LOST IN HISTORY
A Stanford graduate student attempts to find how socialism, Yiddish, and American Jewish history fit together.
Between 1890 and 1924, Eastern European immigration to the U.S. created a poor but vibrant Jewish community heavily indebted to Yiddish culture and socialist politics imported from the old country.
On the surface, explains Stanford Ph.D. candidate Anthony Michels, that community bears little resemblance to our own - for the most part an affluent, English-speaking, assimilated group. But in fact, he says, both communities were faced with "a large degree of openness, which afforded us and them the possibility of doing what we wanted to."
The main difference between then and now, he continued, "is that because we are so assimilated we have less to work with than they did. In Yiddish those who rebelled against their upbringing were called apicoris (heretics]. But most of us don't even know enough to be heretics."
Michels, whose Ph.D. dissertation in history is entitled "Yiddish Culture, Socialist Politics and the Shaping of Immigrant Jewish Identity in America, 1890-1924," is one of seven graduate students to receive a 1995-1996 Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship in Jewish Studies from the National Foundation for Jewish Culture.
A fluent Yiddish speaker and reader after years of study, the Northern Californian is attempting to uncover a lost history of American Jewish life, one that he says should be understood in its own context, as well as studied for clues as to how Jewish communities in flux--like our own--create new identities for themselves.
Why is this a lost chapter in American Jewish history? According to Michels, in part because the influence of radical politics has been excised by later Jews who saw it as incompatible with post-War assimilation, growing affluence, and even the religious tradition itself.
"Socialism has been perceived as a hostile and alien element, associated with communism, and one that only serves to hurt the religious tradition," explains Michels, who has been a lecturer at Temple Beth Torah in Fremont, California. "But I'd like to argue that socialism had a huge impact on Jewish life that's not so clear anymore. Look at the way in which it changed Yiddish culture, the mores and values as well as its literature and its cultural institutions." Michels began his academic career studying American labor politics at the University of California at Santa Cruz. As his interest in Judaism began to grow, he started taking courses in Yiddish and reflecting on American Jewish history, eventually combining his interests in a doctoral program in history at Stanford University. Michels believes that the American Jewish community is now secure enough to see its past in a less "sanitized" fashion and own up to the "brutal and grubby aspects of life at that time, as well as the bright side of things."
"We're comfortable enough now, and American enough, not to have to worry about saying that we were also criminals," he said about a Jewish history that includes its share of gangsters and prostitutes. "Now we can write books about it. Now we have to."
The National Foundation for Jewish Culture can be reached
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