If you walk around the Chicago neighborhood of Hyde Park, you might notice a large, domed building with a minaret located across the street from former U.S. President Barack Obama’s home. Until a larger sign was added to the front lawn, most people assumed it was a mosque. However, it is actually KAM Isaiah Israel, the oldest Jewish congregation in Illinois.
In the early nineteenth century, German Jews began settling in Chicago. By 1847, enough Jews arrived in Chicago to start a synagogue, so Kehilath Anshe Ma’ariv (KAM for short) was founded. Kehilath Anshe Ma’ariv means “Congregation of the Men of the West” in Hebrew. As more Jews continued to settle in Chicago, more synagogues emerged. The current congregation in Hyde Park, KAM Isaiah Israel, is a merger of several of Chicago’s oldest synagogues: Kehilath Anshe Ma’ariv (KAM), B’nai Sholom (which originally formed as a split from KAM), Isaiah Temple, and Temple Israel. That is why the current name of the synagogue is KAM Isaiah Israel. KAM began as an Orthodox synagogue, but soon joined the newly formed Reformed Jewish movement.
KAM Isaiah Israel’s current building at 1100 E. Hyde Park Blvd. was built in 1924 by Isaiah Temple, before it merged with the other synagogues. The reason why it looks like a mosque is because Byzantine Revival architecture was popular in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This style tries to imitate the mosques and churches of Constantinople (the capital of Byzantium). Byzantine Revival architecture that specifically mimics Islamic architecture is known as the Moorish Revival style. Many Jews built their synagogues in this style during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as a way of hearkening back to their Middle Eastern roots. Because of its architectural significance, KAM Isaiah Israel’s building was designated a Chicago landmark in 1977.
I went on a tour of KAM Isaiah Israel during Open House Chicago, an annual event in Chicago in which different museums, public buildings, houses of worship, etc. open their doors to the public for a weekend in October. Unfortunately, this year, the event will be limited to online and outdoor events, due to COVID-19: https://openhousechicago.org/. Prior to COVID-19, KAM Isaiah Israel also offered private tours of the synagogue upon request. Currently, the synagogue has been livestreaming its services, and plans to continue doing so for the upcoming Jewish High Holidays. On my tour, I was told that because of the domed ceiling, the acoustics of the synagogue are beautiful, so it might be worth listening to a livestreamed service.
As an added bonus, here is a photograph of another Moorish Revival building in Chicago, located at 600 N. Wabash Ave. It is of the former Medinah Temple, built in 1912 as an auditorium for the Shriners, a group related to the Freemasons, which often employs Middle Eastern terminology and designs. Currently, the building houses a Bloomingdale’s department store, but that was supposed to end in 2020, so we shall see what happens. The building became a Chicago landmark in 2001.
One of the oldest cemeteries in Chicago is Oak Woods Cemetery, which was founded in 1854, but started burying people in 1860. Located in the South Side of Chicago, it used to be outside of Chicago’s boundaries, but that changed as the city grew. What I enjoyed most about my visit there was discovering the diverse range of people buried in it.
When visiting an American cemetery, one of the most valuable websites is Findagrave.com. It is basically a cemetery database. Anybody with an account can add graves to it. Some people actually add graves to it for fun, since it is an invaluable resource for genealogical research. The more famous the cemetery, the more likely most, if not all, of its graves have been added to it. What is even more amazing is that for famous graves, people often add photos and coordinate locations, so that you can easily find a specific grave using your GPS. Before visiting Oak Woods Cemetery, I researched which famous people were buried there, and then used Findagrave and my phone’s GPS to find them.
Perhaps what makes Oak Woods Cemetery most unique is that, according to Rick Kogan’s May 31, 2013 article in the Chicago Tribune, it contains the largest known mass grave in the Western Hemisphere. Known as the Confederate Mound, this mass grave contains the bodies of approximately 4,200 Confederate soldiers from the American Civil War. The reason why these Southern troops were buried in the North is because they were prisoners of war living in a military prison in Chicago called Camp Douglas. The conditions at the camp were terrible, however, a smallpox epidemic caused the deaths of most of the Confederate soldiers buried in the mass grave. These soldiers’ bodies were actually relocated to Oak Woods Cemetery after the Civil War, because, according to the National Park Service, the U.S. Government had to close their original burial place, due to flooding.
In 1895, an ex-Confederate group in Chicago erected a monument over Oak Woods’ Confederate mass grave. In response, the following year, a Southern abolitionist erected a cenotaph (empty tomb in honor of a person or group) at Oak Woods in honor of Southern abolitionists. Oak Woods also has a smaller monument over a mass grave of Union soldiers.
