“Brother, Friend, Comrade”: The Workman’s Circle and Jewish Culture, 1900-1930

Essay written by: Dustin M. Wax

We believe that misdeeds, injustice, falsehood, and murder will not reign forever, and a bright day will come when the sun will appear.

We believe there is hope for mankind; the peoples of the world will not destroy each other for a piece of land, and blood will not be shed
for silly prestige. We believe men will not die of hunger, and wealth not created by its own labor will disappear like smoke.

We believe people will be enlightened and will not differentiate between man and man; will no longer say “Christian, Moslem, Jew” but will call each other “Brother, friend, comrade.”

We believe the secrets of nature will be revealed and people will dominate nature instead of nature dominating them.

We believe man will no longer work with the sweat of his brow; the forces of nature will serve him as hands.

From “We Believe” by J.L. Kantor (in Epstein 1965: 17)

Something about Jewish history makes even absolute dates seem arbitrary, the event located so surely in space and time seeming to be just a momentary culmination of affairs begun long ago and far away. So, when I write that the Workmen’s Circle was established as a national order on September 4th, 1900, it is only because in order to tell a story one must begin somewhere, even in the middle. One could have as easily begun with the founding of its parent society, the Workingmen’s Circle Society, in 1892, or with the garment industry strikes of 1910 from which Jewish radicalism drew so much strength. Or one could cite the assassination of Czar Alexander II, which incited the pogroms which forced so many to flee Russian territories for the relative security of the West, or the failed revolution of 1905, which kicked off the second wave of pogroms and immigration and brought the more sophisticated political activists of the Russian socialist parties to America. One could cite the rise of new forms of Jewish messianism in the careers of the false Messiahs Shabtai Tsvi and Jacob Frank in the 17th century, and in the Hasidic movement in the 18th century, or the founding of the Jewish Worker’s Bund in 1897. All these events, scattered over space and through time, play a part in the Yiddish culture that arose on these shores and flourished for a few decades at the opening of the 20th century, of which the Workmen’s Circle was such a big part.

After such an introduction, it may come as a surprise to find that the Workmen’s Circle (WC) was founded as a simple mutual-aid society, providing for its members some unemployment relief, a graveyard plot, and life insurance for their families, simple necessities desperately needed by the poor immigrant workers. From such undistinguished beginnings, though, the order grew to become an integral part of the secular Jewish culture and radical politics which came of age in America. By the mid-1930’s, the Workmen’s Circle ran a tuberculosis sanitarium in upstate New York, a health center in New York City as well as a national network of physicians, libraries, Yiddish theater troupes, summer camps and resort areas. over a hundred Yiddish schools, and hundreds of branches nationwide, serving a membership around 80000. As well as stimulating the Yiddish culture, the Circle provided channels for its distribution throughout the country through its presses, publishing efforts, lecture circuits, conventions, and support of various other agencies. This culture, based in New York City, grew out of the intersection of East European Jewish tradition and the necessities of American life, reaching its peak at the balance between old and new, between yiddishkeit (Yiddish-ness) and Americanization, a moment during which a specific style of Jewish radicalism was developed, during which immigrant Jews helped build the modern trade union, during which Yiddish, up until then considered a jargon to be abandoned once Jews stood on an equal plane with everyone else, became the language of Jewish press, theater, poetry, and literature, during which what it meant to be a Jew was taken not solely as a religious meaning, but as a cultural, political, and historic meaning. This paper cannot hope to present an exhaustive survey of the making of the Jewish working class. Instead, I propose to trace a few of the ideas, some ancient, some utterly modern, some East European and some distinctly American, that came together during the first part of this century and found their expression in the Workmen’s Circle.

* * *

The first wave of East European Jewish immigration began after the 1881 assassination of Czar Alexander II. Before this time, Jews had occupied a region of the Russian Empire known as the Pale of Settlement, a generally agricultural region encompassing parts of present-day Lithuania, Poland, Ukraine, and White Russia. Within this region, they were the “go-betweens”– forbidden to own land, they made their livings at petty merchantry, tax farming, and small-scale artisan production. A number of Jews had been drawn to the few large cities in the Pale, such as Warsaw, Vilna, Minsk, and Odessa, where they worked in the factories of newly-industrializing Russia. The years before Alexander II’s death had been, if not good ones, at least less bitter than most– he had emancipated the Russian peasantry, reduced the mandatory Jewish military service from its previous 25 years, and allowed Jews some access to Russian universities (Dawidowicz: 8). But for some, this was too little, too late. Among those who assassinated the Czar hoping to spark a revolution was a Jewish woman named Hessia Hoffman (Sanders: 4). The presence of a Jew in the inner circle of conspirators might not have been necessary for the Jews to attract the worst of the chaos that followed, but it did make it inevitable. Several weeks after the assassination in April, a wave of pogroms broke out which lasted well into 1882. Thousands were killed, tens of thousands left homeless, over 100,000 financially ruined (Dawidowicz: 13). Ostensibly to restore order, the new Czar, Alexander III, passed the repressive May Day laws of 1882, reversing the modest liberalisms of his father. Some Jews stayed and fought the new repression; they rejoin this story later as escaped revolutionaries such as the Bundists. Many simply rebuilt their homes and hoped for the best. But for a growing population, escape to the West seemed the only option. Over the next 40 years, over one-third of Russia’s 8 million Jews would flee, most of them to di goldene medine, the Golden Land: America.

