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

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reviews |  Beyond the Book |  Readalikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio

Dissident Gardens

A Novel

by Jonathan Lethem

Dissident Gardens by Jonathan Lethem X
Dissident Gardens by Jonathan Lethem
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Sep 2013, 384 pages
    Paperback:
    Jun 2014, 384 pages

  • Rate this book


Book Reviewed by:
Poornima Apte

Buy This Book

About this Book

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.

This article is available to non-members for a limited time. You can also read these articles for free. For full access, become a member today.
Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" backstories
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year
  • More about membership!

Support BookBrowse

Become a Member and discover books that entertain, engage & enlighten!

Join Today!

Editor's Choice

  • Book Jacket: Timekeepers
    Timekeepers
    by Simon Garfield
    If you can spare three minutes and 57 seconds, you can hear the driving, horse-gallop beat of Sade&#...
  • Book Jacket: How to Stop Time
    How to Stop Time
    by Matt Haig
    Tom Hazard, the protagonist of How to Stop Time, is afflicted with a condition of semi-immortality ...
  • Book Jacket: Mothers of Sparta
    Mothers of Sparta
    by Dawn Davies
    What it's about:
    The tagline on the back cover of Mothers of Sparta says it all: "Some women...
  • Book Jacket: Fortress America
    Fortress America
    by Elaine Tyler May
    In Fortress America, Elaine Tyler May presents a fascinating but alarming portrait of America's...

Book Discussion
Book Jacket
The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck

A nuanced portrait of war, and of three women haunted by the past and the secrets they hold.

About the book
Join the discussion!

First Impressions

  • Book Jacket

    Force of Nature
    by Jane Harper

    A riveting, tension-driven thriller from the New York Times bestselling author of The Dry.
    Reader Reviews

  • Book Jacket

    Next Year in Havana
    by Chanel Cleeton

    a Cuban-American woman travels to Havana, where she finds a family secret hidden since the revolution.
    Reader Reviews

Who Said...

In war there are no unwounded soldiers

Click Here to find out who said this, as well as discovering other famous literary quotes!

Word Play

Solve this clue:

G O T P, B The P, F T P

and be entered to win..

Books that     
entertain,
     engage

 & enlighten

Visitors can view some of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only.

Join Today!

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends books that we believe to be best in class. Books that will whisk you to faraway places and times, that will expand your mind and challenge you -- the kinds of books you just can't wait to tell your friends about.