When he died in 1965, Benjamin Rosenbloom was described by the Wheeling Intelligencer as a forgotten trailblazer. As a legislator—he was elected to the West Virginia Senate and then the U.S. House of Representatives—he was staunchly opposed to Prohibition and a pioneer in anti-pollution legislation. A casual internet search confirms Rosenbloom as a feel good lead-in to a Secret Jewish History of West Virginia: the only Jewish congressman from the state; a brainy jock at University of West Virginia on a football scholarship. A more problematic Rosenbloom, however, shows up in a 1924 Yiddish cartoon about anti-immigration legislation titled “Evil-doer, Why Do You Beat Your Brother?” (He’s the evil-doer of the title.) It’s part of the new, eerily timely YIVO exhibit The Door Slams Shut: Jews and Immigration in the Face of American Reaction.
The Door Slams Shut features Yiddish political cartoons from Der Groyser Kundes, a satirical New York newspaper of the 1920s. Though the show is small, the cartoons are well chosen and powerful, with some standout work by Yosl Cotler, whose energetic lines buzz and leap with all the power of the industrial age. Political cartoons don’t generally have much of a shelf life, certainly not one measured in decades, but the fundamental questions raised in these cartoons, about American values and what we owe refugees, have never been more timely. There’s even an echo of the Yiddish slogan that was suddenly everywhere in 2018, mir veln zey iberlebn. A cartoon titled “Zi vet zey iberlebn” (She Will Outlive Them) shows a woman representing the Declaration of Independence languishing in jail, as the Ku Klux Klan and Jingoism keep watch on her cell. Like I said, eerily timely.
The early 1920s was a period of reaction against preceding decades of mass immigration. Xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment intertwined with panic about anarchists and other supposedly dangerous foreigners. The Comprehensive Immigration Act of 1924 built on limitations in the Emergency Quota Act of 1921, and set drastic quotas on immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe. The Comprehensive Immigration Act marked the end of Jewish immigration into the United States until after WWII. (Not to put too fine a point on it, the act essentially represented a death sentence for millions of European Jews.) And Benjamin Rosenbloom, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, served in Washington as its vocal supporter.
Rosenbloom introduced an amendment that stated that any immigrant who did not become a citizen within a certain amount of time could be deported. As Rosenbloom put it, “We do not welcome perpetual boarders whose interests may be elsewhere …” The motivation behind his amendment (which was not accepted) clearly shared in the wider anti-immigrant suspicion of the day.
In “Evildoer, Why Do You Beat Your Brother?” Rosenbloom is drawn as a decidedly unsympathetic caveman. He’s pushing down a Jew in a kapote, and holding a club over his head, ready to strike. The club says “complete cessation to immigration” in Yiddish. The caption at the bottom reads: “An old Egyptian street scene playing out in Washington.” The point is clear.
In America, even a Jew can be a Cossack.
From our point of view, it’s hard to understand why the son of immigrants would work so hard to keep other immigrants out. Of course, Rosenbloom didn’t know that closing the doors to immigration would mean the deaths of perhaps millions of Jews who would’ve otherwise come to the United States. But after the bloodshed of WWI, it wasn’t exactly farfetched, either.
To be fair, Rosenbloom wasn’t the only prominent Jew who agitated in favor of shutting off immigration. In a cartoon called “The Story Repeats Itself (A Hanukah Motif),” American Federation of Labor leader Samuel Gompers is drawn as a priest in the Temple, leading a pig marked “anti-immigration edicts” to the altar. Gompers, like many labor leaders, was against unrestricted immigration because he felt it depressed the labor market; he was acting on behalf of his (largely Jewish) constituency. For the cartoonists of Der Groyser Kundes, placing financial interests above vulnerable human lives was committing an act of ultimate defilement upon the Jewish people, as embodied in the image of the Temple. It’s not exactly subtle, but in this case, history was on the side of the cartoonists.
From the other side of history comes filmmaker Samy Szlingerbaum’s black-and-white meditation on postwar Jewish refugees in Belgium, Brussels Transit(1980), a new restoration of which had its U.S. premiere at the recent New York Jewish Film Festival. Part documentary, part reenactment, part experimental Yiddish memory work, the quiet melancholy of Brussels Transit is about as far as you can get from the high energy, overdetermined polemic of Der Groyser Kundes. What they share, however, is a profound empathy for the refugee experience and a search for a form that can express the anguish of those seeking refuge in a place ambivalent to the idea.
