“The coops” today.
Photo by Don Gilligan
See the film
At Home in Utopia will be screened as part of the New Jersey Jewish Film Festival on Sunday, March 29, at 1 p.m. at the Leon & Toby Cooperman JCC, Ross Family Campus, West Orange.
March 26, 2009
In 1925, a group of idealistic but fiercely determined Jews decided it was time to make a better life for themselves and their families. Most were garment workers who yearned to escape the claustrophobic confines of the Lower East Side and other slums in Brooklyn and Manhattan. All of them were communists or at least sympathetic to the communist movement, which was increasingly popular across Eastern Europe at the time.
So they undertook a bold gambit: They purchased land in the Bronx in order to build four cooperative apartment complexes that could house 700 families. The enclave, which was known as the United Workers Cooperative Colony, or “the coops,” was entirely Jewish and decidedly secular. Yiddish was spoken. The growing international workers’ movement was widely supported. And equality and justice were a household mantra.
In short, the move uptown — where residents could step outside and enjoy the natural wonders of green grass and tall trees — encapsulated a vision to take control of their lives. But more than that, it represented an opportunity to take a leading role in what appeared to be a growing revolution. By erecting a fortress for their families and ideals, the leaders of the coops forged a local power base for two generations of left-leaning clans.
Through meticulous documentation and lively interviews with numerous Jews whose parents were involved in organizing and running the coops, At Home in Utopia recounts a largely forgotten but remarkable chapter of the Jewish experience in a New York that was brimming with political and economic upheaval in the midst of the Great Depression. Just like today, an absolute belief in capitalism was under great scrutiny.
Moreover, the fast-moving, 57-minute documentary — narrated by actress Linda Lavin — is an eye-opening reminder that many Jews became eagerly involved in America’s communist movement, a development that reflected a wrenching debate over how to embrace an uncertain future while retaining what were seen as historically cultural values.
Those values were on full display when, in the 1930s, the coops began a deliberate policy of integration that allowed African-Americans into the complex. Not that everyone supported the move with equal vigor. The decision, in fact, tore some families apart as they weighed the moral implications of failing to open their doors against the realization that the political power created by their unique enclave would eventually dissipate.
Beyond the fascinating history lesson, however, what makes the film so interesting is the intelligent mix of past and present. Many of the people interviewed are articulate and intelligent and have insight into what motivated their parents and in-laws to attach themselves — psychologically and financially — to the coops and its way of life.
But more instructive, perhaps, are the recollections of African-Americans who grew up there decades ago.
Central to understanding this experience, of course, is remembering that so many of the people who founded the coops were immigrants or children of immigrants. They could vividly recall or knew about the persecution and poverty that compelled those ocean voyages to America. The hatred of tsars and Cossacks was still fresh enough in their minds to work feverishly to transform their new homeland and remake it in a way that matched ideals that could only be dreamed about in the Old World.
At the time, the once pastoral swaths of open land in the Bronx represented the chance to create their utopia. And while we know there is no such thing as utopia, this engaging film makes it possible to learn how one group of Jews — in their own unique way — tried to create the foundation for a better place and, in the process, enact their own version of tikun olam.
Ed Silverman is a veteran journalist who has regularly reviewed films for New Jersey Jewish News.