The Jewish Peoples Fraternal Order (JPFO) flourished for two decades before being shut down during the Cold War. Its archives are now housed at Cornell’s Kheel Center, Catherwood Library, and videos from a December 2020 conference focused on the archives are now available online.
The unusual nature of the bi-lingual archive, mainly confiscated by New York Department of Insurance in 1953, makes for compelling documentation of the dilemmas, activities and sometimes conflicting priorities of leftist immigrants who protested and fought antisemitism and racism including through allyship with groups such as the Civil Rights Congress, said Elissa Sampson, lecturer in Cornell’s Jewish Studies Program, who worked with the Kheel Center to digitize over 1,700 documents.
“Their struggles have resonance today,” Sampson said. “The academic conference attracted a younger audience as well as attendees who attended the JPFO’s camps, schools and participated in its political and cultural activities. It's high time to look at these documents, especially given the age of those participants whose lives speak to the power of this experience.”
In December 2020, Cornell hosted “Di Linke: The Yiddish Immigrant Left from Popular Front to Cold War,” a webinar conference series discussing the importance of one of the largest Jewish fraternal order whose leftist Yiddish speaking immigrant lodges grew to about 50,000 members.
At the beginning of the Great Depression, groups of immigrant workers banded together to create a new mutual aid society, a Soviet-oriented, racially integrated fraternal order unlike any other in America. Founded in 1930, the International Workers Order (IWO) formed as a coalition of many different ethnic mutual aid societies that ensured its members had affordable health insurance, burial insurance, and cultural resources in their native languages. Its largest section, known as. The JPFO offered its members Yiddish choirs, theater and poetry, several different summer camps for children and adults and educational opportunities with prominent African American artists like Paul Robeson, Pearl Primus, and Langston Hughes.
The December 2020 conference, organized by the Cornell-based “Linke-Jewish Left” working group, was the first dedicated to exploring the complex history of the JPFO, a crucial yet largely unknown component of the immigrant Jewish Left. This conference allowed scholars, journalists, writers, students, and interested members of the public from around the world to learn more about the resources of Cornell’s JPFO/IWO archive, held at the ILR School Catherwood Library, Kheel Center. Hundreds of people participated in the conference, across time zones and continents.
This partially-digitized archive offers a wealth of information about war effort organizing, as well as postwar relief for Jewish communities in Poland, France and Belgium, and Mandate Palestine. These documents provide a window into the politics and culture of the Communist-affiliated, Yiddish-speaking immigrant Left, including how questions of antisemitism played out in the postwar period in the Soviet Union, Europe, the U.S. and Canada. Not least, they offer a window into the intersections of feminist Jewish and Black identity in programmatic political work and cultural productions prior to the 1960s mainstream civil rights movement.
The conference proceedings are now available online for the first time, accompanied by full, downloadable transcripts. Conference sessions include never-seen-before archival footage of an IWO promotional film; and discussions from scholars such as Paul Buhle, Randi Storch, Toni Michels, Amelia Glaser, Eddy Portnoy, Lauren Strauss, and artist Ben Katchor, covering themes such as art and resistance, puppet theater, children’s art, anti-fascist activism, and Yiddish literature and the struggle for racial justice. All conference videos can be found online.
This project is supported by the Central New York Humanities Corridor, Cornell Center for Social Sciences, Catherwood Library Cornell ILR School Kheel Center, Cornell Jewish Studies Program, Syracuse Jewish Studies Program, Society for the Humanities, Cornell Departments of History, Anthropology, Near Eastern Studies, and Government, and the American Studies Program. Co-sponsors: Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation; New York University, Tamiment Library & Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives.