The Spirit of Yiddish Socialism

The Spirit of Yiddish Socialism

The history of the Bund as a party came to an end long ago, but the effects of its cultural and political work live on.

Bund election poster in Kyiv in 1917

Yiddish Revolutionaries in Migration: The Transnational History of the Jewish Labour Bund
by Frank Wolff, trans. by Loren Balhorn and Jan-Peter Herrmann
Haymarket Books, 2021, 532 pp.

Frank Wolff begins his book Yiddish Revolutionaries in Migration with a story about May 1968 student-leader-turned-politician “Dany le Rogue” Daniel Cohn-Bendit, who asked, “Who still knows the history of the Bund?” in a speech he gave in Moscow in 2005. Cohn-Bendit answered:

No one remembers this history . . . this first history . . . this attempt by workers to organize. . . . They were all Jewish and spoke Yiddish, they didn’t want to go to Israel, they fought here in Russia, they fought in Lithuania, they fought in Poland, and their history has been totally erased by the traditional histories of the Zionists and the Stalinists.

Books and monographs have been published about the Bund, in Yiddish, English, German, Polish, and other languages. Nevertheless, Cohn-Bendit’s remarks remain relevant today: common knowledge of the Bund is dwindling.

Founded in 1897, the Bund was a movement among the Jews of Eastern Europe—“the largest Social Democratic movement in the Tsarist empire,” Wolff writes. From 1903 to 1904, the Bund held 429 political meetings, forty-five demonstrations, and forty-one political strikes; it issued 305 pamphlets, twenty-three of which dealt with the pogroms and self-defense. These were not idle fixations: in 1904, the number of Bundist political prisoners reached 4,500. But arrests and violence didn’t stop its growth. By 1917, it had over 40,000 members in almost 400 branches, making it the largest socialist group in the Russian Empire. “The Bund was the first modern Jewish political party in the Russian Empire, and was, arguably, the strongest Jewish party in Poland on the eve of the second world war,” Jack Jacobs writes in Jewish Politics in Eastern Europe: The Bund at 100. In 1938, in municipal elections in eighty-nine Polish cities and towns, the Bund won 55 percent of the votes cast for Jewish parties. The Bund thus became communal spokesmen and aggressive advocates of financial aid to all Jewish institutions, including yeshivas and religious institutions.

Together with left-labor Zionists, the Bund administered a massive network of secular Yiddish schools. At its peak in 1929, its TSYSHO (Central Yiddish School Organization) maintained 217 institutions with 25,000 students, spread across 100 locations, including a pedagogical institute in Vilnius. There was also a youth organization, Tsukunft, which numbered 15,000 members; a children’s organization, SKIF, with scouting activities and sports; a women’s organization, YAF; and a sports organization, Morgnshtern, which was the largest sports organization in all of Poland.

The Bund was a major institution and a force to be reckoned with. But although it regrouped in the United States, Australia, and Israel, it was unable to regain its formidable presence after the devastation of the Holocaust.

In Yiddish Revolutionaries in Migration, however, Wolff provides an illuminating argument that the Bund lives on—in Bernie Sanders’s campaign for president.

During Sanders’s first run for the Democratic presidential nomination, historian Daniel Katz pointed out that the key to understanding Sanders was not socialism as such but rather its specific Yiddish current. His fight against oppression was informed by his experiences of Yiddish socialism. In this sense, the history of Yiddish socialism’s development as a transnational lifeworld sheds light on a milieu that, after appearing anachronistic only a few years ago, helped give a recent presidential hopeful a profound appeal among young American voters. The history of the Bund as a party may have come to an end, but the effects of its cultural and political work and their unifying humanitarian yet activist spirit continue to matter.

Wolff’s well-documented and deeply researched book is not a traditional “history of the Bund,” which already exists in various books and monographs. These earlier histories tell of meetings, conventions, resolutions, party platforms, and struggles with political opponents and with Jewish nationalism. They relate how one thing happened, then another, and then this intraparty debate took place, and this wing or the other prevailed.

Wolff’s book is a social and cultural history. Instead of focusing on events in the party’s history or what positions its intellectual leadership formulated for the party membership, Wolff examines that membership itself. What did its activism consist of? What did the Bund mean to them? How did they identify as Bundists? How did it change their lives? What did they then do about their lives, their livelihoods, their world?

Their activism consisted of strikes, demonstrations, organizing strong unions, developing a school system, creating a sanitarium for impoverished children of the Jewish slums of Eastern Europe, and organizing reading circles, libraries, and lecture evenings.

The Bund meant everything to them. Being a member meant you lived your life through the Bund—it was your union, your education, your church. One of its beloved members, L. Berman, dedicated his memoir “to my spiritual father and educator, the General Jewish Labor Bund of Lithuania, Poland and Russia.” The identities of its members were wrapped up in Bund. The Bund transformed them into class-conscious workers, with a broader understanding of the matters of the mind, politics, literature, and the world generally. They had hope for a brighter future—a world of justice and equality—and the Bund gave them the courage to fight alongside their comrades for these ideals. No matter what path their lives took, they remained Bundists.

Wolff also explains the essence of the Bundist ethos. The Bund, he reminds us, went into the gasn, tsu di masn (streets, to the masses). To be a Bundist meant to be a khaver (comrade), part of a mishpokhe (family), wedded to a secular Jewishness embodied in the Yiddish language and culture.

Wolff himself went tsu di masn to research his book. He followed the Bundists as they migrate to New York and Buenos Aires; he traveled to these places himself, interviewing surviving Bundists and digging into New York and Argentine archives for Bundist publications. He did his research in five languages, including, of course, Yiddish. He read responses to over 500 autobiographical questionnaires put out by the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research and the Bund. He read books, journals, and newspapers. His bibliography, over eighty pages long, points to the lengths to which he went to answer the essential question of the book: why, and how, did Bundists remain Bundists after migration?

If one wants to understand the spirit, the culture, the soul of the Bund, one should read this book.

Marvin S. Zuckerman is the author of seven books and many articles. He is professor of English and Yiddish, Chair Emeritus of the English Department, and Dean Emeritus at Los Angeles Valley College.

A version of this review was published in New Politics.

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