Dec 06, 2019
Jewish workers—and to be specific, Jewish leftists—were a direct target of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s crusade against American Communism. The start of the Red Scare is often periodized from March of 1946 onward, stemming from President Harry S. Truman’s “Loyalty Order” that demanded all federal employees attest to never having belonged to the Communist Party. But the bedrock of the particular threat to the Jewish Left had been there all along: a nation wary of organized radical politics, tropes that linked all Jewish leftist politics with Communism in the same breath, the persistence of American antisemitism, and claims of Jewish political disloyalty entangled in both conservative and liberal establishments. As part of the state-sanctioned crackdown on “suspicious” groups, political organizations and the trade union movement fell under intense attack. When so-called loyalty tests placed the radical beliefs of New York City teachers under surveillance and fired or forced resignations from massive amounts of teachers affiliated with the Communist Party, large numbers of Jewish women in the New York Teachers Union were the workforce most directly impacted.
Sylvia Schneiderman was one of countless New York Jewish public school teachers fired from the Teachers Union because of her affiliation with the Communist Party. I first stumbled upon this letter between her and Itche Goldberg, the then-school and cultural director of the Jewish People’s Fraternal Order (JPFO) and National Director of Camp Kinderland—and also a legend in Yiddish leftist literary circles—while looking for records documenting how the children of members of the Jewish Left experienced the unique pressures of the Red Scare. I started my search at Cornell University’s Kheel Center, one of my go-to repositories for digitized materials about the Left, and unsurprisingly, my search led me to the Yiddish summer camps that still flourished at the time: Hemshekh, Boiberik, and Kinderland, to name but a few. Schneiderman’s letter is unique in that it gives a glimpse into the experiences of this particular historical moment through the eyes of both parent and child, leaving me to probe and extrapolate from the hints left behind. How did children like Sylvia’s daughter, Louise, understand the intense political surveillance their parents were placed under? How did the state-sponsored targeting of Yiddish leftist spaces—often secular, and geared toward early education—change parents like Sylvia’s perspectives on the necessity of secular Yiddish education? In the letter, Sylvia notes that Louise, her daughter, “had undergone a severe emotional disturbance because of the circumstances surrounding my dismissal from the school system with all the attendant ugly publicity.” She continues on: “Should she return before the end of the summer, the only playmates she will have are children who attend a parochial school. I am sure you can understand why I feel they will not be the best influence for her at this time.” Clearly, Sylvia regarded the JPFO Camp Kinderland as a safe haven from the anti-Communist pressures of New York City, pressures that she implies that the children of other immigrants (most likely Italian and Irish, as coded in her “parochial” school reference) had themselves internalized and likely targeted at Louise.
Schneiderman’s letters to Goldberg also illustrate the clear priority of creating a safe space to build Yiddish community for a younger generation, even while secular Yiddishism and Yiddish-inflected leftist politics fell under scrutiny on a national level. What we can take from it may be the types of strategic calculations that Yiddish leftists undertook during the height of the Red Scare. To ensure the longevity of organizations that members had fought so hard to build from the ground up in a transplanted American context, many organizations and camps pivoted toward early education alone, rather than striving toward the utopian ideal of multi-generational spaces for ongoing cultural and political education. A second level of strategic preservation also arose: removing children from a Yiddishist context altogether. Parents raising second-generation Jewish-American children during the Red Scare, like Sylvia, seemingly recognized the danger in immersing their offspring in secular spaces that marked them as “different” from the liberal, religious standard. Some continued to live and parent by their principles—and others did not. This is not to cast judgment, but merely to note that in a time of intense political pressure that fell largely upon the Left, Jewish Americans were left doubly vulnerable and placed under unique pressures to assimilate, or suffer. Engaging with Jewish history from this era demands one eye on the broader national picture and another on the genuine human impact: the changes in permissible day-to-day interactions and political expressions. Perhaps less ink should be spilled on the sweeping impacts of McCarthyism—and more spent on the voices of women like Sylvia.