As America continues to consider racial justice issues, parents and educators are keenly aware of the need to speak to children of race in a way that they feel is genuine and accessible. The Jewish community can look to Yiddish literature for models of anti-racist storytelling that took shape long before the legendary alliances of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. In a key episode, one of the most beloved characters of the Yiddish children’s literature is sensitive to unexamined prejudices and offers a model for overcoming them.
“Labzik: Tales of a Clever Pup” by Chaver Paver, the pen name of Gershon Einbinder, features a proletarian mutt who is usually overflowing with compassion for the underdog – but even a good dog can have a bad day. Published in 1935 by the Communist-aligned International Workers Union (IWO) for use in its network of Yiddish afternoon schools, the twelve-story collection includes an episode in which Labzik must learn to resist his own reflexes lowest and reject racism.
Labzik is adopted by a working-class Jewish family living in the Bronx who faced the Great Depression with determination, unity and good humor. He helps his humans – Papa Berl, a sewing machine operator, Mama Molly, brave Brother Mulik, and loving Sister Rifkele – resist injustice, and generally makes himself useful, even heroic. It serves as a living alarm clock, bites a violent policeman, goes to seek the doctor when Rifkele is ill, pushes back a bourgeois scout, provides silent proof of a politician’s lie and saves Berl from the anti-union henchmen. He single-handedly saves (alright, quadruple paw) the 1932 Hunger March on Washington, although no dog is noted as an actor of the event in the historical archives.
Labzik is intelligent, and although he is compelled by the demands of reality (and literary realism) to run, jump, lick, bite, raise his ear and wag his tail, he nevertheless manages to be, well, a real mensch.
But even the smartest and most lucid among us harbor unexamined prejudices to be dismantled: “A dog, after all, is a dog,” as the narrator asserts. In a singular episode, Labzik is the anti-hero who must learn to do better. He bites Noah, the only black child in the neighborhood, just because of his dark skin, an act born out of blatant prejudice. Labzik’s family and friends are devastated. Always ready to imitate the methods of adults like the strike, the sit-ins and the pamphleteer, the children convene a court which condemns the social animal to the most severe punishment possible: a week of ostracism.
At the end of his sentence, Labzik learned his lesson, and by the end of the story, Chaver Paver reinforced the anti-racist message that was at the heart of the platform of the Communist movement. The Communist-linked IWO 1936 manual noted that among “the man-made barriers that are used today to separate workers” the worst was “white chauvinism (the theory of white supremacy)”.
85 years later, the expression âwhite chauvinismâ sounds a bit strange. But identifying the root of many America’s ills in the “white supremacist theory” seems downright contemporary. And, in fact, the attention given to the racial problem of this country was among the problems which led to a possible schism between the Communists and the Bundists. IWO newspapers, summer camps, and the Yiddish-language extracurricular network provided most of Chaver Paver’s readership – and reinforced the values ââhe sought to convey.
Chaver Paver wanted to be honest with his young readers about the world as it was, while motivating them to make it better. The next chapter after the one in which Labzik must face his racism is the longest in the book: in “Labzik and the Pioneers”, Noah, Mulik and their friend Hymie lead their public school in a peaceful strike to demand subsidized lunches for their classmates. starving class. The main villain deploys every source of institutional power at his disposal against the leaders of the movement, appealing to the police, the dog catcher, the fire department and the school board. A poisonous police captain attacks Noah like a “black Bolshevik” and raises his club, ready to strike the brave boy. But Noah’s community of allies are mobilizing to protect him from evil, and Labzik, having truly learned his lesson, is among them.
Labzik and the black boy
Labzik closed one eye. It was his habit: when he did not understand something, he closed one eye.
And what did he not understand? A boy had come to the house, a friend of Mulik’s. It’s good, isn’t it? But no: for Labzik it was not good because the boy’s face was different from all the other boys on Jackson Avenue.
When the different-faced boy entered, Labzik hadn’t noticed him because he was outside barking at the cat next door. Once he was all good and barked he went inside, took a look and didn’t like what he saw.
