Academic journal article Labour/Le Travail

Secular Yiddishkait: Left Politics, Culture, and Community

Academic journal article Labour/Le Travail

Secular Yiddishkait: Left Politics, Culture, and Community

Article excerpt

Shnel loffn di reder                Wheels turning so swiftly
Vild klapn mahshinen                Wildly pounding machinery
In shop is shmutzik un heys         The shop is dirty and hot
Di kop vert fartumlt                My head how its aching
In oygn vert finster                My eyes see the darkness
Finster fun trern un shveys         Darkness from tears and sweat

Loyft um der mayster                All around runs the foreman
A chaye, a vilde                    A beast, a wild one
Er traybt tsu der sh'chite di shof  He drives to the slaughter, the
                                     sheep
O, vi lang vet ir vartn             Oh, how long will you wait
Vi lang vet ir duldn                How long to be patient?
Arbeter brider vacht oyf            Wake up, working brother, wake up!
                                     (1)

THE WELL KNOWN YIDDISH POET, David Edelstadt, came to the United States in 1881, worked in sweatshops where he contracted tuberculosis, and died in 1892 at the age of 26. The song called "Sweatshop" eloquently expresses why Jews found left politics so compelling. For many of my parents' generation who arrived in the new world after the turn of the 20th century, first hand experience with the bloody pogroms in eastern Europe and the contemptuous treatment meted out to "greenhorns" in the new world taught them that to be a Jew, to be a Jew with dignity and with hope, meant to be a socialist, a communist -- someone who had the courage to dream (in Yiddish) of a better world for Jews, and for all the world's downtrodden. I grew up in this milieu in New York, attending the Yiddish Sholem Aleichem Shule in the early 1950s and later the Mittlshul, originally part of the Jewish People's Fraternal Organization (JPFO) of the International Workers Order (IWO). I spent summers at Camp Kinderland in upstate New York. a pl ace that supported a secular, socialist, pro-Soviet Jewish point of view at a time when the world of my Brooklyn neighbourhood, the media, and the public schools were dominated by the virulent red baiting of that period. Kinderland, celebrating its 75th anniversary in 1999, was investigated by McCarthy in the House Un-American Activities Committee Hearings in the early 1950s. I still remember the craziness of some of the allegations: an early lesson in how the media can misrepresent and distort. (2) As a child learning Yiddish, the full cultural package was part of the experience. We learned about Yiddish culture and politics through performing plays in Yiddish, singing Yiddish songs, and dancing Middle Eastern and eastern European folk dances. Brighton Beach in Brooklyn had its own mandolin orchestra; my mother's best friend, Rose Friedman, worked in a garment factory and sang soprano in the Jewish Philharmonic Choir. Suspect left-wingers such as Harry Belafonte, Paul Robeson, and black-listed actors such as Howard DaSilva and Morris Carnovsky, performed in our modest venues. When I came to Canada in 1968 I discovered the Canadian version of a community that I thought existed only in New York. (3)

This paper explores the history of the Canadian experience of the pro-Soviet-socialist-Jewish-left from the vantage point of an insider/outsider in this community. (4) In this context, the community refers to a collectivity that, while sharing a common history with other Jews, had developed a particular cultural and political outlook that united them. (5) The boundaries of who was considered a member of this community involved both exclusionary and inclusionary practices. While my personal history is south of the border, and as Tulchinsky points out the Canadian experience is distinctive, there are many similarities. (6) I use interviews, archival materials, and a literature review to explore this community, focussing on the 1920s to the 1 950s. Several themes emerge: Jewish identity as a contested terrain; the formation of a non-religious, socialist, Jewish identity at odds with a Judaism defined by religious practice; why people were attracted to this community or the rich personal and cultural opportunitie s created through these bonds with other left wing Jews; a history emphasizing the shules, the camp, and the chorus as examples of the cultural life; and finally factors leading to the decline of this milieu and some comments on its legacy. …

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