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Mickey Flacks

I was brought up within two seemingly contradictory contexts: a sense of alienation (from the larger society) and a profound sense of belonging (to a vitally important and sustaining subgroup.) I spoke only Yiddish until shortly before I entered kindergarten at five years old. My parents were as different from the “American Family” as one could imagine: immigrant, Yiddish‐accented-English speaking, working class, late middle aged, Bolshevik‐style Communists. We lived in a lower middle class neighborhood where the wave of war‐time (WWII) prosperity left us, with a large-ish apartment and a boarder in one room to help pay the rent. Except for the accents, our neighbors and the parents of the kids I went to school and grew up with did not resemble my parents. I was taught that we were different from our neighbors – we had a “higher” consciousness, we were “political”, we took responsibility for improving the world around us. The prevailing society and culture (I was taught) were capitalistic and corrupt, racist, anti‐Semitic (or if Jewish, self‐hating), low brow, anti‐intellectual and generally and profoundly evil. (One could quickly be contaminated with this evil if one so much as picked up a New York Daily News or brought a Hearst newspaper into the home…)

For a child to be brought up with this overwhelming sense of separation from the prevailing surroundings can lead to a strong sense of isolation and, often, a bitterness toward the world or the parents – or both. It may be that some of the “red diaper babies” who now earn their bread among the neo‐conservatives are victims of this bitterness. In my case, however, I was provided with an alternative culture, which offered a vibrant, creative, fulfilling life outside the rather mucky mainstream: the world of Left‐wing Jewish secularism, which provided me with a strong sense of belonging to something valuable…

From the age of seven, most kids in my neighborhood went to some sort of additional, after-school school: the Jews to Hebrew school, the Catholics to “catechism” (I don’t think there were any “WASPs”.) I went to the Chaim Zhitlovsky shule #23 of the Jewish People’s Fraternal Order (JPFO) of the International Workers Order (IWO). There, every afternoon after school, I learned to read and write Yiddish, biblical Jewish history – from a secular perspective – emphasizing the Prophets and their demands for social justice, Yiddish songs and dances and English “little songs on big subjects” (like “You Can Get Good Milk From A Brown Skin Cow” or “It Could Be A Wonderful World”). After four years I graduated to the Bronx Jewish Mittleshul (High School – one of three in New York at the time), where I continued my studies, adding modern Jewish history (from a Marxist perspective), Yiddish literature, Hebrew (as the modern language of Israel) and “current events” (from a Jewish/Communist perspective). We met on Friday evenings and all day Saturday. After mittleshule, on Saturday nights, we students socialized like other New York teenagers, but in largish groups, not coupled off in dates. My closest friends were drawn from the kids at mittleshule, not from my neighborhood or high school. I even had different names: Miriam at school, Mickey at shule and among my friends.

In the summers, beginning at age 12, I went to Camp Kinderland – an IWO-JPFO affiliated camp – along with many of my shule friends. Camp was a continuation of shul, though not as “academic.” (The saying was “from shule to Camp, from Camp to the shule”.) We played softball and went swimming and had cookouts and sleep-outs, but we also sang Yiddish songs and rehearsed to perform songs, dances and plays for the parents and other adults who were in an adjoining camp/resort. (Those of us who showed some talent and were comfortable on a stage had a great time; I’m not so sure about the others…) These summer camps of the Left have sometimes (ignorantly) been characterized as “training camps,” with an implication of dark, conspiratorial, paramilitary goings on. It was not Revolution that was taught, however, but more benign progressive notions like “the dignity of labor” (don’t forget to bus your tables, don’t leave a mess for the kitchen workers), “sharing of work” (artfully contrived rotations for cleaning the cabins), the injustice of segregation and discrimination against America’s Negroes, and a great deal of attention to African-American history and music, “peaceful co-existence” (an International Olympics at the end of the summer, rather than a color-war), and, above all, in Camp Kinderland, the central importance of secular, progressive, Yiddish culture in all its forms. These forms changed, of course, over the nearly 90 years of Camp Kinderland’s existence from, for instance, a primarily Yiddish speaking milieu to one that treats Yiddish as a part of bygone days, but reiterates the values it contained. (As we have seen, the very codification of Yiddish as a formal, written language was part of what can only be called a “premature post-modernism” in Eastern Europe at the turn of the century. Just as modern Hebrw later became an integral part of Zionism, so sophisticated, literary Yiddish developed with the revolutionary movements of the period.)

