[MUSIC PLAYING] HARVEY TERES: Our first panelist, Eddy Portnoy, received his PhD in modern Jewish history from the Jewish Theological Seminary and holds an MA in Yiddish studies from Columbia. He is the academic advisor and senior researcher at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. A specialist in Yiddish mass culture, he is the author of Bad Rabbis and Other Strange But True Stories From the Yiddish Press-- great title-- Stanford University Press, 2017. The title of his talk is "Modicut-- Progressive Puppets for the Yiddish Left." Eddy?
EDDY PORTNOY: Thanks, Harvey. And I'd like to thank everyone, especially Elissa, for organizing this. It's been a great conference. And obviously, it's a great archive to work with, and I've been using it already for a while.
OK, so here we go. Even at its peak in the 1920s and '30s, there were occasional complaints on New York's Lower East Side that the progressive Yiddish left was too doctrinaire and as a result, not much fun. Sorry. I quickly want to share my screen. Sorry about that Here we go. OK.
Further, Morgn Frayhayt had a humor section, but even its name, Royte Kropeve, or Red Nettles, conveyed an intention to vex and irritate rather than to provoke genuine laughter. Provocation was also largely the mandate of their popular editorial cartoonist, William Gropper, who produced angry and aggressive, but also very effective cartoons. It is for this reason that Zuni Maud and Yosl Cutler's Modicut puppet theater, a raucous and entertaining venue for social and political satire, elicited so much enthusiasm, particularly on the left. In fact, the Yiddish writer Zishe Weinper made the claim in 1933 that no one, aside from Maud and Cutler, brought so much fun into the proletarian movement.
Unique among Yiddish artistic endeavors, Modicut was a Yiddish hand puppet theater that was created by accident, but which achieved significant success. Puppetry in Yiddish was a new phenomenon though it wasn't alien to the Yiddish speaking Jews of Eastern Europe and had come to them by way of puppeteers who had traveled throughout the Pale of Settlement and set up shop to perform in small shtetlekh, a matter that was recorded by Yosl Cutler in a 1931 oil painting.
Both of them immigrants from Eastern Europe, Cutler and Maud met in the early 1920s in the New York offices of the Yiddish humor magazine called Der Groyser Kundes where the two of them worked as cartoonists and writers of often surreal short stories. Both of them were also connected to Yiddish literary circles, in particular that of Di Yunge and illustrated many of their books and periodicals. After meeting at the Kundes they became fast friends and opened a small studio on Union Square where they sold artworks and painted furniture.
And I just quickly want to show you some of the things that they did. This is a cover illustration that Zuni Maud did for Der Groyser Kundes. Here's a cartoon that he did for the Der Forverts. In fact, he created the Der Forverts' funny pages and contributed hundreds and hundreds of cartoons to them.
And you could see that it's very reflective of life in the Lower East Side. You have this character, Borekh-Itshe, this sort of poor immigrant. He has $50. Considering the current inflation, who should he pay first? And there's this whole line up of people he owes money to, ranging from the landlord to the butcher to the milkman.
Here is a title page in one of the illustrations from an epic poem written by Avram Dillon in 1917 that Zuni Maud also illustrated, and it's really kind of a lovely calligraphy and illustration. Here's an illustration that appeared in the Morgn Frayhayt that was connected to a story that Zuni Maud wrote. Here's a portrait of Borekh Rivkin, who's a well-known leftist critic of the Yiddish press, also done by Zuni Maud.
Turning to Yosl Cutler, this is a cartoon he did for the Kundes making fun of the Der Forverts. Here's another cartoon he did that mocked the idea that everything had to be kosher for Passover. So there are all sorts of things that you see in this cart that don't really need to be kosher for Passover but are marked kosher for Passover.
He also did the title page and illustrations for Moyshe-Leyb Halpern's Golden Peacock. It's a well-known book of poetry. And as we saw the other day, thanks to Patrick and some of the other archivists, he did a few cover illustrations for Der Hammer, which is another one of these journals. And you can see that there's a whole thread of modernism that that's part of all of their work.
So in addition to this book, Maud and Cutler were also involved in theater set decoration. And when Maurice Schwartz, the founder and director of the Yiddish Art Theater, asked the two to create puppets for a scene in a play he was staging at the end of 1924. They agreed.
Attempting to ride the mid-1920s artistic revival that puppet theater had been experiencing, Schwartz requested that the two artists create puppets for a market scene, although decided to eliminate them prior to the premiere because he thought the puppets were too small to see from the seats. Maud and Cutler brother discarded puppets back to their studio and spent the night remaking them into two Jewish characters and improvising a dialogue, and this is what that might have looked like.
As a joke, the two began to take their puppets around with them to the literary cafes they frequented and performed shtick for their friends, who were not unimpressed. It was then suggested by some of their literary cadre that they create a puppet theater, an idea which they quickly took seriously. They went back to their studio and began to create more puppets, write plays and skits, and rented a space that would serve as a theater. At the end of 1925, Cutler and Maud set up shop in a space on 12th Street and Second Avenue in what had previously been a children's clothing factory in which fabric cutting tables were left near the stage for effect, giving the theater a kind of proletarian feel.
Initially performing comic scenes in a modernized version of a traditional Purim spiel that included a variety of characters from the Lower East Side, they quickly garnered excellent reviews in New York's Yiddish newspapers. Under the moniker Modicut, a combination of their last names, word spread and their shows began to sell out. Adding to their repertoire, they included comic playlets, often including parodies of popular Yiddish theater songs. In fact, nearly all their skits, ranging from modern parodies of traditional Jewish culture to Avant Garde inventions, included song and dance. Established authors, like the famed Yiddish satirist Moyshe Nadir, wrote original plays for their new theater.
In addition to lauding Modicut's plays, reviewers noted how finally their puppets were constructed. Although they were caricatures and grotesques, their costumes were deemed authentic, from the silk robes and prayer shawls of traditional figures to the work clothes worn by Lower East Side laborers. Some of the puppets included unique culturally relevant innovations, such as the rotating thumb or wagging finger of a sermonizing rabbi, or the wiggling ears of their emcee. The first time Yiddish speaking audiences saw these homegrown characters on a puppet stage, their reaction was one of sheer joy.
And I just want to show you some examples of what this looked like, what their puppets looked like at the time. And you'll see all kinds of characters-- laborers, clerical figures. This is from their version of The Dybbuk. Sorry, let me go back to that. OK.
Modicut grew so popular that they performed nine sold-out shows per week during nearly all of 1926 in much of 1927. In fact, ads appeared in Yiddish newspapers apologizing to those who were turned away for lack of seats. They went on tour in 1928, bringing their Yiddish puppets up and down the Eastern seaboard, to parts of the Midwest and even to Cuba.
As they wrote and performed new skits, they became more politicized, actively engaging with and satirizing the news of the day, and introducing puppets of international heads of state. Among these were a series of takes on The Dybbuk, one of Yiddish theater's most celebrated plays. They initially did this to satirize the numerous productions of The Dybbuk that were performed in Yiddish and English on the New York stage during the 1926 season. In their play, Leah and her dybbuk live on Delancey Street, and various theater troupes, including that of the Yiddish Art Theater, the Neighborhood Playhouse, and the Vilna Troupe, come by to drive the dybbuk out.
As Modicut became more politicized, another version was performed in which the puppet rabbis are fashioned after Forverts editor Ab Cahan, and President Herbert Hoover. Yet another incarnation included one in which Leah is portrayed as Mae West and another of the rabbis is Franklin Roosevelt. In each version, the rabbis, in attempting to pull the dybbuk out from under Leah, lined up with their hands around each other's waist and pulled to the song of the "Volga Boatmen." And this is-- there's no photograph of that, but Zuni Maud drew an image of how that was supposed to happen.
Among the other items pulled out instead of a concealed dybbuk was a large herring. Audiences found their combination of literary parody, social satire, and slapstick quite amusing. Many of their plays reflected the hardscrabble life on the immigrant Lower East Side and include events like rent strikes and references to neighborhood locales and characters. Their use of satire and parody allowed them to straddle a position between popular and elite cultures, all the while appropriating themes from both to create a multitiered humor that appealed to a broad audience.
They frequently parodied popular Yiddish theater songs and, for example, in Maud's play, Business, it contained a parody of the popular Yiddish theater hit, Ikh bin a boarder by mayn vayb, called Ikh bin der boss ba mir in shap, which describes leftist shop workers organizing against management from the boss's perspective. And here we have an opportunity to hear Zuni Maud singing this, which is really nice. This was recorded by Ruth Rubin in the late 1940s.
- [NON-ENGLISH SINGING]
EDDY PORTNOY: I'm just going to leave it right there because it could go on. It was also clear that Maud and Cutler were aware of the novelty of their act, and they offered their audiences post-performance lectures on the history of puppet theater by such critics as Dr. Alexander Mukdoyni and historian Yankev Shatsky, as well as entr'act discussions with writers Moyshe Nadir, Avrom Reyzen, and themselves.
Their creations became renowned in the Yiddish world. In 1929 and 1930, they traveled to Europe, playing in England, France, and Belgium-- and you see in front of you an ad from one of their shows in London-- before heading to Poland, the largest center of Yiddish culture. In Warsaw, they played 200 sold-out shows in the auditorium of the Yiddish Literary Union, followed by 75 sold-out shows in Vilna. Reviews in the Yiddish press were effusive, and journalists were amazed that two Americans could present something that was so authentically Jewish.
