CONFESSIONS OF A RED DIAPER BABY
by Jay Feldman
On the surface, we were like most other Jewish families in the neighborhood — hard-working, education-oriented, upward-striving. But hidden behind this facade of normalcy lurked two closely guarded secrets that we carried with us daily, and our true identities were allowed free expression only when we were among our own kind.
The two secrets were related. The first, and considerably less ominous of the two, was that we were secular Jews. Of my Jewish friends in the neighborhood, all came from at least nominally observant homes, which is to say, they went to synagogue on the high holidays, had seders at Passover, and took Hebrew lessons after school so they could be bar-mitzvahed when they turned thirteen — and though their religious activity involved not much more than that, it was the accepted norm. I, on the other hand, had never so much as set foot in a synagogue but went instead to a Yiddish-language shule a couple of afternoons a week after school. Seders in our family were nothing other than family feasts, with no ceremony at all attached to them. I was very aware of these differences vis à vis my friends’ families, and they contributed to my feelings of being an outsider as well as to my fear of being unmasked as one. Religious Jews looked upon secular Jews as renegade apostates, and you simply didn’t go around advertising your lack of faith in those days.
But the much bigger and potentially far more damaging secret, and the one that explains our irreligious bent, was that we were Communists — religion, after all, was the opiate of the people, and we scorned it accordingly.
So there it is: I grew up in a Communist household. I was a red diaper baby, weaned on tales of Joe Hill, Sacco and Vanzetti, and the Scottsboro Boys, and a veteran, at a tender age, of Camp Kinderland, the American Labor Party, and May Day rallies in Union Square. I may not have always been exactly sure of what this all meant, but I knew it set us apart.
It was no easy thing, growing up in a Communist family in Brooklyn in the 1950s. This was a fractious time, the height of the McCarthy era, that censurable epoch in American life when the fearmongers and witch-hunters were conducting a frenzied search for subversives under every rock, and the most casual association with red-tainted people, causes or organizations anywhere along the line — “Are you now, or have you ever been…?” — was enough to damn a person's life and career.
And we were no casual leftists. On my mother's side, my grandfather and his two older brothers had been the leaders, in their tiny Russian shtetl, of the failed 1905 revolution. They went with sticks and stones to overthrow the tsar, and wound up in jail. When they were arrested, they were made to run in front of the tsarist police, who had long bullwhips with which they lashed the three brothers all the way to the police station. My grandfather's oldest brother, who was twenty-one, was sentenced to a year in jail; the next oldest, at nineteen, was a hot-head and mouthed off at the judge, so he got three years. My grandfather, it was soon discovered, was only thirteen, and he was sent home.
In the United States, my grandfather became a street-corner organizer, a soapbox rabble-rouser for the American Communist Party. He was the guy who, after all the meat-and-potatoes political speeches were finished, made the pitch for money and passed the hat. His wife, my grandmother, had a rather proscribed view of politics — Socialists, to her, were “right-wingers,” and she regarded them with disdain. “Zest em?” she’d hiss under her breath, pointing a crooked finger at a passerby. “A durch-getribbener sozialist!” You see him? A dyed-in-the-wool Socialist.
My father's parents, also Russian immigrants, worked in the garment trade and had also been Party members. My father spent his teenage years in the Workers' Cooperative Colony — the Coops, for short. The Coops was the first tenant-owned cooperative housing project in the Bronx, and a hotbed of radical Jewish politics in the 1920s and ‘30s.
This, then, was my family pedigree. And for people like my parents and grandparents, who came from such a radical tradition and were still involved in left-wing causes in the early ‘50s, life had an edge of well-justified fear. Like many of their friends, they had resigned from the Party in the late ‘40s, as it became increasingly clear that the Party was taking its orders from Moscow and that the Soviet version of socialism was never going to be a viable reality in this country. But the fact of their no longer being Party members in no way diluted the fear — "Are you now or have you ever been…?”
If we were ever tempted to forget the vulnerability of our situation, periodic visits from the FBI served to remind us of the dangers we faced. Not that the agents who came sniffing around ever identified themselves as such; no, they usually posed as insurance investigators. But it was always easy to spot them because they actually did wear trenchcoats. I don't know what they were hoping to find since they already knew all about us, unless it might have been some of my parents’ Party functionary friends who were on the lam — every so often one of these fugitives would come and stay with us for a few days before moving on.
One of my favorites was Mike, an easygoing, good-natured guy with a beefy build, a snaggle tooth, a ruddy complexion, and a flattened nose, all of which combined to make him look like an Irish prizefighter, though he was Jewish. He always seemed to be somewhere between bemused and befuddled, which was tremendously appealing. It wasn’t until much later, when the McCarthy years were just a bad memory, that I found out his name was actually George, and that everyone who went underground in those days took a nom de guerre. Such was the extent to which precautions were taken in the justifiably paranoid political climate of the ‘50s.
In fact, my parents had close friends who went to jail for their politics. These weren't bomb-throwers, for chrissakes, these were ordinary, decent, working people who played softball and drank Coca Cola and fought against Hitler in World War II. They didn't go to jail for violent criminal activities; they went to jail for their ideas. Truly, right here in the land of the free and the home of the brave, people we knew were being sent to the slammer for their thoughts. These folks were idealists, utopians, whose concern was to build a new and better world. Their revolution was far more a theoretical than a violent one. Sure, there were strikes and rallies, picket lines and demonstrations, but mounting the barricades to overthrow the United States government was not part of the program. The movement was based, rather, on a discontent with what were accurately perceived to be the inequalities of the capitalist system, a feeling of compassion for the oppressed and dispossessed of the world, and a vision of the future in which an evolved human family lived in universal peace and harmony. And though many of those who stayed on in the Party into the ‘50s quit after Stalin’s atrocities came to light following his death in 1953, the justifiable fear caused by the McCarthy-ist reign of terror continued unabated.
