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Moise Cohen


Chicago remains among America’s most ethnically diverse urban areas. Until proven otherwise I continue to claim it publishes more weekly foreign-language newspapers than any other city in the U.S.; Toronto claims more diversity but may not match Chicago’s publication record.

I grew up in a decidedly blue collar area amid large clusters of Poles, Ukranians, Czechs, Greeks and Lithuanians. There were also many Puerto Ricans, as well as a substantial Black community of first- or second-generation emigrants from the South who had come north for opportunity in the factories. By the time I got to high school, my repertoire of vulgarity was expansive.

The Jewish presence in Argo-Summit was small and may not even have been resident; the nearest synagogue was a few miles away. There were two local department stores, however, owned by Jews: Stone’s in the 6200 block of Archer Avenue and Kabaker’s where Archer turned east to become 55th Street. Stone’s had a 50s-Modernist facade, but I suspect the interior dated to the 30s. Kabaker’s was more obviously of 1900 vintage; the kind of store where pneumatic tubes whooshed your payment to an unseen clerk. Each maintained a broad range of stock, from housewares to clothing. My first “big boy” shoes probably came from Stone’s.

I grew up in this environment and came to think of it as normal. In the many, many years since, I have learned a bit about historical patterns of migration in the 19th and 20th centuries, enough to intelligently anticipate what those waves may have washed upon the shores of northwest Iowa. I suspected Agincourt’s earliest Hebrews might have been Central European, urban people likely to settle here as merchants in our cities and towns of various size. It is remarkable how may haberdashers came from Germany. I wondered about that knee-jerk choice, however; wondered if I was guilty of “racial profiling.”

Statistically, two of Europe’s most anti-Semitic countries in recent history have been Austria and France. So it may have been French panache that encouraged me to conjure Moise Cohen (rather than Moshe Kahn) as perhaps Agincourt’s earliest resident Jew. If nothing else, it was an opportunity to get reacquainted with l’Affaire Dreyfus, the 1890s scandal that politicized France and encouraged many Jews to relocate.


So I am dutifully researching the history of Jews in Iowa. There is an astounding supply of information on google.com which I hope will yield an authenticity to the Cohens and their family-owned business. Their home will also set a foundation for the temple (already designated for 1953 as an excuse to study the architecture of Erich Mendelssohn) and add another facet to community history.

Feel free to opine whether my fascination with race and ethnicity itself borders on racism.

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