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Splits in the Yiddish Socialist Movement

Hershl Hartman
July 28, 2017


by Hershl Hartman

Published in the Summer 2017 issue of Jewish Currents

MY BOLSHEVIK MOTHER in 1929 named me Hirsh Naftoli -- not after departed grandfathers or uncles, but after two assassins of the diverse Socialist movements in Eastern Europe. You may have heard of one or both of them: Hirsh Lekert (Leckert) and Naftoli Botvin (Botwin).

First, Hirsh Lekert:

On May Day, 1902, the newly-appointed tsarist governor of Vilna (Vilnius), Baron Viktor von Wahl, ordered his troops and Cossacks to brutally beat down the Socialist-led workers’ demonstration. That evening, workers let loose a blizzard of protest leaflets from the balcony of the State Theater. Those arrested -- 20 Jews and six Poles --— were forced to run the gauntlet in jail, between rows of Cossack whips. On the following day, each prisoner was placed on a whipping board and dealt 20 to 30 blows. The Vilna Committee of the Bund -- General Jewish Workers’ Alliance of Russia, Poland, and Lithuania -- issued a call in Yiddish and Polish demanding vengeance, but was split over the idea of an individual, terrorist act. On May 18, Hirsh (also called Hershl, Hershke) Lekert, a young shoemaker and a Bund activist, spotted von Wahl entering the Circus Theater, waited until the governor exited and wounded him in his hand and foot with pistol shots. Lekert managed to shout “long live freedom!” before being taken away. His hanging sentence was carried out on June 10 on the military parade grounds, where his body was immediately buried. The grave site was leveled by waves of cavalry and infantry. Hirsh Lekert became an international folk-hero among Jewish workers and the subject of at least two stage dramas and several folksongs.

As his namesake, I have taken special pleasure in translating these verses from a much longer, famous song in rhyme and in approximate meter. The song can be heard in a modernized version on the recent cd, “City of the Future.” Full disclosure: I provided translations -- most of them singable -- of all the songs on that cd, originally for the Southern California Arbeter Ring/Workmen’s Circle chorus, then for the imposing lineup of present-day Yiddish singers under the direction of Yale Strom.

Azoy vee Hershke iz fun shtub aroysgegangen,

Gezogt hot er a “gutinke nakht.”

Azoy vee Hershke iz tsum tsirk nor tsugegangen

A kleyne vayle hot er dort farbrakht.

As Hershke left his house that fateful evening,

He wished his family a cheerful “good night.”

As Hershke reached the Circus turning,

He waited there, devoid of fright.

Vee der gubernator iz fun tsirk aroysgegangen,

Mit zayn oyg hot er gevorfn gants vayt.

Azoy hot Hershke dem revolver aroysgenumen

Un geshosn dem gubernator in a zayt.

As the Governor emerged at intermission,

His glance was full of overweaning pride.

But Hershke came to carry out his mission:

He shot the Governor in his right side.

Azoy vee dee tiranen hobn dem shos derhert,

Azoy zaynen zey antkegn gekumen:

Zey hobn eem gants gut bamerkt

Un hobn eem glaykh tsugenumen.

As soon as the tyrants heard the shot,

They came running, ever-rough.

He was quite easy to spot,

And immediately they dragged him off.

Vee zey hobn eem nor tsugenumen,

Iz gevorn a groys geruder,

Eyn khaver hot gezogt tsum tsveytn:

“Meer hobn farlorn undzer bruder.”

As soon as they had taken him away,

A great excitement swept the crowd.

One comrade told another in the fray:

“It is our brother, who was not cowed!”

Oy, breeder, eer zolt mikh nit fargesn,

Dem shtrik, vos me hot farvorfn af mayn haldz,

A tsevue, breeder, vil ikh aykh iberlozn,

A rakhe zolt eer nemen far alts!

“Oh, brothers, do not forget me,

Nor the hangman’s noose that I now wear;

This legacy, brothers, you have from me:

Vengeance must be taken, if you dare!”

