Shnel loffn di reder Wheels turning so swiftly Vild klapn mahshinen Wildly pounding machinery In shop is shmutzik un heys The shop is dirty and hot Di kop vert fartumlt My head how its aching In oygn vert finster My eyes see the darkness Finster fun trern un shveys Darkness from tears and sweat Loyft um der mayster All around runs the foreman A chaye, a vilde A beast, a wild one Er traybt tsu der sh'chite di shof He drives to the slaughter, the sheep O, vi lang vet ir vartn Oh, how long will you wait Vi lang vet ir duldn How long to be patient? Arbeter brider vacht oyf Wake up, working brother, wake up! (1)
THE WELL KNOWN YIDDISH POET, David Edelstadt, came to the United States in 1881, worked in sweatshops where he contracted tuberculosis, and died in 1892 at the age of 26. The song called "Sweatshop" eloquently expresses why Jews found left politics so compelling. For many of my parents' generation who arrived in the new world after the turn of the 20th century, first hand experience with the bloody pogroms in eastern Europe and the contemptuous treatment meted out to "greenhorns" in the new world taught them that to be a Jew, to be a Jew with dignity and with hope, meant to be a socialist, a communist -- someone who had the courage to dream (in Yiddish) of a better world for Jews, and for all the world's downtrodden. I grew up in this milieu in New York, attending the Yiddish Sholem Aleichem Shule in the early 1950s and later the Mittlshul, originally part of the Jewish People's Fraternal Organization (JPFO) of the International Workers Order (IWO). I spent summers at Camp Kinderland in upstate New York. a pl ace that supported a secular, socialist, pro-Soviet Jewish point of view at a time when the world of my Brooklyn neighbourhood, the media, and the public schools were dominated by the virulent red baiting of that period. Kinderland, celebrating its 75th anniversary in 1999, was investigated by McCarthy in the House Un-American Activities Committee Hearings in the early 1950s. I still remember the craziness of some of the allegations: an early lesson in how the media can misrepresent and distort. (2) As a child learning Yiddish, the full cultural package was part of the experience. We learned about Yiddish culture and politics through performing plays in Yiddish, singing Yiddish songs, and dancing Middle Eastern and eastern European folk dances. Brighton Beach in Brooklyn had its own mandolin orchestra; my mother's best friend, Rose Friedman, worked in a garment factory and sang soprano in the Jewish Philharmonic Choir. Suspect left-wingers such as Harry Belafonte, Paul Robeson, and black-listed actors such as Howard DaSilva and Morris Carnovsky, performed in our modest venues. When I came to Canada in 1968 I discovered the Canadian version of a community that I thought existed only in New York. (3)
This paper explores the history of the Canadian experience of the pro-Soviet-socialist-Jewish-left from the vantage point of an insider/outsider in this community. (4) In this context, the community refers to a collectivity that, while sharing a common history with other Jews, had developed a particular cultural and political outlook that united them. (5) The boundaries of who was considered a member of this community involved both exclusionary and inclusionary practices. While my personal history is south of the border, and as Tulchinsky points out the Canadian experience is distinctive, there are many similarities. (6) I use interviews, archival materials, and a literature review to explore this community, focussing on the 1920s to the 1 950s. Several themes emerge: Jewish identity as a contested terrain; the formation of a non-religious, socialist, Jewish identity at odds with a Judaism defined by religious practice; why people were attracted to this community or the rich personal and cultural opportunitie s created through these bonds with other left wing Jews; a history emphasizing the shules, the camp, and the chorus as examples of the cultural life; and finally factors leading to the decline of this milieu and some comments on its legacy.
