Who needs idealism at a time of crisis? Maybe we all do; in fact, maybe it's more needed than ever at such times, and maybe that's the real message of this book.
Before this slim volume found its way to the Yiddish Book Center, it was part of the large Yiddish library of the Jewish Consumptives' Relief Society in Denver, Colorado, a sanatorium for workers suffering from tuberculosis. Its readers were long term patients who found themselves forced to retreat from the world to help them fight off an invisible enemy. Far away from loved ones, their lives in limbo, at a time of deepening world crisis, those same readers wanted to read about the struggles of earlier generations. In particular they sought inspiration from the lives of several extraordinary women who fought to improve the world around them and secure fundamental rights—the right to vote, the right to protect jobs and to basic health and safety provisions, and, above all, the right to lives of basic human dignity. All of which sound remarkably relevant today.
These inspirational stories are hidden inside a 'multi-part' book. Multi-parts are collections of disparate individual stories, plays, radical tracts, or popular knowledge pamphlets bound together into a single volume. We see many of them at the Center —but this is a first. It’s a set of rare 1930s Yiddish booklets about women, and what a fascinating set it is! There are two slim pamphlets written by Reyzl Beilis about two pioneer social reformers and feminists: Jane Addams and Ella Reeve “Mother” Bloor.
Alongside them is a polemical booklet Di froy in der heym, in fabrik, in gezelshaftlekhn lebn (Women in the Home, the Factory, and Community Life) by Gina Medem. Polish-born Medem was an anti-Tsarist revolutionary, a war reporter in 1930s Spain, and a lifelong campaigner for children and women’s rights.
Finally, Rokhl Holtman’s pamphlet Fir barimte froyen (Four Famous Women) profiles Frances Wright, Emma Lazarus, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Mother Jones.
All four pamphlets were published by the IWO (International Workers Order), a communist-affiliated organization with a large Jewish branch active in labor circles and cultural work in the 1930s and 40s. The IWO was internationalist in spirit and imbued with the ideals of solidarity across religious, ethnic and racial lines. Hence the diverse stories of the women featured in these biographies, all of whom achieved extraordinary things. To my shame, I knew nothing about Jane Addams, Frances Wright, Ella Reeve Bloor, or Mother Jones, who was once called 'the most dangerous woman in America' for organizing Pennsylvania mine workers to protest against horrendous working conditions.
One final note: in our bound volume, these four pioneering feminist works play second fiddle to two pamphlets about famous men—Yiddish writers Avrom Goldfaden and Sholem Aleichem. Indeed, a librarian has chosen "Avrohom Goldfaden" as the book’s overall title. Given the ongoing struggle for women’s visibility, that seems more than a little ironic, but perhaps not surprising. Even more invisible is the author Reyzl Beilis, who is not listed in any major reference work about Yiddish authors and doesn’t show up on a google search.