May 26, 2010

A hesped for Devon Ave. Chicago, Illinois

While the shift to the suburbs is definitely happening in Chicago, I am surprised that the bulk of the community, still remaining in the city proper, in the northern neighborhoods of West Rogers Park, Peterson Park and all the immediately surrounding areas, can't support the local bookstores any longer.

This is the way of the world, but it is a symbol of an era gone and a new era beginning, as Rosenblum's Book Store, or as it is known nowadays as Rosenblum's World of Judaica, moves to the suburbs to follow the shift of the community.

From The Chicago Tribune:
For decades, Devon Avenue was a bustling rendezvous for Chicago's Jewish community, a street whose butchers and bakers had a regular mantra. "Who's next? Who's next?" they'd shout, trying to keep order amid a forest of waving arms.

Shoppers would exchange bits of gossip with older folks stationed on street-corner benches; frantic buyers would beg a last-minute challah or brisket from shopkeepers closing up for Sabbath. But the scene on the 2900 block of West Devon Avenue was much different on a recent weekday afternoon: Where once drivers waited to pounce on a just-empty parking spot, hardly a car was visible.

The stretch of Devon from California Avenue to the Chicago River (at Kedzie Avenue) is palpably changing. Rosenblum's, which has been a fixture for 37 years, soon will exit the area, joining a host of other Jewish businesses to leave. Chicago Hebrew Bookstore, Rosenblum's competition, is gone. Yeshiva Brisk, a famed Talmudic academy transplanted from Eastern Europe, is now the Berkshire West Condominiums. The kosher Chinese restaurant is gone, although a nearby Thai restaurant does maintain halal, Islam's dietary code.

"It used to be more lively," said Esther Sabo, proprietor of Tel-Aviv Kosher Bakery for 30 years.

When Rosenblum's bookstore departs for the North Shore, it will take with it not only a formidable inventory of Bibles and prayer shawls, Israeli knick-knacks and bar- and bat-mitzvah cards, but also a bit of the distinctive flavor of Jewish street life along Devon Avenue.

"A Jewish bookstore is part of the fabric of Jewish life," said Avrom Fox, proprietor of Rosenblum's World of Judaica, its full name a mouthful for most customers.

Over the years, Rosenblum's has been the lynchpin for a series of Jewish shopping streets in Chicago, much as a major retailer anchors a suburban mall. Leaving the city probably was inevitable. Still, a bookstore — often a communal meeting ground — is not easily replaced. Rosenblum's customers include the ultra-Orthodox, bearded men in long black coats and women in ankle-length dresses. Many live on nearby blocks, but suburban-dwelling Reform Jews also make the trip to Rosenblum's, even though their faith doesn't require the kosher food products offered by neighboring shops.

And, said Fox, even "Gentiles come in, with questions about Judaism."

On a recent afternoon, a Catholic woman stopped by to ask about making a contribution to a synagogue. Enmeshed in a legal battle, she wanted to double-down her entreaties with the Almighty.

"I don't judge people; I'm a businessman," Fox said. "I sell Jewish culture."

But that's been increasingly tough on Devon, where the customer base was not just the neighborhood but Jews who had moved to suburbia but were drawn back by nostalgia.

Adding to the toll on Devon's businesses is the city's higher parking rates. A couple of quarters used to buy a leisurely stroll along the street, but when the city outsourced its parking enforcement, the hike in rates that followed discouraged potential customers.

"The parking machines," Fox said, gesturing toward his shop windows. "That was the final blow."

The proprietor of the nearby Robert's Fish Market says even the most loyal customers resent paying a parking-machine surtax on purchases of white fish.

"They call ahead, we wrap up orders and bring them out to their cars," said Arturo Venegas, who bought the shop 11 years ago.

Having worked for the shop's former owner for 18 years, the Mexican-born Venegas knew fish and the rules of Judaism's dietary code. The clientele stayed with him, as did the rabbinical certification that the store is kosher. But Venegas said he also has plans to leave Devon for Highland Park.

Yet, a fish store is, after all, a fish store. Even one with a saga like Robert's.

But Rosenblum's has been a part of Jewish life in the city since William Rosenblum, an immigrant from Eastern Europe, founded it in 1942 on Roosevelt Road on the West Side. In the 1950s, it relocated to Lawrence Avenue in Albany Park. In 1973, it moved to Devon, home to numerous Jewish businesses from Western Avenue to the river.

In subsequent decades, the Jewish presence east of California Avenue disappeared. Ebner's kosher meat market and Gittel's bakery closed. That stretch of Devon is now a sensuous melange of sari shops, spice merchants, Indian and Pakistani groceries, Middle Eastern restaurants and Islamic bookstores.

For Fox, seeking Rosenblum's survival in a suburban location is not just a financial necessity. "This bookstore was my father's bashert," said Fox, using a Yiddish word for "soul mate."

His father, Rabbi Marvin Fox, was a noted Jewish scholar who served on the faculties of Ohio State University and Brandeis University in Massachusetts. Born in Chicago, the elder Fox would spend hours in the bookstore on trips back to the city. He'd chat with Rosenblum, the original owner, about medieval Jewish philosophy. He never left without a stack of books, said his son, who bought the bookstore from William Rosenblum 20 years ago.

Rabbi Fox left his collection of 15,000 volumes to the University of Chicago, his son noted.

"So, they've come home to Chicago," Fox said. "They sit on the university's library shelves, many with a sticker showing they're from Rosenblum's."

When Rosenblum's leaves Devon Avenue, later this year, a new generation of scholars-to-be will have to seek intellectual stimulation elsewhere. Which is not to say the street won't still be a pilgrimage destination.

On a recent afternoon, two young Palestinian women wearing long robes and head scarves got out of a van, followed by a troop of children. They went first into Kol Tov, a kosher supermarket run by Chayim Knobloch, a bearded ever-optimistic Devon booster. Whatever others may do, he's there to stay.

"You see, I got old customers, I got new customers," he said nodding toward the women and children, as they stood in a check-out lane.

The women moved on to Tel Aviv bakery, where the children clamored for cookies. Later, when they had loaded their purchases into the van, one of the women said they could have shopped at Arab stores in the southwest suburb where they live.

"But a couple times a year, we just get the urge to come down here," said the woman, who asked to be identified by her nickname, "Sam." "There's just something about it."
Devon Avenue - you will be remembered fondly by many...


  1. It's happening in Cleveland, too.

  2. Rosenblum's leaving is a major blow, but I totally understand. Their loyal customers will follow.

  3. Wow! Strange I had to read about this on an Israeli blog! I was just in Rosenblum's last week. It is a shame and also a sign of the times concerning Devon Avenue in Chicago. I am sure an Indian or Pakistani store will take over the space.

    Speaking from a Chicago area restaurant owner's perspective, Chicago is a tough crowd! It's really hard to maintain competitive prices to treif restaurants to attract the non-kosher crowds, and the kosher crowds just don't eat out that much on regular basis.

    Two restaurants have shut their doors in the last three months alone. More are sure to follow, as this recession makes a bad market worse.

    As an aside, my family and I will be in Israel in a few weeks. Can I email you with a few questions?


  4. i actually just sent this article to fox's daughter on fb and dovk ommented that they are moving to touhy next to lowes. not THAT far away from the community, but it is a death toll on the devon ave we once knew.


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