Already poor, whatever resources the East European Jews possessed was exhausted in their flight to America, so that most arrived here penniless. Once passed through the immigration centers such as Ellis Island, they began to seek out their landsleit (countrymen), the few familiar faces from their shtetl (town) or province back in Russia. With the help of landsleit or one of the Jewish immigrant aid societies, the “greenhorn” found work and a place to stay. Most of the Jewish immigrants stayed in New York City, flooding the Lower East Side tenements. Unlike immigrants from other parts of the world– Italy, Ireland, China– the vast majority of these Jews came with their families, or brought them over once they were established. Also unlike other immigrants, the Jewish migration was clearly a permanent move for those involved– less than 5% returned to Europe between 1880 and WWI, as opposed to the over-30% return rate for immigrants as a whole during this period (Howe: 58). Many of the new arrivals entered the garment industry, for a number of reasons: 1) the market for ready-made clothing was growing as the division of labour in America became more rigid, creating many new jobs; 2) many of the garment factories were owned by the German Jews who had immigrated under much different circumstances a generation earlier and who, though they shared neither Yiddish language nor Orthodox religious practice, would at least excuse Jewish employees from working on Jewish holidays and the Sabbath; 3) many had some skill as tailors or seamstresses in the Old Country, and those that did not could take advantage of the less skill-intensive aspects of needle work such as basting and finishing; and 4) much of the work could be done at home, allowing mothers and children to contribute to their families’ incomes. In addition to the needle trades, Jews worked as peddlers, jewellers, melamedim (elementary Hebrew tutors), launderers, small shopkeepers, and any other job at which a Jew could earn a few dollars. When moving pictures were invented and commercialized, East European Jews were first major consumers, then major producers, of the new medium. Mothers confined to the home because of small children took in laundry and boarders in addition to piecework for the garment industries.

So the immigrants earned enough to live and even, in any cases, to flourish. Those that managed to save enough money moved to new Jewish neighborhoods in Williamsburg and the Bronx, making room for fresh immigrants in the Lower East Side. A second (and larger) wave of immigration began after the failed revolution of 1905 sparked a new round of pogroms, even more intense than those in the 1880’s. World War I effectively ended East European Jewish immigration– after the Russian Revolution in 1917, Jews had far greater hope for a future in the Old Country, hopes that would not be dispelled until World War II– the Stalin/Hitler non-aggression pact, the Holocaust, and Stalin’s purges and repression of Jews in the late-40’s and early-50’s. In any event, growing racism and anti-Semitism in America brought about the official restriction of immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe, Jewish or otherwise, in the early 1920’s. By then, 650,000 East European Jews had arrived in America, over 1.5 million settling for good in New York City (Metzker et. al.: 1).

* * *

On April 4th, 1892, a handful of these Jews gathered in the home of cloakmaker Sam Greenburg to form the Workingmen’s Circle Society of New York, loosely based on the landmanschaftn of their fellow immigrants– small mutual-aid societies formed by people from the same town or district in the Old Country (Howe: 183-4). But the members of the Workingmen’s Circle were not united around a common origin; rather, they were bound by a shared political radicalism which, whether learned in the industrial centers of Eastern Europe or the shopfloors of New York, tended to alienate them from their landsleit and gentiles alike. As freethinkers and atheists, they were excluded from the Jewish cemeteries, gatherings, and charities; as Jews, they were excluded from those of the gentiles. Impelled by these practical and ideological concerns, the members of the Workingmen’s Circle came together with the object of providing financial aid in case of sickness or death, furthering education among its members, and establishing co-operative enterprises (Hurwitz: 14). This last goal failed–a cooperative barber shop was started but folded in a couple of years. But the first two were more successfully realized. At the first meeting it was decided that every other meeting would be devoted to the general education of its members. Lectures and discussions were held, mainly on the natural sciences–a topic chosen to expand their horizons without inflaming political disagreements. This official neutrality would become the key to the society’s–and the order’s, later–survival. They affiliated themselves as a whole with socialism in general, not with any particular brand of socialism.

It was a successful position. By 1900 the society had opened two satellite branches, one in Harlem and the other in Williamsburg, and it was decided to reorganize as a national order. So, with 3 branches and 872 members, the Workmen’s Circle was formed. The objectives of the new order were spelled out the following year in their Declaration of Principles:

The constant want and frequent illness which particularly afflict the workers, have led us to band together… so that by united effort we may help one another.

The Workmen’s Circle, however, is aware that the aid it is able to offer the working people to- day is like a drop in the bucket. It will do in time of need. But that there shall be no need,–that is its ideal. …

[I[ts spiritual object [is] the object of helping to develop in working people a sense of solidarity, a clear, enlightened outlook, the striving, by means of their unity, to acquire that influence in ultimately, bringing on the day of their complete emancipation from exploitation and oppression (In Hurwitz: 115-6).

This general vision of a better society and commitment to present conditions would be challenged through the years to come, as revolutionary socialists and, later, communists, protested aid to the suffering, arguing that it would blunt the drive towards revolutionary change and ultimately reinforce the status quo. From other quarters would arise the complaint that all politics, even the only general socialist politics endorsed in the Declaration, should be left to the parties and unions, leaving the Workmen’s Circle to provide solely mutual-aid and companionship for its members. These arguments arose over the somewhat ambiguous position of the new organization. Neither party nor union, it was required that each member support the workers through involvement in a worker’s party and a trade union. What was left for the Workmen’s Circle (and, it turns out, there was a lot left) would be worked out over the next several decades as the order grew and became more involved in, and influential on, the Yiddish-speaking community. What is clear, at any rate, is that the WC’s objectives left a lot of latitude for interpretation, a latitude which would meet its first test with the arrival of the second wave of East European Jewish immigration after 1905.

