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A Broken Yiddish, a Better World: Activism as Inheritance

Molly Jackson
June 16, 2015

Part 3: Mir Zaynen Do (We Are Here)

by Molly Jackson

To read Part One, click here. To read Part Two, click here.

[caption id=“attachment_37309” align=“alignright” width=“252”]Pauline Katz Pauline Katz[/caption]

WHEN I FIRST STEP into the Boston Workmen’s Circle’s main building, an ivy-covered brick residence along Beacon Street that has let its former elegance give way to the comfortable, productive chaos of its members’ lives, the unity of history and progress, tradition and innovation is immediately apparent. The building retains its burnished walnut woodwork and a sweeping central staircase, but has largely let go of its grandeur for the practicalities of running a children’s shule. Linoleum floors, room dividers, and easily movable pint-sized furniture have been installed; children’s art dots the walls, brightening what was once a stuffy parlor, now taken up by kindergarten chairs and a table that bears the crayon marks of inexpert colorers — the same space where the executive board now meets. “That building was my playground. I loved every inch of that building,” Pauline has told me, and I can tell that it has been well-loved by many more, although few know it as intimately as she does.

An announcement table in the foyer greets visitors with a silent but unmistakable declaration of the organization’s beliefs: flyers for an upcoming talk on the Nakba, the Arabic word for Palestinians’ suffering when Israel was created; A Besere Velt CDs for sale; and numerous resources for gay and transsexual members: all signs of the Workmen’s Circle’s inclusivity.

What most catches my eye is a massive fireplace stretching the length of the foyer, crowned by an equally impressive mirror. Two objects take pride of place atop it. The first is a triple-length photograph in black and white: Members, circa 1920, stand formally on the lawn, dressed up in summer-weight suits, hats, and ladies’ white linens despite the Boston humidity. The second is an engraved plate from the Islamic Society of Boston, giving thanks for the Workmen’s Circle’s “dialogue, understanding and hard work.” One Workmen’s Circle member had told me earlier that the organization was a rare public voice of support for the Islamic Society when its plans to build a Cultural Center came under attack from other Jewish groups and even mainstream media, beginning in 2004 — charges she calls “disgraceful.”

Pauline’s great-grandfather, a prominent Yiddish journalist, Moishe Katz, actually tried to find a Jewish homeland long before the founding of Israel: He was tasked with locating a region for Soviet Jews, what eventually became the Jewish Autonomous Oblast, Birobidjan. In Moishe Katz’s era, Jewish activism was a matter of self-defense: His memoir, The Generation that Lost its Fear, describes the terror of pogroms and the tendency of tsarist officials to look the other way, until young Jews organized and announced that next time they would be armed.

Progressive Jews have shifted their vision of tikkun olam since then, to the global labor movement, immigrants’ struggles in America, and issues of racism, gender, and human rights both within and beyond the Jewish world. This transition from literally fighting for survival to fighting for universal justice connects to a complicated dialogue about the extent to which American secular Jews are still ‘different,’ or even ‘Jewish,’ without obvious markers like language or religious observance. Pauline says,

I’ve grown up in a time when if I don’t tell someone I’m Jewish, they won’t know I am. You don’t know that I’m different. I can hide with my “white backpack.” ... I’m still an accepted part of the “normal” culture, until I start doing things like speak Yiddish! Then I’m not so ‘normal’ anymore.... I checked “other” on my standardized tests because I’m not white. I’m definitely not white; I’m Jewish. White people are the people who were oppressing people in the South. Jews were the ones who went and helped desegregate the South. That was the narrative that I grew up on.... I didn’t associate with white for many years.

Pauline’s assertions about her identity, and her understanding of the civil rights movement, reference a history of progressive Jews uniting with African-American social-justice activists: activities that sometimes branded them as countercultural, or led to harassment. Many progressive Jews faced particular scrutiny during the McCarthy era, given their movement’s ties to Socialism and Communism. Pauline’s father Mike remembers with glee one instructor at his beloved Jewish summer camp, Camp Kinderland, an “Isadora Duncan-type” dancer who was hauled in front of a New York investigating committee and asked exactly what she was teaching. She “got up and danced and was thrown in jail for contempt of the committee. And it was true, she had contempt for the committee!” He shrugs happily. Growing up in that environment, he says, his “role models” were “these amazing people who really lived life to make a better world.” Paul Robeson, the famous African American baritone who took part in the Civil Rights movement, came under almost-literal fire for his pro-Communist, pro-civil rights views during the nearby Peekskill Riots of 1949; he was protected by, among others, friends of Kinderland.

