“My task is not to debate whether I’m a Jew or not, but to figure out what kind of Jew I am. For me, finding a secular Jewish community with progressive politics fits my version of that identity.”
The men and women who built the Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring were Jews who fled the poverty, oppression and rising violence of Eastern Europe in the late 19th and 20th centuries. They came to America to build new lives. Their story in many ways defines the American Jewish story. It is the story of the vibrancy of secular Jewish identity, the vibrancy of Yiddish culture and, in many ways, tells the history of the American Jewish left. It is also our story, our roots, our legacy and the foundation upon which we are building the Workmen’s Circle today.
We start our telling of the story at Ellis Island, the entry point for most immigrants. The path from Ellis Island led to the sweatshop. Poverty wages. Long hours. Hazardous conditions. No unemployment insurance, no health or disability benefits, no security.
On April 4, 1892, a handful of Jewish sweatshop workers -- cloakmakers – met in a tenement on New York’s Lower East Side and formed a mutual aid society. They called it the Workingmen’s Circle. Despite its name, two of the first members were women.
This small society grew to 300 members and officially became the Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring in 1900. By 1920 there were over 80,000 members, and The Workmen’s Circle had become one of the largest Jewish organizations in America.
The Workmen’s Circle provided benefits that poor immigrants were otherwise denied: health benefits, sick benefits, death and funeral benefits. A bustling social services department. A full service health center. Tuberculosis hospitals. Homes for the aged. And Workmen’s Circle cemeteries with head stones that read like a who’s who of the Jewish left and Yiddish authors and artists.
But the Workmen’s Circle was no ordinary fraternal organization.
The Declaration of Principles adopted in 1901 at the first Workmen’s Circle Convention proclaimed:
The constant want and frequent illness which particularly afflict the workers have led us to band together in the Workmen’s Circle, so that by united effort we may help one another. The Workmen’s Circle knows that the aid which it can bring to the worker today is no more than a drop on a hot stone. It will do in time of need. But that there shall be no need—this is the true ideal. The Workmen’s Circle desires to be one more link in the workers’ bond of solidarity, ultimately bringing on the day of complete emancipation from exploitation and oppression.
The organization considered itself a part of the general labor movement. Members were “duty bound,” according to the constitution, to be loyal to their union. By 1940 the Workmen’s Circle ran 100 Labor Lyceums -- community centers -- across the country.
One veteran Boston member, interviewed at age 91, remembers the Chelsea Lyceum vividly:
Chelsea was loaded with shoe workers. And also in Peabody, you had leather workers. It seemed like the strikes were everywhere. The source of the activity in organizing unions was the Workmen’s Circle center, the Chelsea Labor Lyceum. The workers would come in on their own. They were Italian, Armenian, Irish. A lot of Jewish workers. And they were taken care of. We had a lot of people who did picketing. For the big national strikes, we gave tons of food; we were famous for that. Not only that, we had a social hall where they could play cards. And we had a beautiful library, really nice library, run by some members.
The Workmen’s Circle came to be known as the Red Cross of Labor. It is no accident that the victims of the Triangle Fire are buried in a mass grave in the New York Workmen’s Circle cemetery.
And still we were more than an active arm of the labor movement. More than a safety net in time of need. The Workmen’s Circle served as a spiritual home in which the members and their families could express their cultural, educational, and social strivings.
The first constitution required that, every other week, meetings be devoted entirely to education. The organization published thousands of books in Yiddish so that the Jewish workers could educate themselves – books on psychology, physics, political economy, literature.
The first children’s Yiddish school – the origins of today’s Shule -- was opened in 1918, to “imbue the young with the radical spirit, cultural heritage and language of their parents.” By 1940, 145 shuln (with at least one dozen in Massachusetts), 19 choruses, 9 summer camps, 9 drama societies, and several mandolin orchestras flourished from coast to coast.
Though united in their goal of building a better world, members were of many leftwing political stripes: Communist. Socialist. Anarchist. Social Zionist. Bundist. The first member expelled from the Workmen’s Circle was kicked out in 1901 for working on behalf of the Republican Party. On the cover of the report to the Fifth Convention in 1905 was the inscription: Mir Kemfn Kegn Krankhayt, Fri-Tsaytikn Toyt, un Kapitalismus -- We Fight Against Sickness, Premature Death, and Capitalism.
There were divisions within the left that were mirrored in the Workmen’s Circle. But whatever their political affiliation, the Workmen’s Circle stood united for civil and human rights across the decades. By 1920 the Workmen’s Circle had branches in 34 states. It might have been 35, but in Alabama the law required that all members of the order be white. We declined a license. In the 1930s, black sharecroppers in Arkansas asked a visitor, “Tell us something about this New York organization with that strange name – the Workmen’s Circle – that has helped us so generously.
The 1940's to Today
During the 1930s and 40s, this society founded by Eastern European Jews focused on fighting fascism in Europe, working to save political activists and Jews. And we fought successfully to open the doors of the US to Displaced Persons in the aftermath of the Holocaust. When the DPs arrived in America, Workmen’s Circle members were there to greet them in Yiddish and to help settle them into their new lives.
And still the civil rights work at home continued. We were there in 1947, sponsoring a tour through the south to test a Supreme Court Decision that outlawed segregated seating on interstate buses. We were there for the protests against lynchings in the 1950s and for the freedom marches of the 1960s.
In the words of another veteran Boston member:
One of the things I remember most about my own early days in The Workmen's Circle is how we saw each other as friends as well as Comrades. We loved those song fests which followed most meetings and functions. On key or off key, we sang! Hold the Fort, Solidarity Forever, Joe Hill, We Shall Not Be Moved, Which Side Are You On. We agreed or we disagreed about socialism or the Forvertz, but we turned that mimeograph machine until our hands ached. And there was always the "after” which meant going to the Franklin Park Cafeteria or the G&G deli on Blue Hill Ave. For me -- membership has been a lifetime of pure joy!
But by the 1960s, Workmen’s Circle membership in Boston and around the country had significantly declined. By the ‘70s the Boston chorus had disbanded and the last remaining Shule in Massachusetts, at that point located at our current Brookline address, had closed its doors. Then in the late 1980s the Shule was reopened under the leadership of activists who came of age in the 1960s and wanted a secular, progressive Jewish education for their young children. At the same time, a new generation of young adults seeking to reconnect with the language and culture of their roots reinvigorated Yiddish language programming at the Workmen’s Circle.
Together they spawned a new wave of growth. Boston Workmen’s Circle is once again a vibrant organization. Who are we? We invite you to explore our website and find out!
(Material for this short history was drawn from archives of Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring newsletters, anniversary journals, and the Friendly Society.)