How Socialism Shaped American Jewish Identity

The Boston Globe reports,

In “A Fire in Their Hearts,” Tony Michels explores a chapter in Jewish life that, he contends, scholars have long overlooked — the rise of socialism among immigrants in turn-of-the-century New York.
With a few key exceptions, he observes, historians have viewed Jewish socialism as a short-lived import from revolutionary circles in czarist Russia. Socialism, they say, equipped Jews with political skills but failed to have a lasting ideological effect; for the most part, Jewish socialists abandoned radicalism as they took their place in mainstream American politics and life.
The dominant spirit in many histories, Michels argues, is celebratory — Jews have achieved material success while maintaining their religious identity. Injecting a healthy skepticism, he suggests that Jews did not so wholeheartedly embrace the American dream. He portrays socialism as a transforming experience for many Jewish immigrants, something that shaped their thinking and touched their souls.

Full story.

11 thoughts on “How Socialism Shaped American Jewish Identity

  1. “Jewish socialism” is an interesting term that suggests that there was something uniquely Jewish about the socialism that Ashkenazi immigrants espoused. I’d argue rather, that the socialism of Jewish immigrants was first and foremost an indication that culturally, many of the Jews from the Pale had adopted the emerging socialist attitudes of the surrounding peasantry. This caused the mass migration of dorfsyidn and shtetl Jews to industrial centers like Lodz. I.J. Singer’s The Brother’s Ashkenazi is a good account of the transformation in Jewish political and cultural attitudes.
    However, as Jews moved to the US, evidence of their socialist attitude is all over the Yiddish press of the day. Zionism, one could argue, was also a divisive element. The Arab riots in Palestine in 1929 caused a major split in the leftist Jewish community. Communists reading Di Morgn Freyheyt debated who to side with – the Arabs or the Jews. Many believed that the Arabs were participating in the birthpangs of the Revolution while other lefty Yidn believed that the Arabs were participating in the same sort of antisemitic violence as the Russians. Many strayed away from socialism and years later became the foundational intellects of Commentary and other non-Left Jewish circles.
    So I think its too easy to say that “mainstream American and politics” was the only catylist for the change in Yiddish immigrants political culture.

  2. Eli, you should click on the article – he is apparently talking about socialism circa 1890s. While that may not change your overall argument, it does suggest that we look at a different set of factors.

  3. Daniel,
    I concur that the factors that shaped American Jewish culture of the period changed from decade to decade. However ,the socialism of the 1890’s among Yiddish-speaking Jews in New York mirrored similar socialist attitudes among Jews (and gentiles) remaining in the Pale. The challenges that industrialization posed to shtetl-dwelling and dorfsyidn inexperienced with sweatshop life allowed the socialism of Russian and other socialists and communists to seep into Jewish workman’s circles. Naturally, the physical and cultural transformation that occurred as Jews moved to large cities, both in di alter heym and New York soothed the socialist attitudes of the intellectuals and their presses.
    However, and of course I haven’t even read the book, I would expect that Michels examines the reaction of left wing presses to Russian pogroms, both before and after 1917. These diverse reactions point to left wing attitudes that varied from paper to paper, Der Tog and Di Morgn Freyheyt two examples. Zionist attitudes and the large number non-industrial, merchant class, capitalism embracing Jews also helped to shape the eventual shift of Yiddish-Americans towards the embrace of mainstream American capitalism. Zionist papers of the time attest to this fact. Not to mention the factors of race that allowed Jews to climb up the economic ladder faster than other groups.
    But yea, i get what your saying.

  4. Why are we talking about the Socialists Jews and the communist Morgn Freyheyt as though they were on the same page ideologically or numerically? The Forverts certainly did not consider taking the side of those who instigated the pogrom in Hebron, and it’s most significant competing paper, Der Tag, was not socialist.
    Additionally, outside of their secularism, the Social-Democrats were not that radical, and their lip service to revolution was only in fiscal policy, and again–lip service only. Anyone who meant it was condemned. These guys went to war against the Commies.
    Please, Rabosai, do not disgrace the name of the Social-Democrats by including the Commies in their ranks. My great-grandparents would be horrified.

  5. “Do not disgrace the name of the Social-Democrats by including the Commies in their ranks. My great-grandparents would be horrified.”
    Nowhere are Jewish Social Democrats and Jewish Communists equated or associated with each other ideologically. But the ideologically climate of the period allowed for both of these groups to coexist and debate, regardless of their numbers or ideological differences. Whether or not Der Tog or the Social-Democrats were self-proclaimed socialists, both forums provided for the debate of socialism. This debate of socialism by Social Democrats is directly connected to the war against the Commies, evidence of this specifically in many of the paper’s lambasting of P. Novick and other fervently anti-Zionists behind Der Hammer and other far-far-far left papers.

  6. It seems that everyone is assuming that Socialism declined among Jews because Jews got wealthier (the “sell-out” theory). Maybe it was because, like everyone else, most Jews realized that Socialism was a destructive pipe-dream, a failed notion that ignored human nature (not a good thing in a social and economic policy).

  7. Fair enough, but let’s consider the following:
    What’s the evidence for the sell-out theory, or any other explanation? (No reason that any given explanation should be the default answer.)
    Were any polls taken over the last 60 years on this issue? I’m not aware of any large-scale study. (If someone is, please point it out.) (And I’m not sure how such a poll would be done – “Sir, have you turned your back on the poor and starving because now you got yours, or have you given up on Socialism because you finally grew a brain?” “Uh…”)
    If no proper study is available, we have to resort to individual statements and writings and conjecture (choose the most logical explanation).
    That said, I can point to numerous writings by various Jewish thinkers across the last several decades and across the political spectrum showing disillusionment with Socialism, from neo-cons to neo-liberals. As for conjecture, it seems to me that if respect for Socialism fell over the last few decades across the world (as its failures became obvious and manifest, and as Capitalism proved resilient and capable of providing a minimal safety net while also preserving freedom and the incentive to produce), then there’s no reason to accuse so many people of selling out. Why not assume that they simply wised up with everyone else?

  8. socialism faded because the new deal adopted the program, and norman thomas was an american firster. i was there.

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