In 1951 the United Nations approved the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. The convention specified that those who met the status of refugee would be entitled to, among other things, identification papers and travel documents from treaty nations. But Szlingerbaum’s Polish parents arrived in Belgium in 1947. Much of the film is haunted by the way they arrived, bearing only useless papers for travel to Puerto Rico. Because they lacked the appropriate residence permit, his parents were forced to move frequently, hide their business, and suffer humiliating visits from the police. The narrative pivots back and forth between the recreated anxiety of 1947 and the present-day Yiddish voice-over.
Before his tragically early death in 1986, Szlingerbaum was a colleague of Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman, and her influence on him is clear in his long camera holds and beautiful shot framing, both of which resist any kind of easy narrative flow. Both Akerman and Szlingerbaum are also preoccupied with their mothers’ narratives. As in Akerman’s masterpiece, Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, the kitchen is the space of highest dramatic potential, and Szlingerbaum’s mother’s fight for space in a shared kitchen, in a country where she barely speaks the language, is one of the most heartbreaking.
Szlingerbaum’s mother is played by an actress in Brussels Transit, but the movie is narrated by his real mother, almost completely in Yiddish. It opens with her singing a folk song about a man driving a horse-drawn wagon, “Der Furman”: My home is the field, my bed is the wagon, My work is to crack the whip, so that the horses will pull.
She sings “Der Furman” as the camera travels along the train tracks in the Brussels train station. The contrast between the rural song and the urban setting establishes an emotional throughline for the film. The horse and the wagon are gone, but their forward movement, and their song, persist.
Listen: Song was an incredibly important part of the lives of displaced persons. “Vu ahin zol ikh geyn” (Where Shall I Go) became the emblematic song of postwar Jewish refugees.
More: March 3, if you’re in New Jersey (and I know a lot of you are) go to Livingston and see the brilliant trio of Ilya Shneyveys, Psoy Korolenko, and Zisl Slepovitch. Who Knows One is their kid-friendly, multilingual afternoon program of counting songs. More info here … Also in New Jersey, March 13 is your chance to see a concert production of Yiddish Glory, the Grammy-nominated album of lost Russian-Jewish songs of WWII … It’s hard to overstate the importance of the New England Conservatory to the modern klezmer revival. The groundbreaking Klezmer Conservatory Band is just the beginning of the story. To celebrate the 40th anniversary of the first klezmer jam session, NEC is hosting Klezmerpalooza on March 9 and 10, with concerts and workshops. Free, but make sure you register …Washington D.C.’s Theatre J opens its new production of Jacob Gordin’s great Yiddish Shakespeare adaptation The Jewish Queen Lear, March 13-April 7 (in English); info here … Did you know there is a Park Slope Food Coop Prospect Concert series? Now you do, and you can go hear Yiddish Songs for the Ides of March. Expect original and traditional songs of assassination, revenge, revelry, prophesy, and betrayal. 8 p.m., Friday, March 16, at Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture, 53 Prospect Park West, Brooklyn … Professor Naomi Seidman has long been on the cutting edge of Yiddish scholarship. Her new book Sarah Schenirer and the Bais Yaakov Movement: A Revolution in the Name of Tradition is about the establishment of the Bais Yaakov school system for girls. Seidman will speak about her book, and Basya Schecter (of the band Pharaoh’s Daughter) will be leading a performance of Yiddish songs from the Bais Yaakov songbook. Sunday, March 24, at 6 p.m. More info here … People are always asking me, “But Rokhl, what about Ladino?” I finally have an answer for you. On March 28, Anthony Russell and Sarah Aroeste are bringing their gorgeous Ladino-Yiddish song program (I saw it at the last Yidstock) to Carnegie Hall, by way of the JCC Manhattan. I suggest you get your tickets now … For Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, Purim is an entire season of building, community education, and spectacle planning. Their Aftselakhis Purimshpil is legendary. Check out their calendar here. The main event is March 30 … This is the second summer for Yiddish Berlin, the new summer intensive I’m kind of dying to attend. Aug. 12-30, under the direction of Yitskhok Niborski. Beginners welcome … Finally, all the panels from January’s packed Yiddish Anarchism conference are now streaming online.
(Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly translated the political cartoon caption.)
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Rokhl Kafrissen is a New York-based cultural critic and playwright.