On Sunday, Oct. 22, I’ll be traveling from my home in Ypsilanti, Michigan, to New York City to participate in a celebration of the 120th Anniversary of the founding of a major political and cultural movement in Eastern Europe, the Jewish Labor Bund. The event is being hosted and co-sponsored by YIVO Institute for Jewish Research and the Workmen’s Circle. Several of the announced speakers attended Camp Hemshekh (1959-1978) in the New York Catskills, described by Yiddish teacher Paula Teitelbaum as “founded by committed Bundist Holocaust survivors to share their ideals of democratic socialism and of promoting the Yiddish language and culture with American Jewish children.” Others, including Jack Jacobs, Irena Klepfisz, Zalmen Mlotek, Avram Patt, and Alex Weiser are scholars focused on Bundism and left politics, teach Yiddish, and use Yiddish in their creative work. A number of them grew up as children of labor organizers, some in Yiddish speaking Bundist homes. I will be one of the few presenters at the celebration who did not grow up with Bundist or Yiddish culture.
I come from a family of junk dealers, committed to Judaism through membership in a Reform congregation and an entirely Jewish social network. The Bund came into my life, not from family or community, but through books and what feels like existential necessity.
In the late 1970s, when I was in my mid-20s, I was part of a lesbian feminist publishing collective in St. Louis, my hometown. We wrote and printed newsletters, fliers, and posters that addressed a wide range of issues such as opposing anti-union “right to work” laws, support for a movement trying to keep a public hospital from closing, and reproductive rights for all women.
My day job was on the sewing floor of a coat factory where I did piece work running hems in cheap outerwear. I was active in the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union, but significantly, I was the only Jewish union member in a factory owned by Orthodox Jews. I was also teaching 7th grade in a Reform congregation’s Sunday school.
I came to these involvements haphazardly, through friends and following what seemed like the right thing to do. I had no ideological background, family connections, or social experience in the “left.” But I read a lot. I discovered the Jewish left through books, beginning with Emma Goldman’s two volume autobiography, Living my Life. I devoured and memorized Nora Levin’s While Messiah Tarried: Jewish Socialist Movements 1871-1917, which is where I first read about the Bund. But it wasn’t until I read the work of poet Irena Klepfisz, who did grow up in a Bundist community, in the anthology of lesbian writing, Nice Jewish Girls, that I began to see that my own idiosyncratic labor, feminist, lesbian, Jewish writing and activism had solid antecedents, first in Eastern Europe and then in the United States.
I remember my young self, rushing after work to the St. Louis County Library and finding a copy of The Jewish Bund in Russia: From its Origins until 1905, by Henry Tobias. I knew I needed everything in that book, and so I stood and Xeroxed all 409 pages. I still have the folder on my bookshelf.
The Jewish Labor Bund, founded in 1897 in Vilna by socialist Jews, was one of the most important leftwing organizations leading up to and during the 1905 Russian revolution. The Bund organized for labor rights among Jews, defended Jews against anti-Semitism, and organized with others for the establishment of socialism. The Bund founded schools, libraries, sports organizations, and the famous Medem Sanatorium, which treated tuberculosis in poor Jewish children. During the interwar years, the Bund was perhaps the strongest Jewish political organization in Poland. Bundists were leading members of self-defense groups before and during WWII, and though most of the Bund’s members and supporters were killed during the Holocaust, those who survived re-established Bund organizations in the United States, France, Australia, Canada, Mexico, South America, and Israel. Their children were brought up speaking Yiddish, marching on picket lines, and organizing for a more just society.
I worked my way through many of the books in Tobias’ bibliography, such as the autobiography of Vladimir Medem, one of the Bund’s primary theorists. Medem worked out the Bund’s approach to cultural autonomy, which both described how Jews existed as autonomous communities within the various countries in which they lived, and also advocated for the autonomy the Jewish community would need to thrive in a socialist country. For Eastern European Jews, for instance, it only made sense for education and organizing to be conducted in Yiddish, the language they used in their daily lives. Medem and the Bund envisioned national governing bodies in Russia and Poland to be federated structures of multi-cultural organizations, of which the Jewish population would be one.
