A CONFERENCE REPORT

by Bennett Muraskin

Illustration by Aharon Varady

TWENTY YEARS AGO, in honor of the centennial of the Jewish Labor Bund, a day-long conference took place in New York City. Among the speakers were a surviving Bundist leader, Motl Zelmanowicz, and a prominent historian of European Jewry and the left, Abraham Brumberg. Other speakers included historians Daniel Soyer and Jack Jacobs, both of whom specialize in the history of the Bund, and poet and educator Irena Klepfisz, who also happens to be the daughter of a Warsaw Ghetto fighter killed by the Nazis during the famous uprising. Youth from KlezKamp provided the entertainment.

Twenty years later, it was again time to honor the Bund, but this time the conference was half as long and lacked living Bundists. Soyer, Jacobs and Klepfisz reappeared, and newcomers included three speakers with Bundist roots, including two Australians — academic David Slucki and Yiddish teacher Hinde Burstin — and an  American community organizer, playwright, puppeteer, and klezmer musician from Vermont, Avram Patt. Other speakers included Marvin Zuckerman, a Yiddish translator and educator from Los Angeles, Clare Kinberg, the former editor of Bridges magazine, and Workman’s Circle Executive Director Ann Toback.

The house was full, the vibe that of a reunion of old comrades. Although there was a sprinkling of younger people, most of the audience were old-timers (I count myself among them). Zalmen Mlotek, an authority on Yiddish music and artistic director of the Folksbiene Yiddish theater, whose family has a long history of contributing to Yiddish culture, led a chorus of alumni of Camp Hemshekh, the Bundist summer camp (1959-78), in a program of stirring Yiddish songs.  When they belted out the Bundist anthem Di Shvue (The Oath), the audience rose to its feet, singing along with enthusiasm.

The Bund’s rich history was recounted by Slucki and Zuckerman. Founded in 1897 in Vilna, then part of the tsarist empire,the organization undertook the arduous task of organizing poor Jewish workers against intense employer opposition and government repression. As a revolutionary socialist organization, the Bund sought to make common cause with non-Jewish workers in the overthrow of tsarism. In time it embraced Yiddish, both the language and its culture, as the foundation of a secular Jewish identity. Its network of Yiddish schools, its libraries, its cultural work among Jewish youth and women, its sanitarium for sick children, its uncompromising struggle against antisemitism, and its dedication to social justice, won the support of a broad cross-section of Polish Jews, despite the Bund’s militant opposition to both Zionism and Marxist-Leninist communism.

With the onslaught of World War II and the Nazi Holocaust, the Bund organized Jewish resistance in the ghettos and went down fighting. After World War II, its hopes for revival in Poland were dashed by Stalinist repression, lingering Polish antisemitism, and the success of the Zionist project, which led to the mass emigration of Bundists to Israel, the U.S., South America and Australia.

 

DANIEL SOYER explained that although the Bund never had much of an organizational presence in the U.S., the two most prominent Jewish labor leaders, David Dubinsky and Sidney Hillman, were Bundists in their youth before immigrating to the U.S.  (Soyer could have also mentioned Baruch Charney Vladeck, a New York City councilman elected on the American Labor Party ticket and a founder of the Jewish Labor Commitee). Bundist influence was evident in the Jewish trade unions and in the Yiddish Forvertz newspaper, the Workman’s Circle, and the Socialist Party. Together these institutions advanced a social democratic agenda that included progressive trade unions, cooperative housing, and a strong public sector.

As related by Jack Jacobs, the Bundist attitude toward Zionism was based on the organization’s core principle that Jews should remain in the land of their birth to carry on the struggle for democracy, national equality and socialism. Jacobs failed to note that the Bund applied this principle inconsistently, since it has no qualms about Jews moving elsewhere in the diaspora. Jacobs further argued that the Bundist position on Zionism remained consistent, yet by his own account it appeared to have evolved from insisting on no more than minority rights for Jews in Palestine during the British Mandate — including opposition to the UN Partition Plan in 1947 — to support for a Jewish-Arab binational state after Israel came into existence, and then to a two-state solution after the 1967 war. Did Bundists support or oppose the Israeli war for independence in 1948-49? What was their position in subsequent wars? Jacobs did not say, but he continues to admire the original Bundist opposition to a Jewish state as inherently unjust to the majority Arab population. This position, however, was not unique to the Bund: the Socialist Zionist Hashomer Hatzair and the liberal Zionist Brit Shalom, led by Rabbi Judah Magnes and supported by Martin Buber, took the same position in a far more visible arena.

