The “Foodless Banquet” at the Drake Hotel on Dec. 7, 1921. | Photo courtesy of the Spertus Institute

Dinner-Less Dinner’s roots in Chicago go back nearly 100 years

SHARE Dinner-Less Dinner’s roots in Chicago go back nearly 100 years
SHARE Dinner-Less Dinner’s roots in Chicago go back nearly 100 years

The quicker a published mistake can be corrected, the better.

That might be an antique attitude, a musty journalistic convention that has outlived its utility in our online wordstorm, too much of which borders on pure hallucination.

A dusty maxim but I live it, generally. A few weeks back a Sunday story of mine about the last Taurus coming off the line at Chicago Assembly originally stated that all eight million had been made here—eight million is a lot, even over 34 years, and I did pause for a moment and scratch my head. But the Ford statement said so, unambiguously, and if I was going to trust them that they had really stopped making Tauruses, I should also accept that Ford had a good idea about where those cars were made.

But Ford was wrong, a reader pointed out, and so I was wrong. I hopped online, did the checking I should have done initially, then fixed the error, instantaneously. The beauty of the Internet.

But today’s mistake I let sit an entire year before correcting, for reasons I will explain.


A year ago I wrote about a novel fundraising campaign, the “Dinner-Less Dinner” of The Ark, a Chicago social service agency aiding poor Jews, bringing food to shut ins and such. That costs money, and by collecting money for a dinner that is never held, they do away with the bother and expense of renting a ballroom, warming up chicken fingers, pampering Chaka Khan. They send out a disc of chocolate and a donation card. Supporters get to eat chocolate and do not have to dress up, go downtown, and decide how much to bid on a basket of gourmet pasta and olive oil at the Silent Auction. Everybody wins.

Last year I asked where the idea came from; executive director Marc J. Swatez said:

“It goes back to the 1990s. We had a development director who saw an article about a New York charity that did it.”

That’s as wrong as a carnival owner saying they got the idea for a Ferris wheel from some ride manufacturer in New York 20 years ago. There’s a richer story, right here in Chicago, as the folks at the Spertus Museum were happy to inform me.

Jews used to be a more miserable people. Peasants in rags, swarthy fortune-tellers living in wagons, trading from town to town because they belonged nowhere. Those who managed to find refuge in the United States, where the ancient hatred never took hold as strongly as in Europe, thrived, and their thoughts turned toward their struggling brethren back home.

Particularly after World War I. With agriculture shattered, famine set in. Chicago, being a center of business, became a center of Jewish relief. Then as now, sparking generosity took effort and ingenuity. Stark slogans became popular: “Suppose you were starving.”

Elaborating on that theme, on Dec. 7, 1921, lawyer and community leader Jacob K. Loeb invited hundreds of supporters to the new Drake Hotel. They found themselves at bare tables, lit by candles.

“We have been invited to meet each other and to dine together,” Loeb began. “We have met, but there is no banquet spread, no food prepared. These tables are bare, and we shall not dine.”

Courtesy of Spertus Institute

Courtesy of Spertus Institute

Were food set out, he said, it would cost $3,500, an “unwarranted extravagance and, in the face of starving Europe, a wasteful crime. Thirty-five hundred will feed the starving, clothe the naked, and heal the sick. What right have we to spend on ourselves funds that have been collected for them?”

Not only does it save money, Loeb said, but “The Foodless Banquet,” as it came to be called, helped those gathered understand what their money combats.

“For you, the disappointment, temporary and passing,” Loeb said. “For them, permanent and lasting.”

This is more than a historical curiosity. Jews today find themselves in an increasingly uncomfortable position, with anti-Semitism rising around the world. Because some have succeeded economically, it’s all too easy to revoke Jews’ status as a historically-loathed minority.  The thorny politics of Israel makes this particularly simple, as if the world didn’t hate Jewish people before they controlled their homeland. For many minorities, Jews aren’t fellow sufferers, but a particularly odious flavor of white people.

There are still enough needy Jews in Chicago to keep The Ark busy. You can donate at

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