Monday, March 7, 2016

Yiddish Speaking Socialists of the Lower East Side

The previous post on our congregational blog, America's Zayde, featured my op-ed from the February 12th issue of the Jewish Standard, where it appeared under the title of Zayde for President. And in the post, I made reference to another Sanders, Edward Sanders, no relation to Bernie, and not to be confused with the English movie star. The Ed Sanders I'm talking about is described on Wikipedia as, "an American poet, singer, social activist, environmentalist, author, publisher and longtime member of the band The Fugs. He has been called a bridge between the Beat and Hippie generations. Sanders is considered to have been active and 'present at the counterculture's creation'."

Originally from Kansas City, Sanders took up residence in Greenwich Village towards the end of the fifties, and among his many other activities, opened the Peace Eye Bookstore on the lower east side in the early sixties, an important center for the local counterculture. He also is the founder of the investigative poetry movement in the seventies. I pick out these points from his biography, which in truth are overshadowed by many other achievements, because they are relevant to the point at hand.been active and 'present at the counterculture's creation'."

The point being one of his poems in particular, "The Yiddish Speaking Socialists of the Lower East Side," which I quoted a few lines from in my op-ed. The poem tells the story of an important chapter in the history of the United States, New York City, American politics, and the Jewish-American experience. The focus is on the first two decades of the 20th century, and the rise and fall of a democratic socialist movement spearheaded by the Jewish immigrants living on the lower east side.

The poem concludes with the failure of that movement, but its influence was felt, in part through the participants that were still alive in the postwar period, in the protest and counterculture movements of the sixties, especially as one of the main centers of the movement, as it was called back then, was in Greenwich Village and New York's lower east side. Perhaps these things run in cycles, so we're seeing a revival of that sensibility from the turn of the 20th century and mid-20th century today in the teens of our new century.

Whether that's the case or not, the poem provides a quick and easy way to understand the milieu that Bernie Sanders come from, both the politics of his parents' generation and the political movement that he took part in as a young man.

The poem also communicates in a clear and stylish manner what democratic socialism is, and was, about. Not communism, socialist dictatorships, or totalitarianism. It was about human rights, many of them rights we take for granted today, rights denied to working people at the beginning of the century. I would suggest that it is vital to avoid having knee-jerk reactions to particular words, and instead try to understand what people really mean by them, and that includes socialism. From that perspective, I find it personally heartening to see how that term has been rescued and resuscitated in Bernie's election campaign. In the words of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (who many believed to have been a socialist), "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself," and that is especially true when it comes to words.

So, now, I am pleased to give you two options for accessing "The Yiddish Speaking Socialists of the Lower East Side" right here and now. You can read the poem on the online Woodstock Journal that Sanders maintains, here's the link: The Yiddish Speaking Socialists of the Lower East Side.

<Or you can listen to a semi-musical recording of Sanders reading the poem, accompanied by an electronic instrument of his own invention, the Bardic Pulse Lyre. The recording was originally put out on vinyl, but there is a nice YouTube version with the printed words as the visuals, so you can enjoy the best of both words worlds.

I would suggest that this poem is quite helpful in understanding where Sanders the candidate is coming from, and perhaps also why his campaign is not reducible to simply winning or losing caucuses and elections.Whatever your own political views may be, I think it is important to understand this chapter in American and Jewish history, and to understand the background that the first major Jewish candidate for President of the United States comes from.

Of course, the views I've expressed here are my own, and not the views of Congregation Adas Emuno.

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