Our True Legacy: Radical Jewish Women in America

Ernestine Rose, Emma Goldman, Rose Schneiderman, Clara Lemlich, Rose Pastor, Rose Pesotta, Pauline Newman, Bessie Abramowitz, Theresa Malkeil, Niuta Teitelboim, Mala Zimetbaum, Hannah Senesh, Rose Lipson, Tillie Olsen, Grace Paley.

In our search for models, Jewish feminists are fortunate to have a radical history to draw on — one which takes seriously Isaiah’s challenge “to loose the chains of wickedness, to undo the bonds of the yoke, and let the oppressed go free.”

These radical women practiced applied spirituality and courageous disobedience. They saw their own destinies as inextricably linked with those of their communities. They were, and are, extraordinary, ordinary women.

Despite differences, what these women hold in common is an ability to see, and then act on, the gap between the ideal of justice and reality of injustice.

Ernestine Rose, the daughter of a rabbi, was born in 1810 in a Polish ghetto. She spent 30 years in America and became, along with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucy Stone, and Susan B. Anthony a founder of the Women’s Rights Movement. She was probably its most controversial member, and considered the foremost orator of her day — despite the fact that English was not her native tongue.

Rose was an outspoken proponent of women’s rights, abolition, and free public education. “Emancipation from every kind of bondage is my principle,” she said. She was called “the Patrick Henry of the Movement” and named by Susan B. Anthony as a pioneer of women suffrage along with Mary Wollstonecraft and Frances Wright.

Like the philosopher Hannah Arendt (1906 – 1975), Ernestine Rose did not assume that authority is truth. She understood the necessity for action based on belief: “Freedom, my friends, does not come from the clouds, like a meteor; it does not bloom in one night; it does not come without great efforts and great sacrifices; all who love liberty have to labor for it.”

Another laborer for liberty was Emma Goldman. Born in Russia in 1869, she left the tyranny of her father and came to the United State at the age of seventeen — only to find the tyranny of wage labor. The 1886 Haymarket Affair in Chicago (which was a labor activists’ rally for the eight-hour day), and the subsequent scapegoating and hanging of four anarchists convicted on slim evidence of throwing a bomb, triggered Goldman’s political awakening. Like Ernestine Rose, she was a courageous and fiery speaker. She became a midwife, an advocate of birth control and women’s emancipation, a labor and prison reformer, and a journalist. An outspoken critic of anti-Semitism, what she called the “living enemy,” she was a revolutionary who defined revolution as “thought carried into action.”

Her ideas read like comments on today’s headlines. Consider her remarks on militarism (quoted in Alix Kates Shulman’s Red Emma Speaks: Selected Writings and Speeches of Emma Goldman): “The steadily growing clamor [that] more battleships and an increased army on the ground … guarantee a peace is as absurd as the argument that the peaceful man is he who goes well armed.”

On education: “Schools teach children uniformity and imitation, break their wills and knead them into something foreign…. The modern school should be a process of ‘drawing out,’ not ‘driving in.'”

Perhaps less charismatic than Emma Goldman and Ernestine Rose is the generation of Jewish immigrant women who became trade unionists because of the horrifying working conditions of the sweatshops of New York. They were tireless in their efforts to win a living wage and decent working conditions. As it happens, most of the women leaders of this labor movement were Jewish.

Coming as they did out of Yiddish culture, these women managed to synthesize their Jewishness with their activism. Clara Lemlich, daughter of an Orthodox Jewish scholar, after seventeen arrests and six broken ribs, called in Yiddish for a general strike which led to the famous “uprising of the twenty thousand” in 1909.

Rose Schneiderman (1882-1972) was typical of many of the young daughters who went to work to support their parents and siblings in the garment industry of the Lower East Side. Schneiderman wrote in her autobiography, All for One, how she would read Bible stories to her widowed mother, and how they would weep together over the story of Joseph and “the inhumanity of Joseph’s brothers.” As a young cap maker, she soon realized that the all male unions were ignoring the working girl, and she decided to join with other women in organizing themselves.

