Last week JayRaye brought us a very powerful diary that used the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire as a point of embarkation. This week I’d like to takes into the world where that historically important tragedy happened. I want to focus on the American Jewish immigrant community from the late 1880s up to the beginning of WW I. It is a rich and vibrant chapter in American history.
Most of us have a rather vague awareness that there was once a fairly active socialist party in the US and that a man named Eugene V. Debs ran for president on its ticket. Somehow it got swallowed up in the various red scares and the words socialist and socialism became pejorative terms in the American political lexicon. Beyond that we know very little about the historical details. I recently read a most enjoyable book that got me interested in the history, particularly that which happened in the Jewish immigrant community. The book is How Jews Became White Folks: And What That Says About Race in America by Karen Brodkin. She provides an interesting overview of the history of Yiddish socialism from a feminist perspective. Finding it very interesting, I have been doing some more reading about it.
A Fire in Their Hearts: Yiddish Socialists in New York is a detailed political, social and intellectual history of various socialist movements in the Jewish immigrant community in the US at the turn of the 20th C. It focuses on New York which was the largest and dominant community. It is from this book that I got the term Yiddish socialism.
Socialism was essentially a movement brought to America by immigrant groups. It was the German, Finnish and Jewish communities who participated most actively in it. It had difficulty find places to take root in the rocky soil of the dominant WASP bourgeois culture. The descendants of the Puritans who shoved their way into New England in an effort to escape ideological conflicts had little sympathy for the later arrivals from central and eastern Europe who came for similar reasons.
The first socialists to arrive were German Social Democrats escaping Bismark’s repression that began in 1878. The waves of Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe fleeing Tsarist persecution began in the late 1880s. These were culturally a different group of people from the German Jewish immigrants who had arrived in the mid 19th century. They had become established and somewhat integrated into bourgeois American society. A number of the immigrants in this new wave had been active in radical political movements in Russia. They made contact with the German socialists in New York and began to incorporate their Marxist perspectives.
What I want to focus on here is the rich yeasty development of the Yiddish radical labor and political movements. The term Yiddish is employed because it ties it to a language and a culture that provided cohesion and momentum. By no means were all radicals at the dawn of the 20th C Jews, nor were all Jews radicals. Samuel Gompers who led the relatively more conservative American Federation of Labor was Jewish. However, centered in New York, there was a radical Yiddish socialist labor movement that developed organizations and institutions adapted to its purposes. It offers a very interesting piece of American history.
One of the most visible and enduring of these institutions was the socialist Yiddish language newspaper Forverts or The Jewish Daily Forward. Over 100 years after it founding in 1897, it is still being published today. It was the most widely read of a large number of Yiddish publications of a broad range of ideological perspectives that had highly variable life spans.
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