[Marxism] Paul Buhle in The Forward

Jim Farmelant farmelantj at juno.com
Sun Mar 26 07:06:36 MST 2006


Spring Books
Labor's Loves Lost
By Paul Buhle
March 24, 2006

A Fire in Their Hearts: Yiddish Socialists In New York 
By Tony Michels 
Harvard University Press, 352 pages, $27.95. 

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.

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

Copyright 2006 © The Forward

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