All in all, the progressive, secular Jewish movement provided for parents, children and youth an almost total social, cultural, political milieu, where they could feel completely un-alienated as they immersed themselves in their own unique culture – cognizant always of the values it shared with the cultures of other oppressed minority groups, especially Negroes. In my neighborhood in the northeast Bronx, there was even a massive physical manifestation of our “special” milieu: a cooperative housing project, built by the Communist Party in the late 1920’s, consisting of four five-story vine-covered buildings around a landscaped courtyard, aligned on two blocks facing Bronx Park. (The United Workers Housing Co-ops, as they were called, were designated a National Landmark by the US Congress in 1986!) The hundreds of people who lived in these “Coops” created an ambience for about one square mile of a proletarian, progressive, politically aware and involved universe (especially for a child). The local candy store sold ten Daily Workers or Morning Freiheits (the newspaper of and for Yiddish-speaking Communists) for every one New York Daily News; the graffiti on the walls of the playground handball court said “All Out May 1st”; the record store would play Paul Robeson records on its PA system, blaring into the street; the sidewalks, which were originally poured in the 1920’s, had hammers-and-sickles carved in them instead of initials; the benches surrounding the playground were filled with people talking politics (making them eminently unsuitable for clandestine necking – as I later found out); the basements of the “Coops” buildings were arranged into meeting rooms, libraries and the site of my mittleshul.

This sense of belonging to a large community outside the standard, visible, conventional community was nourishing and sustaining for most of us. It reinforced a sense of specialness, encompassing a feeling of responsibility toward both the standard and the special communities. Even when that “special responsibility” was not so much fun for me, I would exercise it because it was clearly a part of who I was. For instance: Sonia had organized the 54 tenant families who lived in our apartment building into a tenants’ union (affiliated with a city-wide Tenants’ Union). About once a month, it was my chore to deliver a flyer to each apartment door in our building, ringing the bell and announcing “Important message from the Tenants’ Union,” and also collecting dues from any who weren’t paid up. I really hated doing this: it was time consuming, embarrassing (especially when I had to ask for a dues payment), and offered no rewards whatsoever – nobody ever thanked me for coming to their door. But I strongly remember a sense of obligation to do it coming, not simply from my mother, but from an inner feeling permeating my nine or ten year old self; it was what one did if one was the person I was… The culture that we were immersed in and the community it created helped develop an identity that made our lives meaningful and our politics possible.
I remember asking my big brother, Hershl, about what a gearshift was on a car, what it meant. (I must have been about six or seveen.) To explain it he said: “Do you know the American Labor Party symbol?” (Two clasped hands, one black and one white, bordered by a round gear.) “That’s a gear”, he said. I was able to imagine both the logo’s wheel, and the concept of interlocking gears from that simple definition… I venture to say nobody else learned about cars that way!

Sometimes, that culture helped shape our lives in unusual ways. I began smoking cigarettes experimentally at age ten. By the time I was twelve, I was a full-fledged, habitual smoker. That summer I went to Camp Kinderland for the first time; I was in a group with other eleven and twelve-year olds, and smoking was, of course, unthinkable. I was quite mature – physically and otherwise – and spent much of my time hanging out with my counselors, who were smokers. They soon became aware of my problem, and gave me cigarettes on the condition that I smoke only outside the presence of my fellow campers. The camp’s co-director, a wise New York teacher named Morris Saltz, of course became aware of what was going on, and invited me to join him for a little walk and chat. I freely admitted smoking, and he made the following argument: “We know that your smoking is just a habit that you picked up, but you want to help organize other young people for the shules or the Labor Youth League or whatever – right? Well, what would the parents of those kids think if they knew that you smoked? Probably, that you were some kind of hoodlum or otherwise disreputable, and they wouldn’t let their kids join your organization…” Here was an argument that made sense (and made me quit – for a short while, anyway!) I began to understand what Sonia had meant by “sekrrificing for the Movement,” and it made eminent sense!

