Yiddish and Social Justice

Introduction to this Year's Decade of Discovery Theme

The Decade of Discovery is an initiative launched by the Yiddish Book Center to mark our 40th anniversary in 2020. Its aim is to foster a deeper understanding of Yiddish and modern Jewish culture. For each of the ensuing years, the Center will select an annual theme around which we will curate and share content and collaborate with other organizations. 

Our focus for 2021 is Yiddish and Social Justice, and we invite you to join us for the wide range of virtual public programs and curated content we will be offering around this theme. 

Dreams of a shenere un besere velt—a better and more beautiful world—have been a defining feature of Jewish thought and tradition through the centuries. Historically, Jewish communities around the world have experienced myriad forms of racism and anti-Semitic violence. In part because of this, anger at injustice and a passion for social change, as well as solidarity with the experience of other oppressed peoples, have defined the lives and writings of many in the Yiddish world. Jewish activists confronted oppression on the streets and in myriad political movements. Jewish writers, artists and intellectuals often joined them on the frontlines, but they also gave powerful expression to injustice through their art. In novels, poetry, plays, and in the press, Yiddish artists explored issues of racism, workers’ rights, women's suffrage, indigenous peoples, and political protest. The Jewish engagement with social justice can be found throughout our collections—in our digitized books, translations, online articles and recordings, and oral histories. To dive into the diversity and complexity of these works is one way to appreciate the centrality of these issues through history, and their continuing relevance today. 

The Yiddish Book Center's Decade of Discovery is made possible in part by a grant from the Leona and Ralph W. Kern Foundation.

Header image: Yiddish cartoon, May 5, 1921, titled "According to the Letter of the Law," An immigration official shows the new 3 percent law to a wailing woman labeled “immigration” who is locked out of a gate marked “new edict.” The official says, “I can’t allow more than 3 percent in.”

Teaser image: Yiddish cartoon, January 18, 1924, titled "What’s It Going to Be, Uncle Sam?," Uncle Sam sits between good and evil inclinations. The good inclination’s list includes free immigration, tolerance, hospitality, American traditions, kind-heartedness, open-mindedness, and idealism. The evil inclination’s list includes immigration ban, chauvinism, race hatred, anti-Americanism, hard-heartedness, closed-mindedness, egoism, cruelty, and despotism.

Images courtesy of YIVO Library and featured in Eddy Portnoy's October 2020 program on political cartoons in the Yiddish press.