The Bund’s struggles were not history to me, they were as immediate as a hot cup of coffee on the way to work. In September 1981, not long after the B-movie star Ronald Reagan was elected president spouting his “trickle down” theory of economics, I joined a busload of my fellow union members to travel to Washington, D.C. for a large “Jobs and Justice” march on the nation’s capital organized primarily by the NAACP, AFL-CIO, and the United Auto Workers. I was on the bus, but I was troubled about my participation in political demonstrations and protests. It seemed to me that everything about the world needed to change: nuclear weapons were proliferating, Anita Bryant was crusading against gays and lesbians, Reagan’s presidential campaign had been shot through with racist innuendo, and one of his first acts as president was to break the air traffic controllers union.
Yet my personal resistance felt like spitting into the wind. I was deep into my reading about Jewish socialists, yet still at a loss as to how my Jewishness could be relevant to my union work, how any of it connected to lesbian and gay rights. I admired Bundists who organized among and with other Jews, but I didn’t see a way to turn that corner in my own life.
The union chartered tour bus was full but comfortable. So that we could be ready to march early in the morning, the ride to D.C. was overnight. Near the center of the bus, several rows of seats swiveled to face each other with pull-up tables in between, a good setup for a game of cards, which we played through the long nighttime hours. Somewhere around 3 a.m., a guy across the table asked me, “What are you?” I knew what he meant; my olive complexion and dark curls had often elicited this question. I froze for a moment, awash in a vague dread that if I revealed my Jewishness, the comradely mood of the card game would be spoiled. I pulled out my go-to in such situations and said, “Well, I’m part Romanian and part Russian.” My truthful, but evasive, answer brought a skeptical snort and a round of side-eyes.
“OK, yeah, I’m Jewish,” I said, and everyone laughed and went on with the game. No one else seemed bothered, but the exchange made me uncomfortable and I soon excused myself and found an empty seat near the dark front of the bus where most everyone else was asleep. In a few minutes, I was joined by Henry, a lanky, young co-worker I knew from the shipping department.
“Why were you so reluctant to tell them you’re Jewish?” Henry asked quietly, almost as if it was my own conscience speaking to me.
“I don’t know,” I answered. But Henry wasn’t having it.
“Look,” he said, “if you could be proud of being who you are, proud of being Jewish, it would make it easier for me to be proud of being Black. Don’t be afraid to be who you are. I need that from you.” Henry didn’t wait for an answer—he got up and left me to stew. For me, it was a watershed moment. My brief exchange with Henry, along with my reading about the Bund, pointed me toward organizing within the Jewish community.
In the mid-1980s, “coalition-building” among “identity” groups was the parlance of progressive politics. This strategy seemed to me to be descended from the ideas discussed among Bundists nearly a century earlier. At the 1984 Democratic Party presidential nominating convention, Jesse Jackson gave his now famous “Rainbow Coalition” speech in which he explicitly called on “The white, the Hispanic, the black, the Arab, the Jew, the woman, the Native American, the small farmer, the businessperson, the environmentalist, the peace activist, the young, the old, the lesbian, the gay, and the disabled” to come together.
It became clear to me that for this Rainbow Coalition to be politically effective, it was not important for me as an individual Jew to view myself as part of the Coalition. Rather, it was important for me to get busy organizing my Jewish community to join the Coalition, and for the Coalition to be a political movement that understood and advocated for Jewish concerns. I learned to think about these things because of my readings about the Bund.
At the same time as Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition run for the presidency, I was hired to organize a national convention for New Jewish Agenda, the organization whose motto was “a progressive voice among Jews, a Jewish voice among progressives.” In my remarks to open the first plenary of the convention, I told the 500 gathered that outside of a very small group of lesbian friends, there were only two places in the world in which I felt at home: in 1897 Vilna and at a convention of New Jewish Agenda. I felt at home at the convention because I thought it was only among these comrades that my reference to the year and location of the Bund’s founding conference would be immediately understood.
I had found a home in New Jewish Agenda, but by the late 20th century, there was widespread ignorance of the large Eastern European political and cultural movement that was the Jewish Labor Bund. Many histories of the Bund come to conclusions similar to Philip Mendes writing in Jewish Currents (2013), in “The Rise and Fall of the Jewish Labor Bund,” that “Nazism and Stalinism delivered blows, ideology did the rest,” to explain the Bund’s decline in the late 20th century. Others claim that with the founding of Israel and the shrinking of the Jewish industrial working class, Bundism was no longer relevant. For me, these obituaries miss the point completely. We still need a reorganization of society that ends economic exploitation, the Jewish community is still culturally autonomous, and people like me still need to figure out how we Jews can participate in progressive movements for change.
