Ok… Thank yous to A. — pointing out my major embarrassment bad — Williamson & Warren — well, Happy New Year at least…

30 Sep

I not only love Maryanne Williamson, I took the slightly pretentious step of having the editorial board of the Jadde (me) endorse her for President.  I wrote:

“…she [Williamson] gave a talk on the Triangle Factory Fire, Frances Perkins, Roosevelt,* the New Deal and how twentieth-century American prosperity, creativity, strength, and relative social justice were all born out of those individuals and phenomena that moved me to tears.

Well, it wasn’t Maryanne Williamson; it was Elizabeth Warren, who I’m also a great fan of.  Williamson has mentioned it on a couple of occasions, but not in a coherent passage the way Warren has several times, once in front of the arch in Washington Square Park, just two blocks from where the fire happened.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, on March 25th, 1911, occupies a weirdly vivid niche in my psyche.  More than other New Yorkers?  I dunno; I can only speak for myself.  The sheer horror — girls in their teens having to choose between being burned alive and a jump to certain death — should be more than enough.  And it always felt creepy to have class in what’s now NYU’s Brown building on the same floors where the factory was.  Then, I didn’t hear anyone mention it at the time, but the parallels to 9/11 — innocent people trapped by death on both sides — made both events reciprocally more disturbing.  It even raised the question of the daring and innovation that makes New York New York.  Were both events punishment for some kind of hubris: building things too tall to escape from if you need to?  I don’t really believe that there’s some cosmic force that actually punishes for that, but your mind wanders, in more archaic spaces…

Then the event chimes in, in a more than initially obvious way, with my deep intellectual and emotional engagement with Judaism.  The victims were obviously not all Jews.  And the women garment workers that had gone on strike less than two years before the fire to demand better working conditions were also not all Jewish.  But the harshness and persecutions of life in Eastern Europe, the progressive impulses Jews had collectively developed in response to that harshness and injustice, the dislocation of immigration, and an America — but especially a New York — that was a receptive vehicle for that whole psychological complex, made them disproportionately important in the movement and the whole series of events.

The proposal for a general strike for all garment workers in 1909 at the main hall of Cooper Union was made by a frail, twenty-three-year-old seamstress, Clara Lemlich — in Yiddish**, and a response from the crowd was a little slow in coming because it first had to be translated into Italian and English.  They were koritsakia, malaka; most had just come; they hadn’t even learned English yet.  There’s a women’s organization — I dunno who — that goes around the East Village and Lower East Side on March 25th and writes the names of the victims in chalk on the sidewalks in front of the houses where they lived: on the same block, next door to each other some of them.  The neighborhood must’ve felt its heart ripped out.

But when the response to Lemlich’s proposal was delivered, it was a resounding “YES!”.  And Jews need to remember and be proud of the fact that they’ve been over-represented ever since in every progressive movement that made America — but especially New York — what it became in the 20th century.

It gets a little more intense.  Because March 25th, the day of the fire, is also the day when another brave young Jewish girl exercised her God-given free will and said “yes” to God and changed the course of history and human civilization.  And that also weirds me out.  I might be sounding like a little child here: but why didn’t she do anything to help them?  The Mother?  The archetype of Christian compassion?  On that day that celebrates her own courage?

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And more.  March 25, 1944 was the day the Germans rounded up the Jews of my mother’s hometown, Jiannena, including her best friend, Esther Cohen, and sent them on the road to certain death at Auschwitz.  And no, there were no righteous Gentiles to help, just Greek police collaborators.  And just the German psychopaths, who diverted men and resources from the eastern front that had collapsed already the previous year, just to make sure and clean up the lands they already knew they had lost of any Jews.  It’s incomprehensible.  Oh, and they made sure they took detailed archival photos of the operations at the same time.  Ψυχοπαθείς… ***  And if I were sure they were totally cured…

01A woman weeps during the deportation of the Jews of Ioannina on March 25, 1944.

We’re entering a kinda Jungian territory of synchronicity here, but maybe I made this big gaffe on Rosh Hashanah for a reason.  Let my endorsement of Williamson extend to Warren too, oh, and, of course, Bernie Sanders, who was probably at that Cooper Union meeting.  Because this first day of 5780 is as good as any to declare the three of them vehicles of Tikkun and use that inspiration to do what we can to get Haman out of the White House and bring the republic back to righteousness.

Sorry again…  :)

comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

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* These were αριστοκράτες — the Roosevelts, Carnegie, Vanderbilt, the Kennedys, the Rockefellers, however sleazy their origins and the origins of their wealth — true aristocrats — which is a word that I think Williamson uses in a slightly warped and unuseful way.  People who understood that their station implied obligation and not just privilege.  One of our emperors — unfortunately I can’t remember who; it wasn’t Basil I but it may have been one of the other Macedonians or the Comnenoi, said, and I’m paraphrasing: “Σήμερον ουκ εβασίλευσα διότι ουκ ευεργέτησα.”  “Today I did not reign because I did nothing of benefit.”  “ευεργέτησα” is a many-layered but not tricky word.  It means “to benefact”.   “I didn’t deserve to be called basileus today because I did nothing: to benefit my people, to glorify God, to strengthen my City or my State.”  These people — the Roosevelts, Perkins — knew they had duties too.  And the not always morally spotless “benefactor” millionaires of the 19th and 20th century Greek diaspora knew they had duties too.  Not only to make more money for themselves but to help build and cement the institutions of the new state.  Not like the sleazy, ship-owning mafia of Greece today.  Which not a single Greek politician has the balls to put forth policy that would tax them.

** This is just one thing that makes Yiddish, along with Neapolitan and Caribbean Spanish, one of New York’s three sacred languages.

*** Jiannena has, however, become a very hip, progressive and (always) lovely university town.  And last year, it voted in the first Jewish mayor in Greek history; out of about 30 Jews that are left from a pre-war 5,000 — one is now mayor of Jiannena.  More on the city’s transformation, and the continuity with its past as a prosperous center of the Greek Enlightenment, in another post.

P.S.  It was Frances Perkins, who Warren speaks of and the woman who, as the first female cabinet member in American history, Roosevelt’s Secretary of Labor, put the whole causal string together.  She said: “The New Deal began on March 25th, 1911, the day the Triangle Factory burned.”

And P.P.S.  Let’s not forget that today those factories are in Malaysia and Honduras.

And P.P.P.S.  “Volume Four of Ric Burns’ monumental New York: A Documentary Film is probably the most stirring visual treatment of all of the above.  Get your hands on it if you get a chance.  Amazon’s got in on Prime.”

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comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

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