New Lives

June 1, 2006
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Kenneth Moss

Tony Michels, A Fire in Their Hearts: Yiddish Socialists in New York. Harvard University Press, 2005. $27.95 Hella Winston, The Unchosen: The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels. Beacon Press, 2005. $23.95

The cover of Tony Michels’ A Fire in Their Hearts: Yiddish Socialists in New York dredges from the archives an arresting sketch of “Russian Jewish workers” on the rooftops of their tenements at night. The picture’s lower half centers on an animated workingman surrounded by smiling, relaxed, bare-headed men and women. The picture leads the eye over adjacent rooftops into the distance, to the looming Brooklyn Bridge and the lights of Manhattan. The cover photo of Hella Winston’s The Unchosen: The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels also centers around a bridge leading into Manhattan. In lieu of Michels’ multitudes, facing both toward and away from the city, Winston offers us the striking image of one of her anonymous protagonists striding in full Hasidic regalia away from the camera, toward the bridge, clutching in his hand a garbage bag that, we will learn, contains typical American street clothes into which he will soon change to lead his double life anonymously, in secret, and more or less completely alone.

These two images of the bridge and the way they connect disparate forms of Jewish life to the life of New York City adumbrate both the intersections of these two works and the limits of these intersections. From a strictly scholarly standpoint, these works have little connection. Michels’ A Fire in Their Hearts yokes an exemplary intellectual history of Jewish radicalism to a groundbreaking sociocultural account of radicalism’s place in American Jewish immigrant society from the 1880s through the 1920s. Michels focuses particularly on the alternative culture created for – and to a surprising degree, by – the Jewish “working masses,” which was defined by a burning commitment to self-education (framed by popular socialism’s canons of faith in science, reason, and Marxism) and, paradoxically, by the essentially unintended rise of a robust, self-contained radical Yiddish cultural milieu. At the core of this work stands the riddle, neglected since Irving Howe’s epochal World Of Our Fathers , of how an oppositional, minoritarian, anti-communal movement deeply hostile to all aspects of traditional Judaism and bearing deep suspicions about Jewish ethnicity as such, came to be one of the dominant forces in modern Jewish ethnopolitical and cultural life so quickly and for so long. Michels offers a two-pronged argument that should completely recast Jewish historians’ understanding of this period in American Jewish history: that this Yiddish socialism was not a “subculture” or sect at odds with an American Jewish mainstream, but quite the contrary, a sensibility so pervasive in American Jewish immigrant life that it really should be understood as the dominant public culture of that community until the 1930s; this radical culture was not so much an import from Eastern Europe as a formation fostered by very specific local conditions in industrial New York.

Winston’s Unchosen , a work based on sociological fieldwork among New York’s Hasidim but addressed to a popular audience, concerns a handful of individuals struggling to shape alternative lives for themselves outside the painfully binding strictures of their Hasidic milieu. Its characters include Hasidic women chafing against a form of life defined in equal parts by obedience, fecundity, and carefully maintained ignorance; young Hasidic men tormented by intellectual, emotional, and sexual discontents. Also included are the articulate critics from within, such as the talmid hakham Yitzhak Fine, who laments the human costs of a growing asceticism concerning matters of intimacy, and the extraordinary Malkie Schwartz, who has established herself as a sort of guide for the perplexed for such rebels and questioners. Focusing on the travails of these individuals, The Unchosen illuminates the powerful objective constraints that helped maintain adherence in this community: those who leave, or even show signs of open dissent, risk ruining their families’ all-important reputations and costing their own siblings future work and marital opportunities. The educational policies of the community ensure that both women and men leave with few marketable skills and face penury in an utterly strange and dangerous larger world.

Where Michels treats a mass phenomenon, Winston examines a phenomenon concerning a small number of actors with disparate individual trajectories. And although it might appear that Winston’s rebels are retracing the path that ostensibly led millions of turn-of-the-century Jews away from the “ghetto” toward more “modern” forms of life, Michels’ reconstruction suggests that Jewish socialism in New York was less a rebellion against any sort of substantial Orthodoxy than the creation of a new form of life more or less in a social vacuum. The great figures and institutions of Jewish traditionalism did not make the journey to America until after the Holocaust; the tradition against which Jewish socialism poured withering and effective scorn was nothing more than an anemic and disorganized Orthopraxy on the ground; Jewish immigrants were ready to respond to radical cultural visions because the conditions of their new everyday lives had already altered them beyond recognition. Winston’s rebels are replaying the Haskalah dynamics so central to how Jewish historians have traditionally imagined Jewish modernity (as an intellectual and cultural revolt of a new, restless modern self against the strangling embrace of tradition).

Today’s American Jewish reader may find the juxtaposition of these two books informative and sobering in relation to the question that obsesses our communal life: the problem of Jewish continuity in America. In the past several decades, the mainstream American Jewish community has been ever more impressed by the capacity of ultra-Orthodoxy to take root, persist, and even capture new adherents while maintaining a thickly Jewish life in a postwar America otherwise marked by rampant assimilation, intermarriage, and so forth. Michels’ book raises the question of how such a robust and rich American Yiddish secular culture disappeared so quickly and totally from American Jewish life after the 1930s and what its disappearance may suggest about Judaism’s weakness in America. For all its radical dissent from America, Yiddish socialism’s ideals of education and self-making were actually consonant with the fundamental civic faith of America, and a work like Alfred Kazin’s A Walker in the City reminds us how easily the children of Yiddish socialists could realize their parents’ dreams of education through radical assimilation.

If Michels’ book strengthens our collective sense of desperation and self-doubt, Winston’s book should serve to remind us that that form of Jewish life that indubitably does work to forestall assimilation has very real costs. These costs are incurred at the level of citizenship and belonging to a larger American community. One older woman in the community notes with sadness that whereas she greeted the postman as a matter of course, the younger generation in her community regards this as a form of unwarranted intercourse with the gentile world. These costs are incurred by the tormented individuals who inhabit the pages of Winston’s book: deprived of much that is important in both self and world for the sake of a collective, they would, I suspect, have little patience with the breast-beating of freer and happier people.

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Kenneth Moss is the inaugural Felix Posen Professor in Modern Jewish History at the Johns Hopkins University. A scholar of Russian and Eastern European Jewish history and culture, Dr. Moss has published papers in Jewish Social Studies and the Journal of Social History.

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