Jews, Food, and Socialism

January 11, 2019: This post was a bit of a thought experiment to see if this theory could go anywhere after taking some intensive courses. I still think some of these ideas are interesting, but much more work is needed before I could defend any of this.

In traditional Eastern European Jewish society, and specifically within the Russian Pale of Settlement for the purposes of this post, communities were bound together by food: everyone followed the kosher laws, from the richest person to the poorest. Because of this, all members of these Jewish communities felt entitled to eat well regardless of class. Since the consumption of kosher food was divinely commanded, no one had the right to deny it to another. The poor felt as though that the wealthy owed them food, and the wealthy felt obliged to supply it.

That said, this society was hardly egalitarian; on the contrary, it was heavily stratified and class lines were rigidly upheld—one of the primary purposes of arranged marriages was to uphold these class lines. However, the attitudes towards food created a communal consciousness in which the idea that the poor somehow deserved to have a harder time in life by virtue of their poverty was not present.

This society also had a very rigid concept of proper gender roles. Men were expected to be Talmudic scholars and dedicate their lives to the study of the holy texts. Certainly not all men were or could be scholars, and not all families had the funds to allow their sons to dedicate themselves to this study, but the figure of the Talmudic scholar was the masculine ideal.

Women, on the other hand, were not allowed access to the holy texts. They were expected to venture out into the public sphere to earn a living for their families while their husbands were at home studying. Thus, young women were given a secular education to prepare them for their role as breadwinners. Some families sent their daughters to public schools, if there were any available, while others paid for a private education, or private tutors.

Because secular education was prized for women, and because nineteenth century Russia was a multi-lingual society, many of these girls were fluent in both Russian and Yiddish, and sometimes French and German as well. Over the course of their secular educations, they encountered modern and revolutionary literature written in these European languages which their male peers were not encountering in the cheder (pre-yeshiva Jewish elementary schools for boys). It was in this literature that these young girls and women, raised in communities which rejected the notion that the poor deserved to be punished for their poverty, encountered socialism. This socialism did not inform, but rather cemented the world view of these women.

Between 1880 and 1920, 2.5 million Jews emigrated from the Pale to America, and most settled in New York City. The vast majority of the young women who came to America with their parents found work in the factories and workshops of the garment industry.

These young women became rapidly dissatisfied with the unsafe and unregulated conditions in which they had to work. Because of the views on class which they had learned in Russia, it never would have occurred to these women to think that they deserved to work in awful conditions by virtue of their low socio-economic status. When the management was unresponsive to their concerns, they went on strike. As these women went on to marry and become housewives, they channeled this conception of class into protests against unaffordable grocery prices, exploitative renting practices, and other such working class concerns.

These women were distinctive. They weren’t revolutionary socialists, and they weren’t American capitalists. While these women were eager to Americanize and showed great enthusiasm for consumer culture, they rejected the tenet of American capitalism which dictated that poverty was a result of personal failings. They combined the socialist class conceptions of their lives in Europe with consumerist aspects of working class America to form their own distinct reality.

Thus, I would argue that the class consciousness instigated by the necessity of observing the kosher laws in the tightly knit Jewish communities of the Pale allowed these women to take the socialism they encountered in Russian revolutionary literature, and make it their own. This socialist consciousness traveled with them across the Atlantic to America where they used that consciousness to create their own working class experience.

I do not argue that the American Jewish experience was informed by the kosher laws—in the face of Americanization, many once Orthodox families became far less zealous about their upkeep, sometimes leaving them by the wayside entirely—but that the kosher laws informed the consciousness from which the distinctive experience of pre-WWII American Jewry rose.

“A pint of trouble for the bosses”: Clara Lemlich Shavelson

January 11, 2019: This post does not do Clara justice. I am planning on a full rewrite.

Clara Lemlich Shavelson (1886-1982) never backed down. She never gave up. No obstacle, from the czarist regime to the House Committee on Un-American Activities could stand in her way. I can only hope to scratch the surface of her massive contributions to American society over the course of the twentieth century in this post, and I have left out many of her contributions in the interest of brevity.

Early Years and Union Involvement

Clara was born in the Pale of Settlement, the geographic area—encompassing most of modern day Western Russia, Belarus, Poland, Moldova, and Ukraine—to which Russian Jews were confined under the czarist government. Specifically, she was born in the Ukrainian village of Gorodok. The primary language spoken in the Pale was Yiddish.

Lemlich was forbidden from learning Russian by her parents. In her first act of rebellion, she studied the Russian language behind their backs, and built up a library of Russian revolutionary literature in similar secrecy. Her exposure to this socialist, revolutionary literature would determine her lifelong political trajectory.

