Com­mu­nism retained a vague, if still some­what sin­is­ter poten­cy in the ear­ly 60s as I came of age in a dense­ly Jew­ish wedge of Los Ange­les a mile or two south of the Hol­ly­wood Hills. There was the Emma Lazarus Club, a grey­ish store­front on a stretch of Pico more Black than Jew­ish, a mile or so from the Jew­ish Pico-Robert­son neigh­bor­hood. I had heard that this was a group favored by Jew­ish fel­low trav­el­ers and found myself star­ing intent­ly at the build­ing as we drove home from my yeshi­va high school. My ear­ly ado­les­cent mind was cer­tain of the Jacob Frank-like bac­cha­nal going on behind its decep­tive­ly non­de­script exte­ri­or. I also not­ed how often cer­tain rel­a­tives and fam­i­ly acquain­tances — their names rarely men­tioned again except in whis­pers or exag­ger­at­ed gri­maces — dis­ap­peared not into the clutch­es of author­i­ties but were thrust out of the club­by embrace of our lands­man­schaft gath­er­ings. What I came to under­stand was that those exiled still had CP mem­ber­ship, or at least sym­pa­thies. In my ear­ly twen­ties as I embraced anti-war activ­i­ties, wear­ing my hair long and replac­ing the rock-heavy ortho­pe­dic shoes I had always worn with san­dals — rough­ly at the same time I start­ed study­ing Russ­ian — my moth­er com­plained to any­one who would lis­ten that her son was now a com­mu­nist. A for­mer school­mate I met just a few months ago all but asked whether I was still a par­ty member.

Thus, Com­mu­nism in our fam­i­ly cir­cle — which hailed back to a small town in the Lithuan­ian marsh­es just beyond Pin­sk, this among the more polit­i­cal­ly inflect­ed regions of the for­mer Pale — was a source of most­ly sequestered, if inter­mit­tent­ly acute unease. My par­ents had been born in Chica­go, long a CP hub, set­tling even­tu­al­ly in Los Ange­les. There the Com­mu­nist Par­ty, num­ber­ing some 3,000 in the 1930s, includ­ed the country’s largest pro­por­tion of Jews: 90 per­cent of its mem­bers were Jew­ish, not includ­ing still more numer­ous non-par­ty sup­port­ers. The party’s influ­ence was felt most strong­ly in the Jew­ish enclaves of Boyle Heights and Hol­ly­wood. Near­ly all of this had dis­ap­peared by the time I reached my ear­ly ado­les­cence, though with a lin­ger­ing pres­ence — at least in the milieu in which I grew up — much like once-potent, only recent­ly erad­i­cat­ed med­ical per­ils such as tuber­cu­lo­sis or polio.

The dis­in­cli­na­tion to look square­ly at Communism’s Jew­ish allure as a fea­ture of Amer­i­can Jew­ish life is obvi­ous in its many eli­sions in his­tor­i­cal writ­ings. Bare­ly a glim­mer in Judd Teller’s 1966 por­trait of Jew­ish cul­tur­al and intel­lec­tu­al life Strangers and Natives: The Evo­lu­tion of the Amer­i­can Jew from 1921 to the Present; one cita­tion in Charles Silberman’s best­selling 1985 por­trait of con­tem­po­rary Jew­ish life A Cer­tain Peo­ple: Amer­i­can Jews and Their Lives Today; no index entry in Howard M. Sacher’s more than 1,000-page A His­to­ry of the Jews in Amer­i­ca, pub­lished in 1992. True, Jew­ish par­ty mem­ber­ship was, in terms of its actu­al num­bers, minus­cule and deplet­ed, on and off, since the late 1920s in the wake of the Hebron riots, the Stal­in-Hitler pact, mount­ing anti-Com­mu­nist intim­i­da­tion, and news of the erad­i­ca­tion of Russia’s Yid­dish intel­li­gentsia. And although the Jew­ish alle­giances of Jews devot­ed to it were, on the whole, ten­u­ous, its resur­gence amid the Sovi­et tra­vails of the Sec­ond World War were wide­ly felt and the num­bers of fel­low trav­el­ers, while impos­si­ble to cal­cu­late with any pre­ci­sion, far exceed­ed par­ty mem­ber­ship. Communism’s rapid era­sure from his­tor­i­cal mem­o­ry was — as the say­ing goes — any­thing but accidental.

