You are now entering the Jewish Currents archive.

Publications for Secular Jewish Kids: A History

Bennett Muraskin
December 2, 2016

by Bennett Muraskin

Discussed in this essay: Raising Secular Jews: Yiddish Schools and Their Periodicals for American Children, 1917-1950 by Naomi Prawer Kadar. Brandeis University Press, 2017, 282 pages.

READERS of Jewish Currents should already know something about the history of secular Jewish/Yiddish education in the U.S. from Barnett Zumoff’s review in Jewish Currents of Passionate Pioneers: The Story of Yiddish Secular Education in America, 1910-1960, an excellent survey of this subject written by Fraidle Pomerantz Friedenreich and published in 2010 to coincide with the centennial of the founding of the first secular Jewish school in New York City. It is unfortunate that the book under review, although published in 2016, was actually written a decade earlier and therefore, could not take advantage of the Friedenreich’s exhaustive research. Nevertheless, Naomi Prawer Kadar, who tragically died at age 61 in 2010, was an assiduous researcher herself. Her focus is much narrower: She zeroes in on one aspect of the secular Jewish education movement, the magazines it created for children in its schools. Although the book’s title, Raising Secular Jews is an inaccurate description, its subtitle, Yiddish Schools and Their Periodicals for Children, 1917-1950 is right on point. The question is whether this a viable subject for an entire study?

The book is the published version of Kadar’s Ph.D dissertation and is best described as a monograph, a detailed written study of a single specialized subject. Yiddish scholar David Roskies, her dissertation advisor, wrote the foreword.

Sounding too much like a doctoral student, Kadar uses relatively obscure words like “semiotics,” “chrestomathy,” “metonym,” “interiority” and “foreground.” Selected magazine articles and other features are subjected to intense literary criticism. An entire chapter is devoted to an analysis of the cover art of these magazines. The images are provided twice — once in black and white and again in color. My reaction was genug shoyn (enough already)!


Yet we do learn how seriously the four networks of Yiddish schools (Labor Zionist aka Farband, Sholem Aleichem Folk Institute (SAFI), Workmen’s Circle and the IWO/Jewish Peoples’ Fraternal Order) took their educational mission. They enlisted high-quality editors and outstanding illustrators, and elicited contributions from the luminaries of the Yiddish literary world. The magazines included short stories, poems, songs, biographical sketches of heroes, Jewish and Gentile, current events, holiday themes, translations from world literature, letters from young readers and fun activities including games, riddles and puzzles. The touchstones were Yiddish, social justice, internationalism, and solidarity with the persecuted Jews of Europe. Only the Farband schools were explicitly Zionist, but all supported the establishment of Israel in 1947-48.

It may seem counterintuitive, but Zionists were the first to establish secular Yiddish schools in the U.S., in 1910. Zionism is typically associated with Hebrew, but the Farband considered Yiddish and Hebrew to be equally important to the education of American Jewish children and sought to stem the assimilation of Jewish children. Although secular, it was not militantly so. Judaism as a religion was taught as a key component of Jewish culture. Later, in the 1940s, religion itself crept into the curriculum.

SOCIALIST TERRITORIALISTS, devoted exclusively to Yiddish and to finding land outside Palestine for autonomous Jewish settlements, split off around 1916 to start the Sholem Aleichem Folk Institute (SAFI), in honor of the recently deceased, celebrated Yiddish writer. The SAFI eschewed partisan politics and embraced Yiddish, but also progressive education pioneered by John Dewey and the promise of America. The Sabbath was celebrated in any entire secular humanistic spirit.

Two years later, the Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring committed itself to the cause, but not without controversy. During its first twenty years, its posture was more socialist and secular than Jewish. It took a lot of convincing for its militantly socialist members to embrace yidishkayt. The arrival of culturally-oriented Bundists from the tsarist empire may have tipped the scales. They were devoutly Yiddish and committed to social activism.

The last network was established by Jewish communists, who split from the Workmen’s Circle in 1926 to form the Non-Partisan Jewish Workers Children’s Schools, becoming the International Workers Order schools in 1930 and the Jewish Peoples Fraternal Order schools in 1944. Their use of the term “non-partisan” is mind-boggling, because the Jewish communists were fiercely loyal to the Soviet Union and to revolutionary politics. Their network’s pro-Soviet stance never changed, but over time, it expressed a greater appreciation of Jewish culture. Kadar gives extensive coverage to Itche Goldberg, the Yiddish pedagogue who edited the IWO children’s magazine Yungvarg (Young Stuff), and documents its efforts to promote labor solidarity, racial equality, and recognition of progressive figures in American history. At the same time, she shows that the magazine consistently depicted the Soviet Union as a worker’s paradise, turning a blind eye to its tyranny and its anti-Semitism. (For my own personal critique of secular shule curricula, click here.)

