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Puppy Politics

Rokhl’s Golden City: What a dog named Labzik can teach us about communism

Rokhl Kafrissen
April 30, 2021
Schlesinger Library/Flickr Commons
Schlesinger Library/Flickr Commons
Schlesinger Library/Flickr Commons
Schlesinger Library/Flickr Commons

One day a woman boarded the subway at the Sutter Avenue Station in Brownsville, Brooklyn. She was carrying a puppy in a basket. She tried to explain her sad dilemma to the dog: “Don’t think … that I don’t like you. I love you, but there’s nothing to give you to eat, and that’s actually why we had to send away our little Emma to her aunt’s house in Boston.” But the dog, named Labzik, didn’t understand English. His only response was a happy “Woof, woof!”

It was the middle of the Depression. The woman with the basket knew what she must do. She traveled all the way to the Bronx, where she turned Labzik onto the platform, and sped off with the train. Labzik was suddenly all alone, in a faraway borough. But before you get too sad, rest assured that this is how Labzik came to have a cozy new home with plenty to eat. After waiting hours in the damp chill, Labzik was found by kindly Berl the Operator, on his way home from work. Berl wrapped the suffering pup in the pages of the Morgn Frayhayt, the communist Yiddish newspaper, and took him home. Labzik didn’t object to this treatment, and Berl “knew that he had found a real mensch.”

Perhaps it’s a little too easy, but Chaver Paver’s Yiddish language Labzik: Stories of a Clever Pup gives us the perfect metaphor for the book, and its cultural-political milieu, in the first few pages. The year it was published, 1935, was the opening of the Popular Front for the Communist Party. A previously combative stance toward other factions on the left was replaced with a new, conciliatory era. Could you say the American Communist Party’s Yiddish newspaper, the Morgn Frayhayt, was now a polemic wrapped around a friendly, cuddly, doggie center? Not quite, but it’s also not altogether wrong, either.

Chaver Paver (pen name of Gershon Einbinder) was both a contributor to the Frayhayt, as well as a teacher and writer for the International Workers Order network of communist-aligned Yiddish schools, or shules. In the 1920s and ’30s, politically infused Yiddish literature for children was booming, with “socialists, communists, and Zionists” each having their own youth publications “through which they sought to stake a claim on the Jewish future,” according to Miriam Udel’s article “Papa Stalin and the Happy Family: Communist Yiddish children’s books in the Soviet Union and United States.” According to Udel, those political tendencies were most prominent in “communist fiction for children, where the traditional centrality of the family was reassessed or subverted altogether.”

Udel identifies Labzik’s author, Chaver Paver, as the “avatar” of American Yiddish communism. Unlike his Soviet counterpart, Leyb Kvitko, Chaver Paver’s stories “cast the family as a microcosm of a cheerfully functioning, democratic country.” Papa Berl goes to work and mama Molly is a berye, a talented homemaker. Daughter Rivke is nurturing and son Mulik is brave. Despite being slotted into these preestablished, heteronormative roles, the five members of the family (including Labzik, obviously) are mutually supportive and involved in each other’s lives. The home is where Rivke and Mulik’s “political identity is cultivated,” unlike Kvitko’s Soviet setting, where parents are absent so that the state, and the ultimate papa, Papa Stalin, may take over as head of household.

With Labzik’s cozy, cheerful home thus established, he is free to go on all sorts of adventures with his family members. The stories are didactic, true, but Labzik is so clever and brave and, at times impulsive, that it’s no wonder children identified with him, and adult readers continue to fall in love with him.

Lucky for those of us who don’t read Yiddish, eight decades after his appearance, Labzik is undergoing a bit of a renaissance. Thanks to a translation fellowship at the Yiddish Book Center, Udel will soon be bringing out the first ever English translation of Labzik: Stories of a Clever Pup. Even better, Udel, an associate professor at Emory University, has teamed up with Theatre Emory to adapt four of the stories as Labzik: Tales of a Clever Pup, a filmed-for-streaming puppet show this spring, directed by puppeteer and theater artist Jake Krakovsky. (Full details at the end.)

