The King of Chicago is the story of a father-son relationship as real and hugely loving as that in Philip Roth’s Patrimony. At its heart is a young son who tries furiously to heal his father from a violent childhood inside a Chicago orphanage. The orphanage, the Marks Nathan Home, still stands today on the West Side of Chicago, marked by a tarnished, barely legible plaque. Once home to 14,000 Jewish orphans, it is now just another barely remembered relic of a great city. Using original articles from the orphanage newspaper, Friedman attempts to reconstruct and understand his father’s childhood, a time that his father never discussed.
Expanding its reach, The King of Chicago becomes a multigenerational saga of Jewish life, moving from a mysterious little man named Kasiel, who arrived in the Port of Baltimore in 1903 with two dollars to his name, to the factory floor of a scrap paper business, a golf course where children played without knowing the rules, and a home on the North Shore among fellow immigrants looking for something better for their children.
At its core, this memoir is both a snapshot of immigrant life in Chicago in the early twentieth century and a poignant reminder about the need to never forget who you are and where you come from.
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About the Author
Dan Friedman was born in Chicago, graduated from Oxford University, and taught writing at the University of Virginia. He founded Albemarle magazine, was founding editor of La Belle France, and is author of a travel memoir, My Mother’s Side. His writing has been praised by the New York Times, Gourmet, and Money. He lives in Chicago, Illinois.
Read an Excerpt
Hyman Spector was a tall, slouching guy who always had a big cigar stuffed in the corner of his mouth. He and his pretty wife Mindy were our next-door neighbors for the great years on Apple Tree Lane, an entire street in an entire neighborhood of new split-level homes in Glencoe, Illinois, just north of Chicago. This neighborhood of ours was called Strawberry Hill, but there was no hill and no strawberries, only tall cottonwood trees shading a series of stagnant, algae-covered ponds known as the Skokie Lagoons. Seeds from the cottonwood trees blew over our neighborhood like so much cotton candy, into my mouth and hair as I pedaled my bike down the middle of Apple Tree Lane. I did not know it at the time, but nearly every house in Strawberry Hill was occupied by the children and grandchildren of recent immigrants to America, all of them Eastern European Jews who had arrived on the Southwest Side of Chicago and then, gradually, as they took root, moved north along the shore of Lake Michigan.
Hyman and Dad were great friends. When they walked together on summer evenings, their riotous laughter could be heard around the block. I'd join them on my bicycle as they walked, tall Hy smoking a huge cigar and little Dad puffing away on his Parliament cigarettes. They laughed and smoked their way around the neighborhood almost every summer night, talking to each other like spitfire, so fast that I had trouble keeping up with what was being said.
One Saturday morning Hy called the house and asked Dad to come over immediately to see something important, a new business project he was working on. My father sprang from the sofa and brought me along to help him consider this deal. So we walked next door, Dad and I — typical of Dad to involve me in everything, to get me thinking about business from an early age. It was midsummer, 1963, and I was twelve years old.
Mr. Spector had just purchased the rights to manufacture in the United States a novelty called the Lava Lite, and had a working prototype of this amazing device in the blacked-out basement of his house on Apple Tree Lane. This Lava Lite, like the tens of millions that came later, was a tall, cone-shaped glass vessel that contained different types of wax, which, when heated from below by a special bulb, floated around in odd shapes and colors like a precursor of what I would later know as an LSD trip.
I had never seen the fun-loving Mr. Spector so intense. He had an insane, ecstatic look on his face, a mad scientist in his dark basement, furiously smoking as he watched the weirdly glowing Lava Lite do its thing.
"What do you think, Dan?" Hy asked my dad. "We need just ten grand more. Then we are going into immediate production for the entire country. Can I count you in?"
Dad wasn't as certain about this curiosity called the Lava Lite. He looked at it quizzically and was pleasant and polite but nonetheless noncommittal. He did not say out loud that he thought his friend Hyman Spector was a complete idiot for backing such an inanity as this, but I could read his mind and knew what he was thinking.
We left Hyman's house without a deal and quickly walked home. Dad asked me what I thought.
"I really don't know what to think, Dad," I said.
