By Sam Baltimore
Sam Baltimore works at Jews United for Justice in Washington, DC and Baltimore, MD. Most of his writing is about musicals, which are as much a part of his American Jewish history as Communism.
I think everyone has heard by now about the President accusing all non-Republican American Jews of being disloyal or ignorant. He then clarified that he was talking about our disloyalty to Israel, but that’s not what I think about when I hear that sentiment.
On Thursday, The Jewish Vote responded with a Twitter thread about one particular piece of our history of being called disloyal in the 1950s:
The specters of history they summoned up included Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the trials of Eugene Dennis and other Communist Party leaders in the US, the impact of the red scare on the Jewish Peoples Fraternal Order (JPFO) and its political organizing, and what happened to the political left and especially the Jewish left after that.
That thread moved me, as it did the hundreds of others who shared it, but it wasn’t Our History to me. It was just my childhood.
My parents met through the National Committee to Reopen the Rosenberg Case, where my mom was an organizer in the 1970s. The Rosenbergs’ co-defendant, Morty Sobell, dated one of my mom’s best friends when I was a kid, in the 1980s. The former director of Camp Kinderland, one of the projects of the JPFO that survived the red scare, was one of our closest family friends throughout the 1990s. My biggest high school research project was on the Dennis trials, in 2000.
The story of American Jewish Communists is my family and my friends and not in any way the past. It felt like the past when I was in high school writing about Dennis vs. United States, but now this History is not only not past, it’s urgent and current.
Back in the 1950s, Sylvia Aron, the former Camp Kinderland director, ran for local office in Indiana on the Communist Party ticket. We found her old campaign literature when helping her and her husband Hank clean out their attic in the 1990s. We also found a huge box of ILGWU-branded emery boards from some old union event. I think my dad still has some of those emery boards. The distance between running for office as a Communist while relocated from New York to South Bend because of the FBI pressures on Camp Kinderland and today is a ratty old cardboard box full of union nail files.
These memories are not distant ones. Morty Sobell died in December 2018, just eight months ago. I didn’t know that until looking it up in response to this Twitter thread. Sylvia and her husband Hank’s son Gene died last year too, which I found out on Camp Kinderland’s website. I still think about Sylvia and Hank every time I eat broccoli. My parents used to beg them not to overcook their vegetables when we ate at their place. I remember them reluctantly agreeing to serve broccoli “raw” once. Which meant it was still green, not yellow.
I am thirty-six years old, a millennial. Just last week, a Christian Baby Boomer lamented to me that millennials don’t even know about the Holocaust anymore. We do. We also know about a lot of other Jewish history. We are still living in it.