NAFTOLI BOTVIN’S life reflected the traversal of many young people in interwar Poland. Born in 1907 as the eighth child of a workingclass family in Kamianka-Buzka, his father died when he was young. At 15, Naftoli joined di tsukunft, the youth wing of the Bund. A year later, he joined the Communist Youth Union of Western Ukraine, which was actually Eastern Poland at the time. In 1925, he became a full-fledged member of the Communist Party. On July 29th of that year, in Lvov (now Lviv, back in Ukraine), Naftoli assassinated Josef Cechnowski, an agent of the Polish secret police who had penetrated the Communist Party. Botvin was arrested at the scene and pled guilty at the brief trial, where he was sentenced to death by firing squad.

Interestingly, in view of this discussion about divisions in the Yiddish Socialist movements, Botvin did not proclaim his love for the Bolshevik Party or the Communist International when he stood before the firing squad, his eyes uncovered at his own request. Instead, he shouted “Down with the bourgeoisie! Long live the social revolution.”

I think my mother might’ve named me for Naftoli Botvin even if the famous ARTEF theater had not produced a play about him during her pregnancy, but she told me that the play played its role -- if you’ll forgive the multiple puns.

It’s difficult to describe the pride of an 8-year old in 1938 in The Bronx when he learned that just a few days after his last birthday, in the ongoing struggle against fascism in Spain, a company in the International Brigades, made up of Yiddish-speaking volunteers, was named for Naftoli Botvin! The Botvin Company had about 150 members from Poland, France, Belgium, Palestine and Spain. It published a newspaper named “Botwin” and its flag bore the same Polish freedom-slogan that was proclaimed six years later in the Warsaw Ghetto: “For your freedom and ours!”

Permit that now grown-old namesake of Naftoli Botvin to quote just one verse of the Hymn written by one of the fighters in that company, Alek Nus. The melody is attributed to an unidentified Spanish freedom-song. The translation is mine.

Undz eynikt der has tsu di broyne banditn,

Vos viln farknekhtn dos shpanishe land;

Mir veln di grin-royte felder farhitn

Mit fonen fun eynhayt un mit biks in der hant.

Un in der brider-rey fun felker un rasn,

Vos viln mer nisht farshklafung un noyt,

Shmidn mir oys dos gever fun di masn,

Dem frayhayt folks-front fun sholem un broyt.

No pasaran!

Hate of the brownshirt bandits unites us:

They seek to enslave the Spanish land.

Our love for the green-red fields incites us

With united banners and guns in our hands.

And in the brother-ranks of peoples and races,

Who’ll no longer abide enslavement and dread,

We forge the weapons of the masses,

The peoples-front of peace and of bread.

¡No Pasarán!

This idealistic view of unity in a “peoples front” turned out to be less than realistic, but it does serve as a perverse segue into my revised topic: Splits in the Yiddish-Speaking Socialist Movement and what we can learn from them.

LET ME START with three precautions: 1) I cannot begin to discuss all the splits, nor those in Europe; 2) I will concentrate, instead, on the splits in the U.S. Secular Yiddish education for children and young adults -- the shule movement; and 3), I do not intend to revive the splits by passing judgment on which of the conflicting positions was “better” or “correct.”

The first Jewish children’s Sunday Schools were established in 1906, just six years after the founding of the Arbeter Ring, called Workmen’s Circle in English. They were Socialist schools, taught in English, with the basic concept that the children of workers in the concentrated Jewish neighborhoods of East Harlem, the Lower East Side and Brooklyn’s Williamsburg needed to learn how to be part of the American proletariat -- that the separations of language and ethnicity among the vast wave of immigrants on the East Coast had to be overcome in order that a Socialist society of equality might replace the misery and exploitation of the capitalist order.

In that sense, those schools reflected the position of the Socialist Revolutionaries in the tsarist Russian empire: submergence of ethnic identities in the struggle for a new society that would, by its very existence, abolish anti-Semitism and all the other antagonisms among the scores of national minorities suffering under the tsars.