It was also important for me as a child to be secure in knowing that my membership in this deviant sub-culture did not cut me off completely from the “real” world out there. We listened to the same radio shows (or, later, watched the same TV programs) as the other kids, we played on the block with whoever was around, we had friends in school. When our two worlds conflicted, we needed resolution – preferably, in favor of the deviant world. At Passover, for instance, the Jewish kids, who formed the majority in my school, brought their lunch sandwiches made with matzo. My secular bread sandwiches provoked much derision from my schoolmates. Sensing that my Jewish (shule) education was of more significance to me than was their sporadic religious training to them, I countered: “Oh yeah?” (The New York kid’s primary and immediate response…) “So how come you’re supposed to eat matzos at Passover? What’s the meaning of it? Bet y’don’t know…” And they didn’t, because they had heard the Exodus story only in unintelligible Hebrew at a grandparent’s house at a Passover seder, whereas we had discussed it in Yiddish and English in shul and at home.

The wife of the Orthodox Rabbi who lived in our apartment building apparently hadn’t heard of my Passover exploits. She once berated my mother for not giving me a “proper” Jewish education (i.e., in the “talmud-torah” she ran). My mother immediately challenged her to test me and any eight year old of her choosing from the ranks of the talmud-torah students, on our respective knowledge of Jewish religion, customs and mores. She never set up the contest, but my mother’s confidence in me as expressed by her challenge was a significant “victory for our side” for an eight year old, teaching me that our “deviance” could stand up to their “real” world, any day… (I was also taught to “stand up” literally, as well. When I was about six or seven, I came up from playing in the street, crying that “Donald,” a neighbor boy, a year or two older than I, “hit me…” My mother would not comfort me, but ordered me back to the street, to “Hit him back!” I took that lesson very much to heart, and rarely felt threatened in the streets again – believing that I was not a helpless victim.)

We were all severely tested with the coming of the post-war Red scares. The spirit of the times resulted in many of our non-left neighbors depositing their wartime Red Army Chorus and Paul Robeson records along with various “lefty” books on the floor of the building incinerator vestibule (where they were accustomed from WWII to placing newspapers for recycling by the building “super.”) They probably couldn’t bring themselves to actually throw them down the incinerator chute (Burning books? No way…) Our apartment was next to the vestibule, and my father promptly added to our book and record collections by monitoring the neighbors’ fear-generated discards and bringing them all into our house – which still sported a bas relief bust of Lenin and a picture of Stalin in the entry hall.

My parents viewed the fear and caution that the McCarthyist hysteria produced as a sign, not only of betrayal to previously deeply held beliefs and values, but of the most craven kind of surrender, akin to collaborationist acts in the recent war. They sensed that people hadn’t really changed what they thought but were only acting out of fear. At the beginning of the month, Sonia would greet her elderly neighbors who often sat in large clumps, on folding chairs placed on the sidewalk in front of the building clutching the Social Security checks the mailman had just delivered, with the taunt: “Those are communist checks you have!” To their astonished questioning looks, she would reply: “It was we Communists who fought for Social Security and that’s why you have the checks!” Her response to the hysteria was a proud, public renewal of her politics and identity.

I was very much influenced by this. When my high school civics teacher was assigning different students to read and report on the eight or so daily newspapers then publishing in New York, I volunteered to read the Daily Worker, and reported on it honestly. Later, in college, when many of my friends were “closed” Labor Youth League members, i.e., known only to fellow members, I became president of the Marxist Discussion Club and was interviewed as such by the New York Times – and my parents were proud.