And here's a photograph of them with a number of famous writers in the Yiddish Literary Union, among them are Itzik Manger, Melech Ravitch, Zusman Segalovitsh, Alter Katsizne. And writing in Literarishe bleter, which was Warsaw's leading Yiddish literary weekly, Nakhmen Mayzl said about them, the entire program is full of extraordinary folk humor, wonderful ideas, and splendid technique. We have here truly Jewish wrinkles and gestures, words and mumbles, sighs and groans, which come about from truly Jewish sources and an authentic Jewish way of life.
After their tour, Cutler and Maud returned to New York in mid-1930 with money in their pockets, something they never expected. Who'd have thought that something that began as a joke would have pulled a profit? They went back to their workshop and crafted more puppets and wrote more plays.
On the back of their European success and a connection to their deeper involvement in the Communist movement, Modicut was invited to perform in the Soviet Union during winter 1931 and 1932. They prepared by writing skits addressing themes such as oppression of the working class, and featuring sweatshops, corrupt bosses, exploitation, imperialism, depression, and war. All of this proved popular to audiences in the USSR.
Sorry. I forgot about this ad that I had. It's an ad from their Vilna shows. For studious youths and working intellectuals, so you could kind of see what this is geared to.
When they toured the Soviet Union-- this is a photograph from that tour, and you could see Maud and Cutler, and Bessie Maud, who was Zuni's sister-in-law and also lover, holding some of their puppets, and they're all heads of state. You can see Gandhi, Ramsay MacDonald, Leon Bloom, Herbert Hoover. So you could see the increasing politicization of their act.
The following year, in 1933, after returning home, Maud and Cutler disbanded their partnership and their theater due to an argument, the reasons for which are unknown. They continued performing individually and with other partners, but were never able to achieve the success that they had together. One Yiddish writer, Chaver Paver, wrote that it was a tragedy for the entire Yiddish world when they broke up the act.
Two years later, in 1935, Cutler was killed in an auto accident while on a tour from the Morgn Frayhayt. His death was considered a terrible tragedy for the Yiddish left. Reports in the Frayhayt estimated a crowd of 15,000 at his funeral. Clearly, an enormous number of people had loved Modicut and Cutler's work in the Frayhayt and in other left-wing journals, and had turned out in force to mourn an artist who injected humor, love, and Yiddishkeit into his art. Maud was apparently so devastated he was unable to attend.
In the days that followed the funeral, lavish praise was heaped upon Cutler in the pages of the Morgn Frayhayt by the most important writers and artists of the Yiddish left. Special issues of the magazine Signal and Hammer were dedicated to his work. When asked what made Cutler so unique, one informant who had seen Modicut perform as a child told me that he exemplified all that secular Judaism could be. Gene Gropper, son of the artist William Gropper, added that Maud and Cutler provided entertainment for the entire Yiddish left wing, something he said was sorely lacking in the often doctrinaire world of left-wing movements.
But it wasn't only the left that enjoyed their antics. Modicut was a unique Jewish cultural phenomenon which had broad appeal for a wide audience, from children to intellectuals to common folk. Their work used Yiddish language and culture enmeshed with modernist art to produce humor as well as sharp political and cultural criticism. Their contribution to left-wing Yiddish culture, from puppet theater to illustration to humorous stories that appeared in the Frayhayt and other periodicals, Maud and Cutler brought a wealth of comedic material to a movement that sorely needed it. Thank you. So I guess I didn't go over.
HARVEY TERES: All right. Thank you. Dr. Lauren Strauss is Scholar in Residence and Director of Undergraduate Studies in the Jewish studies program at the American University in Washington, DC. At American University, she teaches courses in ancient and modern Jewish civilization, modern Jewish literature, American Jewish politics and popular culture, Holocaust literature, Jews and gender, and more. She was historian and curator of an exhibition on the history of the state of Israel and is currently Senior Historical Consultant for the forthcoming Capital Jewish Museum, scheduled to open in DC in 2022.
Strauss's scholarly focus is American Jewish political and cultural history. She co-edited the book Mediating Modernity-- Challenges and Trends in the Jewish Encounter with the Modern World. She is currently completing a book entitled Painting the Town Red-- Jewish Visual Artists, Yiddish Culture, and Radical Politics in Interwar New York, and has begun researching her next book, which focuses on the Jewish community of Washington, DC. She speaks all around the DC area and serves as commentator at Jewish cultural events and the press.
The title of her talk is "A Circle of Radical Kultur-Tuers-- William Gropper and His Yiddishist Artist Comrades." Professor Strauss.
LAUREN STRAUSS: Thank you, Harvey. Thank you, everybody who put this conference together, especially Elissa. It's been a really fun week interspersed with my grading of lots of finals, so this is definitely the fun part of my week. And I look forward to the discussion afterwards. As Harvey just said, this is part of a much larger project, my forthcoming book, and so I'm just going to mention a few major topics that I hope will come out more in the discussion after the papers.
So visual artists of the far left, Yiddishist circles from the late 19-teens to the 1940s can be seen really as a bellwether of changing sentiment in the movement in general. But that's often ignored with regard to major, major questions, like Jewish peoplehood, the idea of a Marxist Communist Utopia, the importance of Yiddish culture and its relationship to the Jewish community, and even the notion and usefulness of Jewish nationalism, whether in the Soviet Union or in pre-state Israel, Palestine. The most consistently outspoken radical artist in this group on these counts was William Gropper, who is justifiably famous for both the intensity of his devotion to the cause and also for the rapier skill of his pen.
But in fact, Gropper was only one of a large circle of engaged, energetic, and really eloquent, visually and also in many cases in literary terms, fine artists who knew each other in this community. They not only traveled and leftist and artistic circles for decades-- and I should say, not only in the Jewish left, in the Yiddish-speaking left, but in general American and international art circles-- but they founded and guided a series of organizations, schools, cultural centers, journals, artist advocacy groups that put visual art on the radical progressive map and quite literally illustrated the whole narrative of the Jewish left.
I can only, as I said, present here really the tip of the iceberg of some of their involvements, but hopefully you'll see that they really were an integral part of the practical program of the Jewish left and of the more general American progressive community. So I'm just going to start by giving you a very brief overview of the downtown Jewish art scene, and I'll do a screen share as well. And let's see. Note the red background.
Now we see here the place that a lot of them got their start in the Educational Alliance settlement house on East Broadway, and this had the most famous, justifiably famous, art school that most of the artists who I study attended. And the art school in its reorganized incarnation that they all attended was opened in 1917. And they met and they attended it, and they got not only art education, but also a heavy dose of ideology.
They were encouraged to work on group projects, and also they were encouraged to go out into the street and create what the school's director, Abbo Ostrowsky, called life portraits. And he was inspired by the Ashcan artists to really look at the lives of the people on the street and uncover social problems as well. So this is where a lot of them got their start.
A lot of them were also involved, especially the illustrators, in some of the downtown Yiddish illustrated journals. Eddy mentioned already Der Groyser Kundes, and there were others as well that they were involved in. These also had an ideological cast early on, mostly affiliated with socialism and the labor movement.
So here we have just a quick photo. You will meet her later, this young woman at the center. This is Dina Melicov, who is a sculptor. And back here is Chaim Gross. And the school director, Abbo Ostrowsky, is also in the photo. I found out recently that he was actually engaged to Dina Melicov for a little while. And so it really is a mixture of camaraderie and art and social purpose that they are all really just being immersed in for a long time in their youth.
So William Gropper, who was born in 1897 on the Lower East Side, unlike most of this group who were immigrants from Eastern Europe, he really grows up in an already radicalized milieu. His mother did piecework, working by the piece, bringing home garments from the sweatshop. He painted her and drew her many times just with her weary face and body. It really profoundly affected him, and he felt that there was great injustice in the world, even from a young age.
He would later, a little bit later, in the '20s, publish a visual autobiography in the pages of the Frayhayt, the Yiddish Communist daily newspaper. And this is just one example of his view of the sweatshop as a terrible place where people, like this man in the foreground, are really, literally turning into their own machines with no freedom, no individuality, and with the boss or the boss's henchmen always standing ready to abuse them. This is what we would call today a meme. This little figure is reminiscent of Gropper's mother and appears in a lot of his work. So he really came by his radical views quite honestly.
He also attended classes at the anarchist Ferrer school and attended lectures, et cetera. So it was only natural that he would get involved in the Morgn Frayhayt. Well, it was first called the Frayhayt, the Yiddish Communist paper, and that is also the seat-- will also be the seat of the greatest controversy surrounding Gropper.
Before we get to that, though, I want to mention, also we've heard a couple of times mention of this monthly journal that was published by the Frayhayt Farband, the overall umbrella organization of the Frayhayt, Der Hammer, which was founded in 1926. And here is a Gropper cover of a much happier worker, not a sweatshop denizen, but somebody who is probably a worker in the Soviet Union. Here we have the glories of industrialization, not really worrying about environmental pollution at the time. And here we, of course, have the hammer of the magazine's name enmeshed with the sickle. It's very clearly Communist, and he's very partisan. And of course, the Revolutionary black and red palette that we have here.
So it's not really a surprise that in 1929, when the so-called riots in Palestine between Arab inhabitants of Palestine and Jews and British soldiers during the Mandate era broke out that the paper, which initially is supportive of the Jews who were massacred in these riots, quickly turns on a dime, gets directives from above, from the Party, and immediately turns 180 degrees against the Jewish inhabitants of the land and the British. Of course, the British, they see it as occupiers, and in favor of the Arabs who are presented as workers. So it becomes a conflict of capitalists and imperialists against poor workers.
