A forgotten chapter: when Jewish America spoke Yiddish – and was an anarchist


NEW YORK – Spencer Sunshine describes himself as a “radical extra-parliamentary leftist” and / or a “libertarian socialist”. Having “known and worked on political projects with anarchists for many decades,” he explained that when it comes to anarchism, there is no one size fits all.

Sunshine, who does not speak Yiddish, is the co-organizer of a Jan. 20 conference, “Yiddish Anarchism: New Scholarship on a Forgotten Tradition” at the YIVO New York Institute for Jewish Research.

Every speaker, scholar and source at Sunday’s conference, Sunshine said, thinks a little differently and interprets their anarchism in unique ways – like adherents of any other political theory or philosophy. But at its core, Yiddish anarchist history provides a counter-narrative.

The one-day conference is divided into three thematic panels: The Foundations of Yiddish Anarchism; Russian revolutions and Yiddish anarchism; and language, identity and culture.

For an American Jew in 2019, a counter-narrative from the previous century could be gripping.

“Zionism no longer has the appeal it once had for older generations,” Sunshine said. “Young Jews are looking for ways to conceptualize a Jewish identity. “

Cover of the Yiddish periodical, Di anarkhye (Anarchy), published in Geneva, Switzerland, August 1908. (YIVO)

He wasn’t specifically talking about doctoral student Diana Clarke, although the candidate fits perfectly.

“Yiddish is very sexy for young leftists,” Clarke told The Times of Israel. “Having said that, a lot of people around the world are not young leftists.”

On January 20, Clarke will be on stage in Manhattan, covering the role that post-vernacular Yiddish – that is, Yiddish not used in everyday life – plays in anarchism today. Clarke’s lecture is one of 10 on the schedule for Sunday’s Yiddish Anarchism Lecture.

Clarke is pursuing a doctorate at the University of Pittsburgh, studying the intersection of Ashkenazi American Jews and whiteness. The scholar also runs In Geveb, a scholarly journal in Yiddish, while working on translating Yiddish poetry and writing a book.

Clarke’s path to Yiddish scholarship supports the narrative of a reconnection to Jewish heritage through 19th century Jewish anarchy. In Columbia, where Clarke earned an undergraduate degree, campus protests have frequently pitted Palestine Justice students against the Hillel Center due to Israel’s continued presence in the West Bank. During these protests, coupled with the highly visible gentrification of Harlem surrounding and at times spurred on by Columbia University itself, Clarke recalled bitter memories of a Jewish education in Massachusetts.

“As an Ashkenazi Jew who grew up more or less in a conservative environment in the late 1990s,” Clarke recalls, “I was told that Israel should mean a lot to me… Going to Israel was something for them. people whose families had money. Mine didn’t.

Clarke was looking for something. Walking the streets of New York – as Clarke’s father always said was the best way to get to know a community – during four years of undergraduate study, Clarke discovered the Yiddish history of the city.

“It all came to fruition through experience when I learned the history of the city from the Yiddish speakers. I was so excited to find in my own story people living the lives I wanted to live, ”Clarke said, adding how those years of wandering ended in an eye opener:“ These are my people. “

New scholarship on a forgotten tradition

An introduction to what he calls the “lost world of Yiddish anarchism” was to be presented by Yiddish co-organizer and historian and scholar Kenyon Zimmer at the opening of the first panel.

“Buzhe”, a young activist, poses with her cohort of anarchists in Warsaw for this studio portrait, made around 1900. (YIVO Institute for Jewish Research)

“Anarchism and anarchists have really played a disproportionate role in the history of the Jewish labor movement and Jewish culture in the United States and England,” Zimmer told The Times of Israel. “Much of this has been forgotten or somehow lost over time as academics and others have written about the experience of Jewish immigrants. “

Some of that history has been lost in translation, said Zimmer, associate professor of history at the University of Texas at Arlington. But there was no doubt some intention in the disappearance of the centenary of Yiddish anarchism from mainstream knowledge.

“Anarchists are reduced to this brief and naive phase,” Zimmer explained, noting the more widespread American Jewish history that immigrants arrived, assimilated, experienced upward social and economic mobility, and gradually gained power. American dream.

Anarchism is at odds with the idea of ​​”an irrepressible national Jewish identity,” he said. And of course, there is the strength of Zionism, which summarily rejects anarchist principles.

When asked why even bother to hold a lecture on this Yiddish story if various agents had erased it so well, Zimmer had prepared a retort.

“[Yiddish anarchists] are examples of a substantial number of Jews in the Diaspora who have rejected both assimilation to the cultural and political norms of their host and Jewish nationalism, whether through Zionism or some other form, ”said Zimmer. “This may resonate with certain currents of Jewish politics today which tend to question the actions of the State of Israel or the project being problematic as a whole. “

An advertisement for a Yom Kippur dance and buffet from the anarchist periodical Di varhayt (The Truth), New York, September 1889. (Courtesy YIVO)

Jewish Anarchism: Remember the Anarchists

The YIVO conference host has been around since 1925 and miraculously survived the Holocaust.

“Most of its employees have been killed,” director of public programs Alex Weiser told The Times of Israel. “He moved from Poland to New York,” he said, recalling a smuggling operation that made him one of the only organizations to escape the Holocaust.

Around 40 people work today at YIVO, mainly in New York. The organization also has an office in London and partnerships in Chicago and Buenos Aires. And that’s really, really important, Weiser argued.

“Yiddish is the language of a story with which we have a discontinuity,” Weiser said. “Learning Yiddish can lead people to find alternatives to ‘being Jewish’ that are not prevalent in contemporary culture.”

YIVO aims to enable continuous worldwide learning of Yiddish, with, for example, a conference on Yiddish anarchism.

Social justice activist Emma Goldman addresses a crowd in 1916, several years before her deportation to Russia by the United States government (public domain)

Many famous anarchists were linked to the Yiddish anarchist movement, such as Johann Most and Emma Goldman. Famous organizations include the International Ladies ‘Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) and the Yiddish anarchist newspaper Fraye Arbeter Shtime (the free voice of labor), “America’s largest and oldest anarchist publication,” according to YIVO.

“In the 1930s, the second generation of bilingual Jewish anarchists emerged, including Sam and Esther Dolgoff, and Audrey Goodfriend, whose influence is still felt in the anarchist movement today,” said the description of the YIVO program.


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