New Digital Resources Now Available on History of the Jewish Left

By: Jennifer Young, 
May 1, 2021

Cornell University’s ILR School Catherwood Library Kheel Center and Jewish Studies Program have announced a recent update to their joint project “Di Linke: the Yiddish Immigrant Left from Popular Front to Cold War,” documenting the history of the Jewish People’s Fraternal Order (JPFO). All proceedings of the December 2020 webinar conference series on the JPFO, featuring panelists discussing the cultural and political importance of this leftist Jewish fraternal order, are now available through Cornell Cast, with downloadable transcripts. Project organizer Elissa Sampson says, “we hope that by making the presentations and conversations from the conference available to the global community, we can increase interest and knowledge in this remarkable, and understudied, aspect of American Jewish history.”

Image courtesy of Cornell University Library. Der Hammer cover, May 1931, Jewish Section of the IWO.

At the beginning of the Great Depression, groups of immigrant workers banded together to create a new mutual aid society, a Soviet-oriented, racially integrated fraternal order unlike any other in America. Founded in 1930, the International Workers Order (IWO) formed as a coalition of many different ethnic groups that ensured its members had affordable health insurance, burial insurance, and cultural resources in their native languages. Its largest section, known as the JPFO, claimed 50,000 members at its height, with the majority belonging to Yiddish-speaking lodges. The JPFO offered its members Yiddish choirs, theater, and poetry, several different summer camps for children and adults, and educational opportunities with prominent African American artists like Paul Robeson, Pearl Primus, and Langston Hughes.

The JPFO flourished as a national organization between 1930-1950, before being shut down during the Cold War. Its confiscated archives are now housed at Cornell’s Kheel Center, Catherwood Library.

In December 2020, the “Linke-Jewish Left” working group based at Cornell University held the first conference dedicated to exploring the complex history of the JPFO, a crucial yet largely unknown component of the immigrant Jewish Left. This conference allowed scholars, journalists, writers, students, and interested members of the public from around the world to learn more about the resources of Cornell’s JPFO/IWO archive, held at the ILR School Catherwood Library, Kheel Center. Hundreds of people of all ages participated in the conference, including participants from Argentina, Poland, France, and Canada.

The partially-digitized archive held at Cornell’s Catherwood Kheel Center offers a wealth of information about war effort organizing, as well as postwar relief for Jewish communities in Poland, France and Belgium, and Mandate Palestine. These documents provide a window into the politics and culture of the Communist-affiliated, Yiddish-speaking immigrant Left, including how questions of antisemitism played out in the postwar period in the Soviet Union, Europe, the U.S. and Canada. The archive contains letters and documents pertaining to the involvement of Marc Chagall, Albert Einstein, and many other well-known names. Not least, they offer a window into the intersections of feminist Jewish and Black identity in programmatic political work and cultural productions prior to the 1960s mainstream civil rights movement.

Elissa Sampson, lecturer in Cornell’s Jewish Studies Program, worked with the Kheel Center to digitize over 1,700 archive documents. Sampson notes that “the unusual nature of the bilingual archive, mainly confiscated by the state of New York, makes for compelling documentation of the dilemmas, activities and sometimes conflicting priorities of leftist immigrants who protested and fought antisemitism and racism including through allyship with groups such as the Civil Rights Congress. Their struggles have resonance today: the academic conference attracted a younger audience as well as attendees who attended the JPFO’s camps, schools and participated in its political and cultural activities. It's critical to understand the JPFO’s importance as attested to in these documents especially given the age of those participants whose lived life speaks to the power of this experience.”

These ground-breaking conference proceedings are now available online for the first time, accompanied by full, downloadable transcripts. Conference sessions include never-seen-before archival footage of an IWO promotional film; and discussions from scholars such as Paul Buhle, Randi Storch, Toni Michels, Amelia Glaser, Eddy Portnoy, Lauren Strauss, and artist Ben Katchor, covering themes such as art and resistance, puppet theater, children’s art, anti-fascist activism, and Yiddish literature and the struggle for racial justice.

Support provided by the Central New York Humanities Corridor, Cornell Center for Social Sciences, Catherwood Library Cornell ILR School Kheel Center, Cornell Jewish Studies Program, Syracuse Jewish Studies Program, Society for the Humanities, Cornell Departments of History, Anthropology, Near Eastern Studies, and Government, and the American Studies Program. Co-sponsors: Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation; New York University, Tamiment Library & Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives

Der Hammer cover, May 1931, Jewish Section of the IWO