Century of Progress: Jewish Day Pageant

The greatest Jewish spectacle ever staged in Chicago took place on Monday evening, July 3, 1933, at Soldier Field, before more than 125,000 people. Sponsored by the Jewish Agency for Palestine, The Romance of A People was the culminating event of Jewish Day at A Century of Progress, the world's fair held along Chicago's lakefront. The fair was a colossal effort, planned for over five years, designed to emphasize the progress made by the United States, and by the city of Chicago, in the areas of technology, science and industry over the preceding hundred years.

Why a Jewish Day and why sponsorship by the Jewish Agency for Palestine? The Fair Committee had designated over two dozen special days, one for each of the nationalities that made up the immigrant population of Chicago, and was building a Hall of Religion for displays by Chicago's religious groups. Chicago's Zionists considered Palestine their homeland, and since the Jewish Agency represented the Jewish community in its dealings with the British Mandate authorities in Palestine, the Jewish Agency was the obvious choice to represent Jewish national aspirations.

At least, this was the choice of Meyer Weisgal, executive director of Zionist Activities for the Midwest. In his autobiography, So Far, Weisgal writes that in the early 1930s he formulated plans for a Chanukah pageant at Chicago's Opera House. The pageant was so successful that by 1932 he could proclaim, The Zionist Organization is today on the lips of every Jew and non-Jew in the city of Chicago.

Weisgal had arrived in Chicago with his family from Kikl, Poland, in 1908, at the age of 14. His father, Shloime Chaim Weisgal, had come to work as a chazan (a prayer leader) at the Tell Place Synagogue on the West Side. In 1911, Chazan Weisgal decided that Kikl on Lake Michigan was not Kikl in Poland and moved his family to the Bronx, where Meyer became interested in Zionism.

By 1921, at the time of the struggle between Chaim Weizmann and Louis D. Brandeis for control of the Zionist Organization of America, Weisgal was a propagandist for the Weizmann group and editor of The Maccabean, the first ZOA monthly magazine in English. According to Weisgal, when Chicago Jews were asked to participate in the fair, discussions went on for months about whether the Jews were a race, a religion, or a nation; whether they should be represented by a building; and if so, what kind of building?

After the success of his 1932 Chanukah pageant, Weisgal felt inspired: Not a building, not an exhibit, but a pageant portraying five thousand years of Jewish history. It would have everything religion, history, the longing for Zion, the return to Zion and it would be called The Romance of A People.'

Weisgal asked for and received the support of Rabbi Solomon Goldman and Judge Harry Fisher, two Chicago Zionist leaders. Then he went to see Rufus C. Dawes, president of the fair, a deeply religious man who loved his Bible. Weisgal was able to convince Dawes that Jews had four thousand years of history, from Abraham down to the present, that no one has! Dawes agreed to schedule a special Jewish Day at the fair, the grand finale of which would be a huge spectacle produced by Meyer Weisgal.

In addition to the Jewish Day program, a Jewish exhibit, to be housed in the Hall of Religion for the duration of the fair, was organized by non-Zionist Reform Rabbis Louis Mann and Gerson Levi. It consisted of a display of Jewish artifacts and portraits of famous Jews through the ages, illustrating their contributions to the fields of social science, education, religion, literature, medicine, philanthropy, agriculture, statesmanship, music, art, drama and child welfare. The design and planning was done by the architectural firm of Alfred S. Alschuler and Company. A. Raymond Katz was the painter of the murals.

Weisgal gave the pageant all his time. By his account, he was the man in charge. He followed the general pattern of his Chanukah festival, but on a grander scale. Instead of dealing with a single holiday, the Romance would cover the period from the Creation to the 20th century. The authors of the text included Weisgal, Rabbi Solomon Goldman and Weisgal's close friend Maurice Samuel, a talented writer and influential Zionist. The music director, who also wrote the score, was Isaac Van Grove, a composer who had been a conductor of the Chicago Civic Opera and who had worked with Weisgal on the Chanukah celebrations. Cantor Avrum Matthews, an opera and concert artist, was the leading singer.

