Science for the People: Visnshaft in Yiddish | Wisconsin Public Television

Science for the People: Visnshaft in Yiddish

Science for the People: Visnshaft in Yiddish

Record date: Jul 10, 2017

Tony Michels, Director of the Center for Jewish Studies at UW-Madison, explores Visnshaft, a movement designed to bring the entirety of scholarly knowledge to the Jewish immigrant community in Yiddish, their native language.

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Episode Transcript

>> Tony Michels is our incoming

director of the Center for

Jewish Studies, but he's also

the George L Mosse Professor of

American Jewish History at the

University of Wisconsin-Madison.

He just wrote that he's

the author of "A Fire in Their

Hearts: Yiddish Socialists in

New York," but didn't point out

that it was written up in

The New Yorker,

in the LA Review of Books,

and is a fantastic book.

He's co-editor of the

forthcoming "Cambridge History

of Judaism: The Modern Era."

He's co-editor of "Journal

of Jewish Studies,"

and many other things.

And, also, Tony is the

brainchild behind the coolest

thing I've ever done at the

University of Wisconsin-Madison,

which is together we organized a

trip for undergraduates to go to

New York City to do Jews, food,

and immigration to New York.

We just ate our way

through New York City

thanks to the Coleman Fund.

And I could take some

credit for it, but I have to

say, as wonderful a speaker as

you're going to see Tony here,

to see him standing in front

of buildings and talking about

texts and architecture

and history, you feel like those

people come back to life

and walk past you,

and it's just a marvelous

thing to behold.

And hopefully we get to do trips

like that in the future again,

and we can bring alumni along

because you'll see how

amazing Tony is as a speaker.

But today you'll

get just a little taste of that.

So without future ado, I'd

like to introduce Tony Michels.


>> Thank you, Jordan,

for that generous introduction.

That, I think,

set me up for disappointment.


But, thank you.

Today, I'm going to

speak about visnshaft,

as it was known in Yiddish.

Obviously the word

is German derived.

And the way it was used

in Yiddish was everything from

a natural science, physical

science, social science, and the

scientific or the scholarly

study of the humanities.

So when people used

the word visnshaft,

that's what they

were referring to.

Really, the entirety of

scholarly knowledge.

And during the immigrant, the

era of great mass immigration

to the United States, from

roughly the 1880s to the 1920s,

visnshaft was a pervasive ideal.

It was in some corners

almost a cult.

People spoke of it as an

necessity, as an imperative,

as an ideal, as a

goal that immigrants

had to learn visnshaft.

It was a major theme, an

aspect of immigrant Jewish life.

One reason for that, a big, the

big, major force behind that,

were socialists.

Now, it's worth remembering that

socialists at this time and in

the Jewish community, and

especially in the major cities

such as New York City with

the largest immigrant Jewish

population in the world,

socialists were not lunatics

or a fringe element

or a minor group.

Socialists were actually

the major force in the immigrant

Jewish community at that time

because they published the most

popular Yiddish newspaper,

the Forverts, and they had

founded all sorts of mass

membership working class

organizations, like trade unions

or the Workman's Circle,

which I'll talk

about later today.

And they were public figures,

major lecturers,

communal leaders.

They were authorities

who were listened to,

looked up to in many respects.

And so that when they

spoke about visnshaft,

as they often did,

people listened to that.

A large number of immigrants,

workers, socialists, sometimes

people who did not considered

themselves socialists,

even rabbis took notice.

That visnshaft was something

that had to be acquired, that

immigrants ought to educate

themselves in the sciences.

So, socialists

played a very big role.

And today, my talk is going

to explore this movement

for popular visnshaft

in Yiddish.

That's what I'm

going to speak on.

What you're looking at here

is a picture of Karl Marx

with his name in Yiddish.

And Karl Marx is here because

the reason why, I didn't explain

to you, the reason why

socialists were so much at the

forefront of this movement

for popular visnshaft

in part was their Marxism.

And what I mean here is they

understood Marxist thought and

theory as a science of society.

So that was the

first part of it.

They understood their own

view of the world as scientific.

So that was one reason why

they put so much emphasis on it.

The other reason was that their

thought was that for workers to

be able to change the world,

they needed to understand

the world around them.

They needed to understand

not just their own working

conditions, but the way

society and government worked.

History, where humanity had come

from, so they might be able to

understand where it was going.

Now, any number of people

might accept that view, not just

socialists, but socialists

thought it as an urgent need,

as I say, because they

wanted to harness learning

in the service of social change.

All right, so for them,

this was not a leisurely

pursuit exactly.

This was part and parcel with

struggles of immigrant workers

to change their circumstances

of working in the sweatshops and

the tenements, so politics and

education geared towards, again,

or built around

visnshaft was crucial to

how they understood the world.

And, finally, they

viewed visnshaft as so important

because they saw it as,

they saw it as counteracting

religious belief.

They were atheists, of course.

At least the leading spokesmen

of the Jewish working class,

the writers, the intellectuals,

the socialists activists

were all atheists.

But they did not think it

was constructive or particularly

helpful to attack

religion in an aggressive

or confrontational way.

Anarchists did that.

Anarchists were known for doing

things like smoking cigarettes

in front of a synagogue

on Yom Kippur.


That was the kind of thing

anarchists enjoyed doing,

at least for a time.

Marxists thought that was

spiteful and counterproductive.

That the best thing to do

was to teach the sciences.

