My Great-Grandfather Wasn’t a Bundist

In 1971 Jews for Urban Justice (JUJ), a Washington DC based group of young Jewish radicals, was at its peak as innovators of a New Left-Jewish fusion activism. JUJ actions like daven-ins, using Talmudic precepts to support agricultural boycotts, and the legendary Freedom Seder showed a path to a new kind of Jewish-infused left politics. JUJ was also being torn apart by conflict over the place of Zionism in Jewish activism.

With JUJ at the edge of collapse, leader Mike Tabor published an op-ed, not looking forward, but back, all the way to 1897 and the founding of the Bund, the Jewish Socialist party that came to greatest political prominence in interwar Poland. Tabor wanted to know why the righteously rooted, anti-Zionist history of the Bund had been “so carefully kept from us? Why was it hidden?” As Michael Staub writes in Torn at the Roots: The Crisis of Jewish Liberalism in Postwar America, JUJ had been walking a tightrope, with the conservative, pro-Israel mainstream Jewish community on one side and the increasingly strident anti-Zionism of the New Left on the other. For JUJ it was to be an impossible negotiation between the two. No wonder Tabor found himself looking backwards for a solution to the quandary American Zionism presented to Jewish leftists.

Forty seven years later, American Jews on the left are still ‘discovering’ the Bund. Most recently, in a recent personal-essay-cum-history-lesson called ‘My Great-Grandfather the Bundist’ by Molly Crabapple. My social media immediately lit up with shares of ‘My Great-Grandfather the Bundist’. My Yiddishist friends were surprised to see anything related to the Bund suddenly popping up in the venerable pages of the New York Review of Books. Non-Yiddishists were captivated by Crabapple’s description of a lost Jewish world that felt so modern and so incredibly relevant.

The story of the Bund is modern and does feel incredibly relevant. On that Crabapple and I do not disagree. ‘My Great-Grandfather’ is a fascinating read, though not because it brings forward some kind of suppressed history. The history of the Bund is no more suppressed today than it was in 1971. Indeed, a very good potted history of the Bund is literally one click away at the online YIVO encyclopedia, along with excellent links to further reading.[] Rather, ‘My Great-Grandfather the Bundist’ reveals the excruciating thinness of American Jewish history in general. It also raises important questions about how history gets written, what history has to offer us, and, in turn, what that history asks of us.

Paradoxically, Crabapple ends up portraying historical memory work as both much harder, and much easier, than it really is. Most problematically, her case for the Bund rests on diminishing the context from which it arose, including its Communist ‘competitors’ as well as the world of traditional Judaism. Having spent my entire adult life as a Yiddishist, I read ‘My Great-Grandfather the Bundist’ with some alarm. This kind of zero sum, winners and losers approach to Jewish history only replicates the Zionist triumphalism many of us believe has squeezed out competing Jewish narratives. And therein lies the danger in writing personality driven corrective histories and the reason we must be so attentive to their appeal (and limits).

Crabapple uses the story of her great-grandfather Sam Rothbort’s time with the Bund, from its inception in 1897, until his emigration to New York in 1904, as a hook into the greater story of the Bund and its spectacular rise (and fall). What she finds is tough, working class Jews, men with names like Yankl Scar and Shloyme the Bone and women like Itka, who fearlessly hurled rocks in the name of revolution. Who wouldn’t choose the sexy, dangerous world of Yankl Scar and Shloyme the Bone over the tepidly middle class, deracinated suburban Jewish life we grew up with?

Most importantly, in the Bund, Crabapple finds a historical model for her own politics: “…as I watch footage on social media of Israeli snipers’ bullets killing Palestinian protesters, I think that Bundism, with its Jewishness that was at once compassionate and hard as iron was the movement that history proved right.”

With ‘My Great-Grandfather the Bundist’, Crabapple, an anti-Zionist artist/activist, and journalist, is asking the question most of us ask at some (or many) point in our lives: Why am I like this? What is my place in Jewish history? Who will be my role models? She writes that seeing the word “‘Bundist”’ on one of Sam’s paintings piqued her curiosity. But “[o]nly later, after my own work of reporting, from Gaza and elsewhere, did my research turn into a fixation. I needed to know about the Bund, and not just because they were my great-grandfather’s comrades, but because I wanted to make visible again a group that had almost vanished, though it was so just and so right.” Crabapple follows the traces of Sam’s humanism — his rejection of materialism, his emphatic anti-racism, his art, his detachment from the state of Israel — back to his formative years with the Bund.