Weisgal says that he had learned from his father and brother, who were cantors, how to stage a show with singers and dancers particularly on the Jewish holidays. He recruited 3500 singers, actors and dancers from Jewish performing arts groups in Chicago, Milwaukee, Waukegan and Indiana Harbor. Among the music directors were Hyman Reznick, director of the Halevy Choral Society and musical director of the Board of Jewish Education in Chicago, and Evelyn Hattis Fox, a prominent community leader. The broadcasting director was Ralph Schoolman. Among the stage directors were Ben Zion Gordon and Ralph J. Halperin. Nathan Vizonsky directed the dancers.

Weisgal decided that he needed a famous speaker to fill Soldier Field, with its seating capacity of nearly 100,000. Who was the most famous Zionist Jew in 1933, and a brilliant orator at that? Chaim Weizmann, of course. Weisgal telephoned Weizmann, who was living in London. Weisgal describes their conversation:

WEISGAL: Hello, Dr. Weizmann, this is Meyer in Chicago.

WEIZMANN: Vos, bistu meshugge gevorn? Have you gone out of your mind? Is Chicago on fire again?

WEISGAL: No, but it will be when you come here. I want you to come to Chicago for Jewish Day.

WEIZMANN: What's that?

WEISGAL: (I explained as fast as I could.)

WEIZMANN: What's in it for the movement?

WEISGAL: (with impressive emphasis and prayer in my heart) If you will come to Chicago for one day, and make only one speech, even if for only five minutes, I will give you $100,000 for any Zionist fund you designate.

WEIZMANN: Put it in writing.

Weisgal promised in writing to raise $100,000 for Weizmann's Central Refugee Fund, which helped German Jews to settle in Palestine, and Weizmann agreed to come to Chicago. Weisgal warned Weizmann that he was limited to only one speech. If he made two speeches, the fee would go down to $50,000; if three, to $25,000.

Weisgal now had his star. By 1933, Chaim Weizmann, who had had a humble birth in 1874 in the village of Motol, near Pinsk in the Russian Pale of Settlement, had become an internationally famous organic chemist, the hero of the Balfour Declaration, and the great populist leader of the Jewish people. Suddenly national Jewish organizations decided to participate in Jewish Day. The Zionist Organization of America shifted its convention to the Palmer House; the B'nai B'rith moved its annual meeting to Chicago, and national youth groups, including Avukah, the Zionist youth organization, scheduled a rally there for July 3.
In the days preceding Jewish Day, Jews flocked to Chicago, and on the day itself hundreds of extra police had to be called to handle the crowds. Thousands were already in Soldier Field in the afternoon, when Harry Berkman, a noted athlete, led 3,000 youths in marches and performances. Among the many prominent Jewish community leaders who came to Chicago was Nathan Strauss Jr., the New York philanthropist.

The Romance began at 8:15 p.m. The next day, under a front-page headline, 125,000 Witness Jewish Spectacle, Chicago Tribune reporter James O'Donnel Bennett wrote: One hundred and twenty-five thousand men, women and children of Chicagoland's Jewry unrolled on Soldier Field last night a gigantic scroll emblematic of the resounding Pentateuch, and thereon they read the story, now tragic, now triumphant, of their race's march down forty centuries to the new Palestine of today.

The giant Torah was placed on a huge four-level stage at the center of the arena, where a chorus of thousands of singers and dancers were massed. In an innovation at that time, 46 performers were positioned in a small room under the stage, unseen by the audience. Except for the massed chorus, these hidden performers supplied all the sound for the pageant. Twenty of the performers were singers, mostly cantors, and the rest were orchestra members, except for Ralph Schoolman, who read the narrative and was the Voice for the Romance. They were led by a conductor who in turn watched Isaac Van Grove, standing in the center of the stage to conduct the entire proceedings.

The stage was decorated with Stars of David and the new Zionist blue-and-white flag. A huge six-pointed star towered over the entire stage. Seven hundred and fifty dancing girls strewed flowers around the Torah. The Tribune report continued: The solemn, weighty voices of cantors intoned in Hebrew the opening lines of Genesis And God said Let there be light and there was light. Trumpets and multitudes of voices heralded the coming of the earths first dawn.

