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Pulling Up Anchor on Jewish Devon 

After 70 years in Chicago, Rosenblum's World of Judaica moves to Skokie.

Avi Fox

Avi Fox

Colleen Durkin

The cultural complexity of Devon Avenue is told by its honorary street names. A brown sign declares Devon from Ravenswood to be Honorary Sheikh Mujib Way, after the founder of Bangladesh; from Damen to Western, it's Mohammed Ali Jinnah Way, after the founder of Pakistan. From Western to California, it's Gandhi Marg. And from California to Kedzie, it's Golda Meier Boulevard.

But while Indian Devon is packed with glittering jewelry shops and bustling restaurants, Jewish Devon to the west looks shabby, worn, and sparse. The businesses of Jewish Devon are disappearing.

For the past 37 years, Rosenblum's World of Judaica has held down the fort at 2906 W. Devon, between Richmond Street and Francisco Avenue. But at the end of October, Rosenblum's owner, Avi Fox, will pack up his stock of menorahs, mezuzahs, Torah scrolls, and thousands of books and move them all to Skokie. After 71 years, the city of Chicago will be without the "Oldest & Largest Full Service Jewish Book Store in the Midwest."

Rosenblum's opened, as Rosenblum's Hebrew Bookstore, in the early 1940s. Hungarian immigrant William Rosenblum set up shop on Roosevelt Road in Lawndale, in the heart of what Jews fondly call "the old vest side." According to Irving Cutler, professor emeritus of urban geography at Chicago State University, from the 1920s until after World War II Roosevelt Road was the area's most thriving Jewish business district. "Within a mile and a half, it boasted six movie houses—including two that showed Yiddish films—ten butcher shops, and four Jewish bookstores, including Rosenblum's." More than 120,000 Jews lived in greater Lawndale then, but they would migrate north, and with each move, Cutler explains, Chicago's Jewish population became less concentrated.

After the war Lawndale's Jewish population, soon followed by Rosenblum's and other Jewish businesses, left Lawndale for Albany Park, and Lawrence Avenue became the new strip. In 1973 Rosenblum's joined Chicago's last Jewish migration, to Devon Avenue.

Rosenblum, an Orthodox Jew himself, served all Jews, and Avi Fox followed suit when he bought the bookstore in 1990. "We continued with the same philosophy as Mr. Rosenblum," he says. "Our mantra is that we serve everybody—regardless of who they are or how they think or what their denominations are."

Well into his 70s, and after 50 years in the business, Rosenblum was ready to retire. With no one in his family to take it over, he sold the business to Fox and stayed on as a consultant for another couple years. The street was already in decline then, says Fox. The Jewish population was moving to the suburbs, and many businesses had followed. "Devon had already lost its luster and was beginning to show some signs of wear and tear."

Jewish-owned department stores and retail shops had lined Devon from Western to Kedzie—a stretch known in the community as the "magnificent mile"—drawing customers from all over Chicago. But by the time Fox took over, most of the Jewish businesses that remained were mostly west of California, supported by a substantial community of recent Russian Jewish immigrants living mostly south of Devon, between Western and Kedzie.

Fox had spent 16 years working for Jewish community service agencies in Rochester, New York. But his roots were in Chicago, and he came home because his children were growing up and he wanted to educate them in this city's strong Jewish schools. "Historically, from the time my father was a young kid on the west side of Chicago, he spent many hours at Rosenblum's on Roosevelt and subsequently on Lawrence Avenue," he says. "It was not intentional to try to buy Rosenblum's just because he loved it—he was a scholar and rabbi. The business was for sale, and it seemed to be a business that served the Jewish community and was a business that my wife and I could relate to."

For the 21 years that Fox has owned Rosenblum's, his clientele has come from as far away as Hyde Park and Highland Park. "Devon Avenue has been considered kind of a cultural Jewish experience to come here on a Sunday," Fox says, and Rosenblum's has been a place not simply to buy Jewish books but to tap into a heritage. It's been the place to go to for the paraphernalia of Jewish holidays and bar mitzvahs.

But the nearby Russian Jewish immigrants have moved out, replaced by other immigrant cultures. Fox's customers have become more comfortable ordering books and Judaica on the Internet. The 24-hour Jewel on Howard Street established a multimillion-dollar kosher food section, drawing Jewish customers away from Devon. The economy tanked.

And, finally, Fox says, the new parking boxes brought an end to free Sunday parking, which he calls a disaster: "People come down here and get a ticket once and never come back here again."

Alderman Berny Stone, whose 50th Ward encompasses Devon Avenue from Kedzie to Ravenswood, is quick to point out that Rosenblum's was negotiating for space in Skokie before Mayor Daley leased the parking system to LAZ. But other businesses in the neighborhood also lament the loss of free Sunday parking. Esther Sabo, proprietor of Devon's last kosher bakery, Tel Aviv Bakery, says she's doing OK because she delivers to synagogues. But "the parking has hurt our business because people don't want to park here and they can just drive to the Jewel," she says. She predicts that the loss of Rosenblum's will hurt the remaining businesses even more.

Once Rosenblum's moves to Skokie—at 9153 Gross Point Road, less than 15 minutes away—the only remaining Jewish bookstore in the area will be the more parochial Kesher Stam, at 2817 W. Touhy. It caters mostly to Orthodox Jews.

Though the diminished Devon business district reflects Jewish migration to the suburbs, there's more to the picture than that. A flourishing Orthodox community just north of Honorary Golda Meir Boulevard now reaches all the way to Howard. West Rogers Park is bursting with young Orthodox families—enough to build and support synagogues, community centers, and schools.

Just west of Rosenblum's, an upscale kosher restaurant, Morgan Harbor Grill, opened last year and closed this summer; but a new kosher restaurant, Devon Fish and Pizza, plans to move in. Devon from Kedzie to Ravenswood falls into Chicago's Devon/Western Tax Increment Financing District, and Stone is encouraging the local businesses to apply for the $1.5 million in TIF funds that the City Council approved in early October for businesses in the district. They're eligible for grants of as much as $150,000 toward the cost of remodeling and expansion.

In addition, businessmen from the nearby Orthodox community have been talking to Stone about investing in Devon to make it a destination for shopping and dining.

Fox hopes any campaign to revitalize Devon succeeds, but he wishes one had been launched earlier. "So, now efforts are being made as the anchor prepares to move," he says. "Why weren't incentives initiated several years ago? It's easy to take the main Jewish bookstore here for granted."   

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