The notable thing, really, about this conflict-- and we heard a few references to this yesterday in Amelia's paper, Amelia Glaser-- is Gropper's cartoons, which are really the thing that most people remember about this conflict. We have here, frankly, I would call antisemitic imagery. We have the Jew holding the pushka, holding the can to collect funds, wearing the Magen David, the Jewish star, and with the British imperialists behind him with the cigarette. And this is early on in fast moving development of this discussion, and they just are compounded.
Here is the Frayhayt's nemesis, Abe Cahan, screaming-- holding the copies of his own paper, screaming for blood, blood, blood. And we have here increasingly sort of stereotypical visions of Jews holding their weapons and going out marauding against Arab inhabitants. They have large noses, beady eyes, thick lips, and they're holding weapons. And their flag is a Magen David with a dollar sign inside.
And then, finally, here we have a throwback to his sweatshop imagery, where we have the Jewish boss again. He has religious sort of elements and he has the dollar sign in the Magen David, and he's holding a whip and all the workers are behind him. We can talk more about the episode with the Frayhayt, but as many of us have already heard, it resulted in really an uprising from some of the subscribers, many of the subscribers, against the newspaper. And in fact, there was even a magazine Di Vokh that was founded in response.
So this is one aspect of Gropper. And we have also, at the same time and well into the '30s, his involvement in issues that other members of his group were involved in. We have the issue of the Sacco and Vanzetti, Italian anarchists who were sentenced to death, a cartoon with a famous slogan, Sacco and Vanzetti must not die.
We have also Gropper's stance on the Spanish Civil War, again, very common stance among his friends and colleagues to, of course, be there on the side of the Republicans, those fighting against Franco and fascism. And here he's referring to the fact that, upon their return, those who fought for the Lincoln brigade in the Spanish Civil War were only really welcomed by very few in the United States. Here is Miss Liberty welcoming them back. The US government certainly did not. In fact, many of them had their passports suspended.
To move on to just two of Gropper's associates, who were also involved in these issues, here we have Aaron Goodelman, who is a very different character, mild mannered, quiet figure, who is deeply, deeply involved in Yidishe Kultur and Jewish and Yiddish culture, much more of a Yiddishist than Gropper. His wife Sarah is a long time Yiddish educator. They live in the Sholem Aleichem houses in the Bronx, and he's deeply involved in that aspect.
He's also, though, a dedicated Communist for many years. He is the principal Illustrator of covers of some socialist and Communist Yiddish children's magazines. This is from the archive at Cornell. But he also is very outspoken against what he sees as racism, especially in the case of the Scottsboro Boys in the early 1930s, their arrest on spurious charges of raping two white women on a train. And like most of these artists and also writers, he conflates this with the scourge of lynching in the American South.
This is beautiful statue here-- Goodelman is primarily a sculptor-- beautiful statue owned by the Jewish Museum in New York. It's called The Necklace, and he's referring specifically to Scottsboro and also very generally to lynching.
And this I just threw in for fun because it's about Yiddish culture. Apparently, he also sculpted Chaim Zhitlowsky's memorial on his tomb. And this is his bill, and he's nudging Rubin Saltzman to pay him for a delayed payment for the monument.
Then just to quickly introduce my favorite, frankly, my favorite character, Minna Harkavy, who does not get really any press. She is also a dedicated Communist, a very accomplished sculptress. Her work is owned by major museums but she is not well known. And you find Minna Harkavy's name on a series of just organizational boards and exhibitions and catalogs from the late teens, especially the '20s, through the '40s, and almost always she's the only woman or she's one of two women out of 20 men, two women out of 30 men, and she's extremely, extremely involved, very political. She also, despite being married, has a series of lovers, one of whom is the aforementioned Moshe Olgin.
And I'll just finish up now and leave a lot of this for our conversation with a nod to the changes that many of them will go through. As the Depression wears on, all of these artists, no matter how radical they are, realize that in order to eat, frankly, they need to go and work for the WPA Arts Section in the New Deal. Here's Dina Melicov, who you met as a young student at the Educational Alliance, and Moses Soyer and other artists working on the art project.
This is part of the shift that starts to take place. Of course, it's also the years of the popular front. And then the other shift that inevitably will affect their world outlook is World War II and, ultimately, the Holocaust. None of these people would ever abandon their dedication to progressive causes and even to radical ideals, but they would shift kind of the tenor of the way that they speak about these things.
Minna Harkavy, even early on here, in 1938, uses a biblical reference to Lamentations, worrying about her brethren in Eastern Europe. And we see this also even from Gropper, even in, again, some materials that are in the Cornell archives. He draws on some Jewish figures from Jewish history, certainly not socialist or Communist or progressive figures, people like Bar Kochba and Spinoza in this-- Elissa showed us this the other day-- in this cartoon of so-called Jewish tanks that are part of a fundraiser for the Soviet Union to buy tanks for the Soviet Union.
And then, finally, he is very, very involved in another effort that we will see increasingly in the Jewish left, including the far left, and that is even during and for many, many years after the war, commemorations of the Warsaw Ghetto and the uprising. And he, in fact, becomes the official, really, Illustrator of many Warsaw Ghetto commemorations.
The last thing I will show you is an interesting switch. This, yes, is the same Gropper who in 1929 produced those interesting, problematic cartoons in the Frayhayt. Here we have him in the late 1940s and early '50s producing a series of color lithographs that can only be said to sort of elevate the qualities of very traditional-looking Jews. We have no kind of antisemitic tropes here, no anger, no talk of imperialism. This is sentimentality, though, as I said, he would never, never separate the his Jewishness and his ethnicity from his progressive values. And in fact, neither did any of his cohort.
So thank you. I will leave it there, and I look forward to our discussion.
HARVEY TERES: Thank you, Lauren. Our third panelist is Dylan Kaufman-Obstler, a PhD candidate in history at the University of Wisconsin Madison. She's the current Lawrence A. Weinstein Distinguished Graduate Fellow in Education and Jewish Studies. Her dissertation, "Language for a Revolution-- Yiddish Schools in the United States and the Making of Jewish Proletarian Culture," examines Yiddish Communist schools from kindergartens to universities and the Jewish cultural world that was built around them. The title of her talk is "The Jewish Workers University and the Project for a Yiddish Intelligentsia in America."
DYLAN KAUFMAN-OBSTLER: Thank you. And I also look forward to our discussion because I think there's a lot of connections between my talk and Lauren's talk. So the Jewish Workers University, Der idisher arbeter universitet, is an all but forgotten institution of the Jewish left. Founded in New York in 1926, it was born in a moment when Di Linke had begun to separate from socialist institutions like the Arbeiter Ring and embarked on building its own journals, schools, and cultural world.
The purpose of the Jewish Workers University was to educate Jewish working class adults in order for them to be activists in the labor movement and Communist Party, highly literate in Yiddish language and literature, and trained to educate the next generation of Jewish youth in their own image. As its founders promised at its beginning, the Jewish Workers University would, quote, "give us worker intellectuals."
Now, throughout the various periods of Communist history, the Yiddish Communist movement is always animated by this tension between Communist internationalism and Jewish particularism. And one may even be tempted to describe the particularist impulse as Jewish nationalism or Yiddishism, but these individuals would emphatically reject those terms, at least in the period that I'm discussing.
And so in my presentation today, I want to explore this tension and discuss how the Jewish Workers University documents actually reveal a consistency in their commitment to the future of Yiddish language and culture, even in periods when Yiddish Communists looks like they were subordinating it for Communist internationalism. So outwardly, it seems like the popular front marks a sharp turn in support for Yiddish, a support that was seemingly not there before. And in fact, what the documents actually show us is that Yiddish Communists how the continuous fundamental commitment to Yiddish throughout the various periods of the Communist Party.
So for those of us who study Di Linke, this may be an obvious point. Why did they build anything in Yiddish-- Yiddish schools, Yiddish journals, Yiddish theater-- if they did not care about Yiddish and its future? And what's key to understanding this point is the periodization of Communist history and how this mapped onto Yiddish cultural work. So in short, in the time before the Popular Front, during the periods of Bolshevization in the mid 1920s and the third period, which lasts up until the mid 1930s, Yiddish Communists get this reputation for rejecting Jewish themes and just using Yiddish as a vessel for their internationalism and a tool for recruiting other Jews. And if you read them in their own words, that very much seems to be what they're up to. So reading Yiddish Communists in the early 1930s, one will frequently hear them say things like, the future of Yiddish is not their concern, or that Yiddish is a vehicle for proletarian class education.
And so as a result, when they change course in 1935, at the beginning of the Popular Front period, and start embracing the Jewish particular aside and explicitly focus on Jewish themes, as well as focus on securing a future for Yiddish language and culture, it looks like a full reversal of their previous stance, that they move from rejecting the Jewish to embracing the Jewish. But the story of the Jewish Workers University does not exactly follow this construct if we dig a little deeper. From its beginning, the most central of its programs was Yiddish teacher training for the purpose of building a future Yiddish intelligentsia in the United States. And this was as fundamental to its purpose in 1927 as it was in 1937.
And so today, I will analyze a document from the Popular Front from 1937 in which we get a more transparent accounting of this institution's past, and I'll draw out these continuities I'm describing. And this document is from the Cornell digital archive, which we're celebrating here in this conference, and I'll show pictures of it and some pictures of the Jewish Workers University at the end of my talk.