Ironically, Oak Woods not only houses dead Confederate troops, but also some famous African Americans. My favorite person buried at Oak Woods is the Olympic running champion, Jesse Owens. He famously represented the United States in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, Germany, where he beat a German runner, and thus disproved Hitler’s belief in the superiority of the “Aryan” race. Other famous African Americans buried at Oak Woods include Harold Washington, Chicago’s first African American mayor, and Ida B. Wells, a journalist and civil rights activist.
The diversity of Oak Woods Cemetery does not end with Confederate soldiers and Civil Rights activists. Not far from the Confederate Mound is a separate Jewish cemetery. However, it is maintained by several synagogues instead of by Dignity Memorial, which maintains the rest of the cemetery. Sadly, because of the huge expense of maintaining graves, and because the Jewish cemetery is older, the graves are in poor condition.
Last but not least, another famous person buried at Oak Woods Cemetery is Enrico Fermi. He is the Italian scientist who created the first nuclear reactor, meaning that he helped create the atomic bomb.
Oak Woods Cemetery clearly shows that once we are dead, we are all truly equal, no matter what notions we may have about it while we are still alive. If only people could get along in life as they do in death.
April 21, 2020 is this year’s date for Yom HaShoah, or Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day. Israel commemorates the day by sounding a siren for 2 minutes throughout the country. During that time, the entire nation is required to stop what they are doing (including driving), until the siren stops. “Yom” means “day” in Hebrew, and “Shoah,” which is a word used several times in the Bible, means “calamity.”
Yom HaShoah always falls on the 27th day of the Jewish month of Nissan, since that marks the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. When the Nazis invaded Poland and started WWII on September 1, 1939, they forced all of its Jewish inhabitants to live in certain enclosed areas (ghettos) within their cities. Since Warsaw is the capital of Poland, that city held the largest of these ghettos. The Nazis gradually transported people from the ghettos to concentration camps, so in 1943, the remaining survivors in the Warsaw Ghetto had had enough, and revolted against the Germans. Although the revolt was unsuccessful, it was the largest Jewish uprising during the Holocaust. The 2002 film The Pianist depicts this tragic event.
The two largest Holocaust museums in the world are Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C., respectively. Israel’s museum (Yad Vashem means “a memorial and a name” and comes from Isaiah 56:5) began in 1953, five years after Israel became an independent nation. The United States’ museum was completed forty years later, in 1993. Both museums are free, crowded, provide tours in several languages, and incorporate the video testimonies of survivors as part of their exhibits. Both also have amazing websites filled with primary sources such as photos, video testimonies, documents, etc. Additionally, Yad Vashem has a database of all of the documented victims of the Holocaust, as well as a database of all of the documented “Righteous Among the Nations,” or individuals who rescued Jews during the Holocaust. Yad Vashem has also planted a tree for every known Righteous Among the Nations, with the name of a rescuer placed on a plaque beneath each tree. Visitors can see the trees as they walk around the Museum’s grounds.
Perhaps two of the most visceral memorials at Yad Vashem are the Children’s Memorial and the Hall of Names. The Children’s Memorial is a separate building on the Museum’s grounds, memorializing the approximately 1.5 million children who died in the Holocaust. It contains photos of children, and a candle placed in the center of the room, with mirrors reflecting the candle’s light throughout the space. The Hall of Names contains books of the names of victims, as well as a domed ceiling with the photos of many victims spread across it. (The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum also has a room full of victims’ photos.) However, Yad Vashem’s main exhibit ends in hope. It ends with a large window overlooking the city of Jerusalem, which is a way of showing visitors that Hitler’s goal of annihilating the Jews failed.
The most visceral display at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is the shoe collection. It displays 4,000 shoes, on long-term loan from Majdanek concentration camp near Lublin, Poland. When you hear that six million Jews died during the Holocaust, it just sounds like statistics. However, when you see 4,000 different types of shoes piled on top of each other, the reality that each one belonged to a unique individual who died makes the numbers sink in more.
In the United States, Christmas has become a very commercialized holiday. Sometimes, as early as September, you can already find Christmas-related items at the store. Amidst these Christmas items are often a few items related to the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah (sometimes spelled Chanukah, because it has the guttural “H” sound). However, Hanukkah is actually considered a minor Jewish holiday. The most important Jewish holidays are the ones found in the Bible, especially Leviticus 23, whereas, the story of Hanukkah occurred after the Old Testament had already been completed. There isn’t a Hanukkah museum, but I had the privilege of experiencing Hanukkah at its birthplace, Jerusalem.
The reason for Hanukkah’s popularity in the United States is that it falls around the time of Christmas. It became a way for the Jewish community to not feel completely left out around Christmastime. However, unlike Christmas, it never falls on the exact same day each year, because it follows the Jewish calendar, which is lunar, not the Gregorian calendar, which is solar. It still falls around December, though, because the Jewish calendar has a leap month every few years, which helps keep the months on a similar timeline. (The Muslim calendar, on the other hand, is lunar, but doesn’t have leap days or months, so its holidays can occur at any time of year.)
