The Autumn 2012 Issue of Jewish Currents, a progressive secular magazine, is out and features a great interview with Ezra Berkley Nepon by activist Ben Lorber. UPDATE: the article is now up online – check it out! A great in-depth conversation about the book and NJA’s relevance for today’s progressive Jews.
Ben Lorber: This summer you took your book on tour. What was it like to see former New Jewish Agenda activists and the next generation of Jewish radicals reflecting together on the past, present and future of progressive Jewish organizing in America?
Ezra Berkley Nepon: It was spectacular. For the most part we would have a great group of NJA veterans and a room full of younger activists. Sometimes there were also people who came from the same generation of Agenda activists but hadn’t been part of the organization, so there was more than one dynamic — but there was consistently this exchange happening between Agenda activists and a younger generation, which was very interesting and moving to witness.
In the book, I focused on the organization at the national level, because I was trying to give an abbreviated version of a very long and complex history. The book tour events gave us all a chance to learn the juicy local organizing stories. People shared what on-the-ground organizing for Agenda looked like, with specific details about local issues and the flavor of each community.
BL: In your introduction to Justice, Justice Shall You Pursue, you write that in 2003 you were reading “all the Jewish feminist writing I could get my hands on, and references to NJA kept showing up,” which led you to be “curious about this organization that so many profound movement builders, writers and thinkers had been part of.” But when you went “looking for a book or good long article to learn more,” you found “a strange lack of record.” How do you explain this amnesia that the present Jewish progressive movement displays towards its past?
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Justice, Justice Shall You Pursue: A History of New Jewish Agenda was published in 2012 by Thread Makes Blanket Press and is distributed by AK Press. The book by Ezra Berkley Nepon includes a history expanded from this website and two afterwords pieces: an essay by historian Rachel Mattson reflecting on why this history is so crucial, and an essay by JFREJ board member Daniel Rosza Lang/Levitsky reflecting on current Jewish activism in relation to NJA’s history. The book and poster feature original cover art by Abigail Miller.
We’re very happy to announce that Jewish Voice for Peace will use Justice, Justice for a reading/discussion group at their upcoming Northeast Regional Leadership Development Institute. Ezra will attend the institute to lead a conversation about the book. Thanks, JVP – can’t wait to dig in together!
The back room at Modern Times Bookstore was packed with about fifty people and the mood was celebratory. One of the former NJA members brought a box of files and everyone was looking through them excitedly. Sascha Scatter introduced me, which was especially sweet because we know each other through anarchist circles and his parents’ NYC activism stories overlapped with New Jewish Agenda. Marissa of Thread Makes Blanket, also in SF at the time, read part of Rachel Mattson’s essay. Then Avi Rose, one of the interviewees for the book, spoke briefly – what a pleasure to meet him and hear him share thoughts on NJA in person! More NJA members shared stories and realizations about roots of so much of the current progressive Jewish culture of the Bay Area in NJA: synagogues, music festivals, film festivals that originated in NJA meetings. A question about the finances of NJA led into a conversation about how NJA’s gutsy connecting-the-dots between so many issues was enabled by being accountable to a membership base rather than a single foundation. Another audience member whose mother was in NJA talked about how much this membership-funding issue matters to him, how he and his mother talk about it as a key issue in how to build a sustainable Left. Members of Bend The Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice and Jewish Voice for Peace attended and made announcements, and another attendee announced that a Labor History festival was going on that week. This event was so spectacular – such engaged conversation, and joyful connected energy.
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I’m halfway through my summer booktour and wanted to give a little update. Events in Boston, DC, Baltimore, and NYC – plus an earlier event in Philadelphia – have been spectacular. Here’s some highlights:
This event was held at the Workmen’s Circle Center for Jewish Culture and Social Justice. Leah Madsen, Program and Member Organizer, showed me around the center before the event and shared some of the history of the local Arbeiter Ring. I was thrilled to learn that a screening of the documentary Young, Jewish, and Left had been part of a revival of younger activists’ involvement in the center – Leah reported that 100 people turned out for the screening! The center has a great library and I loved seeing the work of the Shule classes around the room we met in.
Boston was one of the biggest NJA chapters, pre-dated by organizing including Boston Committee to Challenge Anti-Semitism, and active through till the end of the national organization. This book event had a dozen folks and the conversation was rich and engaged with the group split evenly between former NJA-niks and people of my own generation (give or take a little). Gordie Fellman joined me and spoke about his experiences in NJA, reflecting on how Breira’s ending amidst intense attacks really contributed to the idea of creating NJA as a multi-issue organization, and how the 1982 Lebanon invasion was a formative moment in NJA’s work, and led to his own involvement in the local chapter and eventually becoming national co-chair of the Middle East Task Force. Gordie talked about how much things have changed, how a two-state solution is now a relatively moderate position, but at NJA’s time it was heresy. He also talked with great humor about the three rabbis who excommunicated all NJA members in a Tewksbury, MA Holiday Inn.
The stories of the former-NJA people at this event really lend to a snapshot of how people came from many activist streams to their work in NJA. Todd Kaplan, who met his wife Rivkah Lapidus in NJA, shared about his experience in the Central American Solidarity work of NJA. Todd mentioned that he wasn’t able to get involved in early NJA work because of his involvement with Ploughshares. Ellen Stone recalled that she was living in the Southwest when she learned about NJA, and when she moved to Boston the first thing she did was get involved in the chapter – she was drawn not just to the politics but to the space to make Jewish culture together, an alternative Jewish community. Freddie, a “red-diaper baby with lavender stripes!”, remembered that she missed the NJA founding convention because she was active in lesbian separatist politics, at the time but later got involved with the Feminist Taskforce of NJA. She recalled a major moment in her own life was seeing Ronnie Gilbert of The Weavers sing at an LGBT march on Washington (I think this was the 1987 march) that NJA turned out members to attend as a group – for Freddie it was a powerful moment of merging her Jewish, Lesbian, and radical political worlds – and there weren’t many spaces for that at the time. That march shows up in the NJA history on this site here, because it was also a key moment of AIDS activism.
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We’re thrilled that Justice, Justice is available to order through AK Press for $13. Click here to purchase.