So a little bit of background on the Jewish Workers University. It was created by a number of people who started their Yiddish educational work, actually, before they became Communists, and then even after they were Communists taught at non-Communist educational institutions. They were a number of formal faculty at the Shalom Aleichem People's University, folks at the Arbeiter Rings, teacher seminar, letter seminar, who are also in the Jewish section of the Workers' Party. And these are prominent individuals in Yiddish culture and educational work, whose names some of you may recognize, like Moissaye Olgin, Kalman Marmor, and Moyshe Katz, among others.
In the first year of the Jewish Workers University, it enrolled between 250 and 300 students and largely maintained those numbers in that range throughout most of its existence. And eventually, there were also smaller campuses in cities such as Chicago and Philadelphia. So the 10-year almanac of the Jewish Workers University in 1937 shows little significant change in the institution since its founding. Courses such as the History of the Workers Movement, the Jewish Labor Movement and General Labor Movement, Political Economy, Marxism, Leninism, Yiddish Literature, Yiddish Composition, and English were all on the roster in 1927 as well as in 1937. And added in the years in between were Ordn Courses, courses designed to trained activists in organization and mass movement building for the International Workers Order.
Over the years the Jewish Workers University refined its program and methodology, dividing its student tracks into three parts-- those who would receive a more foundational education and basic literacy, those whose primary interest was to become organizers in the labor movement, and Yiddish teacher training. Since its founding in 1926 and into the Popular Front period, the Jewish workers University maintain two faces, one that emphasized their work supporting the Communist Party, and one for the Jewish immigrant world. The Yiddish Communist leaders presented their institution in some instances as the Yiddish-speaking sister of the Communist New York workers school with little difference other than the demographic makeup of its students and the language of instruction.
The Workers School was founded in 1923 and designed to educate and train Party activists, and so in the 1937 graduating program of the Jewish Workers University, for example, there is an address from the director of the Workers School, Abraham Markov, who characterizes the Jewish Workers University as a parallel institution for those who cannot attend the Workers School due to language barriers. As Markov says, quote, the Jewish Workers University , which leads educational activity among the Jewish workers who cannot easily orient themselves in the English language does good work. Over the years, the institution granted a large number of comrades equipped with the theoretical knowledge that is needed for our work. We, who lead the same work on a larger scale through the Workers School are aware of many of the difficulties this institution faces."
So from this comment, if you look at the documents from the Jewish Workers University from earlier periods, the picture we get of this institution is that the Yiddish component is about accessibility to the immigrant population, that it's basically an institution for Communist education, but just dressed in Yiddish. But let's juxtapose this image of the Jewish Workers University as a place for those who cannot orient themselves in the English language with the words of Itche Goldberg, Ordn Yiddish school teacher and pedagogue, who also gave an address in the same document and explains in his remarks how the Jewish Workers University was always conceived of in relation to the children's schools. He claims, quote, "there is no coincidence that the schools and the University are the same age. Our schools have a problem of new teachers." End quote.
And Goldberg further underscores the development of Yiddish culture as a priority, saying, quote, "why do the youth come to the Jewish Workers University? Is it may be to continue their Marxist education? Is it to deepen their knowledge in political economy in Marxism, in which they received merely an introduction in mitl shul?" No. The real reason, he says, is that the youth, quote, "come here to initiate the development of a proletarian Yiddish-speaking intelligentsia in" America.
Now, to be sure, in 1937, unlike in the 1920s, the Jewish Workers University is dealing with a new demographic. That's American born Jews who attended their Yiddish children's schools. And yet still two distinct ideas of the Jewish Workers University and its purpose, one for the wider Party and one for the Jewish street, emerge when we compare these depictions. And these two faces of the Jewish Workers University, I argue, existed from the beginning, as made clear by the discussion of the history of the Yiddish teacher training in the 1937 Almanac.
In the remarks from Kalman Marmor, who was then the director of the Jewish Workers University, he explains that when Di Linke established its own children schools in 1926, it had to create a program to develop Yiddish teachers. So important was replenishing Yiddish teachers with the correct politics and adequate Yiddish education, he said that, quote, "the first years of the Jewish Workers University, the concentration was on the teachers courses," end quote. Marmor's remark about their focus on teacher training, although not intended as a particularly significant comment, is crucial to our understanding of the foundational purpose of the Jewish Workers University and the importance of developing a future for Yiddish culture. And importantly, there was no teacher Yiddish teacher training at the New York Workers School, nor is there any real parallel to this effort among the other ethnic groups in the Communist movement in the United States.
Supporting Marmor's remarks on their emphasis on teacher training and developing Yiddish culture was also a testimonial of one of the early students of the Jewish Workers University, and this student describes being deeply influenced by what he calls the national factor in Jewish experience. And he describes the perspective of being in the early teacher training cohort at the Jewish Workers University in the following terms. Quote, "we came to the Jewish Workers University as a group of students with two ideological orientations. One orientation was expressed by the nationalist influence, what the seminar offered, as he's talking about the Arbeiter Ring. "And the second orientation was our own passion to connect with the working masses and find a solution to the Jewish question through the working class."
So this student's description of leaving the Arbeiter Ring seminar and joining the Jewish Workers University, he claims to that this is a representative mindset of those entering the Jewish Workers University, that their commitment to Jewish national issues are, in his words, to solve the Jewish question was the dominant factor for their participation and what actually led them to the international context in which to develop Yiddish culture.
And so to conclude, this discussion of the importance of teacher training and the desire for its early students to address the Jewish question leads us to see the Jewish particularism within the nationalism. The very existence of the Jewish Workers University, or the Yiddish Communist educational movement on the whole, only makes sense when we see that the Jewish element was never rejected, but locked in a fluid and paradoxical dance with the Party. Why concentrate so much on training Yiddish teachers for English-speaking American youth if Yiddish was simply a means to an end? How do we square the central purpose of this institution as a Yiddish teacher training center with the understanding that it was just like the Workers School, but with Yiddish speakers?
The Jewish Workers University was hardly just communism dressed in Yiddish. It was set up to ensure the future for Yiddish language and culture for the next generation, to develop teachers who would be cultural leaders for the movement. And there was always this aim of the Jewish Workers University. It is just in the Popular Front that we get this message more explicitly, a saying out loud of what was happening all along.
So without denying how the Popular Front period changed the orientation of the Yiddish Communist movement to embrace Yiddish national culture unapologetically, we also see that there was a continuity in Yiddish Communist school work in terms of how its cultural mission was prioritized that gets overlooked by Party rhetoric that characterizes and distinguishes third period communism from the Popular Front. And so I believe these continuities show a deeper story of Yiddish education than communism in a Yiddish key, but a long-term and surprisingly consistent project among Yiddish Communists for building Yiddish culture in the United States that was at once informed by the various phases and fluctuations of the Communists of Communist Party history, yet at the same time, at their core, unwavering and consistent in their goal to build a Yiddish proletarian culture in the United States.
And so if I just may take a few more minutes of your time, I would like to just show you some pictures of this Almanac. Let me share my screen here. So this is the document I was describing in my talk. So at the top here, it says Tsen Yor, 10 years, Der idisher arbeter universitet. And on the spine of this book, it says Visn is makht, knowledge is power. And again, this is from the Cornell University Digital Collections.
Here is the faculty at the Jewish Workers University. And what's wonderful about that this is digitized is you can go look at this yourself. So I'll just go briefly to not take too much more time.
This is a class on political economy. This is Itche Goldberg's class for the mitl shul, or High School graduates. This is the Office.
This is the student council, and notice all the women in this picture on the student council. This is the choir. And this is attendees at a lecture series in a packed room. And it's the final image is the library. So thank you.
HARVEY TERES: Thank you, Dylan. Before I go into my response, I want to take the opportunity to thank our generous sponsors and to mention each of them. The sponsors of this conference are the Central New York Humanities Corridor, the Syracuse University Jewish Studies Program, the Cornell Center for Social Sciences, the Catherwood Library, the Cornell ILR School Kheel Center, the Cornell Jewish Studies Department-- or program, I should say, the Society for the Humanities, Cornell Departments of History, Anthropology, Near Eastern Studies, and Government, and the American Studies Program.
Co-sponsors include the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, New York University Tamiment Library, and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives. Thanks to all of the sponsors.
In my response, I want to speak to what I believe is the direct relevance of the three talks we've just heard to some of the social and political challenges we face today. To some, no doubt, this will seem a stretch. I hope some, however, will welcome the attempt. I've long been committed to the public humanities and consider it a responsibility to seek connections between our scholarship and the wider world, whenever appropriate.
The three presentations we've just heard, to paraphrase E.P. Thompson, the eminent historian of the English working class, have sought to, quote, "rescue from the enormous condescension of posterity," unquote, a pair of brilliant Yiddish-American Communist comic puppeteers, a group of Yiddish-American visual artists, and the activities of a Yiddish Workers University, or what was for many a night school.
Actually, our panelists have sought to rescue them from something worse than condescension, and that is oblivion. This was a world of our ancestors that, save for the committed efforts of scholars like our three panelists and the other conference participants and their colleagues around the world, would likely disappear from view. This is not simply because of neglect due to anti-Semitism or anti-communism, although those have doubtless been factors, even our otherwise like-minded colleagues across the professions have long preferred to look the other way.
