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Chapters in American Jewish History are provided by the American Jewish Historical Society, collecting, preserving, fostering scholarship and providing access to the continuity of Jewish life in America for more than 350 years (and counting). Visit www.ajhs.org.
When Congressman Meyer London died in 1926, half a million New Yorkers attended his funeral. “For six hours,” the New York Times reported, “the [Lower] East Side put aside its duties, pressing or trivial, to do honor to its dead prophet.” Although a politician, London was so respected for his learning–even by his political opponents–that he was buried in the Writer’s Lane section of Mount Carmel cemetery, near the grave of Sholom Aleichem and other Jewish cultural heroes. London’s working-class instincts and intellectual acumen made him advocate for social legislation that later formed the heart of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal platform.
Born in Russia in 1871, Meyer was the eldest son of Ephraim and Rebecca London. Both parents had strong religious upbringings, but Ephraim became enamored with the anarchistic and atheistic doctrines floating around Czarist Russia. He passed these radical ideas to Meyer, who later translated them, in the American political context, into moderate socialism.
A brilliant young student in Russia, Meyer London received a Jewish education at home and secular education as one of the few Jewish boys chosen to attend a Czarist-sponsored gymnasium. Eventually, Meyer developed proficiency in six languages–Russian, Yiddish, English, German, French and Italian.
When Ephraim and Rebecca London emigrated to the Lower East Side of New York in 1888, the teenaged Meyer worked at a library, tutored students in English, and attended law school at night. In 1896, at age 25, Meyer London became a U. S. citizen, passed the bar exam, and ran on the Socialist ticket for the Lower East Side seat in the New York State Assembly.
London chose to enter politics in the heyday of the Democratic Tammany machine, which employed bribery, fraud, and pressure tactics to carry elections. Running as a novice reformer on the Socialist ticket, London predictably lost to the Tammany candidate. London then focused his energies on providing legal services to Lower East Side trade unions like the ILGWU, the International Fur Workers, the Cloak Makers, and the United Hebrew Trades. According to one biographer, “London accepted only such clients and cases as would not interfere with his socialist principles, and he would never take a case involving an arrest.” He preferred to work pro bono on union cases, and, on one occasion, grateful striking union workers had to threaten to drop him as their lawyer if he continued to refuse payment that they believed he richly deserved. From 1905 until his death, London served as legal counsel to the Workman’s Circle.
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