That concept was contradicted even before the formal establishment of the Bund. In 1895, Julius Martov, in Vilna, had declared that “…the awakening of national consciousness and class consciousness must go hand-in-hand.” Finding the balance between those two awarenesses would become the underlying source of the major divisions in the U.S. Secular Yiddish movement and, especially, in its schools.

Ab. Cahan, the founding editor of the forverts, the Yiddish Daily Forward, held as tightly as he could throughout his life to the Socialist Revolutionary position, though he didn’t acknowledge it as such. And it was his profound influence over the leadership of the Arbeter Ring that delayed the Ring’s establishment of Yiddish schools and made them, in a sense, a stepchild in the overall life of that pioneering fraternal order.

Though his newspaper was directed toward the vast Yiddish-reading working class -- its masthead bore the slogan of the Communist Manifesto in Germanic Yiddish arbeiter fun ale lender, fareynigt aykh, Workers of the world, unite -- its aim was to hasten the assimilation of its readers into the American working class. One of the ways Cahan chose to do that was to Anglicize the Yiddish language. His method came to be known as pateyte yidish -- potato Yiddish, in which the common Yiddish words for that tuberous contribution of the New World to the fourth largest crop of the world’s food supply -- kartofl and bulbe -- were jettisoned in favor of pateyte. Similarly, shlof-tsimer became “bedrum” in the forverts and scores of other words underwent the same transition. When Sholem Aleichem came to New York and submitted to the forverts his stories of Motl, Peysi the Cantor’s Son, in America, Cahan rejected the stories and the author as being antithetical to the Cahan agenda.

I must also relate the story told to me by my mentor in Yiddish journalism, the profound theater critic Nathaniel Buchwald. Buchwald had worked at the forverts during the First World War, translating its editorials into English, as required by wartime “national security” of all “foreign language” newspapers. He told of Cahan’s habitual procedure. When, in editing a manuscript, he would come upon a Yiddish word that he considered “too intellectual,” he would step outside his office and push the elevator call button. The elevator operator would arrive. Cahan would shove the offending word under his nose and ask, “du farshteyst dos vort?” (D’you understand this word?) The elevator man, who knew the word but who also understood what was required, would always shake his head. Cahan would then strike the word and insert its English equivalent in Yiddish transliteration. The people had spoken.

Small wonder, then, that Cahan at first forbade the Arbeter Ring to replace its English Socialist Sunday Schools with weekday afternoon Secular Yiddish schools, then resisted every step toward giving them greater prominence in the activities of the Workmen’s Circle. I’ll get to that in a minute, but first, a few words about how those schools came about.

WHILE THE NAME of Abraham Cahan is widely known in Jewish American history, that is far less the case with Dr. Khayim Zhitlovski. I will not go into the record of his leadership across all the political divisions of the Secular Yiddish movement, but will simply note that it was he who, in 1910, convinced the Socialist Zionist movement --— the poyli tsion, later called der yidisher arbeter farband, the Jewish Workers Alliance -- to establish the first Secular Yiddish school in the world, on December 10, 1910, in a storefront on Madison St., in the shadow of the Manhattan Bridge. Two years later, depending on the season and time of day, it might have been shadowed by the forverts building, which also housed the Arbeter Ring’s national headquarters.

We must not underestimate the historical breakthrough of that opening day. For the first time in the history of the Jewish people, children would be taught their history and culture as a people rather than as purely a religion. For the first time in 2,000 years, teaching would be free of rabbinic, Talmudic domination. And, for the first time, girls would study alongside boys.

I do not know whether Zhitlovski had first approached the Arbeter Ring about starting such a shule, but it was doubtlessly his understanding of Martov’s concept that led to the naming of that first school as the natsyonale radikale shule, the National (meaning ethnic) Radical school. It is known, however, that within a year or two, the natsyonale radikale shuln had spread across both the U.S. and Canada. They were joined, in 1913, by the folkshuln (people’s schools) of the Sholem Aleichem Folks-Institut, avowedly non-political but intensely Yiddishistic, serving the needs of middle class immigrant families headed by self-described “intellectuals,” professionals and small-business people rather than the denizens of the sweatshops and the trade union movement. They did not polemize with the other schools. They went their own way.