It should be said, however, that Sonia, as an immigrant Jewish mother, was very much concerned about her children’s future, and was worried that left-wing politics might negatively affect it. When Hershl dropped out of CCNY in his sophomore year to work full-time for the Morning Freiheit (the only American-born writer on the staff of any Yiddish language newspaper – writing in Yiddish), Sonia was not thrilled and developed an ulcer. When I was ready to apply to college and had won a NY State Regents scholarship which would have paid my tuition at Syracuse University, Sonia urged me to go. “CCNY is where I want to go, Ma, and I can use the scholarship for expenses. Why should I go to Syracuse?” “Because if you go to CCNY you’ll be branded forever as a Red,” she chided (in 1955).
The strong sense of Jewish/political identity helped us weather the repression of the 50’s. When the New York City Board of Education evicted the IWO, which had been renting space in school buildings, we accused them of anti-Semitism — even though it was Rabbi Schultz (an extreme rightist, later one of Nixon’s defenders) who had brought the matter to the Board. In fact, of course, the Catholic Church-dominated Board of Education was quite anti-Semitic: the vast majority of the teachers it subsequently fired for violating the Feinberg Law (which required teacher cooperation with any legislative investigating committee, and subject to dismissal any teacher who invoked the Fifth Amendment) were Jewish, and Jewish schoolteachers had been subject to special speech tests and other harassments for years… We looked to the ancient Jewish tradition and its hatred of the “informer” to vent our fury at the host of informers who paraded daily before the various investigating committees. We understood, better even than Pastor Niemoller, that attacks on “reds” and attacks on Jews came together, and that we had to defend ourselves as both.

The McCarran-Walter Immigration Act, passed in 1952 targeted immigrants, allowing Communists to be stripped of naturalized citizenship. We understood that all our parents could be targets, and, again, saw our Jewish identity and politics intermingled. The newly-formed Committee for the Protection of the Foreign Born, along with the Emma Lazarus Clubs (an IWO-affiliated Jewish women’s organization, designed as a sort of left alternative to Hadassah) sponsored annual trips to the Statue of Liberty – putting us among the rare New Yorkers who had actually visited the Statue. (We also knew the words on the base by heart, thanks, in part, to learning them as lyrics to the Irving Berlin song.) But for us, the most terrifying moments of the 50’s came with the arrest, trial and subsequent execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Although the Rosenbergs were not themselves immigrants, they were of our parents’ generation and we easily identified with Michael and Robbie, their two young sons. For us, there was no doubt of Julius and Ethel’s innocence: we knew our parents weren’t spies. We knew from our own WWII experience and from listening to and learning pieces like “The Ballad for Americans” that American patriotism, ethnic identity and pride (“I’m just an Irish, Negro, Jewish, Italian, French, and English, Spanish, Russian, Litvak, Finnish, Swedish, Canadian, Greek and Turk and Czech and double-check-American”, sang Paul Robeson), Left politics and sympathy and loyalty for a foreign nation — be it Russia (for our family) or Israel (for many of our neighbors’) — could all go hand in hand and presented no paradoxes or conflicts. We knew that the government had cynically assigned Jewish prosecutors and judges in the Rosenberg case to mask an essential anti-Semitism and we felt betrayed by a Communist Party that sought, publicly, at least, to distance itself from the Rosenbergs.

I was about eleven years old when the campaign to save the Rosenbergs began, led mainly by the National Guardian – a non-Communist left wing weekly. The local headquarters were at 683 Allerton Avenue, a second-floor loft a few blocks from the Coops, that housed, at various times or simultaneously, JPFO Branch #127, the neighborhood headquarters of the American Labor Party and the food gathering center for the Russian War Relief (during WWII), and food, gathered for striking coal miners in 1946. Especially as their execution date approached (I was by now thirteen), I spent every afternoon in that loft, stuffing envelopes, putting up posters, learning to run a mimeograph machine – any tasks that could be entrusted to a thirteen-year old. During that year, large rallies to Save the Rosenbergs were held at sites like the Randall’s Island Stadium and our mittleshule gang would attend as a group, sometimes performing songs or dances. For that period, our cultural, social, political and spiritual lives revolved around Ethel and Julius Rosenberg and the international campaign to save their lives.

