By Yetta Lippman
It was December 1965. My husband Jerome Lackner and I drove to Delano from San Jose with our five young children. The older ones were on school holiday. We had heard about the most recent efforts to organize farm workers. We wanted to offer our services, to what was then National Famworkers Association that had just merged with the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee. We weren’t sure what we might have to offer. Jerome was a physician; I was a school teacher/housewife then.
It turned out that Jerome provided medical care and the children and I were on the picket lines. Sometimes, growers would single me out, come over and tell me that I didn’t belong there, that it wasn’t my business. I would explain that the conditions for workers who provide food for my table is my concern, it’s everyone’s concern.
Before we left Delano that first time, Cesar Chavez presented Jerome and me with the first honorary union cards, numbers 1 and 2, signed by Cesar and Antonio Orendain. It was the start of a relationship with the farm worker movement that lasted for over a decade and continues now on another level.
After that first winter, we went to Delano whenever we could. Jerome continued to offer his medical services and worked with many others, including Marion Moses, to establish farm worker clinics. He helped recruit Fred Schlichting and many other medical volunteers who were dedicated to improving the health of field workers and their families. The children and I spent vacations on the picket lines in Delano. Then later, when there was conflict with the Teamsters, I helped organize informational picket lines about the boycott in front of supermarkets in Santa Clara County. Our kids helped pass out fliers, talked to shoppers, held up the huelga flag. Our garage became a picket center, where other volunteer teams stored their huelga flags and fliers, and our house a place for organizing meetings. I wrote editorials about La Huelga for the CORE later and spoke before the state legislature about bills involving farm workers.
And occasionally, Cesar had some special task for me. One time, when he was hospitalized and recovering from a fast, Cesar asked me to visit his hospital room. He was sequestered in the maternity ward because he had received death threats and that seemed a safe place. When I got there he made two requests. The first was to write down some of my vegetarian recipes because he had decided to become a vegetarian. That was the easy one.
The other request was to communicate with the Jewish rabbinate and find a way to reach them and win support for the boycott. He said he was experienced in talking to bishops; but how does one approach rabbis? He left the matter in my hands. I had no idea how or where to begin. I don’t remember the year, but I remember it was before Rosh Hashana when he made the request. And that started a year long project.
By chance, I visited the shop of an old friend, Shirley Freund. Her husband, Iser, was a retired rabbi. He would study in the shop so they could be together during the day. I noticed a packet of information on his desk and asked about it. He said that different groups sent out factual information to rabbis on various social issues. It was handy to have these packets, he explained, if one wanted to get the facts straight before addressing a congregation or the public. That conversation enlightened me and set me on the path. I asked, and Iser loaned me his directory for the Central Conference of American Rabbis.
From that time until Passover I was putting together packets of information about the farm worker movement: the low wages, grower opposition to union organizing; difficulties in contract negotiations, health care needs and poor working conditions; whatever I knew to be accurate and substantiated. The nuns from nearby Guadalupe College came one day and helped me to assemble packets that were all over the house. Occasionally, the older kids helped. And eventually, after nine months, I sent them out to the world, addressed to the 2200 members of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. At their convention that summer, Rabbi Berman saw to it that the farmerworker boycott was put on the agenda. When the CCAR voted, it renewed its support of the cause of farm workers, support of the right of farm workers to organize, and support of the boycott.
Even after we stopped being directly involved, Jerome still saw what needed to be done. As California State Director of Health he outlawed the use of the short-handled hoe, got latrines in the fields, worked for pesticide and spraying control. There were other changes…
My children and I reminisced about what it was like for them, spending vacations volunteering in Delano and Saturday afternoons picketing. I asked Ruth, Johanna, Joel, Sara, and Zelda what they remember, what was meaningful to them. They remembered a lot: being on the march from Delano to Sacramento; the first Huelga clinic, known then as The Pink House; one Labor Day when I went into a field to organize and almost got arrested; when Jerry Cohen got beat up and hospitalized; LeRoy Chatfield’s quiet presence organizing; the thoughtfulness of Jim Drake; young Marc, the volunteer who died in the desert; Marshall Ganz and Jessica Govea and their work and friendship; the charisma of Dolores Huerta; the friendship of valiant Helen Chavez; Luis Valdez and performances of El Teatro Campesino; Larry Itliong’s warm greetings; meals in the Filipino Hall dining room; dancing at that first Christmas in Filipino Hall; the generosity and kindness of everyone to us.
There were so many other good people that touched our lives, people whose names escape us but whose faces and deeds are remembered. It was a strong and honorable community. We all hoped that in working for la causa, for justice for farm workers, we were creating a better world for everyone. The roots are still there.