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Reportback from Yiddish Anarchism conference


As one of a pair of Philadelphia anarchists who traveled up to this event together last weekend, I admit that I did not know much about Yiddish anarchism as such before registering us both for this academic conference (subtitled "New Scholarship on a Forgotten Tradition"). I'm also not an academic (at least not officially). What I found there- especially as the day went on- didn't seem too very anarchist overall.

I kept telling myself that it was the time period's historically significant preoccupation with work, work relations and wars that was being focused on (the late 1800s through the 1950s, mostly) and asking myself if it's possible that there just isn't that much information available that could be considered fairly to be illuminating on Yiddish anarchism in and of itself (though a robust list of materials at the host facility/archive/museum was offered, which I've attached). At one point I found myself fidgeting in my chair when questions about left unity were brought up from the audience.

There was a strong start, though. Spencer Sunshine, the conference organizer, made a few salient points. One was that most situations ask how to keep anarchists and radicals out of them. This, instead, was staging a conference in which he thought 70 people would show and there were 1300 responses of interest on Facebook (which is of course an excellent barometer for actual attendance, but sure). On the actual topic, he promised exploration of Yiddish anarchism appropriate for the historically-minded- both for Jewish interest and for New York interest- for the Yiddishist crowd who can read primary sources, for what he called radical rejecting-of-Zionism Jews and for anarchists, who would ask what specifically Jewish anarchy would look like. He endeavored to look for more positives, in his words, citing exhaustion with the default anti-Zionist Jewish identity.

Assertion after assertion after assertion after assertion followed for hours, punctuated with a handful of interesting historical nuggets and a few funny/poignant slides. It was indeed an academic conference. The indeed well-over-capacity crowd seemed to cover a lot of ground, though- there were lots of younger college-age folks, and someone posted on Twitter about saving seats with an Antifascist Action flag draped over them (though I did not see that). We were told in the welcome address that there was an enormous collection of Yiddish pornography in the museum's archives, which made everyone laugh. Several elders were present, many of whom were attending along with younger people. This is promising, especially if it was more a manifestation of shared interest in anarchism, which clearly has a legacy problem. The median age of attendees seemed to be about 40 or so.

To circle back to Spencer Sunshine, he did also briefly mention the phenomenon of anti-semitism on the left, which in my avowedly not-a-leftist-at-all view is enormous and also poorly addressed. I thought on it more than he talked about it in his introduction, and so I'll take a swing at it here. A gaping hole in the wonderful world of identity politics and the stifling, stilted, caricature-generating, frankly authoritarian practice of living and organizing by them is the persistent assumption that Jewish people are white and/or white-passing. I would say that I deal with that every day but I avoid, avoid, avoid people who think and act like this and I have for a very long time, preferring to think about whiteness as actively choosing to be on the side of power rather than being committed to interrogating, confronting and unwinding it wherever it may manifest itself, even in polite- and/or polite activist- society. It would have been amazing to see more about of how the milieu, especially on the Lower East Side, in which Yiddish anarchism is said to have been situated for the most part, made this commitment to being free happen in its heyday and since. Forgotten tradition, perhaps; I personally suspect it is alive and well in more places than a less careful and attentive eye may tend to look around. We need much more than war stories, anecdotes and tales of friends of friends to make- and keep- this real.

The programming- which consisted of unrelated 15 to 20 minute presentations by individual, active, paid academic writers and educators glommed into awkward panels that each in turn fielded questions, including an early one about why bother asserting anarchist identity at all if the world we dream of will never come to be. There was also the aforementioned inquiry into the importance of left unity both here and there (meaning in 1920s Russia, the domain of another presenter who made a valiant effort to delineate the revolution she spoke of as being anarchist, not socialist and made a single-line mention of individualist anarchism as a tendency in Russia). The program had a few objectively interesting topics but there didn't seem to be much of a method to it overall. It seemed like the roster of presenters was drawn from who responded to express interest, and of those, who was available to be there. We were reassured that someone came from Croatia to attend, though. In a frankly concerning exchange, a presenter who teaches in Budapest told us that "people who get caught intentionally got caught," because "you can just say you're not an anarchist." He can take that right back over there, for my part. A biographer and historian of Johann Most, New York-based publisher, atheist firebrand (he wrote "Die Gottespest"- translated as "The God Pestilence") and frenemy of Emma Goldman- sounds like Most was fun at parties- presented and promoted his book about organizing in beer halls. I didn't stay to find out what postvernacular meant, because I read it in the conference guide under the subtitle "the politics of flagging with Yiddish."

It wasn't clear through the whole day that what was promised- an exploration of what makes things distinctly Yiddish anarchism, as the conference organizer said was division by language, not identity and not Jewish but Yiddish speaking- would be shown to us aside from the work of one presenter who is a historian of Rudolf Rocker and the London East End. Local favorite Voltairine de Cleyre was mentioned as a contributor to working-class organizing that skewed heavily Jewish and/or Yiddish speaking (a theme, this and/or!), and a lot of similar content followed. We were taught that Rose Pesotta, who was a garment workers' union organizer in New York, traveled to Lodz in the wake of the devastation of war across Europe to find people who asked only for moral support, literature, a printing press and a linotype machine in Polish. Their desire, according to the presenter, was to keep learning by virtue of their not having asked Rose Pesotta for visas or help for themselves. Okay.

Meeting a Yiddishist for the first time was good, though. Anna Elena Torres, whose field of expertise is working-class poetry in Yiddish and history/biography of its writers, including Peretz Markish (1895-1952). She told the story of his life's work, The Man Of Forty, which was smuggled out of his native land in a potato sack by his wife once he was caught up by the state under suspicion of being its enemy. She gracefully fielded a question about backlash against use of the Yiddish language in publishing, confronting the notion that it was used to get around censorship rather than a manifestation of pride in who one is and how one wishes to express oneself. She also told us she talked to Audrey Goodfriend once, which made me (and I am sure some others there) smile, thinking of the people who knew and loved her. Professor Torres said she asked her why she still engaged with Yiddish in the context of anarchism after long-running newspaper Freie Arbeiter Stimme ended in 1977 and a half (in her words). "What are you, an academic?" she said Audrey Goodfriend responded. "Fortunately," she told the audience, remembering, "at that time, I was not."