Crabapple says she wanted to raise the visibility of the Bund, a group that had almost entirely disappeared from public consciousness. She searched “the few books on the Bund which are still in print…” and “spent days squinting at dusty pamphlets…” She emphasizes the difficulty of historical research, when a quick trip to a Jewish library, or a single Google search, could have revealed significant contemporary research in the field and easily accessible scholars, some of whom come from Bundist families themselves. The end result is self-mystification where there should be illumination.

Crabapple also can’t help indulging in tired tropes of the shtetl, an American literary trope that goes back to the immediate post-war period and the writing of the classic book on the shtetl, Life is With People. Crabapple writes: “Hierarchy was all. Man above woman. Old above young. Life moved to the cycle of holidays, harvests, and Shabbat. Americans know this work best from the sentimentalized portrayal in Fiddler on the Roof, but the Bund had little patience for Tevye and his Tradition.” We’re meant to see the Bund as heroic counter to the oppressive patriarchy emanating from the shtetl. It’s an essentializing, romantic and frankly incorrect historical portrait of a vibrant, ever changing world.

In her 1995 introduction to the new edition of Life is With People, historian Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett examines how the book collapsed the entirety of Eastern European settlements into ‘the shtetl’ and, subsequently, codified an ahistorical idea of a timeless, changeless ‘shtetl’ that existed in opposition to modernity attacking it from without. Because she has no distance from the the ‘shtetl’ trope, Crabapple gives a credulous, literal reading of primary texts like Bundist Bernard Goldstein’s memoir The Stars Bear Witness. Of course Goldstein decried the ignorance of the ‘shtetl’ and celebrated the emergence of a new Bundist humanism. It is our job, though, as readers, to differentiate between memoir and historiography, even if Crabapple can’t.

At the beginning of ‘My Great-Grandfather the Bundist’, Crabapple states that the reason the Bund has disappeared from public consciousness is Zionist hegemony. There’s certainly a nexus between Zionist triumphalism and the low status of anything related to Yiddish today. You could say that the lack of any Yiddish education is a function of its low status within a global Zionist hegemony. That’s true, but it’s also true that half of American Jews don’t even know alef-beys. The state of Jewish education in America in general is abominable. And the writing and reception of history is a far messier process than Crabapple’s analysis would admit.

I’m reminded of a startling moment at a recent talk given by scholar Elissa Bemporad. The topic was the fiery Yiddishist Esther Frumkin. Those who know of Frumkin usually know her as the only woman to officially attend the Czernowitz language conference of 1908. She started her political life as a Bundist leader, later becoming a Communist and, once there, the only woman representative in the Yevsketsye, the Jewish section of the Soviet Communist Party. (A dubious claim to fame from our point of view, understandably.)

Dr. Bemporad noted that she is very slowly working on a biography of Esther Frumkin, which will essentially be the first of its kind. One of the things slowing her work is that when she went into the Russian Bund archives she discovered that once Frumkin changed her allegiance and joined the Communists, most of her letters and papers were purged from that archive. No mention is made of her in Doyres Bundistn, the Yiddish-language history of the Bund, by the Bund. Frumkin, a remarkable woman and an important foundational part of Bundist history, was purged by the Bundists themselves.

These are the vagaries of history. Yes, I think it’s accurate to say that there is a Zionist hegemony and that it delegitimizes forms of Jewishness and Jewish memory which would challenge that primacy. But, given the high stakes of living under such hegemony, the mere truthiness offered by Crabapple is disappointing. The transmission of history is complicated and unpredictable. Questions of how history gets written, and by whom, are of the utmost importance. Simply saying ‘Zionists did it’ is reductive and unhelpful.

Lots of Jewish history disappears from official narratives. We (American Jews) don’t learn about anti-Zionist political parties like the Bund. We also don’t learn about Yiddish labor Zionism like Poalei Tsion. Indeed, the list of what we don’t learn could fill its own library. It’s no wonder one of the most popular bits of journalistic Jewish media clickbait today is ‘The Secret Jewish History Of…’ In a time of widespread Jewish illiteracy of every kind, is there anything today that isn’t a secret to someone?

Unfortunately, ‘My Great-Grandfather the Bundist’ also suffers from some basic research errors. At one point Crabapple quotes “Bundist intellectual” Moishe Olgin speaking out against the displacement of Arabs in 1929. The only problem is that, while, yes, Olgin, was at one point a Bundist, if Olgin is remembered today, it is for his association with Communism, having been the founding editor of the New York based Yiddish Communist newspaper Frayhayt in 1922.

