Jewish Word | Doikayt: The Jewish Left Is Here

By | Apr 11, 2024
Jewish Word | Doikayt: The Jewish Left Is Here

On October 7, 1897—the same year Theodor Herzl famously assembled the first Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland—secular Jewish socialists in Vilnius, Lithuania, formed a workers’ union, the Algemeyner Yidisher Arbeter Bund in Lite, Poyln un Rusland. Known simply as the Bund, it gained a following among Eastern European Jews in its heyday between the world wars (1918-1939). As Zionists pursued the goal of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, Bundists championed the idea that the home worth fighting for was the home where one was. This notion of “at-homeness” became the Bundist slogan “Where we live, there is our country!” and would later be encapsulated in one Yiddish word: doikayt—“hereness.”

The word combines do, the Yiddish word for “here,” and keit, a German suffix implying essence or a way of being (think Yiddishkeit, “Jewishness”). Its opposite is dortikayt (“dort” being Yiddish for “there”). And it’s this duality of hereness and thereness that gave rise to doikayt as a slogan for the Bund on the eve of Zionism realizing its dream of a Jewish state. It’s also one that resonates with today’s leftist American Jews who want to cultivate their Jewish identities separate from Zionism and are drawn to such histories of resistance.

Doikayt (also written in English as do’ikayt and pronounced “doh-ih-kite”) embodies a commitment to the long history of Jews in Europe, says Madeleine Cohen, academic director at the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts. In her PhD dissertation “Here and Now: The Modernist Poetics of Do’ikayt,” Cohen describes the original idea of doikayt as “an investment in Ashkenazi culture, in Yiddish, and in the possibility of continued Jewish life in places like Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine, and Belarus” after World War I and the revolutions in Russia.

Julie Weitz, Doikayt Shirts, 2023. @MyGolem_is_here (Photo credit: Vanessa Dahbour)

Cohen notes that the word didn’t appear until the mid-1940s, “when there was a real intensity to the political and ideological fighting between Bundists and Zionists.” Cohen points to a 1947 essay she translated, “Facing the Future,” by the Bundist Leyvick Hodes, as possibly the first appearance of doikayt as a counter to the idea that Zionism offered safety. “The beast will hunt those who run from it and meet them everywhere,” Hodes warns, affirming that “The Bund has always fought for continuity, for creative national-life, for doikayt, for the right to remain rooted in the ground where the Jewish masses live and fight.” And yet the Nazis’ genocidal ripping out of European Jewry’s roots during the Holocaust severely weakened the Bund and gave Zionism new urgency.

In the United States, the Jewish Bund had a presence, albeit small, as far back as the early 1900s, when a wave of exiles arrived after the First Russian Revolution of 1905. Shaul Magid, a professor of Jewish studies at Dartmouth whose latest book is The Necessity of Exile, grew up in New York in the 1960s and 1970s and recalls his paternal family were all Workmen’s Circle Bundists. While socialism generally was popular among Jews after World War I, he says the desire and ability to be fully Americanized, the upward mobility of capitalism and the loss of the Yiddish language—in newspapers and in daily speech—all contributed to a decline of Jewish cultural expression and membership in socialist organizations through the mid-20th century.

“They’re not abandoning their jewishness. They’re reinventing it.”

Jews who got involved in civil rights in the 1960s, for example, didn’t infuse their commitment to American life, their “hereness,” with a romanticization of Eastern Europe. “There was some of that with Fiddler on the Roof, but baby boomers were too close to that Eastern European life to really romanticize it,” says Magid, noting that later generations have been far enough removed to develop a nostalgia for it. He also sees the modern revival of doikayt as linked to Jewish social justice movements “where Jews become interested in issues like Black Lives Matter, or labor unions, or living wage rights—where exile becomes opportunity, as opposed to punishment.”

Many who embrace doikayt today point to the founding of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ) in 1990 as an important reintroduction of hereness as an organizing principle for the Jewish left. The late feminist and lesbian activist Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz (as an adult she added the slash and her family’s original name to the anglicized “Kaye”) was the first executive director of the New York City-based grassroots organization. “Doikayt means Jews enter coalitions wherever we are, across lines that might divide us, to work together for universal equality and justice,” she wrote in her 2007 book The Colors of Jews: Racial Politics and Radical Diasporism.

In August of 2019, many more Americans would come across the word doikayt in Michelle Goldberg’s New York Times column (“Mazel Tov, Trump. You’ve Revived the Jewish Left”). Goldberg described doikayt as a central value “for much of left-wing Jewish culture” and quoted current JFREJ Executive Director Audrey Sasson: “Where we are is our home. This is what we fight for. This is where we seek kinship.” The following month, the New York-based YIVO Institute for Jewish Research hosted a panel titled “Bundism’s Influence Today.” Multiple speakers invoked doikayt.

One of the panelists was poet and activist Irena Klepfisz, who has said she was raised by Bundist Holocaust survivors. (She was born in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1941. Two years later, her father, a member of the Bund, was killed in the uprising there; she and her mother eventually made it the United States.) “Bundists challenged Zionists, rabbis and Jewish factory owners,” she said. “[They] criticized other Jews and didn’t worry about being called antisemites.” She also attested that contemporary Jews who were finding it increasingly hard to defend Israel were drawn to the concept of doikayt.