Twice as many Jews arrived in America between 1905 and World War I as in the 25 years before. Where the first wave had been the young and most dispossessed of East European Jewry, the later arrivals were generally older and better established in the Old Country. They were the ones who had chosen not to leave before, to weather the storm which only became worse after the failure of the 1905 Revolution. This wave of immigrants carried with it the politically sophisticated members of the Bund: men and women who had organized the self-defense committees against the pogroms, who had played an integral part in the 1905 Revolution, who had organized strikes and unions throughout Eastern Europe. The Bundists brought with them not only a well-developed radical theory, but the practical experience to put it into action. To the Workmen’s Circle, they brought not only a political program, but a cultural program, a practical basis on which to realize a socialist vision.

* * *

Rather than turning to the immediate sources of this vision in the radical politics of Russia and America, we turn now to a profound shift in Jewish thinking which occurred several centuries ago with the advent of the messianic movements of Shabtai Tsvi and Jacob Frank and the mystical movement of Hasidism. These developments over the 17th and 18th centuries set the tone of future Jewish intellectualism and political action, promoting an image of active Jewish resistance of which the Workmen’s Circle is but one reflection.

The messianic tradition in Judaism goes back at least to the destruction of the First Temple. Its importance as a condition of the Christian tradition is easily recognized. What is essential to the Jewish tradition is that until the shift marked by Shabtai Tsvi’s movement, Jewish faith in the coming Messiah was largely passive; when the Jews had suffered enough, when God saw fit to act, the Messiah would be sent to redeem His Chosen People. What distinguishes Tsvi from his ancestors is his resolve to wait no longer, but to act. He therefore took it on himself to hasten the redemption of his people, declaring himself the Messiah and gathering around him a significant number of believers. His movement was not an immediate success and, captured by Muslims while leading an army to free Jerusalem, he was forced to convert to Islam and disband his followers. His story may have become little more than a footnote in Jewish history except for a small group of his followers who founded a sect in Salonica to perpetuate Tsvi’s teachings, and into which a fugitive Jacob Frank stumbled in 1753. Once again a man took on himself the burden of his people’s redemption, declaring himself Messiah. But whereas Tsvi had only reversed a few minor precepts of Jewish law and endorsed an ecstatic brand of worship, Frank evolved a new ideology, “salvation through sin”: “All law, both Jewish and non-Jewish, was to be abrogated; people were to be free to do just as they pleased” (Wolfe: 20). Rumours abounded of the orgiastic rites of the Frankists. Frank himself and many of his followers were made to convert to Catholicism, apparently to tame him, and when that did not work, he was confined to a monastery. Unlike Tsvi, Frank’s influence was wide-spread, being felt throughout Europe and especially in France where, after Frank’s death, his followers were active in the French Revolution and made up a significant part of socialist thinker Saint-Simon’s followers (Wolfe: 80-9).

While Frank and his army were roaming Western Europe, a quieter revolution in Jewish though was occurring in he East with the teachings of Baal Shem Tov. Quieter, but no less profound. While Frank’s messianism was made up of equal parts charlatanry and mysticism, Baal Shem Tov’s Hasidism was based on individual transformation towards true justice via Jewish epiphany. Frank bypassed God and the world in taking the title Messiah; Baal Shem Tov adopted a different tactic–through prayer, meditation, self-improvement, devotion, and sheer determination, he set out to force God’s hand, to make Him transform the world:

And it came to pass that the great Rebbe Israel Baal Shem Tov, Master of the Good Name,… decided to try once more to force his Creator’s hand. He had tried many times before–and failed. Burning with impatience, he wanted to end the ordeals of exile forcibly; and this time he was but one step away from success…. The Diaspora had lasted long enough; now men everywhere would gather and rejoice (Wiesel: 1).

The Hasidim in the East, like the Frankists in the West, decided to stop waiting for God to send the Messiah and took it on themselves to hasten His arrival. If God would not redeem them, they would redeem themselves. The Frankist threw themselves into the political battles of the day; the Hasidim concerned themselves more with religious life than with politics. But both movements contributed a new brand of messianism which turned the focus away from God and toward action in the world, an essential ingredient of the developing Jewish awareness which arose following Alexander II’s assassination. For them, the promise of messianism lay not in the vague goal of ending religious injustice, but in the more concrete struggle against economic hardship and exploitation. Like Frank and Baal Shem Tov, they would no longer wait for favors from God or from the Czar–they would make the new world themselves.