Shortly after The Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire of March 25, 1911, Rose was called on to address the huge crowd at the Metropolitan Opera House. Rose, a Russian immigrant, barely four-and-one-half feet tall, with a sixth grade education, addressed prominent New York City citizens, lawyers, civic leaders, clergymen — the standard do-gooders. This is how The New York Times reported Rose Schneiderman’s words:

“I would be a traitor to these poor burned bodies… if I came here to talk good fellowship… The life of men and women is so cheap and property is so sacred…. I know from my own experience it is up to the working people to save themselves.” Rose Schneiderman did not let the rich off the hook with a thank you for the meager charity offered the families of the victims. Yet she had the capacity to cross class lines and work with middle and upper class women on the so-called “Mink Brigades.”

In summarizing her life, Rose said, “the labor movement was never just a way of getting higher wages. What appealed to me was the spiritual side of a great cause that created fellowship. You wanted a girl … who worked beside you to be treated just as well as you were, and an injury to one was the concern of all.”

In his study of the roots of Jewish radicalism in the immigrant community of Rose Schneiderman’s generation, Gerald Sorin argues in The Prophetic Minority that “few other proletarianized groups joined radical political movements in proportions comparable to the Jews. Jewish culture, including religious values, was critical to the formation of radical consciousness.”

Certainly, it is true that there were enclaves of radicalism within other groups. The Swedes have a history of socialism; the Italians were drawn to anarchism; the Catholic Worker Party of Dorothy Day is still extant. The Jewish labor activists, however, had a more fertile ground for organizing because they did not have to persuade their members to choose between political action on the one hand, and a conservative church siding with the Establishment.

Class consciousness and ethnic consciousness were not contradictory. Although they had little formal education, these Jewish workers had a very real historical knowledge of anti-Semitism, and a tradition of independent study and learning which enabled them to see themselves as active participants in a larger historical struggle.

What is striking about the Jewish women who were in the forefront of the labor movement is they were not ashamed to be idealists. They took seriously the obligation to redress wrongs not just for themselves, but for the larger community. They were not afraid to be Jewish either.

“To be a Jew in the 20th century/Is to be offered a gift” writes the poet Muriel Rukeyser. If you refuse the gift, “wishing to be invisible, you choose/ Death of the spirit.” This gift is not easy to accept. Rukeyser describes it as “torment,” but a torment that is deeply rooted in Judaism, echoing the warning from the Talmud, “Who can protest and does not is an accomplice in the act.” Muriel Rukeyser reminds us that in accepting this burdensome gift, one is also accepting a kind of freedom: “suffering to be free, /Daring to live for the impossible.”

“Living for the impossible” appropriately describes the Jewish heroines of World War II. For a sense of solidarity and the kind of courage that staggers our imagination, the Jewish women who were resistance fighters, inside and outside the camps, are true models. In They Fought Back: The Story of the Jewish Resistance in Nazi Europe, Yuri Suhl offers fragments of the lives of these forgotten women: Niuta Teitelboim, a left-wing student activist, was swept up into the Warsaw ghetto and became a member of the ghetto underground. She smuggled Jews out of the ghetto, and hand grenades and weapons into the ghetto. She brazenly shot and killed a German Gestapo officer in his own office. Arrested, tortured, and killed in 1943, she did not betray her comrades.

Mala Zimetbaum worked in the prison hospital in Auschwitz and became a camp “runner.” One survivor recalls, “She was a human being in the fullest sense of the word… And to be a human being in Auschwitz was no easy thing.” Mala’s escape from Auschwitz had great symbolic importance. She had freedom for two weeks before she was caught.

It is impossible to untangle the radicalism of these women from their Jewishness. Indeed, it is important to remember that those first swept up and eliminated in Nazi Germany were the anarchists, socialists, and radicals. This same collective sensibility and ethos of right action can be traced, like a thread through a garment, to the political activism of the women of the Old Left of the 1930’s, to the Jews who went to the South in the 50’s and 60’s as civil rights workers, to the anti-war activists of the 60’s, to those in the 80’s who lobbied against Nicaraguan Contra aid, and to the many Jewish women who oppose increasing militarism at home and abroad.

