Posted by: exiwp | August 9, 1990

No Room For Zion: a Kaddish by a Communist Jew (1990)

By Fred Newman
Stono: The International Journal of Culture and Politics, 1990

Dedicated to JS and Rie, my beloved Jewish comrades, who held and guided my hand as together we tasted the stinking, rotten corpse of European fascism.

My play, Mr. Hirsch Died Yesterday, is about discovery and the shockingly ordinary process and circumstance that give rise to it. It is about working classness as some few people lived it in a Jewish community in the South Bronx in the 40s and early 50s. It is easy to misunderstand Hirsch. Progressive minded people with their liberal morality are particularly prone to missing the point. They would often speak to me after a performance: “I get it. Hirsch and Sadie are not really bad and Hoffy and Esther are not really good.” But Hirsch and Sadie are bad enough and Hoffy and Esther are pretty good. It is just that good people do bad things and bad people do good things and being bad doesn’t make you sub-human and being good doesn’t make you a god, etc.

Mr. Hirsch is also about Jews and what has become of Jews; the sellout of and by the international Jewish community. But where is all of that in Hirsch, you ask? Well, Hirsch is not a representation, and, as such, is not formally about anything. Rather Hirsch is an activity or, perhaps, a guide to an activity; not a play that teaches, but a play that learns (we teach it; it does not teach us). But, says the liberal representationalist, “What did you want it to say? What is it about?” Heiner Muller, the East German playwright, speaks. He says, “If I know what I want to say, I say it; I don’t have to write it.” Danke, Herr Muller, danke The play is neither outside of history, nor is it a product of history. It is a maker of history. It is the form and not merely the content which is political (as Muller also insists, citing Godard). And what of Hirsch’s disheveled form? I do not know its form. Indeed I do not care to know its form. For not only must the form be radical but form itself must be radicalized. Rather I (and hopefully some others as well) will seek to form it. It is, to use Lev Vygotsky’s term, a “tool and a result.” And in my own words, “a tool to make a tool to make a too .” And in one forming of it by me, Hirsch is informally about Jews and our abandonment, by others, by ourselves and of others.

Rabbi Zion and his wife (the rebbetzin) came to our neighborhood from Eastern Europe in 1946, just after the war. The small wood framed one story walk-up shul he took over was just a dry cleaning store away from the run-down two story house-also wood-that he and his family lived in. I was eleven in 1946, still shocked by my father’s sudden death the year before and the family’s ensuing plunge from the edges of the lower middle class to the heart of welfare poverty. In that first year of mourning I came to know the very un-American Rabbi Zion and his tiny shul reciting the Kaddish each evening. “Yisgadal, V’Yiskadash whispering from a fading transliteration of the mourner’s Kaddish written on a blue-lined sheet of yellow paper which I slipped into the funny smelling prayer book each service. Rabbi Zion was a good man; a poor man; a man who made the altar at which he stood and the Torah behind him seem a little less foreboding. The congregation of Rabbi Zion’s Synagogue in the winter of 1946 was also poor . and small. The Rabbi walked the old streets as the sun fell beneath the empty Yankee Stadium searching for men to make a minyan (I was of no help since I was not yet bar mitzvahed). Miraculously he always found ten so I never discovered what would have become of my prayer if the requisite number failed to gather. But Rabbi Zion didn’t fail. In his worn out coat, collar up, shawl wrapped around his neck, he made his minyan and as the Jews of my Bronx working class neighborhood slowly dragged their feet up the stairs to Zion’s shul, I placed my transliterated Kaddish into the old book. “Yisgadal, V’Yiskadash .”

The Kovers were the neighborhood’s weirdos. Mr. Kover, a plumber by trade, was a short and frenzied man, fanatically orthodox, who in most of his public existence sped through the community on his way to Zion’s shul or back home again making little social contact. Mrs. Kover was a dear woman, kindly and gentle, subserviently attending to her kosher home, her neurotic husband and her three children with a grace and simplicity that totally denied the objective pain of her oppression.

The oldest child, as is often the case, was an ill-mixed combination of his parents. Yussie Kover, who became my best friend as I became poor (and as my family became the neighborhood’s other weirdos), was physically his father in miniature. Emotionally, his basic structure was orthodox male, but his mother’s capacity to love had somehow touched him and Yus was able to give even if he never did learn how to be given to.

It was Yus, already fluent in Hebrew at eleven, who transliterated the Kaddish for me. A couple of years later, in fact, Yus and I pulled off the “Miracle On 158th Street” when he taught me by the method of transliteration all the brochas and the haftorah (admittedly short!) necessary for me to perform at my bar mitzvah at Zion’s little shul. (And in 1948, in Zion’s still uncrowded workplace, when the confirmation ended I whispered to Yus, “Today I am a minyan maker.”