And that by learning about

history or Darwinism, evolution,

and so forth, immigrants

from traditional religious

backgrounds would slowly

but surely come to realize that

belief in God,

in the supernatural,

anything supernatural was silly.

So it had served

that purpose as well.

Visnshaft served a secularizing

goal without being aggressive,

without being

confrontational about it.

With the idea being that even

someone who thought of himself

or herself as religious might

partake in the acquisition

of knowledge, secular knowledge

and hopefully, down the line,

come to relinquish

belief in God for science.

Okay, so we're going

to start in 1892

with a Yiddish magazine

called the Zukunft.

Die Zukunft, meaning the future.

And what you're looking at here

is a poster that if you were in

New York around 1910, you

would have seen this handbill,

a poster plastered around

the Lower East Side

and other Jewish neighborhoods. And it's for the Zukunft.

And it says at the

top, "Es lebt Di tsukunft."

The Zukunft lives. And there's

"A groysn masn farzamlung."

A large mass gathering,

a mass meeting to support

this magazine, the Zukunft.

This is 1910.

I'm starting in 1892, but

I wanted to show you an artifact

of this magazine that was

around the Lower East Side.

This man speaking is

Comrade William Edlund, a former

Stanford University student who

made his way to the Lower East

Side to become a very popular

Yiddish journalist, lecturer,

and writer in the

early 20th century.

The Zukunft

is where we're going to start.

This was a magazine that was

dedicated, when it was founded

in 1892, to the popularization

of visnshaft in Yiddish.

Now, when it was started, the

very first issue, the editorial,

written by a man by the name

of Philip Krantz, a Russian-born

Jew who came to the United

States via England in 1890 to

become one of the foremost

Yiddish editors, he said,

Phillip Krantz said, "I don't

know if this is going to work."

He said that Zukunft

is an experiment.

"It's a trial , and we don't

know if it's going to work."

And he said that because there

was nothing like this at the

time anywhere in the world.

There was no Yiddish magazine

or publication of any kind where

you could open up and

read the kind of material

you saw in the Zukunft.

So, what did you see

in the Zukunft?

You saw articles like,

articles on Darwin.

You saw articles on psychology,

physics, astronomy, sociology,

criminology, history

of the United States,

history of Europe,

and on and on.

This was the typical

issue of the magazine.

You'd see all these articles,

articles on all these subjects.

And this was a new thing.

This was a new thing in Yiddish.

Why was it new?

For a couple of reasons.

One, in eastern Europe,

in Russia in particular,

the censor banned

this sort of thing.

This was illegal.

This kind of content was illegal

You couldn't publish a magazine

with Karl Marx's face

on the front,

as you saw on the first

issue of the Zukunft.

You couldn't do it.

You'd wind up in prison.

So censorship prevented

this kind of magazine

in eastern Europe.

There was no, in 1892, no

Yiddish newspaper of any kind.

Forget about a magazine

like the Zukunft.

There was nothing,

no periodical press in Russia

due to censorship.

So there's no tradition of this.

And the other reason why it

hadn't been attempted was that

most writers, educated people

who knew enough about these

subjects to write for this

magazine had to know Yiddish

and if they did know Yiddish,

had to be willing to use Yiddish

because most intellectuals

thought Yiddish was either

beneath them or was not

a language capable of expressing

high or sophisticated

thoughts about anything.

So how can you explain the

workings of the cardiovascular

system in the Yiddish language?

Yiddish language was

meant for selling fish

in the shtetl marketplace.

Yiddish was the

language of the home.

It's the language of lullabies.

It's the language of what the

rabbi or the melamed speaks

when he's explaining

Torah to the students.

The idea that you could write

this kind of material in the

Yiddish language seemed

ludicrous to most educated

people at that time.

You had to make an effort,

if you were an educated person, to write Yiddish.

And, in fact, the editor of this

magazine at the time, Philip

Krantz, did not know the

language when he left Russia.

He was a Russian-speaking Jew.

And so he made that effort

to learn Yiddish in London first

and then the United States

and to write to the

masses in the language.

That was, he turned on

its head what was expected,

what intellectuals expected

for themselves at this time.

So, it was an experiment,

he said.

Are there enough writers?

Who knows.

Are there enough readers?

Who knows.

Because, after all, who were

the immigrant Jewish masses?

These were people

with very little education.

Most women, Jewish women,

at that time, couldn't read.

Many men couldn't

read a whole lot.

Their education was what?

They went to heder and they

studied Torah a little bit

until they were 13,

and then they stopped.

And Jewish girls had

almost no formal schooling

in any way, shape or form.

And if you were a Jew

who had a lot of education in a

traditional setting, then that

means you're training to be a

rabbi in yeshiva, right?

And then there was the small

number of secularly educated,

maybe university-educated

Jews, who may or may have

known Yiddish, but if they

knew Yiddish, then why read a

magazine like the Zukunft.

If you know Russian

or English or German,

you don't need a

magazine like this.

So, were there enough readers? Were there enough writers?

The whole Jewish world was such

that it hadn't yet yielded a

magazine like this because there

was seemingly no demand for it

and there was no

supply on either one.

But this happened in New

York City in 1892 because

the immigrant Jewish world

was changing so rapidly.

It was a cauldron

of social change.

Immigrants had broken from

their traditional communities.

Parental authority

was almost non-existent.

Rabbis had almost

no power of any--

They had really no

power of any sort.

They had some influence, but

their influence wasn't great.

