Rais­ing Sec­u­lar Jews: Yid­dish Schools and Their Peri­od­i­cals for Amer­i­can Chil­dren, 1917 – 1950

Nao­mi Praw­er Kadar
  • Review
By – June 4, 2017

Nao­mi Praw­er Kadar grew up in the world of sec­u­lar Jew­ish cul­ture; undoubt­ed­ly this book, pub­lished posthu­mous­ly, was a labor of love. Her par­ents were Pol­ish Holo­caust sur­vivors who set­tled in the Bronx after World War II. They had been mem­bers of Poalei Tzion, the work­ers’ Zion­ist move­ment, and their daugh­ter car­ried on their pas­sion for Yid­dish and Hebrew. She attend­ed a Sholem Ale­ichem Folk­shul and a Unit­ed Mitelshul high school. In col­lege, she spent her junior year in Israel, where she met her hus­band. Return­ing to Amer­i­ca, she became the nation­al direc­tor of the Workmen’s Cir­cle Yid­dish schools, taught Yid­dish at Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty and the Jew­ish The­o­log­i­cal Sem­i­nary, and earned a PhD in Yid­dish lit­er­a­ture at Columbia. 

Rais­ing Sec­u­lar Jews is a revised ver­sion of Kadar’s dis­ser­ta­tion. Pro­fes­sor David G. Roskies, the promi­nent Yid­dish schol­ar and Kadar’s dis­ser­ta­tion direc­tor, con­tributed a valu­able six-page intro­duc­tion which not­ed that Kadar had doc­u­ment­ed the attempt to cre­ate and sus­tain a sec­u­lar iden­ti­ty for Amer­i­can Jews at a time when there was hope that Yid­dish and Yid­dishkeit would became a basic part of their iden­ti­ty and would per­ma­nent­ly enrich their sense of being human.” 

Rais­ing Sec­u­lar Jews is a detailed, well-craft­ed, and per­cep­tive his­to­ry of the eight children’s mag­a­zines used in the Yid­dish schools. The author’s dis­cus­sion of the art work and lit­er­a­ture in the mag­a­zines is par­tic­u­lar­ly insight­ful. These mag­a­zines reflect­ed the ide­olo­gies of the orga­ni­za­tions that found­ed them, and much of Rais­ing Sec­u­lar Jews dis­cuss­es their often­times bit­ter rival­ries. The Far­band schools were social­ist and Zion­ist in ori­en­ta­tion; the Sholem Ale­ichem schools were apo­lit­i­cal and free think­ing”; the Workmen’s Cir­cle schools espoused social­ism and opposed Zion­ism; and the Ordn schools of the Inter­na­tion­al Work­ers Order cham­pi­oned com­mu­nism. And yet, despite these ide­o­log­i­cal dif­fer­ences, all of the Yid­dishists believed they were on the verge of a new world order, and that the preser­va­tion and prop­a­ga­tion of the Yid­dish lan­guage through their schools and mag­a­zines would help bring this about. 

It is pre­cise­ly this spir­it of hope­ful­ness which makes read­ing Rais­ing Sec­u­lar Jews so poignant. By 1950, the ter­mi­nus of the book, it was clear that sec­u­lar Yid­dish cul­ture in Amer­i­ca was doomed. The found­ing of the state of Israel and the resur­gence of Hebrew as the” Jew­ish lan­guage, the fed­er­al government’s restric­tion of immi­gra­tion from east­ern Europe, the dec­i­ma­tion of East Euro­pean Jew­ry dur­ing World War II, the com­pe­ti­tion of syn­a­gogue con­gre­ga­tion­al schools teach­ing Hebrew, the rapid accul­tur­a­tion of Jew­ish immi­grants and their prog­e­ny, and the mas­sive post­war migra­tion of Jews to sub­ur­bia result­ed in a pre­cip­i­tous decline in the num­ber of Yid­dish schools and their stu­dents. In addi­tion, the ide­olo­gies of the schools them­selves helped to spell their doom. 

