Reflections on the Yiddish Anarchist Movement

Following the YIVO conference on Yiddish anarchism which took place on January 20th in New York (video here), Raymond S Solomon puts it in context with an earlier work — 1980 documentary Free Voice of Labor.

A conference on Yiddish Anarchism which took place in New York earlier this month is reminiscent of Free Voice of Labor: The Jewish Anarchists.  Free Voice of Labor is the English translation of Yiddish Freie Arbeiter Stimme. This film was produced and directed by Joel Sucher and Steven Fishler. The topics included in the movie were the Yiddish newspaper just named, and the Stelton anarchistic community in Piscataway, New Jersey. The scope of the Yiddish Anarchist movement was much larger than is generally known. Among the people featured, in narration and interview, were respectively, historian of Anarchism Paul Avrich, and Abe Bluestein who grew up in Stelton, and was a life-long anarchist activist. Within the documentary, parts of the old film Uncle Moses were shown. The character Uncle Moses is a sweatshop owner who employed, and exploited, many people from his own town in Europe, and many of them regarded him as their benefactor; or at least had to pretend to.    

Uncle Moses clip (1932)

Bluestein said that Jews were not just a religious group, but a national group, like the Italians, Irish, Russians, Spanish, and Pols.  Paul Average mentioned that while many immigrants were hoping for a better life in America, working conditions were often worse off in American sweatshops. Avrich said his introduction to these anarchists was at a dinner attended by many of them. Avrich was at first apprehensive. He wondered if he would be suspected, or accepted. Would they think he was too “square”? But once there he felt very comfortable and he was accepted.  

In the documentary various older people told part of their stories in this film. I originally saw this film in a theater in Greenwich Village, and it has since been put online (see below). I would encourage everyone to watch it.

Union organising was very important for Jewish immigrant anarchists, and Jewish anarchists were very active. Freie Arbeiter Stimme itself covered more than labor but also published short fiction, and world events.  The circulation went down over time as one generation passed, and the children’s knowledge of Yiddish was limited, while most grandchildren did not speak it at all. This was a similar to that of other foreign language immigrant groups. The Holocaust meanwhile not only resulted in the murder of over six million Jews, but also destroyed the Yiddish civilization of Eastern Europe. So, a world has, in effect, been lost. Or has it? 

On January 20th the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research (which archives, teaches researches, documents, preserves, and studies Yiddish culture and Jewish history) had a one-day conference on the lost tradition of Yiddish anarchism. This conference was held in Manhattan, New York. I hope that this conference will be a first step in reviewing the tradition, and interest and additional scholarship on this tradition.

In 1977, the last year of the publication of the Freie Arbeiter Stimme, there were attempts to raise money to save that newspaper. In it decades long history Freie Arbeiter Stimme went from being a daily newspaper to a weekly, and finally a monthly newspaper. This is a newspaper that ran since 1890 — 87 years!  

I hope that Yiddishism will be revived, and that the Yiddish Anarchist tradition will be revived as a part of that tradition.


Pic: Masthead of Freie Arbeiter Stimme, cover of Free Voice of Labor: The Jewish Anarchists and Abe Bluestein with Selma Cohen in 1937