30 November 2008

Chicago: The Obamas' Jewish house

Leave it to the Chicago Jewish News, edited by Pauline Yearwood, to come up with a fascinating house history - the Jewish history of President-elect Barack Obama's house in Chicago - by Charles b. Bernstein and Stuart L. Cohen.

A Chicago attorney, Bernstein is a genealogist of the Chicago Jewish community, and a Chicago Jewish Historical Society founder. A mortgage banker, Cohen's hobby is Jewish genealogy and Chicago Jewish history.

Its future is to be the Chicago White House. But a look at its past shows the construction of the Obama home was financed by a prominent Chicago Jew, that it was once lived in by a Jewish family and that it was home to both a Jewish day school and a yeshiva...

After Pauline Yearwood's recent startling scoop in the Chicago Jewish News, which revealed that First Lady-elect Michelle Obama is a first cousin, once removed, of Rabbi Capers Funnye, it appeared unlikely that another significant Jewish connection to the Obamas would be found.

The Southside home - at 5046 S. Greenwood Avenue - is across the street from the city's oldest Jewish congregation - KAM-Isaiah Israel Congregation. Secret Service agents guarding the home use the temple's facilities. Only residents and temple members are allowed to pass through the street barricades at both 50th and 51st streets.

The earliest document for the house is a construction loan, dated Oct. 4, 1905, obtained by real estate developer Wallace Grant Clark from Moses E. Greenebaum. A prominent mortgage banker and real estate developer, Greenebaum was a member of a pioneer Chicago family which became a leader in both the general and Jewish communities. Moses's father, Elias Greenebaum, came to Chicago in 1848 and eventually entered the mortgage and banking business. Elias's father, Jacob, followed Elias to Chicago, so Moses was already a third generation Chicagoan. Elias was a founder of Sinai Temple, Chicago's first Reform congregation. Elias, Moses and Moses's son Edgar were all presidents of Sinai.

Built about 1908, its first Jewish owner - in 1919 - was Max Goldstine who bought the house and the adjacent vacant lot for about $13,750. Goldstine and his wife - Ethel Kline - were born in Hungary and immigrated to America as children. They married in September 1901 and had three daughters. Lucille (1902) married Harold Rosenheim; Viola (1905) married Robert L. Leopold; and Maxine (1908) married Harold L. Newmann.

Goldstine's grandson Fred M. Newmann, 71, is a retired professor in Madison, Wisconsin and campaigned for Obama. Bernstein and Cohen contacted him and he was excited to learn that his mother's childhood home was the Obamas' house.

Granddaughter Nancy Rosenheim, 83, is married to Robert J. Greenebaum, 91, son of Edgar N. Greenebaum, Sr. (the son of mortgage banker Moses Greenebaum). Nancy and Bob's grandchildren are seventh generation Jewish Chicagoans. Lucille Goldstine Rosenheim told her daughter Nancy that the home had a third-floor ballroom.

Maxine Goldstine's childhood friend Dorothy Eckstein Herman Lamson of Highland Park, 95, grew up at 5125 S. Greenwood. She remembered Max had built a wooden toboggan slide on the adjacent vacant lot and that area children sledded there in the early 1920s.

Max and Ethel Goldstine sold the property via an April 1, 1926 deed to Virginia H. Kendall and Elizabeth K. Wild, as joint tenants.

During the Depression, the property went through foreclosure. The Foreman State Trust Savings Bank - the Foremans were a prominent Chicago German-Jewish banking family - was involved in the mid-1930s. Family and bank founder Gerhard Foreman (1823-1897) was married to a sister of Elias Greenebaum.

In about 1920, the Hebrew Theological College (HTC) formed and served mainly the Orthodox Russian immigrant community.

On March 26, 1947, the house was bought for the HTC with a donation from Anna Sarah Katz of Milwaukee, for about $34,000. There was also a $20,000 mortgage, $500 to be paid every three months until May 9, 1957, and signed by Rabbi Oscar Z. Fasman and Samuel S. Siegel. The Chicago Tribune reported September 22, 1947, that Katz "purchased a $50,000 plot of land with a building to be contributed to the Hebrew Theological College expansion drive."

In the late 1940s, the house was the first home of the South Side Jewish Day School, which later became the Akiba Day School, merging with the Solomon Schechter Day School.

The Orthodox Jewish population declined in the 1950s; the house was sold in 1954 to the Hyde Park Luthern Church for $35,000. The Obamas paid $1.6 million for it.

Read the complete article at the link above.


  1. Anonymous1:17 PM

    Don't know if this is related to the Rabbi connection, but today's Chicago Tribune mentions that Michelle Obama's greatgrandfather, Fraser Robinson Sr., married a Rose Ella Cohen and had six children with her. Was Rose Jewish? or were her family slaves owned by a family named Cohen? The article didn't say.

    1. Rose Ella Cohen was owned by a South Carolina Cohen Family.

    2. Anonymous5:26 AM

      slavery was over when she was born... Rose Ella Cohen (c.1889 - c.1952)

  2. Anonymous5:36 PM

    Oh my God! So, if HTC had moved south instead of to Skokie, I would have studied in that house? Pretty amazing!

  3. I was a student at the South Side Jewish Day School. My oldest sister and brother, I believe attended when it was still in this building. The school then moved to 79th and Yates, became "Akiba South Side Jewish Day School" and used the classroom space of Congregation Agudath Achim.

  4. DEVRA EISEN12:30 AM

    I recall a Jewish Day School at "Mushkin's Schul", Beth Hamidrash Hagadol, on the corner of 54th and Greenwood. Thought it was Akiba.