an ongoing basis and not just be a club where Yiddish-speakers got together and spoke Yiddish," he says. The decision coincided with an uptick of interest, throughout the country and in Europe, in the language, especially among younger people whose grandparents or great-grandparents were the last ones in the family to speak it.
Today one of the organization's greatest achievements is its annual Summer Festival of Yiddish Culture, which has grown from one venue to half a dozen. In addition, new projects are in the works: a Web site to appeal to younger devotees, a blog, a chat room and a CD ROM that will soon be available with elementary instruction in the language.
Morowitz is realistic about the place of Yiddish in the Jewish communities of today and tomorrow. "Yiddish will not be the day-to-day language of most Jewish communities, I have no illusions about that," he says. "But an understanding of the language and the culture tells us who we are and what we are and where we came from, and that's essential."
He adds, "We shouldn't be ashamed of where we came from, we shouldn't be ashamed of our culture," although several earlier generations of immigrant Yiddish-speakers, eager to assimilate, felt exactly that way. Today, "America's not about making everybody the same," he says.
Morowitz practices what he preaches, conversing with his 92-year-old mother every day and only in Yiddish. "I spoke Yiddish with my parents when they visited me at the Board of Trade," he says - the perfect amalgam of cultures.
WALTER ROTH: Living history
Walter Roth came by his interest in history early. In fact, he lived it.
Roth, the longtime president of the Chicago Jewish Historical Society and author of three books and hundreds of articles on Chicago Jewish history, was born in a village in Germany that had the same name as his - Roth. Although it was not named for his ancestors, his family traced its roots back to the 1600s. His parents, like many Jews, had a farm and grain mill and sold textiles - until the early 1930s, when the infamous Nuremberg laws took effect. It was then that an ad appeared in the village newspaper warning townspeople not to buy from "the Jew Roth" under penalty of death. And Walter and his siblings were not allowed to go to school after 1936.
"But our neighbors had a radio, and I think that's where I began to learn about maps and about where things were happening," Roth says. "I kept a diary of what was happening in Europe on a day-to-day basis, and I trace my interest to that time."
The family soon began applying for affidavits to leave the country. Roth's father had no relatives outside of Germany, but his stepmother did (his mother had died when he was five, and his father remarried). "The tragedy is, if it weren't for my mother dying, I would not be here today," he says. The immediate family was able to leave and come to the United States, but all the other Jews in the village perished.
Much later, Roth would visit the town, see its rebuilt synagogue, help to refurbish the Jewish cemetery and even make contact with some of the citizens who had known him as a child. He also organized an exhibition on the town that will be on display at the Illinois Holocaust Museum.
In Chicago, meanwhile, Roth's romance with his adopted city began as his family settled in Hyde Park, where many other German Jewish refugees lived. His father, speaking little English, had a difficult time finding a job and finally went to work at the stockyards. (Roth would later write about Jews who worked in the stockyards.)
Young Walter flourished, however, soon learning enough English to keep up with and surpass his classmates. He began writing about historical subjects - including the American Civil War, which became a lifelong passion - in elementary school and continued at Hyde Park High School and the University of Chicago and its law school, where he graduated second in his class and was managing editor of the law review.
At graduation, he was offered a job at the law firm where he had clerked, D'Ancona & Pflaum, but decided to go to Israel instead, spending more than a year living on a kibbutz. He eventually returned and took the position at D'Ancona, now merged with Seyfarth Shaw, where he continues to practice law. Meanwhile he met and married Chaya, who had her own gripping Holocaust story. A hidden child, Chaya Roth has recently published her own book, "The Fate of Holocaust Memories: Transmission and Family Dialogues." Their son Ari is a playwright and the director of Theatre J in Washington, D.C.; daughter Judy is a psychoanalyst and daughter Miriam a professor of education.
Roth's own three books - "Avengers and Defenders: Glimpses of Chicago Jewish History"; "Looking Backward: True Stories from Chicago's Jewish Past"; and, with Joe Kraus, "An Accidental Anarchist: How the Killing of a Humble Jewish Immigrant by Chicago's Chief of Police Exposed the Conflict Between Law & Order and Civil Rights in Early 20th-Century America" - have all illuminated little-known aspects of Chicago Jewish history.
"Talking about specific incidents and people is much better for teaching history than doing it in generic terms," he says. "I think (the books) have impacted people." Roth is now writing about Ike Bernstein, an all-but-forgotten Jewish boxer from the 1890s. "I like the unknown, people whose contributions have been forgotten," he says. "You learn a great deal about your city that way."
As he continues to guide the historical society and to write about his adopted city's fascinating characters, there's no way Roth himself will ever fall into that "unknown" category.
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