Reunion of Jewish kids from South Shore High

By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News

The South Shore High School Class of 1967 was close-knit. And thousands of miles of a diaspora within a diaspora did not shred those binds.

“The South Side will never leave me,” said Bo Blinski, since 1990 running a health spa and recreating down among the sheltering palms of Maui.

Blinski, organizer of the recent 50th anniversary South Shore reunion, held at Max and Benny’s in Northbrook, said alums reside in at least 25 states. Harry Cohn, South Shore Class of ’66 and Blinski’s “detective” who tracked down ’67 graduates, runs his security services firm in Connecticut.

The prevailing mood at the sun-splashed reunion, where attendees kibitzed outside the deli before entering for noshes and more chats, was hardly bittersweet – but it very well could have been.

The now-senior citizens grew up in one of the most vibrant Jewish communities in the Chicago area. Celebs such as NFL Hall of Famer Marv Levy and comic actor Mandy Patinkin were among the most prominent products of the area.  Although the emotional ties and South Shore identification are as strong as ever, their physical community was gone in almost a heartbeat, the fastest dissolution of a Jewish community in the city in history.

Their graduation in June ’67 was just about the last hurrah of Jewish South Shore. Wrenching racial change prompted literally the evacuation of the community.  

“In three years, it changed from 90 percent Jewish to 75 percent black,” said ’67 alum Esther Benson, who makes an annual visit to the old neighborhood after living the last 43 years in Arizona. “It was a sort of natural breaking point. The neighborhood was at the end of its change at the time everyone was going away to college.”

But the casting of future fortunes in every-which-direction and the realization they couldn’t really go home again does not dim the memories or affection for a Jewish lifestyle that hinted of the old, close West Side transplanted to a more prosperous post-war Chicago.

“I had lived there since I was a year old,” said Benson. “To me it was all an evolution of my life. When I go back there and see the old neighborhood, it actually makes me feel so good. I have so many memories there. Nothing is constant and it’s always changing. Being it’s such a joy being here with people I grew up with.”

Bruce Levine, AM 670 The Score’s baseball maven, missed a Cubs-Brewers game at Wrigley Field to hobnob with his old ’67 classmates. He outlined the mindset of Jewish life a half century in the rear-view mirror.

“We were working class and middle class people and raised among the same (along with some upper middle class and even a few lower-class residents),” Levine said.

“People didn’t think they were better than other people. We knew our parents might make more or less money than our neighbors.  But it didn’t matter. That wasn’t the values we were taught. Our values were live and let live. Respect your neighbor, help your neighbor.

“There was a different mentality about (Class of ’67 parents). They wanted our generation to have more. They did without as much for themselves so we could be the first college generation. Our parents’ generation should have been first in college, but the Depression and World War II got in the way.”

The South Side Jews seemed more egalitarian than their Far North Side/northern suburban counterparts. Still, it got “very cliquey in high school,” said Levine. The difference was the South Shore crowd socialized with neighboring schools such as Bowen, Hyde Park and University High, and was more “organized” with fraternities and sororities.

“We raised $10,000 every year for La Rabida, and other charities,” Levine said.  “A lot of it had to do with the Jewish community and local synagogues. It was the Jewish and middle-class way.”

Blinski, who said he has to buy old-style Jewish delicacies in Chicago, freeze them and then fly them out to Hawaii, took over organizing the 50th reunion after finding out about the 40th reunion only at the last minute.

“I made a few calls to say the least,” he said. “I tracked down four teachers.”

He enlisted Cohn’s help.

“Bo’s such a hard worker and you can’t say no to the man,” Cohn said of Blinski. “Night and day, it’s much easier to track down people now. Bo would just send me names and I’d turn it over to my staff. Some of the women were tougher, they were listed by their maiden names, but we still found them.”

Cohn wasn’t the only non-’67 alum to attend. Julie Topler, also Class of ’66, attended with Benson.

Long-haired former South Shore pitcher Joe Fine was in the house. So was Joe Berman, another visitor from Arizona. Also on hand was Ricky Kahen, a Levine buddy then and now.

The alums literally were the point people of radical, and often not positive, change during their four years at South Shore. They entered as freshmen enjoying the optimism of John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier, shattered on Nov. 22, 1963. They graduated as JFK successor Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society rapidly lost steam to Vietnam.  The Singing Nun offered “Dominique” as a No. 1 hit when they were freshmen. They graduated to the onset of showy exhibitionist Grace Slick and the Jefferson Airplane.

Throughout their four years, South Shore became more integrated. The students of both races often staged a lesson in harmony – that if you left it up to the kids, the world would be a better place.

“It was so nice to be on an equal playing field, to be friends with kids of different races and cultures,” said Benson.  “I looked at that as what a great opportunity I had to go to school and to be friends with black kids. To me, my life was more enriched by that.”

Added Blinski: “We all got along.”

But one incident in October of the alums’ senior year shattered the balancing act of interracial harmony at the school. Gang-bangers from the Blackstone Rangers somehow invaded the South Shore cafeteria. Chairs were thrown and fights broke out.

“Once the riot in the lunchroom took place” said Levine, the Jewish residents began moving out in big numbers. A trickle became a torrent.

“I got hit over the head with a chair and got a concussion,” he added. “I was in South Shore Hospital. It was the first time I made the front page of the Chicago Tribune – the paper listed the injured. That was the beginning of the end there. I don’t think the (middle-class) African-American community liked it any more than the white community.”

Blinski was in a bookkeeping class across the hall from the lunchroom at the time of the riot. He was dispatched by his teacher to fetch the principal.

“It was heart-wrenching,” Blinski said of the quick Jewish exodus. “This is where we grew up.”

But any hard feelings have not stuck over the decades.

“Every time I come back, I go back to my old grammar school,” Blinski said of Horace Mann. “I decided my next project will be funding different events for that school.”

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