Whereas most of Israel shuts down during the major Jewish holidays found in Leviticus 23, life typically continues as normal during Hanukkah. On the first night of Hanukkah, I went to the Western (or Wailing) Wall in Jerusalem. This was a retaining wall surrounding the Second Temple and was built by King Herod the Great in the first century B.C. It is the only structure remaining that had a connection with the Jewish Temple, which the Romans completely destroyed in A.D. 70. The reason why I went to the Western Wall at night is because Jewish holidays begin at sundown. This is because the creation narrative found in Genesis 1 repeatedly says, “And there was evening and there was morning the first day,” “second day,” etc. for each of the six days of creation, implying that the day began in the evening.
While at the Western Wall (which is considered the holiest site in Judaism, due to its proximity to where the Temple once stood), the chief rabbi of Jerusalem lit the first candle of a giant menorah (the Hebrew word for “lamp”). Afterwards, people danced in the street, and one group even projected a slideshow of images related to the Hanukkah story, with the “Pirates of the Caribbean” soundtrack playing in the background! I was especially pleased to see that the surrounding bakeries were all selling sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts) as well.
The reason for lighting the menorah and eating sufganiyot is connected. The story of Hanukkah comes from the first and second books of Maccabees, which are two books found in the Apocrypha. The Apocrypha is Jewish writings that date to after the timespan of the Old Testament, but before the Roman occupation of Israel. Some of it is history, and some of it is not. Judaism never recognized the Apocrypha as divine canon, although the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches did and added it to their Bibles (the Protestants later removed it from theirs).
The books of 1 and 2 Maccabees describe how the Seleucid Empire, a remnant of Alexander the Great’s Greek Empire, tried to Hellenize Israel and make the inhabitants worship their gods. In order to do this, the Greeks, under the leadership of King Antiochus IV Epiphanes, desecrated the Jewish temple and sacrificed a pig within it. However, a group of Jews under the leadership of a man named Judah Maccabee (Maccabee was his nickname and means “hammer” in Hebrew), fought and overcame the Greeks. After that, Israel remained independent for a brief period of time, until the Romans arrived.
After Judah’s victory, the Jews tried to rededicate the Temple. The Hebrew word for “dedication” is “Hanukkah,” so the holiday is also known as the Feast of Dedication. (The New Testament even references it in John 10:22.) The rest of the Hanukkah story actually comes from later tradition. According to the story, the people were upset when they realized that the 7-branched menorah (or lamp) that was supposed to always continue burning in the Temple, was no longer lit. They tried to find some oil to relight it, but only found enough oil that would last for one day. However, the light ended up lasting for 8 days, just long enough for them to replenish their supply. That is why a menorah is lit on Hanukkah each year, and why the holiday lasts for 8 days. Additionally, that is also why a Hanukkah menorah (also called a Hanukkiah) has 9 branches instead of 7 branches, like what would have been found in the Temple. Each of the 8 branches represents one of the 8 days of Hanukkah, while the extra middle branch is used to light each of the other 8 branches. For each night of Hanukkah, a new candle is lit, until all are completed on the 8th day.
Finally, the reason why sufganiyot (doughnuts) are eaten on Hanukkah, is because they are an oily food, so are a way to remember the miracle of the oil. Israel’s sufganiyot are much more delicious than the ones in the United States. This may partially be because Israel has a wider variety of flavors than just the traditional jelly-filled ones. For example, there were some donuts that were topped with pistachio, halva, and even sweet popcorn. Fried potato pancakes are also a popular Hanukkah dish, because they are oily.
Many people know about Samaritans from the New Testament parable of the “Good Samaritan,” which Jesus told in Luke 10:25-37. According to that parable, Samaritans and Jews in the 1st Century A.D. hated each other. In case you’re wondering if Samaritans still exist, I can assure you that they do, because I had the privilege of meeting one in 2010 at the Samaritan Museum on Mount Gerizim, which is just north of Jerusalem. He happened to be the brother of the Samaritan high priest, and is usually the person who speaks to visitors at the Museum.
There are currently only about 800 Samaritans left in the world, with half of them living on Mount Gerizim, and the other half living in Holon, near Tel Aviv. Over the centuries, a large portion of their population became Christian, and later, Muslim. In fact, it is believed that the people living right below Mount Gerizim in the town of Nablus (Shechem), who now identify as both Palestinian Arab and Muslim, were once Samaritans. Today, the Samaritans living in Holon are required to join the Israeli Army, however, since Mount Gerizim’s Samaritans are duo-Israeli/Palestinian citizens, they are not required to join. Mount Gerizim is located in the West Bank, which is a contested area of Israel, because it used to belong to Jordan until Israel took it during the Six Day War in 1967. West Bank means that the area is on the “west bank” of the Jordan River.