On the eve of their execution, a Friday afternoon (the government’s final cynical act was, in the face of protest that the execution date fell on the Jewish sabbath, to move it up by a few hours to an hour before sunset.) Sonia would not let me attend a massive rally and vigil at Union Square because she feared there would be violence – by either protestors or police. She stayed with me while my father went downtown, and we listened to the broadcast of the execution with tears flowing freely. The next day was the previously scheduled annual mittleshule boat ride excursion up the Hudson River to Bear Mountain. Since it was already arranged and paid for, we all went – but with enormously heavy hearts. We must have been quite a strange sight: a few hundred teenagers on a special excursion, sitting somberly on the boat and quietly dipping in the swimming pool at the recreation site. I got severely sunburned and had a temperature of 101 degrees the next day, so I couldn’t go with my parents to the Rosenbergs’ funeral. Again, I stayed home (with Ida, my bubby) and wept. It wasn’t ideology in my weeping; it was the emotional response of a teenager who could see her own parents being taken, who identified with two young orphans – and who was learning about political defeat. I learned that one had to understand that defeat and overcome it; one had to continue in the struggle whether one triumphed or not; growing up meant learning how to do that.

I was provided with other “training” around this time. The main leadership of the CPUSA had been convicted under the Smith Act of “conspiring to teach and advocate the overthrow of the government by force and violence,” and had been sentenced to five years in prison. Fascism did indeed appear to be around the corner. Taking a page from the heroic book of the Communist Party of Spain, which had maintained itself as an important organization all during the Franco dictatorship, the CP decided to have some of its leaders jump bail and go underground to provide the leadership necessary to maintain the Party during the dark times ahead. The plan involved utilizing non-leadership cadre, who would disappear from their usual lives and maintain an underground network to harbor and support the bail-jumping fugitives. My brother Hershl and his wife May were among those chosen for this task, selected to help harbor Gil Green, a CP leader from Chicago. I was fifteen at the time, and was given only a vague explanation of what Hershl and May were doing. I was told they were in Denver (they never actually went further than New Jersey), doing important and secret Party work. My story to anybody who asked was that they went to Denver for good jobs. Anybody who asked, however, was not to include FBI agents. I was explicitly instructed never to speak to anyone from the FBI, nor ever let them into the house. When two “Feebies” inevitably appeared at our apartment door one afternoon, I told them my parents weren’t home and I knew nothing about anything. When they asked to come in to “make a phone call,” I directed them to the candy store down the block, and firmly closed and locked the door. These experiences did not seem frightening or alien to me: they were simply part of what people like us did. And I knew that WE were the patriots, not Judge Kaufman or Roy Cohen or Joe McCarthy or the FBI agents! WE believed in peaceful coexistence with the Soviet Union, in democracy and in “liberty and justice for all” (even though WE no longer recited the Pledge at school, since the words “under God” had been inserted…)

(A few of the escaped Communist leaders were caught; the rest turned themselves in when it seemed probable that fascism had been delayed… Hershl and May came home in August, 1956, had a baby, and continued with life, influenced, however, by their first experiences outside the orbit we had all grown up in, interacting with “real Americans.” They had learned that “the masses” might, in some ways, not be so ignorant, though maybe more so in others…)
At Camp Kinderland in 1953, when I was thirteen, I learned some new lessons. Our young teenage group had been organized as a “Kindercity,” with an elected Mayor and City Council and a daily one or two page newspaper that I edited. We wrote about our group’s activities, and I was encouraged to write editorials urging enthusiastic camper participation in activities and also a weekly column in Yiddish (for parent, rather than child, edification, I realize). On the weekend marking the one month anniversary of the Rosenbergs’ execution, we planned a special Rosenberg Memorial issue for general, camp-wide distribution (many parents came to spend weekends at the adjoining Camp Lakeland). As we were mimeographing the last copies in the office, the camp’s directorate entered and told us that we could not distribute the issue. “It’s too dangerous,” they said. “Don’t you know that the American Legion has threatened to burn us down and that we have to patrol the camp’s perimeter at night? If this newspaper got out, who knows what would happen!” “Shades of collaborationism again,” I remember thinking (or some version of that) and promptly replied that we would not move from this office until the papers were distributed as planned – we knew all about sit-down strikes… Here was our first opportunity to show up our elders, to point out their hypocrisy and apparent cowardice.