Because most immigrants were

fairly young and they spent most

of their time working and they

were open to cultural change,

they didn't want to spend much

of their time in synagogues

or living a devout Jewish

life according to religious law.

So in this context, all

sorts of things were possible.

And one thing that was possible

was the publication of a

visnshaftlekheh, a scientific

magazine like the Zukunft.

As it turned out,

the magazine was successful.

According to the

magazine's own estimate,

it was, it had

about 3500 readers,

subscribers rather,

several times more,

maybe 10,000 readers,

which wasn't bad in the 1890s.

Again, especially for a journal

as difficult as this was

for most immigrants to read.

We don't know a tremendous

amount about immediate reactions

to the Zukunft, but the managing

editor several years later

quoted from a letter.

He said Hebrew was inundated

with hundreds of letters after

these issues, the first

two or three issues came out.

He said that the office of the

Zukunft on the Lower East Side

regularly had workers who wanted

to buy copies of the magazine.

They were sold out completely.

They weren't able

to meet the demand.

So, here are two letters.

I'm going to read to you

two letters that were

supposedly sent to the editor.

I say supposedly because

I have not seen the letters.

The letters have been destroyed

or were lost or dumped out,

whatever the case was.

But according to the secretary

of the magazine that handled

correspondence, again

hundreds of these came in,

and I'll read one.

So here's one letter.

"We read the Zukunft and simply

can't believe our own eyes.

"Is this possible that

in the hated jargon--"

That's the word

that was often used

by educated Jews

to describe the

Yiddish language.

They called it a

jargon (French) or jargon.

"That in the hated jargon, in

the language of servant girls,

"such deep thoughts can be

expressed plainly and simply

so "that the ignorant

might be introduced

"to the highest science.

"This is the greatest

undertaking you can

set for yourselves.

"We will do everything

in our power

"to help you in

your noble work."

So that was one letter

that supposedly came in.

Here's, more briefly,

another letter.

"Die Zukunft is the only ray

of light in our lives.

"We gather in a hall in the

evening and somebody reads

"the learned articles aloud,

and then we discuss them.

"The effect that the Zukunft

has had on us is indescribable.

"Finally we have the

possibility to partake

"in the forbidden fruit

from the tree of knowledge."

So it had a big effect.

The cover alone, I should

say, the cover of the magazine

projected the values of articles

in the perceptive of the editor.

So, what you saw on the

cover was, first of all,

a robed woman--

I'm sorry I wasn't able

to find an image for

you that was usable.

So I can only describe it to

you, I can't show it to you.

On the cover was a robed woman

holding a torch, representing

freedom, and holding a tablet

that states in Yiddish "Workers

of the world unite," obviously

from the Communist Manifesto.

So that's the first thing.

The biggest image is a woman in

robes holding a torch and then

"Workers of the world unite."

And then, at her feet lies

an array of scholarly books,

various scholarly

treatises around her,

around her feet, representing,

of course, science, visnshaft.

And then an array

of scientific tools,

measuring instruments

and so forth.

Instruments, various instruments

that scientists would use.

And then, in Latin, at the

bottom of the page,

appears the words

"Wisdom and labor conquers all."

Again melding the two impulses

here, the need for knowledge

and the idea that the working

class benefits and of course

not only benefits from

knowledge, but is the future.

And indeed the idea of

the name itself conveyed

this kind of optimism.

The future.

There is a bright future.

The future is guaranteed to be

better but only if the readers

of the Zukunft read

this magazine and act on it.

So, optimism, knowledge,

socialism, simply uneducated

people bettering themselves

to change the world.

That's what that cover

conveyed in every issue.

And so all the contents on

the articles, even if they had

nothing to do with

social struggle or politics,

was somehow connected

to that goal.

So this helps to explain

this kind of, this really

overwhelming enthusiasm for

the magazine, at least among its

readers because they were being

told, they were being ushered

into the world of traditional

Judaism, of the shtetl,

of religion, and now they are

exposed to the world of learning

that was previously

beyond reach.

And on top of it, they were not

being made to feel ashamed

for being uneducated

or being poor

or coming from a

poor background.

They were not ashamed

of it in this context.

They were elevated to

a level of importance

that they had never

experienced before.

Again, they're lowly immigrants. They're working in sweatshops.

They're out of place

in the United States.

They come from

family backgrounds

that were not prestigious

in Jewish communities.

These were the lower

elements in Jewish communities.

They weren't the

di sheyneh yidn, the rabbis,

or the wealthy businessmen,

you know?

So they were accustomed to

being in a lower status

within the Jewish community

and in the world beyond them.

And now, in the grimy

circumstances of the immigrant

Jewish neighborhoods,

they are exposed to a magazine

and these ideals

that imbue it in a new way.

You can't understand those

letters that I read to you

without appreciating the

psychology in and around,

the psychological uplift

that the magazine represented.

All right, so, who read it?

How did they read it?

Where was it read?

You might have noticed that

one of those letters said,

"We gather in a hall

and read the magazine."

So it was read collectively in

groups, and it was done that way

because many people

simply couldn't--

The typical reader is,

of 1892, 1893, couldn't

understand it, couldn't read it

on its own for a couple reasons.

One, the obvious reason is,

as I keep stressing,

they didn't know anything

about these subjects.

Second was a problem

of language.

They knew Yiddish,

but what kind of Yiddish

is this in the Zukunft?

