HOME AWAY FROM HOME: A son looks back at his father’s childhood at Chicago’s Marks Nathan orphanage

By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News

Daniel Friedman calls his father, who has the same name as his, “The King of Chicago.”

But Dad was no mayor, gangster or leader of a six-time NBA champion.

The elder Dan Friedman was a self-described junkman, working out of South Side offices completely enveloped by the stench of the old StockYards, busy recycling old-school IBM punch cards among his other accounts.

“He was the King of Chicago in that there were many Kings of Chicago,” his son said. “He was low-born and obscure. He was from the most obscure origins. And yet he grew up to master Chicago. That’s why I call him a king. He accomplished everything he set out to do. He provided a life for me that no one else could have done, because of his experiences at Marks Nathan Home.”

Through his father, who made something of himself as a result of his assignment to the old Marks Nathan orphanage in the Douglas Park neighborhood, Friedman has brought the famous Jewish institution to life in a new book, “The King of Chicago: Memories of My Father.”

Friedman paints a picture of the Marks Nathan Home as a privately-funded repository of last resort for so many Jewish children in an era lacking social services and government funding of child welfare. Friedman does not gussy up the orphanage’s image. The home put a floor under the descent of the unfortunate children.  

More importantly, Friedman personalizes the American Jewish immigrant experience. With Marks Nathan as a fulcrum point, he traces the story of his family from a shtetl in 1903 Pale of Settlement to Chicago, through a total name change of the family forebear, to the breakup and re-uniting of a family around the orphanage and on to tony suburbia in Glencoe. Then the road leads east to Charlottesville, Va., where Jews were a curiosity and anti-Semitism was Southern genteel, and finally coming 360 degrees back home to Chicago.

The guts of the Friedman family journey, which started under the name Skolnick in 1903, takes place during the Marks Nathan years and their underpinning of Daniel Friedman No. 1 decades later on post-war, outwardly idyllic Apple Tree Lane in Glencoe and his shabby Stockyards workplace.

“It was a dark chapter of Chicago history in the 1920 and 1930s,” Friedman said of the guts of his chronicle. “(Conditions) were terrible for immigrants who landed in Chicago. These kids at the Marks Nathan Home went to school two blocks down the street at Polk School.  That was one of the schools Mayor Emanuel closed last year. The Jewish kids had to fight their way to and from school, fighting German and Irish kids. There were some very serious fisticuffs.

“The Marks Nathan home at the end of the day, though, saved a lot of lives. I don’t know what would have become of my five-year-old father if my grandmother had not been able to admit him to Marks Nathan.”

The Friedman timeline in the 1920s led professional scribe Friedman, who taught writing at the University of Virginia, on a “Roots”-like quest for the truth. That led him to Marks Nathan, one of several Jewish orphanages of the immigrant era that took in children whose parents were economically unable to care for them.

“As a small child, if no one tells you about your family history, you can develop doubts where you come from – even shame,” Friedman said. “I didn’t know why my father omitted all his facts about his childhood, unless there was something shameful. There wasn’t anything shameful, except they were subject to abject poverty. Those were conditions he overcame in his lifetime.”

Interestingly, Friedman’s identifiable extended family included cousin Mandy Pantinkin, a South Shore native who went on to stage and screen stardom. Hearing of Friedman’s quest, Pantinkin used his connections to place his book with Skyhorse Publishing, a well-known New York firm.

Long before the New Deal began constructing the social safety net and state departments of children and family services set up systems for handling in-peril youths, private institutions had to plug the gap. Marks Nathan opened as the first Orthodox Jewish orphanage in Chicago with 29 residents in 1906 on North Wood Street in the Wicker Park neighborhood. In 1912, the home relocated at 15th and Albany on the West Side, now able to accommodate more than 300 residents.  The home would stay open until 1948, when Jews began moving away from the West Side and the social-welfare system began to supplant orphanages.

Friedman said several other orphanages operated in Chicago by Reform Jewish organizations. Recently-arrived immigrants, however, usually placed at-risk children in Marks Nathan, as more befitting of the religious customs they had just transferred from the Old World.

“The good was that (the youths) had a place to sleep and three square meals a day,” Friedman said. “They got a good education. There were some enlightened teachers. The Orthodox Jews who ran the place were serious about raising these kids in a proper and healthy and Jewish setting. They wanted them to learn how to be proper Jews.

“The downside was these kids did not have a natural family around them. No school teacher or administrator could love them the way their (absent) mother or deceased father could. None of these children had intact families. Subsequent medical research has shown children coming from broken families like that suffer from a form of mental illness.  Divorce is so prevalent in the United States, but children from divorce do suffer, even adult children.”

The elder Daniel Friedman did not sleep much at Marks Nathan. Years later, he had to take drugs to doze off at night in his suburban home. He became such a driven man that on the morning of Jan. 26, 1967, as Chicago’s worst-ever blizzard of 23 inches commenced, he insisted on going to the corner in Glencoe to wait for his ride to work. Groggy from his sleep problems, Daniel Friedman practically curled up as the snow accumulated on him while his ride never came.  His son, then 16, had to literally rescue him, persuading him to come back inside.

The younger Friedman eventually traced back his family roots to forebear grandfather Skolnick, who fled the shtetl of Knyszn, halfway between Bialystok and Grodno in northeast Poland. His departure in 1903 was fortuitous. Three years later, a pogrom killed 700 Jews in the town. Survivors and their descendants were wiped out early in 1942, when SS Einsatzgruppen shock troops shot the remaining Jews among the slaughter of one million in the region. Amazingly, freed from Communist rule a half-century later, Knyszn officials actually launched a knish festival, honoring a staple dish of their long-departed Jewish neighbors.