Here we could take all the principles and history they had taught us and fling it in their faces, affirming our own adolescent identities formed in the very molds our parents had provided and now seemed to be betraying! We sang “We Shall Not Be Moved” and stayed in the office until late in the evening, when a compromise was agreed to: we would distribute the newspapers only in Camp Kinderland, not in Lakeland, where they could more easily “fall into the wrong hands”. This incident also held lessons for me: your elders could not always be trusted to do as they advocated; people could betray their principles but that did not sully the principles themselves. The official “Left” that we knew and its leadership did not necessarily have all the answers or always do the right thing. These lessons stood me in very good stead in the years and decades to follow.

By 1953, Camp Kinderland itself – along with the rest of the IWO and its institutions were under governmental, not just American Legion – attack. The NY State Department of Insurance, which had regulatory authority over the IWO because of its health and life insurance programs, decided to investigate communist subversion in New York State. During that summer a number of Kinderland counselors were called to testify before a State committee, and, in 1954, the IWO was dissolved and its assets were seized by the state. Among those assests was an estate in Westchester County where the IWO was planning to develop a retirement community (then called an “old-age home”; it was a tragic loss for Hartman and Sonia and their comrades who were definitely planning to spend their final years there – maybe Hartman would have survived more than two years past his retirement…)

Camp Kinderland survived as an independent entity, however, and does so until this day, in a new site, with something of a new outlook, but still very much Camp Kinderland. The youth organization – the Jewish Young Fraternalists (JYF) – had existed parallel to the CP’s Labor Youth League, to provide an organizational framework for progressive, secular Jewish youth, from which they could interact with their Zionist or other mainstream counterparts. They had helped form the Jewish Young Folksingers, a chorus (like the “gezangs farein” of Sonia’s generation), open to all (including fourteen year old Mickey,) developing the musical ability of its members and of its various conductors and arrangers – some of whom went on to notable careers in the folk music revival of the 60’s. (Robert De Cormier, for instance, our magnificent choral director, became the arranger and conductor for Harry Belafonte, and mentor for Peter, Paul and Mary – who I knew as Mary Travers, with whom I had sung in the alto section of the Jewish Young Folksingers.) A severe blow came in 1952, when – again at the urging of the Rabbi Schultz types in the larger Jewish community – the JYF was kicked out of the National Jewish Youth Conference, the large Jewish umbrella youth organization. But the chorus continued and prospered, meeting and performing in Jewish community centers as well as in concert halls around the city.

I was a high school kid from 1952 to 1956. I was a precocious reader and something of a “wiseguy”, which meant I did well on IQ-type exams – and when I was given (along with most 5th graders) an IQ-type test to see if we qualified for the “Rapid Advance program” (6th, 7th, and 8th grade in two years of junior high) and my score was such that I was to go into the program; with the earlier rapid advances (skipping first grade,) that meant I would have graduated from high school at fifteen and a half. My mother (who handled such things) put her foot down, and I finished 8th grade at my neighborhood K-8 school, PS 76. In the 8th grade, however, my teachers encouraged me to take the exams for New York’s “special” high schools, Bronx Science and Hunter High. (Those were the only ones open to girls, with a strict quota system at Science, allowing no more than one-third of the freshman class to be girls…) For 8th grade science I had had one of the only male teachers at the school – a young, handsome fellow, recently home from the WWII. He encouraged my interest in science, and I took the test. I was soon admitted – actually before the Hunter test was even given; the day of the test for Hunter High (affiliated with and on the campus of Hunter College, one of New York’s famed, free colleges – at that time, only for women) – we were making cream puffs in my cooking class, and I knew I didn’t want to go to an all-girls school anyway, so I opted for Bronx Science. (Food was always a high priority for me!)

Bronx Science was truly a special place, and excellent for a troublemaker like me. The prevailing attitude was that Science kids were so smart and “special” that they could do no wrong – even when they blatantly broke the rules. In my first year, I cut school for two weeks (to be with a friend of mine who was having problems), was caught (of course) and my mother was terrific: “You know that I don’t like that kind of thing, but I believe that it is something that should be between us, in the family, and the school shouldn’t be the policeman. If you like, I will tell them that you had my permission to cut.” Wow! Here I learned that we believed in the “separation of morality and state”, and when I thanked her but chose to tell the school disciplinary folks that I simply had cut school, and they didn’t punish me, but offered all sorts of counseling and hoped that I “was alright” and to let them know if I wasn’t – I realized that Bronx Science was indeed special.