Such was the radical political atmosphere of the time that at its peak in the period between the mid-’30s ad mid-’40s, the Yiddish schools of the socialist Workmen’s Circle and the communist IWO were the largest, with the Farband in third place, and the truly non-partisan Sholem Aleichem schools a distant fourth. The Farband published a children’s magazine from 1917 to 1945; the Sholem Aleichem Folk Institute from 1920 to 1981; the Workmen’s Circle from 1921 to 1983; the IWO/JPFO from 1930 to 1954. While the others were fated to peter out, the IWO/JPFO magazine was forced out when the New York State government suppressed the IWO/JPFO for political reasons.

SINCE JEWISH RELIGIOUS practice, with its rituals and customs, were to be avoided, there were no systematic reproduction of readings from the Torah or the rest of the Jewish Bible. Links to Jewish tradition were provided through folklore -- for example stories about the wisdom of King Solomon and the miraculous deeds of Elijah the prophet. Jewish role-models included traditional as well as modern figures, but to the extent that traditional Jews were honored (Rabbi Akiva, Rashi, or Maimonides), they were never actually read. Except for the Farband’s magazine, featured Jewish holidays were at first limited to Khanike, Purim and Passover, but over time others were promoted, including Sukes, Tu b’Shvat and Shvues.

With all of its students attending public schools, and due to the cut off in 1924 of further immigration of Yiddish-speaking Jews from Eastern Europe, the Yiddish schools fought an uphill battle to preserve the language. The magazines celebrated the classic Yiddish writers -- Mendele, Peretz and Sholem Aleichem -- and published their writings for children. Contemporary writers, including Avrom Reisen, Joseph Opatoshu, Zalman Libin, Itsik Manger and Kadia Molodovsky were also contributors.

Originally, its young readers learned Yiddish at home, but by the 1930s, this could no longer be taken for granted. If they knew Yiddish at all, it was passive Yiddish or street Yiddish, known as “potato Yiddish” -- ungrammatical and full of English words and slang. Kadar astutely observes that the communist IWO/JPFO schools appears to have been more devoted to teaching Yiddish than the others, for the very reason that it rejected many other signifiers of Jewish tradition.

KADAR CREDITS the Yiddish school movement and its magazines for being the only Jewish schools that addressed the “Holocaust” as it unfolded, as painful as it may have been for children. I use quotes because this word was not used at the time, and I wonder why Kadar failed to indicate what term was used to describe the Nazi annihilation of European Jewry. I suspect it was khurbn, which means catastrophe in Yiddish. In some cases, stories of Jewish suffering and resistance were accompanied by stories of Jewish revival in Palestine. Here, she justly castigates the IWO/JPFO schools for their silence on the subject during the Stalin-Hitler Pact, broken by Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941. She claims that the victimization of the Jews was not specifically addressed until 1942. That would be a worse shonde (disgrace).

Her text includes one error. Kadar claims that a story in the children’s magazine of the Workmen’s Circle, called “Rabbi Solomon Maimon and His Student,” was about Maimonides. Solomon Maimon (1758-1800) was a Jewish philosopher and heretic, who named himself after the Spanish Jewish philosopher Maimonides (1135-1204). He was born in Lithuania and lived in German cities where he associated with Moses Mendelssohn, founder of the Haskalah or Jewish Enlightenment.

It is impossible not to admire the research that went into this book. The 15-page bibliography includes primary sources, interviews, archives, books and articles in English and Yiddish. Fluent in Yiddish, Kadar attended the SAFI schools in her youth and became national director of the Workmen’s Circle schools in the 1990s. I have used portions of a shabbes program she created during her tenure with the Workmen’s Circle as a central element for my own creation. She taught Yiddish at Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary. It is obvious that she is well versed in the scholarly literature about Yiddish schools, education, children’s literature, the immigrant experience, etc.

Unlike every other book that touches on the secular Jewish movement, Kadar at least mentions the Congress of Secular Jewish Organizations, whose affiliates still conduct a few Yiddish schools.

But here is the rub. How did the children respond to the magazines? She does cite a few student submissions, but what I expected were interviews or excerpts from memoirs of adults who attended these schools and who actually read their magazines. Kadar was one of them and she does not even provide her own impressions. This, in my opinion, is a serious flaw in an otherwise worthy effort.

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.

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.