The Jewish Worker’s Bund articulated this brand of activist messianism into an especially potent socialist and Jewish political ideology. Founded in 1897, the Bund grew out of Jewish failures in following the example of Russian populist leaders who went “to the people”–the people being mostly anti-Semitic peasants whose concerns were mostly alien to the urban Jews’ experiences–which resulted in Jewish leaders turning their energies to the Jewish industrial labourers of the urban centers, focusing on problems specific to the Jews under the Russian Empire who faced oppression not only as workers but additionally as Jews. Bundist ideology explicitly linked the solution of the “Jewish question” with the liberation of workers everywhere, a view opposed to that of the Labor Zionists who felt that Jews could work out the problem of class oppression among themselves after they had escaped oppression as a people by returning to Eretz Israel (the Land of Israel). The uniqueness of the Bundist position resulted in the articulation of the concept of Yiddish cultural autonomy, an idea conceived and nurtured by Chaim Zhitlowsky, later to be an important member of the Workmen’s Circle.

An intellectual previously active in Russian populist circles, Zhitlowsky found the platform advanced at the 1897 Zionist Congress in Basel to be seriously flawed in its derision of Jewish diasporic culture and its utopian faith in a Jewish homeland. In his response to the Zionists, entitled Zionism or Socialism, he laid the foundation of Bundist ideology, writing that

socialism does not intend to abolish nations, to knead them into one dough and to make from that dough one large loaf–mankind (in Epstein 1965: 308).

Rather, socialism would allow each people the opportunity to freely develop their distinctive cultures. His call was for each people to govern itself according to its own wishes (within the bounds of socialist legality, of course) rather than kneeling down before assimilation to one great socialist culture.

Their emphasis on equality of differences contributed to the Bundist ideology of doykeit (here-ness). In opposition to the Zionist desire for return to Palestine, the Bundists asserted that the Jewish homeland is wherever Jews find themselves. The force of doykeit was expressed through the revival of Yiddish language and literature. Previously, Yiddish had been considered by Jewish intelligentsia as merely a medium necessary for the dissemination of their ideas among Jewish workers, a language to be cast aside when Jewish equality allowed them to lose their cultural “backwardness.” Inspired by the ideas of doykeit and cultural autonomy, Yiddish came to be seen not as just a language of convenience but as a symbol of the uniqueness and resilience of Jewish culture in East Europe, a cultural feature to be prized rather than denigrated. Yiddish culture was to become the basis for Jewish socialist autonomy, rather than an empty form imposed by centuries of systematic oppression.

After the failure of the 1905 Revolution and the wave of pogroms which ensued, a number of Bundists came to America, bringing with them the sophisticated political and cultural ideas developed in the Old Country. Like previous radical immigrants, many found their way into the Workmen’s Circle, then still considered little more than a source of assistance in sickness and in death. The arrival of the Bundists initiated the first major ideological split in the order, as the newcomers began to press for greater involvement of the WC in the advancement of Yiddish culture. The old guard, concerned that the WC remain a mutual-aid society and not dissipate its resources in other areas, argued against the suggestions of the more recent arrivals. The crux of the argument was the advocacy by the “Youngs” of a centralized education council to replace the unregulated and often substandard lectures the responsibility for which was then entirely in the local branches, many of which lacked the resources to promote quality educational programs. The “Olds”, on the other hand, were against any attempt to centralize the Workmen’s Circle’s structure. a reasonable concern given the history of Jewish involvement in the labour movement and reflected in the constitution of the order, which promoted rank-and-file democracy over hierarchical and centralized decision-making–all decisions were made either locally within each branch, or were decided by order-wide referendum.

Jewish labour activists had learned through experience to distrust attempts to centralize decision-making capacities. In order to grasp this distrust, we must consider the ambiguity of Jewish commitment to the labour movement before 1910. In an 1893 editorial for the Arbeiter Zeitung, Abraham Cahan (later editor of the Jewish Daily Forward) described the two most pressing dilemmas facing Jewish organizers–the “instability” of Jewish workers and the faulty leadership of the labour movement:

By the instability of the Jewish workers, we mean that they are not as accustomed to being union members as they are to carrying their heavy burden–When a strike breaks they get enthusiastic and demonstrate heroism that amazes the elder and experienced American and German union workers. But as soon as the strike is won and the struggle is over, their interest in the union meeting fades out. They forget that after the victory, the enemy must be shown that the unity which defeated him is still there…. A more important and greater danger is the leadership [who]… with time… become the Czars over them and turn their unions into instruments for their personal advancement. The entire union is dissolved in the great “I” of the leader…. Many an official has dragged the union into a swamp and from the swamp has pulled out a fat morsel for himself (in Epstein 1950: 189).

The instability of the Jewish workers had much to do with the leadership of the unions. Many of the union leaders, such as Samuel Gompers of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and his rival Terence Powderly, Grandmaster of the Knights of Labor (KL), took a strong anti-immigration stance during the peak immigration years of 1880-1915, a position resented by the East European Jews. They also found little voice in the big unions, dominated by English-speakers–a situation which could have been alleviated had the union leadership been more favorable towards the idea of Jewish leadership by allowing the formation of Yiddish locals. Instead, the uneasy relationship of the AFL and the United Hebrew Trades (UHT) developed, the UHT becoming powerful enough to avoid dissolution in the AFL but also becoming a focal point for inter-union political maneuvering.