Both Udel and Krakovsky look to the interwar Modicut puppet theater as one of their inspirations, a nexus of puppetry and aesthetics and politics and children’s culture that spoke to people on a high level. Between 1924 and 1933, Yosl Cutler and Zuni Maud collaborated on the wildly successful Modicut. Eddy Portnoy and David Mazower describe how the partnership fused “Jewish tradition with an acidly satiric and surrealistic sensibility,” adding that “Zuni Maud and Yosl Cutler were responsible for some of the most original and unique art produced in the Yiddish universe.” Maud and Cutler also shared the same cultural and political circles as Chaver Paver.

Jake Krakovsky decided to insert Chaver Paver himself as a metanarrative device, addressing the audience from his post-1935 Los Angeles office, decorated with a palm tree and a portrait of Itche Goldberg (the tireless leader responsible for decades of Yiddish communist pedagogical planning and practice). It was a smart move. The Chaver Paver puppet not only introduces the stories, he brings out the context and motivations of the elite world Chaver Paver and other cultural activists inhabited.

In one of the stories adapted for this new production, Labzik accompanies a protest march to City Hall. The mayor’s assistant comes out to tell the people that the mayor can’t see them because he is in Albany. Clever Labzik darts through the legs of the phalanx of police and horses guarding City Hall. He sneaks inside and emerges with the mayor’s fancy hat in his teeth, proving that the workers have been lied to. When I spoke with Udel recently, she pointed to this story to illustrate her admiration for how well Chaver Paver communicates the truly noble ideas of the left, ideas about solidarity, the structural challenges of policing, and the limits of American democracy.

And what of those who feel Yiddish communists remain irredeemably treyf, tainted forever by their proximity to Stalinism? Udel switches hats, from professor to rabbi, quoting Ben Zoma in Pirkey Oves (Sayings of the Fathers): “Who is wise? The one who learns from every person.”

Udel holds rabbinical ordination from Yeshivat Maharat, with the title of darshanit. The two sides to her training, the literary and the rabbinical, lend her a particularly nuanced and empathetic approach to what can be extremely tricky historical territory. Rather than scolding idealists like Chaver Paver, she is wistful. The Yiddish of Chaver Paver, she told me, was an instrument to reach the secular workers where they were. And the rabbi in her wants the kids in the thickly Yiddish milieu portrayed in Labzik to have more of a purchase on Jewish culture and Jewish sources of meaning. From the vantage point of 85 years later, a minority language like Yiddish didn’t stand a chance against English. When the language is all you’ve got, then two generations later, “you haven’t got a lot.” It can be painful to read about Rivke and Mulik defending their Lenin-vinkl, (a corner of the home set up to admire Lenin and designed to replace the traditional Russian icon corner). “All of the loss inscribed in that story, that gives me pang.”

Labzik director Jake Krakovsky hit a similar note when I spoke with him. The 30-year-old Krakovsky felt it was key that the dialogue remain in Yiddish, with English narration. Having recently come to the Yiddishist world, retaining Yiddish dialogue was a way for him to share that experience with audiences. And, “from the perspective of Jewishness,” without the Yiddish, there wasn’t much inherently Jewish about the text, aside from the context. “I couldn’t simply present the words in translation; I had to present the text in the original language so the audience would be soaking in that context.”

As you may imagine of a pup brought home wrapped in the pages of a communist daily, and published by the IWO, Labzik’s creation was wrapped up in ideology, and so, too, was his disappearance. The IWO was the communist aligned fraternal order established in 1930, and provided a number of different member benefits and insurance products. At its peak, the IWO had around 200,000 members, the majority of whom were not Communist Party members. The IWO was arranged around national and language sections, with the largest being the Jewish Peoples Fraternal Order, reaching 50,000 members before its demise. In 1951, the State of New York Insurance Department began targeting the IWO on account of its Communist Party ties. The state used the laws governing insurance to attack, and ultimately liquidate the IWO and its many sections. It took a couple years in court, but they were finally successful. What had once been a nationwide, mass membership movement was now a ghost.

Today, the confiscated archives of the JPFO and IWO are at Cornell University’s Kheel Center. Elissa Sampson is a visiting scholar and lecturer at Cornell and, with Jennifer Young and Robert Zecker, she was the organizer of a groundbreaking conference this past December called “Di Linke: The Yiddish Immigrant Left from Popular Front to Cold War.” The videos and full transcripts will go live on a new conference website on May 1.