Once in Chicago, the 5-foot  1 ½-inch Kasiel Skolnick, a tailor by profession, changed his name to Samuel Friedman. He married Jenny Pinkovitz, another immigrant from Poland. They would quickly have six children. But Samuel Friedman died, just 35, on May 2, 1916. Early deaths were not uncommon among men in an era when diseases now virtually eradicated swept through poorer populations unable to easily access medical care.

Without resources or helpful relatives, Jenny Friedman was forced to farm out her children to Marks Nathan. In another irony emblematic of some Jewish immigrant families, Jenny Friedman lived until age 95, comfortably quartered on Lake Shore Drive and finally supported by the sons she had placed into Marks Nathan. Angered at his mother, the elder Daniel Friedman took his son for only brief, tense visits to his grandmother.  

In “The King of Chicago,” Friedman described how his father and siblings arrived at the Marks Nathan Home in a scene repeated all too often in the immigrant experience.

“My father was accepted into the Home on Feb. 25, 1920, eight weeks after his fifth birthday. He was a skittish little kid with a huge head. His very first night at Marks Nathan may not have been the traumatic affair it was for other newly arrived orphans because his brothers and sister, Sol, Irving, Simon, and Minnie were already in residence, having all moved in November 21, 1918, marched in together like a shabby little army. I reckon they consoled their baby brother as best they could when he arrived and welcomed him with as much love and tenderness as they could muster.

“The orphanage file for the Friedman family shows that Jenny (my grandmother) scrambled, in a panic, after her husband’s death. She registered with the Home as a widow with six children to support only months after his death in 1916, and attempted to get her two oldest kids, Sol and Minnie, into the Home as early as April 1, 1917, but their application was rejected. On November 18, 1918, she was described in the Jewish Orphan’s Research Bureau Report as ‘physically unable.’

“Jenny signed my father’s eight-page application for admission in a florid, primitive script: ‘Friedman.’ The relief she must have felt when they finally took my little father off her hands. ‘What means of support has the surviving parent?’ the Marks Nathan application inquired. ‘None,” was my grandmother’s reply.

‘Has either parent a life insurance policy and to what amount?’ ‘None.’

‘Was the parent a member of any Order or Society?’ ‘No.’

‘If so, how much endowment or benefit will the surviving parent or child receive?’ ‘None.’

‘What other means were left the child? Specify amount.’ ‘None.’

‘Has the child any relative able to support it?’ ‘No.’

“Jenny and my father had zero anything. Where else could he have gone if not to the Marks Nathan Home?”

“The Home was progressive academically, and saw to the intellectual needs of its bright Jewish children,” Friedman writes.  “The boys in Marks Nathan played sports and had teams, but the Home had no athletic facilities or playground besides barren Douglas Park across the street. Recreation for the Home Kids took place on the sidewalk or indoors.

“Chess was popular among these brainy Jewish boys, and the chess team at the Marks Nathan Home was a big deal. My father and his brothers played throughout their lives, with an improvisational, attacking style, generally winning within a dozen moves or less, using a classic Ruy Lopez opening, or a four pawns attack, and an impregnable Alekhine defense, which they mastered after playing thousands of games against hyper-competitive kids in the Home playroom.”

Marks Nathan alumnus Aaron Gruenberg organized an oral history project in the 1980s. Although he recounted that experiences were mixed of children who went through the home’s doors, he recalled the corporal punishment of the day, firmly accepted for the time at home and in an orphanage: “Home Kids were kept in line by physical punishment and by the constant anticipation of it.”

Still, the brightest of the Mark Nathan alums could not be held back.

One prominent alum was Philip Hauser, a University of Chicago professor and acclaimed expert on population and social trends. In 1966, Hauser warned that the aid-to-dependent-children welfare system that discouraged fathers from staying with their families was ripping apart the African-American community.

Herbert Passin went on to become chairman of Columbia University’s sociology department.  Leonard Feinberg became a professor of English literature at Iowa State University. Mickey Pallas teamed with another resident to save $1.25 for their first camera, starting a specialty that ended up with Pallas’ photographs being displayed in leading art museums. Jerry Lebow owned six factories in California.

Daniel Friedman credits his father with similar success, but also gives out accolades to his Uncle Sol Friedman, who was able to have all his siblings leave Marks Nathan and helped raise them. The conclusion is their outcome was better than if impoverished Jenny Friedman had tried to shepherd them through formative years with no money.

The younger Friedman said the typical Marks Nathan kid could talk a good game and think quickly on his feet. That was a perfect description of Dan Friedman, for all his flaws and leftover demons.

“He became superior and more unattainable with financial success and communicating with him required additional thought and effort,” Daniel Friedman wrote in another excerpt. “It was tougher than ever to get his attention. When I wanted and needed something only he could provide, I learned to slow down and listen, to treat him almost delicately, and to choose my words with the utmost care. When I did all this, he’d turn his giant focus on me, and take me in, in an instant.

“I was his beloved and indulged namesake firstborn son. He was there to protect my ass, unlike his father, the negligent Kasiel Skolnick, the no-show, who did not. Dad claimed he did not know how to be a father, but as I knew, he was the world’s best, precisely because of his deprivation, overcompensating because he did not have a father of his own. He was learning on the job and never said no to me, not when it mattered. When I asked him for something he always said yes.”

Seven decades after it closed, modernity overtaking it, Marks Nathan Home’s most enduring legacy may be a son’s long-form tribute to a father who survived and prospered his trial-by-fire in the Chicago Jewish experience.

“My father was a pugilist,” Daniel Friedman. “He was a street fighter. He came out with both arms swinging.

“We have built this family on these very, very weak reeds of Kasiel Skolnick, who escaped Knyszn in 1903. He has great grandchildren running software companies in San Francisco and Silicon Valley, and us enjoying our lives.”

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