Thus in his seminal volume of academic Marxist criticism, Marxism and Form, 1971, one of the most influential volumes of Marxist criticism published in the United States since World War II, Fredric Jameson wrote the following. Quote, "when the American reader thinks of Marxist literary criticism, I imagine that it is still the atmosphere of the 1930s which comes to mind, the burning issues of those days, anti-Nazism, the Popular Front, the relationship between literature and the labor movement, the struggles between Stalin and Trotsky, between Marxism and anarchism generated polemics which we may think back on with nostalgia, but which no longer correspond to the conditions of the world today. The criticism practice then was of a relatively untheoretical, essentially didactic nature, destined more for the night school than in the graduate seminar, if I may put it that way, and has been relegated to the status of an intellectual and historical curiosity," unquote.
May I suggest, from the vantage point of 2020, there is reason to differ. As Black Lives Matter encourages a reckoning with white supremacy, as we contend with new eruptions of anti-Semitism in the wake of Charlottesville and the attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, and as we confront the president who encourages division and further inequality in America, things don't look quite the same as they looked to Jameson in 1971. In his current book, A Promised Land, Barack Obama observes that, quote, "storytelling and literature," and I would add the other arts as well, "are more important than ever. We need to explain to each other who we are and where we're going."
This historical moment in which we find ourselves requires, I would suggest, that the academy, most especially the humanities, the arts and sciences, must reassess its relation to the public and its problems, must find a way to reach out beyond the professions to engage more fully with the non-academic world, to become a presence in the daily lives of ordinary Americans, just as the cultural workers within the Yiddish radicalism movement did during the middle decades of the last century.
We have just listened to three rich and suggestive presentations that offer ways to think about the difficulties of such a reorientation. Eddy Portnoy began his talk with the memorable observation that the Yiddish left was, quote, "not much fun," unquote. As a veteran of the Marxist-Leninist movement of the 1970s, I can testify that neither has the non-Yiddish left been much fun. Leftist humor is very nearly an oxymoron, but Jewish humor, now those words fit together like Groucho fits with Marx.
Professor Portnoy has offered us a glimpse of two innovative puppeteers who were part of a milieu of Yiddish vaudeville that incubated the powerful tradition of American Jewish humor in which two generations of performers utterly transformed American humor and culture, and I would just mention some of those names-- Fanny Brice, Sophie Tucker, Jolson, George Gesell, Eddie Cantor, Jack Benny, George Burns, Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Henny Youngman, Jerry Lewis. The list goes on and on, and that's just that first generation.
Professor Portnoy's talk should encourage us to contemplate the indispensable role of humor in any movement for social change capable of living up to its ideals. I would even hazard to say-- and I have the feeling that Maud and Cutler would agree, they are the ones who said, you come by joy rightfully-- I think they would agree, no humor, no liberation.
Professor Portnoy's talk along with Lauren Strauss's raise an important related issue. When it comes to the relationship between cultural workers and political movements, the question that always gets asked is, how have the cultural workers served the movement? We're intent to know levels of involvement, commitment, militancy, loyalty, and the like.
But I want to suggest we consider reversing the order of the question and concern ourselves at last with what may be the more essential question, which is, how has the movement served the cultural workers? This conundrum, I think, quietly informs both talks and should provoke us to explore its contours and its relevance to our times.
So when Maud and Cutler visited the Soviet Union and were wined and dined for three months with pay at the posh Moscow Grand Hotel, but were not allowed to perform at all, questions are raised about the political contingencies that dictated the degree and kind of support rendered to artists. It's a perennial issue. How much value, how much freedom, how much importance do our political movements place on the creativity, relative autonomy, and inevitable critique of its performers, artists, and authors?
Finally, Dylan Kaufman-Obstler's perceptive revisionary treatment of the Yiddish Workers University reminds us once again that colleges and universities do indeed produce methods, skills, and knowledge of great value to the rest of society. But to the extent that we ourselves today remain aloof from the night schools, community colleges, prisons, and vocational training institutions that surround us the possibilities of partnerships in the interests of an informed and active citizenry and non-citizens will continue to elude us.
And Dylan Kaufman-Obstler's emphasis on the essential importance within the Yiddish Communist movement of combining particular and general interests, or national and international perspectives, speaks directly to what today is often meant when we speak of diversity, equity, and inclusion in our movements and institutions. Even if imperfectly realized at times during the '20s, '30s, and '40s, the Yiddish project signals the ongoing need for the right combination of difference and solidarity along ethnic, racial, gender, and other lines in our efforts to renew our country and the world today.
So that concludes my remarks I've obviously left many detailed substantive matters for you, the attendees, to explore with the panelists. So let's begin. Let's go to the questions.
JENNIFER: OK. Thank you so much, Harvey. That's very thoughtful and thought provoking at once. And thank you, panelists, for those wonderful papers that all speak to each other so well, the conference organizers bring them together in conversation.
And you know what? I think I'd like to start by giving each panelist just a moment to respond to Harvey's comments. I think that would be a really nice way to kick us off. Eddy, would you like to start?
EDDY PORTNOY: Sure. Yeah, thank you, Harvey, for the comments. You know, I think you're right. You have these sort of hidden matters in history that don't really get exposed. And in a way it's too bad because at a certain time and place, these things were very important to people.
And you know you could see this not just in the wide distribution of publications, books, things like that, but, in my case, in these puppet shows. I mean, what puppeteer has 15,000 people come to his funeral? It's a real indication that people genuinely cared about these things, and to have them get lost to history is too bad. So your point that they disappear is really well taken.
LAUREN STRAUSS: Thank you, Harvey. You've been such a responsible moderator all along as we've been-- also before today, as we've been emailing. And it's clear that you not only take it seriously, but that to you, and I think to many people at this conference because it's so specialized, these things are not abstract. They're not purely academic, and I think that's really the key here.
And it's so rewarding to be amongst people who understand that when you look at culture, that the producers of culture, whether visual artists or-- we haven't even really talked about music except for, of course the Paul Robeson movie clip-- that they were not simply window dressing and they don't simply make it more fun, but what they're saying both translates incredibly important thoughts and trends for a general public.
And one special attribute, I guess, or advantage that the artists I study really have over, frankly, people whose work is inherently always in Yiddish and needs to be translated is that it's a universal language. It's a visual language, and so they are able to build bridges between communities and get out there and really speak to progressives in the rest of America and in other places. So it's not merely decoration. They really become important ambassadors, in a sense.
But the other thing that Harvey brought out, his comments, his personal references to his own involvement in the left and to the situation or predicament of our country here, especially the last four years, is that I think there's a tendency to create false lines of demarcation between, for instance, a dedication to Yiddish, Yiddishkeit, Jewishness, identification with either ethnic identity or-- I'm not going to say religious, but really an ethnic identity, and the involvement of these people in progressive issues and politics.
And Dylan really, really correctly and brilliantly brings out the fact that it's not an accident. It's not at all just a vehicle to teach Yiddish so that you can speak to certain people who only the language. There is an ideology behind that. There is a value. There is true dedication to Yiddishkeit, and that these people-- and I see this with my artists, as I call them, all the time-- is that we shouldn't be so quick to draw these lines of demarcation between groups and allegiances, like between the radical left and the rest of the Jewish community, especially following World War II, but not only.
And so when we look at some of their activities that I didn't even have time to get to, where during the Popular Front period and for a few years after, they are involved, at the very same time, the same people in an organization like ICOR that is raising money for the project in Birobidzhan. And at the very same time, the same people are exhibiting their work on the Upper East Side in the 92nd Street Y and in very different circles, that there isn't anything necessarily contradictory about that. There's nothing hypocritical about that, that some people have charged.
They in many ways embodied the true progressive who is steeped in Jewish culture and Jewish concerns. And I think a lot of people making make the mistake of thinking that you have to be all one or the other. I'll stop there.
JENNIFER: Thank you. Dylan, [INAUDIBLE].
DYLAN KAUFMAN-OBSTLER: Thank you. Thank you, Harvey. Something in your comment that caught my attention as you talk about colleges and universities on the one hand, and then we have the night school. And I think that was attention tension at the Jewish Workers University and in the Communist movement in general, this tension between are we trying to create intellectuals, but then also this feeling about intellectuals that's not totally positive, and then also just dealing with the realities of a population that is really just working on basic literacy. And so that tension is a big part of the Jewish Workers University and the Communist movement in general.
And I think-- so I actually work part-time at in adult ed, and at what we call it a night school as well, and so I also think about this relationship to university as an intellectual culture and the folks I work with. And so I just I think there's a lot of connections from the past that we can make today.
And I think what is-- for at least in the context of the Jewish Workers University, the Yiddish teachers at least, their plans for the Yiddish teachers are to-- I think it's about a sophisticated intellectual Yiddish culture because they want to promote the future of Yiddish literature, they want to promote art. And yet, at the same time, in the Communist movement, they're also trying to make it a proletarian movement. So just like there's a contradictory between the Jewish particularism and the internationalism, I also think there's this-- and how both kind of exist simultaneously, I think also at the Jewish Workers University we see that simultaneously we want to create intellectual culture, and we also want to be for the masses. And so they try to reconcile that, but it's a challenge.
JENNIFER: That's so interesting. I hope we can talk a lot more about that as we thread through all of these questions. One question that I'll pose all of you, and then I'll go in specifically per panelist, but one of our audience members wants to know, what did Party leadership explicitly ask artists and educators to do? And were they ever forced to or made and compelled in some way to take Marxist theory classes or otherwise become re-educated in a Party matter? So I'll leave that with all of you to answer as we go along.
I'm going to go straight to Eddy with some very specific questions, back to the material aspect of culture. What were the puppets made of? Did Zuni Maud and Yosl Cutler make them themselves?
