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Published: April 13, 2006    By JOSEPH BERGER
Jewish Currents Magazine
and a Longtime Adversary Decide to Merge

Andrea Mohin/The New York Times                  

Lawrence Bush, center, the editor of Jewish Currents, presided over an editorial board meeting last week.
Most of the members are from the Workmen's Circle, a mutual-aid society that promotes Jewish culture. 
 

Like more than a few blood relatives, they were the bitterest of enemies.

More than a half-century ago, the Communist editors of Jewish Currents magazine and the Socialist and liberal leaders of the Workmen's Circle clawed at each other over the Julius and Ethel Rosenberg case, the prevalence of anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union, and now-obscure controversies like the execution of Rudolf Slansky, a Czech Jew who defied Stalin. Many on both sides refused to forget or forgive.

But with Communism no longer stoking the ardor it once did, some of these old quarrels have come to seem pointless or have been spent. So it has not completely shocked the remaining combatants that Jewish Currents is merging with its once-despised adversary.

The magazine, one of the last remnants of an era when many Jews in New York City believed that Communism would redeem America, realized that with just 2,200 aged readers remaining, its future looked dim. By becoming an arm of the Workmen's Circle, the century-old mutual aid society and preserver of Yiddish culture, it instantly gained 13,000 additional subscribers that organization's dues-paying members. And the Workmen's Circle has gained the voice it needs to make itself heard on issues of the day, a voice that might help it appeal to younger Jews.

"We are liberal-left people, and in light of history, the differences now seem like nuances and not gigantic mountains that could not be overcome," said Dr. Barnett Zumoff, a former president of Workmen's Circle and a member of the Currents editorial board.
Morris Schappes, a former editor of Jewish Currents, raised questions about Soviet anti-Semitism, but the magazine stuck with party dogma.

This marriage of opposites will be consecrated on May 7, but already the number of Workmen's Circle members on the 12-member board has been increased to 9. Not surprisingly, some leaders of Workmen's Circle opposed the merger, saying, "Don't trust those old Commies," according to Dr. Zumoff, who is an endocrinologist. But they had difficulty making their case.

True, the editor, Lawrence Bush, 54, is a onetime "red-diaper baby" whose grandmother Bessie Sayet, a rabbi's daughter, claimed to have returned to Russia in 1917 on the same boat as Leon Trotsky to help the Revolution. Nevertheless, Mr. Bush grew up in a solidly bourgeois pocket of Queens and was never even a doctrinaire socialist, let alone a Communist.

"To this day, I'm wary of ideology," Mr. Bush said during an interview at his home in Accord, N.Y., in Ulster County. "Anybody who purports to explain the world through a single ideology, I'm interested but I'm skeptical."

That perspective no longer sticks out among the Jewish Currents audience. Most of the magazine's onetime Communists were disillusioned first by the revelations about Stalin's murderous purges and finally by the collapse of the Soviet empire, and their revised views have converged with the reformist vision of the Workmen's Circle. Many of the diehards have, well, died.

Still, the merger could not but stir up memories of a time when razor-thin distinctions of doctrine set off fistfights, name-calling and searing critiques in political journals. So byzantine were the political machinations between Marxist cousins that in the mid-1920's, long before Jewish Currents was born, the Communists within the Workmen's Circle snatched away its summer camp, Kinderland, on the western side of Sylvan Lake in Hopewell Junction, N.Y. The Workmen's Circle was forced to set up a new camp, Kinder Ring, on the lake's eastern side.

Jewish Currents, now a bimonthly with a $30-a-year subscription cost, was started as Jewish Life in 1946. It was in all but name a Communist Party organ, and its editorial policy zigged and zagged with the Soviet party line. David A. Hacker, a member of the magazine's advisory board, recalled how the magazine labeled Stalin's Jewish detractors as fascists who "must be destroyed."

But in 1956 Khrushchev began to acknowledge the purges and slaughters of the Stalin era. Word also filtered out that a group of Jewish writers and scientists, later numbered at 14, had been executed in 1952 for publicizing Jewish suffering during World War II, even though their effort had been sanctioned by Stalin. Louis Harap, the magazine's editor, was devastated, telling colleagues, according to Carol Jochnowitz, the magazine's production editor, that he felt "as if the world had fallen out from under him." After the magazine printed the revelations, it lost three-fourths of its subscribers.

"They considered that Jewish Life had Jewish blood on its hands," Mrs. Jochnowitz said.

Morris Schappes tried to keep the flame burning. He had sterling leftist credentials: fired from City College for Communist membership, imprisoned for 13 months for perjuring himself before a state legislative committee. He changed the magazine's name, promised to be more self-critical and raised questions about Soviet anti-Semitism. Nevertheless, the magazine did not fully break with party dogma until the June 1967 Mideast war, when the Soviet Union denounced Israel for aggression against its Arab neighbors while Jewish Currents supported Israel's right to defend itself.

Currents' outlook proved increasingly compatible with organizations like the Workmen's Circle. The animosity thawed. One sign of rapprochement came in 1997 when Mr. Schappes's 90th- birthday tribute took place at Workmen's Circle headquarters on West 33rd Street. (He died in 2004 at 97.)

Mr. Bush, the editor, worked as an assistant to Mr. Schappes from 1979 to 1983. When he was asked to take the magazine's helm in 2002, he said, "I didn't know whether I was returning as an undertaker or as an editor." As an editor working with board members to whom subtle shadings make a big difference, he has struck a balance. An editorial on Israel in the current March-April issue says that if the Hamas-led government is willing to negotiate, Israel should reply in kind, but if not, then Israel should continue its unilateral withdrawal from occupied lands.

A test of the new partnership came when the Communist Party U.S.A. asked to place an ad congratulating Jewish Currents on the merger. The board decided to accept the ad, not only because they needed the money, but because refusing to run it would violate their members' feisty devotion to free speech.

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

To read this story on the pages of NYTimes.com, click here. (free, registration required)

To read the Forward story of our "marriage, click here.

To visit the Workmens Circle website, click here.

 

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