Most pro­po­nents of sec­u­lar Yid­dish cul­ture, includ­ing Kadar’s own par­ents, were social­ists of one sort or anoth­er, but social­ism has always been on the fringes of main­stream Amer­i­can pol­i­tics. At the hey­day of East Euro­pean Jew­ish immi­gra­tion to Amer­i­ca in the ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, the Ger­man soci­ol­o­gist Wern­er Som­bart pub­lished his book Why Is there No Social­ism in Amer­i­ca (1906), and by 1950 Amer­i­ca had become even more inhos­pitable to social­ism and social­ists. Why the Yid­dishists could have believed that the social­ism they had dreamed about in Europe could be a viable polit­i­cal option in a coun­try where the very word social­ism” was a term of oppro­bri­um remains a mystery. 

The same could be said of the Yid­dishists’ fer­vent oppo­si­tion to reli­gion in gen­er­al and Jew­ish Ortho­doxy in par­tic­u­lar. Reli­gion has always been high­ly respect­ed in Amer­i­ca, even by the non-reli­gious, and through­out the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry Amer­i­ca was the most reli­gious of the advanced indus­tri­al coun­tries. The most iron­ic aspect in the his­to­ry of Amer­i­can Yid­dish schools was their simul­ta­ne­ous decline and the growth of Yid­dish reli­gious schools. The most impor­tant con­tem­po­rary bas­tions of the Yid­dish lan­guage are right-wing Ortho­dox enclaves in New York and New Jer­sey, which rep­re­sent every­thing the Yid­dishists loathed. 

Final­ly there is the mat­ter of lan­guage. Despite the efforts of the Yid­dish Book Cen­ter in Mass­a­chu­setts, var­i­ous uni­ver­si­ty cours­es in Yid­dish, and oth­er valiant attempts to pre­serve and pop­u­lar­ize Yid­dish, the lan­guage is not a lin­gua fran­ca except with­in the right-wing Ortho­dox world, and even here its long-term future is not promis­ing. The sec­u­lar Yid­dish the­ater, radio sta­tions, movies, mag­a­zine and news­pa­pers, and schools have dis­ap­peared or are on life sup­port. The Yid­dish of the home could nev­er com­pete with the Eng­lish of the pub­lic school, the street, or the playground. 

Kadar’s last chap­ter, Almost at Home in Amer­i­ca,” exam­ines how the Yid­dish schools and sum­mer camps respond­ed to the rapid accul­tur­a­tion of Jew­ish immi­grants and their chil­dren Jews dur­ing the 1930s and 1940s. On the one hand, their lead­ers saw the pos­si­bil­i­ty of pur­su­ing an autonomous Jew­ish life” while achiev­ing the Amer­i­can dream,” and they were grate­ful for the secu­ri­ty and com­fort” they enjoyed as Amer­i­cans, par­tic­u­lar­ly when con­trast­ed with what was occur­ring to Jews in Europe. But on the oth­er hand, they real­ized that they were wit­ness­ing the begin­ning of the end of spo­ken Yid­dish.” Kadar con­cludes that walk­ing the tightrope of becom­ing inte­grat­ed into Amer­i­can soci­ety while main­tain­ing a close con­nec­tion to the Jew­ish roots and lin­guis­tic her­itage of the immi­grant gen­er­a­tion ulti­mate­ly proved to be an impos­si­ble task.” America’s Yid­dish schools proved to be a two-gen­er­a­tion phe­nom­e­non. Rais­ing Sec­u­lar Jews would have been an even bet­ter book if it had explained why the founders of these schools ever believed they could cre­ate a thriv­ing sec­u­lar and left-wing Jew­ish cul­ture in Amer­i­ca in the first place. 

Edward Shapiro is pro­fes­sor of his­to­ry emer­i­tus at Seton Hall Uni­ver­si­ty and the author of A Time for Heal­ing: Amer­i­can Jew­ry Since World War II (1992), We Are Many: Reflec­tions on Amer­i­can Jew­ish His­to­ry and Iden­ti­ty (2005), and Crown Heights: Blacks, Jews, and the 1991 Brook­lyn Riot (2006).

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