Well, it had to borrow from

German because Yiddish

didn't have all the

terminology necessary.

it had developed it yet,

to explain, again,

physics, biology, criminology,

sociology, zoology. Right?

So the language had to

be invented as it went.

Not Yiddish, but the kind

of Yiddish that could convey

the subject matter in an

appropriate way for the readers.

That was very difficult.

And when you think that a good

number of the writers for that

magazine were not native Yiddish

speakers, like the first editor

himself, you can imagine how

difficult this was to put out

something that was digestible.

So immigrants met often in

groups to read to each other

and to discuss.

There were a number

of Zukunft clubs that formed.

Clubs to support the magazine.

They read it and they raised

money for the magazine

so it could continue to publish.

So we know those clubs

existed in various cities,

Newark, New York,

Philadelphia, and so forth.

Beyond those clubs were

what were called

self-education societies.

These were clubs started

by young men and women

to educate themselves.

And this is one picture.

It's one example.

This is in Chicago.

This is a group, well you

can see the young men and women,

represented almost equally.

Notice the age.

The age is important here.

The people who were most

likely to read a magazine

like the Zukunft were in their

teens and 20s in the 1890s.

And the reasons for this.

If you were, let's say, under 10

years old when you came to the

United States, you went

to public school, probably,

at least for a few years.

You weren't working in the

sweatshops yet, and you acquired

English more quickly

than older immigrants,

either in the streets

or the public schools.

They were too young for

this, they were not as tied

to Yiddish, and they were not

yet working in the factories.

So, someone who came between the

ages of one and roughly 10

was heading towards English.

All right?

If, however, on the other end,

you were above the age of,

let's say, 25-30 when you came,

if you had children already,

you had other responsibilities than gathering it all

at night to read in groups.

All right?

And the older you got, the more

likely, at this point in time,

more likely it was that

you were religious and weren't

immediately attracted to this

sort of, these sort of ideas.

So we're talking about a

readership that was relatively

young, in their teens and

20s, meaning that they were old

enough to be tied to the Yiddish

language but young enough not to

be tied towards religious

tradition so much

that you would not pick this up. All right?

And you can see this here. Right? You can see the age.

Notice no man here

is wearing a beard.

That's a clear indication that

they are not religious anymore.

I can guarantee you there's

not a single yarmulke

on any head here.

And so that right away tells you

these aren't religious people.

They've already

broken from that.

And this is not,

I should just say,

this is not for the Zukunft.

This is another publication

called the Yiddish

Di yidisheh arbeter velt,

the Jewish Workers World

in Chicago,

but it is a

self-education society.

They gathered every week

to read and to discuss.

Okay, good. All right.

Here's another group.

This is called the

Yunge yidishe literarishe

farayn in Winnipeg.

Oh, you can see here,

the Young Jewish Literary Association in Winnipeg.

This is a little later.

This is from the late teens.

And, again, notice the age.

If anything, these people

are even younger.

Men and women both.

I don't know what they read.

I haven't seen, I haven't

seen any documentation.

In all likelihood, it was

a mix of fiction, poetry.

In other words,

imaginative literature

and scientific literature.

That was often the combination.

And this is a

fairly large group.

This group is not an

educational society.

This is just a group of

guys who went to a park with the

socialists Yiddish Forvets

and thought it was

important enough

to take a picture.

Now, it's important, I'm

showing you this picture

for a couple reasons.

The first is the kind

of loyalty that readers

felt towards their publications.

That they thought, and this

is expressed here, that you see

this over and over again

in pictures from the time.

Immigrants posed

with their newspapers.

Something that I think none

of us can imagine doing today.

Not only because many of

us read online, but,

nonetheless, we wouldn't

do it with the New York Times.

And they're doing it

because they're expressing

a new identity.

That's what's important here.

That they are saying

we are readers.

We're now readers in America.

We read.

And we're reading

this newspaper.

The socialist newspaper, which

is the most popular Yiddish

newspaper and that

expresses who we are.

You know, we're readers.

We're secular.

We're learning about the modern

world, and we favor social

justice as they understand it.

I should mention that

the Forvets at this time

had a weekly column called "Popular Science."

So there wasn't the case that

there was, you know, difficult

magazines, only difficult

magazine dealt with visnshaft.

Popular newspapers

also had columns for this.

And so every week readers could

read something, read about

the topics the Zukunft

covered but in a more,

just much more,

in a lighter way.

The articles were shorter.

They were more

superficial and so forth.

But there's the same idea,

popular science,

visnshaft for the people.

And you have these readers

saying this is, again,

this is our newspaper.

So there were all these

groups, and we don't know,

these self-education groups, all

we know is that they existed.

They didn't keep records.

There are no minutes

of meetings, but we know they

existed because there were

dozens of them that took out


in various newspapers.

That's where the

information comes from.

So I'll give you just a

sampling of the names to convey

what they were about.

There was a group called

the Proletariat Society.

There was the Young

Education Society.

Again the emphasis on youth.

The Young Friends

Progressive Education Society.

Youth, progressive

politics, education, right?

All captured in that name:

Young Friends Progressive

Education Society.

My favorite name

that I've found, favorite group.

Brotherliness Workers

Continuing Education Society.


You know?

It doesn't sound

good in English.

It doesn't sound good

in Yiddish either. [laughter]

This is, you know, they are

not the most literate group,

otherwise they wouldn't

have chosen that exact title.

And it admitted women,

I should say.

I happen to know that

women were members

of the Brotherliness Society.

