Religious Socialism-Jews

Jewish American immigrants turned to Socialism in response to their experiences on both sides of the Atlantic.

Many Jews in late 19th-century Eastern Europe had endured downward socio-economic mobility as traditional Jewish economic niches were undermined by the expanding industrial capitalist system. This experience, combined with persecution under the Tsars and encounters with poverty and factory labor in America, inspired many Jews to look for radical social change.The influx of Jewish immigrants from Russia in the 1880s brought with it a small but vocal number of intellectuals, many of whom had had a Russian-language education and some of whom had been active in the early Russian revolutionary movement. In America, they took manual jobs, especially in the fledgling garment industry, and began to see themselves for the first time as proletarians, members of the industrial working class.

Meanwhile, they aligned themselves with either Anarchist or Marxian Socialist ideologies: Anarchists favored direct action and stressed the inherently oppressive class nature of the state, while Socialists (Social Democrats, as they were called) sought to capture control of the state for the working class. In the early years, though, the line between the factions was blurry, and both sides worked together in a number of short-lived organizations and institutions, including the Propaganda Association and the Russian Labor Lyceum.

By the early 1900s, the institutional groundwork for a powerful Jewish Socialist movement had been laid. One of the most important institutions of the movement was the Workmen’s Circle (Arbeter Ring), which began as a mutual aid society in 1892 and was reorganized as a multi-branch fraternal order in 1900.

The capital of Jewish America at the turn of the century was New York’s Lower East Side. This densely packed district of tenements, factories, and docklands had long been a starting point for recent immigrants, and hundreds of thousands of the new arrivals from Eastern Europe settled there on arrival. By this time, most American cities had sizable Jewish neighborhoods, most notably Chicago’s West Side. But for size, crowds, and overall energy, none could compete with the Lower East Side. When a new Jewish immigrant first set foot on the Lower East Side, he or she stepped into a Jewish world. The earliest Eastern European Jews to settle there had quickly established synagogues, mutual-aid societies, libraries, and stores. Every major institution, from the bank to the grocery store to the social club to the neighborhood bookmaker, was Jewish-owned or Jewish-run, and everyone a Jewish immigrant might speak to in the course of daily business would likely be Jewish. Even the owners of the garment factories and department stores where many immigrants worked were Jewish. For a new Jewish immigrant in a strange country, this immersion in a familiar world, around people who shared a common language, faith, and background, could be profoundly reassuring.

For all the comfort that this shared heritage brought, however, the Lower East Side was still a very difficult place to live–and a crowded one. By the year 1900, the district was packed with more than 700 people per acre, making it the most crowded neighborhood on the planet. The reformer Jacob Riis described a visit to a typical tenement building occupied by Eastern European Jewish families:

Jews have been prominently identified with the modern Socialist movement from its must be reckoned among the pioneers of the Socialist parties in America.

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The women often lacked marketable skills and were more economically vulnerable than men. Moreover, in their attempts to organize, they came up against the cyclical nature of household, as well as wage, labor. The women also struggled against the indifference of men, and even against outright hostility from organized labor, including male-dominated socialist unions, and from the male-led Socialist Party. In addition they confronted competing claims of feminism and socialism, as well as significant cultural expectations, Jewish and American, about the “proper” place and role of women. By the 1930s, although they had not achieved equality in the unions or the party, and although they continued to steer an uneasy course between class solidarity and feminist reform, Jewish working women had made a significant, long-term contribution to the labor movement and social welfare.

Most of the Jewish women who went on to become socialists had had little or no experience with actual factory or shop work. Many of them came to America when they were young teenagers, but most were aware of the growing numbers of Jewish women workers in the old countries, including their mothers. The Russian census of 1897 indicated that 15 percent of Jewish artisans were female and more than 20 percent of Jewish women were employed outside the home. Although much of the work was drudgery and necessary for economic survival, employment expanded the environment of many females beyond the narrow Domestic Goddesses.

The American Labor Party endorsed Rosanne Barr as our Presidential Candidate and Ran Vitov Valdes Munoz, a Puertican Buddhist/Jew for Congress. Max Shindlers is head of out Renters Association (For Affordabble Housing and Rent Control)

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