Tuesday, August 21, 2018

The Workmen's Circle

One probably associates Yiddish with a language spoken by East European immigrants to the United States in the early decades of the 20th century, and the lingua franca of insular Chassidic Jewish sects who are somewhat fearful of modernity. But one should also associate Yiddish with “Der Arbiter Ring,” the Workmen’s Circle.

Workmen’s Circle was founded on September 4,1900, corresponding to the 10th of Elul, as a mutual aid society for Ashkenazic (Eastern European) immigrants to the United States. Eventually, the New York-based society developed affiliates all over the United States. Their goal was to sustain a secular, anti-Zionist Jewish identity through education, the Yiddish language and literature, and socialist ideals. Workmen’s Circle promoted Yiddish culture through the “Folksbiene” Yiddish theater troupe, Yiddish schools, Yiddish summer camps, and identified with the American labor movement. The Yiddish newspaper “The Forward” was associated with this movement as well. The Workmen’s Circle serviced those who sought the perpetuation of Ashkenazic Yiddish culture without going to synagogue or joining youth groups. When Bundists (members of Russian Jewish socialist organizations) joined en masse, they advocated for Workmen’s Circle to fight abusive labor practices and embrace a liberal political stance, thereby minimizing the mutual aid component. In 1920, Workmen’s Circle hit its apex with 84,000 members, 125 schools and many branches nationwide.

By the time of FDR’s New Deal in the 1930s, Workmen’s Circle, still in its heyday, moved toward political liberalism.

The Workmen’s Circle saw a decrease in interest beginning in the 1960s. Medicare legislation was enacted in 1965, rendering the Circle’s medical services less critical. Much of the Jewish community prospered and joined the middle class and moved in large numbers to the suburbs. In 2010, Workmen’s Circle had 10,000 members and 20 branches.

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