Jewish Identity As Contested Terrain
Jewish leftists sympathetic to the Communist Party (CP) played important roles as union activists, holders of political office, and contributers to the cultural life of the Jewish community, yet, with some important exceptions, many of the historians of Jews in Canada writing in English either omit mention of this community or marginalise its significance. Indeed, Stephen Speisman describes the Labor League as "an embarrassment to the community." (7) "Who's Who" books listing prominent citizens from the Jewish community leave out leftists such as Joe Salsberg, the Communist MLA from Toronto, or Joe Zuken, the Winnipeg Communist alderman, both of whom held office for many years. (8) Contributions of the Jewish left to union organizing have in recent years received more attention from labour and feminist historians such as Joan Sangster, Ruth Frager, and Mercedes Steedman. (9)
Who is a Jew is not a simple question. The answer depends on who you ask. 10 Some, for example Isaac Deutscher, would include Jewish heretics such as Karl Marx, Rosa Luxemburg, Leon Trotsky, and Sigmund Freud as part of the Jewish tradition. Stuart Hall speaks of how culture comprises the terrain for producing identity and the constitution of social subjects as a continuing struggle. (11) A cultural community with shared meanings contains an element of tradition, but, the identity that is formed is also transformed. The Jewish secular radicals that are the focus of this paper were socialists and communists, but simultaneously identified strongly as Jews and lived in a community that was largely Jewish. They challenged orthodox Jewry in the early years, even organizing Yom Kippur "feasts" to flaunt their opposition to the rule of the synagogue. (12) Thus, these radical Jews, breaking with Jewish orthodoxy and a traditional life, created a new home for themselves. Their dream of a classless society was a Jewish dream, conceived in Yiddish as a better world, not just for Jewish workers, but for all. It was nevertheless shaped by a secularized group identity. (13)
Where chroniclers of the Canadian Jewish experience tend to use terms such as the "Canadian Jewish community" as self-explanatory, in the sociological literature, what is meant by ethnicity, culture, identity, and community have been dominant sources of inquiry, as these terms are central in exploring social organization, social existence, and social experience. (14) Ethnicity may include the bonds of religion, language, or race, as well as a common culture. Community implies connection: shared beliefs, circumstances, priorities, relationships, and concerns. (15) This left-Jewish community, particularly in the early years, formed a gemeinshaft; an intimate, familiar, and sympathetic human association. While they had relationships with similar groupings in other parts of Canada and the United States, people in each city tended to live within the confines of a shared physical territory; around College and Spadina Avenues in Toronto. Thus they were neighbours, friends, co-workers, as well as fellow Jews and comr ades with a strong sense of solidarity. The unique culture these eastern European Jews developed is termed Yiddishkait, a devotion to cultural values associated with Yiddish, the language that was at its centre. It had a class component as well. Yiddishkait was largely proletarian, stemming from its usage by workers. Formal or respectful greetings in these circles were Chaver or Chaverte instead of Mr. or Mrs. Chaver and Chaverte are the Yiddish words for friend.
While members of this left community would maintain that Yiddishkait, the devotion to social justice, a Jewish secularism that created a rich and coherent culture with its own language, manners, and values, was what a Jewish identity really was, the claims for legitimacy in what constitutes an "authentic" Jewish identity were and continue to be contentious. What is an "authentic" Jewish identity? Some maintain that only the Orthodox are real Jews, and they declare their superiority based on descriptive claims of religious observance in the Jewish past. Authenticity is often associated with loyalty to a homogenous tradition located in an idealized past. The traditional practices are glorified and everything else is seen as fake, corrupted, and alienating. The boundaries there are clear, with no ambiguity or fuzziness. In contrast to this essentialist model is the construction of identity as fluid, consisting of shifting, overlapping, and intersecting boundaries, without the shelter of tradition. (16) Jewish cu lture and identity can be described as a "complex struggle of historical situations." (17)
In the eyes of the religious majority, these socialists who questioned Jewish orthodoxy were apikoorsim or heretics, and considered very threatening. When a coalition of Poale Zion, Socialists, Anarchists, Territorialists, and Bundists organized di radikaler shuin (the radical schools) in the years just preceding World War I, offering a secular Jewish education, the religious community reacted with alarm. In Winnipeg, the teachers were dubbed "Christian missionaries," put under cherem (excommunicated), and forced out of the Aberdeen Public School in 1914. In 1916, 19 rabbis and 69 others in Montreal signed a resolution warning that
A great danger hovers over our heads! We are being robbed of our children! Our holy religion is being uprooted from amongst them. The danger is very great for these robbers are masked. They do not show themselves in their true colours ... We refer to the National Radical and Jewish People's …