A few years later, we all were at a special “Arista Assembly”, to witness the induction into the Honor Society of seniors who had maintained a high average. I found the ceremony bizarre – in that this bastion of rationality chose to have people in robes, lighting candles, and being generally medieval. When I was subsequently invited to join Arista, I politely refused, and asked if I could instead explain at the Arista Assembly why I had refused. “Aren’t we special enough?” I asked. “Must we continually seek to separate ourselves from the rest of our generation?” (or something like that.) I was upset by the elitism constantly being practiced by the school, and was guilty for being a part of it.

I did, in fact, practice a different kind of separation: my school friends and my shule and camp friends. I lived, really, in two different worlds – though sometimes they overlapped. I had been involved with an after school club called Forum, a current events and politics discussion group which often had outside speakers. In the 1954-55 school year, Martin Peretz (later to be publisher of the New Republic) was President of the Forum. At the end of my junior year, elections were held for the following year’s officers. I ran for president, and a younger student whom I knew from camp was among those who counted the secret ballots. I was opposed by a hand-picked (by Peretz) fellow, and it was a close election. When I was announced the winner, my Camp friend winked at me, as if to say “We did it! I helped in the count…” I never did ask him if that’s what he meant…

I began a lifelong practice at Science of never hiding my politics – following in my parents’ footsteps. When we were asked in a freshman “civics” class to volunteer to report weekly on New York’s rich array of newspapers, I raised my hand to do the Daily Worker. I scrawled “Peace” (then a slightly subversive concept) wherever I could, and, hanging out with a group of kids who were getting into the folk revival, I sang “The banks are made of marble, With a guard at every door, And the vaults are stuffed with silver, That the workers sweated for. Then we’ll share those vaults of silver…” And my school friends joined in gleefully. I was in fact something of a celebrity, because I knew all the words to “those” songs! All in all, my experience at Bronx Science not only gave me a great high school education, but helped prepare me for both a career in science and an appreciation of the wider world of American young people. I am grateful.

NEW LEFT BEGINNINGS

In 1956 the world of the Communist Party-oriented American and Jewish-American left was dealt the blow that McCarthyism could never really deliver. Soviet Premier Nikita Khruschev, addressing the 20th Party Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, detailed the crimes of Stalinism, and began the process of delegitimization of the Soviet Union, Soviet-style socialism and of the world’s Soviet-oriented Communist Parties. In the CPUSA, and especially in the pages of the Daily Worker, thousands of American Communists began to express their own ideas, liberated from a slavish adherence to Soviet (and US Communist Party) orthodoxy, and culminating with the departure of many thousands from the CPUSA. A sense of a non-Communist (but not anti-Communist) Left began to develop, looking to American experience and language for its ideology. Initially, its roots were deep in the CPUSA, but later, a New Left would emerge, truly free of the rhetoric and orthodoxy of the past.

That summer, while waiting to enter CCNY in the fall, I worked at Macy’s on Herald Square in New York. It was great being a grownup! Once a week, or so, after work, I met with some friends from the teen-age Labor Youth League, of which I had been a member since I was thirteen. We continued among ourselves the discussions of “whither communism and the Party” that were raging in the pages of the Daily Worker. We felt allied to the “John Gates faction” of the CP leadership, which advocated, essentially, for a left movement that was truly part of the American working class, which spoke in an American vernacular, not in the Germanic or Russianified Marxist cadences that typified CP publications or speeches. (At around that time, a west coast woman named Decca Truehaft – nee Jessica Mitford, later author of “The American Way of Death” – produced a sort of comic book, “Life Itselfmanship” – mocking that CP style. I remember a drawing of a steam shovel, on which a stout young fellow was suspended, labeled “Raising the broad masses.” That little booklet seemed to summarize what we were feeling at that time – in a style and language we could eagerly relate to.) We believed that the Labor Youth League (LYL) was an impediment to relating to American youth, and planned to organize in the fall to disband the Teenage League. Members of the main body of the LYL, college students, were similarly planning to disband the entire organization.

We didn’t know it quite yet, but, for us, the New Left was being born.