"It's completely crazy," Dad said emphatically. "Nobody needs a Lava Lite."
The emphasis was on "need." In Dad's world, people only bought stuff they needed. Dad was speaking from his own experience growing up on the Southwest Side of Chicago when people barely had enough money for food and clothing. Even at age twelve I knew that about him.
So just like that we whiffed on one of the greatest crazes of 1960s America, a get-rich-quick scheme like no other. It turned out people did buy stuff they didn't need, lots of it.
Every morning, Dad drove the big Coupe de Ville on the Edens Expressway from our house in Glencoe to his plant on the far South Side of Chicago. Only a few months after that meeting, a huge Lava Lite factory was built on Irving Park Road near the expressway, with a fully operating forty-foot-tall Lava Lite perched on the roof, taunting us every time we drove into the great city. Our relationship with Hy Spector remained friendly, but it changed. We saw much less of him as his business exploded. He wasn't seen smoking cigars, walking leisurely around Apple Tree Lane any longer. He was busy on Irving Park Road cranking out Lava Lites. I bought one myself, put it in my bedroom, and loved the thing, like every other kid.
For me, these were the best of times. I had everything I desired. We may have passed on the Lava Lite venture, but life on Apple Tree Lane was nearly perfect that summer of 1963.
Such happiness was not always the case for the men in our family. In terms of happiness, 1963 was a great anomaly. In fact, it might have been the greatest year in the previous hundred.
* * *
Sixty years earlier, on February 12, 1903, a person of great importance to me, but of no notoriety or consequence, arrived alone in the Port of Baltimore aboard the SS Breslau, in steerage class, after a sixteen- day ocean crossing from Bremen, Germany. The 1,660 steerage passengers traveled in miserable conditions below deck, twenty people to a compartment, twelve toilets between them. Sixty more passengers traveled in relative comfort above deck in cabin class.
This passenger arriving solo, emerging on these shores alone, was my heroic, trailblazing grandfather. Like a wizard, he had a magical name, Kasiel Skolnick, and he was the founder of our family. Our American history began with him, his decision to escape Poland, his solitary journey across northern Europe to the port of Bremen, his ocean voyage in midwinter, and his arrival in Baltimore on his twenty-second birthday.
The name is Skolnick. Kasiel Skolnick.
Try not to forget it.
Kasiel's emergency passage to America and my father's childhood in the Marks Nathan Home was our Holocaust story, peripheral, a sidebar perhaps, but ours nonetheless. Dislocated, desperate, dismembered people, families and nations in rags — this was our starting point.
According to the ship manifest, he was completely impoverished. His personal property — his worldly goods catalogued at the port of arrival — amounted to three dollars, a suitcase, and the clothes on his back. Kasiel Skolnick was a Hebrew, 5'1Â1/2" tall, a tailor by profession, and unmarried. He could read and write basic English, and his health was noted as "good." The money he had on him was running out fast. His ocean journey to America could have cost twenty dollars. With the remaining cash, he had to figure out how to get from Baltimore to Chicago to join his sister, Sarah. As his grandson, intimately familiar with his DNA, I'm certain he found this no problem.
* * *
"Danny!" my father would always tell me with the greatest urgency when I was a small boy. "Forgive me! I make a lot of mistakes. Please don't hold it against me! I don't know how to be a good father because I never had one myself! Please forgive me. I am a poor, uneducated guy who grew up in the Marks Nathan Home. I know nothing about fatherhood. Please don't hold it against me!"
This was my father's standard response whenever I asked about his childhood, his Home years, or his father, the man we knew as Kasiel Skolnick. My father mounted a massive defense — it flew up like an enormous shield to deflect my most innocent and childlike inquiry. I wanted to know how we got here, as any kid would.
But it was impossible to hold anything against my passionate, energetic father. I loved him with all my heart.
"Dad," I would tell him in return, mustering as much earnestness as I could, as small as I was, a young boy looking into his father's agitated, often tearful, face. "You are the world's best father. I would not trade you for any."
He was my father. I was his son. What else was there?
