black and white photo of a police officer standing amid rubble inside
The interior of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory following the infamous fire that inspired many American Jewish political radicals.

New class on U.S. Jewish communists, anarchists and socialists of the 20th century

They may not be household names, but if Elaine Leeder has any say, then Pauline Newman, Rose Pesotta, Rose Schneiderman, Clara Lemlich and Fannia Cohn will soon be as familiar as Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Janet Yellen.

In “American Jewish Radicals,” a free, four-session course on important women and men in the labor and social justice movements starting March 20 at the Osher Marin JCC, the former sociology professor will aim to demonstrate that Newman, Pesotta and their cohorts were as influential in their day — the first half of the 20th century — as a Supreme Court justice (Ginsburg) and a former chair of the Federal Reserve (Yellen) are in contemporary America.

Socialists, communists and anarchists, these five women were at the helm of the U.S. labor movement as union organizers and leaders in the early 1900s, said Leeder, the one-time dean of Sonoma State University’s School of Social Sciences.

“The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire was the catalytic event” for these women and other Jewish radicals, Leeder said, referring to the tragic 1911 conflagration, one of the deadliest workplace disasters in American history, in which 146 people, mostly young Jewish immigrant women and girls, lost their lives.

Fannia Cohn
Fannia Cohn

Newman, Pesotta and Cohn went on to become leaders in the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, which Schneiderman helped found. In the 1920s and ’30s, the ILGWU was one of the largest and most influential unions in the country, and its members helped push through worker safety and economic reforms that endure to this day.

Newman and Schneiderman, Leeder said, became friends of first lady Eleanor Roosevelt and worked behind the scenes on labor issues with President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s secretary of labor, Frances Perkins, the first woman to serve in a presidential cabinet. Schneiderman herself served in a federal capacity — on the board of FDR’s National Recovery Administration — in the 1930s.

With the present-day Jewish community’s concerns about a host of crises, including the rise in hate crimes against Jews, blacks, immigrants and the LGBTQ community, it is important to remember, Leeder said, that more than a century ago there were Jews, including many women and many from observant backgrounds, who rose to the challenges of their time and made a difference.

“There are lessons we can learn from them so that we know what to do today,” said Leeder, who herself comes from a working-class Orthodox Jewish home in Lynn, Massachusetts, once a vibrant industrial town known for its shoe factories. She embraced a Jewish progressive agenda after being “swept away” by anarchist Emma Goldman’s autobiography, “Living My Life,” as a young adult in 1971.

After focusing on Jewish labor activists during her course’s first session, Leeder will then look at Jewish leaders of the mid and late 20th century, including Chicago-based community organizer Saul Alinsky; anarchist and writer Sam Dolgoff; antiwar activists Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman; feminists and writers Betty Friedan, Grace Paley and Gloria Steinem; and Rep. Bella Abzug. She will also highlight the contributions of author and academic Julius Lester, a black civil rights activist who became a committed Jew after learning that his maternal grandfather was a Jewish immigrant from Germany.

At the start of each class, singer-guitarist Gale Kissin will perform songs that evoke the eras that Leeder will be speaking about.

And during the last class, on April 10, students will hold a Yiddish potluck, a nod to Leeder’s love of Yiddishkeit. She embraced her Yiddish ethos as a young participant in classes, camps and other activities sponsored by the Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring, a progressive Jewish organization that was founded by Eastern European Jewish immigrants as a mutual aid society at the turn of the 20th century.

While most American Jews today have strayed considerably from their grandparents and great-grandparents’ socialist, communist and far-left ideologies, they remain more liberal than almost all other religious and ethnic voting blocs in this country, Leeder acknowledged. Her class, she said, will contextualize the American Jewish political experience.

“Because of our history of oppression and marginalization, we align ourselves [with more progressive forces],” she said.

American Jewish Radicals,” 1 to 2:30 p.m. on Wednesdays, March 20 to April 10, at Osher Marin JCC, 200 N. San Pedro Road, San Rafael. Free; advance reservation required.

Robert Nagler Miller
Robert Nagler Miller

Robert Nagler Miller, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Wesleyan University, received his master's degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. For more than 25 years, he worked as a writer and editor at a variety of nonprofits in the Los Angeles and Bay Areas. In 2016, he and his husband, Dr. Arnold Friedlander, relocated to Chicago. Robert loves schmoozing, noshing, kvetching, Scrabble, reading and NPR.