The conditions surrounding the formation of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (ACW) illustrate the tension between Jewish labour and big union leaders. The garment workers had emerged as a major force after the “Uprising of 20000” and Men’s Cloakmaker’s strike of 1909-10 (a major factor in the growing power of the WC) which made their organization a primary concern in the following years. During a strike in 1912, a secret agreement between New York employers and United Garment Workers (UGW; a division of the AFL) leaders led to an unsatisfactory settlement which was rejected by the striking tailors, who broke from the union and formed an independent strike committee. In retaliation for this breach of discipline, many representatives of he tailors’ locals were excluded from the 1914 UGW national convention on the trumped-up grounds that their locals were behind in their payments to the national office, which exclusion was exacerbated by an over-representation of overall-makers’ locals (“a limited craft, scattered in a few small towns, employing mostly women and existing solely on a union label…” [Epstein 1953: 40]). The delegates from the tailors’ locals attempted to contest the issue of non-payment, but were barred from the hall. Points of procedure raised by other delegates were ignored and the excluded delegates attempts to convince the overall-makers’ delegates of the injustice done were foiled by anti-Semitism. Repeatedly thwarted in their attempts to be heard, the excluded dissidents, representing a majority of the UGW’s membership, opened their own convention, electing a new executive board and declaring their proceedings the “legal” UGW convention (43).

The new union was branded “secessionist” by the AFL, which refused to recognize it, but popular opinion and outrage over the UGW’s treatment of the delegates prompted the UHT, affiliated with the AFL, to recognize the newly-named Amalgamated Clothing Workers as a legitimate union. Gompers instructed the UHT to expel the representatives of the new union and replace them with UGW representatives, appealing to the need for “unity” in the labour movement: “Labor has no army, navy. or police to combat secession. It must rely on discipline” (48) he told them, demanding that the internal problems which prompted the split be resolved through official channels.

His pleas, often ringing with pathos, left the delegates unmoved. The differences in outlook between the speaker and his audience were too deeply rooted. He could not convince these young radicals that the labor movement should be subjected to barrack-room discipline, that workers had first to obey and to ask questions afterwards, that organizational discipline is above elementary democracy (48).

Unsuccessful in his appeal to the UHT, Gompers instructed all UHT-affiliated unions to withdraw from the UHT, again unsuccessfully, at which point they were all suspended. Finally, the UHT agreed on a compromise: the ACW voluntarily withdrew, but were not replaced with UGW representatives. Although no longer officially a part of the UHT, the ACW was supported by them in all their actions. A series of strikes ensued over the following years in which the ACW was successful in winning first a 48-hour week, then a 44-hour week, despite the opposition of the UGW and the refusal of support from the AFL. This success greatly strengthened the new union, drawing especially Jewish workers who chafed quickly under the “barrack-room” discipline of the AFL and its affiliates.

* * *

The struggle between “Young” and “Old” in the Workmen’s Circle had no singular resolution–rather, it became a creative tension which would characterize the WC over the next two decades. Essentially, it kept the WC conservative enough to avoid unnecessary risks which might have undermined it, while also being flexible enough to expand its role in the labour movement. Notably, these years represent a shift from “a fraternal order which also engaged in educational work” to “an idealistic, educational organization which also paid sick and death benefits” (Hurwitz: 36).

The educational function of the WC was established at the first Workingmen’s Circle meeting in 1892. The intention was to provide discussions and lectures in order to develop the workers “morale and [clear] his mind of the dust of the factory;…to open his eyes to the fact that he is a human being with energy, courage, and spirit…” (in Shapiro: 33). With the expansion of the WC to a national order and the influence of the Bundists’ cultural emphasis, the educational activities were expanded to encourage the growth of a secular Jewish identity in workers and in their children, becoming more and more central to the being of the Workmen’s Circle. This focus encompassed not only the establishment of schools and lecture circuits, but a whole array of WC-sponsored cultural activities meant to inform and express the secular Jewish spirit.

For instance, in 1915 the Workmen’s Circle organized the Folksbiene, Branch 555 of the WC–a Yiddish theatre troupe which presented classics in Yiddish translation as well as original works. Their first public performance was Ibsen’s “An Enemy of the People”, reflecting the quality and tone of their future work. The reception of this performance encouraged the WC to secure a regular theatre. They hoped to use the Neighborhood Playhouse, run by two sisters who offered dramatic productions and acting and ballet classes in an attempt to raise the cultural standards of the community. Philip Geliebter, then Executive Secretary of the WC and a strong advocate of educational projects, worked hard to convince the sisters of the worthiness of Yiddish-language theatre–their intention in forming the Playhouse had in fact been to draw immigrants into the English-speaking theatre as part of the Americanization process–directly opposed to the WC’s goal. Ultimately, though, Geliebter was able to show the sisters that “there was a Jewish culture and that Yiddish was one medium for its expression” (Shapiro: 124)–a position that had to be backed up with a “demonstration of the artistic quality of a Yiddish performance” (124). Before an audience consisting solely of the two sisters and the theatre’s manager, the Folksbiene performed “Joel”, by Yiddish author Peretz Hirshbein, which satisfied the artistic requirements of the Playhouse and inaugurated what became known as one of the finest Yiddish repertory theatres in the US.

Other local branches organized their own theatre groups, in addition to choirs, mandolin and symphony orchestras, and art expositions. A series of book publications begun in 1913 also contributed to the enlightenment of WC members. Following the success of The Universe and Man, a volume of essays on the natural and social sciences, the Workmen’s Circle regularly published books by leading Yiddish writers in editions of 6000 each, many of which sold out two editions. The books supplemented the regular publication of The Friend, the official Workmen’s Circle organ which printed short stories, poems, serial novels, and political tracts in addition to informing members abut official WC business matters. Through the WC’s efforts, they provided not only a forum for exposure to Yiddish culture, but promoted its members’ active involvement by providing an outlet for their artistic, literary, scholarly, and musical talents.

