Karen J. Kassirer: Artist, Friend and Comrade
— Kate Stacy
KAREN WAS MY oldest and dearest friend. We were young women together in Detroit, working for the newspaper of the International Socialists beginning in the early ‘70s. She had moved to Detroit along with IS members from other cities, mostly on the West or East coasts, to help establish our political center and an infrastructure to support our factory and trade union activism.
Our tenure spanned seminal events of our political tradition, but Karen and I were focused on Workers Power, a 20-page bi-weekly for several years and then a 12-page weekly. We were enormously proud that Publisher’s Weekly described it as a “professionally produced” political newspaper, which was sweet praise given our staff of five fairly inexperienced folks working 50-60 hours weekly.
As Karen Kaye, she wrote beautifully about socialism and women, families, politics, the environment and popular culture. Together we loved the language with which we wrote about our passion, which was politics. We jousted with workmates over commas and verb tenses and sentence length and the thousand and one details that make language precise.
We were true believers in the power of prose to influence, to paint compelling pictures, to convey our collective sense of the socialist world in which we dared to imagine we might grow old. Not to be.
Karen returned to her hometown, Buffalo, in the late ‘80s and then moved to New York City, where she had a successful career in advertising. As a co-worker in her proofreading department said, “She loved words and everything about them, including the typeface in which they were printed.” She was also honored as the 2006 Colby Artist at the Buffalo Seminary.
Although no longer politically active she was an avid lurker — keeping tabs on David Finkel’s writing in Against the Current and the news in Labor Notes. As the Internet developed, she traveled the political world, turning friends on to Black Commentator and developing an abiding interest in the historical roots of hip hop.
Karen became politically active again around the 2000 Nader campaign, developing a rather odd personal admiration for Ralph. She remained a revolutionary socialist to her core, passionately believing that collective social living would unleash human creativity. “If I didn’t have to shop and cook and clean up,” she would say, “if I could just stop at the dining hall to eat after work, when I got home I could really paint.” She hated capitalism’s destruction of everything she valued — people, labor, leisure, nature.
She was interested a few years ago, when the New York Left made a brief effort to work together, but turned off by the presentation — mainly white guys taking turns talking with most of us simply listening. She wanted to do something more intimate, where people talked to each other — what did I think about a reading group? We proposed it and found Nancy, who found Gundega and Roz, plus Tim, with Marsha at the beginning, and then Jim. Although somewhat staggered by Karen’s illness and death, our Socialist-Feminist Reading Group lives on and will have new members when we re-group this coming Fall.
Karen is survived by her sister Susan and by her mother Norma Kassirer, a novelist, poet and painter from whom she must have inherited much of her own artistic talent.
The first time Karen and I saw each other after I moved to New York she had just been diagnosed with breast cancer. As it was caught early, she was truly shocked when it metastasized. Throughout her illness she was optimistic and resilient, for the last two years going for treatment early every Monday on her way to work, something she accepted she would do for the rest of her life.
As she weakened, she planned to retire on disability and paint and write — about socialism and what a great gift it could be to all of us. She became to me the very definition of grace, ravaged grace. Despite her truly terrible ordeal, I think of her life as a triumph. She became the person she wanted to be, fully inhabiting her own skin, both restlessly and contentedly idiosyncratic, and always completely Karen.
from ATC 130 (September/October 2007)