Yiddish Studies Long Live the Revolution!

They were defeated by Zionism and Judaism, their members murdered by Nazism and Stalinism, but the radical Jewish movements of the 20th century left behind a rich Yiddish literary legacy.

Gilad Melzer
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Gilad Melzer

Davka: Yiddishland and Its Culture issue No. 7; edited by Benny Mer and Hana Amit
Shalom Aleichem House.

Those with an interest in extinct cultures have a last opportunity to view one at the Bund Club on Kalisher Street in Tel Aviv.

“Air, Sun, Water.” Poster of Ozeh, the Bund health organization, Berlin

In the evenings, energetic young people try to light the bonfires of socialism, and its possible to dream for a fleeting moment that there is such a thing as the chance of a social-democratic option in capitalisms shrine of false pleasures. But in the afternoons, when I have had the opportunity on a number of occasions to visit this place, filled with the scents of clothing washed in harsh soap, cheap cigarettes and many old books, only two or three elderly people guard the coals of fires that were extinguished by Hitler and Stalin more than 60 years ago.

Zionism and Judaism have won, one of the last Bundist adherents acknowledged to me with conviction. Look around. Theres a country, there are Jews and Judaism, an army, factories, the next generation. Zionism won, he said, sighing. But we, the Algemeiner Yiddisher Arbeiter [Jewish Workers Party], the Bund, we were right. Look around you.

The historical irony is that organized Zionism and the Jewish-socialist Bund were born in the same year, 1897. But the remaining Bund members are right: It was their enemies – religious Judaism, which rehabilitated itself, organizationally and in numbers, and even more so Zionism – that won in the end. There is a state. Hebrew is its tongue. And its principles are extreme nationalism, capitalism and force. The Bund, whose leaders insisted that they belonged to the class struggle in Eastern Europe, absorbed a double blow: as Jews (from Nazism), and as those who supposedly betrayed the Bolsheviks by supporting the Menshevik enemy.

The latest issue of the biannual journal Davka is devoted to what it terms the red flag: the socialist, communist and anarchist parties that operated from the end of the 19th century until the middle of the 20th in Eastern Europe, the United States and Israel. For a Hebrew-language journal that deals with Yiddish culture, the choice of subject is a natural one.

These movements were all anti-Zionist and as such, anti-Hebrew, and in the case of the Bund, the largest of the Jewish workers movements of the period, professedly pro-Yiddish – not only as the language spoken at home, on the street and at meetings, but as the element uniting class, community and society. The Bund wanted Yiddish to be a pedagogical and ideological tool, the reservoir and catalyst of culture, and the language used in the workers theater, poetry, literature, graphic arts and cries of battle.

This issue (and this excellent journal in general) is by its nature retrospective and its tone elegiac, though not weepy. The Bund died, but the humanistic option, the allegiance to a fighting stance and the demand for social and economic rights, along with the educational and cultural support its leaders offered and worked energetically to realize, are still as relevant as ever.

Songs of praise for the red flag

Three articles are about politically motivated poetry. Octogenarian Yiddish writer and journalist Yitzhak Loden focuses on songs of praise for the red flag, some of which are socialist renditions of folk songs in Russian and other languages, and other, socialist songs originally written in the mamaloshen. A few, Loden says, were sung at secret meetings of the Bundist youth movement, the Tsukunft (Yiddish for future), in the Warsaw Ghetto, moments before the gates to the future were shut.

The lyrics to one of these songs, Tzavati (My Will), was written in the United States in 1889, eight years before the Bund was officially formed, by a young poet named David Edelstadt. In an article on the poet, who died at 26, Matan Hermoni writes that he is focusing on Edelstadt because of the political power of his work, even though it is not of the same literary caliber as that of the great Yiddish poets. Edelstadt left Russia to establish a Jewish colony based on communist principles in the United States, that stronghold of capital. Edelstadt remains a clear symbol of the rebellion of Jewish youth, of their aspirations for Jewish and universal brotherhood, and the revolution to come, Hermoni writes.

