Emma Goldman

A profile of the anarchist and lifelong advocate for social justice.

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Reprinted with permission from "Chapters in American Jewish History," published by the American Jewish Historical Society.

 

Emma Goldman was born in Kovno, Lithuania, in 1869 into a religiously traditional household. As a teenager, she was deeply influenced by the Russian anarchist writers Chernyshevsky and Bakunin. When she expressed a desire for further education, her father told her, "Girls don't have to learn much! All a Jewish daughter needs to know is how to prepare gefilte fish, cut noodles fine, and give the man plenty of children."Emma Goldman

Rebelling against these limits, in 1885 the strong-minded 16-year-old Goldman left home and boarded a boat for America, the land of freedom. By the 1890s, Goldman won a reputation as "Red Emma," perhaps the most notorious radical lecturer in the United States.

Lifetime of Advocacy

Goldman spent a lifetime agitating for values such as social justice for working people, the abolition of capitalism, freedom of spiritual and intellectual expression, free love and an end to war, racism, religious differences and ethnocentrism.

However, she never forgot her Jewish identity. While she was still a child, Goldman's family was driven from Kovno to Konigsburg, Germany, and then to St. Petersburg, Russia, by anti-Semitic violence. Biographer Candace Falk notes that the biblical Judith, who cut off the head of Holofernes to avenge the wrongs done to the Jewish people, was Goldman's female role model. Her experience of Russian violence against Jews informed her lifelong advocacy for social justice.

When she arrived in America in 1885, Goldman settled in Rochester, NY, where she worked in the garment industry and married Jacob Kersner. Soon afterwards, Goldman was further radicalized by the hanging of seven political anarchists who were convicted, on flimsy evidence, of killing seven police officers in an explosion in Chicago's Haymarket Square.

For a time, Goldman tolerated near-starvation wages and marital strife, but in 1889 she divorced Kersner, packed her sewing machine and personal effects, and moved to New York's Lower East Side in search of greater freedom and a larger platform for her anarchist views.

New York City

In New York City, anarchist newspaper editor Johann Most greatly influenced Goldman. Recognizing her charisma, Most encouraged the fiery Goldman to agitate among Yiddish speaking workers for general strikes and the overthrow of the state. Beyond the usual anarchist protest against economic inequality, Goldman also called for "freedom, the right to self-expression [and] everybody's right to beautiful things." Goldman invoked the love of beauty and higher instincts that, she believed, are shared by all humans regardless of cultural background or economic status.

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Michael Feldberg

Michael Feldberg, Ph.D. is executive director of the George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom. From 1991 to 2004, he served as executive director of the American Jewish Historical Society, the nation's oldest ethnic historical organization, and from 2004 to 2008 was its director of research.