Aparna Gopalan (JC fellow): In stopping the world from ending, marching in the streets seems to do little, donating money even less, and voting least of all. In left collective consciousness, “organizing” might be one of the last political actions that remains sacred.
As a grad student, I used to be in awe of the staff organizers at my union. “Look at all these people devoting themselves to actually doing something,” I’d think, “taking on the powers that be while I sit here reading books.” But as soon as I began organizing, I started thinking about the job in a different way, one common among my colleagues. “All these people think we do sexy stuff,” I thought, “but they don’t know that most of our work is tedious spreadsheet wrangling and calling people who never pick up.”
With some distance, I can now see that both of these positions ascribe a kind of moral purity to the figure of the organizer, whether as a righteous warrior or a martyr to endless grunt work. What both miss is that the nature of organizing is always impure: organizers encourage workers to take risks that we ourselves do not face; we ask for their unpaid time and energy, indeed their devotion, to work we actually get paid to do; our training sometimes borrows too much from the corporate sciences of publicity or marketing or advertising, even when we are advertising collective power.
Daisy Pitkin’s On The Line: A Story of Class, Solidarity, and Two Women’s Epic Fight to Build a Union, published earlier this year, is the first book I’ve read that gets into the messy, tangled weeds of organizing. I know Daisy from the Labor Notes conference, where I was bowled over by her empathy and political insight. Nominally, her book is about her time organizing with immigrant workers—specifically one immigrant worker, Alma—at Arizona’s industrial laundries. But the book is really more of a literary tapestry. Its chapters bear only two titles: “Las Polillas” and “Fires,” repeated over and over again as Daisy weaves together scenes of camaraderie and emotion from her life and Alma’s, along with the life of the early 20th century garment workers’ organizer Clara Lemlich, and, incongruously, the lives of moths. These stories sit next to scenes of horror at industrial laundries, at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory, and ultimately at offices of union organizers engaged in destructive internal turf wars.
Incorporating emotion and messiness into what could have been straightforwardly written as a story of class war, Daisy overturns the gendered ways we think of organizing as a firmly political act removed from the organizer’s personal life and identity and doubts. In doing so, On The Line opens up space for organizers to take our practice off the pedestal and open it up to reflection and critique. After all, if stories about organizing can be told in non-authoritative, non-masculinist ways, then maybe organizing itself can face up to its power asymmetries and its long history of excluding domestic and intimate spheres of struggle.
Daisy is now working with the Starbucks Workers United campaign, which happens to be funded by union dues of Arizona’s immigrant laundry workers who feature in On The Line. What could be a more beautiful snippet of class solidarity?
Alex Kane (senior reporter): At the risk of recommending something that our entire newsletter readership has already read, I’m going to offer up praise for Vivian Gornick’s The Romance of American Communism. First published in 1977 and reissued by Verso in 2020, it’s an arresting book to read now, when we lack a mass party that has cradle-to-grave programs designed to make your entire life revolve around the desire to make the world a better place. The American Communist Party was such a party, as the book shows. As Gornick writes about the Coops in the Bronx, famously a redoubt for Communists, “all social activities led to the Party.” Reading The Romance of American Communism makes me nostalgic for a time I never experienced, of a robust American left with a massive foothold in the labor movement. Nostalgia is not what I typically feel when reading history, but it’s the dominant emotion I get from Gornick’s intimate portraits of Communists and their inner lives. The book also gets into the downsides of what it feels like when such a totalizing presence in your life reveals itself to be hiding some very real skeletons, as the Communist Party did when it came to the crimes of Stalinism. If you’re a Jewish Currents reader who hasn’t read the book, you should do so now.
Lauren Goldenberg (vice chair of Board of Directors, JC Council member): Every once in a while, I decide the time is NOW to read a book I’ve had for years and been interested in reading but not quite gotten to. Last week, the time had come, NOW, to start reading Bleak House, Charles Dickens’s novel about an ongoing and never-ending case of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce over a dwindling inheritance, from which a complex web of characters emanates. I haven’t read Dickens in at least 20 years, and I forgot how delicious his writing is—it cuts to the heart in one chapter and makes you laugh in another, and his characters have fantastic names (the aforementioned Jarndyce and Jarndyce, Mrs. Pardiggle, and Sir Leicester Dedlock, to name a mere few).
Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): Christophe Cognet’s From Where They Stood, opening today at Film Forum in New York, is a unique film on the Holocaust. It doesn’t try to make a unique moral or ethical point, or attempt to tell us something new about the crimes of the Nazis. It allows those who were in the camps to tell of their experience, but not in a way we are used to. This is not a talking heads film, with a series of old people telling tales familiar to us all of the horrors they experienced. Instead, Cognet’s film is built around photographs taken by prisoners while they were still in the camps. How the photos were taken in the camps (Dachau, Mittelbau-Dora, Buchenwald, Auschwitz-Birkenau, and Ravensbrück) and how they survived are equally incredible, but what’s most important is what they reveal.
The quotidian experience they present is at times jarring: prisoners in their striped pajamas, leaning out of windows, conversing, posing for the camera they know is photographing them in secret from the guards. They were prisoners, the photos say, but above all they were human beings. The photos are acts of resistance, both on the part of the photographers and of the subjects. Dachau and Buchenwald were not extermination camps, unlike Auschwitz. In Buchenwald, we see Goethe’s tree, standing tall and ancient alongside a barracks building.
But imprisoned photographers also captured the everyday terror of the camps, including a series of photos taken by a Greek Jew of a crowd of women being rushed onto the gas chamber in Auschwitz, and of the sonderkommando throwing their bodies into an open pit to be cremated. The picture was taken from within the gas chamber between killings. The members of the sonderkommando are standing among the newly dead bodies, one scratching his head as if trying to solve a problem never before posed.
The materiality of the Holocaust is accentuated by Cognet’s almost maniacal labors throughout the film to precisely situate the exact spot from which each picture was taken. The photos are printed on large transparent sheets and then held against the corresponding scenery. Were those trees here 70 years ago, he asks? Death was so familiar, he says, that the prisoners lay relaxing on the grass across from the crematorium. What’s that in that woman’s arms, the one going into the gas chamber? A baby?
“Here,” an intertitle says, “is where it happened.” The “here”, the “it,” and the “happened” are all memorably laid out in From Where They Stood.
Before you go, one last thing: Thursday, July 28th, 7 pm Eastern, The Forward is hosting a live event in Brooklyn on how millennial American Jews are building community in, and outside of, traditional spaces. The event will feature Jewish Currents Editor-in-Chief Arielle Angel as well as Abby Stein, Kendall Pinkney, and Alex Zeldin, and will be moderated by The Forward’s deputy opinion editor, Nora Berman. Sign up here!