“If I Can’t Dance It’s Not My Revolution”: Or a love song to my Jewish family
I started saying this Emma Goldman quote on repeat when my commitment to progressive values and left politics were consistently questioned because I didn’t support Bernie Sanders or his brand of revolution. The mostly white and male gatekeepers of progressivism deemed me unworthy because I support Hillary Clinton, question if Medicare for All is the best path towards universal healthcare, and prioritize universal pre-k over free college. I am the fourth generation of a progressive leftist Jewish family. These men aren’t the gatekeepers of leftist politics and as the daughter of my fierce great grandmothers I will not be kept out.
About a week ago I posted this as my 2020 election motto. My revolution will include an intersectional policy not just a focus on class issues. My revolution will be through policy so marginalized communities aren’t further harmed. It will include bills that address the high levels of maternal mortality among black mothers, healthcare policy that centers the disability community, reproductive justice, bail reform, and voter rights.
What should have been an innocuous, fun homage quickly turned into my defending my progressive bona fides because I deigned to quote a leftist hero. Now these leftist gatekeepers weren’t just defining progressivism but also taking away a woman I had admired my whole life, a woman I felt a great affinity for due to the similarity in our backgrounds.
Emma Goldman was a leftist and anarchist political activist and writer. She was born in the Russian Empire in 1869 and immigrated to the US in 1885. Goldman advocated free love and got arrested for illegally distributing birth control. However as part of her anarchism she distanced herself from the suffrage because she felt women voting was just participating in a corrupt system. After being released from prison in 1919 Goldman was deported to Russia. While initially supportive of the October Revolution, Goldman eventually denounced the Soviet Union for the violent repression of independent voices and left in 1923.
Now I obviously don’t agree with everything Goldman advocated and I’m not an anarchist but I still get a lot of inspiration from her advocacy and commitment to incorporating gender politics into anarchy. I also feel a closeness to Emma Goldman as almost a distance ancestor considering she was a trailblazing Jewish feminist activist. Goldman wasn’t religious but she credited her Jewish upbringing with having a great influence on her thinking.
My great-grand parents were born in the Pale region of Russia a little later than Emma Goldman and immigrated to the US just a few years after she did. My mother’s side of the family was driven here by violent pogroms including one that killed my great-great grandfather. All four of my mother’s grandparents came to this country a little after the turn of the century without any English or education.
My great grandmother Minnie was working in the garment district when she was a teenager around 1915. She barely spoke any English but she somehow became the union steward of her floor. According to family lore she also got arrested for union organizing, at the same time Emma Goldman was getting arrested for speaking out against the draft.
My great grandmother Mary became the only one of my mother’s four grandparents to get a high school diploma. She went to night school while working as a seamstress. She and my great-grandfather, Abe, were both involved in leftist intelligentsia spaces valuing education and activism. All five of the children of my grandparents’ generation went to college.
My grandmother, Dutchie, was raised in Vermont after Minnie’s union organizing days. They were the only Jewish family in Bennington and proudly and actively supported FDR’s election, braving the anti-Semitic communist smears. In middle school my grandmother got up as the only student in the school to support FDR and gave a speech and wore an FDR button to school every day. Later in the 1960s when she wanted to go back to work, she took a civil service exam to work in Nassau County. She was told if she wanted to get the job she had to join the Republican Party. Despite seeming like the good suburban housewife on the outside, she refused and challenged them not to give her the job based on party affiliation. You bet she got the job. Dutchie remains an active member of the Democratic Party well into her 90s.
Mary and Abe’s son, my grandfather, Chuck went to City College after growing up on the Lower East Side and facing daily anti-Semitic violence. There he got involved in Communist Party activities in the late 1930s. He later became an officer in WWII and liberated a concentration camp. He had to drive a Nazi officer back to the city to hand him over as a POW. When asked why he didn’t just kill the Nazi, my grandfather said he would never let himself become like them.
My grandparents, Dutchie and Chuck, got married after the war. The story goes that they bonded over the fact that they both hated Ayn Rand and were engaged three weeks later.
Their daughter, my mother, is my true activist hero. In high school she joined SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) and went to the October 1967 anti-war march in DC. She got tear-gassed trying to protect a toddler from getting too close to a bayonet. She worked with Abby Hoffman at Woodstock and did draft counseling during Vietnam. She also went to Stony Brook for college and regularly occupied buildings and went to protests through out the 1970s. She even participated in the supermarket grape protests.
In the 1980s my mother wrote the manual for protesting to stop nuclear power coming to Long Island and started teaching Women’s Studies before it was a real codified discipline. She also worked at VIBS, Victim’s Information Bureau of Suffolk where she counseled rape victims and faced harassment from their abusers.
I am the 4th generation to participate in activist and leftist politics in my family. I come from a long line of Jewish leftist activists who cared about radical change as well as practical solutions and intellectual debate. I will sure as fuck quote Emma Goldman.