Don't let the name fool you.

So, there was the

Karl Marx Association

and the Ferdinand Lassalle Continuing Education Society

and the William Morris Club

and the Bakunin Group,

named after the

Russian anarchist.

So there were just

dozens of these groups.

And many of them were dedicated

to reading or hiring lecturers

to come speak to them.

The people who lectured were

often writers for the Zukunft

and other publications.

So, this magazine, the Zukunft,

was the beginning,

at least in concrete form,

of this mania for visnshaft.

Now, I said that not just--

I mentioned in passing

that not just socialists

approved of this,

they were the main promoters,

but those who did not see

themselves as especially

political or radical

in any way liked this magazine.

And one example of it is the

leading, one of the pioneers of

the Yiddish press, a guy

named Kasriel Sarasohn,

who published various

Yiddish newspapers,

an occasional Hebrew

publication, as well.

And he announced in his paper

how important it

is to his readers.

He said to his readers.

This was in 1894...

What did he say to his readers?

He said to his readers that

they needed to read the paper

because it is "the only

purely scientific journal

"in simple Yiddish.

"Everyone who loves education

itself and wants the poor Jewish

"people to become more educated

should support the Zukunft

"in its holy task by

circulating it."

So a couple things I

think are interesting

and worth pointing out.

The first is Sarasohn himself. He was a rabbi.

He was an ordained

rabbi in Lithuania.

Comes to America,

he's not a rabbi in America.

He's a newspaper publisher.

He's a businessman.

So that's one thing that's

interesting because it reflects

the shift towards or

away from religion

that was very widespread.

He didn't reject it.

He didn't have a

crisis of faith.

He promoted it in his newspaper.

He was always identified

with the religious segment

of immigrant Jewry.

But he was no longer a rabbi

because that didn't make--

He couldn't earn a

living doing that.

And, second, this rabbi who,

in Lithuania where he was from,

would surely had condemned

the Zukunft at that time. Right?

Would have punished students if

he saw students in yeshiva with

a copy of the Zukunft tucked

away in the Talmud,

which happened, as we

know from memoirs.

You'd be ejected from

yeshiva from doing that.

And he probably would have done

that himself if he were there

instead of New York City.

But New York City, he says

the Zukunft and its cause

was a holy task.

So, again, there's a shift in

values towards the secular

that even rabbis, or former

rabbis, accepted and promoted.

One more comment about the

readers that's interesting,

and a comment about who

read them and so on.

The Zukunft was also

read in Russia,

which is an interesting

story in and of itself.

The magazine was smuggled

into Russia by couriers, usually

revolutionaries, who had the

magazine shipped from New York

to Switzerland or France, often

Switzerland, and then student

revolutionaries, Jewish students

and revolutionaries, took the

magazine and put it in false

bottoms in their suitcases.

Or sometimes strapped them to

their body and smuggled them

one way or another across

the Russian border

into the Pale of Settlement where most Jews lived.

And then the magazine was

distributed surreptitiously.

Bundles were sometimes,

one or two copies were sometimes

dropped off in a base midrash

where Jewish men would hang out,

study Torah a little bit,

socialize a little bit,

some went there.

Some went to book

peddlers who distributed them.

Sometimes they were dropped

off in the back rooms

of Jewish stores.

In these ways, the magazine

was circulated with high risk

to small groups of Jewish

workers and activists and

revolutionaries who then often

took the magazine into forests,

into the woods, and they'd

read them in groups,

in circles out in the woods.

They had to do this because

if they got caught either by

the Jewish communal authorities

or by the Russian police,

they could get into

a lot of trouble.

So they usually went out

into the woods in the winter

and when the weather

was nicer, whatever.

That's where they went.

And the activists of the time

have written about these

in the recollections

and have talked

about how important the

Zukunft was to them.

Because, again, they

had no other source

for this information

and knowledge.

One activist in Minsk said that

it was, as he called it, a true

holiday every time the copy of

the Zukunft arrived in Minsk

in the 1890s and in the 1900s.

These were shipped to political

prisoners in Siberia.

It got to the point where

almost every single place

where there was a group

of workers and activists,

the Zukunft reached

them in Russia.

This is in the years

before the Russian revolution.

So its influence spread

eastward is my point here.

Not just, it was not just

limited to the immigrants

in the United States.

The Zukunft and the values and

the information, the education

it carried went in the

other direction back to Russia.

So by all accounts

this was an achievement.

On its fifth anniversary in

1897, the editor, the new editor

who at that time was Abraham

Cahan, there he is, the young

Abraham Cahan, the great editor

of the Yiddish forwards, that's

him as a young man in 1885,

he boasted on the anniversary of

the magazine, "Who in the early

years," the early years being

two, three years before he wrote

this, "Who in the early years

"would have thought it possible.

"Die Zukunft, a pure scientific

journal for the simple folk in

"the simple language

of the folk.

"This is an event one could be

proud of even if it were in a

"major language of one

of the gentile nations.

"And it is only the labor

movement's pride," he wrote.

At that point, he boasted,

2,100 pages of visnshaft

had been published.

So that was something

that the editors were

very, very proud of.

Eventually, the

Zukunft evolved into

a very different

kind of magazine.

It left its early mission to be

a scientific journal and became

more of a general interest

magazine where you could read

about contemporary politics,

literature, theater,

those sorts of things.

It became a contemporary

magazine of politics and the

arts and was a very good one.