Jay Saper (they/them) was at the YIVO event and recalls it was a full, multigenerational house. An artist and educator who has taught Yiddish (including a course at Middlebury College called “Antifascist Yiddish for Beginners”), Saper points to a growing diaspora consciousness at the time. Even more than the opposition to Israel referenced by Klepfisz, Saper says the rise of Donald Trump and white supremacy was animating a commitment to doikayt. “The Tree of Life massacre and the Nazi rally in Charlottesville awakened a generation of Jewish activists to understand that there was something oppositional to white supremacy in our Jewish identity,” says Saper. “That our commitment to racial justice meant proudly rooting ourselves in our Jewish culture and embracing a commitment to justice for all people.”

Today, Saper is excited to see doikayt become even more pronounced. “I was at an outdoor gathering recently and someone pulled up in a car with a ‘doikayt’ license plate,” they recall. “You see it on T-shirts and incorporated into other art.”

Still, the adoption of doikayt by the contemporary Jewish left hasn’t been without its critics. Saper, who is a longtime member of Jewish Voices for Peace and a supporter of JFREJ, had been frustrated by some activists’ embrace of hereness and commitment to domestic social justice issues to the exclusion of working for justice for Palestinians. But in recent organizing to push for a cease-fire in the Israel-Hamas war and to oppose U.S. military aid to the Jewish state, Saper sees people understanding the concept in new ways. “It’s not just that doikayt’s been popularized. It’s that those who have perhaps held onto it most as a way of avoiding [Zionism] are coming to terms with how the here is always implicated in the there.”

Playwright and cultural critic Rokhl Kafrissen articulated a different critique in a 2019 Haaretz article (“Why Modern anti-Zionists Love the Bund”). “The mechanical meme-ification of doikayt offers no further tools for reconciling modern Jewish life with complicity in North American settler colonialism,” she wrote. When asked recently if accusing Israel of settler colonialism was then hypocritical, Kafrissen responded that her point was rather to call attention to the socio-historical context in which doikayt arose and how much it differs from our own time and place. “The symbols and discourse of radical Jewish Eastern Europe cannot simply be copied and pasted onto today’s scene,” says Kafrissen, adding that this dilutes and flattens Jewish history “and misses all of what that history can actually offer us, beyond simplistic validation of today’s anti-Zionism.”

Going beyond simplistic validation is something attorney Andy Izenson has been attempting since the October 7 attack on Israel by Hamas and the ensuing war in Gaza. Izenson (who uses “they/he” pronouns) has been leading a “Do’ikayt Teach-in” at the LGBT Center in New York several times a month since November. Most have been held in person and have drawn between 10-50 participants, mostly Jewish. Izenson asks people to share blessings, defines the concept of doikayt, and invites people to respond to questions such as “What is the feeling of home to you?”

Izenson, a millennial, recalls being told as a kid about the bad things that had happened to the Jews since being kicked out of their home long ago, and that for everything to be okay, they all just had to go back. “It becomes necessary, as a Jew in the diaspora, to sacrifice this fantasy.”

“What I have been finding in these teach-ins is that you have to start with the feelings of profound isolation and displacement…then a radical diasporism can grow out of it, rather than just plopping a pro-Palestine politic on top of those feelings and hoping the feelings will go away by themselves,” Izenson says. And so part of their aim is to explore doikayt as something not just secular and political but also a “matter of spirit.” Similarly, in his remarks at the YIVO event on Bundism’s modern influence, Jacob Plitman, then publisher of Jewish Currents, said that in embracing doikayt as a way to react to Israel, young leftist Jews were bolstering their connection to Judaism. “It provides an answer to the sense of ‘orphan-ness’ that a lot of Jewish lefties have.”

Still, is it fair to say that younger Jews today—who, according to surveys, are far more likely to oppose the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the war in Gaza than their parents and grandparents—are embracing hereness mainly because they’re so against thereness?

“I think it’s the unraveling of a half century of Zionist education,” says Magid, “that’s where they come into doikayt.” But there’s more to its flourishing.

“It was always said Judaism would disappear in America when all the Jews assimilated,” he continues. “This new movement we’re talking about is not assimilationist, it’s dis-assimilationist; they’re not abandoning their Jewishness. They’re reinventing it.” Doikayt, he adds, encompasses “a 21st-century return to religion that’s definitely not Orthodox but that’s founded on principles of democratic socialism and being deeply involved in America.” Such is the state of doikayt: right here, right now.

Opening picture: A Labor Bund election poster circa 1918 read: “Where we live, there is our country! Vote List 9, Bund.”

Moment Magazine participates in the Amazon Associates program and earns money from qualifying purchases. 

2 thoughts on “Jewish Word | Doikayt: The Jewish Left Is Here

  1. Sarah Biskowitz says:

    Please correct this article. Irena Klefpfisz is not the daughter of Bundist Holocaust survivors. First of all, she is a child survivor herself. Second of all, her father, Michal Klepfisz of blessed memory, was famously murdered while resisting during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

  2. Jennifer Bardi says:

    Thank you so much for pointing out the error. Klepfisz was born in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1941, and, as you note, her father, a member of the Bund, did not survive the uprising there. She and her mother eventually made it the United States, where she describes being raised by Bundist Holocaust survivors.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.