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A Madison Party With A Purpose

Over eight hundred senior citizens gathering for three days. Graying grandparents. The requisite canes and walkers. All of us slightly stooped, carefully maneuvering the crowds and narrow stairwells. Looking as if we had been dispatched from Central Casting — large group of old folks needed. Lots of jokes about hip replacements, creaky knees, and the indignities of old age. Within seconds, the small talk gave way to a kind of collective, somber, and somewhat despairing eulogy for the youthful ideology and hope we shared back then. Why was this group of old folks different from all other groups of old folks?

After the initial joking about early bird specials and mahjong, the three day conference embarked on a magical mystery tour of “the sixties.” The invitation to the conference, over two years in the making, billed itself as “The Madison Reunion, Party with a Purpose,” dedicated to all those who passed through the city during the sixties…who participated in that ever expanding universe that was this small town fifty years ago…Madison in the sixties was a state of mind that spun everyone who entered it into orbits of social activism and personal change. The Conference is dedicated to the memory of Harvey Goldberg, history professor and activist…Many of us were personally touched by his teaching and focus on social justice….” And to that, may I add a hearty Amen. May his memory be a blessing.

And so it continued. Three days of talk. Great torrents of boundless, exalted talk. No, those are not my words, but the words of Michael Gold taken from his classic memoir, Jews Without Money. This great paean to socialism appeared on the syllabus for one of Harvey Goldberg’s history classes. Holed up in my dorm room, I analyzed each word as if it were a talmudic tractate.

It is most fitting to have dedicated this conference to Professor Goldberg. He, more than anyone, personified the massive cultural footprint that we loudmouth urban lefty Jews had on poor unsuspecting wholesome WASPY’y Wisconsin during our years as students at the University of Wisconsin. Harvey Goldberg was our Rebbe. We crowded into his lectures, his dutiful chassidim, mesmerized, at he spun his glorious tales. He spoke without notes, quickly abandoning his shtender . We listened as his voice rose to a crescendo when emphasizing something of particular importance. We watched as he engaged in classic talmudic piplul when explaining a particularly complicated concept. A graduate student of his called him a tzadik and told us that Harvey Goldberg’s primary message to him was “Be A Mensch.” (how many times have I said that to my own children???!!!)

And so it continued for three days. Emma Goldman and Rosa Luxemburg. (I heard many an old radical wax nostalgic—Do you remember Harvey’s lecture on Rosa Luxemburg’s murder????!!!!!) Serious talk about the moral responsibility of citizens of the world. Laments over how capitalism is destroying democracy. Marcuse and Marx, Marx, and a little more Marx…(wait, wait, remind me—who was Jean Jaures again???)

Over eight hundred old radicals converged for an alternative college reunion. We did not talk about “the big game.” In fact, I do not remember any mention of sports at all. Two women reminisced about going from Delta Delta Delta (“Tri-Delt”) to SDS in a matter of days. Certainly there was nothing intentionally Jewish about The Madison Reunion, but it was hard to not feel the Jewish presence. In addition to Harvey Goldberg, a standing room only session was devoted to the late German Jewish historian, George Mosse. Revisiting Professor Mosse’s lectures on the nature of authority and the abuse of power had us all collectively wringing our hands in despair. It was in George Mosse’s classroom that our American naivete was challenged by discussions charting the rise of fascism in Mr. Mosse’s native Germany. Discussions that carried with them the unspoken subtext that yes, it could happen here. None of this was lost on us. As the conference progressed , references to the vile monstrous elephant in the room segued from referring to the current inhabitant of the White House as “he who shall not be named” to a few choice epithets that can’t really be printed here.

I spent virtually my entire college career writing lengthy , self indulgent, incoherent papers that explored my own personal relationship to feminism, socialism and Judaism. I began virtually every paper with a ridiculous personal introduction— Working on this paper was a revealing and important endeavor. I dealt with a subject that has a great deal of meaning to me as a Jew, a woman, a human being and a socialist… Imagine how delighted I was to find myself sitting in large group of presumably like minded souls for a session entitled “Tikkun Olam: Why Madison was a magnet for the Jewish Diaspora during the 20th century.”

The Jewish presence in Madison was nothing short of exhilarating during my college years. In the spirit of full disclosure, I was still in high school during the 1960’s. I was in Madison from 1972-1976. I spent the duration of the conference feeling as if I were sitting with the tribal elders who made the necessary sacrifices for those of us who came later. Who created the countercultural framework that made Madison so vibrant. Who challenged the status quo and demanded an end to racism. sexism and unquestioned patriotism.

The University of Wisconsin provided an intellectual home to both Jews and the New Left during the 1950’s and 1960’s. It was natural that a state with such a progressive tradition would be so welcoming. The university was largely spared from the McCarthy era’s blacklists and red baiting. Senator Mc Carthy left his home state’s flagship university alone, fearing retribution from his constituents. Wisconsin was also the rare university that did not have quotas on Jews.

According to one of the presenters, the University of Wisconsin Socialist Club of 1908 was fifty percent Jewish. Yikes!!! Another fact that was constantly referenced throughout the conference was the numerous attempts during the 1960’s by various state legislators to limit the number of students from New York and New Jersey. (and we all know what that really means…) We were seen as “outside agitators” who foisted our radical beliefs on unsuspecting small town farm kids who, until freshman year had never met a Jew. During freshman orientation, I was approached by two sweet young women who rather sheepishly asked me how one should eat a bagel. I am embarrassed by and ashamed of my youthful arrogance. (whadd’ya mean??? you’ve never seen a bagel before??) Not once in my years as a student did I feel even a vague hint of anti semitism. A current Jewish Studies professor called Madison a “goyishe city with a Jewish heart.” The “intellectual intensity” of Jewish students was something to be celebrated. I was reminded once again of my own adolescent sense of superiority. Look at these rubes!!! How urbane and politically sophisticated I am! And yes, yes, yes. To be filed under “the more things change, the more they are the same,” I plead guilty to my continued cultural elitism and its role in the 2016 election of he who shall not be named.

We spent the weekend with a palpable sense that this really is our swan song. I cannot imagine us ever doing this again.

I was overjoyed to find a fellow Leftwing Zionist who remembered the Radical Zionist Alliance. To reference Ber Borochov and Nachman Syrkin to someone who actually knows who they are. (here’s lookin’ at you Sam Norich….)

In his written instructions to his students, Harvey Goldberg explained how our final papers would be evaluated. We were to embark on an “independent investigation of a topic of your choice.” He continued on a personal note. “The only sound criterion for your work, it seems to me, should be its relevance in strengthening your own capacity to understand and struggle.”

And, so, to all my old chevre, a yasher koiach to all of us as we enter the third act of our own personal dramas, warily eyeing the inevitable final curtain. Can we still somehow muster the determination to strengthen our own capacities to understand and struggle? Can we continue to fight the good fight and not succumb to despair as we watch a world spinning out of control? Can we counter evil with good, mean spiritedness with kindness? And never ever forget the importance of what it means to be a mensch.

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