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In Memoriam: Henry Foner

Bennett Muraskin
January 31, 2017

by Bennett Muraskin

HENRY FONER (March 23, 1919—January 11, 2017), the last of the four activist Foner brothers -- all heroes to Jewish Currents readers and other progressives -- has left us at age 97. His loss will be felt deeply by JC: He was the eldest member of the magazine’s Editorial Board and a contributor our pages. (His delightful Songs and Poems (For Better or Verse), published in 2013, is available from the JC Pushcart.) No one who met Henry can forget his warmth and sense of humor, despite hardship and tragedy that dogged his life and cost him family members.

He lived in Brooklyn his entire life. Like his brothers, he became a communist at an early age. As a student at City College he joined the radical American Students Union. And like his brothers, he was a victim of a purge of educators with communist affiliations carried out in 1941 in New York state. Henry was denied a teacher’s license, while his brothers were fired from City College, where Phil and Jack worked a professors and Moe worked as a registrar. (Morris U. Schappes was among those at City College who lost their jobs. He was convicted of perjury for refusing to name names and served over a year in state prison before becoming the longtime editor of our magazine.)

Henry volunteered for the U.S. Army during World War II, serving for four years, including combat in Europe, which earned him military honors. Returning home in 1946, he worked two years as a high school substitute teacher in stenography and typewriting before his older brother Phil helped him land a job as director of welfare and education with the leftwing Fur, Leather and Machine Workers Union. In 1958, Henry engineered a merger with the Amalgamated Meatcutters Union, which insured the union’s viability. In 1961, he became president of the FLMWU and remained at the helm until his retirement in 1988. During the Vietnam War, he led efforts to steer the labor movement in an anti-war direction. I recall working on an unfair labor practice case with Henry when I was employed by the National Labor Relations Board in Newark, NJ during the 1980s.

As a teenager, Henry collected jokes for his brothers Phil and Jack, who worked at musicians in the Catskills resort hotels. Apparently, they were also expected to amuse the audience. Eventually, he and his three brothers formed a band that played in the Catskills, both for general and leftwing audiences. They recommended comedian Sam Levenson for his first performance and worked with Zero Mostel and “Professor” Irwin Corey. Henry observed about the band that “someone said that we had the highest intellectual quotient and the lowest music quotient.” (See his funny, excellent memoir in Jewish Currents, “From the Bandstand: The Odyssey of a Catskill Resorts Musician.”)

Henry was a songwriter as well. His most memorable tune was “Shoot the Shtrudel to Me Yudel.” (Yudel Slutsky was the owner of the Foner brothers’ favorite hotel, the Arrowhead Lodge.) It appears in a popular book on the history of the Jewish Catskills edited by Phil Brown. You can hear Henry sing it on YouTube. The band broke up in 1948, but the Foners remained blacklisted from academia.

Henry had a theatrical flair. In 1947, he was recruited by his brother Moe to co-write a musical Thursdays Till Nine for a union of department store workers. While teaching stenography and typewriting, he regaled his students with “You are Just My Type.” Years later he became the co-director of Labor Arts, an organization founded in 2000 to collect and display works of art related to the history of work and working people. Labor Arts produced an exhibit “Play It Again Sam” featuring lesser-known songs of the labor and progressive movements of the 1940s. It includes seven written or co-written by Henry and credits Henry for providing the lyrics, photos and illustrations.

After his retirement from the union, Henry taught labor history and joined the board of New York Labor History Association, where he became editor of its newsletter. He had a special relationship with Paul Robeson that dated back to the great performer’s appearance at a Catskill resort operated by the Henry’s union back in 1949, where Henry introduced him. In 2009, Henry became president of the Paul Robeson Foundation and launched a campaign that led to the United States Postal Service releasing a stamp in Robeson’s honor. I recall a Congress of Secular Jewish Organization’s conference about a decade ago where both Henry and Paul Robeson Jr. were invited speakers. They warmly greeted each other and sat down for lunch together.

Henry was the uncle of Eric Foner, the prominent American historian of slavery and Reconstruction.

We honor his memory — and present, below, “You’re Just My Type,” as annotated by Henry.

Bennett Muraskin, a contributing writer for Jewish Currents, is author of The Association of Jewish Libraries Guide to Yiddish Short Stories, Let Justice Well Up Like Water: Progressive Jews from Hillel to Helen Suzman, and Humanist Readings in Jewish Folklore, among other books.

YOU’RE JUST MY TYPE by Henry Foner

While I was attending the Downtown branch of City College and in preparation for the regular teaching examination, I enrolled in a course that required that I become a teacher-in-training at one of the city’s high schools -- in this case, New Utrecht High School in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn. While there, I wrote this song, which, because of its more frivolous title,
came to be associated with me.

Verse: All day long, I sit at the keyboard.
I type and I type, but the whole thing has me bored.
The keys may be pounding, but the pounding that I hear
Is the beat of my heart whenever you are near.

Chorus: Anyone can see that my heart’s been indented.
The carriage may move, but my mind is all centered.
When I look at your face, my heart skips a space --
You’re just my type.

I start in to work, and suddenly you barge in.
My love for you, dear, has no bounds and no margin.
There’s no letter or key for what you do to me --
You’re just my type.

A - S - D - F - G - H --
I can even type it in capital.
But I know that I won’t be happy till
You say you’re mine --
Exclamation sign!

My fingers will play what my heart keeps a-singing.
At the end of each line, I hear wedding bells a-ringing.
Then I’ll make you the queen
Of my Royal machine --
You’re just my type --
Backspace --
You’re just my type.

* The Royal was a popular typewriter of the period.

Bennett Muraskin, a contributing writer for Jewish Currents, is author of The Association of Jewish Libraries Guide to Yiddish Short Stories, Let Justice Well Up Like Water: Progressive Jews from Hillel to Helen Suzman,and Humanist Readings in Jewish Folklore, among other books.