Mike has first-hand memories of the civil rights movement, as well. At age 8, he accompanied his parents to the 1963 March on Washington to hear Martin Luther King, Jr. It was an inspirational but sobering day: “First of all, on the march, they said women and children on the inside, and everyone take off your earrings and necklaces and anything else.” He points out that the marchers’ linked arms were not only a symbolic gesture, but practical protection. But once King began to speak, Mike and the thousands of other protestors, clumped around transistor radios to hear him clearly, began “sort of swaying and breathing with King;” there was “just this incredible sense of community and strength at a very scary time in America.” Five years later, with the cautionary words “if you see tear gas, go the other way,” he and a friend traveled to the anti-Vietnam War March on the Pentagon, just after their untraditional bar mitzvahs at age thirteen. (Mike’s bar mitzvah speech, in fact, had considered the ethics of the Vietnam War.)

Ultimately, for Mike, the culture and meaning of Yiddishkayt cannot be separated from his politics and values. “Can you be progressive without being Jewish? Of course. Can you be Jewish without being progressive? Unfortunately, yes, when you look at the world today. Can I be Jewish without being progressive? No. Can I be progressive without being a Jew? No.”

THE WORKMEN’S CIRCLE has served a similarly vital role in Pauline’s political awakening and activism, although perhaps “awakening” is exactly the wrong word to use, since she was surrounded by it from day one. Similarly, fostering interest in the world around them, and making activism second nature, is a main goal of Pauline’s for her shule students, whose class discussion ranged from Islamophobia to sweatshop conditions to the death penalty. (By fifth grade, they will be organizing their own protests; third graders settle for attending them.) In contrast to her apolitical friends from school, Pauline’s Workmen’s Circle peers were eager to get involved: boycotting the MCAS standardized tests, protesting the anti-union policies at the local Shaws supermarket, and always keeping up a lively discussion that continues, both online and in “real life,” to this day.

During the first protests after the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, for instance, “my Facebook was blowing up with everybody talking about where people are being arrested,” said Pauline, “and how you can help them and here’s information on what to do if you’re tear gassed.... It was modeled for us at shule.”

Yet for Pauline more than her parents, the Workmen’s Circle is also a source of spiritual strength. Religion, no. She repeats a joke from the former head of shule, a professor interested in secular Jewish education: “You know, on one thing all Jews are agreed: that there is, at most, one God!” But recently, some members have expressed more interest in the religious side of their heritage, sparking, yet again, new conversations about the organization’s rituals and purpose.

Pauline agrees that the Workmen’s Circle is a “spiritual” place for her, but quickly qualifies what she means:

I personally find spirituality in community.... I think spirituality is finding a comfort, finding a peace within yourself, and I have that when I’m singing with my community. I mean, I shep nakhes [find joy, pride] when I see my kids perform their Purim shpil [play]. You know, they worked so hard, watching them share it with everyone else... it’s the next generation. I’m doing the work of tikkun olam, repairing the world by instilling that desire in others.

As Pauline characterizes Yiddishist movements, “It’s a community that if you are willing to commit yourself, it will commit to you.... You’re showing an interest in this culture? Well, we’re going to give you every resource that you could possibly need to be a part of this culture. That’s why I think I commit as an adult.” As one of the least self-conscious, most appealingly sure-of-herself people of my age, she has a friendly independence, a shrugging attitude towards the beat of the popular drum, which I’m sure stems from the love she receives from Workmen’s Circle. In its members, she has countless “extra grandparents, uncles, aunts, friends, sisters.”

She can also locate her sense of progressive values in Jewish scripture, regardless of her atheism. “The idea is that we fight for an end to war, we fight for justice, we fight for those things. And when it comes, that will be the time of the Messiah.... I mean, why should we be repairing the world if the Messiah’s just going to come and repair it for us? That doesn’t make any sense. But there’s not a lot that’s passive about Jewish culture.”

