Morris Schappes, Marxist and Jewish Scholar, Dies at 97
By DOUGLAS MARTIN
Published: June 9, 2004
Morris U. Schappes, who as a scholar, editor and activist strove to combine his Marxist politics with a passion for Jewish history that was kindled when he was in prison, died on Thursday at his home in Manhattan. He was 97.
His death was announced by Carol Jochnowitz, an editor of Jewish Currents, which Mr. Schappes edited for four decades.
Mr. Schappes (pronounced SHAP-pess) was at the eye of a political storm in 1941 when he was fired by the City College of New York along with nearly 50 other Communist-leaning employees. He went to prison for perjury in testifying to a state legislative committee on the case and used his time behind bars to study Jewish history in preparation for writing well-reviewed books on the subject.
He combined a passion for Jewish culture and history with a commitment to atheistic Marxism. His magazine, originally a Soviet-backed Communist organ, became something of an intellectual home for secular Jewish leftists unwilling or unable to turn to religion or to more conservative politics.
"There was an inherent tension between Marxism and Jewish identity," Ms. Jochnowitz said of the readers of Jewish Currents. "Morris's career straddled that divide."
His books included "A Documentary History of the Jews in the United States: 1654-1875" (Citadel, 1950) and "The Jews in the United States: A Pictorial History, 1654 to the Present" (Citadel, 1958). He also edited a book on the poetry of Emma Lazarus, and another on her letters.
Moise ben Haim Shapshilevich was born on May 3, 1907, in Kamenets-Podolsk, Ukraine. His family returned to Brazil, where they had been living, and bureaucrats there cut the family name to Schappes. On their way back to Ukraine, his parents were marooned in New York by the start of World War I.
His mother Americanized his name to Morris. He later added the initial "U" to spruce up his byline as a sportswriter on the newspaper of City College, where be began teaching after graduation in 1928. He earned a master's degree from Columbia in 1930.
He wrote in Jewish Currents in 1982 that he became "the conspicuous 'red' on campus," and joined the Communist Party in 1934. In 1936, the English department decided to dismiss him for his political activities, but 500 students staged a sit-down strike and 2,000 participated in a funeral for academic freedom. He was retained.
In 1940, the college offered a job to the philosopher Bertrand Russell, but a groundswell of opposition to his political and other viewpoints doomed the appointment. A result of the case was the formation of the Rapp-Coudert Committee to investigate City College.
Under oath, Mr. Schappes told the panel that he could name only three Communists at the college, two of them dead and one of them known to be a party organizer. After William Martin Canning, a history instructor, named about 50 employees as Communists, Mr. Schappes was convicted of perjury.
He served 13 1/2 months in state prisons. He learned Hebrew from another inmate and began to attend Sabbath services after the Jewish chaplain agreed that he would not have to pray. He also studied Jewish history, an interest he said stemmed from his studies of black history.
After his release he worked in a war production factory in Long Island City, Queens. In November 1946, he became a member of the editorial board of Jewish Life.
It is not clear when Mr. Schappes broke with the Communist Party, but at least one account, J. Edgar Hoover's book "Masters of Deceit," suggests that Mr. Schappes was still active as late as 1957. By 1958, Ms. Jochnowitz said, the Jewish Life staff had become "anguished" by the Soviet Union's abrupt discarding of Stalin and the only sort of Communism they had known. They started Jewish Currents that year as a voice independent of Moscow, both in content and financing.
The Communist Party U.S.A. was not pleased, warning in 1969 that Jewish Currents was slipping into "a blind alley of Jewish nationalism." In 1977 Mr. Schappes expressed the fear that there might be an "eventual and inevitable total disappearance and obliteration of Jewish life in the Soviet Union."
He became a prominent commentator on Jewish affairs, and pressed his case that Shakespeare was anti-Semitic. His wife, Sonya Laffer, died in 1992, and he leaves no immediate survivors.
In 1981, the faculty senate of City College apologized for firing him and his colleagues.
Correction: June 13, 2004, Sunday
An obituary on Wednesday about Morris U. Schappes, a magazine editor with interests in Marxist politics and Jewish culture, misstated remarks about his work and his views by Carol Jochnowitz, an editor of Jewish Currents, the magazine he edited for four decades. In citing "an inherent tension between Marxism and Jewish identity," Ms. Jochnowitz said, she was speaking in general terms, not necessarily describing readers of the magazine. She said Mr. Schappes was stunned in the 1950's by Soviet revelations of Stalin's brutality, not about the Soviet Union's decision to discredit his rule.
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