BERNARD VAYNSHTEYN (WEINSTEIN) (July 10, 1866-April 23, 1946)
He was born in Odessa, southern Russia, into a poor family. Because his father died when he was twelve years of age, he left school to go to work as a scribe and an errand boy for a lawyer. In the first days of Passover, 1881, he survived the horrifying pogrom against Jews in Odessa, which left an impression on the fourteen- or fifteen-year-old lad for the rest of his life. That very year he was carried off by the wandering current of Russian Jews to America, and in the spring of 1882 he arrived in New York with an “Am Olam” (Eternal people) group [groups aimed at establishing agricultural colonies in the United States]. After a short time in Castle Garden, he found work at the Stachelberg cigar factory which was then employing several hundred Jewish laboring immigrants. By chance the man next to him at work in the factory was “a pallid young fellow who spoke Russian and Lithuanian Yiddish” (from Vaynshteyn’s memoirs). It was Abraham Cahan, six years older than Vaynshteyn and already a socialist who actually began to coach Vaynshteyn as to what “the socialists want.” In the very same factory, one floor below them, Vaynshteyn became acquainted at this time with another well-known cigar-maker in the factory, Samuel Gompers, who was already president of the Cigar Makers’ Union and would soon become president of the AFL (American Federation of Labor). He and Cahan were present at the historical first meeting of the Propaganda Association on July 7, 1882, at Golden Rule Hall on Rivington Street. Together with Cahan, he ordered and then distributed along the Jewish streets of the East Side 500 handbills concerning the first speech in Yiddish that Cahan was to give on August 3, 1882 at the International Labor Hall on East 66th Street. In June 1884, after this event, Vaynshteyn was one of the founders of “Russkiy rabochiy soyuz” (Russian workers’ union), and then in February 1885 of the “Rusish-yidisher arbeter-fareyn” (Russian Jewish labor union) and April 1885 “Yidisher arbeter-fareyn” (Jewish Labor Union), which opened its own library and appointed Vaynshteyn as librarian. In 1886 he was an active contributor to the Henry George Campaign Committee which the Jewish Labor Union singled out to lead an election campaign on behalf of the candidacy of Henry George. He was among the principal organizers of the historic Eighth (Jewish) Branch of the S.L.P. (Socialist Labor Party), after the Jewish Labor Union dissolved itself in July 1887. He was one of the speakers at the first campaign of the S.L.P. for the New York mayoral elections in 1888. At the “unaffiliated labor congress” (end of 1889-early 1890) in New York, he served as one of the two secretaries (the other was M. Hilkovits [Morris Hillquit]), and at the social democratic conference that followed it, he was secretary—and right afterward (March 1890) he was one of the most active leaders in the establishment of the Yiddish social-democratic Arbayter tsaytung (Workers’ newspaper); he assumed responsibility for printing it, helped collect the necessary $2000 from the poor Jewish workers, and later peddled the newspaper through their homes and workshops. When Ab. Cahan was editor of the newspaper, Vaynshteyn wrote what was deemed necessary, translated from Russian, and compiled a letter box (introducing in this way Z. Libin to the newspaper and to Yiddish literature).
Vaynshteyn contributed to the entire struggle, including the rifts, of the S.L.P., eventually coming all the way to the Socialist Party (S.P.) of Eugene Debs, but he devoted the greatest portion of his energy to the trade union movement. He took part in strikes and the building of trade unions among Jewish laborers in New York from 1882 forward. In June 1886 he stood at the forefront of the strikes of Jewish cigar makers and furniture makers. When, at the initiative of the Eighth (Jewish) Branch of the S.L.P. (October 1888), the United Hebrew Trades was founded, he was appointed secretary of protocol for the committee of the new organization. In all, two or three organized Jewish unions existed at the moment of the founding of the United Hebrew Trades, and over the course of two or three years their number grew to some thirty. “The United Hebrew Trades were everything in those years for the new unions: they organized the unions, taught the workers how to conduct a meeting, led their strikes, made settlements with the bosses, taught the unions to keep their accounts correctly, and took care of every detail for every union” (from Vaynshteyn’s memoirs). He was involved in this work day and night, but for the first time in 1890—when the strike wave poured over the Jewish unions (among them the general strike of the Cloakmakers’ Union)—Vaynshteyn was made the paid secretary for the United Hebrew Trades; his salary came to $6 per week, and he was paid once in six months. In the last years of his position as secretary, the most powerful Jewish unions were established, and they carried out immense strikes—including the historic strike of the cloakmakers in New York in 1910—with many tens of thousands of strikers. There grew up separately unions of tailors and hat makers, house painters and furriers, bakers and musicians. Membership in all the Jewish unions approached hundreds of thousands. And, Bernard Vaynshteyn was not only one of the builders of all these unions, but also the distinguished subsequent chronicler of them in articles and in books.
