Tuesday, January 23, 2007

What I learned as a part Jew

Sam Smith

I grew up part Jewish. It was hard not to if you lived in a New Deal family where your father was involved in things like starting Americans for Democratic Action. My own introduction to politics came as a pre-teen stuffing envelopes for the local ADA director Leon Shull as he helped organize the removal of Philadelphia's 69-year-old Republican machine. Shull was one of those who early convinced me that there were three branches of Judaism: your Orthodox, your Reform and your Liberal Democratic, with the last clearly the most powerful. I was certain that Jews were put on this earth to run labor unions and win elections for the good guys.

If you think I'm kidding, consider this: for many years we lived across the street from a prominent activist couple - she black, he Jewish. One day one of their sons came over and slumped at our kitchen table. "What's the matter?" asked my wife. "I had a terrible night," the boy explained. "I dreamt I was Jacob Javits." He had already learned to fear becoming a Jewish Republican.

Although I knew Jews went to synagogue, I wasn't all that impressed. After all, as my friend Peter Temin was going to Hebrew school on Saturdays, I got to go to the Henry Glass music store and take drum lessons, clearly the better deal. During the week we went to a Quaker school where perhaps a quarter of the students were Jewish and nobody thought it odd. The tradition continues. The joke about Washington's Sidwell Friends School is that it is a place where Episcopalians teach Jews how to act like Quakers.

Much later I would figure out what Quakerism and Judaism had in common: a blend of individualism, pragmatism, and responsibility, with a particular emphasis on the last. You didn't come into the world pre-ordained and your primary goal wasn't to leave it saved; what really mattered is what you did in the meantime.

For much of my life, what I have done and what I have thought have been deeply influenced by existential Judaism and its practitioners. I can't even begin to count the number of times I have come across Jews in the lonely corners of hope trying to do what others, through lack of interest or courage, would not.

But a number of things have happened since I was first introduced to Judaism. The direct ties to the often radical Jewish immigrant tradition began to fade. The offspring of the immigrants became wealthier and less involved. America of whatever ethnicity began paying less attention to others and more to itself.

As I put it once, "The great 20th century social movements [were] successful enough to create their own old boy and girl networks, powerful enough to enter the Chevy Chase Club, and indifferent enough to ignore those left behind. The minority elites had joined the Yankee and the Southern aristocrat and the rest of God's frozen people to form the largest, most prosperous, and most narcissistic intelligentsia in our history. But as the best and brightest drove around town in their Range Rovers, who would speak for those who were still, in Bill Mauldin's phrase, fugitives from the law of averages? The work of witness remained."

A whole history began to disappear. A part of the story was told by journalist Paul S. Green in his memoir, From the Streets of Brooklyn to the War in Europe. He notes that by the dawn of the 20th century

"Jewish youth in Poland grew more and more impatient with the narrow focus of their lives. They were determined to take part in the opportunities opening up around them - exciting new developments in science, the arts, in social relationships. This brought them into conflict with their parents and grandparents. In seeking a different way of life, they began to do the unthinkable - to reject the strict age-old Orthodoxy of their ancestors. "

Out of this grew several new movements, one of which, Zionism, looked towards retrieving a Jewish nation. Others were socialist, ranging from hard-core Bolshevik to the Bund, which Green describes as

"An organization of free-thinking Jewish youth who whole-heartedly embraced Yiddish culture and a Yiddish life that completely rejected traditional religion. The Bundists believed that only a socialist government - evolutionary rather than revolutionary - could hope to bring together all peoples of whatever origin and outlaw racial and religious conflict, with all men becoming brothers, thereby bringing an end to anti-Semitism and pogroms."

And so we find, not too many years later, the New York City Jewish cigar-makers each contributing a small sum to hire a man to sit with them as they worked - reading aloud the classic works of Yiddish literature. And the leader of the New York cigar-makers, Samuel Gompers, became the first president of the American Federation of Labor.

Green's own family joined the rebellion:

"In embracing the principles of free-thinking non-religious belief, my parents had made a profound break with the past. The generation gap with their own parents was unbelievably deep. They had been born and brought up in a world that brooked no deviation. . . They were turning their backs on the fearsome God of their forefathers who had ruled Jewish lives for thousands of years. . . They realized that maintaining their beliefs set them apart from the mainstream of Jewish life, but the fact that they were a small minority did not bother them. "

They became part of a Jewish tradition that profoundly shaped the politics, social conscience, and cultural course of 20th century America. It helped to create the organizations, causes, and values that built this country's social democracy. While Protestants and Irish Catholics controlled the institutions of politics, the ideas of modern social democracy disproportionately came from native populists and immigrant socialists, heavily Jewish.