While at the Samaritan Museum, the brother of the Samaritan high priest provided a lot of information about the Samaritans and what makes them unique. First of all, the Samaritans originated as a people starting in about the 8th century B.C., when the Assyrian Empire was at its height. Several Assyrian kings, especially Sargon II, would swap the captured inhabitants of one area with the captured inhabitants of another area, in order to make it more difficult for their newly-conquered subjects to rebel against them. For example, when the Assyrian Empire conquered the Northern Kingdom of Israel, which was also known as Samaria (the name of its capital), they deported a large number of its inhabitants to the northern regions of their Empire, never to be seen again. This is where the “Ten Lost Tribes of Israel” originates. The Assyrians, then, took other conquered peoples and brought them into Northern Israel/Samaria. The Israelites living there eventually mixed with these other peoples, and this fusion became the Samaritan people.
While on Mount Gerizim, I learned that Samaritans believe that they are descended from the tribes of Ephraim, Manasseh, and Levi. The first two listed are among the ten tribes deported by the Assyrians. Jews believe that they are descended from the tribes of Judah (where the word “Jew” comes from), Benjamin, and Levi. These tribes lived in the Southern Kingdom of Israel, so were never deported by the Assyrians. Most of the tribes of Ancient Israel had their own allotment of land, however, the tribe of Levi became the priests, so they were scattered throughout all of Israel and never allotted their own land. That means that both the Jewish and Samaritan claim of having Levite lineage is possible. Researchers have actually administered DNA testing on Jews claiming priestly lineage (people with the last name of Cohen qualify, since that is the Hebrew word for “priest”), and concluded that a Jew claiming priestly descent from Europe and another from Northern Africa actually have a unique chromosome (Y-Chromosomal Aaron) not found in any other population group in the world. When the test extended to Samaritans claiming priestly descent, the chromosome was not exactly the same, but extremely close.
What makes the Samaritan religion different from Judaism is that, wherever a Jewish Bible reads “Jerusalem,” a Samaritan Bible says “Mount Gerizim.” Mount Gerizim is referenced in the Jewish Bible, but does not have the importance that the Samaritans give to it. At the end of Deuteronomy, it says that after the people of Israel left Egypt, they eventually went with Moses to the top of Mount Ebal, where they read the curses that God would place upon them if they disobeyed him. Then, they went to nearby Mount Gerizim, and read the blessings that God would place on them if they obeyed. Perhaps this, and the fact that Mount Gerizim was located in Samaria while Jerusalem was not, attributed to why it is now revered by the Samaritans. The New Testament potentially references the importance of Mount Gerizim to the Samaritans as well. In John 4, a Samaritan woman told Jesus that her ancestors had been worshipping on “this mountain” (the mountain was not specified, but was probably Mt. Gerizim). Not far from the Museum is the remains of a Samaritan Temple, but a Jewish king destroyed it in the 1st Century B.C. A Byzantine church was later built over it, so most of the visible remains come from that latter period.
There are a few other interesting comparisons between the Samaritans and the Jews. For example, on Mount Gerizim, I saw an outdoor, circular area, where the Samaritans still sacrifice a lamb on Passover each year. Visitors are actually welcome to watch. Jews no longer literally sacrifice a lamb on Passover, but they do put a lamb bone on their Passover table to remember the ancient practice. Similarly, like the Jews, the Samaritans follow Deuteronomy 6:9’s injunction of placing God’s commandments on their doorposts. However, whereas Jews follow it by placing a tiny scroll (mezuzah) containing Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and 11:13-21 inside a little box adhered to their doorposts, Samaritans carve out a Bible verse of their choosing above their doorways.
Thankfully, Samaritans and Jews do not hate each other as they once did. They are now accepted as Israeli citizens, even if they live in the West Bank. Additionally, another interesting development in the Samaritan community has to do with marriage. Samaritans are only permitted to marry within their community, however, since their numbers are dwindling, there is now a new rule. If a Jewish woman is willing to convert to the Samaritan version of Judaism, then a Samaritan man can marry her. It does not apply to Jewish men though.
Shen, Peidong, Tal Lavi, Toomas Kivisild, Vivian Chou, Deniz Sengun, Dov Gefel, Issac Shpirer, et al. “Reconstruction of Patrilineages and Matrilineages of Samaritans and Other Israeli Populations from Y-Chromosome and Mitochondrial DNA Sequence Variation.” Human Mutation 24, no. 3 (September 2004): 248–60. https://doi.org/10.1002/humu.20077.