Rose Lipson is an example of this historic reach. She did not become famous — she is the aunt of one of my friends, a Communist Party member. Her father was a carpenter and trade unionist. She witnessed his labor struggles, and was told as a child never to cross a picket line, or buy from a business which was on strike. During the McCarthy era her Communist Party membership was a tightly held
family secret. A Civil Rights activist, and an opponent of the Vietnam War, now nearly 80 years old, she continues to show up with her husband to demonstrate for a good cause. When asked if she still believes in these politics, she says without hesitation: “Yes, I still do. Unless people struggle together, what can an individual accomplish?” Rose Lipson might be a character in a Tillie Olsen or Grace Paley story. In telling the stories of everyday women, Olsen and Paley do not separate the women’s Jewishness from their politics, nor from their feminism. They write from deep within a woman’s consciousness.

In “Midrash on Happiness” Paley’s character Faith lists necessities for happiness which include: “Three or four best women friends to whom she could tell every personal fact and then discuss on the widest, deepest and most hopeless level, the economy, the constant, unbeatable, cruel war economy, the slavery of the American worker to the idea of that economy, the complicity of male people in the whole structure, the dumbness of men (including her preferred man) on this subject…. For happiness she required women to walk with.”

In an interview, Grace Paley speaks about writing and politics: “To think in our tradition, early in history, Isaiah and Micah were telling people to beat their swords into ploughshares in such wonderful language. Imagine having such vision in a time of such terrible wars.”

Tillie Olsen and Grace Paley are old friends. When she was a young woman, a member of the Young Communist League, Tillie Lerner Olsen had to choose between her writing and her political commitments, as she had later to balance motherhood, low paying jobs and writing. The daughter of parents who were involved in the 1905 Russian Revolution and who subsequently left Russia for Nebraska, Tillie Olsen is an expert on silences, and on what lies behind the silence.

Asked about her sense of “mission,” Olsen replies that it’s “not mission, but witness.” It is an important distinction, and speaks to the emancipatory principles inherent in this radical tradition. Mission suggests the evangelical and individualistic; an obligation imposed by another. Witnessing, on the other hand, is a mediating process, providing channels for others to tell their own stories.

In “I Want You Women Up North to Know,” a poem published in 1934 under the name Tillie Lerner, Olsen speaks of the pain and poverty of the women — Catalina, Maria, Ambrosa — who stitch “those dainty children’s dresses” the women up North buy. It could be describing the working conditions Rose Schneiderman faced twenty years earlier — or just as easily the 80’s global assembly line.

In the Shape of Red: Insider/Outsider Reflections, the scientist/activist Ruth Hubbard and the writer/activist Margaret Randall correspond about finding a place, a home in the world. Hubbard and Randall each claim a Jewish identity. Margaret Randall, whose grandparents were Jewish, connects her Judaism and her activism: “It was the persecution of the Jews, that somehow demanded I cast my lot with the oppressed.” Ruth Hubbard, who left Austria with her parents shortly after the Nazis took over in 1938, writes, “I resent being considered somehow less Jewish, meaning less self-identified as Jewish than more religious Jews. Jewishness is a history as well as a set of observances and I am part of that history.”

This particular history is not about conformity but about a radical uprooting, of leaving the familiar for the unknown and of refusing to be a slave. This leaving is in pursuit of freedom, the essence of the Passover. The Israeli writer Shulamith Hareven imaginatively describes the exodus from Egypt in The Miracle Hater through the perspective of a nobody, a tribal outcast. The mind of this former slave understands boundaries, but in order to grasp “an immense freedom, vast beyond human measure,” we must come to terms (as this character does) with the slave within us.

Olsen, Paley, Hubbard, Randall, Schneiderman and Rose remind us that the journey out of bondage is not over. It is an intellectual and spiritual journey as well as a political one, the style of which is dialogic, not dictatorial. This struggle from slavery to freedom is our own struggle.

In America this has been a decade of selfishness and narrowness of vision. More than ever, we need models. More than ever we need to evoke our prophetic tradition. After all, as Grace Paley once said, “to be related to the prophets is such an honor you could die.”

Janet Zandy is a writer interested in the writing of working class women. She teaches literature and writing at the Rochester Institute of Technology.