With a diverse set of speakers and participants, “Di Linke” explored the history, cultural and political activities of the JPFO and its milieu. It’s hard to describe just how fascinating this material is, and how important is the work being done in its archive. The IWO and JPFO have been so thoroughly scrubbed from Jewish American history, and American history, that most of us simply have no reference point.

“Excising di linke (the left) from a larger, messy narrative of American Jewish life continues the legacy of a Cold War that no one won,” Sampson recently told me. “Agency and angst can be glimpsed at unexpected points in these confiscated organizational files.”

The documents in the IWO/JPFO archive will be of interest to historians looking to deepen their understanding of American communists during and after the war. But the December conference sparked its own historical investigations. Because many of the attendees were men and women who had grown up in JPFO institutions, Sampson ended up conducting a number of interviews with them, many of whom recalled Labzik with great fondness.

“In the course of the interviews,” she told me, “I talked to people who studied … music with top-notch Yiddish chorus directors such as Bob De Cormier, folksongs with Ruth Rubin, and participated in Yiddish productions directed by … Jules Dassin. And of course, they learned Peretz poems, tons of Yiddish songs, and much more. A top notch Jewish (and broader) arts education for poorer urban Jewish kids who came from leftist Jewish immigrant homes was the ticket into loving the arts as well as to social mobility. But far more than that, those interviewed continued to truly love the cultural richness of their younger years even as they typically but not always moved on politically.”

Sampson’s reflections on her interview subjects provided an unexpectedly poignant coda to the Labzik renaissance. The mamoshesdik (substantial) heft of the JPFO world reads dramatically different when described by its inhabitants, rather than gleaned from dry texts, across a divide of decades. Indeed, it gave me an exquisite pang, not of loss, but of wistful longing, to have been a camper at some long-ago summer at the JPFO’s Camp Kinderland, if only just once.

MORE: Theatre Emory will be streaming Labzik: Tales of a Clever Pup on demand from May 24-June 5 … Miriam Udel’s Honey on the Page contains some of her translations of the Labzik stories … If you’re ambitious, you can read the Labzik stories in Yiddish, for free, at the Yiddish Book Center website … On June 17, the Yiddish Book Center will present Modicut Yiddish Puppet Theater, 1925–1933, a talk by Eddy Portnoy. Register here … The website with videos and transcripts from the December 2020 conference “Di Linke: The Yiddish Immigrant Left from Popular Front to Cold War” will launch on May 1 … One of the conference outcomes has been a series of oral history interviews with attendees. Cornell is looking to interview others who were part of the world of the JPFO. If you’d like to be interviewed, drop an email to [email protected] ... Additionally, Cornell’s Kheel Center is actively seeking donations of items that pertain to the JPFO’s world including shule and Kinderland materials.

ALSO: Join four Boston-based singers for Yiddish Folk Song: The Next Generation. Singers Adah Hetko, Kirsten Lamb, Eden MacAdam-Somer, and Abigale Reisman will be in conversation with Klezmer Conservatory Band founder Hankus Netsky and Forverts Editor-in-Chief Rukhl Schaechter. May 11 at 2 p.m. Register here … The Boston Workers Circle will present Singing for a Better World, a virtual concert featuring the A Besere Velt Yiddish chorus and guest artists Polina Shepherd, Lorin Sklamberg, Daniel Kahn, Anthony Russell, and Judy Bressler. Saturday, May 15 at 7 p.m. Tickets here … Live music is coming back to Brooklyn’s legendary Barbes, if only on a very small scale. My friend Eléonore Biezunski will be playing two sets on May 19, with Eleonore on voice and fidl and Ilya Shneyveys on accordion. If you want to be there in person, I suggest you buy tickets immediately, as seating is extremely limited … American Jewish University is presenting an intriguing new two-session class called Reclaiming Jewish Ritual: Twenty-First Century Klezmer. Rabbi Pinchas Giller will be joined by two of my friends and Yiddishland colleagues, trumpeter Jordan Hirsch and drummer/bandleader Eve Sicular. More information here.

Rokhl Kafrissen is a New York-based cultural critic and playwright.