Former shule leader Mitchell Silver’s 1998 book, Respecting the Wicked Child: A Philosophy of Secular Jewish Identity and Education, picks up a similar thread:

The central Jewish drama is not about whether this individual is saved or that individual becomes enlightened, it is about the redemption of the entire Jewish community. There is no hint of “every man for himself” in this theology, no worrying about the fate of your own soul as opposed to that of the communal soul.

From the early 20th century onwards, progressive Jewish centers like the Workmen’s Circle have made clear that the “communal soul” extends far beyond the Jewish community alone. “A life, just like a word or phrase, is meaningful to the extent that it is significantly connected to things beyond itself,” writes Silver, without regard for religious barriers. Perhaps the Katz family would feel that this is also true of Yiddish itself. As a means of communication, it is replaceable, but as the thread of Jewish culture of the past millennium, the thread of resistance and stubbornness and reinvention, it is not.

During a 1949 concert tour of the Soviet Union, Paul Robeson stunned the audience, Jews and non-Jews alike, by singing “Zog Nit Keynmol,” the Jewish partisan anthem written by Hirsh Glik in the Vilna Ghetto. Pauline mentions the song during one of our interviews: It’s “pretty much, screw you, Nazis, we are here. You did not kill us. We are here.” She pauses, and fiercely, if quietly, sings in translation: “And if the time is long before the sun appears, let this song go like a signal through the years.... Our step beats out a message: we are here.’”

Similarly: “Lyber would hate my quoting Torah about him, but hineni, ‘Here I am,’ would be the Biblical phrase most fitting for him. Being present, always, was his great talent,” wrote Jewish Currents editor Lawrence Bush in memory of Pauline’s grandfather Lyber Katz, Mike’s father and the son of Moishe Katz. Bush called Lyber, who passed away in 2014, “the iron man of the Jewish left.”

“GIDEON. JACOB.” Pauline stands at the head of a gray, crayon-strewn table, dressed in a favorite Camp Kinderland sweatshirt. Minutes before, this energetic young woman was leading a frantic game of “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” — “Kop, Akslen, Kni, un Fis” — which left all of us, particularly me, in breathless laughter. But some gimls have been taking the merriment too far today, looking high and low for an excuse to shout out or make faces across the table, and a serious expression has replaced Pauline’s usual smile. She looks at the giml class, all seven of them. “I am not very happy with the way we’re treating each other, or the way that we’re treating me.” Most of them look a bit cowed, stop pestering their neighbors, and stare down at their snowboots — comically large around their matchstick legs on this chilly March day, the last punch of Boston’s “Snowpocalypse” winter.

Although her reprimand is not harsh, it is taken seriously in a place like the Workmen’s Circle, where children are constantly encouraged to think of others, whether classmates or the world outside. The cozy kindergarten classroom downstairs is covered with students’ art about mitsves, good deeds. Although it takes me a while to find words among the enthusiastic swirls of crayon, I see that the children have dictated examples to a more experienced hand: “giving water to someone who is tired,” for example.

By the time they make their way to Pauline’s class, students are ready to look at mitsves in a wider way: social justice, past and present. Today, class begins by reviewing what they learned last time about pogrom massacres in the Pale of Settlement, the territories to which Russian Jews were restricted in the 19th century. Pauline’s deep, frank voice speaks clearly and just slowly enough as they discuss frightening topics. “The reasons they would attack Jews was because they were different,” she emphasizes. Affirming a concerned student’s response, she repeats, “But yes, you’re right. People are people.”

She brings the conversation forward: “But who might people be afraid of today, and attack?” “Muslims?” one child suggests. “Aren’t the Muslims attacking us right now?” another counters, prompting Pauline to talk about how the media often doesn’t tell the full story. “What’s the word we use when that happens?” she asks. “STEREOTYPE!” several shout. Finally agreeing that Muslims are “just like any other people” who love America (a surprisingly patriotic touch), the conversation continues on to capital punishment: What is it? Where is it legal? Why is it in the news today? (Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s trial is drawing to a close.) Their knowledge and frankness are equally disarming, and I wish I could peer ten, twenty years hence, to see the impact of these biweekly conversations. Will they remember? Will they be shaped? Will they act? What will this next generation make of such a passionate education — if they agree to be the next generation? They may agree, they may rebel, and they may do both at once.

After snack, they revisit the sweatshop conditions many of their great-grandparents toiled in. Pauline passes out black and white photographs of immigrant workers — shirtwaist seamstresses, factory hands— and asks her gimls to write down how they think the workers felt. “Wouldn’t they start getting angry at each other?” Joshua asks. “They’re cramped, like sardines.”