The centerpiece of the Workmen’s Circle’s educational program, though, was not its adult education efforts but its focus on children’s education. The first socialist Sunday school, not run by the WC, had been opened in 1906. Taught in English, it focused on a generally radical program of instruction which stressed the “great champions of human freedom and enlightenment” (167-8). It was followed in 1910 by the first Yiddish secular school for children. The success of this undertaking was the bridge it built between immigrant parents and their America-born children. Required by law to send their children to public school, the immigrants felt a deep chasm growing between them and their children, who were growing up speaking English and away from the traditional, community- based education the immigrants knew. East European Jews found their relations with their children reversed, the children acting as translators and guides for their Yiddish-speaking parents. Worse, many children began to feel ashamed of the backwardness of their parents. Hutchins Hapgood’s 1902 description of East Side fathers and sons is typical of the shift in family life:

In Russia the father gives the son an education and supports him…. But in the New World the boy contributes very early to the family’s support. The father in this country is less able to make an economic place for himself than is the son…. As he speaks English, and his parents do not, he is commonly the interpreter in business transactions, and tends generally to take things into his own hands. There is a tendency, therefore, for the father to respect the son…. While yet a child [the Jewish boy] acquires a self-sufficiency, an independence, and sometimes an arrogance which not unnaturally, at least in form, is extended even towards his parents…. He is aware, and rather ashamed, of the limitations of his parents. He feels that the trend and weight of things are against them, that they are in a minority… (in Howe: 253-4).

Yiddish secular education appealed to the parents who wanted their children to understands their parents’ world, language, and culture–in the words of Philip Geliebter, “to bring their children back to the … life of their people” (in Hurwitz: 169).

In 1918, the Workmen’s Circle opened the first of its Yiddish secular schools, intended to supplement the public school curriculum with instruction in Yiddish language and culture, Jewish history, the aims, ideas, and history of the labour movement, singing, dancing, and art. “The students are thus acquainted… with the best traditions of their people and with the radical outlook and spirit of social-mindedness which the Workmen’s Circle seeks to instill in its members” (Hurwitz: 173). The next year, the WC began a teachers’ training school, with 3- and 6-month courses of study intended to standardize methods and curricula. This was later extended to 1 year, and then two before merging with the Jewish Teachers Seminary as a 4-year degree program in 1927. In 1921, the school program was extended to include high school students, and in 1925 the first Workmen’s Circle summer camp, Camp Kinderland, was opened. Unser Schul (Our School), a monthly pedagogical journal, was begun to keep teachers informed of developments in education, and a series of juvenile publications were printed to provide quality learning materials suitable for children.

The struggles over the establishment, aims, and control of these schools illustrates, better than any other factor, the transformation of the Workmen’s Circle “out of its role as an organization into that of a social movement” (Shapiro: 103; italics in original). The Workmen’s Circle schools became the first practical application of the abstract notions of cultural autonomy forwarded by the Bundists. Chaim Zhitlowsky, original author of the Bundists’ ideology and by then a Workmen’s Circle member, was one of the prime advocates of the new schools, addressing the anxieties of many of the members who objected to the Jewish nationalism which seemed to contradict the cosmopolitanism of the earlier socialists. It was stressed that from the prophets and observances of Jewish religion could be drawn “social and moral meanings… [of] relevance to the society in which the pupils lived” (Shapiro: 108) as well as models for uprightness and equanimity. In a 1934 article describing the achievements and goals of the Workmen’s Circle’s educational programs, Philip Geliebter wrote:

In cultivating an interest in Jewish life and Jewish problems, in cultivating the knowledge of the Yiddish language and its literature, we have simultaneously cultivated the spirit of social mindedness. While acquainting the children, as well as the adults, with important epochs in Jewish history, with contemporary Jewish writers and Jewish literature, we have not neglected to acquaint them with the economic, political, and social problems of to-day, prompting them to think of a brighter future, a brighter tomorrow…. Jewish education should… have for its goals to make Jewish people realize the importance of identifying their economic and political security with the hopes and aspirations of the organized labor and socialist movement, of all progressive and democratic forces in society. [It] should be national in form, substance, and spirit, and international in its scope and aim (in Hurwitz: 163-5).

This compromise between Jewish nationalism and socialist internationalism convinced enough people to support the new schools and adopt the following objectives in 1918:

  1. to teach the children to read, write, and speak Yiddish properly;
  2. to acquaint them with the best examples of Yiddish literature;
  3. to acquaint them with the life of the worker and the Jewish masses in America and in other countries;
  4. to acquaint them with the history of the Jewish people and with episodes of the fight for freedom in general history;
  5. to cultivate in them a feeling for justice, love for the oppressed and for freedom, and respect for fighters for freedom;
  6. develop feelings for beauty; and
  7. develop in them high idealism and aspiration to great deeds, which are necessary for every child of the oppressed class in its march to a better order (Shapiro: 114).

Jewish culture was to be the medium by which socialist ideals would be taught.

