Soon after immigrating to the United States as a young man, Lazarre began a long career as a radical activist, being convicted of sedition, holding leadership positions in the American Communist Party, fighting in the Spanish Civil War, organizing labor unions, testifying in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee, and resisting the FBI’s efforts to recruit him as an informant. Through periods of heroism and deep despair Lazarre never abandoned his ideals or his sustained faith in the fundamental goodness of people.
This is also the story of Jane as she grew up, married an African American civil rights activist, and became a mother and a writer while coming to terms with her father’s legacy. She recounts her arguments with her father over ideology, but also his profound influence on her life. Throughout this poignant and beautifully written work, Jane examines memory, grief, love, and conscience while detailing the sacrifices, humanity, and unwavering convictions of a man who worked tirelessly to create a brighter future for us all.
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In the beginning there was being a child of American Communists, learning how to tell FBI agents who came to the door that Daddy wasn't home — in some cases it was ok to lie; shouting to other children in elementary school that workers of the world would unite, street cleaners were as dignified as doctors, that Negroes were the same as our white selves and deserved equality — and the ordinary American children screamed that we should go back to Russia.
In the beginning, overshadowing even our politics, which were our faith, our life, there was being a motherless daughter at the age of seven, and the daughter of an adored but at times severely depressed father, his life from 1949 to 1951 shattered by losses from which in some ways he would never recover.
In the beginning, there was a sense of being Jewish in old world Yiddish culture. One beginning in a world of beginnings, and therefore, first, a story of beginnings. Middles and endings too, of course, but later. For now, beginnings seem to dominate, even to devour.
It is 2014. I am seventy years old, one year older, or possibly two, as old-country birthdays were never exact, than my father ever got to be. It is March, but it feels like January — frigid, the sidewalks lined with piles and hills of iced hard snow, so getting out of my husband's car down in Battery Park City, then helping my ninety-year-old mother-in-law out of the back seat, is a challenge to balance. We are here to visit the Museum of Jewish Heritage, for myself because in one beginning of the story of my father and myself was a sense of being Jewish — however fiercely secular, Jewish to our very bones, immersed in a culture loud with the sounds and emotional tones of Yiddish — a language I never learned, except for the many phrases and single words that still somehow feel like my mother tongue, though it was my father's tongue, not my American-born, non-Yiddish-speaking mother's.
My African American husband, after being married to a Jewish woman and living within a Jewish family for over forty-eight years, is a sort of Jew himself, or sort of Jewish — having co-led Seders, lit Hanukkah candles, attended countless bat and bar mitzvahs, and in general claims a deep love — sometimes exceeding my own — for aspects of secular Jewish family life and its rituals. Still, for him this trip to the museum on a cold Sunday with yet another snowstorm predicted for late afternoon is a gracious act of generosity, common to him. He accompanies me here so I can feel this soil of my heritage, so that I can complete the writing of this book, a task which to my surprise and due to many factors turns out to feel far more dangerous, sometimes insurmountable, than I had imagined when I first got the impulse and idea. And for his mother — my mother-in-law and close friend — the trip fills a need simply to get out of the house during a freezing cold winter when her miraculous energy and famous mental acuity begin to fade.
So we embark — out of the car, into the larger-than-I-expected museum. By the time we exit, we have walked through only one exhibit —"Jewish Life a Century Ago: 1880 – 1930." Due to fatigue but also perhaps to deeper and more disturbing resistances, we have not seen the floor that recounts the Holocaust years, nor the years of reparation, post – World War Two.
In any case, it is the floor dedicated to Yiddish culture — photos, old films, an interesting juxtaposition of voices addressing the major Jewish perspectives on the future of the Jews — alternating philosophies summarizing Orthodoxy, Zionism, Socialism, Liberalism — all ideas that affected my father's life and therefore my own — it is this floor that compels me. The exhibits return my thoughts and feelings to a childhood in which Yiddish phrases, foods, attitudes, and humor dominated my life, sometimes in our own kitchen and living room, especially after our mother's early death, and even more so during our weekend trips to Philadelphia, where my father's old world sisters and their families continued to live since their emigration from Kishinev, then capital of Bessarabia, a province of Russia, now in the twenty-first century Chisina?u, capital of the independent nation of Moldova.
