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Recovering Yiddish Culture in Los Angeles

Caroline Luce, Author

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Julius Levitt (Y. Levit): The Communal and Cultural Role of the Arbeter Ring in Los Angeles, Pt. 2

“The Communal and Cultural Role of the Arbeter Ring [Workmen’s Circle] in Los Angeles," by Y. Levit [Julius Levitt], Part 2.
As appears in Kheshbn (The Reckoning), vol. 1 (1946): 99-106.
Translated by Mark L. Smith.
[Translator’s note: words underlined were written in English, but with Yiddish letters; names of well-known persons are spelled as they usually appear in English.]

* * *

Among speakers and lecturers, our unforgettable Baruch [Charney] Vladek was the first pioneer to undertake a lecture tour across the length and breadth of America and traveled as far as California.
B. Vladek undertook the journey on his own responsibility. He was able to do this because he had many personal friends in nearly every large city in America, and the Arbeter ring had branches in those cities. His tour was successful, and this led a year later (in 1912) to his making a second tour. His successful tours quickly became famous. After that, many other speakers and writers from New York began knocking at the door of the Arbeter ring to arrange speaking tours. The Arbeter ring in Los Angeles received each speaker and writer with open arms, brought them here, and rented large “halls” for them, and brought hundreds of listeners to their evenings and banquets (it should only be said of the present time!).
In those years, people still did not know of any separate Natsyonaln arbeter farband [National Workers Alliance], nor the Internatsyonaln arbeter ordn [International Workers Order]. At that time, every progressive Jew attended and belonged to the Arbeter ring, the only radical nonpartisan fraternal organization. Zionists, Bundists, anarchists, and the non-aligned belonged together in the same branches and jointly welcomed Vladek, Yanovsky [Saul Joseph Janovsky], Dr. [Chaim] Zhitlowski, and Dr. [Nachman] Syrkin, and the many other speakers and lecturers who began to visit Los Angeles. The Arbeter ring was their lecture bureau and their address and their host.

* * *

In August 1914, as is well known, the First World War broke out. No O.P.A. [World War II Office of Price Administration] was established during the First World War to control the prices of necessities. As soon as war was declared, prices began to rise quickly. At that time, Los Angeles was materially a poor city and with weak and small unions for the Jewish workers. The only strong organization was the Arbeter ring. The several Jewish bakeries that were then located in the city were organized among themselves, although the bakery workers did not even dream of being organized at that time. The bakeries raised the price of baked goods more than the poor consumers could pay. The women protested against the raise. They soon asked the Arbeter ring not to go along with such inhuman treatment on the part of the bakery owners, who would quickly become rich on account of the war.
In those times, the idea of cooperative bakeries was popular among progressive Jewish people. Such cooperative bakeries existed then in some of the larger cities in the country, and the most successful were the bakeries of Brownsville, New York, and the Paterson [N.J.] cooperative bakery, which exists to this day.
A committee of worker members and of the newly formed Women Consumers League went to negotiate with the owners for them to reduce their prices. The proprietors laughed at the women and the Arbeter ring members. As soon as this arrogant treatment by the bakery owners became known, there arose the slogan — “our own cooperative bakery.” The slogan was noisily applauded on Temple Street, and it was not long before an old bakery on Temple Street was purchased and the cooperative bakery of the Arbeter ring and the newly formed cooperative movement opened. The prices of bread were soon also cut in the private bakeries. The cooperative movement adopted a folks-character. Despite the fact that no one at that time knew how to run such an organization, the enthusiasm was nevertheless great, and the bakery became extremely popular. The cooperative bakery existed a good number of years and was a great success. From the profits of this undertaking, they built a building of their own on Brooklyn Avenue. Unfortunately, at that time the so-called fight between the “leftists and rightists” began, and, using the strongest means, the “leftists” succeeded in taking over the cooperative bakery. The end was that the cooperative bakery was thereafter liquidated and had to disband completely. Thanks to the local Arbeter ring, a cooperative printing house was also created at that time, which served our movement and also managed to publish a Yiddish newspaper under the name, “Pasifishe folks-tsaytung” [Pacific People’s Paper]. The newspaper appeared regularly for twenty-two weeks, and had to cease for of lack of funds. After existing for two years, the cooperative press was bought by an Arbeter ring member, comrade Frankl, who is himself a printer and had previously also worked in the cooperative.
In later years, organizations opposed to the Arbeter ring began to be founded. The first was the independent Arbeter ring of Massachusetts. Following this, the Poele-tsien founded the Natsyonaln arbeter farband. And in the last few decades the communist Internatsyonaler arbeter ordn was founded. Both the Natsyonaln arbeter farband and the communist order were founded as partisan organizations. Both sought to grow at the expense of their “gloybns genosn” [from German: comrades in faith], who were members of the Arbeter ring. However, the Arbeter ring remained permanently an altogether nonpartisan workers and socialist fraternal order. And although opponents of the Arbeter ring have pulled away from it on all sides, it has remained standing at its old post, and continues to interest itself with everything that has a cultural, social, or workers’ character.
The Arbeter ring has also remained a living organization that takes an interest and participates in all questions and problems related to the Jewish people, and all questions that interest the workers’ and socialist movement — here in the country and across the whole world.
Very well known is the mighty role played by the Arbeter ring in the “People’s Relief” after the First World War; and what the Arbeter ring means for the colossal work done by the Jewish Labor Committee over the past twelve years... Here in Los Angeles, too, the Arbeter ring is the backbone of all these activities.
To this day, a large number of our members are found in the leadership and in the work for the sanitorium in Duarte; and for the local institution, the Mount Sinai Hospital and Clinic; and, recently, also for the industrial center for older people. Regarding cultural work, the branches and many of the members are devoted with heart and soul to the work of the children’s schools, and also to the cultural and spiritual development and improvement of adults. Lectures on important issues are not only arranged with guest speakers, but also, at each meeting of the separate branches, one very often hears speakers and lecturers on issues that interest every progressive person and every radical Jew.
I heard how a representative of the B’nai B’rith Lodge turned to a member of the Arbeter ring and asked:
— Why don’t you join B’nai B’rith?
The Arbeter ring member answered:
— I belong to the Arbeter ring.
The representative of B’nai B’rith began explaining what the B’nai B’rith represents, and also what it does to defend the Jewish people here in this country and in the city. To all of these arguments, the Arbeter ring member answered:
— The Arbeter ring includes everything that the B’nai B’rith includes, — plus . . .
The B’nai B’rith representative wanted to know what the “plus” meant. The answer was that the “plus” represents: mutual aid, children’s education in Yidishkayt and in the Yiddish language. It also means all of the insurance carried by each member in case of illness and, God-forbid, in case of death.
With regard to the opening of the modern building of the Yiddish Culture Club, although the Arbeter ring as an organization took no direct part, indirectly, however, one finds a long line of Arbeter ring members among the founders of the club, the most active members of the club, and among the builders of their own building.
The Arbeter ring in Los Angeles, since the founding of the first branch, has grown very nicely. Today, in and around Los Angeles, it numbers a family of more than 2,000 members. And one can say: its growth has now only begun. The Arbeter ring here is growing, both with members arriving from other parts of the country, and with new members and former members, who have recently realized their mistake in letting themselves be dropped from the rolls and are now returning.
Together with the growth of the members, Arbeter ring institutions are also growing, like the large camp for children and adult members; the Arbeter ring schools, and a series of its own centers in various parts of the city. In each center that opens, one will also surely find a children’s school and place for lectures and education in Yiddish, and the place where the Yiddish book and Yiddish writings are disseminated.
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