The circulation eventually

climbed to 20,000, which is

actually, if you consider how

small the Jewish community was,

about 2.5 million, three million

immigrants, it means a high

proportion of immigrants

read that magazine.

But it moved into

something else.

And by that time a new

idea about visnshaft

started to emerge.

This idea that I'll

describe to you was brought

by this man here.

A man by the name of Chaim

Zhitlowsky, a name that's not

well known today, but in his

own time was, I'll put it to you

this way, he's the most

influential Jewish leader

you've never heard of.

In his day, he influenced every

major Jewish political party,

Zionists, socialist Zionists,

all sorts of groups with his

idea of Jewish nationalism,

the details of which

I'm not going to go into now.

But the essential aspect for our

purposes was this: that Jews--

He was born in Russia into

a traditional family, became a

revolutionary, fled

to Switzerland, earned a PhD

in philosophy, was a founder

of what became the largest

revolutionary party in Russia

called the Party of Socialist

Revolutionaries, came to

the United States, however, and

stayed there in part because he

wanted to live among the largest


community in the world.

And that was New York City that

had a Jewish population that was

about one-and-a-half-million by

the time he settled in New York.

So he thought this is

where he wanted to be,

and Zhitlowsky's idea

was basically this:

that Jews are a

Yiddish-speaking nation.

They're a nation without a

territory, but they're a nation

with their own

language and culture.

And that makes them-- The fact

that they have this language and

culture means they are every bit

as viable and valid as a nation

as the French or the Germans or

the Estonians or the Spaniards.

That Jews were no less national

than any of these groups.

They just happened

to lack a territory.

And they aren't as developed

as some of those nations.

They haven't produced

the heights of culture

that the Germans have, yet.

So his mission was to bring

Yiddish-speaking culture

into the 20th century,

so that it would match

the best of whatever European civilization had to offer.

That was his idea.

So when he came to the United

States, he preached this idea.

And so when he looked at

the subject of visnshaft,

he had a different view than people like Abraham Cahan,

who I just showed you.

Abraham Cahan's view was

that Yiddish is temporary.

It's not permanent.

The immigrants

will adapt to America.

They will learn English.

It's good that they

learn English.

This is the way of the country.

And so they will eventually give

up Yiddish and be part of the

general American society

or, more precisely,

the general American

working class.

That Jews will assimilate

into that and they'll have

their own culture,

American culture.

It's progressive, ideally, and

also committed to learning

and science and rationality

and enlightenment,

but not Yiddish, in English.

So, Yiddish, or a magazine like

the Zukunft, was transitional

for Cahan and almost

all of its founders.

They didn't see any

value in Yiddish.

They respected the language,

but they didn't see any

permanent value in it.

Zhitlowsky comes around two

decades later and says,

well, it's good to educate

the simple workers.

They should have

popular science.

Popular visnshaft is good but

that's just the starting point.

That's the beginning point.

What we need to aim for is our--

We need to produce scholarship,

advance knowledge in Yiddish

that we ought to be able to not

just appeal to the workers

and the uneducated but the most

educated people in society,

the young Jews who are going to

college and invariable

leave the Jewish people

when they go to

college because why,

what's to be gained by staying

with the Jewish people?

They leave Yiddish because

there's no advantage or

practical use to it if

you're going to college.

You can read in other languages.

So he said we have to stop this

language assimilation by giving

the best, the crème de la crème

of Jewish life

something worth

reading in Yiddish.

So he created a different

magazine just for that purpose,

and it's, whoops, it's that one.

It was called

Dos Naye Lebn, the New Life.

Again, the emphasis

is on novelty and the future.

It's optimistic in the way

the Zukunft is optimistic.

This is from 1910,

the January issue of 1910.

And here, what you'd read

in Dos Naye Lebn

was a very different

kind of content.

There was no attempt to

use simple language.

The language was

actually very, very difficult.

It was difficult Yiddish.

Lots of abstract terminology.

Lots of terminology adapted

from religious sources,

rabbinic sources, to convey

abstract or high concepts.

And subject matter

that was of no immediate

use to anybody, seemingly.

So he wrote about philosophy.

He was a philosopher,

so he wrote quite a bit

on the history of philosophy.

He developed his own theory

about morality and politics

that he laid out here.

He wrote about Jewish

history across the centuries.

Based often on original

research by scholars,

university-trained scholars

who wrote in Yiddish.

These are the kinds of people

he gathered around him

in the magazine.

Now, someone like Abraham Cahan

thought the whole thing

was ridiculous, and they got

into a long-running debate.

And the debate was over

the purpose of visnshaft.

Should visnshaft be popular to

serve an instrumental purpose

of educating workers

and then helping them,

guiding them out

of the Jewish fold

into the larger

non-Yiddish-speaking world?

Cahan said that's the

purpose of visnshaft.

Zhitlowsky said no.

Zhitlowsky said Yiddish

is an end in itself

in Yiddish culture.

To create Yiddish culture,

we need to create visnshaft.

Not popularize it but create it. We need our own scholars.

We need our own scientists

who write in Yiddish.

Cahan responded: You're

creating a culture for people

that doesn't exist and

you're an elitist.

And Zhitlowsky said in

response: I'm not an elitist.

He said, I'm serving many Jews

who want to read in Yiddish,

who don't necessarily want to

drift away from Jewish culture,

but they don't have an equal

culture that exists in English.

All right? So they went back

and forth over this.

In the Zukunft,

you never read Darwin.