The little Jewish working class neighborhood in the South Bronx in the late l940s had many characters; Dave the butcher, Hymie the chicken plucker, Harry the bookie, and Esther (remember, from Hirsch) and her ceaselessly barking little black dog; Stella who pretended she was middle class until one day she was, but she never stopped pretending-A Runyonesque collection of Yiddish speaking Jewish Americans who for the most part had suffered the holocaust in the relative safety of America. But the very European Rabbi Zion and his family (who lived through the Nazi genocide in Europe), the Kovers and my misshapen family were, in many ways, the extremes of the community And while the more “sane arid solid” citizens of Gerard and Walton Avenues did their fair share of brutalizing the members of the social periphery, there was in this working class Jewish community room for everyone. “Isn’t dis vat is community after all?” Rabbi Zion would say in his broken English, with his thick accent. “In community, in our Jewish community der must be room for all”-so said this simple working class rabbi at my bar mitzvah in June of 1948. There must be room for all.

This gentle man who had lived through the murder of our people by the Aryan scum had as well survived the spiritual outrage of abandonment by Jews and non-Jews alike, in Europe and America, in the face of Hider’s big dollars and gas chambers. Oh yes, there were those who did not abandon. There were those who helped; those who risked. But there were also Nazis who didn’t kill. Indeed there were Nazis who helped. It does not diminish the crime of genocide. Nor does the fact that some helped mitigate the moral crime of cowardly abandonment. And this crime of abandonment of Jews by others and of Jews by Jews, and eventually of others by Jews, is called Zionism and Israel, both deadly and destructive products of the 20th century; lawful if tragically painful reactions by and to a dying European civilization thrashing out first to scapegoat the handful of world Jewry and, finally, the masses of the world’s people of color in its decadent demise. Sick European civilization, even in its heyday, had nothing but loathing for the Jew (and not even that for people of color!). When it was not attempting an inquisition it was finding functions for the non-Christians which further exacerbated the image of the Jew as fundamentally, i.e., spiritually, inferior. The dirty Jew, after all, is not hygienically filthy but spiritually so, and could never be saved; indeed is not even a candidate for salvation. It has always been dirty work for the dirty Jew. That Jews have survived and even flourished over centuries is no thanks to the Euro-Christians any more than the survival and creative contribution of the African American people is to be attributed in any way to white racist America-Dirty work for the dirty Jew. It has always been so.

But European civilization born out of feudalism, royalty and thievery reaches its pinnacle (and therefore begins its decline) under capitalism, and in this tragic century Nazi Germany combined all these elements to produce a violent insanity directed against the gypsy, the homosexual, the communist and, as always, the Jew. It was new and it was not new. The decline of European civilization and the structural crisis of capitalism were newly recognized. Hence the viciousness of fascism and the moral bankruptcy of liberal democratic abandonment were qualitatively and quantitatively new in form and content. But still it was the same old Jew and the Jew was to be persecuted. And together with the gypsy, the homosexual and the communist, persecuted we were. And in the face of such persecution and more startling still with worldwide acceptance of such persecution-in the face of abandonment-the Jew, the eternal outsider “inside” European civilization, said a simple, lawful but pathetic Kaddish, “Is there work for me to do? Do not annihilate me. Find for me, the dirty Jew, some dirty work so I may survive. Find for me a job that will be so useful that my assimilation will be secured as it was not in Germany. Find for me such work and I will do it, no matter what, I will do it. I will sell my historical Jewishness, my very soul. For if I do not there will be no soul to sell. I am the dirty Jew and I have always done your dirty work. What is it now? What ugliness is your Christian civilization into now? What filth? I, the dirty Jew, will help to clean it. Just do not kill me. Do not kill me. I will sell my community, which is my soul, in order to survive.” Rabbi Zion did not approve of this new prayer, yet, like a disease, it came into my community. And it was called Zionism.