He wrote a great deal about various subjects connected to the life of the Jewish laborers and their trade unions. As secretary of the United Hebrew Trades, he was responsible for the so-called “publicity” on behalf of the unions. He composed the circulars, appeals, and all the other printed messages for the unions to their members. Together with Morris Hillquit, he compiled the Printsipn-derklerung (Declaration of principles) of the United Hebrew Trades in 1890. He was a regular contributor to virtually all the organs of the Jewish labor movement in the United States, such as: Di vokhntlekhe arbayter tsaytung (The weekly labor newspaper) which began publication in March 1890; Abend-blat (Evening newspaper), a daily beginning in June 1894; Di arbayter velt (The workers’ world), published by the United Hebrew Trades in 1904; Tsayt-gayst (Spirit of the times), a weekly published by the Forverts (Forward) between 1905 and 1908; Der veker (The alarm), organ of the Jewish Socialist Association in America, beginning in 1921; and Forverts to which he contributed from the first years right after the founding of the newspaper until the last years of his life. For all these serial publications, he wrote articles about virtually all industries and professions in which Jewish laboring men and women were employed, as well as chapters of his fascinating, vital depictions of earlier Jewish life on the East Side of New York, which later appeared in his books: (1) Fertsik yor in der idisher arbeter bavegung, bletlekh erinerungen (Forty years in the Jewish labor movement, pages of experiences) (New York: Der Veker, 1924), 287 pp.; (2) Di idishe yunyons in amerike, bleter geshikhte un erinerungen (The Jewish unions in America, pages from history and experience) (New York: United Hebrew Trades, 1929), 571 pp.; and (3) Bilder fun idishn arbeter-lebn in amerike (Sketches of the life of Jewish workers in America), “adapted and prepared for secular Jewish schools by Naftali Gross, illustrations by N. Kozlovski” (New York: Education Department, Workmen’s Circle, 1935), 144 pp. In addition, he compiled (with Herts Burgin and L. Gotlib): Di geshikhte fun di fereynigte idishe gevergshaften (The history of the United Hebrew Trades), published as the “second part” of Burgin’s book, Di geshikhte fun der idisher arbayter bavegung in amerike, rusland un england (The history of the Jewish labor movement in America, Russia, and England) (New York, 1915), pp. 733-935; and he published a very interesting work entitled “Di ershte yorn fun yidishn teater in odes un in nyu york” (The first years of the Yiddish theater in Odessa and New York), in Arkhiv far der geshikhte fun yidishn teater un drame fun yivo (Archive for the history of Yiddish theater and drama of YIVO), edited by Yankev Shatski (Vilna-New York, 1930), pp. 243-54.
Always standing to the side and leaving the seat of honor to someone else, endlessly modest, a man who not only did not seek renown nor even any recognition, a man of thorough self-abnegation—this is how everyone who knew him well or wrote about him characterized Vaynshteyn. With just this self-abnegation, he wrote his social and cultural historical descriptions of the earlier Jewish East Side, which especially stand out among all other depictions of that era in Jewish literature. The last years of his life, Vaynshteyn was confined to his bed in his apartment in the Amalgamated Houses in the Bronx, where he died.
Sources: Zalmen Reyzen, Leksikon, vol. 1; Z. Zilbertsvayg, Leksikon fun yidishn teater (Handbook of the Yiddish theater), vol. 1; H. Burgin, Di geshikhte fun der idisher arbayter bavegung in amerike, rusland un england (The history of the Jewish labor movement in America, Russia, and England) (New York, 1915), see index; H. Lang, “A vort tsu Vaynshteyns yubileum” (A word for Vaynshetin’s jubilee), Tsukunft (New York) (January 1920); Lang, “B. vaynshteyn, a por kharakter-shtrikhn” (B. Vaynshteyn, a couple of character traits), foreword to Vaynshteyn, Di idishe yunyons in amerike (The Jewish unions in America) (New York: United Hebrew Trades, 1929), pp. 19-34; Ab. Cahan, foreword to Vaynshteyn, Fertsik yor in der idisher arbeter bavegung (Forty years in the Jewish labor movement) (New York: Der Veker, 1924), pp. 7-8; Cahan, Bleter fun mayn lebn (Pages from my life), vol. 2 (Vilna, 1928), pp. 94-95, vol. 3 (Vilna, 1928), pp. 13, 55, 401; A. Litvak, in Der veker (New York) (January 25, 1930); Dr. L. Fogelman, in Tsukunft (February 1930); Di lebns-geshikhte fun moris hilhvit (The life history of Morris Hillquit) (New York, 1935), pp. 26-39; Dr. B. Hofman, Fuftsik yor kloukmakher-yunyon (Fifty years of the cloak makers’ union) (New York, 1936), see index; Kalmen Marmor, Der onhoyb fun der yidisher literatur in amerike (The beginning of Yiddish literature in America) (New York, 1940), see index; Shmuel Niger, in Tsukunft (September 1940); Geshikhte fun der yidisher arbeter-bavegung in di fareynikte shtatn (History of the Jewish labor movement in the United States), edited by I. M. Cherikover, vol. 1 (New York: YIVO, 1943), see index, vol. 2 (New York, 1945), see index; Z. Sher, in Forverts (April 26, 1946); Y. Sh. Herts, Di yidishe sotsyalistishe bavegung in amerike (The Jewish socialist movement in America) (New York, 1954), see index; Sh. Vays, in Algemeyne entsiklopedye (General encyclopedia), “Yidn H” (New York, 1957), pp. 254-55.