Chicago's first Jewish mayor: the earth trembles
02/24/2011 - 11:18
James Besser

 

This is something I just can't quite wrap my mind around.

I grew up on Chicago's South Side – my very first journalistic assignment as staff photographer for my high school newspaper was an interview with our alderman, who went by the name of “Fast Eddie” -- and back then everybody knew: to be mayor of the Windy City, you had to be Irish, come from the Back of the Yards neighborhood, and probably have a face with excessive jowls.

My long deceased grandfather was a small-time Chicago pol, and family lore has it that he gave Mayor Daley – the first one – his first job in city government. I'm not sure if I'm supposed to brag about that or not.

Richard J. Daley reigned for 21 years, until his death in 1976.

There was a brief interlude when Chicago had an African-American mayor and then a woman, but soon enough the office was back in the hands of another Irish, back-of-the-yards Daley - Richard M. this time - who served for 22 years.

Amazing: 43 years of Daley rule.

And now, thanks to Tuesday's mayoral election, there will be a Jew running city hall: former congressman and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, a Hebrew-speaking son of an Israeli doctor.

That sound you hear may be the Chicago political firmament trembling. Or maybe it's the sound of the first Mayor Daley - remember his alleged curse at former Sen. Abe Ribicoff (D-Conn.) at the 1968 Democratic National Convention? - spinning in his grave.

There have been Jewish aldermen – a Chicago Jewish News article last year reported that “more than 60 have served on the City Council, beginning with Henry Greenebaum in 1856” - and Jacob Arvey was the longtime boss of the Cook County Democratic Party.

But a Jewish mayor?

The demographics of Chicago are interesting It's about 1/3 Hispanic, 1/3 African American and 1/3 white. The last numbers I've see had the Jewish population at about 270,000 for the metropolitan area, out of a total population of about 2.8 million.

The number of Jews in Chicago proper – in other words, Jews who could vote in Tuesday's mayoral contest - is significantly smaller, but I don't have a hard number to give you.

What's pretty obvious from all this: a highly identifiable Jew with a Jewish sounding name won hugely in a city with a relatively small Jewish electorate, with a very high concentration of blacks and Hispanics and a long tradition of electing mayors from yet another ethnic group.

Yes, there was some anti-Semitic literature that surfaced in the race. But it's hard to see this as anything other than yet another striking indication of how far Jews have come in American politics.

Less clear: will Emanuel be sorry he ever left the White House for a city that is economically stronger than many, but incredibly divided, especially by race? And will he succeed in cutting into the culture of corruption that's as much a part of Chicago as the pathetic Cubs? This is going to be really interesting to watch.

Oh, and by the way, Rachel Shteir has a very nice take on the  election in today's Table. She writes: 

I know you’re not supposed to think this way anymore in 2011, especially if you’re Jewish. But I do, sometimes. I think of that moment when Rahm stood in the Baptist church referring to Rabbi Hillel, talking about himself in the most personal way I had heard since the beginning of the campaign. There was something about it that seemed so intimate that it made me want to cry.

 

Comments

Mr. Besser, The funny thing is that everyone in the Nation is reporting that Emanuel won an election. Won an election? There was no Republican running ! It was a Democratic Party machine annointment. An election by definition is between apposing parties. There was none here. This was an appointment. My question is what did Emanuel promise the other 1/3, 1/3 & 1/3 to gain the annoinment !!! The trivial pursuit question is: In the past 20 years, how many Chicago elections had a Republican opponent to consistute a authentic election?

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