Little do they know what Pauline has planned for next month: Sweatshop Day, when the kids are put to work writing their Hebrew or Yiddish names as many times as possible under increasingly difficult conditions: Neater! Faster! No talking! No chairs! Both hands at once!

Grumbling gives way to yelling and threatening: “This isn’t fair!” “We’re going on strike!” “I’m gonna protest!” But Pauline was prepared to “kick it up a notch”: “Listen, there are alefs and beys [first and second graders] downstairs who would love your snack.” A parent assistant helpfully chimed in, “I’ll do this, I totally want a bagel!”

At this new threat, only a few continue to rebel. Pauline pulls them out into the hallway, ecstatic about the budding protest she’d fomented, and asks, “What’s it going to take to get you guys to go back to work?” Their lackluster answer: “Well, you took our pencils.”

“It was a heartbreaking moment!” Pauline says, laughing practically through tears as we discuss the class afterwards. Eventually, however, the students managed to band together for a sit-down strike in the very chairs Pauline had earlier taken from them, and she switched modes: “I’m not Pauline the boss anymore, I’m Pauline the teacher. Let’s actually talk about this one.”

It’s not necessarily the shule class Pauline’s grandfather would have planned; perhaps it’s not the shule class Pauline’s own grandchildren might plan one day. As interviewees mentioned over and over, the Workmen’s Circle, like Judaism itself, has a knack for reinvention, and the older generation tries to be “gracious” about bowing to younger ones’ “different needs as Jews.”

WHAT WILL NOT CHANGE, they hope, is the importance of doikayt: here-ness. In his interview with the National Yiddish Book Center, Pauline’s grandfather, Lyber, tends to make his leadership accomplishments sound like an accident, humbly, humorously insinuating that he just happened to be there when votes were taken. “I can’t help it, I get involved!” he protests. (To see Lyber Katz reflecting on his experiences during the McCarthy period, look below.)

[caption id=“attachment_37310” align=“alignleft” width=“209”]Pauline's parents, Linda Gritz and Michael Katz Pauline’s parents, Linda Gritz and Michael Katz[/caption]

A generation later, Mike found himself in the same pattern of one-thing-led-to-another: the Katz’s Yiddish vinkls attracted the attention of the Boston Workmen’s Circle, where he and Susan helped launch programming for younger adults. (At the time, most of the organization’s leaders were retirees.) Mike entered his first Workmen’s Circle meeting not yet a member, yet by the time he left, he was treasurer; several years later, he and his wife were founding members of the Yiddish chorus, A Besere Velt. “If you want to make it a besere velt, a more beautiful and better world, work at it,” Mike emphasizes. “Is it easy? Sometimes, no. But is it important, the only way I know how to live? Yes. And I learned it from my parents.” (To see Mike talking about his entry into the Workmen’s Circle despite the schisms of the Jewish left, look below.)

Doikayt can be a political concept, affirming the richness of Jewish life in the diaspora in contrast to the ‘there-ness’ of the Promised Land. But when I bring it up to Pauline, she feels that it also has resonance in her daily life: “To be here, you’re sitting here, fine. But you’re not here unless you’re participating. You’re not here unless you are lending your voice, lending your hands, lending your ability” to make “an American Jewry that I can be comfortable with.”

Will Yiddish be part of that future — even a tsebrokhene [broken] yidish? Will Pauline’s children sing “Mir zaynen do,” or “We are here”? Yiddish is home to a nest of contradictions: Old World nostalgia and radical ideology; ultra-Orthodoxy and atheism; tradition and imagination. Will the details of a besere velt, changing generation by generation even as glimmers of a common vision slowly come into focus, still be associated with that phrase, a besere velt?

My binary outlook seems to somewhat amuse Pauline: “The rethinkings and recreations of the old stuff is now coming out in a new way,” she says, “which is so... traditional!” The conflicts, for her, are vibrant and even definitive: “You need to know what it is that you’re celebrating. And what it is that you’re fighting for,” Pauline says — as she models the use of a living past, and the dream of a more livable future, to ground her presence here.

Molly Jackson studies education and religion at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Before returning to her adopted home of Massachusetts, she taught literature and composition in Hong Kong for several years.