Where are the puppets now? Do they still exist? And Julia Wickenburg wants to know, are there any connections here to the Bill Baird marionettes? And if you know what those are, perhaps can explain it to us.
EDDY PORTNOY: Thanks. So the puppies initially were made of wood, and then they were made of something called plastic wood, which is sort of a moldable sort of ersatz wooden material. Certain parts of the puppets, for just the feet-- Yosl Cutler, he loved to create rhythm with feet, so the puppets' feet were generally made of wood because he would bang them on the stage.
The puppets are-- YIVO has three of Yosl Cutler's puppets. Zuni Maud's puppets are currently in a private collection, and YIVO is hoping to get those. We'll see how that pans out.
But as far as relationship to other type puppets, I think-- I'm not sure if I took this out. But when Maud and Cutler first started, they made puppets on their own and they had no real experience doing it. They just sort of were winging it because Maurice Schwartz asked them to do it.
And when they decided to start their own puppet theater, they realized, well, we better really have an understanding of how to build these objects. So they hired an artist named Jack Tworkov, who later became a painter of some renown, but he had studied with a very well known Italian puppeteer named Remo Bufano, who was based in New York. And they hired Tworkov to help teach them make how to make these puppets, and he performed with them for about a half a year, and then he left and went to did his own his own thing.
And because these are-- Modicut puppets were hand puppets. They weren't marionettes, so they didn't have any real relationship to Bill Baird's puppets or Bill Baird's marionettes. It's a different type of thing.
But one interesting thing about Modicut was that it came into existence during a time when puppetry was really very popular. This was the mid 1920s and puppetry experienced a kind of reinvention on the popular stage. And so there were puppets on Broadway, there were puppet shows in all kinds of different venues. And so, for instance, Theater Arts Monthly, which is sort of the premiere theater magazine of the period, has a special issue dedicated to puppets in 1926. And Modicut could actually appears in that because they were considered one of the better quality productions, even though it was in Yiddish.
And that was also one of the interesting things is that even though everything was in Yiddish, there were certain people who were so interested in their theater that they went and saw it regardless of understanding it or not. They just went to it for the art of puppetry.
JENNIFER: Great. Thank you. A couple of great questions just came in for you, so I'm going to add them to the next round. And I'll move on to Lauren, although Eddy, this is a question that you can think about as well if you have a response. Can you comment on the use of the stereotypical imagery of Jews, especially in Gropper's caricatures? What was the audience or reader response to these caricatures? And was Gropper in dialogue with Foshko, who portrays Arabs in equally caricatured light in Der Tog? And did Gropper caricature other ethnic groups besides Jews?
LAUREN STRAUSS: Yeah, thank you. I'll put that together, actually, with your general question to all of us about whether the Party, to what extent did the Party exercise control over specifics of artistic production. The short answer is yes, very, very much so. And so the incident with the Frayhayt and its presentation of the events in the Palestine riots is sort of a one-off in the sense that it was so specific to Gropper. He was the principal Illustrator of the Frayhayt. He is completely associated with the Frayhayt's response.
There was a large response. I just quickly looked up the numbers that I have in my manuscript here. One estimate lists the circulation of the Frayhayt that, at its height-- I mean, it wasn't one of the larger circulation papers-- at its height it had about 22,000 subscribers. So that's about a tenth of, for instance, of what the Der Forverts had at its height, less than a tenth. And it declined from 22,000 to immediately to about 18,000, 19,000. So immediately, in the weeks after Gropper's cartoons, it declines by several thousand.
And then it continued to decline after that. Very different circumstances, but, for instance, 20 years later, there were only 14,000 subscribers. So it really didn't have that impact.
Also on not so much a quantitative level, but qualitative, that I mentioned Di Vokh, the alternative magazine, short-lived magazine, that was founded in part as a result of the backlash against Gropper and Olgin in the leadership of the Frayhayt, so this really did anger people, including people on the left. Now, not all readers or subscribers of the Frayhayt were so firmly on the left, and certainly not all were members of the Communist Party. It was considered the platform for-- were the best, for instance, many of the most popular poets published, et cetera. So that also may explain why there was such a backlash because a lot of people weren't necessarily orthodox Communists in the first place.
And I don't know how well he knew Foshko. I wondered the same thing. I don't know that much about Foshko, but he also has some really interesting cartoons that also touch on not only these issues, but relationships between Black and White Americans, and very, very sympathetic to the plight of Black Americans. And so that is something that I would love to know more about.
And then to get back to the directives of the Party toward artists, specifically toward visual artists, there was, as I said, Gropper sort of took it to a new level. Nobody said to him, you need to include these negative stereotypes. But in a general sense, the Party not only directed its artists to focus on certain types of content-- and I have letters after the archives of the Communist Party were opened up in the '90s and are available here at the Library of Congress right near me.
It was incredible. I was flabbergasted to read letters that just laid out so blatantly what the Party was telling artists to focus on. Paint pictures or create sculptures of this type of worker engaged in this type of work, privileging and really celebrating physical labor, et cetera, et cetera. And also artistic styles, aesthetic styles, were determined by the parties so that, as Eddy noted, the modernism of some of the covers of Der Hammer early on, but later that would be really, really frowned upon.
And one of the most dedicated leftist artists, member of the Party, et cetera, Louis Lozowick, who I talk about a lot in my book, he's a complete sort of proselytizer for the Party, and he gets slammed in the pages of The New Masses, which had a lot of the same people, for his so-called Bourgeois tendencies because he's a fan of modernism, of Soviet-influenced aesthetic movements like constructivism and supremacism. And he's told that he had better back off of such modernism and engage in more social realism and things like that.
So yeah, there are all of these letters that I saw that really said, you must do this, you must do that. And Michael Gold, the editor of The New Masses, also he sends out letters to his visual artists and writers who are publishing in the pages of The New Masses and saying, these are some topics that you need to cover in your short stories, et cetera.
EDDY PORTNOY: I could just add that during this time period caricature as a whole and character of ethnic types was extremely common. And this is something that had been taking place since the 19th century in the press. Any different ethnic type was caricatured in extremely ugly ways. So you have in the general American press, English language press, you have large numbers of caricatures of African-Americans that are horrible. Same goes for Jews, Asians, Native Americans. Any ethnic group that wasn't white is caricatured horribly.
So Yiddish caricature doesn't begin to appear until the late 19th century, or caricature in Yiddish publications doesn't begin to appear until the late 19th century. And the only paradigm they have is antisemitic caricature because that's all there is. And Yiddish artists have no qualms about drawing Jews with big noses, dark, curly hair, beards. It's not an issue.
The difference is the context of the cartoons they're producing is not antisemitic at all. In fact, it's completely pro-Jewish. They're appearing in the Yiddish press. There's nothing antisemitic about it.
The one difference you could say about Gropper's cartoons is that he begins to include religious effects, clothing and tefillin. And what you end up having--
LAUREN STRAUSS: And dollar signs.
EDDY PORTNOY: Dollars-- yes, dollar signs combined with Stars of David. And he even occasionally will throw a swastika in. So that's a little bit more extreme. I don't think the intention is that it be antisemitic, but that's eventually what you end up with.
And Gropper's cartoons are similar in a lot of ways to Soviet anti-religious cartoons of the same period that you don't see a lot of because there are fewer of them, and also people don't study Soviet cartoons in the same way that they're studied here.
I can also comment as to Party influence on artists as concerns Maud and Cutler. In, I think, 1930, end of 1932, early 1933, Moyshe Katz, who's an editor and writer for the Frayhayt, who's also higher up in the Party, calls a meeting of artists and says to them, all of you have to join the Party. You have to sign up and pay your dues.
And at this meeting, Yosl Cutler stood up and said, you mean we're not members? All the work we've done for all this years, we don't automatically get membership? And he was sort of just amazed. He thought he was just part of it by doing what he did.
And as far as Maud and Cutler went, if the Party, in fact, told them they had to do something specific, I really don't think they did it. They had a tendency to sort of go their own way. They did promote the basic platform, but that was just what they wanted. Their art consistently is pretty wild and perhaps unlike other artists in the period.
JENNIFER: Great. I'm going to stop you there so we can move on. Lots to think about there. Moving on to Dylan, a question of clarification. So you're speaking about the Jewish Workers University.
Now, is that officially part of the JPFO? Is it affiliated explicitly with the IWO? How connected are they? What's the exact institutional relationship?
Does the Jewish Workers University have any connection to other non-Yiddish schools, like the Jefferson School of Social Science, which was a Marxist institution at the time? And is there a crossover with other Yiddish school networks in terms of faculty, students, or institutional relationships? Let's start there, and then we have some other questions for you as well.
DYLAN KAUFMAN-OBSTLER: There's so much I want to comment on also in the previous discussion. So just quickly, in terms of connection, so the Jewish Workers University predates the IWO. So it's founded in 1926, the IWO-- International Workers Order-- founded in 1930. And actually, one of the arguments I think is really important in-- or something that I like that I want to bring out through my work is to look at this long history of Yiddish education. And sometimes I think we can get distracted by even the Communist label, when these schools kind of even predate that.
So once the International Workers Order forms, the Jewish Workers University is connected. I mean, it's distinct, but the idea is that the Yiddish teachers from the Jewish Workers University would teach in the Order's Yiddish schools. As I said, there are Order courses. So there's courses at the Jewish Workers University to train people for the fraternal movement to actually help build the International Workers Order. So yes, there's a crucial connection there, but also the Jewish Workers University kind of points to this longer history of Yiddish education in the Communist movement.