The New York Yankees of the late 40s and early 50s, as talented a grouping of white Christians who ever played on grass, lived in Rabbi Zion’s and my neighborhood. Baseball had yet to make it out of the feudal epoch and into liberal capitalism. Hence many players, even the brightest stars, rented apartments or even rooms for the summer during the baseball season. My friends and I often delivered groceries to Yogi and Carmen Berra, who were, as best as I can recall, good tippers. Between 1949 and 1953 the New York Yankees set an all-time baseball record (it still stands) by winning five consecutive world championships. To me and to many in my neighborhood and elsewhere, that was by far the most important occurrence of the half-decade, Of course it wasn’t. Much of extraordinary importance was going on throughout the world. But as it turned out it wasn’t even the most important thing happening in my neighborhood-which was, after all, in the world even if it sometimes didn’t seem so. Between 1949 and 1953, as Casey Stengel and my mother began to talk more and more alike, Yussie Kover and his family, Rabbi Zion and his family, Sadie Newman and her family, and millions of Jews the world over were simultaneously being sold out and selling out; were being abandoned once again and were abandoning ourselves and others in a mass suicide that was the painfully symmetrical companion-piece to Der Fuehrer’s mass genocide. It was the American Jew being assimilated. It was the American Jew, a small but significant element of the US working class, moving into the middle class. It was the Long Islandization of the New York working class Jew. “Now,” you ask me, “what could be wrong with that?” Nothing is wrong with that; nothing at all-Nothing except the price tag-The dreadful price tag-Our soul-Our community. “But wait, wait, wait a minute. What you say is ridiculous; an ugly distortion; a cheap commie-Marxist criticism. Zionism and Israel have brought the Jewish community together. Never have we been safer. Never have we been more religious. Never have we been more Jewish. You are a self-hating Jew.” Between 1949 and 1953, while Mr. Berra convinced the world that “it wasn’t over til it was over,” Rabbi Zion’s community and neighborhood transformed. First it got cleaned up-a little. Then it was abandoned-completely. Rabbi Zion s little shul, where only a few years earlier one could barely find ten men for a minyan, was suddenly filled with Jews-on-the-make, savoring the mitzvah of upward mobility and selling seats in the synagogue for the High Holy Days by openly admonishing the startled and still-poor elements of the community that they must raise money for Israel and the United Jewish Appeal or their prayers would not be heard. So said the new-Jew, the becoming-middle class Jew; the nouveau Zionist, to Mr. Kover who had been coming every day to Rabbi Zion’s shul for many years before there even was an Israel and before Israel and Zionism had become profitable.

There was no room for Zion in Zionism, American-style. The poor rabbi was once again abandoned. “But there must be room for all,” he said, even as he and the rebbetzin and the children, now teenagers, were told in 1953 that a newer rabbi was needed, a more American rabbi. “There must be room for all.” Yes, Rabbi, in a community, yes. But not when the business of assimilation has taken over; not when our working class soul is being gentrified by Zionist leaders opportunizing off our fear and trembling and dread; and not when middle class means a “new respectability” which “cleanses” the dirty Jew by selling our community, our soul, to the very people who sat by and watched as the gas fumes sifted up our nostrils and into our disbelieving eyes. The middle-classizing of the American working class Jew was not about upward mobility pure and simple. Nothing is pure and simple for the Jew, just as nothing is pure and simple for the African American. Anti-Semitism and racism make sure of that. There was a price tag on Jewish upward mobility. The little blue and white ticket was stamped ABANDONMENT. Having been abandoned by an uncaring world the enterprising Zionist hungered, indeed salivated, over the opportunity to sell what was left of our people and our Jewish soul to those with the big dollars; the truly filthy who had written a new Bible for a new religion which preached that wealth makes you cleaner. And so the “dirty American Jew,” petrified by the close call with annihilation in Europe and therefore vulnerable to the hucksters of Zionism, moved upward in the Bronx and, eventually, moved ever further upward and eastward to Long Island. The sociologists have described the phenomenon to death. But their literature does not speak of Rabbi Zion and the Kovels and Sadie Newman, who were all abandoned because there no longer room for all in the new Jewish community. For it was, in reality, no community at all.

In the temples of Hicksville and Levittown and even Great Neck and Lawrence the American Jew was being cleansed; the American Jew was being middle-classized. Zionism was the new religion. Israel was the apparent cause; anti-communism was the real politic, and there was no longer room for all. Some of the most orthodox Jews stayed in New York’s “inner city” and cried out against the Long Islandization with a fanatically right wing voice. But it was liberalism’s day and the conservative extremists had never been open to a broad sense of Jewish community in any case. It was the fifties; the Cold War; Rabbi Zion, Yussie Kover, Sadie Newman and Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. The Zionists themselves were allowed to orchestrate the cultural conversion of Judaism from a working class ethno-religion to a middle class media show. Bourgeois political science teaches that it is always best have the mercenaries “come from” the ethnic and/or religious group that is being sold down the river to a new master. But high politics is too important to be handled by the comprador. Jews or Blacks may be the players-even the stars-but the box o flee is always as white as green! The Rosenbergs’ murder was nothing more than the state teaching its filthy politics to the American Jew, listening carefully and furtively from their not yet furnished and n yet paid for homes in Hicksville. The message to Ethel and Julius Rosenberg was explicit: publicly condemn the Soviet Union’s treatment of the Jew and you will not be electrocuted. The message to American Jewry was no less clear: your working class love affair with communism is over. What the anti-Semite always identified as the “disproportionate number of Jews in the Communist movement” was to be a dead statistic. The political price of Jewish-American middle class assimilation and upper class Jewish influence was anti-communism here and abroad. American post-war foreign policy was, purely and simply, a strategic consolidation of the US Empire in the light of the extraordinary American advantage yielded by World War II and the Bretton Woods agreement. Anti-communism at home and throughout the world was the tactical companion-piece.