One reason for the amnesia about the Bund is that their writings were largely in Yiddish, and need translation to be appreciated and used. Although I haven’t learned to speak or read Yiddish, those who do have crucially important work to do. For twenty years, from 1990 to 2011, I was editor of the literary/political Bridges: A Jewish Feminist Journal. The journal grew out of New Jewish Agenda, and had a Bundist outlook: it was a specifically Jewish publication that we saw as a participant in a multi-ethnic feminist movement. Bridges had a commitment to publishing Yiddish, with English translation, in every issue. We wanted to encourage the translation of the vast work by women: poets, activists, thinkers, whose ideas and literature has so much of relevance to our own lives. Many of these bridge building translators will be at the Bund’s 120th Anniversary where I plan to express my gratitude.
Today I work as a teacher and librarian in Reform and Reconstructionist congregations. At every opportunity, I include teaching/learning on feminism, anti-racism, immigrant and refugee rights, and Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation. In the Jewish schools where I teach, my colleagues are often college students who are passionate about resisting Trump, showing up for racial justice, and seeking justice for Palestinians. The young activists in the #IfNotNow movement, for instance, want to be the generation that will end American Jewish support for the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. They grew up in the American Jewish community and speak the language of Jewish summer camp and Hebrew day school. Seeking justice is their motivating force.
I want them to know the 120-year history of the Jewish Labor Bund. Before WWII the Bund, which was founded the same year as the modern Zionist movement, was strictly anti-Zionist. The Bund favored and fought for “do’ikayt” (“here-ness” or “localness”) and was against emigration to Palestine. After WWII, when some Bundists did wind up in Israel/Palestine, do’ikayt applied as well. The Bund was no longer stridently anti-Zionist, yet it remained committed to organizing for equality wherever Jews lived in the Diaspora.
At its third world conference in Montreal in 1955, the Bund adopted a policy toward Israel that stated Israel should treat all citizens equally regardless of nationality, prioritize peace with Arabs, stop territorial expansion, and find a solution to the problem of Palestinian refugees. In 1958, marking the Bund’s 60th anniversary, they published a pamphlet summarizing Bundist ideology and applying it to the State of Israel that stated, “reconciliation of the claims of the Jewish people with the rights of other peoples is the essence of the Bund approach to Jewish problems,” whether in Israel or in the nations of the Diaspora.
The Bund’s political discussions that led to these policies are the kind of discussion we need in the Jewish community today. They could be models for navigating our complicated commitments to our past, to land, to democracy. These discussions reveal that Jews have much in common with other peoples who also have old and continuing cultures—and modern problems—relating to diaspora and independence. The Bund’s commitment to secular Yiddish culture nurtured deep empathy for the human condition, mentchlekhkayt, and for the worlds that Jews inhabit, yidishkayt. When I see young Jews organizing against police brutality with the Black Lives Matter movement, joining with Standing Rock Sioux protesting the Dakota pipeline, and singing Jewish songs to tell AIPAC that they do not represent us, I see Bundism in action.
In a 2011 article in Haaretz, “We Fought for a Better World,” Benny Mur interviewed filmmaker Eran Torniner about his work with Bundists in Israel. “My first connection with them was because of the Yiddish,” he says. “They reminded me of my grandparents, who arrived here at a relatively late age and used to sit with their friends in parks in Bat Yam, speak Yiddish and look after the grandson. I heard them, I felt them. But that is not a reason to make a film. The reason is the Bund’s political ideas. Afterward, when I met the Bundists for interviews, I fell in love with them.
“My subject, in almost all my films,” Torbiner continues, “is deep and true socialism, of the kind I found in the Bund’s writings. All the people I interviewed for this film are first of all socialists. They speak socialist-ese, and only afterward Yiddish. Socialism comes first for them, even before the Jewish national identity. That is a legitimate and respectable identity, but it is not connected to the primary goal. That goal is for all human beings to be equal, worthy and decent.”
That pretty much sums it up for me, too.
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.