Regarding the Jefferson School, I'm glad this question came up because it gives me an opportunity to give a brief epilogue for this movement. So because the Jefferson School, I believe that comes after the New York Workers School-- it I want to say 1943, 1944. And that's kind of part of a general trend in Communist movement that also happens in the Yiddish world in-- in the Yiddish Communist world in terms of renaming things in order to promote unity and kind of be a little less sectarian.
So for example, in 1941, the Jewish Workers University becomes the Idisher lern-institute the Jewish Educational Institute or Learning Institute. And then its paper trail gets very thin. And so I'm actually still figuring out what happens in the '40s, but what I know is that it continues at least until 1943.
And then later, in 1948, the Order has a Leadership Institute. And I read a letter from Itche Goldberg suggesting that there should-- in 1950, suggesting there should be a Yiddish and English training institute that's basically what the Jewish Workers University was. So it kind of-- it suggests to me, it doesn't really survive the '40s. But it kind of appears and pieces of it remain in this movement. So I hope I answered all those questions there.
JENNIFER: I actually have a quick follow-up.
DYLAN KAUFMAN-OBSTLER: Yeah.
JENNIFER: Was it also related, then, to the di hekhere kursn, which were the higher courses of education that came after the shule classes offered to JPFO students? Because I know some of our audience members were involved with that, especially Hershl Hartman.
DYLAN KAUFMAN-OBSTLER: Yeah. So if you remember the image I showed of Itche Goldberg teaching the mitl shul graduates, I believe that's if not the same, a similar effort, the hekhere kursn, for the Yiddish school graduates.
And what was interesting was when I first started this research, I actually met with Hershl Hartman, and I was hearing about these hekhere kursn. And I was trying to understand the relationship between that to the Jewish Workers University. And I think that's part of the story that I think still needs to be teased out, at least for me, about what happens exactly in the 1940s. So if anyone has first-hand experience, I'd love to talk with them more about how to trace all the various lines of these different institutions.
If I can just comment briefly on how we know about what the Party wanted in terms of education, is that all right with the time that we have?
DYLAN KAUFMAN-OBSTLER: OK. So I agree with Lauren there that what the Party wanted was so important. But what's interesting is when you follow the Jewish case, is sometimes they kind of moved around what the Party wanted by following the Soviet Union. So nothing happened exactly-- nothing happened that the Party didn't want to happen. If they didn't want the Yiddish schools, they wouldn't exist.
But at the same time, in terms of the educational project, often Yiddish school activists were looking at the Soviet Union and saying, this is why we need to do this. They were not necessarily going along with the kind of Americanization aims of the Party. And they kind of circumvented that, interestingly, through talking about the Soviet Union, and then kind of staying in line with everything. So I just want to point to that dynamic. That's really interesting in the context of Yiddish education.
JENNIFER: Wonderful. OK. So obviously, we could talk for the next several hours, but we're going to get oysgezoomt, as Elissa likes to say. So let me do a lightning round, ask you a couple more questions each, and then we're going to end with-- Harvey, I'll turn it back over to you in a few minutes for a final conversation amongst the panelists.
So back to Eddy, speaking of the Soviet Union, what were the impressions of Modicut in the USSR or the Soviet at the time? And did they ever communicate? What was the response to audiences there?
And a question from Bob Zecker. Was there any connection to the Italian immigrant community, especially since Sicilian puppetry was quite popular at this time?
EDDY PORTNOY: So Harvey mentioned this in his response, and it was actually something that I removed from my presentation because of time constraints. But when Maud and Cutler went to the Soviet Union, at their first performance in Moscow, tables and chairs were brought onto the stage after the performance and the official Soviet theater organization proceeded to have a discussion about puppet theater and about the quality of Maud and Cutler's performance. And on the spot, they invited them to stay and become part of this theater organization, and they literally invited them to remain in the Soviet Union.
Now, what happened was they organized a small tour of the provinces for them. This would mostly be Belarus, Ukraine, cities and towns in these areas. And then they were sent back to Moscow, and they were put up in a big hotel for three months. And nothing was organized for them and they were just left on their own. And they decided at some point that nothing's happening here, we're going to go back to the US. And they did.
Now, as far as impressions go of audiences, it's hard to gauge because all we have is Soviet Yiddish newspaper reports, which do say the audiences enjoyed it. But because you didn't have a free press there, it's not entirely clear what the actual reaction was. But because Modicut was Modicut and they were popular everywhere they went, whether it was US, Canada, Cuba, England, France, Poland, everyone liked this. I imagine that the response in the Soviet Union was probably the same.
One interesting thing is the sort of Master of Soviet puppetry, a man by the name of Sergei Obraztsov writes in his memoir that he remembers seeing Modicut, both when he visited the United States in the mid 1920s and also when they came to the Soviet Union, and he commented on what an incredibly innovative artistic production it was. And he's a professional, so it's not like an audience reaction. But he really appreciated their work.
Now, as far as the Italian influence goes, I mentioned it before, but that's very clear. So the artist that Maud and Cutler brought in to help them learn how to build puppets was Jack Tworkov, who was a student of Remo Bufano, who was an Italian puppeteer in New York City, who was extremely well-known. And so he was very influential in helping them to learn how to build these puppets in this way.
Just as far as the culture goes, I know that there are Modicut plays where they do have Italian characters in them. But they had all kinds of different ethnic characters because these people all populated the Lower East Side, and they were just part of life. So they were just they were always included in the plays.
However, in this case, you always have-- when you have an Italian character, you have him speaking Yiddish with an Italian accent. Or if you have a Chinese character, you have them speaking you Yiddish with a Chinese accent. It was all kind of like ethnic gags. But that was sort of also an integral part of the entertainment.
JENNIFER: Thank you. OK, I'm going to move on to Lauren. How can you situate-- how would you situate Gropper in relation to anarchists and the anarchist movement, as you mentioned that Gropper took some classes with anarchists. That seems to be a bit of a mismatch if he is aligned with the Communist movement. And likewise, with Zionism, can you say something about Gropper with regard to his work at the Morgn Frayhayt and their opposition to Zionism?
LAUREN STRAUSS: I think that it's often-- it's usually a mistake to look at someone who lived for a long time as being the same person at every moment of their life. So Gropper took classes as a very young man, I think as a teenager, for instance, at the Ferrer School and associated with anarchists, not necessarily as a formal thing, that those were his influences early on. But he definitely threw in his lot by the mid '20s-- by the early '20s, really, with what would become the very strong framework of the Communist Party in the Yiddish left.
And in that context then, as you can see from his response to-- and it really isn't his, it's the newspaper's editorial response to the riots in Palestine, it's completely anti-Zionist. The Zionists are used in the same-- the derogatory terms for them are the same as the terms used for the British. They're called imperialists, they're called fascists, and they're called colonizers. And that's not him, that's the editorial hand, mostly Moyshe Olgin, but also others, Shakhne Epstein, in the Frayhayt organization.
JENNIFER: What about later? If I can just jump in, What about the '40s? Because we only have a few minutes. What about the '40s and '50s?
LAUREN STRAUSS: Right. So one really interesting thing about all of these people is that they had different feelings about the idea of Israel early on, but that by the immediate post-war period, a group of artists-- a large group of artists, somewhere between 50 and 100 of them, organized shows that then donated large numbers of artworks to various causes. So at the same time, one of those group shows and then gifts was sent to a proposed museum in Birobidzhan, so clearly still part of the radical left. But it was an idea, but a lot of people who supported Birobidzhan and bought these artworks and attended ICOR fundraisers were not necessarily Communists at all.
And at the very same time, in 1948, the same group of people, including Gropper and Minna Harkavy and Louis Lozowick and Aaron Goodelman send a group of works to be kind of the nucleus of a museum in Ein Harod the kibbutz in the North of Israel that established the state of Israel's first art museum. And that's the inaugural gift. And still if you go on the website of Ein Harod, you can see mention-- it's not very specific-- of this gift. Did--
JENNIFER: I'm going to stop you because I have a couple of questions for you. Thank you. So the short answer is, it's complicated. Very, very quickly, before we move on, Yiddish linguists want to know, was Minna Harkavy related to the great Yiddish linguist Alexander Harkavy? And is there anywhere that we can go today to still see Gropper's work, particularly at WPA mural or something of that sort?
LAUREN STRAUSS: Minna Harkavy's husband, Louis Harkavy, was Alexander Harkavy's cousin. And her husband, Louis Harkavy, was apparently a Yiddish poet, so famous. And there are still WPA artworks in various places around the country. Some of them, as you may know, have come under fire recently for-- in our new kind of new conversation the last few months.
JENNIFER: Anything specifically by Gropper, though?
LAUREN STRAUSS: And specifically, Gropper has a large mural in the Department of the Interior building. So if you come here to Washington, DC, when things are open, if you go to the building of the Interior Department, there is a huge Gropper mural. And there are other ones as well around, but that's the big one.
JENNIFER: Great. OK, so I'm going to move on to Dylan, just in the interest of time. We're still getting new questions in here. We'll try to come back to them at the very end. So Dylan, here's a question that I wanted to know, but then someone else asked it, so great, I can ask it.
You mentioned Itche Goldberg, who was in many ways the visionary head of many Yiddish educational initiatives with regards to the JPFO. How far did his leadership extend? How big was his vision? And what influence and roles did he did he play in bringing these organizations together and bring their ideas forth?