And it is Kishinev, the sound of the word, vivid from my father's memories, images rising and falling, that weaves into my own imagination — that word, Kishinev. I hear it in the sound of his voice, in his tones and accents: Kishinev, something like the sound of Tevye singing "Anatevka," a melodic prayer, a gathering of images, limning and illuminating the longing and love for home. Born in or about July 1902 and so a small child during the infamous pogroms of 1903 and 1905, he must have grown up listening to neighbors and friends talking of horrific experiences and persistent fears, beginning to make plans to emigrate, to escape the increasingly violent anti-Semitism of their world. He must have heard the stories of murder, dismemberment, rape, eventually seeing his own elder siblings leave to make new lives in new worlds. When my father took us to that remarkable play, Fiddler on the Roof, feelings, memory, and knowledge must have joined in his mind. He wept and laughed until the waters of his infamously easy perspiration flowed, and he had to pull out the ubiquitous white handkerchief to wipe his eyes and blot his cheeks.
My sister and I had been taught how to iron these handkerchiefs for him by Rose, the woman who took care of us after our mother died — first the square itself, then fold into long thirds, iron the creases, then fold in thirds again, iron the creases again, and make a neat pile for his drawer, the one on the side of the huge mahogany desk that once held my mother's accessories — flowered handkerchiefs, artificial violets and small pink roses — to decorate her tailored professional wardrobe, the dark sleek suits, elegant dresses, and long fur coats she wore to her position as an "important buyer in the handbag department of Macy's," a job that supported the family when my father was a full-time functionary for the Communist Party. Most likely that drawer held other things too, but more than sixty years have erased some memories and I don't recall what else was kept in those special depths that somehow retained their mystery even though I looked into them many times. I do remember my father's laughter and tears when Tevye left Anatevka, families pulling old carts filled with everything that could be carried or packed, his soft cries of oy, oy, oy, and other words too, I am sure, also forgotten by me now, yet the name — Kishinev — never forgotten, one of the places I have never seen that feels like home to me.
In the Museum of Jewish Heritage, among the many old films providing a soft gray light to the darkened galleries is one of five old women standing in a row, singing. They are probably younger than I am now, but they are heavier, and poorer, their heads covered with patterned kerchiefs, their feet in those old black oxfords with laces and heels, their cloth coats not quite covering the dresses whose hems hang low over thick calves covered in the kind of sturdy tan cotton stockings my grandmother used to wear. And what are they singing? It is a song I know in the deepest crevices of my brain, the oldest layers of my psyche, one I have not thought about in many years: Tumbalalaika, they sing, words whose meanings are as unknown to me as to my husband or mother-in-law, words repeated over and over again:
Tumbala tumbala tumbalalaika tumbala tumbala tumbalalaika tumbalalaika shpiel balalaika tumbalalaika freylach zol zayn.
Soon after this, we decide to leave, all of us hungry and not eager to view the devastations to come on the floor of the Holocaust — not out of timidity or a desire for historical amnesia; we are all three avid readers and witnesses, even participants in history, including many parts that involve unbelievable cruelties, what my father would have called Man's Inhumanity to Man. We are simply ordinarily tired, ready for coffee and a piece of something to eat, so we stop at the cafeteria. It is oddly empty, and there is not much available food. But we buy chips and coffee, and sit by a large window with a view of the Statue of Liberty visible in the gray and misty harbor. The Latino or South American server disappears, and in a few minutes a white woman customer shouts to my husband, "Are you serving here?" — despite the fact that he is sitting at a table with others, his winter coat around his shoulders. He looks away, and so does she, and then we find our way back to the car.
Later that night, much later, when we have turned off the lights and I think I am sinking into welcomed sleep, all the words of the verses of "Tumbalalaika" suddenly come to me so audibly it is as if someone is singing them out loud, and before I know it I realize I am wide awake and the someone singing is me.