So while I may not have always understood the issues very well, I was sufficiently impressed with the necessity of keeping our political affiliations concealed.
In our household, precautions included keeping all left-wing literature out of general view. My sister and I were trained to check the front rooms for what might have been inadvertently left lying around before we opened the door to any outsiders. I wasn't always clear about what needed to be hidden — the AAA Motorist, for example, came in a plain brown wrapper, just like The Daily Worker, so I assumed that the auto-club newspaper was also a subversive tract.
You had to be ever vigilant and protect the secret diligently. Outside the house, for instance, you didn’t talk about Camp Kinderland, the racially integrated, Communist-affiliated summer camp in upstate New York, where my sister and I spent summers. For us, Kinderland was a glorious Eden where we felt a strong sense of belonging and the shared experience of being part of a movement to build a better world. One of my earliest musical influences, Pete Seeger, whose politics were very left-wing, visited camp on several occasions — once, we even went to his house in Beacon, New York, to appear as extras in a short film he was making about how to fashion a Jamaican steel pan from a fifty-five-gallon oil drum. Kinderland was not only an escape from the asphalt jungle, it was a haven where we were free to be our true selves and not the secret-guarders we were forced to be the rest of our lives. But every year, when we came home from camp, my mother would caution us not to mention Camp Kinderland in public, which was a leaden reminder that we were back in the world of angst. Her warning became especially imperative the summer that the director of Kinderland was summoned to appear before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. “If anyone asks you what camp you went to, don’t tell them the name of it,” my mother reminded us.
“What should we say?”
“Anything. Just don’t say Camp Kinderland.”
This was really hard for me because I’ve never been any good at lying, so when someone asked where we spent the summer, I’d panic and say the first thing that met my eye — “Uh, Camp Lamppost” — or the first thing that came to mind — “Camp Ishkabibble.”
The problem was that I didn't know the implications of many of the details of our everyday lives, so I would sometimes accidentally — from the same innocent impulse that caused me to express my exuberance at inappropriate times — let the cat out of the bag and then find myself in hot water. Which is what happened around holiday time when my third-grade teacher, Mrs. McDonald, asked the class if anyone could say "Merry Christmas" in another language. I raised my hand and she called on me. I recited half a dozen different Merry Christmases. "That's wonderful," she bubbled. "Where did you ever learn all of those?"
"From the children's page of The Daily Worker," I answered proudly.
Suddenly, her eyes narrowed to slits. "Stand up!" she commanded sharply. I was stunned. What had I done now? What caused this sudden, utterly unexpected change in her manner? "Are you a Communist?" she demanded. Whooops! Uh-oh. I got the picture all too clearly. I remembered only now, too late, that The Daily Worker was one of those verboten subjects that we were never to mention outside the house.
At the drop of the "C" word, a hush had fallen over the class. My head was spinning. I stalled for time. Mrs. McDonald repeated her question more deliberately and urgently this time: "Are…you…a…Communist?" I knew better than to answer directly.
"I don't know," I said weakly.
"What do you mean, you don't know?" she insisted. "Are you or aren't you a Communist?"
Out of pure fright, I held my ground. "I don't know." And so it went — "Are you a Communist?""I don't know"— over and over, until Mrs. McDonald, seeing that I wasn't going to crack, gave up and told me to sit down.
Of course, it didn't end there. I was now a marked man, and Mrs. McDonald went out of her way to make my life miserable. If I talked out of turn, she hit me on the knuckles with her ruler or made me stand with my back to the blackboard and bounced my head against it. For a long time, I refrained from telling my mother about this abuse because I didn't want her to know I'd spilled the beans. Finally though, after months of being picked on, I couldn't hold it in any longer. When I told my mother what had been going on, she turned into the same tigress I'd seen when I'd been threatened with the spanking machine. She called the principal, Mr. Edelson, and set up an appointment to see him and Mrs. McDonald together.
Mr. Edelson was a decent, weary-seeming man in his fifties who always looked as if he was trying to figure out what mistake he'd made earlier in his life that had resulted in his being where he was now. He had a sense of resignation about him that made you feel guilty about any happiness you might have.
Mr. Edelson, caught in the middle, played the role of peacemaker. "He's a Communist," snarled Mrs. McDonald, pointing at me. "He quotes from The Daily Worker."
"I doubt very much that the Communist Party solicits membership from eight-year olds," said Mr. Edelson, looking even wearier than usual.
"Are you a Communist?" Mrs. McDonald asked my mother.
"That's none of your goddamn business," my mother shot back. "And don't you ever lay a hand on him again, or I'll take you to court."
The principal knew he had to side with her. "I assure you, Mrs. Feldman, there'll be no more of that," he offered. "Isn't that so, Mrs. McDonald?" She made no response, and not wanting to show her up any further, Mr. Edelson said, "Then we all understand one other. I consider the matter closed."
After that, Mrs. McDonald pretty much left me alone, but I could see by the look in her eyes that she hated my guts and was always waiting for me to step out of line in order to have a good excuse to persecute me.
So I learned to always be looking over my shoulder. The most difficult part of growing up a red diaper baby was feeling I had to hide who I was. That was balanced out by the sense of belonging when we were with our own kind of people and the shared sense of being part of a movement to build a better world. The idealism, the humanism stayed with me.
And with time, the greatest legacy of my red-diaper childhood became knowing that it’s okay to heed the inner voice, to march to a different drummer, if indeed you hear one. I heard one then; I hear one still. And thanks to my upbringing, I’m still marching to a syncopated beat.