In 1903, after a pogrom swept through a nearby village, Clara and her family emigrated to the United States—in the period between 1880 and 1920, 2.5 million Jews from the Pale would make the same journey. Clara and her family, like the vast majority of Jewish émigrés, settled in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. There Clara and her Jewish female peers found work in the garment industry; so many female Jewish and Italian immigrants took jobs in the garment industry said industry was based in New York, and the factories needed workers.

These female workers had to work long, unregulated hours in unsafe, unhealthy conditions. They had no rights as workers, and their salaries changed at the whims of their employers. Lemlich, observing her surroundings, and unwilling to simply accept them, joined the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU). A contemporary referred to her as “a pint of trouble for the bosses.”

Once in the union, she bacame frustrated at the sexist attitudes and general complacency of the male leadership. When they would not listen to her or take her seriously, she went over their heads to actively court female membership and involvement. She did not merely coax other women into action; she was there with them in the front lines. During a strike in 1909, she returned to a picket line after her employer’s hired goons broke several of her ribs.

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“Come at me, bro.” (Image courtesy of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union Archives, Kheel Center Collection, Cornell University)

In November of 1909 at a meeting at Cooper Union, after listening to inconsequential male speech after speech, Lemlich became fed up. She demanded to be allowed to speak, took the podium, and said “I have listened to all the speakers, and I have no further patience for talk. I am a working girl, one of those striking against intolerable conditions. I am tired of listening to speakers who talk in generalities. What we are here for is to decide whether or not to strike. I make a motion that we go out in a general strike.”

Over the next weeks, between 30 and 40 thousand young, female, and predominantly Jewish garment workers walked out of their jobs (this has come to be rather romantically known as the Uprising of the 20,000). The strikes were partially successful in that many Union contracts were produced as a result. However its limitations were thrown into tragic relief when the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory burned on March 25, 1911.

Suffrage and Working-Class Advocacy

Finding herself blacklisted within the garment industry after calling the industry to strike, Lemlich could no longer work effectively within the union. In its absence, she turned to the fight for female suffrage. In her eyes, the fight for the rights of working women and the fight for the female vote were one and the same.

Rejecting the middle and upper class gentile perspective of many of the female suffragists, Clara helped to found the Wage Earners League for Woman’s Suffrage, a group concerned with the situation of working class women. The tension between herself and the upper class suffragists came to a head when she was fired from her position as organizer in 1911, when her radical politics clashed with the more moderate views of her employers.

In 1913 Clara married Joe Shavelson. The two moved to Brooklyn and had three children together. Once settled, Clara continued who fight for equality, this time with the women of her working class neighborhood. This period of her life was spent fighting to better the conditions of the working class—specifically working class women—across racial, religious, and ethnic lines.

She was active throughout the teens and the twenties, and in 1926 she both joined the Communist Party and founded the United Council of Working-Class Housewives. In 1929 she co-founded the United Council of Working-Class Women—an organization which led rent strikes, anti-eviction demonstrations, price boycotts, and sit-ins and marches on Washington; and in 1935 the UCWCW’s name was changed to the Progressive Women’s Councils.

The PWC formed a coalition with other women’s organizations to alleviate issues faced by the female, working class community. This coalition organized a boycott on the high price setting of the meat industry which was so effective that it shut down 4,500 butcher shops in New York City alone. It was also instrumental in passing rent control laws. These are only two examples, but they are indicative of the PWC’s effectiveness and influence, much of which, in my opinion, may be attributed to the very force of Lemlich’s will.

The PWC was effective in alleviating some of the worst effects of the Great Depression on working class communities. The attention Clara and her coalition of housewife activists paid to the concerns of working class women laid the groundwork for the focus on the concerns of women working within the home in the feminist movements of the 1960’s and 1970’s.

Communist Involvement and the Later Years

After the Second World War, Clara’s activism changed yet again. This time, her work was much more directly influenced by her Communist beliefs than it had been during her PWC years. She served on the American Committee to Survey Trade Union Conditions in Europe, and was an organizer for the American League against War and Fascism while remaining a visible member of the Communist Party.

She came to the attention of the American government after her 1951 visit to the Soviet Union with the American Committee. This resulted in the revocation of her passport. Later that year she was summoned to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Her entire family was investigated and would remain under surveillance for the next 20 years.

But that didn’t stop her. In 1953 she loudly and publicly protested the trial and execution of the Rosenbergs. In 1954 she protested the US intervention in Guatemala. She spoke out against nuclear proliferation, worked with civil rights organizations, and was active in early anti-Vietnam organizing. All while living under the watch of federal surveillance.

Her husband died in 1951, the same year that she was called before the House Committee. She re-married an old union acquaintance, Abe Goldman, in 1960, and lived with him until his death in 1967. After his death she moved to California to be closer to her children.

She lived in the Jewish Home for the Aged in Los Angeles. There she harangued the management into joining the United Farm Worker’s Boycott of grapes and lettuce, and helped the orderlies organize a union.

She died at the age of 96.