It is certainly impossible to imagine liberalism, the civil rights movement, or the Vietnam protests without the Jewish left. There is, in fact, no greater parable of the potential power of a conscious, conscientious minority than the influence of secular Jews on 20th century modern American politics.

Sadly, however, social and economic progress inevitably produced a dilution of passion for justice and change not just among Jews but within the entire post-liberal elite. And, in many ways, Israel became the icon that replaced the cause of social justice. This is not to say that the two are antithetical. That certainly wasn't the case when I was younger. But as Jewish rhetoric and politics became increasingly in the hands of powerful conservative interests, an iconic, unexamined Israel began to serve Jews much as an absurdly trivialized Jesus has been used by the powerful conservative Christian interests to serve their ends. And other things just got forgotten.

Just as it is important for Americans not to define their country's past by the tragic distortions of the past quarter century, it is important for Jews not to be misled by a powerful right wing's reduction of Judaism to the goals of a deeply misguided and militaristic nation.

The fact is both America and Israel have badly damaged themselves through grandiosity, arrogance and narcissism. Beyond that is a truth few want to admit: no culture, no ethnicity, no value system can exist in a vacuum any more. This is not the fault of terrorists or anti-Semites. It's the result of television and multinational corporations that have usurped the role of culture, values and ethnicities. Add to that Israel's demographic trends and you've got a problem that AIPAC and Abe Foxman can't help you with in the slightest.

The answer, to the extent there still is one for the human species, is to be found in honest, personal witness. You can't save Christianity with hypocrisy and you can't save Judaism with missiles. What might work, however, is to reach back into the past of one's own culture or ethnicity and find examples of actions and behaviors that produced positive change. Neither Christians nor Jews have always been as absurdly self-destructive as they are today. And before they offer any more dangerous directions for dealing with today's problems, they need to rediscover their own good paths.

It is along such paths - and not on battlefields - that faith is solidified, admiration is encouraged, and loyalty is attracted. And along the way you may even pick up some unorthodox stragglers like me.


At 2:37 AM, Anonymous said...

Correction: Half Jewish is not a correct term. There is no such thing as half Jewish. According to Jewish law, if your mother is Jewish then you are Jewish and if your father is Jewish then you are not Jewish. The Jewish roots are dependant on the maternal side.

At 12:22 PM, DBULL said...

I would agree that there is no such thing as being half Jewish, however I would argue that being a true jew is something that happens in the heart of a man, not as the result of carnal birth or lineage. How men determine who is or is not a child of God is of no account. The only thing that matters is how God views who His children are. This happens by considering what's in a man's heart, not who his parents are....

At 6:36 PM, Arieh Lebowitz said...

Back to Jews and labor, it seems appropriate to mention the Jewish Labor Committee, where I work as of all things Communications Director. Here is something from a flyer that we'll be distributing at a conference of educators over the weekend:

"The Jewish Labor Committee is an independent secular organization that helps the labor movement and the Jewish community work together on important issues of shared interest and concern. We work with a range of union members, from teachers and other educators to plumbers, social service workers, building maintenance workers … At the same time, we work with a range of Jewish community organizations and their staff and lay-leaders, from Jewish educators to rabbis, Jewish community federation leaders, community relations experts …
While our national headquarters are in New York City, we have staffed local/regional offices in Chicago, Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Detroit, and Los Angeles -- and volunteer-led JLC or JLC-affiliated groups in such places as Washington, DC; Cleveland; Miami; and Arizona."

You can find some interesting material at our website -- www.jewishlabor.org -- but here's something else from that flyer I mentioned earlier. I should note that it was originally drafted by our Chicago Director, Eli Fishman:

"In response to the rise of Nazism in Europe, Jewish trade union leaders and activists in kindred organizations formed the Jewish Labor Committee (JLC) in 1934. Most of these men and women were either immigrants or children of immigrants. The Jewish Labor Committee represents the crucial overlap of the organized Jewish community and the organized labor movement — two vital sectors of American society.
Since the mid-‘70s, the JLC has been working to strengthen educational programs in public schools on the Holocaust. It has educated American labor on some of the many challenges confronting Israel, a nation founded by organized labor and sustained by it for many decades. As a member of a range of local and national Jewish community organizations, the JLC has advocated on behalf of better conditions for working men and women and their unions. The history of Jewish involvement in the U.S. labor movement goes from the 1880s to this day:
Samuel Gompers helped organize the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in 1886. He was the AFL’s first president, which is the position he held for 40 years. Gompers was born in 1850 into a Jewish family of Dutch ancestry in London. Throughout his years as a national – and international -- labor leader, Samuel Gompers was committed to trade unionism as essential for bringing about social reform.
Sidney Hillman was another early leader of the U.S. labor movement. Hillman was founder of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers (now UNITE-HERE) and its president from 1914-1946. Born in Lithuania in 1887, Hillman left home at 14 to attend rabbinical school. As a result of Czarist persecution, Hillman fled the country, immigrating to Chicago in 1907. Hillman began work as a cutter at garment manufacturer Hart, Schaffner and Marx. In Chicago, he met his future wife, Bessie Abramowitz, one of the leaders of a 1910 strike. In 1937, Hillman was among the founders of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). He was elected the CIO’s first vice-president.
Another labor leader, David Dubinsky, was born in 1892 in Poland. Working as a baker in his father's shop at age 14 he joined the bakers’ section of General Union of Jewish Workers covering Lithuania, Poland and Russia (Jewish Labor Bund). Dubinsky was arrested for his activism within the bakers and banished to a Siberian prison camp from which he escaped and emigrated to the United States in 1911. Dubinsky became a cloak cutter in New York and joined the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU). He served as ILGWU president from 1932 until his retirement in 1966.
Dubinsky’s success and the effectiveness of the ILGWU were assured by a number of Jewish women activists. These included Clara Lemlich Shavelson, who helped catalyze a massive 1909 strike by women’s garment shop workers. Fannia Cohn was elected vice president of the ILGWU in 1916—the first woman to hold high union office. Rose Schneiderman was a garment worker activist who served as president of the Women’s Trade Union League for 30 years.
Interestingly, a number of American Jewish union leaders, such as Max Pine of the United Hebrew Trades and Max Zaritsky of the United Hatters, Cap and Millenary Workers’ International Union, played a pivotal role in the establishment of the State of Israel. Their efforts included the mobilization of the larger labor movement in supporting Israeli statehood and substantial economic aid to the Histadrut, the General Federation of Jewish Workers in Palestine. The Histadrut provided military defense for the Jewish community in Israel through the Haganah, the mainstream Jewish defense forces in pre-statehood Israel.
From its earliest days, the U.S. labor movement has had deep roots in America’s Jewish population. This is still true today. The Jewish Community has been broadly supportive of worker rights for many years, even as it evolved from a predominantly working-class community in the first part of the twentieth century to a predominantly professional and entrepreneurial community today. The support comes from many sources, including a collective memory of a period of mass immigration, when Jewish workers toiled in difficult and often desperate conditions in the garment industry, and from the social justice imperative that is so important to Judaism
Organized labor is grappling with diverse challenges. In the new millenium, organized labor is still the only collective voice for working people, whether or not they are union members.
While the proportion of Jews working in industries of the historic Jewish labor movement has declined significantly, the commitment of the U.S. Jewish community to the fundamental principles of the labor movement, to basic workers’ rights, still remains strong. Maintaining the vigor of organized labor and the future of American Jews are intrinsically interwoven. Founded on principles of social justice and recognizing the value of each human being are common elements that bind the two groups. No one group can on its own sustain a sense of communal responsibility in America, but the American Jewish community and organized labor will, we believe, stand firmly united for the equitable treatment of all working people."

>> Arieh Lebowitz
>> Communications Director
>> Jewish Labor Committee
>> 25 East 21st Street
>> New York, NY 10010

email: jlcexec@aol.com

At 10:35 AM, Robin Margolis said...

Dear Friends:

Actually, there is such a thing as a "half-Jewish" or "part-Jewish" person.

Mr. Smith is correct in his usage of the term.

For more information about adult children and grandchildren of intermarried Jews, please visit the Half-Jewish Network at:


Robin Margolis

At 10:18 AM, ChloeJones said...

I agree with you!How men determine who is or is not a child of God is of no account. The only thing that matters is how God views who His children are.

Chloe Jones

At 10:18 AM, ChloeJones said...

I agree with you!How men determine who is or is not a child of God is of no account. The only thing that matters is how God views who His children are.

Chloe Jones


Post a Comment

<< Home