Shteyt a bocher shteyt un tracht,
And after I sing the chorus again, more comes —
Meydl, meydl, ch'vel bay dir fregen,
The chorus again, and then I repeat the whole song, amazed and delighted by this sudden surfacing of words, a language I do not understand, and will learn the meaning of what I sing only the next day when I look up the translation on the Internet; a song of love — What can grow without rain? — of heartbreak — What can cry without tears? Play the music on the balalaika. Yet in the night I feel strangely as if I am singing in my first language — the music and sounds of words I seem to know in some way even better than the language of English I love, the content of my life's work and a fundamental ground of my identity. Still, there I am in bed singing in Yiddish and feeling, yes, this is me. And then I am silent while another thought fills my mind, which I thought was growing nicely dim, or at least vague, ready for sleep. I am listing places, again out loud.
"What are you doing?" my husband asks. "Places," I say, thinking these are the names of the places that make up the stories and myths of my life, the places that will shape this sometimes elusive book about my father — his life, his voice, his places like his words crossing over into my own.
The Jewish Heritage Museum Ellis Island Kishinev
The Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he served part of a two- to four-year sentence under the Sedition Act for "attempting to overthrow the government of the State of Pennsylvania."
Barcelona, Albacete, the Pyrenees Mountains he climbed on foot. Spain in the 1930s, the battle against Franco's fascists, Madrid, where in 2013 I would travel, trying to imagine the lovely streets and wide boulevards filled with sounds of gunshot and screams like the streets and neighborhoods of Syria and Afghanistan and Iraq are now.
The SS Kroonland he and his parents and sister took from either Belgium or Cherbourg to New York.
The courthouse on Foley Square, New York City, where he refused to name the names the Un-American Committee (as we called it) of the United States House of Representatives wanted from him and others.
The vast nation of Russia, then the Soviet Union, vastly unknown to me, familiar and always home to him.
And places in books,
and in my own imagination as I try to find words to describe sounds, colors and shapes, experiences and history, all of which requires much more courage and effort than it would if I had only asked the right questions, listened to extended answers and ruminations when he was still alive. Sometimes, I hear his voice, his sentences — perhaps actual memory, perhaps created by some need or desire of my own:
I loved my mama. She dressed me like a girl for my first five years. I had long curls. Maybe until I was five. It was the old country way. Boys kept looking like girls until they were ready to be separated from their mothers. I have no idea why, but I am sure my daughter would have a theory, if not a diagnosis.
In the old country, baby, some people were rich and some people were poor, some were Jews and some were Christians, but nobody was neurotic.
Both in response to my involvement, from the time I was eighteen, with psychoanalysis, a theory and practice my father disdained. But my mother's colleagues from Macy's — where she had what we might now call a "straight job" accompanying her increasing work through her husband for the Communist Party, but a job she considered her primary career as well as a way to offset my father's Party salary (a figure somehow recalled so specifically!) of twenty-five dollars a week — these executives, her bosses, had left my sister and me each a legacy: five hundred dollars a year for four years, which was meant to put us through college. I went to City College, then free to anyone living in New York City, and used my money for four turbulent, healing years on a psychoanalytic couch, a decision my father was respectful enough not to interfere with despite his obvious disapproval. So Freud joined Marx in my educational upbringing, neither loved or studied with as much passion by me as the British and American poets and novelists I was reading in school, and yet my sense of who I was, who I am, though I am neither a revolutionary activist nor a psychoanalyst, is still entwined with both those iconic thinkers, just as my head is filled with the sounds and music of Yiddish words and phrases I do not fully understand.
After many years of oceans and lagoons, rivers flow in my dreams. Oceans seem infinite, vast water worlds of changing tides, shallow and then deep again, calm and then wild. The ocean floor is filled with life, and it is dark. Like the unconscious, it seems unknowable except with special suits, glasses, dangerous unless you are tied to ropes to return you to the surface. Rivers are navigable. Across rivers, there are bridges, overpasses and underpasses, the beautiful walking bridges across the Seine in Paris, the large bridges over the Hudson and East Rivers of New York.
