The Bind for a Political Mother

My father’s parents were Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, executed in 1953 for stealing the secret of the atomic bomb and giving it to the Soviets. My grandparents were union activists and communists while the Red Scare had reached a fever pitch; it was an intensely political trial. My grandmother was arrested on flimsy evidence in an attempt to break Julius, who was refusing to name others or to indict himself. Both professed their innocence until the end. Her only crime, and I quote the documents, was that she was “highly developed politically.”

Can these two identities — devoted mother and committed radical — be reconciled in a society and a Jewish culture in particular that believes them to be mutually exclusive? I have tried to explore this question in my film “Heir to an Execution” (2004, HBO Films).

We all know the ideal of the good mother as one who is so devoted to her children she “would die for them.” Because Ethel is perceived as having died for “a cause,” she challenges the very core of that ideal. She is seen as being willing to die and leave her children for a political stance, a principle, a belief system. Her death — and her life, for that matter — turns that entire notion of the devoted mother on its head. And what it has done to me, as a granddaughter and a filmmaker, is force me to defend her as both a mother and a political heroine. I’ve learned just how difficult that is, given our images of Jewish motherhood and motherhood in general. I’ve even had to prove it to myself.

I wanted to achieve a kind of redemption for Ethel in particular, since she was the one whose love was in question. Julius’s never was, of course. I had to prove to the world that she was a good mother, that she loved and cared for my father and uncle very much [Michael and Robert Meeropol, adopted after their parents were executed].

As I worked on the film, I found myself craving those details that would confirm how much Ethel loved her kids. I included the scene where I visit my father’s therapist to illustrate this point. The very fact alone that she went to the therapist to learn how to be a better mother for my difficult father is a revelation, especially given the dim view the Communist Party took of therapy. But I watch it now and see that it’s not a particularly compelling scene, holds no great revelations, except to me it is pivotal as a reassurance that — yes — she was a mom who loved my dad. I too was afraid that Ethel did care more for her political beliefs than she cared for her children. That scene turns out to have been as much for me as it was for the audience.

(From remarks at an NYU conference on Jewish women in Postwar America, on a panel sponsored by the Jewish Women’s Archive.)