In her memoir, Manhattan, When I was Young, Mary Cantwell recalls how, as an Irish-American woman with a Jewish boyfriend (soon to become her husband) during the summer Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were electrocuted, she found herself worrying: “The weekend we spent at his [uncle and aunt’s] cabin in the Catskills smearing cream cheese on toast was torture, because they reminded me of the Rosenbergs…. I thought we would all be arrested, that I, too, would die in the chair.” Marching as a couple in a 1936 Communist-sponsored May Day parade on Lower Broadway, Mary McCarthy recalls how parade marshals tended to be blond and blue-eyed, with party cadres “on the whole Jewish.” McCarthy and her gentile partner were placed at the parade’s outer edge thus “making [Jews] less visible by staying in the center of the ranks like the filling of a sandwich.”
Communism retained a vague, somewhat sinister potency in the early ‘60s as I came of age in a densely Jewish wedge of Los Angeles a mile or two south of the Hollywood Hills. There was the Emma Lazarus club, a greyish storefront on a stretch of Pico more Black than Jewish a mile or so from the Jewish Pico-Robertson neighborhood. I had heard that this was a group favoured by Jewish fellow travellers and found myself staring intently at the building as we drove home from my yeshiva high school. My early adolescent mind was certain of the orgiastic abandon behind its deceptively nondescript exterior. I also noted how certain relatives and family acquaintances, their names rarely mentioned again except in whispers or exaggerated grimaces, disappeared – not into the clutches of authorities – thrust out of the clubby embrace of our cousin’s club, or landsmanschaft gatherings. What I came to understand was that those exiled still had CP membership – or at least sympathies.
In my early twenties, as I embraced anti-war activities, wearing my hair long and replacing the rock-heavy orthopedic shoes I had always worn with sandals – roughly at the same time I started studying Russian – my mother complained to anyone who would listen that her son was now a communist. Just a few months ago a lawyer, a former schoolmate, all-but-asked whether I was still a party member.
In our family circle, which hailed from a small town in the Lithuanian marshes just beyond Pinsk – among the more politically inflected regions of the former Pale of Settlement – Communism was a source of mostly sequestered, if intermittently acute, unease. My parents were both born in Chicago, long a CP hub, settling eventually in Los Angeles. There the Communist Party, numbering some 3,000 in the 1930s, included the country’s largest proportion of Jews: 90 percent of its membership was Jewish, not counting more numerous non-party supporters. The party’s influence was felt most strongly in the Jewish enclaves of Boyle Heights and Hollywood. Nearly all of this had disappeared by the time I reached my early adolescence, though with a lingering presence – at least in the milieu in which I grew up – much like formerly potent, only recently eradicated medical perils such as tuberculosis or polio.
Once you start to notice it, though, the disinclination to look squarely at Communism’s allure as a feature of American Jewish life is obvious. Barely a glimmer in Judd Teller’s 1966 portrait of Jewish cultural and intellectual life Strangers and Natives: The Evolution of the American Jew from 1921 to the Present; one citation in Charles Silberman’s bestselling 1985 portrait of contemporary Jewish life A Certain People ; not even an index entry in Howard M. Sacher’s mammoth A History of the Jews in America published in 1992.