Marie Syrkin: Val­ues Beyond the Self

Car­ole S. Kessner

By – November 10, 2011
While Syrkin’s work is famil­iar to an old­er gen­er­a­tion of Amer­i­can Zion­ists, Kessner’s extra­or­di­nary biog­ra­phy should spark inter­est in Syrkin’s life and ideas in many new quar­ters. Some will dis­cov­er Syrkin the poet, mar­ried to fel­low poet Charles Reznikoff. Oth­ers will dis­cov­er Syrkin the mul­ti-task­ing work­ing woman, who just took for grant­ed teach­ing full-time, shar­ing cus­tody of her son, and writ­ing for a vari­ety of jour­nals. Final­ly, there’s Syrkin the Labor Zion­ist, who from her first trip to Pales­tine in 1933, com­mit­ted her­self to explain­ing to the world why this Jew­ish home­land was so impor­tant. With Syrkin so deeply involved with so many key world events, from the Stal­in­ist purges to the rise of Hitler, from debates over the Man­date to bat­tles over Arab refugees, her biog­ra­phy reads like a his­to­ry of the 20th cen­tu­ry. But unlike most his­to­ries, deliv­ered in the pas­sive voice, Syrkin’s is active and pas­sion­ate and utter­ly mes­mer­iz­ing. Kess­ner, a long time pro­tégé of Syrkin’s, is a tal­ent­ed biog­ra­ph­er; not only is her prose grace­ful and occa­sion­al­ly quite wit­ty, but she under­stands how to insert the telling quo­ta­tion, the back­ground detail that clar­i­fies, the right lines from the right poem. Index, notes, photographs.

Bet­ti­na Berch, author of the recent biog­ra­phy, From Hes­ter Street to Hol­ly­wood: The Life and Work of Anzia Yezier­s­ka, teach­es part-time at the Bor­ough of Man­hat­tan Com­mu­ni­ty College.

Discussion Questions

1. Why do you think it took Marie Syrkin until she was thir­ty to seri­ous­ly work at her career? 

2. What are some of the issues Syrkin raised in her writ­ings that are still rel­e­vant or unre­solved today? 

3. Why do you think Syrkin wrote a biog­ra­phy called Way of Val­or about Gol­da Meir as ear­ly as 1955, when Gol­da was Labor Min­is­ter of Israel? Dis­cuss the change in the titles for the two revised edi­tions in 1963 and 1969

4. Though Syrkin and Gol­da Meir nev­er like being cat­e­go­rized as feminists,do you think of them as fem­i­nist? Are they the same in their atti­tudes toward feminism? 

5. Between 1962 and 1989, Marie Syrkin wrote essays or spoke about the top­ic A Labor Zion­ist Takes Stock.” What do you think she might say today?