A Weaver in Black

By Gabriel Sanders

Published April 21, 2006, issue of April 21, 2006.
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Two members of the Weavers, the folk-singing quartet that topped the American hit parade in 1950 and started the folk-song revolution, recently have returned to the headlines.

One is Pete Seeger, the group’s banjo-playing leader, who is enjoying a sudden revival this month with the release of Bruce Springsteen’s tribute CD, “We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions” (Sony).

The other is Ronnie Gilbert, the only female Weaver, who took to the pages of The Progressive magazine in February to publish an unusually frank memoir of her personal odyssey over the years, from mainstream Zionism to support for the radical Israeli peace group Women in Black.

Gilbert’s narrative is particularly compelling because of a deep identification with Israel, both from her and from the group. The Weavers are remembered, among other things, as the only pop group ever to hit the top of the American charts with an Israeli song. Their 1950 recording of “Tzena, Tzena” made it all the way to number one, in tandem with the record’s flip side, “Goodnight Irene.” The back-to-back hits established the Weavers’ lasting reputation. Blacklisted as leftists and then revived by a smash 1956 Carnegie Hall concert, the group performed through the mid-1960s, influencing a generation of younger singers. Israeli songs remained a permanent part of the act.

The Forward caught up with Gilbert recently to discuss her early years and her evolving attitude toward Israel.

Gilbert’s political consciousness was sparked in the mid 1930s, when she was about 10: “I began to understand that the world was not a very safe place.” Her first campaign, she recalled, was collecting change for Spanish Civil War refugees.

Europe’s states of turmoil coincided with upheaval in Gilbert’s own family. After living what she calls a “happily assimilated” life in Queens, her parents separated. Gilbert moved with her mother, a Warsaw-born orphan, to Brooklyn. This was her first contact with life in a Jewish environment. Her mother became active in Jewish socialist circles, joining the local Emma Goldman Club and the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union. Ronnie was enrolled in Yiddish classes, but she didn’t much care for them. “All the kids in the class were half my size,” she said. “They all came from Yiddish-speaking homes. I was this older kid who didn’t know anything.”

It was from her mother that she learned most. “She read the [communist] Morgen Freiheit, not the [socialist] Forverts,” Gilbert said half-apologetically. “That was where I got my Jewishness, from my mother. Jews were social activists. Jews were people who fought for the rights of all people.”

It was this activist spirit that drove the Weavers, who introduced such international songs as “Wimoweh” (“The Lion Sleeps Tonight”) and “Guantanamera.” “Tzena, Tzena,” an exuberant ditty about girls greeting soldiers, “introduced Israel to a broad American public,” Gilbert said.

It was a service the young state did not quickly forget. When the Weavers made their one and only visit there, in 1959, they were still suffering from the blacklist. But in Israel they got a hero’s welcome. “You would never have known that we were pariahs in our own country,” Gilbert wrote in The Progressive. “Everywhere we were welcomed with great excitement.”

Unlike many on the left who became disillusioned with Israel after 1967 — Seeger, by then a solo artist, began occasionally (and unconsciously, he once said) replacing the Hebrew songs, first with Yiddish tunes and then with Arabic ones — Gilbert preserved her romantic image of the state for a long time.

A turning point came in 1982, when, during a an informal Berkeley, Calif., celebration devoted to the Latin American New Song movement, a Lebanese woman approached Gilbert to ask why her people’s songs didn’t have a place in the international songbook. The woman proceeded to sing Gilbert a tune written for children in Palestinian refugee camps. The meeting and the song made a deep impression. “The idea of refugee children and refugee camps socked me back to my earliest days,” Gilbert said.

The encounter forced her to consider Israel in a new light. “Human beings have the capacity to delve into things or to simply ignore them. That’s what I did for years,” she told the Forward. “But once you get opened up, you can’t go back.”

In the years since 1982, Gilbert became involved with Women in Black, an Israeli group that organizes silent vigils to protest Israeli actions in the West Bank and Gaza. It was a move she undertook with mixed feelings. “Coming out publicly for an end to the Israeli occupation of Palestine is complicated,” she wrote in The Progressive. “One doesn’t want to give aid, even inadvertently, to xenophobes for whom the misdeeds of the State of Israel are an excuse to unleash Jew-hatred.”

And yet, Gilbert wrote, as a Jew she feels she has no other choice but to act.

“Can one call herself a Jew and not take action when she recognizes oppression and injustice?”

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