Not only was Olgin no longer a “Bundist intellectual” in 1929, context is so important here. The quote Crabapple brings is from the coverage of the Hebron “‘pogrom”’ of that same year. Blame for the attacks, and their interpretation by different political factions, was being hotly contested. Later in the same speech Olgin says “We Communists fought against pogroms and we shall continue to do so.” Yet, Crabapple wants to use Olgin to prove a point about the righteous anti-Zionism of Polish Bundists!

Olgin was not just randomly speaking out against Jewish settlement in Palestine, he was participating in a political discourse about anti-Jewish violence as a Yiddish speaking Communist, all of which Crabapple ends up casually erasing. While it’s easy to blame Zionism for the sweeping erasures of modern Jewish history, we must also be attentive to its silencing by a thousand tiny errors.

Crabapple is far from alone in falling into these common traps. In 2011 elder rock god Lou Reed premiered a documentary about his elderly cousin, garment worker and labor activist, Shirley Novick. At the time Red Shirley was making its way around film festivals, Reed told the Wall Street Journal he made the movie because “I realized if I didn’t do this, a connection to a lot of things would be lost forever. So there was great impetus to do this.”

Reed’s justification is all the more bizarre because what he ended up doing was indeed the opposite of capturing some kind of fragile historical truth. He didn’t just miss every opportunity to learn more about Shirley, he, for reasons that may now be impossible to uncover, actively sought to distort key aspects of his cousin’s life.

The woman who was known for decades as Shirley Novick is presented in the film as Shulamit Rabinowitz. Shulamit (or, as she would have been known in Yiddish, Shulamis) Rabinowitz was born in Poland, but came to New York as a young woman where she became an outspoken organizer in the garment industry. Her marriage to Pesach Novick, the legendary, longtime editor of New York’s Yiddish Communist daily newspaper, the Morgn Frayhayt, her association with the Communist-affiliated IWO, and her own work in radical organizing, these are the things that made Red Shirley Red. Not that Lou, or the audience, ever gets the chance to make that connection. The word ‘Communist’ is not uttered once in the entire movie.

Like Lou Reed, I’m also from that vaguely fish shaped memory hole called Long Island. I get it. I was raised to be enormously proud of being Jewish, but given little instruction on doing Jewish. That disconnect led me to study Yiddish and immerse myself in the totality of Eastern European Jewish life. Many of my peers felt similarly disconnected. Some ended up becoming frum, some Zionists. The vast majority, though, continued on the path of their parents’ affective, nostalgic identification. That is the true ideology of American Judaism and is backed up by copious sociological data.

I “‘graduated”’ Hebrew school right around the time of the first Intifada. We had no family who lived in Israel nor cultural or organizational connections to the land. For me, Israel was a place whose national anthem I could mouth phonetically and whose seemingly endless troubles were frankly neither here nor there. A part of me was already gravitating east, to Eastern Europe; not in reaction, but longing. Yiddishism became a third way for me, a way around the exhausting troubles of the Middle East, a road to a rich Jewish life that belonged to me and made sense of my personal history.

Today, the easy, unobtrusive Zionism of my Hebrew school days has become untenable. For my generation, passive Zionism was at least something to fill the slot for the stuff of Jewish identification. For younger people, the moral rot of the Occupation is simply inescapable. Making matters worse is the desperate counter-programming coming out of Jewish schools and camps, institutions which refuse to even acknowledge the problem. It was inevitable, then, that anti-Zionism has itself become a kind of substantive Jewish identity, one that burns with purpose and righteousness. And while I don’t identify with the anti-Zionist analysis, I get it. The search for a usable Jewish future is intimately linked to the absence of a usable Jewish past.

Bundist ideology was formed in reaction to traditional Jewish life, but to say that it had “no patience for Tevye and his Tradition”, as Crabapple does, betrays the thinness of her engagement with the Bund’s complicated legacy. One of the remarkable legacies of the Bund was its network of TSYSHO (Di Tsentrale Yidishe Shul-Organizatsye or Central Yiddish School Organization) schools. Not only was work by Sholem Aleichem, who wrote Tevye the Dairyman into being, in the curriculum of the TSYSHO schools, but mastery of his work was core to its mission.

Bundists sought a way to integrate the best of Jewish life with a new political engagement. Its importance to us is its creativity, its struggle to synthesize a new way of being both modern and rooted in Jewish life. The anti-Zionism of the Bund emerged from that struggle and that time. It cannot be cherry picked out of its milieu, apart from the languages that formed it, apart from the political rivals that sharpened it. History’s gift to us is its bottomless depths, not its low-hanging conclusions.