Fire in their Hearts
Yiddish Socialists in New York
Harvard University Press 2005
New Books in American StudiesNew Books in German StudiesNew Books in HistoryNew Books in Jewish StudiesNew Books in Peoples & PlacesNew Books in Politics & SocietyNew Books in ReligionNew Books in Religion & FaithNew Books Network April 9, 2009 Marshall Poe
I always assumed that the Jews who emigrated from Eastern Europe to New York and created the massive Jewish American labor movement brought their leftist politics with them from the Old Country. But now I know different thanks to Tony Michels’ terrific Fire in their Hearts. Yiddish Socialists in New York (Harvard University Press, 2005). As Tony explains, most of the Yiddish-speaking immigrants who arrived in New York were apolitical, or rather feared politics having come from a regime that punished open political activity (Tsarist Russia). These immigrants, then, learned socialism on American shores. Their teachers were Jewish members of the Russian intelligentsia who themselves had fled Tsarist oppression in the 1880s. These Russian Jews were radicals, but not necessarily socialists. So, interestingly, they learned socialism–or at least a new brand of socialism–on American shores as well. But who taught the Russian Jews socialism? Tony has the answer: German socialists who had immigrated to the Lower East Side (a.k.a Kleindeutschland) in the third quarter of the nineteenth century. So the chain of transmission begins in Germany with the rise of the German Socialist Democratic Party (1860s), moves to New York with the immigration of German socialists to the Lower East Side (1870s), picks up after the arrival and conversion of the Russian Jewish radicals to German-style populist socialism (1880s), and ends with the flowing of the Yiddish labor movement in New York (1890s-1900s). What a story! Along the way Tony introduces us to a huge cast of colorful characters, explains the origin of the modern Yiddish literary language, gives us a peek at the lively Yiddish periodical press, and shows us Jewish socialists fighting for the rights of workers along side their gentile brothers and sisters. Misconceptions are destroyed, myths exploded, and stereotypes dashed. Read all about it!
Please become a fan of “New Books in History” on Facebook if you haven’t already.