And there was an important role-a piece of dirty work-for international Jewry, and most particularly for the American Jew. What was that role? On the surface, in the most deceitful Madison Avenue manner, the role of the American Jew was-seemingly sensibly enough-to support the Jewish homeland, Israel. But the money given at synagogues throughout America in the 1950s to “make the prayer count” had more to do with capital and America than with prayer and Israel. THE MYTH MUST BE PUNCTURED ONCE AND FOR ALL. The American Jew was only marginally helping Israel to survive. As a well-paid client state, Israel’s function was always to defend Washington’s politics and American capital in the Middle East. The dirty role for the American Zionist Jew, the new Jew, was to support Washington’s advance and survival and to use Israel as a bargaining chip in the ongoing political poker game that was post-war, cold war politics. The new Zionist American Jewish community was to “offer up” Israel to the American ruling elite, much as some of the new African American “leadership” currently seeks to “sell” Black Africa to white Washington in exchange for political and economic advantage for the new Black upper middle class in the US.

Here at home the Zionist-controlled “Jewish community” (as sinful a misnomer as has never been atoned for) was peddling anti-Sovietism (succumbing to the right wing, CIA-organized campaign in support of Soviet Jewry); participating in domestic cold war politics to prove the loyalty of the new American middle class Jew, even to the point of betrayal of the Rosenbergs and other progressive working class Jews-And why not? After all, betrayal of the Jew by the Jew for political and economic gains has always been the corrupt modus operandi of the Zionist. In Europe Theodore Herzl’s followers played the subtle game of sacrificing the European Jew to Nazism in order to help create a better post-war political environment for the land grab of the Palestinian homeland: a land grab that a PR firm on 38th Street dubbed “the return of the Jew to his historic homeland.”

Note well that the Native American’s justified claim to lands stolen only a few hundred years ago is invariably related to in a smugly “that’s the way the cookie crumbles” fashion by the white international ruling class, especially its US contingent. But seemingly the Judeo-Christian god, long controlled by finance capital, authorized the murder and dislocation of the Palestinian people. Israel’s right to exist is actually capitalism’s might-makes-right to create whatever the hell it needs-and the Zionists’ right-particularly the American Zionists’ right-to buy and sell on the political “free market” to serve their own economic and political ambitions. The so-called Jewish Lobby which, myth has it, spends and works feverishly to maintain US support for Israel, is an in-suit to Jewish intelligence and, especially, Jewish entrepreneurial skills. For it is very bad business to spend money to make happen what will happen in any event. No. The job of American and international Zionism is not to support Israel. It is rather to keep international Jewry in line and fully in support of Washington DC-led international capitalism. And as capitalism’s and DC’s positions have worsened-witness the staggering US debt and balance of trade crises-the demand on international Jewry to carry out more and more dirtier and dirtier work intensifies. American Jewry, long a mainstay within the liberal-progressive coalition, did not so easily abandon just causes even as it caved in to the witch hunts of the 50s and switched from the red star of communism to the blue star of Zionism-in reality the red, white and blue star of loyal Americanism.

Thus the 60s saw Jewish American participation in the liberal civil rights and peace movements. Blacks and Jews worked side by side in Mississippi. But as Black Nationalism lawfully expressed itself and, what was of equal importance, as J. Edgar Hoover red-baited the Black movement to its death, liberal Jews, caught between a middle class assimilationist rock and a historically progressive hard place, came to see the “real deal” they had made with capitalism. From the West Bank to the West Side of Manhattan international Jewry was being forced to face its written-in-blood deal with the capitalist devil. In exchange for an unstable assimilation, Jews under the leadership of Zionism would “do-unto-others-what-others-had-done-unto-them.” The others to be done unto? People of color. The doing? Ghettoization and genocide. The Jew, the dirty Jew, once the ultimate victim of capitalism’s soul, fascism, would become a victimizer on behalf of capitalism; a self-righteous dehumanizer and murderer of people of color; a racist bigot who in the language of Zionism changed the meaning of “Never Again” from “Never Again for anyone” to “Never Again for us-and let the devil take everyone else.”

“Der must be room for everyone in our community,” said Rabbi Zion. And the simple working class rabbi with an almost instinctive sense of Jewish universality meant everyone. For while he understood community as “Jewish community” his understanding of “Jewishness” and of “community” did not exclude; was not a Zionist commodity; was not a political weapon, a gun for hire pointed at those Jews who did not conform; and would not disdain, despise and decimate people of color in the name of our Holocaust. But there was no room for Zion, no less community, no less communism, in Zionism. And international Jewry, which bravely survived German fascism, succumbed to American capitalism. Zionism was the hit-man. I was there, in the late 40s, when it all began. The Zionists do not like me. I know who they are.

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