The boy had curly hair. It was good. Many boys have curly hair. His nose was short and turned up. It didn’t bother him. He, Labzik, was not picky when it came to noses. The boy had small ears. It didn’t matter. But what mattered to Labzik was that the boy’s face was dark. He had never seen anything like it, and it upset him a lot. Why would it have upset him so much, we don’t know. But a dog, after all, is a dog.
Labzik was silent, and when Labzik was silent, it was a bad sign. It had been his habit for some time: whenever he needed to bite someone, he made a point of being silent first.
The black boy was called Noah, and he also lived on Jackson Avenue and attended the same public school as Mulik.
The two friends were sitting together, talking. Mulik was telling a story, and Noah was laughing, “Ha, ha, ha, hee.” After that, Noah told a story and Mulik laughed, “ha, ha, ho.”
Labzik entered discreetly, step by step, and suddenly – bam! He had grabbed Noah’s leg.
Noah let out a cry of pain. Mulik, surprised, shouted: âMum, mum! “
Mama Molly ran in and quickly assessed what had happened. Not the type to get upset, she immediately took a clean towel, ran some water on it and used it to bandage Noah’s leg.
Labzik realized right away that he had caused a real problem, so he slipped under the bed and hid.
Noah was hurt, and he cried a little. Mulik went to get a stick, pulled Labzik from under the bed, and lashed him ten times. Labzik understood that he had called him, so he shut up and took the blows.
Noah returned home, and the affair might have been forgotten if Blond Hymie hadn’t met Noah and found out about it all. So he ran to Mulik’s house and clenched his fist:
âMulik, your Labzik is a white chauvinist, a racist. “
“A white what?” Mulik wondered, not understanding the word at all.
âA white chauvinist,â Hymie repeated.
“What does it mean?” Mulik asked, a little deflated at not having understood the word.
âA chauvinist,â Blond Hymie began to explain, âis someone who thinks he’s a hotshot and everyone is worthless. And a white chauvinist, or racist, thinks only white people are the best and that blacks are worth nothing. “
“Really?” Mulik was going mad. “Hey, you Labzik, you filthy white chauvinist, I’ll show you!”
Meanwhile, Hymie ran to the open window and called out into the street, âHey, Leybl, Willy, Ronnie, Davey, Esther, Sylvie, Pearl, Merle, Zisl, Yosl, Noah!
Soon Berl the Operator’s house was full – with Leybl, Willie, Ronnie, Davey, Noah, Pearl, Merle and more Jackson Avenue kids. There were only three chairs, so everyone had to sit on the floor. After all the children were seated, Labzik stayed under the bed. He was so scared his ears were shaking.
They dragged him outside and ordered him to stand in the middle of the apartment, facing Noah with his leg bandaged. Labzik looked at Noah and blinked his small eyes. Hymie told the children what had happened. They were furious. Hymie asked what should happen to Labzik for doing such a thing. They talked and talked until they decidedâ¦ well, Labzik didn’t know what they had decided. But all of the kids suddenly left and it was so quiet inside.
Labzik stood there, unsure of what to do. He saw Mulik sit down and start reading a book. Labzik wanted to be reconciled with him, so he ran to him and tried to lick him; Mulik looked away. So Labzik trotted over to Mama Molly to give her a lick, but she also turned her head away from him.
Then he rushed over to Rifkele, and she turned away from him as well. Finally, he approached Papa Berl, but he too turned away.
Labzik was starting to get terribly afraid, so he ran out into the street. He saw Ronnie playing with Sylvie, but they also looked away from the doggie, that white chauvinist. He tried to run towards Benny and Davey, but they too turned away.
So that was his punishment! The children had determined that for an entire week no one was allowed to say a single word to Labzik. What Labzik has felt throughout this week is indescribable. It was so hard and bitter for him that he was about to jump into the river. But how great was his joy when the week of punishment was over!
He would never go and bite black boys who hadn’t done anything to him again. Oh no, even if you gave him an entire house full of lamb chops, he would never do that again.
Miriam Udel is Associate Professor of Yiddish Language, Literature, and Culture at Emory University and Editor and Translator of Honey on the Page: A Treasury of Yiddish Children’s Literature (NYU Press, 2020).
In this classic Jewish children’s book, a Yiddish-speaking dog learns to reject racism