* * *

The educational functions of the Workmen’s Circle were not only the expression of their ideology, they would become a location for struggle over control of that ideology during the second important split in the WC: the communist’s struggle in the 1920’s to usurp control of the Workmen’s Circle. The communists had split from the Socialist Party following the Bolshevik triumph in the Russian Civil War and Lenin’s rise to power. Two communist parties were launched: the Communist Party of America and the Communist Labor Party. Under instructions from the Communist International in Moscow, they merged in 1920, forming the underground Communist Party (CP) and the Worker’s Party, a legal and moderate facade for the illegal activities of the CP.

Few Jews initially joined the new party. Having recently escaped the Czar, most were not especially supportive of the Russian fascination with dictatorship, even one of the proletariat. But enough were willing to support the party that had deposed the Czar to cause a serious ideological split within the WC which ran throughout the ’20’s. The struggle engulfed the Workmen’s Circle, which had always maintained a non-partisan radical orientation, seeing itself as a democratic open forum for discussion, not a mouthpiece for the promotion of any particular party line.

Unlike in the labour movement in general, however, the WC majority could act with a firmness denied the unions, whose disruption could threaten the very livelihoods of their members. Nevertheless, most of the members preferred to settle the matter amicably, within the channels of WC procedure–an option ultimately denied them. Ironically, the WC had initially supported the new regime in Russia, calling for an end to the 1919 blockade and, though dismayed by reports of governmental abuses, considering the new Soviet Union as allies in the world-wide struggle for human liberation.

The first major sign of trouble surfaced in 1922 when the Russian Red Cross invited the WC to send two delegates to witness the laying of the cornerstone for a new hospital in Hormel, Russia, for the construction of which the WC had raised $35000–an indication of its ongoing commitment to the Jewish population still in Russia and of its support of the Soviet system. The delegates embarked for Berlin, where visas were supposed to be awaiting them at the Russian embassy. Once there, however, they found that their visas had been revoked. No explanation was forthcoming, until after their disappointed return to the US. It turned out that the leaders of the communist (also called the left) wing of the WC had wired Moscow that the delegates were intending to use their visit to stage an anti-Soviet demonstration. The Soviet government apologized for the misunderstanding, but the first volley had been fired and the damage done.

Each WC convention for the next 8 years became the site of struggle, as the communists tried to dishonour the leadership and replace them with leftists. In some branches, tensions ran so high that they split into pro-left and pro-right branches. The communists waged a war of propaganda, staging counter-conventions and distracting attention away from the necessary business of running the organization. In 1925, the membership voted a “discipline resolution” (Hurwitz: 70) which gave the Executive Council the authority to expel recalcitrant members, a clear mandate to deal with the disruption caused by the ideological disputes. Hoping to maintain the integrity of the WC as an open forum, though, the leaders were hesitant to use this new power until the following year when the leftists formed a “League of Progressive Branches” to coordinate the activities of and represent the left branches. The members were to pay a separate due to the League and receive from its leadership instructions concerning all WC referendums. This threat to the ideal of democratic procedure and to the operation of the order forced the leadership to act, which they did by dissolving the 64 branches affiliated with the League, comprising about 7000 members who were transferred to membership-at-large. The communists retaliated by seizing 20 Workmen’s Circle schools and Camp Kinderland (a move made possible by the fact that ownership of the schools was held by local branches, not the order as a whole). Overt hostilities ceased for a while, and over the next few years most of the branches and members were reinstated.

The final offensive occurred in 1929. Due to differing insurance laws from state to state, an Independent Workmen’s Circle (IWC) had been formed in Massachusetts in the early years of the WC’s history. As the WC’s membership grew, the laws under which the WC and IWC had split became irrelevant to their current situations, but problems had sprung up each time a merger was proposed. In the late ’20’s, these problems seemed to have been resolved and the two groups were set to merge in 1929. But the ousted WC members had defected to the IWC and managed, just before the merger, to elect a leftist administration which attempted to prevent their unification. However, the rank-and-file initiated a vote of confidence, ousting the new leadership by a vote of 2 to 1. Defeated in their efforts to take over an established order, and inspired by a change in communist directives from Moscow, the left gave up its battle over the WC and, in 1930, founded the International Worker’s Order (IWO), a mutual- aid society along much the same lines as the WC. The schools seized from the WC, along with Camp Kinderland, became the core of the IWO’s Jewish Section’s educational program, again run along much the same lines as the WC’s (Epstein 1953). The struggle cost the WC about 5000 members in all, most of which were replaced by the absorption of the IWC’s membership the same year.

* * *

Irving Howe writes that the success of the Workmen’s circle at the early part of the century “depends precisely on keeping intact its inner contradictions as these mirror, with a faithfulness no other institution could match, the changing experiences of the radical Jewish workers” (358). Old vs. Young, left vs. right, doykeit vs. utopia–the Workmen’s Circle “was a true barometer of the various shifts in allegiance and mood of a large segment of the community. [Every shift] was immediately echoed in the branches of the order” (Epstein 1953: 261). In a move rare among social and political movements of its time, the Workmen’s Circle developed and deployed what was at the same time a commitment to the here-and now and a vision for the future, exercised not through political jargon and propaganda but through education, mutual-aid, and artistic expression–while remaining surprisingly flexible and undogmatic.

