Reading Lizzy Ratner’s moving account of her visit to the old country prompts me to write.
One key point I felt was overlooked was the impact of Communism. It was Stalin more than anyone who stood in the way of allowing the surviving Jews of Europe to cast down their buckets, and thus it is indeed telling that he was the earliest endorser at the war’s outset of a Jewish state in Palestine. It is also worth noting in this context that the old country became the site of the greatest bloodbath in the history of mankind: the clash of the Red Army and the Wehrmacht.
Of course the Zionist obstruction of a Jewish recovery in Europe was a major force as well. Indeed, the much-storied Warsaw Ghetto uprising was effectively the last stand of the Jews who rejected Zionism in favor of an emancipated future in Europe. And the journalist most responsible for telling their story to the world, William Zukerman, was emphatic on this point.
If there is anyone in whose footsteps Phil Weiss is following, it is William Zukerman. After the founding of the State of Israel, the veteran Yiddish journalist wrote and published the Jewish Newsletter to keep alive the anti-Zionist tradition of the Yiddish-speaking socialist community until his death in 1961. Though apparently remaining an atheist in keeping with this tradition, Zukerman nonetheless cast his lot with the Reform Rabbis of the American Council for Judaism, acknowledging them as "the party of opposition in American Jewry." Significantly, the President of the ACJ, Lessing Rosenwald, distinguished himself as the leading voice in the wilderness urging the rescue and revival of European Jewry against the obstructionist aims of the Zionists.
In an odd way, recently writing on the history of the ACJ has brought me home to der alte yiddishkeit after I had become convinced that its history was totally the province of the left-neocons of The Forward. The history of that publication in this controversy is indeed a long and old one. The founding editor of The Forward, Abraham Cahan, began to lean pro-Zionist with a polemic in 1925 and, coupled with his zeal for the New Deal against Socialist dissenters, basically set the tone for today by World War II.
As Zukerman said of Cahan, "Like a powerful oak, he required all the space for himself and almost instinctively smothered all the smaller plants around him." In the 1950s The Forward attacked both the Workmen’s Circle and the venerated Norman Thomas when they began to speak out on behalf of the Palestinians. The English edition, which only began to be published in 1990, was established by the group that later gave us the New York Sun.
Thus it was an amazing revelation to me to discover not only the history of the Jewish Newsletter and the distinguished list of Jewish labor and socialist veterans on its masthead, but to learn how treacherous has been the claim to the history of that whole milieu by The Forward and its allies. On the eve of World War II, the Jewish Labor Committee was joined at the hip with the American Jewish Committee in resisting the Zionist takeover of American Jewish philanthropy under the cover of crisis and was if anything more militant. The revered founder of the Jewish Labor Committee, Adolph Held, was a loyal supporter of Zukerman while the organization itself remained divided until the ’67 euphoria.
Nevertheless, traces yet remain. Current JLC Communications Director Arieh Leibowitz is a supporter of B’Tselem.
According to the memoirs of Rabbi Elmer Berger, he and Lessing Rosenwald personally appealed to the Jewish labor icon David Dubinsky to lend them his support. He confided his sympathies to them but feared a backlash of his membership should he become vocal as an anti-Zionist. But Zukerman still saw fit to praise Dubinsky on the occasion of his 60th birthday: "In short, Dubinsky’s labor leadership was fundamentally a leadership in Americanization more than in economic advancement and in improvement of living conditions. Through the powerful instrument of a great Trade Union he led his people from a glamorized East European cultural background to a realistic American way of life."
This here is the key to understanding whatever future we might create for der alte yiddishkeit. As in all other segments of American Jewry, assimilation anxiety is what propelled them to embrace Zionism, and despite the obvious contradiction, it was no less compelling for those who cherished Yiddish. At the peak of my despair for the tragedy of Jewish socialism I was perpared to argue that it amounted to a species of national socialism, and for many indeed it was not even this but just banal parochial nationalism.
But as its best flowerings in America proved, it has really always been assimilation by other means. The Yiddish Renaissance and the Bund only emerged as a counter-reaction to the rise of modern Hebrew as the intellectual vanguard language – instead of Russian – when enlightenment ever so briefly came there in the wake of the partition of Poland. If, as Murray Rothbard argued, socialism was the seeking of liberal ends by conservative means, Jewish socialism emerged with the conservative means of Yiddish culture because the means employed by emancipationist Jews in Germany were simply unworkable in Russia, but the ends remained the same.
All that changed in America, of course, and that is why, ultimately, however much we should cry for the beloved country, we must appreciate der alte yiddishkeit in a rich American context all its own. As the post-Zionists say of Zionism, Jewish socialism was a beautiful and honorable movement of the past with simply no relevance to the modern world.
Committed though I am to progressive Judaism, der alte yiddishkeit ineluctably informs that commitment. Ever since I was a child I’ve always found yarmulkes to be extremely tacky, and so I always wear a driving hat to shul as though I’m wandering from shtetl to shtetl – and a bowler on the High Holidays. I always insist on saying Good Shabbos at shul, which feels real and resonates deeply, and cringe whenever I’m greeted with a woefullly inauthentic Shabbat Shalom. And I am committed to sending any offspring I ever have to the Workmen’s Circle summer camp in Duchess County.
Renew our days.