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Gilbert Gordon (1911-2010)

Lawrence Bush
July 12, 2010

by Lawrence Bush
We here at Jewish Currents wanted to note the passing of Gilbert Gordon last Monday, July 5. Gil was a lawyer and a passionate fighter for progressive causes, one of the many unsung heroes on whom social justice depends.
Born to Lithuanian immigrants, Gilbert Gordon was raised and educated in Illinois. During the Great Depression, he worked during the day and attended Kent Law School at night. In the 1930s he was active with groups supporting the elected Loyalist government in Spain, the Chicago NAACP, and in the burgeoning movement in housing and food cooperatives.
During the ’40s, Gil worked as a staff attorney for the Commission on Law and Social Action of the American Jewish Congress. He helped organize a pioneering study of discrimination against Jews in admission to medical schools, which changed the practices of schools across the country. Gil was also one of the attorneys who prepared Shelley v. Kraemer, challenging the legality of housing covenants which denied sales to Jews, Blacks, and other minorities. Until that time, such covenants had been upheld and indeed enforced by the courts. As a result of the hard work of Gil and many others, the Supreme Court ultimately ruled these covenants unconstitutional.
Gil continued to represent African-American homeowners in his private practice, taking on the case of a number of families whose homes were confiscated by the city of Chicago under its eminent domain laws in order to build Prairie Shores, a middle-income development.
In the late ’40’s, Gil served for a year as the Executive Director of the Jewish Hospital for Asthmatic Children. Apparently mistaken for Communist activist Gil Green, Gil was redbaited and forced from his post. When an offer was finally made to reinstate him, Gil declined to resume the position.
In 1977, Gil represented the people of Skokie, Illinois when the American Nazi Party sought a permit to march through the Chicago suburb. At the time, Skokie was home to about 40,000 Jews (out of a total population of 66,620), somewhere between 5 and 7,000 of whom had survived the Holocaust. While the permit was granted, today Skokie is home to the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center.
Gil’s greatest achievement was organizing the Skokie Caucus Party, an alliance of liberal Democrats, Independents, and Republicans dedicated to beating the Daley machine in Skokie and cleaning up local politics. He was active in the Skokie chapter of the Committee for a SANE Nuclear Policy, and other progressive causes, despite his experience as a victim of the McCarthy blacklist.
Gil played chess, walked mightily, argued passionately, and supported Obama vigorously. In the last few years, a number of Gil’s letters to the editor were published in both the Florida Sentinel and The New York Times. He was a lifelong reader and supporter of The Nation and more recently, Jewish Currents.
Gil would have been 100 years old on March 19, 2011. He was a lifelong friend of Studs Terkel; the two met in high school and were cut from the same cloth. Studs even quoted Gil in his book Race (if anyone has the quote, please post it in the comments). Gil’s wife, Deborah, passed away two years ago. Deborah had a stellar career as an innovative educator, founder, and principal of the Lorraine Hansberry Parent Child Center, a groundbreaking Chicago school that focuses on parent-child literacy and family support. Gil and Deborah had three children: Michael, a history professor at Denison University; Julie, a librarian (deceased); and Jonathan, cantor and political activist.
We celebrate Gil’s fierce, lively, passionate spirit and intellect, as well as the principled politics he championed. He supported the Rosenberg Fund for Children, and we encourage donations to the fund in his honor and memory. If you have memories of Gil you’d like to share, please do so in the comments.

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.