In an article entitled “Resistance and the Revitalization of Anthropologists: A New Perspective on Cultural Change and Resistance” (1974), Richard Clemmer lays out a program for the evaluation of social movements and cultural revitalization which I find especially applicable to the case of the Workmen’s Circle at the beginning of this century. Written in response to earlier work which recognized cultural change only as a result of acculturation, Clemmer’s article shows that profound cultural shifts can result from resistance to acculturation. Clemmer distinguishes between the passive “steady state” that generally obtains for a given group and which is especially open to outside influences, and the active mode of cultural affirmation in which culture is reshaped from the inside, so to speak:

Fundamental beliefs are those convictions of what constitutes reality that are most important for the self-identification of a particular group adhering to the beliefs; they are most conveniently articulated as a set of assumptions. Action, or behavior, is the readily observable activity by which a collective effort to accomplish goals is manifested…. [I]deology is the very important transitional link between fundamental belief and action,… a statement of the moral superiority of fundamental beliefs…. Ideology transforms fundamental beliefs from the passive, cognitive level to the active, behavioral level… (222).

Fundamental beliefs are the cultural values expressed in the normal activity of day-to-day life- what Bourdieu (1984) calls “habitus”, the unreflexive, “natural” system of preferences, motions, clothing styles, habits, and so on which reflect our socialization into a given cultural system. Ideology arises when those values become the object of attention, as when they are brought into question through an encounter with other value systems, and reflects a conscious decision as to the desirability of those values. “Ideology thus presents a moral imperative compelling individuals ascribing to certain beliefs to validate and affirm the moral superiority of those beliefs by engaging in certain behavior” (222) which shows an active rejection of alternate beliefs. Ironically, though, in the (necessarily) selective affirmation of fundamental beliefs, the system as a whole becomes recentered and changed, so that essentially conservative efforts can often produce radical results.

The Yiddish renaissance of the early 20th century is a clear example of this process, in which the attempt to resist Russification in the Old World and Americanization in the New led to a cultural efflorescence unmatched in Yiddish history. The confrontation between Old World Orthodox Jewish custom and New World secular liberty brought into high relief the traditional ways of eating, dressing, speaking, acting, working, praying, believing–living. For many, the promise of America outweighed the comfort of tradition, and acculturation became the active goal. Others, faced with temptations of every sort, intensified their adherence to the Word of Law and Tradition with surprising persistence (as is apparent to New York residents). A significant portion of the immigrants, of whom we have told a part of their story, chose a different path, emphasizing in their traditions and beliefs those things they found helpful in resisting their degradation as workers and foreigners, forging from this selective resistance a socialist vision of the future and a social identity for the present. Rather than de-emphasize their Jewishness in the name of world brotherhood, they turned their very difference into an ideology of equality, putting into action in their day-to-day lives a revitalized Judeo-Socialist identity. What began as a gesture of convenience–the use of Yiddish as a medium for political discussion–became the means of cultural resistance on a huge scale, fostering the development of Yiddish theatre, art, music, and literature where two generations prior there had been next to none. The Workmen’s Circle, an important element in this revitalization both profited from and promoted the cultural explosion, seeing in the expression of Yiddishkeit the potential for the socialist ideal of a humanity free to develop its talents to the peak. The work of poets, novelists, painters, dramatists, and teachers, as well as their audiences, brought together and encouraged by the Workmen’s Circle allowed the immigrants–tired, hungry, poor, described aptly by one Jewish poet as “wretched refuse”–to be more than workers, more than Jews: it allowed them to be human.

Work Cited

Bourdieu, Pierre

1984. Distinction. Cambridge, MA: Harvard U.

Clemmer, Richard O.
1974. “Resistance and the Revitalization of Anthropologists: A New
Perspective on Cultural Change and Resistance”. In Dell Hymes, ed.
Reinventing Anthropology. New York: Vintage. Pp. 213-247.

Dawidiwicz, Lucy S.
1984. On Equal Terms. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.

Epstein, Melech
1965. Profiles of Eleven. Detroit: Wayne State U.

1950. Jewish Labor in U.S.A.: 1882-1914. New York: Trade Union
Sponsoring Committee.

1953. Jewish Labor in U.S.A.: 1914-1952. New York: Trade Union
Sponsoring Committee.

Howe, Irving
1976. World of Our Fathers. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Hurwitz, Maximillian
1936. The Workmen’s Circle: Its History, Ideals, Organization, and
. New York: The Workmen’s Circle.

Metzker, Isaac, ed. and Harry Golden
1971. A Bintel Brief. New York: Ballantine Books.

Sanders, Ronald
1988. Shores of Refuge. New York: Schocken Books.

Shapiro, Judah J.
1970. The Friendly Society: A History of the Workmen’s Circle. New
York: Media Judaica.

Wiesel, Elie
1972. Souls on Fire. New York: Summit Books.

Wolfe, Robert
1995. Remember to Dream: A History of Jewish Radicalism. New York:
Jewish Radical Education Project.

2 comments to “Brother, Friend, Comrade”: The Workman’s Circle and Jewish Culture, 1900-1930

  • I may be out of my element, because this is an area that I stumbled into. I am doing genealogical investigation for some of my family tree.

    One Maurice Rivkin, MD listed on his WWI draft card (ca. 1917) that he was employed at the Workmen’s Circle Sanitorium located at Liberty, NY. Is there a way to confirm the claim?

    As a boy in the 1950s, I lived in Liberty, but only had knowledge by word of the Loomis facility. Strange about history and peoples paths.

    Thanks for any help I may receive.


    Michael Dalton

  • This is past the period that I studied, but you might try the Workmen’s Circle office in NYC, they should either have records or know where the records might be found.

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