Schappes, Morris U. (Morris Urman), 1907-

Alternative names
Dates:
Birth 1907
Death 2004

Biographical notes:

Born Moishe Shapshilevich in 1907 in Kamenetz-Podolsk, Ukraine, Schappes was raised in Brazil and moved with his parents to New York in 1914. Earning his Bachelor of Arts at City College and his Master of Arts at Columbia University, he joined the faculty of City College as an English lecturer in 1928. As a scholar, Schappes first achieved prominence for his work on the poetry and letters of Emma Lazarus, published in a series of books and monographs between 1944 and 1987. His broader historical studies include A Documentary History of the Jews in the United States, 1654-1875 (1950), and the popular The Jews in the United States: A Pictorial History, 1654 to the Present (1958). A longtime fixture in the world of American communism, Schappes first achieved prominence in 1941 when he was fired, along with 40 others, from the faculty of City College of New York for Communist Party membership. He later served 13 months in prison for perjury after refusing to name other party members before a New York State Legislature committee. Schappes was part of a group of Party activists who joined together in 1946 to found the magazine Jewish Life, which became an unofficial party organ. After Khrushchev's 1956 denunciation of Stalin's atrocities touched off a mass exodus of party members, the magazine was reorganized and relaunched in 1958 as Jewish Currents, with Schappes as its editor, a post he held for four decades. The magazine gradually broke with the Soviet Union and moved closer to Israel, especially after 1967.

From the description of Morris U. Schappes papers, 1920-2000. (New York University). WorldCat record id: 476089899

Historian, editor.

From the description of Reminiscences of Morris U. Schappes : oral history, 1983. (Columbia University In the City of New York). WorldCat record id: 309724328

Editor of Jewish currents a progressive monthly journal.

From the description of Correspondence to Chaim Potok, 1983-1984. (University of Pennsylvania Library). WorldCat record id: 711665208

Teacher and writer.

Schappes was an alumnus of City College, Class of 1928.

From the description of Papers, 1936-1943. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 155503870

Morris U. Schappes (1907-2004) was a scholar, editor and activist who was fired by the City College of New York after being investigated as a Communist Party member, and who spent over a year in prison (1943-1944) for perjury after refusing to name other Party members when testifying before an investigating committee of the New York State Legislature. He was a founder and long-time editor of the progressive, secular magazine Jewish Currents ; a popular lecturer; and the author of articles, reviews, radio broadcasts, books and monographs, many of them on U.S. Jewish history.

Born Moishe Shapshilevich in Kamenetz-Podolsk, Ukraine, Schappes spent his earliest years in Brazil and then moved with his parents to New York City in 1914. Bureaucrats reduced the family name to Schappes and his mother Americanized his name as Morris. He added the middle “U” later as part of his byline as a sportswriter on the newspaper of City College of New York (CCNY), where he graduated in 1928 and subsequently joined the faculty as an English lecturer. (He had previously attended Townsend Harris Hall High School.) He also attended Columbia University as a graduate student, earning a master’s degree in 1930. In that same year, he began his sixty-two year marriage to Sonya Laffer, who died in 1992.

A longtime fixture in the world of American Communism, Schappes gained widespread attention in 1941 when he was fired, along with 40 others, from the faculty of CCNY for Communist Party membership or involvement. The school had first attempted to dismiss him in 1936 for his political activities but he was retained as the result of a student protest. Later he served 13 1/2 months (1943-1944) in prison for perjury after refusing to name other Party members before New York’s Joint Legislative Committee on the State Education System (known as the Rapp-Coudert Committee). After his release from prison, Schappes worked briefly in a war production factory in Queens and, in 1946, joined with other Party activists to found the magazine Jewish Life, which became an unofficial Party organ. He supplemented his income by freelance lecturing and writing.

As a scholar, Schappes first achieved some prominence for his work on the poetry and letters of Emma Lazarus, and he published a number of books and monographs between 1944 and 1987. Having developed a strong interest in Jewish history while serving in prison, he subsequently published two broad historical studies: A Documentary History of the Jews in the United States, 1654-1877 (1950) and The Jews in the United States: A Pictorial History, 1654 to the Present (1958).

In the early 1950s, Schappes experienced another brush with government committees when the State Department began a purge of books from the shelves of overseas libraries operated by the United States Information Agency. The U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, chaired by Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, held hearings to support McCarthy’s demand that 30,000 “Communist books” be removed, including Schappes’ A Documentary History of the Jews… . In April of 1953, Schappes was subpoenaed and appeared before the committee to defend his books and to attack McCarthyism.

After Nikita Krushchev’s 1956 speech denouncing the misdeeds of Stalin, the subscription base of Jewish Life began slipping away and the magazine’s staff joined many of the rank-and-filers in their disillusion with the Communism they had known. The result was the founding of Jewish Currents, with Morris Schappes as its editor; the journal, independent of Party discipline and financing, would become an intellectual home for an increasingly diverse base of (mostly) secular Jewish leftists.

Schappes dedicated more than four decades to Jewish Currents, and to shaping the views of its enthusiastic and loyal readership. In his “Editor’s Diary” column, he reported on books, plays, films and events in the progressive Jewish movement and engaged in a number of noteworthy controversies, including a historical defense of American Jewish responses to the Holocaust; commentaries about solidarity and tensions between U.S. Jews and African-Americans; and his concerns about antisemitism in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice . Schappes played an active role in the day-to-day management of Jewish Currents until 2000.

Throughout his working life, he was a sought-after lecturer and commentator on Jewish affairs and wrote many articles, essays and letters to the editor in a variety of newspapers, magazines and journals. In 1981, the faculty senate of City College formally apologized for firing him and his colleagues.

Morris Schappes died in New York City on June 3, 2004. He was 97 years old.

Sources:

Douglas, Martin, “Morris Schappes, Marxist and Jewish Scholar, Dies at 97”, New York Times (June 9, 2004).

Forward Staff, “Leftist Magazine Editor Morris U. Schappes, 97, Dies”, Forward, http://www.jewishcurrents.org/schappes.htm, July 17, 2008.

“Morris U. Schappes, 1907-2004,” Jewish Currents, July 2004.

From the guide to the Morris Schappes Papers, Bulk, 1928-2002, 1911-2004, (Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archive)

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Subjects:

  • Fascism
  • Academic freedom--New York (State)--New York
  • Internal security
  • Teaching, Freedom of
  • Immigrants--United States
  • Holocaust, Jewish (1939-1945)
  • African Americans--Relations with Jews
  • Literature--Study and teaching
  • Antisemitism
  • Anti-communist movements--United States--History
  • Jews--United States--Attitudes toward Israel
  • Communist teachers
  • Communists
  • Editors--Interviews
  • Zionism
  • Jewish historians--Interviews
  • Communism
  • Anti-fascist movements
  • Jewish communists
  • College teachers--Political activity
  • Jewish way of life
  • Jewish history, life, and culture
  • Jewish periodicals
  • Jewish Trade Union

Occupations:

  • Authors
  • College teachers

Places:

  • New York (State)--New York (as recorded)
  • New York (N.Y.) (as recorded)
  • New York (N.Y.) (as recorded)
  • United States (as recorded)
  • New York (State)--New York (as recorded)
  • United States (as recorded)