Emma Goldman’s two-volume autobiography Living My Life has sat on the first shelf of the bookcase in my dining room since I could remember. I’ve never actually bothered reading it, especially when I asked my mother who Goldman was and her response was something along the lines of, “A really crazy person.” (I’ve got no clue what the book’s doing in my home either.)
While doing some research on Mariam Chamberlain, a pioneer in the women’s research movement, I found a short statement she wrote about Goldman. I was inspired to read up about the early twentieth century anarchist, and went onto her Wikipedia page. (What else?) She interested me so much that I ended up actually reading both volumes of Living My Life.
Goldman was born in 1869 to an Orthodox family in Russia. Her mother, Taube, was married with two daughters before her husband died. Despite her heartbreak, Taube remarried Abraham Goldman, an unsuccessful businessperson who quickly squandered her inheritance. Emma was their first child, an unwanted daughter. (They later had three sons.) A strong-willed child, her father often beat her, and her mother did little on her behalf. Goldman was close with her older half-sister Lena, which helped her get through childhood.
The family immigrated to America when Goldman was in her late teens. She became a citizen through marriage to a nice Jewish boy, although the relationship didn’t last for very long. Goldman’s anarchist click moment occurred because of the Haymarket Square Riot, when a bomb went off at a labor demonstration and several anarchists were executed as a result. She went on to develop the American anarchist movement, spending time in jail and even getting deported for her anti-government stance. She was certainly a feminist, as she supported the burgeoning birth control movement. Despite all of the opposition she faced, she never wavered in her beliefs.
Goldman is certainly a fascinating character in history. I do find her story a little bit sad, though. It’s unfortunate that she and her family were Orthodox Jews in Europe, but stopped active observance once they reached American soil. What bothers me even more is that Goldman went beyond indifference towards Judaism, as she was a self-proclaimed atheist. It’s interesting that when she was in jail and all the inmates had to attend mandatory prayers, she requested to attend the synagogue services rather than sit through church without protest. Another point that got my attention was that throughout the autobiography, she refers to Jewish anarchists in a separate category from German and Russian anarchists. I have to assume this is because Jews weren’t really welcome in non-Jewish anarchist circles. Goldman does acknowledge anti-Semitism within the movement, although she doesn’t write about it extensively.
I wonder what would have happened if Goldman’s father hadn’t been abusive. Would she have had a more positive view towards Judaism? I also wonder what would have happened if Goldman had attended something like Bais Yaakov, the Orthodox schools for girls established in Europe in the early 1900s. Would she have stayed observant? If she had remained observant, would she have gone on to accomplish as much as she did with her life, get her name into the history textbooks? Is it impossible for someone observant to make the big time - do Orthodox people have to choose between success and religion? Is that why Goldman felt compelled to leave observance completely and opt for atheism? I guess we’ll never know.
Well, whatever the case, Emma Goldman was certainly an amazing woman who accomplished a lot in her life. So I dub her an inductee into the Shining Stars of Davida - strong women and men who make us feminists proud