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Annette T. Rubinstein and Progressive Secular Jewishness

Gerald Meyer
March 3, 2017

by Gerald Meyer

For information about a forum on Saturday, March 4 at the Vito Marcantonio Forum in New York, "Beloved Comrades: The Political and Personal Partnership of Annette T. Rubinstein and Vito Marcantonio," with Gerald Meyer and Stephen Siciliano, click here.

ANNETTE T. RUBINSTEIN, teacher, writer, and political activist, spent her entire life on the left. Progressive secular Jewish identity motivated and influenced her political and life choices.

The eldest of four children, Annette was born on April 12, 1910 to parents who were second-generation Lower East Side Jews and shared a fervent belief in education and socialism. Her mother earned a teaching degree from Hunter College; her near-genius father had graduated from City College, prospered in business, then lost nearly everything just prior to the Great Depression.

At 24, Annette graduated from Columbia University with a Ph.D. in philosophy. Her dissertation, Realist Ethics, was published by Beacon Press in 1934. Due to the combined forces of the Great Depression and antisemitism, Annette was unable to secure a college appointment. Her father pooled the family’s remaining resources and purchased a foreclosed private school, Roberto Louis Stenson, located on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, in part to give a decent job to his remarkable daughter, who was working as a case worker for the Division of Home Relief. The school, which Annette led as principal, also provided work for other members of Rubinstein family, and its uppermost floor provided the family with housing.

Horrified by the degree of human misery she had witnessed as a case worker (in one year, two fathers among her caseload had committed suicide), Annette was attracted to the only organization that she saw to be effective fighting for the oppressed and against fascism, that is, the Communist Party. After joining, Annette became an important figure in its political, cultural, and educational efforts: organizing unemployment councils, supporting the Spanish Republic, lecturing to community groups, teaching in the Jefferson School for Social Science. She became an important figure in the American Labor Party (ALP) and ran on its slate for four political offices: state senator (twice), state assemblywoman, and Congresswoman — all from districts on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where she lived her entire adult life. In a special election in 1949, Annette ran an uneven race against Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Jr., that attracted national attention. In 1958, she also ran as lieutenant governor on the Independent Socialist Party slate, on a platform calling for admission of China to the United Nations, independence for Puerto Rico, and the end of hostilities with the Soviet Union. This action represented a public break with the Communist Party, which she had left in 1953 in support of Vito Marcantonio’s opposition to the Party’s abandonment of the ALP.

In 1952, McCarthyism's witchhunters took away Annette’s position as founding principal of the Robert Louis Stevenson School. Employers would not return her applications for even routine work. On three separate occasions, Annette was called before Congressional committees. Compounding the difficulties of her situation, Annette’s mother, with whom she lived until Jean died, also lost her job as a teacher at Robert Louis Stevenson.

Annette increasingly turned to writing for her livelihood. In 1956, the Vito Marcantonio Memorial Committee published I Vote My Conscience: Debates, Speeches, and Writings of [Congressman] Vito Marcantonio, Annettte's seminal work for anyone interested in learning about that great figure of the American Left. Her major intellectual interest was literature, about which she wrote from a Marxist perspective. Her nearly one-thousand-page Great Tradition in English Literature: From Shakespeare to Shaw (1953) is a neglected masterpiece. Monthly Review Press has distributed the American Literature: Root and Branch: Significant Poets, Novelists, and Dramatists, 1775 to 1955 (1988), an equally monumental and compendious volume, which was published in very large printings in China, where Annette had taught. Veritably blacklisted in the United States, these volumes and other of her work, which went unreviewed and largely unread in America, were widely read and valued in the Soviet Union and other socialist countries.

ANNETTE INHERITED her mother Jean’s life-long dedication to the secular Jewish tradition. Like so many others of her and subsequent generations, Jean had found the Jewish religion — with its rituals, dietary codes, separation from other people, subordination of women — unacceptable. Paradoxically, the bridge between the Orthodox Judaism of her childhood and socialism proved to be very short, and Jean crossed it irrevocably, and succeeded in bringing all four of her children with her. Indeed, the universalization of the prophetic, messianic tradition of Judaism, the promise of the Jewish people’s redemption and the ethical injunctions upon the Jewish people to act justly towards one another, led masses of working-class and middle-class Jews directly into one or another form of socialism.

This did not mean abjuring Judaism, but rather developing a Jewish identity based on Jewish culture and history. Annette embraced her mother’s ethos. Her connection to secular Jewishness was to its most distinctly leftwing version. This included opposition to Zionism's argument that all Jews should resettle in Israel and that Israel is the homeland of all the Jews, yet sympathy for the State of Israel and interest in its well-being. Her most compelling expression of this came in the piece she co-authored with Morton Stavis of the Center for Constitutional Rights, "An Open Letter to Our Friends Who Support the PLO," published in Jewish Currents in March, 1980, which made a courageous argument for the Palestinian Liberation Organization to match the Israeli peace movement by encouraging mutual recognition and a two-state solution.

