My grandpa and grandma lived in a large Jewish community in the Lower East Side of New York City. Grandpa was a union organizer, I’m not sure what type of factory he worked at, at one point it may have been a furrier and other times it was the garment center. He never identified himself by his job title, he always called him self a union-man. I think he had a position like shop steward, or delegate, but in his words he a “union organizer”. I know he led many protests, strikes, rallies, picket lines, and famous marches down Broadway. The only thing he ever discussed was unionism, politics, and Jewish matters.
Grandpa would stand on the corner of Delancey and Essex and argue all day long. They would argue how to organize, who had the worst boss, best union, and which politician was best for workers. They debated loudly all day and all night. Some were claiming communism was better then socialism, others socialism better than communism. The Alta kakas (old Jewish Folk) all called themselves something different; some were Trotskyites, other revolutionaries, some anarchists, communists, socialists, Marxists. My grandpa never told me what he was, other than a union-man, of course, but I once asked Grandma “who is Mr. Marx:, she laughed and said “he was a Jew”, that was it in grandma’s book,. I never understood the difference, I would just listen to them argue and argue, eventually the debate would stop with some one cracking a joke, they would all laugh and go back to talking how best to defend workers rights and make their unions stronger. Today we cal it “busting chops”, but it always works to calm down a tense situation. I asked grandpa “why do you fight all the time?” , he said it was good they fought, “we’re in America” Grandpa said, “in the old country we wouldn’t be allowed to do this, now we have different views, but we’re all union men and that’s what counts”
I asked Grandma why they always argued she answered “its what they do, its healthy, its helps them get out their ideas and learn from each other”, I said “if they fight so much why do they stay friends” Grandma answered “because they’re in the union together”. That’s it conversation was over.
We would go to synagogue every and high hold day (Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah), but it was never about God or prayers it was always about discussing unions and politics. Grandpa loved God and Judaism; he just loved unions and politics more. Of course Grandpa and friends would stand on the steps and argue before the service, after service, during service every time the rabbi would yell at them. Grandpa then would go back to the corner and argue some more. There were always two groups, the loud rabble-rouser type, like Grandpa, and the intellectual types, who were not so loud, but always referred to some book or article or the torah or haftarah and had it all memorized. The loud people weren’t always right and the intellectuals were sometimes wrong, but that was the fun of watching them all go at it. It must be fate that today his grandson is a union delegate that is a rabble rouser, who works along side a chapter leader who is an intellectual that knows the contract as well as Grandpa’s union friends knew the Torah. Grandpa must have arranged this
They would also have a comment or disagreement about every article in every paper, both Yiddish and English. Everyone would read, and everyone would fight, of course any situation can be diffused can be with quick witty joke, where everybody would laugh and then go back to organizing the next union event. Grandpa would love the blogs today, they’re informative, they’re funny, and they have a place to comment back. I could see grandpa now typing away on his ipad, yelling at some blogger he disagreed with, or send out an angry email to some list serve. Grandpa would be in paradise with blogging and emails, a place where he can instantaneously express himself and have, thousands read it, and he may have never left the house. The bloggers today have a way of presenting poignant arguments that use humor that would have been greatly appreciated by the old union men and women on the Lower East side.
Grandpa thought everyday, every place was a chance to organize, he would go to a store and ask the clerk “why don’t you form a union I’ll help you”. I was always excited at how grandpa would speak to anybody with such authority. I always knew I wanted to be like him. Some of the Jewish men would not speak to the “gentiles” on Mulberry Street, they were Italian and Catholic, very strange to this community. Grandpa would have none of it, he said “lets go talk to them and find out what unions they’re in”, soon enough grandpa had made new friends and new connection and of course new people to argue with. They would march down Broadway and strike in support of each other. I would join the marches and Grandpa would say “We have to be louder than them”, they would compete who had the largest banner and brought out the most people. God-forbid you missed a union march, my grandfather and everyone else would yell and yell at you, you would be too embarrassed to leave your house. Grandpa and his friends would warn the man and his wife that missing a union event was the worst sin in the world and they would be thrown out of the union if it happened again. No matter how sick or tired you were in that union march, it was a shanda (shameful act) to miss one.
Grandpa would talk to anyone regardless of color, religion, or background, as long as you were union it was fine by him. He spoke a lot about how poorly the government treated black people, he always said, “ the way our people were treated over there (meaning the old country) are the way black people are treated over here”, “this” grandpa said “must not be allowed”. He was very upset at the images he saw on TV, as were the other Jewish union workers. They reached out to Black churches and asked how they can help. They donated to Black rights organizations and had joint meetings with civil rights leaders. I asked Grandma why is Grandpa involved in this, “she said we’re Jewish, we can’t sit by and watch, do you remember what happened to our people, never forget” and that was that. Jewish leaders would march side by side with Martin Luther King, Rabbi Hershel, Rabbi Prinz, and the union leaders that created committees to support the civil rights movement. Today such a thing would be called social justice unionism, grandma and gradpa called it “the right thing to do”. They never saw supporting civil rights as separate from union rights, it was one in the same for them; human rights!
I questioned my grandparents as to why they seemed to be the only ones talking to Italians, Irish, Black, Hispanic, and all types of people, Grandma answered, “Your grandpa and dad fought for this country so people could be what ever they want to be, Grandpa only cares if they support the unions, if they do, then they’re good in our book” and as usual that ended the conversation. Today grandma would be called progressive or liberal, I’m not sure she would understand those terms. She would just tell me “In this country you are allowed to be, think, or say what you want, that’s why we Jewish people like it here, and it should be the same for everyone”. Grandma was ahead of her times and I’m sure she would be happy to see the rights Gays, African-Americans, and women have achieved. Grandma and Grandpa never cared what people believed in or what the looked like, they saw everyone as working class and “in the same boat” as grandma would say “and the boat will sink like the Titanic if we don’t stay together” she always said. I never thought this was radical it just made sense.
Grandpa got older; the factory jobs left, and with it the union jobs. They moved to Coney Island and he became a democratic party organizer, walking the boardwalk talking to everyone. He had to over come being a New York Giants fan in the borough that supported the Dodgers, but even with that “impairment” people gravitated towards him.
Grandma would make friends with her neighbors who were Italian, Irish and Black. They would form life-long relationships. This would make things easier for her, as compared to others in her generation, when my mom re-married to a Greek man, who Greek-orthodox, and later when my brother brought home a Paksistani-Muslim that he latered married, grandma accepted it all. At first grandma was a bit upset, because of the whole Israeli-Arab thing, and my family were and still are Zionists, but soon my mom and grandma realized my sister-n-laws family was no different than our, we’re all good people. My grandma or grandpa weren’t around to see the rest of the family grow, but I’m sure they would be happy that we’re Jewish, Greek, Italian, Chinese, Pakistani, Muslim, Catholic, and Greek-orthodox. We celebrate Easter and Passover and Ramadan, and we all are able to laugh about our differences
Grandpa had passed by the time the Crown Heights riots had happened, but grandma was visibly upset about how “our two peoples who are so closely can possible become so separate”. She would feel better knowing that I’m involved in fighting for equality of opportunity and conditions for all peoples. Grandpa would be so happy that my union group is old and young, black and white, and everything in between. He would probably argue with everyone, tell us all why they are wrong, and then laugh with everyone and go back to organizing.
Both my grandparents and parents would never allow me to label anyone or stereotype, if I said “those Italians”, they would yell at me saying :” people have names use it”. When the younger children came home and shared what they learned in American history class about the times in the 1950’s called McCarthyism, grandma would come to tears and grandpa would say “don’t bring it up”. Obviously this wasn’t a good time for my family.
My grandparents didn’t see me achieve my dreams. Today I’m a teacher, a union delegate, and an organizer myself. The proudest days of my life were being hired to be a teacher and being named vice-presidential candidate of MORE for UFT. I know they were watching from heaven and proud of me. I know they love that I’m part of group that is so diverse where we stand for union rights and human rights. They always said, “Jews have to always fight for the rights of others, because we’re lucky to finally have some”. They would approve that my group is dedicated to unionism and social justice.
I regret they didn’t live to see my name of that UFT ballot; it gave me so much pride to tell everyone I was the UFT Vice presidential candidate. I only wish I could have told them. I even told my students about it-as I teach Participation in government and always stress the civic participation part. My favorite day out of the entire election was the last period I taught during after the election, I walked in a bit late into class as I was have a discussion on union matters with my principal, I walked into a standing ovation, I asked “my kids’ why they were applauding me, they said “you finished second, we’re proud of you” –they must have Googled the election results. I was shocked and it was the closest I ever came to crying in front of the class.
Today I continue to try to be a union leader, I see past any differences as grandpa did because as he would say “we’re all in this together, unions”, and grandma would like my caucus because we defend the right of people to “be whatever they want to be”. Im the last of dying breed in Brooklyn, I was Born, raised, and teach here. I am the product of the public school and CUNY system. I have a deep Brooklyn accent that the new people who have since moved into Brooklyn, seem to look down on it. People mistake my accent for being dumb or naive. My friends and I wear crosses or chai’s, have tattoos, and all have hard old-school Brooklyn accents. Although the new Brooklynites call themselves progressive, I get the feeling they see themselves as better than me. I’m working class and they’re what Grandma would have called a “limousine liberal” they slap the Obama sticker on the back of their hybrid but as grandma would say “you talk the talk, but can you walk the walk”. My answer is no. Its unfortunate we’re losing our working class identity, I don’t think grandpa would approve of UFT being called a “union of professionals” he would probably say “your a union, that’s it”. The loss of union strength was deeply disturbing to all my family, but they would have faith since me and my brother are such strong union activists.
I’m happy to be in MORE, I learn a lot by being here, and it makes me a better person and a better teacher. I am 10000 percent sure, Grandma and Grandpa would be very happy with MORE, grandpa would most certainly like the politics and arguing, grandma would like that people are who they are.