An article by lyricist Koby Luria shows just how blind to reality the stirring ideas of young Jewish rebels could be: His How to Dance Before Stalin deals with the songs of praise written, set to music, played and sung by Yiddish poets and musicians (of the red species, of course) in Stalins honor. For nearly 30 years, from the time he came into power until his death in 1953, the Sun of the Nations, as one poem described him, was the subject of dozens of songs, some of which were collected in 1937 in the book Songs of Stalin, and a year later in Jewish Folk Songs. Popular songs were also rendered kosher or otherwise translated to suit the cult of personality, and original poems were written as well. Citing the Bundist Loden, Luria says that by the end of the 1930s, when a poem in praise of Stalin by a socialist writer like Itzik Feffer was read aloud, members of the Bund outside of Russia burst out in laughter. In Warsaw they could laugh, but it was Stalin who had the last laugh, as he hounded the Bundists to death. Even Feffers flattery and loyalty were of no use; he was executed in August 1952, following a show trial for Jewish poets who were said to have sinned.

Comedy out of tragedy

But the socialist Jewish parties and factions were not involved only in poetry. The researcher Nurit Orhan offers texts (letters, short stories, reports) by Jewish women employed in Eastern Europes extensive textile industry. The writings, which appeared in Yiddish newspapers at the beginning of the 20th century, show the development of profound class, political and community consciousness. Most of them read as though they were written yesterday in the sweatshops, factories and guardposts of Kiryat Gat, Mitzpe Ramon, south Tel Aviv or southern China.

A text by Annette Aronowicz, a professor of religious studies, examines the international brotherhood of Jewish communists (those who supported the workers struggles in France, manned the barricades in Spain, and helped organize strikes and professional unions across Europe) from a unique perspective: the final journey, to the grave, of a veteran communist warhorse named Emanuel Mink (or Mundek). Mink and other Jewish communists kept arguing until their last breath: Should they be buried with their comrades-in-arms? Among non-Jews? As Jews? Somehow, Aronowicz manages to produce a comedy out of this tragedy, perhaps because a good Jew, even if a communist, must know how to laugh, even, and perhaps especially, when facing death.

The final article, The Red Army in Yad Eliahu, by Yuval Rivlin, brings us back to the starting point. Rivlin examines the way that Yiddish is represented in Israeli cinema as the ultimate enemy of the Zionist collective. Yiddish is not sabra, not the defender, not Hebrew. Yiddish was then and there; Zionism is here and now.

And so, for example, the narrator of Children of the Sun, the 2007 documentary about growing up on a kibbutz, gets upset when other residents of the Tel Aviv neighborhood of Yad Eliahu refer to him and his friends as the Red Army because they are marching with red flags in a May Day parade in the 1950s. What Red Army?! he wonders out loud in the movie. We are Israeli youth. Oy gevalt!

I, who am not frightened by the Red Army, although I dont like armies of any color, would be happy if Yad Eliahu, where I also live, were to name a street for the man to whom this issue of Davka is dedicated, a man whom Yitzhak (Antek) Zuckerman, one of the leaders of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, called one of the bravest people I ever met in my life. That person is Marek Edelman, the deputy commander of the uprising and the representative of the Bund in the ghettos Jewish Fighters Organization, who died last year.

Even before his death, Edelman was honored in his homeland of Poland, and many nations of Europe have showered him with titles and acknowledgements. Now it is our turn. After all, Zionism won. It can afford to honor someone whose flag was not blue and white.

Curator and filmmaker Gilad Melzer teaches in the department of art history and criticism at the Midrasha College of Art, and edits the journal of arts and culture Hamidrasha.



Automatic approval of subscriber comments.
From $1 for the first month

Already signed up? LOG IN


בנימין נתניהו השקת ספר

Netanyahu’s Israel Is About to Slam the Door on the Diaspora

עדי שטרן

Head of Israel’s Top Art Academy Leads a Quiet Revolution

Charles Lindbergh addressing an America First Committee rally on October 3, 1941.

Ken Burns’ Brilliant ‘The U.S. and the Holocaust’ Has Only One Problem

Skyscrapers in Ramat Gan and Tel Aviv.

Israel May Have Caught the Worst American Disease, New Research Shows

ג'אמיל דקוור

Why the Head of ACLU’s Human Rights Program Has Regrets About Emigrating From Israel


Netanyahu’s Election Win Dealt a Grievous Blow to Judaism