Obliquely, Annette alluded to the limitations of transmitting this type of Judaism to the next generation. In an article written when she was 38, she spoke of the feasibility of “purposely giving our children a knowledge of Jewish achievements from Maimonides to the Warsaw Ghetto so that they may have a positive content for the world 'Jew.'" She cautioned, however, that “it is quite another thing to believe that we can deliberately recreate a culture destroyed for us by the interruption of oral tradition and the discontinuity of the older way of life. Historically, secular Judaism was associated with efforts to preserve and further develop the use of the Yiddish language and its distinct culture." Here Annette took issue with the Yiddishists, a once large group among secular Judaism, who believed that this branch of Judaism could be preserved by transmitting the use of Yiddish and a culture in that language.

Jewish Currents, the publication most closely identified with the progressive secular Jewish movement, was a major venue for Annette’s prolific pen: Annette contributed forty-four articles and reviews to Jewish Currents, and its predecessor, Jewish Life. Her writings in Jewish Currents amply and eloquently mapped her commitment to a Judaism based on a pride in the Jewish people’s contributions to humanity and their endurance in the face of barbarous hatred.

Her first important publication was a four-page review, “Twenty-Five Years of the Jewish American Novel,” published in 1948 in Jewish Life, which conveyed some sense of the breadth and intelligence of the cascade of her subsequent work. This essay revealed her approach to her Jewish identity. Annette accused two second-generation Jewish novelists, Jerome Weidman of I Can Get It for You Wholesale and Budd Schulberg of What Makes Sammy Run, of “having turned a half-truth into a whole lie.” Their characters, Annette insisted, lost the warmth and solidarity of their parents, and neither learned their values nor developed new ones. In these, and other novels she later critiqued, she noted, “Being Jewish with no positive cultural content means being self-conscious and self-embittered in a way unknown before.” Consequently, Weidman and Schulberg gave the reader the "destructive immorality of the self-made business-is-business man as a picture of the Jew on the make — whether in Hollywood or the clothing industry.” In short, they ascribed to Jews character traits, such as engaging in cut-throat competition, as peculiarly Jewish, when they were, quite simply, part and parcel of the culture of capitalism. In this way, these novels, which could have offered critiques of capitalism instead expressed calumnies against the Jewish people.

Annette contrasted the approach of Weidman and Schulberg with a group of earlier Jewish writers whose fictionalized biographies approached the Jewish experience in a humanistic manner. Among other novels that gave a realistic portrayal of Jewish social reality, Annette included Abraham Cahan’s The Rise of David Levinsky (1917), Anzia Yezierska’s Bread Givers (1925), and from her perspective the epitome of this approach, Michael Gold’s Jews without Money (1930). Especially in Gold’s work, Annette noted, “No matter how plundered, beaten, and despoiled” life in the Jewish Lower East Side was, Gold never “loses sight of the potentialities of humanity.” She recognized that the contemporary Jewish novelist was at that moment decades away from the immigrant experience, yet she believed that an imaginative analytical investigation into Jewish-American reality on the part of Jewish-American writers would “find literary expression in the most important contemporary art form, the novel.”

Her last published article, which appeared in Jewish Currents’ May-June 2005 issue, was a review of The Bielski Brothers, which chronicles the bravery and ingenuity of a group of more than one thousand “Forest Jews” who escaped annihilation during the Holocaust by creating and defending a community of refugees deep inside the forests of Poland. There they had recreated a shtetl of over 1,200 men, women, and children, complete with a communal kitchen, medical facilities, two ritual butchers, and two schools. When the Red Army reached them, one-third of the fighting men joined their liberators in the fight to eradicate fascism. The story of the Belski brothers was the kind of story of the Jews that Annette was most comfortable with, that is, the Jews as brave fighters against fascism who ultimately joined forces with communism.

In 1995, when Carol Jochnowitz, who had been associated with the magazine since 1972, spoke of Annette’s involvement with Jewish Currents she emphasized that while Annette was “chronologically the eldest member of the magazine’s inner circle of counselors and supporters. . . . Her acute intelligence, her graceful writing style, her capacity to listen, her self-possession, her literary insight, her wonder at the world’s capacity for both wisdom and folly -- all of these are honed by her idealism in cool deliberation.” After acknowledging Annette’s hospitality for the magazine’s Editorial Advisory Council (of which she has been a member since 1974) and her service as the mistress of ceremony at its annual luncheon, Jochnowitz closed by noting that “the greatest gift is herself: uncompromising, un-anything standards of honesty and justice. Annette sees the truth and speaks it—in complete sentences.”

While Annette T. Rubinstein continually wrote articles and reviews for the Science & Society: A Journal of Marxist Theory and Analysis, Mainstream (the successor of The Masses), and Monthly Review: An Independent Socialist Magazine, as well as taught two or three course per year for the now defunct Brecht Forum, she gave equal importance to Jewish Currents.

Gerald Meyer is author of Vito Marcantonio: Radical Politician, 1902-1954 (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1989), and is co-chair of the Vito Marcantonio Forum, an organization devoted to his life and world.