The Role of Jewish Women in American Communism: Background information when reading Dissident Gardens

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Dissident Gardens

A Novel

by Jonathan Lethem

Dissident Gardens by Jonathan Lethem
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2013, 384 pages
    Paperback:
    Jun 2014, 384 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Poornima Apte

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Beyond the Book:
The Role of Jewish Women in American Communism

Print Review

While communism might be a dirty word today, its principles held a lot of appeal for the working poor in the United States for much of the 1920s through the 50s. The idea of a "workers' revolution" akin to the Russian October revolution of 1917 didn't seem too far-fetched. The stock market crash of 1929 followed by the Great Depression further cemented the popularity of a movement that promised better labor arrangements in general - improved working conditions and equal rights for all. Communism grew to such a strong extent that it soon became a vital part of left-wing American politics.

Religious organizations with their emphasis on "social justice" also found roots in this left-wing movement. Soon, Jewish women played a large part in keeping numbers strong, especially in New York City. Most of these members of the American Communist Party (CP) were East European Jews working in the trades. As the movement grew and the makeup and identity of these women evolved, the Communist Party changed along with them. Rose Zimmer, the primary character in Dissident Gardens, is modeled after these Jewish women organizers. She works for a pickle factory in Brooklyn while helping to implement community projects in the neighborhood and sowing the seeds of communism in her neighborhood.

Many of the communist parties members were funneled through the Jewish Federation, a Yiddish-language organization with roots in socialism. Even in the communist party, this faction of Jewish women members emphasized work on cultural projects that protected Jewish heritage while remaining true to the principles of communism. Over the decades, the influence of these women on the larger communist party declined; for one thing there was infighting about the direction to pursue and second, foreign-language federations within the Communist Party were diminished under a directive from the Soviet branch.

Clara LemlichThe generation of women that followed in the 40s and early 50s (which is when Rose Zimmer is involved) carved their own path in the party and weren't as strongly defined by their Jewishness as their predecessors were. These women galvanized fellow workers to protest against low pay or harsh working conditions - the work was not always focused on Jewish cultural enrichment projects. This movement eventually birthed the United Council of Working Class Women. Over the years, it was not just workers who were part of the Communist Party - many left-wing intellectuals, including playwrights and artists, joined.

Ethel RosenbergNotable among these charismatic women was Ethel Rosenberg, a labor organizer and ardent community worker. Rosenberg was one of a newer generation of Jewish women who crafted their ideologies while trying to distance themselves from their Jewishness. In order to create an identity based solely on her party principles, she mostly divested herself of her religion. Eventually Rosenberg was convicted of conspiracy to divulge atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. The case was not without holes and in a controversial move, the U.S. government eventually executed her for the crime.

As the Communist Party wilted during the age of McCarthyism and relentless attacks by the government, so too did the involvement by Jewish women. However, it can't be forgotten that fictional women such as Rose Zimmer are crafted after real counterparts who galvanized hundreds and fought for many facets of workers rights under the aegis of communism.



Top photograph of Clara Lemlich (1886-1982), an activist, Communist Party member and founder of the United Council of Working Class Women.
Bottom photograph of Ethel Rosenberg (1918-1953) at her police booking.

Article by Poornima Apte

This article was originally published in September 2013, and has been updated for the June 2014 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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