Around that time, Zhitlovski began to campaign at the annual conventions of the Arbeter Ring -- far larger in membership than the Farband and the Sholem Aleichem Institute combined -- for the establishment of its own network of shuln. His proposal came up against the power of Abraham Cahan -- and Zhitlovski lost, year after year. It was not until the convention of 1918 that the Arbeter Ring shuln were born. It was not mainly because Cahan’s power had declined, but that the Socialist Sunday schools he championed had declined in enrollment from their original high of 1,500. As Judah Shapiro wrote in The Friendly Society: A History of the Workmen’s Circle, “Parents…were finding that the Workmen’s Circle schools were inadequate, and some were sending their children to traditional schools,” meaning the religious afternoon Talmud Torahs, whose students named them “Hebrew School” or just “Hebrew” (and which became the butt of jokes by more than one standup comic recalling his childhood).

It is easy to understand how parents found the Sunday schools “inadequate.” They were encouraging the assimilationist pressure of the streets and the public schools in turning their children into English-speakers, linguistically separating them from their parents. Too, the Sunday schools’ emphasis on preparing the children to be part of the fighting workingclass meant that they were being consigned to follow their parents into the sweatshops.

When the Workmen’s Circle shuln were established, it was more grudgingly than triumphantly. They were not to be financed by the national treasury, but by a tax levied on the membership in addition to the monthly dues they paid for the benefits of the Workmen’s Circle: life insurance, healthcare and, most importantly, cemetery plots. The original proposal by the national leadership at the 1918 convention was for a tax of 4 cents per year. The rank and file delegates insisted that the tax be twice that: 8 cents per year. Rather than accede, under Cahan’s baleful eye, it was decided to submit the issue to a referendum of the entire membership — though other issues rarely, if ever, went through that procedure. The ruling bureaucracy was taken aback when the higher 8 cent figure won by 53 %, 2,186 votes to 1,974, but it could not stand in the way of the parent-driven determination. Cahan, however, continued to rail against the shuln, even writing a series of five articles against them thirteen years later, in his forverts in 1931.

The conventional wisdom has been that it was the newly-emergent Communist Party, under orders from Moscow, that produced the split in the Arbeter Ring shule movement in the mid-1920s and the eventual creation of the International Workers Order (I.W.O.) as a competing fraternal organization. That may well be the case — documentary evidence has yet to emerge — but it leaves open the question of why and how so many non-Communists were drawn into that split.

And here it is that I come to an aspect of the divisions that I believe has had far too little attention. The shuln brought into large-scale activism the women in the movement. They were the mothers of the shule students. And they and their husbands were younger than the established, old-time leaders of the Workmen’s Circle, both at the local branch level and in the national offices in the forverts building. Their concern for their children’s education in the shuln often brought them into conflict with those totally male-dominated, older leaders. These young parents would have been far more open to new ideas than those still being advocated by Ab. Cahan’s power structure.

I would suggest that a significant factor might have been this age- and gender-difference This includes the aspect of imposed rule over the individual shuln by the older, male leadership. According to the rules of the Arbeter Ring, the board of a shule had to meet these criteria: nine members to be elected by the sponsoring branch or branches; eight members to be coopted, with five of these to be members of the Arbeter Ring. Only three of the 17 board positions were reserved for the parents of the children attending the shule. It is clear to me, at least, how that arrangement might have provided fertile ground for the Communists who opposed the anti-Soviet politics of Ab. Cahan and the Arbeter Ring leadership.

It might also explain why, in 1925, 17 of the 23 shuln in New York -- 74 percent! -- withdrew from the Arbeter Ring and declared themselves to be umparteyishe yidishe arbeter kindershuln (Non-Partisan Jewish Workers’ Childrens Schools). Again, conventional wisdom sneers at the “non-partisan” label, but I’d suggest that a significant portion of those shuln and their parent bodies really, truly were reacting to the severe constraints placed on their children’s daily classroom experience by those whose motives were not primarily directed at education.

