Yale Strom likes to joke that he grew up in a home that represented “the two Hs”: the chasidic tradition of the Stoliner rebbe through his paternal grandparents, and the socialist Zionist world of Hashomer Ha’tzair, from his mother’s side of the family. It’s not an uncommon mixed legacy, but the result, in filmmaker-author-musician-composer Strom, is unique, to say the least. And that is nowhere more apparent than in his latest film, “American Socialist: The Life and Times of Eugene Victor Debs,” which opens theatrically on April 27.
“American Socialist,” in which he follows in the path of Bernie Sanders, who made a film about Debs in 1979, is Strom’s ninth documentary film, his first since 2005’s “Man from Munkacs: Gypsy Klezmer.” Significantly, it is his first film that does not have an explicitly Jewish subject. But, he asserts emphatically, it fits quite well with his previous works and his upbringing.
In an e-mail earlier last week, Strom wrote, “I think what ties them together is they in some way deal with the human condition. How do we move forth in this precious thing we have been given called life and not want to only better ourselves, but everything and everyone we encounter in our daily lives? Receiving the Torah at Mt. Sinai meant we as Jews have to be vigilant in maintaining its core tenets, and for me that is about being sensitive to others who are in need.”
Strom finds those values in both sides of his Jewish upbringing. The socialist influence is self-evident in his latest work. After all, Debs, who gave the Jewish Socialist congresman Victor Berger credit for inspiring him to become a Socialist, was one of the founders of the Socialist Party of America and five times stood as its candidate for president of the United States.
But the chasidic teachings Strom heard in his youth do more than inform his unerring ear for great nigunim, and have their bearing on the film as well.
“I grew up with stories about the shtetl, going to shul often with chasidim and singing a lot of nigunim,” he explained. “This part of my Jewish upbringing was to immerse me in the Yiddish-chasidic world that pertained more to culture, storytelling and remembering those who have less than you. Thus my socialist upbringing dovetailed with my knowledge of ‘chasidism,’ that even the poor beggar is a worthy human and must be respected and taken care of since he too was created by God. But really our God, our sense of a higher being, was that aspect of socialism that encompasses compassion for all.”
Debs, of course, had a rather different upbringing in Terre Haute, Ind., as the son of French immigrants from Alsace who dropped out of school at 14 to begin a career on the railroads. After a brief stint as a small businessman, he became active in the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen, gradually abandoning the conservatism of trade unionism for the more confrontational stance of industrial unionism. With the brutal suppression of the Pullman Strike in 1894, he became further radicalized, breaking with the Democratic Party.
Eventually his path would lead him to the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), then the socialists, opposition to American involvement in WWI and a federal prison term for sedition, i.e., opposing the draft.
When he was released from Atlanta Penitentiary, which is where Strom opens the film, his sentence commuted by Warren Harding to time served, Debs received a hero’s farewell from prison personnel and convicts alike. How does Strom account for a man whose appeal crossed such seemingly impenetrable barriers?
“Debs was genuine,” Strom wrote. “Debs never put on any airs. Debs never thought that just because someone might have less of a formal education than you meant they were any less of a person. He loved to engage with the working man and was authentically interested in hearing his story: where he came from and how he wound up in prison. He was a natural teacher and would read to and discuss many different subjects with his fellow inmates, particularly the one how society had let down such men and not the other way around. His treatment of others came from his sincere Christian beliefs.”
Essentially, Strom is saying, Debs lived by a code not dissimilar to one evoked by Rabbi Avraham Kook, the first Ashkenazic chief rabbi of pre-state Israel, and quoted elsewhere in Strom’s e-mail.
“As Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook once said, ‘I don’t speak because I have the power to speak; I speak because I don’t have the power to remain silent.’”
“American Socialist: The Life and Times of Eugene Victor Debs” opens theatrically on April 27.