Maddy Simon is an accomplished social activist, educator, and musician who has attended and led many rallies for causes such as labor issues and peace, among many social justice issues. Maddy was a professional choral conductor of many amateur choruses throughout the New York area. She also taught music in the New York high schools for over 25 years and was involved in Camp Kinderland for 70 years where she used musicals to teach campers the importance of social activism. Maddy is still involved in social activism through attending rallies and demonstrations and by teaching weekly Yiddish classes. She was a Clara Lemlich honoree in 2011.
Interviewed by Lilly Engeler
Since childhood, I have been very involved in social activism. Perhaps my biggest influence for this was growing up in a workers’ cooperative colony in the Bronx. This was one of the first projects that was built and it was very left wing and similar to a co-op of today financially. There were about 750 families living in the two blocks in a racially accepting community that was mostly first generation Jewish. We called it the coops. It started in around 1927 and my parents were original investors. It was an ideal place for children to grow up – everyone knew everybody else, there were gardens and playgrounds. There were also political, sports, social, and science clubs for the children growing up there. The adults were all socially active as well. As a matter of fact, my mother marched on City Hall to get a playground.
Overall, it was a very special place to grow up in, and I was raised as a left-winger because of it. That is why I respect people who are political activists who come from no political background – for me it was very easy, because I just grew into it. That is also why when I got the Clara Lemlich award, I was like, “Who, me?”, because what I did were ordinary things, I just participated in a lot of things during my lifetime.
I believed that at the time I was growing up, that 98% of the world was like me, as a left-winger, progressive, and believing in justice for everybody. Along with the influence from the coops, it was also very easy for me to fall into political activity because my parents were in it, and my friends were in it, and that’s what everyone did. My parents belonged to a left wing, Jewish organization, and as I grew, I became part of that world also. When I was a child my parents took me to rallies and I would march along with them – I went to rallies during the Second World War when I was very young.
As a teen, I belonged to a group called American Youth for Democracy. This was around the time when Henry Wallace, a progressive third-party candidate, was running in 1948. There was a major movement to elect Henry Wallace. There were songs about him, which I loved – “It’s the same old merry-go-round, which one will you ride this year? The donkey and elephant bob up and down, on the same old merry-go-round.” We had several songs like that, and my friends and I went to Henry Wallace rallies and we sang them. This was my social experience – I was 16, and this was what I did for fun. This was a time of the famous hootenannies with folk music becoming important. These hootenannies had performers who were all left-wing and the audience, including me, learned many political songs about current issues of the day.
Music thus became a huge influence on my life and became my main channel for social activism. I had perfect pitch, and as a result it was ordained that I should be a musician. I went to a high school called Music and Art, (now called LaGuardia High School) and I also took piano lessons from an early age for fourteen years.
I later went to Hunter College and majored in music. I felt that I was not going anywhere, so I dropped out my senior year. I became a conductor at that point and I joined the Jewish Young Folks singers, a left-wing chorus. We sang songs of all people – labor songs, songs about justice and peace, and others. It was a reflection of what I was interested in. For a long time after that I conducted choruses, including choruses in Philadelphia and Washington D.C. for the Jewish Music Alliance.
Being a Jew was also very important to me. There was a network of Jewish schools in New York, ours was the most left wing, sponsored by the Jewish’s People’s Fraternal Order from the International Workers’Order –a large national organization. The students were taught to read and write Yiddish and learned about workers’struggles. They had an after-school program that was in the coops. I was known as the musician there and played the piano for the dance teacher during the school season. Being in this Jewish network proved to be a very major influence in my life because during the summer, all of my friends were going to a camp called Camp Kinderland, in which my parents could not afford to send me. However, when I was sixteen, the dance teacher asked me to come to camp and be her accompanist.
When I went to camp for the first time, it became my life. The first year, I made $50 in 10 weeks. By the second year I was there, I became the head of the counselor’s union. The staff was all left-wingers who knew the camp, and many had gone to the Jewish school, and so my network of friends was all of these people with whom I was very familiar. In the wintertime, we would get together and have hikes and dances – it was a social network. Of course, if there was a parade or rally, we all went to it. I became a board member of Kinderland along with my husband many years later. As a member of the board, I was the liaison between what was happening in the summer and what the needs of the camp were generally. I was associated withCamp Kinderland for 70, starting in 1948. From about 1980 on,I have been coming up on weekends and doing special events. In fact, I have four children, all of whom went to the Jewish School, and also went through camp. Their children went through camp as well. As a matter of fact, when my youngest, Freddy, first went to camp he was three months old – my mother baby-sat while I worked.
Little by little, by 1951, the McCarthy period had begun. As a result, the sheriff would come around and take the license plate numbers of all the parents who were visiting. So, it became very difficult for the camp, and they had less and less campers.
