All Together Different: Yiddish Socialists, Garment Workers, and the Labor Roots of Multiculturalism

All Together Different: Yiddish Socialists, Garment Workers, and the Labor Roots of Multiculturalism

All Together Different: Yiddish Socialists, Garment Workers, and the Labor Roots of Multiculturalism

All Together Different: Yiddish Socialists, Garment Workers, and the Labor Roots of Multiculturalism

Excerpt

One April morning in 1999, I sat in Maida Springer-Kemp’s Pittsburgh kitchen to talk about her early days as a union activist in the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU). She served me tea, sat down erect, and began to speak with a highly formal diction. At eighty-nine, her memory was sharp, and she had a warm sense of humor. She delighted in reminiscing about her comrades in the ILGWU and the labor movement she helped to build. But nothing seemed to give her as much pleasure as her realization that I had no idea what she was saying when she sprinkled her stories with Yiddish phrases. For example, in recalling the hostility that erupted during grievance meetings, she remembered one party or the other uttering the curse “Er zol vaksen vi a tsibeleh, mit dem kop in drerd.” I looked at her, puzzled. She giggled and translated for me: “He should grow like an onion, with his head in the ground!”

Springer-Kemp immigrated to Harlem with her Panamanian mother and West Indian father in 1917, when she was seven years old. She got her first job in the garment industry in the winter of 1926–1927 and joined the ILGWU in 1933, when it was still a weak remnant of a once powerful union. A few months later, Springer-Kemp was instrumental in organizing the most critical strike in the union’s history, in which thousands of Black and Spanishspeaking workers joined for the first time. She stayed active in Local 22’s educational department in the 1930s, and during World War II she accepted a job in another local union as education director. She picked up Yiddish phrases in these years through intimate proximity to Jewish co-workers in the shop and while participating in classroom, social, cultural, and recreational activities sponsored by union educational departments. When her local’s membership swelled with monolingual Yiddish-speaking refugees after World War II, she took advantage of union-sponsored Yiddish classes to be able to converse with her members. Through formal language training and informal conversations, Springer-Kemp learned a great deal about her fellow unionists’ view of the world and how they lived in it.

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