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Labor’s Loves Lost

Paul Buhle is a senior lecturer in history and American civilization at Brown University.

A Fire in Their Hearts: Yiddish Socialists In New York

By Tony Michels

Harvard University Press, 352 pages, $27.95.

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The tale of Jewish socialists on Manhattan’s Lower East Side offers one of those urban legends, alive with so many other memories of vanished sensibilities and institutions that even a mention feels like a May Day below Union Square and before 1920. In this case, however, the ghost is intermittently lively among thousands of faithful liberal descendents of the old-timers and, though badly faded, not likely to go away. If you ever forget that you are Jewish — as an old axiom about economics, politics and much else goes — the gentiles will remind you.

Tony Michels, George L. Mosse associate professor of American Jewish history at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, is one in a long series of authors to take on this subject. Yiddish writers’ own memoirs of the 1880s-90s were appearing by the 1920s, followed by official histories of unions and their leaders in the needlework “Jewish trades,” followed by scholarly treatments. But not many of the books or essays since the early days have actually been based in Yiddish sources (at best, they were dependent on translators’ summaries). Michels is not only a fluent Yiddishist; he also has a brilliant eye for detail.

So this is the richest, most lively treatment so far, steeped in observations and asides that will charm the reader interested in Jewish culture far more than one who is interested in socialistic politics. Consider his treatment of the language itself, as reflected in the heavily read secular Yiddish dailies. Their writers and editors practically invented “daytsmerish,” also the language of Yiddish stage actors, with a German-heavy orthography and precious little Hebrew content. In a way, it was a lowest common denominator. Arguably, it was also the only way to foster a Yiddish literacy as universal as possible, and the Forward’s Abraham Cahan could be described as the single most influential innovator.

Immigrant Jews of all backgrounds nevertheless had to struggle just to read the printed and also understand the spoken Yiddish. Struggle they did, in the most amazingly intense and diverse ways, for socialistic education, cultural uplift, even organized proletarian trips to museums with hundreds of participants. (A beloved cartoonist of the Yiddish papers was the tour guide.) They weren’t looking for upward mobility, of course. They were educating themselves for a future workers’ world.

The dilemmas and the opportunities alike came back to language. One of the darlings of the contemporary Jewish lecture platform, Chaim Zhitlovsky, expressed with unprecedented brilliance during the first years of the new century the idea of “the right of peoples to self-determination.” It might have been the first time a vision of nationalist anti-colonialism, an idea so vastly influential in the 20th century, had been articulated so sweepingly (Lenin offered another version, but only a decade later). Zhitlovsky had notably pronounced it for a kind of Yiddish Zionism.

The problem with socialistic ideas, as Zhitlovsky explained, was that socialists planned on some grand merger of races and ethnicities, which wasn’t at all what the history of Jewish persecution or, for that matter, Jewish survival, had predicted. Clearly, something else was needed. But what? Here, “A Fire in Their Hearts” delivers detailed intellectual history without any forced conclusion. I wish the author had included in his study the hugely popular Yiddish weekly comic newspaper Di Groysser Kundes, because the artists (including that tour guide, Saul Raskin) expressed ardent support for Lower East Side strikers as well as rejection of government propaganda for the First World War… and also enthusiasm for a Jewish homeland.

Suffering terribly, Eastern European Jews and their American relatives — thinking about European Jewry — were looking urgently for a way out. The rebellious younger generation (“di yunge”) that Michels depicts divided into all sorts of camps, from communist to “territorialist” (there would be a Jewish state somewhere, no one knew where, but even Africa was a possibility), Labor Zionist (the Jewish state led by socialists) to Bundist (politically/culturally autonomous zones speaking Yiddish) anticipations, among others. Yiddish newspaper readers, like the aroused Jewish city crowds of the 1910s, moved from one paper or speaker or ideology to another, shuffling possibilities. (The Jewish Daily Forward, increasingly practical minded, staunchly supported organized labor.) Everything was worth considering.

Then the realities of the 1920s dawned, or perhaps darkened is more accurate. Bolshevism or Americanism, between them, seemed to shut out all other global prospects. Michels does not fully capture, in my view, how deeply repellant Aspirin Age American society in its Republican-heavy, conservative, Ku Klux Klan-shaded phase was to the Yiddish world. Or how the metaphorical vision of some Yiddishland, an imaginary country, remained deeply appealing, the more so in the last golden age of the Yiddish theater and culture at large. And that’s where our author leaves us, in the historical moment when everything in the Yiddish socialist world begins to fall apart.

This judgment may be a little severe, because Michels devotes some pages to describing the surviving sensibility. But here he becomes less specific, for all the best reasons. Perhaps Yiddish socialism survived as egalitarian enthusiasm for basketball (once known as “the Jewish game”)? Or it hinted at some future klezmer revival? According to a recent survey, Jewish film festivals are today the largest single source for self-identification for the under-30 crowd, suggesting that culture remains, in one way or another, a key — and a pretty secular one at that.

But Michels doesn’t have to provide definitive answers. He’s given us more than enough to think about as it is.


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