Dr. Irving Cutler, maven of Chicago’s Jewish history, passes away

Cutler celebrated his centennial birthday in April

IrvingCutler image
Irving Cutler, in in office, 2008.

Dr. Irving Cutler, age 100--noted Chicago geographer, author, lecturer, and tour guide--died on Monday, July 24. In honor of his 100th birthday in April, Jewish Chicago: The JUF Magazine recently profiled Cutler. What follows is that story...

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A chronicler of historic milestones, Jewish historian Dr. Irving Cutler celebrated his own centennial on April 11, 2023.  

Cutler's popular history books--particularly his iconic The Jews of Chicago: From Shtetl to Suburb-- grace the shelves of many local households. He also wrote Jewish Chicago: A Pictorial History and Chicago's Jewish West Side . His book Chicago: Metropolis of the Mid-Continent ­ won him an award from the Illinois State Historical Society. 

The books detail the resettlement of Jews from Europe and their migration among the neighborhoods of Chicago. His works archive the major achievements of Jewish Chicago and its notable members. 

"Our community is truly remarkable," Cutler said. "While we take care of our own in a big way, we also have a strong interest in issues around the world. And we have turned out many prominent people, including Nobel Prize winners…authors, prizefighters, artists, and leaders in the fields of business, politics, and the professions."  

Cutler also is one of the founders of the Chicago Jewish Historical Society, and long served on its board. His expertise has found him speaking on TV and radio, curating major Jewish exhibits, and consulting for government agencies. 

An acknowledged maven of "Jewish Geography," Cutler is also an expert in actual geography. He has a Ph.D. in the subject from Northwestern University, chaired the Geography Department at Chicago State University for 10 years, and served as president of the Geographic Society of Chicago. 

He has led hundreds of tours of Chicago--on foot, by bus, and by boat--without a GPS. He gave his last tour in 2019, when he was 96. While he published his last book in 2009, he wrote a series of articles for his Historical Society just last year.  

Cutler was born on Washburn Street, in the Maxwell Street area, but was raised, and attended grade school, in North Lawndale.  

Growing up, Cutler sold papers at his father's newsstand, which sold international newspapers and became a hub of political discussion. Absorbing these views, including those of his family's outspokenly Zionist members, sparked Cutler's curiosity about the world and the Jewish role therein.  

During World War II, Cutler served as a Navy officer for three and half years on a destroyer. His ship crossed the Atlantic 10 times, accompanying more than 60 freighters full of soldiers to the European theater.  

His urge to explore started when he was a boy said his daughter, Susie, and he decided to travel every bus and streetcar route in the city; he later drove a city cab. Now, her father has been to all but one of the continents, she continued, "and he says he's still planning for the Arntactica visit." 

Cutler earned his master's in social science from the University of Chicago--one did not need an undergraduate degree back then, he explained: "You could go straight through to your masters."  

Cutler doesn't only study Chicago's Jewish community--he supports it. He is a Golden Giver to JUF, with 50 consecutive years of donations to its annual campaign, and has established five Charitable Gift Annuities through JUF's Centennial Campaign.  

Looking back through the century, Cutler says that he notes two major trends in Chicago's Jewish community. For one, "There is a loosening of Old-World ties, a decline with each passing generation. The Jewish youth is more Americanized [today]; when I was growing up, we were more involved with the Jewish community."

But he was encouraged by progress in other areas. "The community is so well-organized now, especially in the area of [Jewish] education. And we are much better off now than the poor immigrants crowded in the Maxwell Street ghetto. Through the years, they worked hard to provide their children with access to education and professions." 

Asked if he had any message to impart to his beloved community, he said, "Continue to be organized strongly, and have as many members as possible in your organizations and activities. And know your history, and pass it on." 

Read Cutler's full obituary


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