Pins and Needles, Sweat and Tears
Jewish Labor in the USA: 1882-1914.
by Melech Epstein.
Published by the Trade Union Sponsoring Committee. 22-24 West 38th Street, New York. 456 pages. $5.50.

 

When I was fifteen and already destined to be a scribe, the first post I held in our “family circle” was that of “historian,” thus perhaps becoming one of those minor official historians and biographers whose work makes up such a large part of our contemporary Jewish literature. Although practiced quite extensively, official history seems to be—if measured by the voluminous records of landsmanshaften, vereinen, and other forms of communal life—a particularly Jewish vice. After all, the continual straining for yichus(“pedigree”) has been a characteristic effort of synagogues, philanthropies, defense organizations, and other communal groups, and “A History” is a means of certifying a recently acquired status.

Recently, the blight has settled on the Jewish labor movement. In many American unions, an official who has achieved the eminence of a statesman is usually presented with a car, or a house, or an annuity, or some similar slight token of respect; in the Jewish labor movement, his confreres commission a “biography.” The biography may be a sign of rising parvenu aspirations; it may equally be an earnest, if maudlin, effort to recall the early idealism that marked the bitter struggles against the degrading exploitation of the sweatshop. Whatever the motives, though, one fears that in these uncritical compilations a wonderful source of materials for Jewish history will be overlaid with a varnish so heavy that when it is finally rubbed away no usable surface will remain.

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In this flood of inadequate writing about the Jewish labor movement, it is a pleasure to come across a book of distinct value. Melech Epstein’s history of Jewish labor in the United States, despite its official sponsorship, is not an official history. It is an honest attempt to write the first general history of Jewish labor in English. Epstein is too responsible a writer, and has suffered too much in being faithful to his own ideas, to turn out, in his older years, the hack work that so often passes for history or biography. Yet such are the economics of Jewish writing that he has been forced to tread warily. The result is an uneven book. The initial sections on the European background, the bewildered reactions of the immigrant to the American scene, the early failures at organizing unions, are clean and sure. The industrial history and occupational analyses are scholarly and sound. The chapters on the emergence of an East Side culture (“in no other labor movement, at any period, has poetry been such a potent force; this was the peculiar experience of Jewish labor”) have an authentic pathos.

The later sections on politics, however, miss fire. Here history becomes mere chronicle and the swift flow of narrative is hobbled by an endless roll call of minor ancestors. No character assessment is made of the leading union protagonists—such as Hillquit, Barondess, Dyche, and Schlesinger (though these might have been held over for a prospective second volume). Controversial figures such as Abraham Cahan, the great Pooh-Bah of Yiddish radical and cultural life, are handled gingerly.

The five mass strikes from 1910 to 1914, the “great revolt” which for the first time solidly established the Jewish unions, are compressed into thirty-four pages and treated quite sketchily. Consequently, any adequate sociology of the movement is difficult: one is unable to discern, for example, why the Jewish unions succeeded only after 1910, why a stable leadership was so late in developing, and similar matters.

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These cavils should not detract from the solid achievements of the book—especially noticeable, its “feel” for organized Jewish working-class life in America. Perhaps the distinctive character of Jewish communal experience throughout our long wanderings has been its intensity. The Russian Pale, from which the Yiddish-speaking world of New York was drawn, was a walled island whose people lived in coiled anxiety against the moment when the wall would be breached. New York was for the immigrants from the Pale a nervous release of tension. Its quick and staccato growth expanded enormously the opportunities for each character-type to develop its suppressed potential. But in so doing, it set up such violent and extreme distances from top to bottom that the bonds of community became strained. The grober yung(“young boor”) developed into the sweatshop boss, the yeshiva bocher(Talmud student) into the Utopian intellectual, the luftmensh into the real estate speculator, the shlemiel into the political hack, the rabbi into the municipal reformer, and the vast masses, the nebichs(“poor fish”), were ground into the maw of an exploitative small unit garment economy.

The men who shaped the spirit of Jewish labor and fired the hopes of the dispossessed were the radical intelligentsia. Yet how removed they were from reality! They preached a messianism in comparison with which the immigrant dreams of a “golden land” paled. Where else could one find a Utopian movement like the influential Am Haolom of the 1890’s? Its members, starting out from Russia, marched across Europe with a Torah in one hand and a copy of Dos Kapital in the other, in the hope of setting up cooperative agricultural colonies in the United States, and finally succeeded in reaching the Pacific where they set up a short-lived settlement in Oregon named New Odessa. Even when the equality of the kibbutz was replaced by the leveling of the tenement, the air of unreality remained. In place of colonization came the political dreams of anarchism and socialism; these were never defined as concrete goals but as far-away Edens toward which we would be moved by immanent historical processes. Unfortunately, however, each group was certain that its analysis was the historically correct one. Throughout the 1890’s and the first decade of the century, as fierce a rivalry raged among the political intelligentsia as ever prevailed among warring Christian sects. And this corrosive factionalism, probably more than any other factor, was responsible for the continual failure of attempts to establish trade unions.

All of this changed, however, after 1904, when the second heavy wave of immigration began. In the short space of six years more than six hundred thousand immigrants poured into the country, settling largely in New York and providing a tremendous pool of cheap “greenhorn” labor for the rapidly expanding garment industry. A good proportion of this newer immigration, however, were younger men and women who possessed an emotional fire that had been stoked by the rising socialist and Zionist movements. Many were well educated, and, finding no outlet, went into the shops where they soon became part of a new union leadership. By 1914 the social structure of the Jewish community had been revamped: the unions had become a powerful movement in Jewish life; large fraternal working-class bodies such as the Workmen’s Circle were established; socialism had won the majority of the Jewish masses.

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A variety of impulses had fused to assure this great upsurge. One was the youthfulness of the new leadership of the movement, a second the idealistic ardor instilled by Socialist Bundism and Zionism, and a third that one-man institution, the Jewish Daily Forward, and its stormy editor Abraham Cahan.

The Forward made its unique mark in American Jewish life because it was a Yiddish press among a Yiddish folk. The early intellectuals had become separated from the Yiddish masses by their disdainful refusal to speak or use Yiddish. The Forward mirrored and articulated the pathos and deep self-pity, the despair and indignation of a bewildered immigrant folk. Characteristically, the Forward won its first popular support and ousted its dominant rival, the Socialist Labor party’s Abendblatt, when on two crucial issues it took an undogmatic and even “anti-socialist” stand. The Abendblatt attacked the Spanish-American war, and along with other doctrinaire socialist papers refused to be roused by the Dreyfus case. But hatred of Spain was deep in Jewish consciousness, and Dreyfus himself was a Jew. On both issues the feelings of the Jewish masses were aroused and the Forward followed in their wake.

Probably in few other instances has a press had so great a cultural influence on a community. In effect, the Forward replaced the rabbi, although synagogue modes of discourse were adopted. Propaganda was carried on by Di Proletarisher Magid(the “Proletarian Preacher”) and the lessons were called the Red Sedra(the sedra is the weekly reading from the Torah). The first walking delegate, said the Forward, was Moses, because he led the strike against the Egyptian overseers.

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The waistmakers’ strike of 1909, which set off the great series of organizing strikes that made the Jewish labor movement, was precipitated by an emotional outburst of a young female dressmaker which swept the entire audience at a union mass meeting. Yet what Epstein, himself a romantic, tends to slight, is the fact that while romanticism gave spark to the “great revolt,” it was only by “becoming practical” that these labor institutions survived. The Forward grew only because it was independent of party control, and the unions took firm root only after, as in the general American experience, their own ends were divorced from the Utopian demands of the socialist political parties. In short, one could not, as the revolutionary socialist demanded, live in the world but not of it. The acceptance by the ILGWU in 1910 of the Protocol of Peace, which set up a permanent arbitration machinery in the industry, meant the recognition by the union of the hard fact that one lived in the here-and-now with the employers and that one had to accept the industry’s problems as defined by the market. In that situation lay the seeds of tension which were to agonize a whole generation of union firebrands whose tendency, as one of them has put it, was to talk revolutionary and act conservative.

Yet the problem was also more than a question of class struggle. If these were Jewish unions, they also dealt with the Jewish employers, and the fact of the common denominator could not be evaded. It was equally, of course, a problem for the Jewish capitalists, and particularly the “Yahudim” (rich “assimilated” Jews). When the Am Haolom wended its way across Europe, the Alliance Israélite Universelle, fearing the unfavorable impression that might be created by so motley and tattered a horde, gave the movement money in order to push it on. And when in the 1880’s the intellectuals formed the Jewish Workers’ Verein to help organize Jewish workers into unions, the American Hebrew declared, “We are Jews only in the synagogue.” But when the large masses of Jewish workers in a Jewish industry became too strong either to be ignored or bought off, the wealthy Jews were forced to intervene and seek peace. Thus when the great strikes of 1910 opened the fetid sweatshops to an astounded middle-class gaze, Jacob Schiff and Louis Marshall of the American Jewish Committee utilized their influence on the garment manufacturers and prevailed upon them to adopt a more conciliatory attitude. As Epstein wryly points out: “Demands that the Schiffs would have opposed in industries in which they were interested, they were ready to have the cloak industry accept.” Thus, in one sense, the powerful Jewish unions became established under the patronage of large Jewish wealth.

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In the last issue of its annual, YIVO (Yiddish Scientific Institute) conducted a discussion on the lack of Jewish social research in the United States. YIVO itself has produced a large volume in Yiddish on the history of Jewish labor in the United States. Epstein’s book goes a long way toward filling the need for an English volume. He is now working on a second volume, bringing the story up to date. It is a more difficult story. Sacrifice and sentimentality were cast off with the youthful years. The author now faces the record of adaptation, compromise, opportunism, Americanization, and the thorny problem of the evaluation of the actions of various individuals. We can hope the final picture will be accurate and unadorned, waits and all.

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