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Jewish Journal

‘Red Emma’ Doc Lacks Activist’s Fire

by Tom Tugend

April 8, 2004 | 8:00 pm

"The Hebrew Anarchist Comes to Town" a 1893 New York Times article alarmingly proclaimed. To other reporters, she was "Red Emma, Queen of the Anarchists."

Readers of the time knew exactly how to decipher the journalistic shorthand. It stood for Emma Goldman, one of those remarkable Jewish immigrants from the old Russian empire at the turn of the last century, who left their imprint on America in so many different fields.

The life of this flamboyant woman, political activist, philosopher, editor, proto-feminist and war resister will be documented in PBS' "American Experience: Emma Goldman."

Born in Kovno, Lithuania, in 1869 and then moving with her family to East Prussia and on to St. Petersburg, Goldman showed her rebellious spirit at an early age. She argued with her teachers, and when her father, a government theater manager, tried to force his daughter into an arranged marriage at age 15, Emma refused.

The following year, Emma and her half-sister left for America, where two years of working in a clothing factory in Rochester, N.Y., gave her ample firsthand experience in the life of the working class.

She attended meetings of German socialists, and after moving to New York in 1889, began a lifelong sexual and political relationship with Russian anarchist Alexander Berkman.

Goldman, herself, became a fiery crusader for anarchism, free speech, the rights of working people and equality for women, as she and Berkman crisscrossed the country, speaking in crowded lecture halls.

She scandalized the country less for her radical political views than for her assertion that a woman had the right to choose her own lovers and control her body through birth control. Advocacy of birth control was illegal and earned her the second of three prison terms. The first was for inciting a riot in New York and the last for urging American conscripts not to fight in World War I.

In photos, Goldman comes across as a rather stern figure, a pince-nez invariably clamped on her nose. But she was no dour theoretician. She was funny and something of a romantic, as attested by numerous love affairs.

Once upbraided by a fellow anarchist for frivolously enjoying a dance, she recalled, "I insisted that our cause could not expect me to behave as a nun." That saying took on a new and misquoted life in the 1960s on political buttons proclaiming, "If I can't dance, I won't be part of your revolution."

However, she could also resort to violence or, as she put it, "propaganda by deed," when she believed the cause demanded it. She plotted with Berkman to assassinate a factory boss during the Homestead steel strike of 1892. The attempt failed, observes Israeli historian Oz Frankel, because Berkman was "a bit of a klutz."

For approximately 12 years, Goldman expounded her theories and thoughts in her magazine, "Mother Earth." Finally, in 1919, when the government despaired of shutting her up, Goldman was deported. Instrumental was a rising young J. Edgar Hoover, who described his nemesis as "the most dangerous woman in America."

Noting her departure, a journalist wrote, "With Emma leaving and Prohibition coming in, this will be a dull country."

She and Berkman arrived in Russia, ready to embrace the revolution that was to liberate the working man and realize their hopes. Goldman even managed a one-on-one interview with Lenin, who berated her for her bourgeois insistence on free speech in the Soviet Union.

Thoroughly disillusioned, she left in 1921 and spent much of the rest of her life writing and lecturing against the "reactionary and counter-revolutionary" terror of Stalin and the Soviet regime.

Her constant wish in exile to return to the United States was fulfilled in 1940, when, after her death in Canada, she was buried in a Chicago cemetery.

The 90-minute PBS documentary, produced, directed and written by Mel Bucklin, makes for a fine historical introduction for those who know little about Goldman and her era. However, the necessarily static photos and profusion of talking heads make it hard to catch the spirit and flavor of the extraordinary, fearless and lively woman.

Viewers whose appetites have been whetted may wish to revisit the Warren Beatty film, "Reds," in which Goldman is one of the characters, or, even better, re-read "Ragtime" by E.L. Doctorow, who is one of the commentators in the documentary.

Another participant is playwright Tony Kushner, though the most telling insights come from British historian Barry Pateman.

Plans call for a worldwide theatrical release of "Emma Goldman."

"American Experience: Emma Goldman"airs on KCET on Monday, April 12, at 9 p.m.  

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