Sanders Gives Media A Peek At His Jewish Childhood

PHOTO: REUTERS

PHOTO: REUTERS


Bernie Sanders cannot hide his Jewishness or his heavy Brooklyn accent no matter whom he tries to impress. While surging in the polls, Sanders has been reluctant thus far to dicsuss his jewish upbrining in the heavily Jewish-populated neigborhood in southern Brooklyn.

After all, his campaign theme of cracking down on the billionaire class and tackling the “grotesque level of income inequality” has mainly impressed young voters, progressives and anti-establishment activists.

But in recent weeks, Sanders started breaking the ice, peaaling off layer by layer another aspect of his personal life.

In several appearences over the past few months, the self-described socialist Sanders asserted that his Judaism in the post-Holocaust era has shaped his policial philosophy in a “very deep way.”

“A guy named Adolf Hitler won an election in 1932. He won an election, and 50 million people died as a result of that election in World War II, including 6 million Jews. So what I learned as a little kid is that politics is, in fact, very important,” he said. Adding, “Historically, the Jewish people have been strong advocates fighting discrimination and fighting for social and economic justice.”

Last month, during a presidential forum hosted by the Jewish Federation of Greater Des Moines, Iowa, Sanders compared himself to the first Prime Minister of the State of Israel. “I believe David Ben Gurion was a Democratic socialist,” he remarked.

But in an interview to the New Yorker, published on Tuesday, Sanders gave the most extensive revelation to date about his Jewish childhood, growing up in a secual Jewish home in Brooklyn.

The following are several exceprts from the New Yorker profile:

“When I asked Sanders a question about his early years, he sighed with the air of a man who knows he can no longer put off that visit to the periodontist. “I understand,” he said. “I really do. For people to elect a President, you’ve got to know that person—you’ve got to trust them.” .. Sanders did say that two aspects of his upbringing had exerted a lasting influence. One was coming from a family that never had much money. And the other was growing up Jewish—less for the religious content than for the sense it imbued in him that politics mattered. Sanders’s father was a Polish Jew who, at the age of seventeen, came to America shortly after his brother, and struggled through the Depression in Brooklyn. By the time Sanders was born, in 1941, his father was working as a paint salesman. Sanders had an older brother, Larry, and their mother stayed home, like most of the women in their lower-middle-class corner of Flatbush. He went to public schools, including James Madison High School, an incubator of civic talent, from which Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Senator Chuck Schumer also graduated. He didn’t make the school’s championship basketball team—a deep disappointment—but he ran cross-country, and feels that this activity accounts for some of his formidable stamina today.”

“There was tension about money,” Sanders said of his family. They lived in a three-and-a-half-room rent-controlled apartment, and his mother pined for a house. “It wasn’t a question of putting food on the table. It was a question of arguing about whether you buy this or whether you buy that. You know, families do this. I remember a great argument about drapes—whether we could afford them. And I remember going with my mother when we had to buy a jacket. We went to literally fifteen different stores to buy the damned cheapest—I mean, the best deal.” He went on, “I do know what it’s like when the electric company shuts off the electricity and the phone company shuts off the phone—all that stuff. So, for me, to talk to working-class people is not very hard.”

I spoke with a few of Sanders’s contemporaries who had grown up in the same neighborhood, and their memories were rosier: they recalled kids playing stickball on safe, familiar streets until their parents called them home for dinner….

Sid Ganis, a Hollywood producer who grew up in the same building as Sanders, described their neighborhood as an enclave of “ordinary secular Jews,” adding, “Some of us went to Hebrew school, but mainly it was an identity in that it got us out of school on Jewish holidays.” Sanders told me that, in the aftermath of the Second World War, his family “got a call in the middle of the night about some relative of my father’s, who was in a displaced-persons camp in Europe someplace.” Sanders learned that many of his father’s other relatives had perished. Sanders’s parents had been fundamentally apolitical, but he took away a lesson: “An election in 1932 ended up killing fifty million people around the world.”

Sanders’s close friend Richard Sugarman, an Orthodox Jew who teaches religious studies at the University of Vermont, said, “He’s not what you would call rule-observant.” But, Sugarman added, “if you talk about his Jewish identity, it’s strong. It’s certainly more ethnic and cultural than religious—except for his devotion to the ethical part of public life in Judaism, the moral part. He does have a prophetic sensibility.” Sugarman and Sanders were housemates for a while in the seventies, and Sugarman says that his friend would often greet him in the morning by saying, “We’re not crazy, you know,” referring to the anger they felt about social injustices. Sugarman would respond, “Could you say good morning first?”

His older brother Larry, now living in Britain, told NY1 in a recent interview that Roosevelt and Hitler had a profound effect on them. “Jewish boys growing up in that time couldn’t but be aware just how important politics is,” Larry Sanders was quoted as saying. “It’s a matter of life and death.”

But it is not only progressives and disenfranchised voters who’re ‘feeling the bern’, it seems like Sanders is catching fire among those yearning to see the first Jewish president take oath of office in 2017.

A brief search on Twitter reveals that people are excited about the prospects of Sanders being elected as the first Jewish president or heart him for his Jewishness.

“Bernie Sanders is the cool Jewish grandpa we need,” one guy tweeted. “Bernie Sanders for President/my official Jewish grandpa from Brooklyn that I’ll get pizza with,” another one tweeted.

“Got to give credit to Bernie Sanders. I haven’t seen this much excitement for an old Jewish guy since my kids heard grandpa had presents,” another tweep remarked.

A very active group of Jewish activists recently launched a private Facebook group – Jews For Bernie 2016 – aimed at rallying support for Sanders in the Jewish community. “This group was created to provide information and stimulate discussion among Jewish activists who support the campaign of Bernie Sanders for President in 2016,” the description of the page reads. “Please feel free to invite your friends to join this group and to post interesting articles and your personal reflections the 2016 elections and other political issues from a Jewish perspective. You can also post notices of events and activities that you are carrying out in the Jewish community support of a progressive agenda.” the group has 370 members to date.


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