by Paul Greenberg, circa 1991
Maybe it was 1937 when my oldest brother and I were in a local WPA theater production of Waiting For Lefty. I remember thinking that a union organizer was the noblest of all jobs even better than playing right field like Mel Ott. I also thought that Jewishsocialist was one word and that Jews who were not socialists were the exceptions even though my mother's family was among the exceptions.
We were a decidedly secular family. Judaism was some old fashioned thing that my paternal grandmother held onto and it was sort of embarrassing. I did love seders at my Aunt Beck's house because my Uncle Sam made Exodus come alive. To me Moses was a union organizer and socialist revolutionary and John L. Lewis all rolled into one.
When I was 10 we moved back to New York from Taunton, Mass. I don't remember who lent me a copy of Michael Gold's Jews Without Money. I am still in debt to him because I never returned the book and because I better understood where my father came from. Several years later and back in Boston I was suspended from Brighton High School for circulating this "dirty" book.
It was at Brighton H.S. that I joined the American Student Union and was part of the most left faction. I had two competing dreams. One was to be a great Jazz clarinetist and the other was to be a union organizer.
My love for Jazz made me acutely aware of racial injustice. I tried to be a professional musician but gave it up for the sound reason of not enough talent. My association with Jazz musicians in general and Frankie Newton in particular shaped my view of human possibility and what suffering was about. Buzzy Drutin and Ruby Braff both wonderful Jewish Jazz Men from Boston taught me the similarity between the blues and some aspects of Jewish music. May they both create for many more years.
Both Frankie Newton and Rex Stewart, who was a marvelous trumpet player in the Duke Ellington band, gave me a vision of socialism and art as important components of the human spirit. Frank taught me how to look at Picasso and Evergood and to read poetry ranging from John Donne to Langston Hughes. Rex turned me on to Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward and Jack London's The Iron Heel.
In 1946 realizing that I wasn't going to make a living at music I got a job for 15 dollars a week with the CIO and went to Winston Salem North Carolina to help organize the Winston Salem Tobacco Company. It was a massive effort that failed. The company is still not union. It was here that I first saw and heard Pete Seeger. It was at the end of road when the National Guard had broken the Union that those who held the line were taught the adaptation of the spiritual I Will Overcome with the new words We Shall Overcome. It was Zilphia Horton of the Highlander Folk School who came and taught it to us. I can still hear her slightly shrill soprano with a tear drop in its sound and I can still feel the sense of power in defeat as we joined hands for our last walk on the picket line.
When I returned to New York I worked at odd jobs including a record store in Greenwich Village that was a hang out for Bohemia and the emerging Beats. I was the record salesman for Jazz friends like Peewee Russell and Cozy Cole and various artists and poets. It was fun and I learned a great deal but I was restless and soon found a Job with the United Textile Workers in Boston. I worked with a Black organizer named Jack Lee. He was an extraordinary man. He was light enough to "pass" and often did in order to organize in areas that would not welcome a Black man. He was steeped in Black history and introduced me to the work of W.E.B. Dubois. He was also something of a Jewophile and spoke a considerable amount of Yiddish and knew all about Jewish labor and socialist history.
Again I was involved in a losing battle. The post war recession was a full fledged depression in the mill towns of Lawrence and Lowell and Haverill. The sight of workingmen out on the streets looking at the shut down mills still haunts me. Every time I hear Woody Guthrie's "I don't want your millions mister... I just want my old job back again," I see those towns and those men and remember that even the movie theaters were closed except on weekends. We also worked on the Walter O'Brien for Mayor of Boston election campaign. This was the campaign that produced the song "Charley And The MTA" that had a resurrection in the sixties.
Soon I went back to New York and went to work for the UOPWA [United Office and Professional Workers of America]. I was organizing in the direct mail industry and got my first taste of gangster unions. The Senior organizer had been a seaman and organizer for the National Maritime Union. He greeted me on the staff by saying, "It's good to see a young buck like you. You ain't married and you ain't got no kids and you will take chances that old guys like me won't take." My chance time came soon enough. Every time we organized a shop a gangster union showed up with a "contract." It was of course a sweetheart contract and if we struck this tall skinny guy would lead some scabs in past our picket line. One morning around six A. M. there was Skinny ready to lead his scabs when they arrived. The Senior organizer said, "Paul go get him before the cops arrive." I crossed the street and was playing head on sidewalk with him when the cops arrived and arrested us both. At the trial our lawyer claimed I was minding my own business when Skinny insulted my mother and the next thing any one knew he had me on the sidewalk. His lawyer was arguing from somewhat nearer the facts. There being no other witnesses the judge dismissed the case with a lecture about unions getting together instead of fighting. Twenty years later, while moving, I was going through old papers and I found a clipping from a New York paper about that arrest. It stated that Paul Greenberg and John Dioguardi were arrested in a labor dispute. It was only then that I realized that Skinny was the later famous mobster Johnny Dio.
It was about this time that I met Esther Novogrodsky. This was a momentous event. She is of course my wife and aside from being my best and most constant friend she introduced me to her family who are the models of Jewish religious concern that began my wrestle with tradition.