You read popularizations

of Darwin. Right?

Summaries of Darwin.

Summaries of Karl Marx.

Zhitlowsky said, no, we

need to translate them, right?

And so in the wake

of Zhitlowsky,

his followers

started translating.

You could finally read Karl

Marx and everything he wrote

in Yiddish translation.

Cahan looked at that and

said this is a waste of time.

By the time an immigrant

Jew can understand

the content of Das Kapital

or something like that,

they can read in English.

They don't need the Yiddish,

so you're wasting your time.

And again Zhitlowsky's

response is:

You don't understand what

I'm talking about here.

We don't' want them

to leave Yiddish.

We don't want them

to leave Yiddish.

We want them to not have

to make that choice

between English and Yiddish.

They could find everything they

want in Yiddish was his point.

All right, so, you start seeing

translations of scientific work,

historical works, faithful

transition, high quality

transitions by followers

of Zhitlowsky or in journals, like Dos Naye Lebn.

So it's a very advanced magazine

that signaled a new stage

in thinking about the role

of visnshaft in Jewish life.

Again, one that's not

instrumental but part of the

cultivation of a new Jewish

nation just beginning to flower.

Zhitlowsky was the tribune

of that way of thinking.

Obviously, the readership

was much smaller.

But it was surprisingly wide.

I went into the archives to

see what I could find about his

readers, and I saw these letters

to the editor, letters to

Zhitlowsky as editor, saying

things like, you know,

I'm a grocery wholesaler

in Los Angeles, I kid you not.

This is 1910-1912.

I'm a grocer, I'm a vegetable

wholesaler in Los Angeles,

and I regard your magazine

as a holy undertaking

and here's the donation.

He sent in some donation.

I don't know what it was.

And I just want you

to know, he said

that we read your

magazine in Los Angeles.

A farmer, a Jewish farmer

in Massachusetts,

again I kid you not, wrote to him and said the same thing.

He said, "I feel like

I'm a little bit of an intellectual inside."

Those were his words, "I'm a

little bit of an intellectual."

And so I turned to

Dos Naye Lebn

to satisfy my

intellectual cravings.

Another writer wrote

to him and said,

"You're the embodiment

of the Jewish nation."

What he meant is that

you perfectly balance

higher learning and

commitment to the Jewish people.

You are every bit as Jewish

as a rabbi, even though you're

secular atheist, but you're

every bit as learned as a modern

man because you have a PhD

in philosophy and, you know,

he could speak multiple

languages and he dressed well

and he looked very

civilized and so forth.

So that was the second

approach to visnshaft

that became current by

the First World War.

Finally, finally I want

to turn to the way

in which visnshaft became--

I've been focusing on

magazines, which had a popular

readership, but I want to focus

now on the way visnshaft was

spread very broadly through mass

membership organizations built

by workers themselves, and the

best example I can give you is

the Arbeter Ring or the

Workmen's Circle, which some

of you know and maybe even

have some connection with.

The Workmen's Circle was founded

in the same year the Zukunft

was founded, in 1892 in

New York City, on Essex Street,

on the Lower East Side.

Same street where the B'nai

Brith was founded, actually.

And it was a small group

of workers whose idea was--

Well, you know, there's no social insurance.

There's no social

security at the time.

They started a

self-help organization.

A mutual aid society.

The idea is if you cut your

finger off when you're working

at a sewing machine,

you might lose your finger

but at least you

will have insurance.

You'll have financial support

from this mutual aid society.

Or if you pass away,

your widow will be able

to afford the burial.

That was the idea.

But because these were workers

who had absorbed the ideas

of enlightenment and visnshaft,

they made a membership

requirement in the

Workmen's Circle.

The membership requirement was

every branch of the Workmen's

Circle had to hold educational

lectures at least once a month.

That was the distinguishing

feature of the Workmen's Circle

as distinct from other

self-help organizations.

It was the

educational component.

It was an indication, again,

that they had absorbed these

ideas, these values of the

socialists, intellectuals

and writers and leaders

that were all around them.

They took it upon themselves to

make that their own requirement,

and they taxed themselves.

They taxed themselves

to pay for the fee.

You have to pay for lectures.

So they taxed themselves

to do it. Right?

Again more emphatically

indicating how important this

ideal of education was for them.

The Workmen's Circle grew.

It became a national

organization with hundreds of

branches and ultimately almost

90,000 members by the 1920s.

So it was really a major

organization by the '20s with

branches not just in the major

cities but in what New Yorkers

like to call the provinces.

The provinces were everywhere

outside of New York City,

but that included

everything from,

you know, Madison,


to Sioux City, Iowa,

to Galveston, Texas,

you could find

far flung branches

of the

Workmen's Circle.

The Workmen's Circle created--

this was in 1910-- an educational committee to send

out lectures across the country

to spread the idea of visnshaft.

And I want to give you

some examples of this.

There were, by 1908,

363 lectures organized

by this committee alone.

So almost every day of the week

there was a lecture to attend in

Yiddish by one of

the hired lecturers

of the Workmen's Circle.

And that number only grew.

Some of these people

were towering figures

in immigrant Jewish life.

For example, a man by the

name of Nachman Syrkin,

who was the founding

theoretician of

socialist Zionism

back when he lived in Germany.

This is a Russian-born Jew,

went to Germany, earned two PhDs

there, and then, in the 1890s,

wrote a very important work

about antisemitism and the

Jewish question and the need

to create a Jewish homeland,

a socialist Jewish homeland.