And I meant it. I put my arms around him and hugged him and took in his scent — musty and bitter, a scent that repelled me, a scent that I loved. It was a lurid scent of a lurid man, born and raised in Chicago. When I crawled into his bed in the early mornings after he left for work, I was appalled and shocked by the sharp and bitter scent of his pillows and bedding, not understanding where it came from or how it was produced, but then I enveloped myself in it, knowing it was him, wrapping myself in my father's strength. From the earliest age I turned the tables on my father, I loved him so. By twelve I had become his father. I could do this for him because I had a father who showed me how to love. Having been loved by him, however clumsily, I knew how to love in return, and I knew it was my job to protect and care for the man who had so protected and cared for me, especially from my mother, his wife, who was cruel and undermined his central life story. That was our pact, and it lasted until the day he died. It lasts until now, in fact, because it's my love for him that drove me to uncover the truth and tell the story of his childhood, which he barely survived in the giant, powerful, and unforgiving city of Chicago.
Dad had a father, just not the superstar dad he wanted. Dad never knew his father and certainly did not appreciate him. Tiny, brave, swarthy, unknown, decisive, dirt-poor Kasiel Skolnick, who left Dad nothing but bitterness, was his father. Kasiel died in 1916, one year after my father's birth. His death sent my father's life, and the lives of Dad's five brothers and sisters, into a tailspin that nearly killed them all. As for me, I knew virtually nothing of this incandescent grandfather of mine until I was nearly sixty years old. I tried my entire lifetime to learn his story but encountered roadblocks, obfuscation, lies, and denial, and had given up hope of ever discovering any information, any facts, about Kasiel Skolnick. I wasn't even certain of his real name until 2014. This hole in me — not knowing my grandfather, my father's unwillingness to share with me what little he knew — was something I adjusted to and learned to live with. Finally, it took four equally determined cousins working together nearly two years to unearth the truth about him, and even now his biography is incomplete. Parts of the story we will just never know, and that's all right, we are finally at peace with that.
Little Kasiel, the grandfather who forged my future in America, arrived in the United States in 1903 to launch his attack upon the New World. What was he thinking? How desperate must he have been? Many of the Poles, Lithuanians, and Jews on board the Breslau with him arrived with less, some with as little as fifteen cents. Their occupations were invariably listed as "laborer" or "none," and they were heading to join relatives in the Midwest: Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Steubenville. They were going where the jobs were, into the teeming, bleeding heart of heavy American manufacturing and industry, where many would be chewed up and spit out, living a life no better, no easier, than the one they left behind in Eastern Europe. The Jews on board the Breslau might have eluded the vicious pogroms and the Holocaust in Europe, but they could not avoid two World Wars and the Great Depression in America. For two generations, my family barely made it. Families, like nations, have trajectories. For us, February 1903 was low ebb. In the years to come, equally desperate chapters would follow.
Kasiel's destination, according to the Breslau manifest, was 606 West 43rd Street in Chicago, the home of his brother-in-law, Isaac Serolnik Isaacson, already married to Kasiel's sister, Sarah. This couple, Mr. and Mrs. Isaacson, would later appear as a bleak footnote in the childhood lives of their future, yet unborn, nieces and nephews.
This was a very big year for my grandfather, the biggest. Within months of his arrival in Chicago he married my grandmother, Jenny Pinkovitz, also newly arrived from Poland, a boarder with the Isaacsons on West 43rd Street. She was a tall, patrician-looking Ashkenaz whose pure white skin and intelligent features contrasted so sharply with Kasiel's dark, classically Sephardic features, his full lips; olive skin; hooded eyelids; heavy black eyebrows; and tight, short-cropped black hair. At 5'6", the elegant, lily-white Jenny towered over her proud and robust husband. Kasiel married far above his station in life. Jenny Pinkovitz, his new bride, had a large, well- connected, and industrious family already firmly established and going places in Chicago.
Then, within weeks or months of marrying Jenny, Kasiel Skolnick legally changed his name to Samuel Friedman. He and Jenny became Mr. and Mrs. Sam Friedman.