Yuri Slezkine’s blitzkrieg on Jew­ish his­to­ri­og­ra­phy, The Jew­ish Cen­tu­ry, makes much the same point with regard to the role of Jews in the mak­ing of the Sovi­et Union. This is fur­ther elab­o­rat­ed in his recent book, The House of Gov­ern­ment. In a fas­ci­nat­ing tome, resem­bling a met­ro­pol­i­tan tele­phone book (1123 pages) but read­ing, in no small mea­sure, like a lengthy Jew­ish wed­ding list, Slezkine reminds us of the extent of the Jew­ish pres­ence in at least the first years of Bol­she­vik rule: The head of state was then Sverdlov, chief nego­tia­tor at Brest-Litovsk Joffe (born a Karaite). Then there was, of course, Zinoviev, Kamenev and Trot­sky along­side the now less­er known but once-famed jurist Stolts, the head of the Com­mu­nist Inter­na­tion­al Piat­nit­sky, the famed jour­nal­ist Koltsov, famed for­eign trade expert Karsin, famed econ­o­mist Lar­in, Chek­ist Urit­sky as well as Radek and Bela Kun. The belief was then rife that Lenin’s orig­i­nal name was Zeder­baum. Head­ing anarchist/​sometime Bol­she­vik-ally Makhno’s Che­ka-like arm was a Jew; so was the ubiq­ui­tous trans­la­tor, lat­er financier Alex Bomberg who helped Louise Bryant and many oth­er reporters nego­ti­ate the tur­bu­lence of 1917. Odessa Jew Steklov would be the long­time edi­tor of Izvesti­ia, the Bundist Liber was among the pre-Octo­ber Soviet’s most vis­i­ble fig­ures, the Men­she­vik Mar­tov was wide­ly regard­ed, even dur­ing his decline as an influ­en­tial leader in 1917, as Marxism’s most sub­tle con­tem­po­rary thinker. Zvi Gitel­man has astute­ly likened the shock of Jews run­ning the Bol­she­vik gov­ern­ment between 1917 and 21 to what it might have felt for the whites of Mis­sis­sip­pi in 1950 to hav­ing an African-Amer­i­can as gov­er­nor or chief of the state police.

Much the same sce­nario was repli­cat­ed at or near the top of the U.S. Com­mu­nist food chain: Long­time leader Joseph Pep­per, mass agi­ta­tor Max Bedacht, lit­er­ary enforcers Michael Gold and Alexan­der Tra­cht­en­berg, polit­i­cal tac­ti­cians Love­stone, Shacht­man and Git­low, mil­lion­aire founder of Inter­na­tion­al Pub­lish­ers Heller, and Bertha and Samuel Rubin who start­ed the party’s offi­cial pub­lish­ing house the Work­ers Library. Prob­a­bly no less than 50 per­cent of the cul­tur­al appa­ra­tus of the par­ty was in the hands of Jews in the 1930s and 40s, with the vast major­i­ty of those engaged in inter­ra­cial work, then a Par­ty pri­or­i­ty. The Jew­ish group …lat­er came to dom­i­nate left­wing affairs in a degree all out of pro­por­tion to its num­bers,” com­plained Harold Cruse in the Black nation­al­ist denun­ci­a­tion, The Cri­sis of the Negro Intel­lec­tu­al. Frei­heit’s cir­cu­la­tion in 1925 was 22,000 with the sub­scrip­tion base of Dai­ly Work­er no more than 17,000. Break­away group­ings head­ed by Shacht­man and Love­stone were almost entire­ly Jew­ish. This wasn’t, to be sure, an inter­na­tion­al phe­nom­e­non: far less true for, say, Eng­land or France, but cer­tain­ly the case in inter­war and post­war Poland, Hun­gary, and Romania.

The num­ber of Jew­ish par­ty mem­bers was near­ly always tiny, with the out­size pres­ence of Jews in Sovi­et Russia’s Com­mu­nist Par­ty a tem­po­ral phe­nom­e­non far less dis­pro­por­tion­ate already by the mid- or late-1920s. But what­ev­er its allure for Jews, the top­ic remains to this day, of course, aching­ly dif­fi­cult to air coher­ent­ly because of its pres­ence as a cru­cial ingre­di­ent in the tox­ic arse­nal used by anti-Semi­tes to defame and attack. The belief that a pen­chant for both com­mu­nism and, for that mat­ter, cap­i­tal­ism is some­how intrin­sic to Jews — these patent­ly con­tra­dic­to­ry but shar­ing, as some con­tin­ue to insist, reliance on a con­spir­a­to­r­i­al intel­li­gence and on forces hid­den from view — remains a stub­born fix­ture of con­tem­po­rary life. Russ­ian TV’s new mul­ti-part series on Trot­sky as the true foun­tain­head of the Russ­ian rev­o­lu­tion pro­vides fresh evi­dence that such beliefs retain potency.

Adapt­ed from the author’s keynote address deliv­ered on Novem­ber 6th at the YIVO Insti­tute for Jew­ish Research conference.