He wound up in the United

States, Syrkin, and became one

of the most popular lecturers

on all sorts of topics.

So people like him were sent

out by the Workmen's Circle

to speak on all the topics

I've been talking about.

But now, again, reaching

a mass audience.

The high point, the most

significant achievement of the

Workmen's Circle, something

that I still kind of marvel at

to this day, was a series

called "Di velt un di mentshayt,

"Humanity in the World."

And this was a 13-part lecture

organized by a young Russian Jewish revolutionary

who came to the United States,

who, by the way,

went back to Russia after

the Russian revolution broke out

and died, tragically, in 1917.

Almost a hundred years

exactly to this day,

this organizer died in Russia.

But in 1910, he was in the

United States, and he organized

this series [inaudible],

and it was a 13-part

lecture series on--

Well, I wrote it down here.

On everything from anthropology,

astronomy, biology,

cultural history, economic

history, aesthetic culture,

geology, intellectual culture,

law, psychology,

religion and sociology.

That was the idea.

The idea was that the best

lecturers, such as Syrkin, or a

guy by the name of Lewis Bodeen,

a well-known scholar of law,

of American law,

as well as a scholar

of Marxist social thought.

He wrote in English and Yiddish.

He was known in and

outside the Jewish community.

These people would give

systematic, rigorous lectures

on all these topics to workers.

Now, imagine-- And then this

was a traveling lecture series.

So it started on the Lower East

Side, went for several weeks,

then went to Brownsville,

Brooklyn, for several weeks,

then went to Williamsburg,

Brooklyn, several weeks,

then went to Harlem

and the Bronx.

So it went over months,

this series,

and the number of people who attended approached 14,000.

On the Lower East Side alone,

the average attendance was

795 students a night

to hear these

lectures in Yiddish

about these topics.

Now, again, mind you,

these are workers

who spent most of the

day in sweatshops.

That's how they

spent their days.

They were toiling at a sewing

machine or stitching buttonholes

and buttons into buttonholes

or maybe painting houses

if they weren't in the

clothing industry or whatever.

But the bulk of these people

were working class people.

So they dragged themselves out

to hear these lectures by the

thousands in, this was 1913,

this series, in the winter

and spring of 1913.

It was tremendously successful.

So successful that this

guy who organized it,

he's named Terman,

compiled this into a book.

The book was published by the

Workmen's Circle,

and it sold out within a

matter of a month-and-a-half.

They sold all the books out

because the

Workmen's Circle branches

that existed from Detroit

to Michigan to Winnipeg

to California

bought bulk copies, put

them in their little libraries

that they had, and, you know,

encouraged members to read them.

Could the members read them?

We don't know much about it.

Abraham Cahan and some

of his friends said,

again, who's going to read this?

This is very difficult stuff.

And the editor's response was:

Don't underestimate the

Jewish working masses.

Some can understand it.

And some maybe can't now but

will in 12 months or two years

get to the point where

they can read this material.

But, regardless of the level of

comprehension, we do know that

thousands of copies were

printed and purchased,

shipped across the country,

and shipped to Europe.

A publishing company in Warsaw

bought the rights to issue

a new edition in Warsaw,

and it appeared there as well.

All right, so this was one of

the crowning achievements,

and based on that,

the Workmen's Circle

started a publishing house,

a publishing imprint,

to put out called

"The Workmen's Circle Bibliotech,"

"The Workmen's Circle Library,"

that put out works

on US history,

political science, political economy and so forth.

Again, these

went through multiple printings.

The volume on political economy

was sent to the Soviet Union

in the 1920s for use in their

Yiddish school system for kids.

The Soviet Union sponsored

a Yiddish school system

for Jewish kids, and what

do you teach them?

Well, there was not this history

that I'm trying to describe

of visnshaft in Yiddish

in eastern Europe.

So they turned to the United

States to purchase copies

of this series on

political economy

produced by the

Workmen's Circle.

Okay, so let me say then,

just by way of conclusion,

what did this amount to?

What I think this amounted to,

this enshrinement of visnshaft

as instituted first through

the Zukunft, then through other

journals, then through lectures

and book series, through

mass-based organizations like

the Workmen's Circle, especially

the Workmen's Circle, meant was

a whole culture in formation,

a new culture that

encompassed a shift in values.

This new culture was in

the Yiddish language,

so it was by definition Jewish, but it was secular.

Not based on religion or

at least certainly not directly.

And it was encapsulated

in it a set of new values.

Learning, science, rationality,

a notion of knowledge

in the service of humanity,

of changing the world.

These values were enshrined,

embodied, or materialized is

maybe the better word, in

the kinds of things I'm talking

about, the magazines, the books,

the lectures and so forth,

so that there is a new American

Jewish sensibility, value

system, and outlook coming

into shape during this period.

And I stress that it's American

because it was not brought over

from eastern Europe,

as I tried to stress before.

There wasn't a deeply

rooted tradition of any of this.

This comes out of the urban

Jewish immigrant,

working-class experience.

So even though it

was in Yiddish,

and therefore seemingly alien,

was actually part of

the American experience.

This reflected an

Americanization process that

held in place, I would suggest

as a final thought, well passed

the Yiddish-speaking

immigrants and their generation.

That this was a formative way of

understanding oneself as a Jew

in society, in American society,

that became the basis for a kind

of new American Jewish identity.

All right, I'll leave

it at that,

and I'm happy to take questions.


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