By now the McCarthy period was upon us. The CIO was split and the traditional antagonisms on the left had taken a turn toward suicidal meanness. Then real disaster hit in the form of the Korean War. I got drafted, got married and had all my previous assumptions challenged. War was indeed hell. I was constantly one step away from a court martial. A full Colonel once told me that in his twenty five years in the Army he had never seen a man who was less of a soldier than I was. I thanked him and told him that I was only a civilian with a uniform on. I found myself in Japan after several small wounds and a massive case of dysentery that was written up in the Army Medical Journal. It was in Hiroshima that I had a profound religious experience. In the Hiroshima Museum there is a wall, all that is left of a building destroyed by the bomb. On that wall is etched the shadow of human beings which is all that is left of them. It was there that I came to understand that the distinction between just and unjust wars was blurred and that human existence was at great risk and that only a spiritual revolution would be sufficient if humanity was going to survive.
When I came home neither I or the left was the same. It was the time of the toad. There were no labor jobs open for me and I was sorting out my own thoughts. I did participate in electoral politics and the peace and civil rights movements but establishing myself in the role of husband and father took priority. I went to Columbia University School of General Studies and after a couple of years realized that I was too restless for academic life. As the fifties came to a close and the first stirrings of a new left emerged I was involved with CORE and the organizing of the Committee For A Sane Nuclear Policy. After several years of mundane earn a living jobs I went to work for the United Furniture Workers. I was Assistant President and functioned as the "staff intellectual" and as director of organization. I headed the research bureau, edited the newspaper and directed field organizing. I was often in the South and trying to organize integrated unions. The President of the Union Morris Pizer was one of the last of a vanishing breed of Jewish working class intellectuals. He was as comfortable in Carnegie Hall as in the union hall. After a couple of years the business union element pushed Pizer into a kind of corner and complained that I spent too much on organizing the South. Meanwhile SANE had grown and I was asked to become Executive Director of the Greater New York Council. Here we had some success. We lobbied for a Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and got it. We established Hiroshima Day by organizing the first large peace march in America. It went from Princeton, New Jersey to the United Nations and 100,000 people assembled under the words from Isaiah "and they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks and neither shall they study war any more."
My relationship to the Torah was developing. I met and was awed by Rabbi Heschel. I read Mordecai Kaplan and began to hear rumblings of what was to become the Jewish Renewal Movement. I tried unsuccessfully to create an alliance between Sane and the emerging Civil Rights Movement. Greater New York Sane had grown from 3 or 4 chapters to 40 chapters. Success seems to bring competition and soon there was a power struggle in the organization. I moved on to work for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. We were organizing the March on Washington and again I found myself in the South. This time in Birmingham, Alabama sometimes referred to as Bombingham. I was able to run the first large scale integrated show in the history of Alabama. We were first told we could use the civic center auditorium and then Bull Connor got the permit revoked. Instead we used the football field of a small Black college. We had to build a stage from scratch and we advertised "Bring A Chair For Freedom." I will never forget the sight of thousands of people in orderly array filing down the hill chair in hand to hear Ray Charles, Joey Adams and a score of other entertainers. We raised enough money to send anyone who wanted to go on to Washington. I also got to know Rabbi Heschel through my boss Dr. King. May their memories be for a blessing.
After the great march it was time to put my family life back in order. By now Esther and I were augmented by Francine and Jessica. I got a job as director of the Labor Committee for the Liberal Party. Among my responsibilities was lobbying for a group of progressive Union locals including the Auto Workers, the Garment Workers and District 65. I also was privileged to work with Alex Rose and David Dubinsky, two of the most legendary Jewish Labor Leaders.
I also became involved in many good government causes. We succeeded in ending, for the most part, Capital Punishment in New York State. We also opened up the political process by creating state wide primaries and at the State Constitutional Convention established the groundwork for the 18 year old vote. In these endeavors I became good friends with Dr. George Hallet who was the dean of good government activists. George became a pivotal influence on me. We were instrumental in bringing school decentralization to New York City. I had long been interested in Proportional Representation as a democratic method of election. George was considered by many as the world's leading authority and enthusiast. When PR was designated as the system of election for the 32 decentralized school boards they hired George and me to organize the system and implement the elections. In the course of these events Albert Shanker became frantic and went on a terrible power trip. He did more damage to Black-Jewish relationships than can ever be measured. He also threatened to make me the "Jewish devil of New York." I stood up to him despite much advice to the effect that he would destroy me. I am still here and he is still there so I guess it was a stalemate.
Families grow and by now Benjamin joined the family and I began to be concerned with the cost of college and other things that teenagers need. I found out that there were some people willing to pay real wages for my skills. First I helped establish the New York Health and Hospitals Corp. I was instrumental in establishing abortion by choice in the city hospital system and enjoyed working with Dr. Joe English who had been the medical director of the Peace Corp and was the President of the Hospital Corporation. After a couple of years we moved to Albany where I work for the state as an Affirmative Action Officer. It was early in this period that I met Gerry Serotta at the National Havurah Conference and he engaged me in the development of [New Jewish] Agenda. That involvement has completed my circle of development from Jewish Progressive to Progressive Jew. In short I now know that Tikkun Olam is the Tikkun of my life. What a joy.