Hinde Burstin’s topic was secular Yiddish culture. She believes that one of the Bund’s greatest achievement during its heyday in Poland was its creation of secular Yiddish day schools — but if I heard her right, they enrolled only 24,000 students, which had to be a drop in the bucket among  hundreds of thousands of Jewish school-age children in Poland. Still, there can be no doubt that Bundist educators produced a wealth of children’s books, magazines, art, songs, theater that gave its students a taste of a besere un shenere velt (a better and more beautiful world.) After World War II, they established similar schools in Melbourne, Australia, one of which survives to this day. Burstin spoke passionately of the value of secular yidishkayt as an antidote to assimilation, but I wish she had articulated how the Melbourne Bundists provided their secular Jews with holiday celebrations, life-cycle ceremonies, and other practices to sustain their identity.

 

BOTH THE 1997 and 2017 conferences sought to draw connections between the Bund’s legacy of socialism and  secular yidishkayt and contemporary issues. This task was no easier in 2017 than it was in 1997. One issue that might have galvanized the audience was xenophobia in the Trump era, but not much was said on the subject. Instead the focus was on growing interest in Yiddish among Jewish youth who are alienated by the Jewish communal emphasis on Israel and Holocaust remembrance. Of these, it is unlikely that more than a small contingent will become Yiddish speakers or proficient enough to read Yiddish literature in the original.

Only Ann Toback represented an organization with actual historic ties to the Bund. Although diminished in size, the Workmen’s Circle still seeks to promote Yiddish, organize for social justice, and develop a secular approach to Jewish life in America.

For a conference held in New York, there was a dearth of local Jewish activists. The New York-based Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ) has achieved some success in appealing to younger Jews with a mix of radical politics and Jewish cultural affirmation. Why it had no presence at the conference is a mystery to me. Granted, JFREJ is not explicitly secular or Yiddish-oriented, but one might ask if any attempt has been made to encourage JFREJ to move in that direction. I might add that a Jewish Currents editorial board member would have been a welcome addition to the panel on contemporary issues. Although the magazine was a co-sponsor of the event, however, I saw no more than two or three of its activists there. Mir zaynen nit doh! (We are not here!)   

The world of the Bund is dead — both through murder and transformation and assimilation. The Russia and Poland where it was born and grew into maturity are unrecognizable. The vision of a socialist federation of states where Yiddish-speaking Jews enjoy cultural autonomy never came close to realization. The Bund’s secularism was so intertwined with its Yiddishism that even the Workmen’s Circle cannot hope to recreate it. Far from belonging to an oppressed proletariat, Jews in America enjoy high levels of income, wealth and education, and we do not suffer from either intense antisemitism or religious coercion.  The audience broke into applause when Hinde Burstin declared that “The Yiddish language was never spoken by an oppressive government.” That may be true, but it is not a spoken language any more, except among the khasidim, a majority of whom voted for Donald Trump.

Nevertheless, many young radical Jews who are disillusioned with Israel and looking for a Jewish context for their activism may find inspiration in the legacy of the Bund. Its insistence that Jews confront injustice and antisemitism at home by working in solidarity with their oppressed and marginalized neighbors, rather look for refuge in a Jewish state that oppresses and marginalizes another people, is a compelling message. In its day, the Bund attracted workers, women, youth and intellectuals. It is exactly that constellation of forces that can set us on a new path today. Clearly, the vision is worth pursuing again. If not now, when?

Attendees took home a high-quality, 48-page, lavishly illustrated booklet on Bundist history, including a section on “Contemporary Voices” that featured comments from ten people who draw inspiration from the Bund in their current commitments. Six of these commentators are under sixty-five years old. One of them is an Orthodox rabbi. I wonder if Vladimir Medem (a famous Bundist leader) is turning over in his grave — or does hope really spring eternal?

 

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.