Azoy tsi azoy -- whatever the case, the facts were that three of the four Secular Yiddish school systems had Socialism embedded in their very DNA and that they were unable to find common ground -- to their mutual disadvantage. The Workmen’s Circle and the I.W.O. shuln vehemently rejected the Zionism of the Farband shuln and vice-versa. The Workmen’s Circle and the I.W.O. shuln regarded each other as traitors to the Socialist ideal. Even when they both sang the same songs, sometimes there were subtle differences in the melodies, probably the result of their total isolation from each other.

Interestingly, however, both adhered to the same motto of their ideals: far a shenerer un beserer velt -- for a better, more beautiful world. Sandra Parker, in her 1980 essay, “An Educational Assessment of the Yiddish Secular School Movements,” wrote: “It is likely that a pooling…of resources and personnel might have resulted in more distinctive, appropriate and up-to-date materials…A more ecumenical spirit would have, at the very least, permitted the dissemination of the I.W.O.’s history series in English, which, while far from perfect, is ideologically more appropriate to Yiddish secularism than those used by Jewish religious groups.” That may stand as a summation of what the Socialist Yiddish shuln should have learned.

THERE IS AN interesting indication of what might have been. In 1947 the Educational Department of the Workmen’s Circle published an extensive Yiddish anthology for advanced students, obviously in preparation for many, many months before the onset of the Cold War that year. The 320 pages of dos yidishe vort -- The Yiddish Word -- encompass the writings of classic Yiddish literature, including those of the “proletarian” poets, as well as many then-contemporary writers. Among the latter was Sholem Asch, despite his “excommunication” by Ab. Cahan. (Asch, lacking an alternative, had then turned to the Communist morgn frayhayt -- Morning Freedom.) Also included were writings by others on the far-left, I. I. Schwartz and Isaac Raboy.

Most startling and poignant, however, is the inclusion of the story, “The Boy of Cobrini Boulevard.” Its author was none other Itche Goldberg, the director of the I.W.O. shuln and, thus, the very ultimate “arch-enemy” of the Workmen’s Circle and its educational system!

I would add a more personal observation. When I became principal of the Sholem Sunday School in 1967, half a century ago, new parents would often tell me that they had attended a Yiddish Secular shule or a summer camp when they were very young. I’d ask: “Oh, was it Workmen’s Circle, or I.W.O, or Farband?” In almost every case, the reply was: “I don’t remember -- just that I had more fun than my friends who had to go to Hebrew school.” So much for the intense ideological battles of the immigrant generation.

As to what we can learn from that experience in 2017, I can draw on my own personal experience, having taught Jewish history and culture — informed by a Socialist understanding — for well over 50 years.

Last January 29th, tens of thousands of young people completely shut down Los Angeles International airport in response to the Trumpist xenophobic, Islamaphobic and anti-refugee pogrom. As by far the oldest person there, I was asked to speak on the bull horn. I briefly related to those 20-30-somethings the history of the SS St. Louis in 1939, on which hundreds of Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany were turned away from our shores by the racist immigration laws of the time. Many of those banned refugees would later die in the Holocaust. As I watched the glow of understanding appear on those young faces, I then recited to them the English translation of the Yiddish Partisan hymn, mir zaynen do: “Never say that now the end has come for you/When leaden skies may be concealing days of blue/Because the time for which we’ve yearned will yet appear/And our marching step shall thunder: We Are Here!”

Thousands of young voices took up the chant: “We are here! We are here! We are here!” I put down the bullhorn mic so that I could wipe my tears. I’d learned the lesson: in the new anti-Trumpist, anti-fascist Resistance, our Yiddish Socialist heritage can and must play its role. We are part of the Resistance in our identity as progressive, perhaps Socialist, representatives of the Jewish people, welcoming all Jewish Americans into our ranks and marching with those of every ethnicity, race, gender, even class, in defense of social, economic and environmental justice in a truly democratic society. Mir zaynen do!

Hershl Hartman is education director of the Sholem Community and School and a Secular Jewish vegvayzer(leader) in Los Angeles.