Honoring A Century Of Yiddish Influence

Posted: November 16, 2000

Fraida Arbeter will be there on Sunday when the Workmen's Circle celebrates its 100th year. She'll remember it as the organization that brought her summer camp, singing and secular Judaism; the group that introduced her to her husband and, when the time came, buried him.

She'll remember going to Camp Hofnung in Pipersville, Bucks County, when she was 5.

And most of all, she'll remember her Yiddish - a language with Hebrew roots and Germanic overtones that Jewish immigrants introduced to these shores at Ellis Island.

Arbeter, whose surname coincidentally means worker, is 80 now and still active in the Workmen's Circle. She says it gave her all that's been best about her life: family, friends, education, literature, history and music.

"But the overriding part for me was the Yiddishness," she said. In after-school and weekend classes, she learned Yiddish drama, dance and choral music. It defined her life.

Every organization has a founding myth, says Fern Kant, at 46, one of the much younger members of the Workmen's Circle.

The story of the birth of the Workmen's Circle is set in New York, the Lower East Side, in a tenement apartment in 1892.

Ten Jewish men, recent immigrants from Russia, Poland, Germany and elsewhere in Europe, were drawn together by a shared struggle: the need to find work, feed families, learn English.

In the old country they had looked after one another's needs through a khevre, or burial and sick society, that functioned as a kind of private social security administration. Many ethnic groups had them.

In this country, the former dairy farmers and shopkeepers labored in factories and sweatshops. And their need to gather - for companionship, for education, for strength in numbers - was even greater.

In 1900, they incorporated as a cultural and social action group and called it the Workmen's Circle because they saw themselves as workers first, then Jews, and Americans.

They spoke to one another, sang to their children, and published newspapers in Yiddish. It was the common language that evolved among Jews who lived, often under duress, in Germany, France, Russia and Poland.

In addition to socializing, Workmen's Circle members were socialists, said Kant, a third-generation Circler who is coordinating the group's Centennial Celebration Sunday at the Best Western Hotel Philadelphia.

Indeed, Fraida Arbeter belonged to the Young People's Socialist League when she was a teenager, and Fern Kant joined as a student at Brandeis University.

The organization grew as immigration increased and the Jewish population expanded to Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens and beyond. In 1901, the Circle came to Philadelphia.

And throughout its history, the group would be pulled by conflicting factions: some wanting the Circle to emphasize its political roots, others seeking a narrower focus on secular Jewish education and culture.

It was never a religious group or a substitute for a synagogue, Kant said. Like other secular Jewish groups, it emphasizes ethics and culture - not religious ritual.

At its peak in the mid-1920s, the Workmen's Circle had nearly 84,700 members, with 50 branches in Philadelphia alone.

Membership waned, Kant said, for a variety of reasons: Labor unions grew independently; younger people rejected the older generation's organizations as old-fashioned; perhaps even because there was not enough effort to recruit members.

Today the group is rarely mentioned outside of obituaries and notices about the performances of its renowned chorus. Now in its 72d year, the chorus will perform at the Centennial Celebration on Sunday. It has about 45 members; most are on Medicare.

The three remaining Workmen's Circle branches in the Philadelphia-South Jersey area are so small that most of their work is combined into one effort. And most of that effort is educational.

"There's always an issue in the Jewish community as to how to pass on certain feelings and beliefs to the next generation," Kant said.

And that is the task the Circle addresses.

The use of Yiddish is being perpetuated by the Circle, but it is certainly on the decline, Fraida Arbeter said.

"It will never be an international language," Arbeter said, "but it will never die."

Dianna Marder's e-mail address is dmarder@phillynews.com

The Workmen's Circle Centennial Celebration and Banquet is from 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday at the Best Western, 11580 Roosevelt Blvd. The Ken Ulansey Ensemble performs at 1 p.m. Admission is $40 for Workmen's Circle members; $45 for members of the Secular Humanist Jewish community; and $50 for others. For tickets information: 856-795-3569

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