Every year, in my lifetime in the ‘30’s and ‘40’s, before Progressives were prevented by the scourge of McCarthyism, people would get together along 5thAvenue. Many unions and various left wing organizations would march on May Day, marching for labor, people’s issues of the day, and peace, and showing our allegiance to working people. When I was old enough to join it, I would lead my contingent of young people, (I had a very loud voice) and we would sing the songs that we had learned in the Jewish school and from hootenannies. I would skip backwards down 5thAvenue to Union Square and yell out the words to the songs. We would sing Yiddish songs of struggle and we sang songs like – “Hold the fort for we are coming, union folks be strong. Side by side we’ll battle onward, victory will come!” And you would march while you sang, down 5thAvenue to Union Square where there were speakers, who talked about issues such as, “Let’s get rid of McCarthy,” and “The Soviet Union is not a boogeyman…” And of course I went to Washington on protest marchesmany times. Later on, in the 60’s, I was at the MLK March on Washington, and the director of camp and I came directly from camp. We rented a bus and we drove from camp to Union Square, and we filled the bus with people who wanted to go on the march. However, this ended when people started becoming afraid, because the police were very anti-marchers, and it became difficult. They would come riding with their horses right into us. People stopped coming to the parades.
In those days, you sang at every rally you went to, not like today. In fact, when I went back for my Masters at Hunter College, the students were having a problem with the administration and they had a sit in, right in the main lobby of Hunter College. I came along, I was probably in my 30s, and these were all younger people, protesting the issue. I came over to them, I wanted to show solidarity with them and I said, “How about a song?” and they looked at me like I was nuts. People did not know to sing anymore. I felt, what a division there was between my age and their age, when we used to sing all the time.
In addition to attending rallies, I used to go door to door. I often staffed a table, and we would sign people up to petition them against when young men had to register for the Army. I also went from door to door in an Italian neighborhood in the Bronx, ringing doorbells to get people to sign a petition on the Rosenberg’s and informing them that the pope had expressed concern for the Rosenberg plight.
Perhaps my proudest accomplishment is my years at Camp Kinderland – in specific, the musical comedies that I have done and educating children through music at Kinderland. At our last reunion, a guy came over to me and said, “I am still mad at you, because you did not pick me for the lead” some thirty years before. Needless to say, musical comedies become so important for the kids. Also, when I taught the campers a song, I always gave them the background of the song, so we didn’t just sing. For instance, if I taught them a song like Kevin Barry- the song about a hero of the Irish Rebellion, they are not going to know anything about that, so I tell them the story behind the song. “All around that little bakery where they fought hand to hand, Kevin Barry gave his young life for the cause of liberty…” Basically, you cannot just sing a song in a vacuum – you have to know it. Sometimes it is just a fun song, but most of them have to do with social activism. Additionally, every summer of camp has a certain theme – Speak Truth to Power, Women’s Liberation, etc. One summer, the project for the camp was the Spanish Civil War, and I taught them songs of the Spanish Civil War. Likewise, in camp we learn about respecting workers, and respecting other people. It was a Jewishprogressive camp, but we were accused of having Communist ties. The directors of the camp were called to testify at the McCarren committee. Our affiliation with the IWO –which became outlawed –was dropped and the camp was forced to become an unaffiliated and independent camp. As a result we lost many campers.
Many of the children who attend the camp become active in progressive causes, and work today in social activism. They all retain what they learn in camp, and their parents choose to send them to camp for that very reason. If you are a child growing up in a Progressive home, and all around you there are people who are reactionary, you tend to feel like an outcast. But then you come to camp and everyone is like you, it’s a whole different feeling. Some kids come totally innocent and leave totally innocent, but there are others who, later on might be as old as 60 years old and I still meet them at the rallies. Camp Kinderland has a huge, yellow banner and at every demonstration it is held up, and past and presentcampers all come around and stand and march with that banner. They depend on me to lead the songs because my conducting experience has made it very easy to be a leader of singing.
Although I am no longer involved with the camp, I am still involved in social activism. Notably, about fifteen years ago, I started teaching Yiddish. I have two classes that meet once a week. My students attempt to read and speak Yiddish. I do transliteration, I do Yiddish stories, and at the end of every session we sing. We not only sing political songs, but also love songs, and songs about nature, justice, and peace (in Yiddish).
To this day, if there is a demonstration, I will go to it. I am proud of the influence I have had on generations of campers at Kinderland whom I have taught over the many years I have been there and of my children and grandchildren who have developed into socially active adults.
Interviewer and author Lilly Engeler was enrolled in Fordham University professor Chris Rhomberg’s Fall, 2017 urban sociology class. Students profiled women honored as part of Labor Arts’ annual Clara Lemlich Awards, celebrating women in their 80s and 90s who spent a lifetime involved in social justice issues. More at laborarts.org