As I recall my river dreams, I sit in a neighborhood café, writing in a beautiful, old-fashioned leather-bound journal given to me by my son Adam on my seventieth birthday, and I am remembering "as if it were yesterday" clear words in my head — silent to everyone but me — instructions to myself on the day I learned of my mother's death. I was seven years old in 1951. It is one of my most vivid memories, never erased or modified until now, always available, like a piece of music in a recording kept in the disc player, frequently played. All I have to do is press a button, flick a switch, and there it is, the loud sound of my own voice inside my head, silent to the world, the mind of a child giving herself instructions now that reality has forever been changed.
I am stunned, although I have known for nearly a year that she would die, even as my father, my aunt, my grandmother, and our housekeeper who was also a nurse to my mother as she slowly diminished in her large white bed to a skeletal almost nothingness — even as they all lied to me, or told me in a whisper-shout, to be silent, never to say those words — She is going to die — not even as a question — Is she going to die? I watched her die, and I knew she was dying, and when she died I was stunned, as one is when someone close to you dies no matter how long you have known it was coming, even as you began to want it to come to end their pointless incurable suffering as well as your own. The stunned feeling, I think, comes from the vision of the final alteration, the reality we all soften and translate even after we have been close to death, close to the dead bodies of those we love, up as close as you can be. There is the final reality of it. The body is there, but the person is gone. It is obvious, and clear, and undeniable. If the spirit or soul is somewhere else, as you hope, if the beloved voice remains in your mind, the spirit or soul or voice is certainly not where it has always been, in the familiar beloved flesh. That body, literally left behind, is something else. It is an end, impossible to comprehend, and it is also a beginning.
I see myself standing in our large kitchen, walking into the adjoining living room through the square archway, over to one of the two windows that look out onto Greenwich Avenue, filling in a picture to go along with the words.
"Now you must make your daddy love you."
Excerpted from "The Communist and the Communist's Daughter"
Copyright © 2017 Duke University Press.
Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of ContentsAuthor's Note ix
Part I. Beginnings
Chapter 1 11
Chapter 2 18
Part II. An American
Chapter 3 27
Chapter 4 34
Part III. Spain
Chapter 5 55
Chapter 6 58
Chapter 7 60
Chapter 8 74
Chapter 9 77
Part IV. A Bad Wind
Chapter 10 95
Chapter 11 101
Chapter 12 105
Chapter 13 110
Chapter 14 122
Chapter 15 125
Part V. The Un-Americans
Chapter 16 131
Chapter 17 138
Chapter 18 150
Part VI. The Mutilated World
Chapter 19 161
Chapter 20 172
Part VII. Endings
Chapter 21 189
Chapter 22 196
Chapter 23 202
What People are Saying About This
"Reading Jane Lazarre's beautifully written memoir I was quickly drawn into her Jewish, immigrant left-wing family life. The story is filled with longings for the old world of Kishinev and the dreams for a perfected new world of justice and equality. The daughter writes of her father as a veteran of the Spanish Civil War, a single father pursued by the FBI, and called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. She brings to life their love and conflicts and his few years as a proud grandfather. She conveys the rich mixture of Yiddish language and Jewish history, the old world superstitions, the beauty and camaraderie of life in Greenwich Village of the 1950s, and centrally the deep love between a father and daughter. Her father's idealism and values are today central to the lives of her adult African American sons."
“Here, in these beautifully written pages, Jane Lazarre invites readers to join her on a difficult journey through memory, history, family, and self-discovery. This daughter's story of her father yields insight into our own, never-ending quest for love, justice, and understanding.”
"This extraordinary memoir captures the crazy, scary, intellectually heady experience of growing up with a single father who's a true believer and a daring Communist activist. You need not have lived through the Red Scare to appreciate the impact of deeply held politics on the dynamics of family life, the contemporary relevance of Jane Lazarre's personal story, and the lyrical grace with which she tells it."
“I found this an intriguing, clear-eyed look at a corner of history, the Communist experience in America, that is usually just righteously condemned—or, occasionally, romanticized. Jane Lazarre’s vision of it is more subtle: she lived in this world as a child, and now looks back on it as a thoughtful adult.”