Review of Passionate Pioneers
In the World of Yiddish, The History of the Yiddish Secular Schools
Translated from the Yiddish
At the YIVO in New York, on the 9th of May, a celebration was held in honor of the hundredth anniversary of the Yiddish secular schools and the publication of a new book about the history of the folkshuln, written by Fradle Pomerantz Freidenreich, called Passionate Pioneers. Former students of the folkshuln and campers of the Yiddish cultural summer colonies came to hear about those institutions that represented such an important part of thousands of American Jewish youth.
The author, Fradle Pomerantz Freidenreich, comes from a renowned Yiddish cultural family—her mother was the poetess Pessie Hirschfield Pomerantz, and her father—the cultural activist, educator, board member, and author, Chaim Pomerantz: a pillar of the Sholem Aleichem folkshuln in Chicago. In the Author’s Introduction, she writes, that upon retirement, she felt it was time to go back to her secular Yiddish roots. It would be hard to find a more suitable person to write such a book – she devoted her entire [professional] life to Jewish education in America, Canada, and Israel. She invested a huge amount of work in order to compile the book, employing printed materials that include archives from various institutions as well as her own father’s extensive archive. In addition, she contacted hundreds of former students and campers, creating a complete listing of Yiddish schools in all the communities, large and small, in America and Canada.
When one looks at the long list of the schools and how widespread they were during the first fifty-year period of the Yiddish secular education movement (the years covered in the book), one is wont to simply say “miracle of miracles! Even those places where the shuln did not have a long life, it reflects the great desire of the immigrant generations to implant the Yiddish language and its culture in their children. Who could imagine that five folkshuln representing various ideologies would be founded in the remote Canadian
Dr. Freidenreich describes the milieu in which the first such schools were opened, the immigrants’ lifestyle, the various Jewish secular ideologies, the general Jewish education scene pre- and post-World War I, and especially—the ideology of Yiddishism, wherein Chaim Zhitlovsky played such a pivotal role. She also describes how the concept of the folkshuln as supplementary schools developed, as additions to government public schools.
The shuln were first founded to bring in children of immigrant working class families in order to teach them the Yiddish language and its literature, as well as the ideas and principles of Socialism.
But “all the shule-ideologists agreed that secular yiddishkayt needed a new approach to Jewish education, radically different from what then existed, where religion was the primary focus. They replaced religion with nationalism and Jewish cultural life, both deeply embedded in Yiddish,” writes Freidenreich. Innovative, pioneering ideas emerged as a result of the development of these schools. Although these may not all have come to fruition as was hoped, they are nonetheless well worthy of study and research.
Whoever may have once had doubts regarding all these school networks and their ideologies can certainly find help, thanks to this book, where Freidenreich writes clearly and with great detail about the various groups. Up until 1930, nine separate school networks were organized. Four of them became large, national school organizations: the Farband, the Sholem Aleichem Folk Institute, the Arbeter Ring, and the Ordn (IWO) schools. The author comments, that in time, the Socialist groups moved more to the center politically, which influenced, among other things, their curricula.
It is likely that one can’t find a better overview of these groups and their (changing) ideologies. The book describes, for the first time, the important role of the farvalter (lay leaders) in the shul, who devoted themselves day and night to raising funds to assure the existence of the schools. Pomerantz Freidenreich also writes about the devotion of the teachers, who gave so freely of their time to their students in order to study together with them about yiddishkayt. Yet they earned less than a living wage. The warm feelings and intimate atmosphere the teachers created in the folkshuln remained with the students for many years. Freidenreich recounts many such moving reports she received from her correspondence [with former students]. She also includes a number of unusual letters and materials written by her own father, Chaim Pomerantz, when he was just beginning his career as a teacher in an Arneter Ring shule in South Bend, Indiana in the 1920s.
In the chapter describing the [Yiddish secular] summer camps and their ideologies, one again finds, for the first time, a listing of all the camps—when and where they existed. As an example of such a camp, she describes the SAFI’s Camp Boiberik, apparently because the Boiberik archive at the YIVO in New York was so well organized (more than forty years in existence!) thanks to its long-time director, Leibush Lehrer.
It is impossible for one book to provide the complete story of the Yiddish secular schools, but Fradle Pomerantz Freidenreich’s Passionate Pioneers is not only a history but also a reference book and a song of praise for one of the greatest accomplishments of the Yiddish secular faction in America.
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