Bernie Sanders finally opens up about Jewish childhood


I interviewed Bernie Sanders a couple years ago when word first circulated that the Vermont senator might seek the presidency. Though he knew about JTA going in — and must have known questions about his Jewish background were coming — he didn’t want to get into it.

I wrote at the time:

“But Sanders is hesitant to draw a connection between his Jewish background and his priorities as a senator. With a series of observations about the Jewish history of rootlessness and oppression, Sanders begins to describe the role of his lower-middle-class upbringing in forging him into the Congress’ only self-described socialist. Then he catches himself. ‘This isn’t a profile,’ he declared, interrupting himself.”

It kind of is though, I remember thinking.

Sanders, now deep into a serious bid for the Democratic nod, in a New Yorker profile realizes he has to give a little on his biography — including the Jewish stuff. Margaret Talbot gets the goods, but first must field a version of Sanders’ objection to me.

She writes: “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.’ He insisted that he was happy to talk about his life. But he couldn’t resist sermonizing first: ‘When I talk about a political revolution, what I’m talking about is how we create millions of decent-paying jobs, how we reduce youth unemployment, how we join the rest of the world, major countries, in having paid family and sick leave. I know those issues are not quite as important as my personal life.’ And then, unnecessarily: ‘I’m being facetious.'”

Then he dives right in, and it turns out the Jewish thing looms large, at least in a cultural-political way. Talbot writes:

“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’ father was a Polish Jew who, at the age of 17, came to America shortly after his brother, and struggled through the Depression in Brooklyn …

“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’ parents had been fundamentally apolitical, but he took away a lesson: ‘An election in 1932 ended up killing 50 million people around the world.’

“Sanders’ 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 ’70s, 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?'”

Yet for all the protestations that Sanders’ identity is not about religion, this is Talbot’s kicker, quoting Sanders addressing Liberty University, an evangelical Christian school in Virginia, and quoting from Amos:

“The occasion also played to the prophetic side of Sanders — the register in which he can sound like an Old Testament preacher. Unlike his slicker rivals, Sanders is most at ease talking about the moral and ethical dimensions of politics. ‘We are living in a nation and in a world — the Bible speaks to this issue — in a nation and in a world which worships not love of brothers and sisters, not love of the poor and the sick, but worships the acquisition of money and great wealth.’ His voice broke — all those stump speeches had been leaving deep scratches on the record. But his outrage was unmuffled. Staring at the crowd, he quoted the Hebrew Bible, his fist punctuating nearly every word: ‘Let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream.'”

Still left unanswered: Which kibbutz helped shape Sanders in the mid-1960s?

Recommended from JTA