Happy Passover

Passover is one of my favorite holidays. When I was a child, my maternal grandparents owned a delicatessen, Al’s Delicatessen, in Long Beach, Long Island.  The store, which is what we called the delicatessen, was open from the end of Passover to Labor Day. Long Beach is an ocean town with a lot of seasonal visitors. In the off season, my grandparents worked in hotels in Miami Beach.

Before they opened the store for the season, they had a big seder for friends and family. The room would be filled with tables where all my relatives sat talking loudly. All of the kids were at one table, me, Fred, Sara, Marla, Linda, Stevie, Marsha and Stanley. I think Lowell was a baby.

My grandfather conducted the seder in Hebrew, speaking really quickly. The place was filled with people and always noisy. There was often singing, not from my family, but my Great Aunt Fay, her children and grandchildren could all carry a tune. I didn’t have any idea what my grandfather was saying but I was always able to figure out when we were done because we got to eat.

The food was delicious. My grandmother was a great cook, especially when it came to Jewish food. She couldn’t make a hamburger but her matzah balls and brisket were fantastic. I can still see her wearing a beige apron wrapped around her waist with her kind face smiling.

At the seder, the grandchildren always got special treatment. Somehow, one of us always found the afikomen (hidden piece of matzah). If we didn’t, we still got a treat. That was the kind of person my grandfather was.

Perhaps these wonderful memories are why I like Passover. I also like that it is family based and takes place in the home. The  holiday message of freedom and liberation is meaningful and timeless. My grandmother died when I was ten and a few years later, my grandfather sold the store. After that  my mother organized family seders which of course had fewer people.

My father, who didn’t speak Hebrew, kept my grandfather’s pace, but in English.  The seders were still loud and lively but there was no singing. My mother tried her best to replicate my grandmother’s tasty dishes. That kind of cooking did not come naturally to her so I give her a lot of credit for trying.

Once I had my own family, I made seders. I have tried to prepare my grandmother’s dishes , filtered through with both my mother’s and my adaptations. From 2005 to 2009, my first cousin’s daughter, Nina, went to Hampshire College so we saw a lot of her. She attended our seders and has continued to do so even after she graduated.

Our seders are loud and lively. We even sing, very off tune, but we do it. My favorite song to sing is not really a Passover song. It is Rise and Shine, about Noah’s ark. We sing it because I know all the words and I think it is funny.

Last year, we had a virtual seder on Zoom. I am grateful that this year we can celebrate Passover in person because we have been vaccinated. Almost of all of the people who made my childhood seders so special are gone. My brother is also deceased. I am glad for those memories and the memories I have made for my family.

 

 

Workers and Unions

Union House and Union Bar Cards used in earlier years. Courtesy of UniteHere.

Workers at the Bessemer, Alabama, Amazon warehouse are trying to form a union. The story has gone national with both President Biden and Senator Marco Rubio weighing in on the side of the workers. Amazon has engaged in hard-ball anti-labor tactics in the past and we can assume they will pursue that course in Alabama.

Union membership and ensuing political power has been declining for years. Labor law most often favors the employer rather than the employee. The Bessemer workers hope that if they succeed this will prompt other Amazon workers in different parts of the country to attempt unionization as well.

Here is an excerpt from Brewing Battles about the brewery workers union in the late 19th century.

In the 1870s, the number of breweries in America reached a record 4,131 and by 1890, output had risen to over 227 million barrels from 3 million at the end of the war. Although there were breweries throughout the country, the business concentrated in urban areas. Lack of appropriate refrigeration made far flung distribution of beer impossible. Demographics also played an important role. Urban areas, with their large ethnic populations, particularly German, were the perfect marketplace for brewers. As a result, certain cities, such as New York, Milwaukee, and Chicago became brewing centers. In the South beer drinking and brewing did not really take hold perhaps because of the small immigrant population there as well as persistent illegal distilling or moonshine.[1]

Urban areas had the most breweries and also the most workers. Cities became the focal point of emerging labor and union activity. In 1886 the newly founded United Brewery Workers (UBW) engaged in a boycott of Peter Doegler Brewery, Brooklyn, New York. Boycotts, as well as union labels, were major weapons in ongoing union struggles with the brewers. A mass product such as beer befitted the use of both strategies. Working class-drinkers contributed greatly to the sales of malt liquors, which they purchased from local brewers. The boycott had originated in Ireland around issues of land and rent. Irish-American radicals adopted the concept of social ostracism which was the foundation of the tactic. The boycott was one element in the social adaptation of immigrants to their new world. Boycotts, parades, and mass demonstrations “provided opportunities for immigrant workers to participate in familiar patterns of protest and recreation.”[2] Pervasive in labor struggles in the 1880s, boycotts and the practice of social ostracism often went hand-in-hand. Both worked best in neighborhoods and small communities and helped foster consumer consciousness. The UBW strove to increase class consciousness.

The new union successfully negotiated a contract with the Brewers Association in the spring of 1886 which gave workers a weekly wage of $15 to $18 for a six day week, 10 hours a day. The young organization had certainly gained an “extraordinary victory.”[3]

1886 was a good year for brewery workers nationwide as unions developed in Baltimore, Chicago, New Jersey, St. Louis, Philadelphia, Detroit, San Francisco, and Buffalo. Many of the unions operated under the auspices of the Knights of Labor. In California Alfred Fuhrman, a sailor and the Federated Trades Council organized the Brewers’ and Maltsters’ Union of the Pacific Coast. Through a boycott of one San Francisco brewery, Fuhrman organized workers in five companies and achieved support throughout the Coast area.[4]

Brewery workers used tactics like the boycott and the union label to encourage workers from other industries to support their struggles with management. The UBW sought to build a strong union and to fully legitimate organized labor in the brewing industry. Towards that end, in conjunction with boycotts, the brewery workers and other unions promoted the concept of “union labor” which implied cooperation with pro-union management against anti-union owners. The average brewery laborer had a hard and grueling life before the advent of the union movement yet the UBW won changes in working conditions, hours, and wages more easily than they did advancements in recognition and jurisdiction. The early successes of the union in gaining ten hour days and increased wages in various cities served as the prelude to ten years of fighting with the brewers and the Brewers Association for union legitimacy.

Many unions formed in the 1880s evolved from strong craft heritages and traditions. Brewing, in many ways, was a traditional occupation; brewers certainly sought to present their business to the public in this light. Yet, at least since the Civil War, brewing required primarily unskilled and thus replaceable labor. The second convention of the UBW recognized this fact of life. Although the union strongly supported the hiring of experienced brewery workers over inexperienced ones, the convention proposed an inclusive union for all workers and trades in the industry; an industrial union. Organizing all the workers in an industry made it more difficult for management to break strikes. Thus the UBW consisted of beer-drivers, maltsters, firemen, and engineers, and became the first industrial union in the country to survive. This commitment to industrial unionism would lead to chronic jurisdictional difficulties with other unions and the American Federation of Labor (AFL). The union sought to organize all workers in the industry, yet it did not consider distillery workers as part of its jurisdiction. On this point the union agreed with the brewers’ view of division within the liquor industry.[5]

[1] For information about moonshine and illicit distilling in the South after the Civil War, see Wilbur R. Miller, Revenuers & Moonshiners: Enforcing Federal Liquor Law in the Mountain South, 1865-1900 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991).

[2] Michael A. Gordon, “The Labor Boycott in New York City, 1880-1886,” Labor History, 16 (Spring 1975), 194.

[3] Schlüter, The Brewing Industry 117; Gordon, “The Labor Boycott in New York City,” 213.

[4] Schlüter, The Brewing Industry, p 117-127; Ira Cross, A History Of the Labor Movement in California, 191-192.

[5] James Morris, Conflict Within the AFL, A Study of Craft Versus Industrial Unionism, 1901–1938, (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1958), 20. Another name for the UBW was National Union of United Brewery Workmen of the United States.

 

Meghan Markle and Me

I didn’t watch the Oprah Winfrey interview with Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. That doesn’t stop me from having an opinion on the subject. At first, when I read about Meghan’s claim that she hadn’t googled anything about Harry or royal life, I was incredulous. Hadn’t she ever read or saw anything about Princess Diana?

Yesterday I read The Anti-Racism Daily  entitled, “Believe Black Woman.” The Daily is a newsletter curated by Nicole Cardoza. She started it in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder. One of her points was about colorism. “Colorism is the reason why Meghan Markle was likely even able to marry Prince Harry and be considered part of the family to begin with. She experienced this violence because she was ‘white enough’ to be included and still ‘too black’ to be loved, respected and projected.

The part of the Meghan-Harry interview that has been the most sensational is Meghan’s claim that members of the extended Royal Family were concerned that Archie, their child, might be too dark. I recently read Nella Larsen’s Passing. One of the most heartbreaking scenes in the book occurs when three light skinned African American women are discussing giving birth. Two of the women are passing; both had deep anxiety about what color their children would be.

If you take away the fact that Meghan was marrying into royalty and instead look at the situation as a case of a woman marrying for love and putting the man’s interests ahead of her own, you have a typical story of the choices women usually make.

When I got married and moved to Massachusetts, that act seemed like a no-brainer to me. After all my husband had secured a teaching position and we were married. I never thought about how much I would be defined as a wife and how badly that would make me feel.

Nicole’s newsletter made me think about Meghan in that light, leading to an increase in empathy and understanding from me. Women often make life choices based on their husband or partner’s needs. It is not that the reverse never happens, but it is not that frequent.

When I was looking for academic positions, my husband always said he would move with me. The further I got in my job search, the more I thought that wouldn’t really work. By the end of my time trying to get an academic position, I not only had a husband, but I also had two children. I didn’t think that he could handle not having a job while I had one. Eventually I gave up, went back to school, and became a nurse.

Maybe Meghan loves Harry, knew his family and position were important to him, so she made her choice with that in mind. I am glad she is now in a position where her needs can also be met.

 

 

Indifference

Sometime after George Floyd’s murder, I started being the facilitator of a once-a-week virtual hour long session on Jews and race in America. The “class” is through the JCA. The last few weeks we have been reading a speech that Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel gave in 1963 at a Chicago Conference on Race and Religion. It was at that conference that Heschel first met Martin Luther King Jr.

This week we read a section about indifference to evil. “There is an evil most of us condone and are even guilty of: indifference to evil. We remain neutral, impartial and not easily moved by the wrongs done unto other people. Indifference to evil is more insidious than evil itself; it is more universal, more contagious, more dangerous. A silent justification, it makes possible an evil erupting as an exception becoming the rule and being in turn accepted.”

Heschel’s speech was focused on the evil of segregation and the daily injustices that black people suffered. He was also, subtly, looking back to the overwhelming evil of the Holocaust. Heschel, born in Poland, left Germany in 1940; many members of his family who remained perished.

Reading that passage, the word “indifference” stood out. What is the opposite of indifference? Is it attention, caring, sympathy or empathy? Today’s world seems beset by problems. It can feel overwhelming contemplating how to act.

The song “I Think It is Going to Rain Today,” by Randy Newman also came to mind.

“Human kindness is overflowing
And I think it’s going to rain today

Lonely, lonely
Tin can at my feet
Think I’ll kick it down the street
That’s the way to treat a friend”

In my teenage years I sang that song to myself many times. The somewhat sarcastic or cynical lyrics perfectly summed up my view of the world and its problems.

It is many years later and the song still has a lot of meaning. America has many compelling issues. Climate change, systemic racism, COVID and continuing economic inequality are some of them. It is hard to know where to start.

Heschel wanted his audience to face racism and act to end it. Heschel didn’t just give speeches and sermons about the evils of racism. He was an active participant in the civil rights movement of the 1960s and marched with MLK in Selma.

Jim Crow and segregation did end but racism has not gone away. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in his essay, Three Ways of Meeting Oppression, “To accept passively an unjust system is to cooperate with that system.” Both King and Heschel fought against indifference to and denial of racism. To act in a way that contradicts indifference to evil requires us to do something, anything. To the best of our ability, we need to stand up and be counted.