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Tracing socialism's role among Jewish immigrants

In ''A Fire in Their Hearts," Tony Michels explores a chapter in Jewish life that, he contends, scholars have long overlooked -- the rise of socialism among immigrants in turn-of-the-century New York.

With a few key exceptions, he observes, historians have viewed Jewish socialism as a short-lived import from revolutionary circles in czarist Russia. Socialism, they say, equipped Jews with political skills but failed to have a lasting ideological effect; for the most part, Jewish socialists abandoned radicalism as they took their place in mainstream American politics and life.

The dominant spirit in many histories, Michels argues, is celebratory -- Jews have achieved material success while maintaining their religious identity. Injecting a healthy skepticism, he suggests that Jews did not so wholeheartedly embrace the American dream. He portrays socialism as a transforming experience for many Jewish immigrants, something that shaped their thinking and touched their souls.

Michels begins with the surprising assertion that socialism in New York was home-grown. The movement gathered strength during the 1890s, he argues, from conditions particular to New York. The city became a ''laboratory of political and cultural innovation" that would go on to influence movements in Eastern Europe. Michels thus recasts a familiar story, describing the demographic, political, and economic circumstances that made New York receptive to socialism and examining a little-studied alliance between Russian-speaking Jewish intellectuals and German-American socialists. Conversing with their German neighbors, ardent proponents of internationalism, Jews learned new ideas, overcame feelings of isolation, and gained a new sense of purpose.

Thus galvanized, Jewish intellectuals sought to ''enlighten" Yiddish-speaking immigrant laborers and ''remake" American society. Their abiding belief was that if workers were to change the world, they needed to understand it. But reaching workers required a change of heart toward Yiddish. Many intellectuals viewed Yiddish as the dialect of a backward, oppressed people; nevertheless, they recognized, Yiddish forums would have to do, until a truly international movement could be realized. Others, however, found in Yiddish a source of pride. Michels discusses ''yidishe kultur," a movement advocating a Yiddish cultural renaissance that gained followers in the wake of continuing anti-Semitism in Russia.

Michels resurrects New York socialism in all its variety and intensity. Out of a union between intellectuals and workers emerged a bounty of activities that testify to a fierce desire for learning, community, and creative expression: newspapers, journals, lectures, schools, and arts and theater groups. Politics, work, and play were all intertwined. Still, Jewish socialism was hardly a uniform movement, and Michels charts differences over goals and tactics. If the intellectuals predominate, the book's most memorable passages are those suggesting how the socialist message emboldened workers. They were not alone in their hardships; through their own actions, they could redeem their struggles and make history.

The book's epilogue describes the legacy of the New York movement, suggesting, for example, connections between Jewish socialism and the political and cultural fervor of the 1930s and 1960s. Though the fate of Jewish socialism begs for fuller treatment, Michels throughout offers a compelling story and a fresh, stimulating approach to understanding the Jewish experience in America.

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