The pageant, which lasted about 90 minutes, was a tremendous success. The Tribune, having devoted 14 columns to a description of it, was apparently so impressed that the newspaper underwrote a re-enactment of the pageant for the following Thursday evening, July 6. This was accomplished, writes Weisgal, through Herculean efforts by the entire cast, but this time before a crowd estimated to be about 55,000.

As for Chaim Weizmann, he arrived in Chicago on July 1, and was greeted by an honorary reception committee of more than 100 people, headed by Bernard Horwich, a leading Chicago Zionist businessman and philanthropist. Weizmann delivered a 10-minute speech on July 3 before the pageant began. The exact text of his brief remarks is not quoted anywhere; he did not, apparently, deal with any substantive matter.

He wrote to his wife, Vera, on 6 July 1933, It is hot here and difficult to work Generally speaking, its been a success, but there is not much money here The Jewish Day went off well. Everyone is praising the performance, though it was not to my taste. He spent most of his stay in Chicago at the ZOA convention, where he did give a series of substantive speeches about the situation in Palestine, pleading for funds to strengthen the refugee German Jewish community there and discussing his plans for dealing with the Arab-Jewish problem.

The British were reneging on their commitment to a Jewish homeland, and Arab unrest was increasing in Palestine. In 1931, Weizmann had been defeated in a bid for re-election as president of the World Zionist Organization, but he remained active in the movement, devoting much of his time to rescuing European refugees, and especially helping German scientists escape to Palestine. After meeting with Emir Feisal at Aqaba in 1918, he had hoped to reach an understanding with Arab leaders over the conflicting national aspirations of Jews and Arabs, saying that he believed that the 600,000 Arabs then living in that territory had exactly the same right to their homes [there] as we have to our National Home.

In his speeches to the Zionist convention in Chicago in 1933, he expressed his hopes for Arab-Jewish reconciliation. But the Arabs did not respond to him, and their attacks on Jews in Palestine in succeeding years doomed Weizmann's hopes. Weisgal comments that he raised the $100,000 promised to Weizmann and sent it to him without deducting anything for the additional speeches.

Immediately after Jewish Day, Weisgal attempted to take the Romance on the road, but the God who had been so cooperative in Chicago let the rains come down in New York. The pageant had to be delayed and then performed indoors, though again with great success.

Though not to Weizmann's taste, The Romance of A People left fond memories for Chicagoans who were there as participants or members of the audience. The Zionist conference at the Palmer House was debating the growing crisis of German Jewry, but at the Pageant, Chicago Jews, despite the Great Depression, could still exhibit pride in their history, not foreseeing the tragedy about to engulf their people in Europe. This was to be the last pre-World War II public spectacle of its kind. A few years later, such a celebration would be unthinkable.

Weisgal's successful pageant did not make a profit. He could never stay within a budget and the organizations that backed his efforts did not like his exorbitant spending. Some critics claimed that Weisgal had taken Weizmann's $100,000 from the New York receipts of the 'Romance, causing a loss there.

In any case, after that pageant, Weisgal plunged into an even more spectacular project: a production of The Eternal Road by Franz Werfel, directed by Max Reinhardt with Norman Bel Geddes, and music by Kurt Weill. After expenditures that exceeded all expectations, the production opened in New York to critical praise and large audiences, but the investors lost all their money. The Eternal Road was produced again in Germany nearly 70 years later.

After that, Weisgal went on to manage the Palestine Pavilion at the 1939 World's Fair in New York City, where he repeated his Chicago success. He presented Jewish Palestine as a nation among the nations of the world, raising the blue-and-white flag with its Star of David along with those of other sovereign nations, even though the State of Israel would not be recognized until 1948.

World War II ended Weisgal's theatrical career. Weizmann lived to be elected the first president of Israel in 1948. Upon his death four years later, he was buried at Rehovot, the site of the Weizmann Institute of Science, which he had founded, and of which Meyer Weisgal eventually became president.

Weisgal applied his showmanship, bravado and fund-raising skills first displayed so flamboyantly in Chicago in 1933 to his later work on behalf of the State of Israel and the Jewish people, for which he received deserved recognition. He died in 1977.

Walter Roth is the president of the Chicago Jewish Historical Society. This story was originally published in his 2002 book, Looking Backward: True Stories from Chicago's Jewish Past. It is reprinted by arrangement with Academy Chicago Publishers.

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