Kasiel Skolnick is like a spell and incantation for me. The name resonates as something familiar but long forgotten, a name we were once known by. It's not alien or strange to me; it's true. But my grandfather had a plan for himself in America and Kasiel was not part of the plan. Kasiel would not cut it in Chicago, not then, not in 1903. A five- foot-one-inch Hebrew tailor named Kasiel Skolnick wouldn't make it halfway down the street among the German and Irish immigrants who populated the city. There was no future on the Southwest Side of Chicago for Kasiel Skolnick. How he got to Samuel and Friedman we will never know, but his new name was an inspired choice for the time and place. His was a brilliant and farsighted rebranding effort, and all subsequent generations thanked him for it. I'm grateful not to have gone through life named Skolnick, even though the name is mine.
Kasiel was the ultimate realist. Acute awareness of his surroundings was his defining characteristic. He knew Europe was bad news for the Jews, so he risked his life and left the continent. Chicago required subtler corrections. His name change served his family well but made genealogical work very complicated generations later.
* * *
Since his death in 1916, unbeknownst to us, Samuel lay in an unmarked grave, under a small, plain slab, in the vast Waldheim Cemetery on the far West Side, buried among 150,000 other Chicago Jews. Waldheim is a world unto itself. It covers over two hundred acres of mausoleums and crumbling, haphazardly arranged headstones on both sides of busy Des Plaines Avenue. In 2013, after painstaking research, my cousin Gregory, a Chicago lawyer like his father, my uncle Sol, somehow located Samuel's grave and had a proper headstone installed:
In Memory of Our Grandfather Samuel Friedman February 12, 1881 — May 2, 1916
A couple of months after moving back to the city, after an absence of thirty-eight years, on one of those damp gray Chicago mornings with plastic bags the only foliage in the leafless trees of early spring, the wind blowing, the naked trees shaking hard, unseen air traffic coming in low and loud toward O'Hare, I stood in a puddle over my grandfather's new headstone in Waldheim saying Kaddish with Gregory, just the two of us alone there. After we completed the prayer, we embraced one another, standing atop our grandfather's grave, no one else in the vast cemetery that dreary morning. Gregory's scent was of my father. Gregory is my blood relative. In that embrace, Gregory brought my father, his father, and our grandfather back to life.
I moved back to Chicago to reclaim these men and to follow their scent. It's more common to move where you have grandchildren than back to the place where your grandparents are buried, but that's what I did. Counterintuitive, I admit. To Chicago, of all places, that brutal, magnificent city, so big and bad, populated for me by a legion of ghosts, my family in the majesty of their immigrant rags and hope, astonished at their good fortune to escape the old world, afforded the brilliance of a new morning in a kitchen on South Halsted Street, in a house that has long since been leveled. I needed a new start, too.
Divorce in a small town is painful in a number of particular ways, your wounds exposed to an entire population free to conjecture and opine at your expense. At such moments, small towns are at their worst. Everyone on Main Street has taken a position, like it is a political contest; few express outright support, but many revel in your distress, unable to disguise their schadenfreude, like the realtor eager to list your house now that the marriage is finally kaput after years of effort. Soon, the calls begin. Intimate friends of your ex-wife, or so you thought, women you have known for decades, women once married to your friends, or women you knew as mothers of your children's friends, now ring at cocktail hour, Chianti in hand, purring with invitations. When this becomes your romantic default mode, it's time to move on.
And so I told myself, when this all happened to me: it isn't too late; you're not too old. So I returned to Chicago where I had a right to be, where my people were buried and I could reside in anonymity among the Miesian high-rises and the few survivors of my nearly forgotten childhood — including Gregory, Sol's son, whom I hadn't seen in years but who had become vitally important to me, as well as my other Friedman cousins and a few very ancient friends from Glencoe, Illinois.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The King of Chicago"
Copyright © 2017 Daniel Friedman.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1 Kasiel Skolnick 1
2 Home Kids 21
3 Rue des Beaux-Arts 54
4 Home Kids-Two 62
5 Arlington Park 81
6 Apple Tree Lane 91
7 University Circle 125
8 Lake Shore Drive 135
Epilogue: Yad Vashem 149
Select Bibliography 153