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Morris U. Schappes, 1907-2004

Lawrence Bush
June 7, 2004

by Lawrence Bush
MORRIS U. SCHAPPES, WHO EDITED and maintained the life of this magazine from 1958 until 2000, died in his Manhattan home on June 3rd. He was 97 years old.
Morris served on the editorial board when Jewish Currents was Jewish Life, a magazine sponsored by the Communist Party for the first dozen years of its life. In 1958, as the magazine’s subscription base was falling away in response to Nikita Khrushchev’s “secret” speech (1956) about the crimes of Stalinism and mass disillusionment among Communist rank-and-filers, Schappes became editor of the renamed Jewish Currents and steadily steered the magazine and its readers towards independent political thinking.
Within a decade, Jewish Currents had firmly split with its former sponsor by supporting Israel in the Six Day War and opposing both the subsequent anti-Semitic campaign in Poland and the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.
For the next thirty-plus years, Schappes carefully monitored and reported on anti-Semitism in the Soviet bloc, developed a “pro-Israel, non-Zionist” perspective on Israel’s struggles with its Arab neighbors, and steadily developed his own vision of progressive, democratic political transformation in the U.S. In 1979, Jewish Currents began to co-sponsor (with Yiddishe Kulturand the Morgn Freiheit) an annual public observance of the August 12th, 1952 murder of Jewish writers and cultural figures by the Soviet regime — the first such event in the American Jewish community.

July-August 2004 CoverAS A SELF-TAUGHT AMERICAN JEWISH HISTORIAN, Morris wrote two major works of scholarship, A Documentary History of the Jews in the United States, 1654-1875 (1950) and The Jews in the United States: A Pictorial History (1958). He also developed a unique expertise about the American Jewish poet, Emma Lazarus, whose poems, prose and letters he presented in two books. Morris consistently brought his love of Jewish history to Jewish Currents, which remains singular among non-academic Jewish journals in its attention to historical matters.
In his column, “The Editor’s Diary,” Morris developed a very intimate journalistic voice in which he reported on books, plays, films and events in the progressive Jewish movement and engaged in several noteworthy controversies, including a spirited historical defense of American Jewish responses to the Holocaust and several fascinating commentaries about solidarity and tensions between American Jews and African Americans. Morris also wrote with great authority about Shakespeare’s play, The Merchant of Venice, each time a staging of it came to public notice.

IN 1941, SCHAPPES was among 40 teachers fired from the City University system for their political beliefs. Summoned before the Rapp-Coudert Committee, he refused to become an informer and served more than 13 months in prison (Sing Sing, Dannemora, and Wallkill). “Forty years later but not too late” is how he described the apology that the City University proffered in 1981 to Morris and other victims of this purge.
Writing in 1982 about his time in prison in the 1940s, Morris described his determination, “as a way of fighting the system, to make the most of my time there, because if there is anything I hate it is to waste time — our most precious possession.” Indeed, it was in prison where he began, in earnest, his studies in American Jewish history through books sent to him by Rabbi Ben Goldstein (1902-1953), who “from his pulpit in Alabama,” Morris wrote,

had dared to support the Scottsboro Case... It is not true that ‘walls do not a prison make,’ because they do. But it is what can be done behind those walls that is significant. I did what I could — facilitated by Sonya, family, and a movement continually concerned, and in a society sufficiently democratic so that the concern could be made manifest.

Morris continued:

I had valued democracy, democratic rights, before I was imprisoned. I was one of those who took almost literally Lenin’s hyperbolic cry that ‘Socialist democracy is a thousand times more democratic than bourgeois democracy.’ I believed it as a True Believer. So not a thousand; let it be a hundred, or ten times. That it could turn out in practice to be less democratic than bourgeois democracy in countries calling themselves socialist... was an experience that came late and sadly. If my vision of socialism now stresses democratic rights, forms and institutions as the essence of socialism, my prison experience laid a basis for a perception that was slowly, slowly, to mature.

Morris U. Schappes embodied an amazing combination of stubbornness and open-mindedness, historical consciousness, and future vision. His dedication to this magazine was fierce and sacrificial, and he cultivated tremendous enthusiasm and loyalty among its readers by dint of his honesty, his analytical powers, and his consistent dedication to progressive ideals.
The Jewish Currents Editorial Board and Management Committee are planning a public memorial for the autumn. Details will be announced. Memorial ads will appear in our September-October issue. Donations in his memory will be gratefully accepted by our magazine — which was the singular focus of his life for more than four decades.

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.