On a related question, can you speak briefly to the curriculum, the actual Jewish curriculum of the Jewish Workers University, in terms of did they talk about religion? Did they talk about Jewish history, et cetera.
DYLAN KAUFMAN-OBSTLER: Thank you. Yes, Itche Goldberg was really important. And I think especially in the mid '30s, in the Popular Front period, something he does, actually, is-- so in the early '40s there's sort of the sense that Yiddish schools are in crisis, and this is in all the Yiddish school networks. And what he does is he writes letters to the various children school graduates of the International Workers Order and ask them to comment on the importance of Yiddish in their lives.
So he's kind of crucial-- he's crucial for a long time, but I think he really plays an important role in that period, especially, when there's this feeling like we need to help Yiddish survive and the important role of the schools in that. So he's a very significant person, especially beginning in the mid 1930s.
In terms of the curriculum, so something that's very interesting that I noticed is in 1935, the children's schools really change their curriculum. They start incorporating more Jewish history, they start incorporating just more attention to Yiddish and the methodology of how to teach Yiddish. So the curriculum starts to get more and more kind of Jewish-focused in 1935 after a teacher's conference that brings up this issue.
Interestingly, at the Jewish Workers University-- at least in my talk, I talk about the 1937 Almanac. That curriculum looks very, very similar to what was happening before. So there's a change in the Yiddish schools that isn't exactly mirrored in the same way at the Jewish Workers University, or at least if the changes maybe happen later.
But something important I want to point out in terms of the curriculum is that, even though the schools change their content in 1935 and put more emphasis on Yiddish and Jewish history, there's conversations about that happening before the Popular Front, especially with Yiddish. In the early '30s, you'll hear Yiddish teachers talking about how they need to do something with the Yiddish literacy of the children. It's just not enough because these are, like, three day a week schools.
And so that conversation about how they need to reorient is kind of happening before the Popular Front, but then you really see that kind of come to fruition around 1935 in the children's schools. As I said, in the Jewish Workers University, that change is less striking.
JENNIFER: Wonderful. OK, thank you. Harvey, I'm going to turn it over to you, if you want to spend a few moments with the rest of the panel talking amongst yourselves about what you think that the big ideas are of this panel, or which takeaways that you're going to be thinking about beyond this paper-- the paper, the panel, and the conference.
HARVEY TERES: Yeah, that's fine. That's great. Let me give the panelists an opportunity to talk to one another. Anybody have any questions for anybody else?
DYLAN KAUFMAN-OBSTLER: I do. I want to ask a question to Lauren because I'm aware of the term "Yiddishism" when talking about our subjects. And it's something I think about because I think, by our standards, we would call them Yiddishists.
But I'm also reading them in their own words saying, we're not Yiddishists because they distinguish Yiddishism as we only care about the language. We don't care about the content. And so they distinguish themselves from Yiddishists and reject that term for themselves.
And so this is a problem I think through as well. It's like, well, I think I would call what they're doing, by our standards, Yiddishists, but that's a term they reject. And so I'm curious, because that's part of the title of your talk, what your thoughts are on that dance.
LAUREN STRAUSS: Yeah. It isn't-- as Jennifer said before, it's complicated. It really depends on the person. Gropper's sort of known for not having great Yiddish. And really, English was his first language, et cetera, and he probably didn't write the Yiddish captions for his own cartoons in the Frayhayt, et cetera. And so he's sort of at one end of the scale, but still being within a Yiddish milieu.
But people like Aaron Goodelman and Minna Harkavy, they were Yiddishists. They deeply believed in the importance of the language and in marrying together Yiddish culture and the rest of what they did and their message. And as I said, Goodelman's wife was an educator in the Yiddish school system. And I was thinking before when you were talking about this, Goodelman taught, actually, at the Jefferson School, but he taught everywhere. He was really an educator, and he had a foot in both worlds, English speaking and Yiddish speaking, but it was really what he spoke at home, with his family, et cetera.
And similarly, Minna Harkavy, she was one of the American delegates to the 1937 conference in Paris that created YKUF, the World Organization for Yiddish Culture, and so it was very important to her as well. But they also-- I don't think there's a contradiction between them being immersed in this and also being immersed in other sort of non-specifically Jewish topics.
The one thing that I just wanted to throw out there that we're not going to have time to talk about, but I just really want to emphasize that this was incredibly important to them, is all of the topics that were important to the American progressives in general, especially the plight of Black Americans, and I mentioned the Spanish Civil War, Sacco and Vanzetti, and then the Scottsboro Boys, who, as I said, were conflated with the scourge of lynching.
And so those were-- it was important to them, as we heard with Amelia Glaser yesterday with the poets, to both talk about those in a Yiddish context using Yiddish and using very Jewish terms for those various persecutions, and through the Yiddish language and platforms, like magazines, draw parallels between the experiences of persecuted peoples. And so that was part of it also, using the language in that way, and also maintaining, having one foot in the English speaking American left to fight against these injustices.
EDDY PORTNOY: I can just add that the Maud and Cutler also very much loved Yiddish. And I did a lot of interviews in connection with this research, and I remember there were a few people who were children in the 1930s at Camp Kinderland. And Yosl Cutler was also always pushing these young American-born kids to learn Yiddish, that it was sort of the most important thing. I mean, I don't think he was sending them to schools, but it was like, this was the carrier of their culture, and it was just the most important aspect of what they did.
All their work was in Yiddish. Maud and Cutler, they were both artists, and they could have created art that was unrelated to text, but almost all of their art has Yiddish text. It's just-- it's so important.
HARVEY TERES: Anyone else have a question for a panelist?
EDDY PORTNOY: Yeah, actually, I have a question for Dylan. These American sort of Yiddish schools are so interesting, and I'm wondering if there's any relationship between them and either secular Yiddish schools in Poland or in the Soviet Union, and if there's any sharing of curriculum.
DYLAN KAUFMAN-OBSTLER: Yes, definitely. So if you look at the Yiddish school journals, you'll often find references-- I've got children writing to each other from the schools in different countries, so children writing to other children in Yiddish schools in Poland. And the Soviet Union is really interesting because they are really trying to model a lot of what they do on what's happening in the Soviet Union.
And then that gets complicated with American-born children, and so there's a lot of discussion about what context should we emphasize. Should we emphasize the Soviet Union? Should we emphasize the American context? But that's a capitalist context, so we don't really want to-- we want them to know the history, but we want to always really connect them to the Soviet Union. So that relationship is very close.
EDDY PORTNOY: Right. Great. Thank you.
HARVEY TERES: If I can follow up on that, I have a question about the faculty at the school. Over the years this may have changed, but who selects the faculty? What are the qualifications? Are these mainly Party functionaries who served on the faculty? Or was there a more independent means of choosing faculty members?
DYLAN KAUFMAN-OBSTLER: Yeah, that's a good question. So one of the-- so I haven't gone systematically through every person, but a lot of them are pretty prominent people in the Yiddish world. Like, Amelia Glaser's talk yesterday, she talked about Y.E. Rontsh. He's a poet, Yiddish poet. He's a faculty member.
But one of the issues of the Jewish Workers University, like the Yiddish schools, is that they have a crisis of faculty. They don't have people who are qualified, who have the literacy or the knowledge to teach the kind of subjects that they want to teach. So there's kind of a generation of faculty, and I think they really struggle to replenish that over time.
So I don't know exactly what the requirements were, but they were really trying to get Yiddish-- people who are prominent in this kind of Yiddish literature, intellectual sphere.
HARVEY TERES: Thank you. All right, it's 5 o'clock. Jennifer, I think maybe we should leave it here. I would just mention to the attendees that you shouldn't forget the last session, which is Monday from 3:00 to 5:00, and I believe we're going to have some guests who were fairly close to the culture that we're talking about. I don't know who they are. Maybe one of the co-hosts has more information about the Monday session. Anybody want to add anything?
JENNIFER: I'll just say that the Monday session is from 3:00 to 5:00 PM, and we'll kick off with the well-known artist Ben Katchor, who will be in conversation with Paul Buhle. And from there, we'll move on to a memories and reflections section, where we will hear from Hershl Hartman and Ray Lisker and a number of other people who lived this world intimately and are going to share their memories and their thoughts about it. So that is absolutely not to be missed. And we really hope to see you then.
Thank you, Harvey. Thank you, Eddy. Thank you, Lauren. Thank you, Dylan. This has been tremendous. I could easily talk to you for the next several hours. But for those who want to, we should all go light Hanukkah candles. So a freylikhn likhtikn khanike, and hope to see you all on Monday. Have a wonderful Shabbos and weekend.
LAUREN STRAUSS: Happy Hanukkah.
HARVEY TERES: Thank you.
EDDY PORTNOY: Thanks to all of you.
HARVEY TERES: Thanks, everybody.
DYLAN KAUFMAN-OBSTLER: Thank you Harvey.
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"Di Linke: the Yiddish Immigrant Left from Popular Front to Cold War" explores the history, cultural and political activities of the Jewish People’s Fraternal Order (JPFO), a significant component of the Yiddishist immigrant Jewish Left. The JPFO, the Jewish section of the Soviet-oriented multi-ethnic International Workers Order (IWO), was shut down with the IWO during the Cold War when its funds and organizational archives were confiscated. Much of the material discussed is from the now partially-digitized IWO/JPFO archive housed at Cornell’s ILR School Kheel Center.
In this session: Eddy Portnoy, Lauren Strauss, Dylan Kaufman-Obstler, and Harvey Teres discuss the JPFO’s cultural work, including puppetry, art, and Yiddish communist education.