NEW YORK — Bernie Sanders thinks of himself as a Vermonter, but he knows other people don’t necessarily see — or hear — him that way.
“Some people even suggest — hard to believe — that I have a Brooklyn accent. I don’t know why they say that, but that’s what some people say,” Sanders joked in a conversation with Yahoo News last Thursday.
Sanders, a Vermont senator and Democratic presidential candidate, has long disdained what he views as “political gossip” and sought to focus on policy. This is clearly part of why he hasn’t made his personal story a bigger part of his campaign, but his writing suggests that the pain his family went through in Brooklyn, including the death of his mother when he was 18, was part of what led him to leave New York City for Vermont. The family’s story has also been a driving force behind Sanders’s progressive politics.
While Sanders doesn’t make his personal story a cornerstone of his campaign, he made clear in a rare interview about his immigrant roots that the experience deeply influenced his outlook, even if he now claims New England as his home.
“I spent the first 18 years of my life in Brooklyn, I went to school in Brooklyn, I went to PS 197, went to James Madison High School, spent a year at Brooklyn College, so obviously Brooklyn is an important part of my life,” Sanders said.
Sanders’s parents were both part of the exodus of Jews who left Eastern Europe for the United States. His father, Eli, came from Stopnica, which is in modern-day Poland. Sanders’s mother, Dorothy, was born in New York City to parents who came from Russia and Poland. Immigration documents, which Yahoo News shared with Sanders, showed that his father came to New York in 1921 at the age of 17 onboard a ship called the Lapland. Passenger manifests listed his father as “Eliasz Gitman.” Sanders said that as with many Jewish immigrants, his father’s name was “changed along the way” as he was naturalized.
As a presidential candidate, Sanders has vowed to enact comprehensive immigration reform, including a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and the so-called Dreamers, who were brought to the U.S. as children. Sanders, who has called for decriminalizing illegal immigration, also pledged to end President Trump’s child-separation policy and called for enacting a “humane border policy,” including “fundamentally restructuring” the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agency.
For Sanders, his family’s history “makes the issue of immigration very personal.”
“I’m the proud son of an immigrant. And I think it is clear that we have got to stop the demonization of immigrants right now. Immigrants to a large degree are the people doing the hard work in this country: doing the agriculture, planting the crops, picking the crops,” he said. “These are the people who are doing some of the most important work in this country and being underpaid in the process of doing it.”
Sanders accused Trump of seeking to “demonize people because they were not born in this country.”
“That clearly is something that I take personally,” he said.
Sanders’s family lived in a three-and-a-half-room rent-controlled apartment in Midwood, a Brooklyn neighborhood that had a large Jewish immigrant population at the time. Sanders said his family “all spoke Yiddish,” the language of many Jewish immigrants.
“My father learned English ... pretty well. He did not have an accent. My grandmother always had a very heavy accent,” he recounted.
Yiddish is known for colorful phrases. Sanders turned to the best-known Yiddishism when asked how he might use the language to describe Trump.
“Oy vey,” he said with a laugh. “That’s about it.”
Sanders’s father worked as a paint salesman, and his mother raised the senator and his brother, Larry. The family faced financial struggles, but his parents put the two children through Hebrew school.
Sanders didn’t exactly take those religious studies seriously.
“I am very proud to be Jewish. … I would tell you that I was not much of a Talmudic scholar. I think mostly we were throwing spitballs.”
Sanders recalled the students learning how to read Hebrew but without actually understanding what they were reading. “So we did speed reading. We used to have races reading Hebrew. Unbelievable, but true,” he said.
Another aspect of the Jewish experience had a deeper effect on Sanders.
“I think the thing that impacted me most was the Holocaust and ... what it did to my father’s family and to 6 million people,” he said, speaking of views on immigration.
When he kicked off his presidential campaign at Brooklyn College in March, Sanders said of his father, “Virtually his entire family was wiped out by Hitler and Nazi barbarism.”
In the conversation with Yahoo News, Sanders distanced himself just slightly from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and other progressives, who have called Trump’s immigration detention facilities “concentration camps” and argued there are parallels between the current moment and the rise of Adolf Hitler. Sanders has rejected the use of the term “concentration camps.” However, he said he does feel there’s a valid “comparison” between Trump’s America and Nazi Germany.
“What we have is a president who is a demagogue, and the comparison is that this is a president who is a racist. And it’s unbelievable that in the year 2019 we have a president who is not using dog whistles, he is an overt racist,” Sanders said. “He claimed that Barack Obama, the first African-American president in this country, was not born in the United States. That was nothing less than racism. His going after Muslims is nothing less than racism. His attacks on Mexican-Americans is racist. That’s what you got.”
Sanders’s parents both died when he was a young man. His mother died from an illness just as he was graduating from high school, and his father died a few years later. The senator rarely discusses these incidents in detail, though he has said his mother’s illness helped drive his interest in expanding public access to health care. In his campaign kickoff speech, he suggested the family’s struggles were at the root of his drive to reduce income inequality.
“My experience as a child, living in a family that struggled economically, powerfully influenced my life and my values,” Sanders said. “I know where I came from, and that is something I will never forget.”
That speech was an exception. Before briefly discussing his youth, Sanders asked the audience to permit him “a few personal words.” Those moments are relatively rare. Sanders generally doesn’t delve into Brooklyn or his family’s immigration story. He describes this as part of his aversion to focusing on personality rather than policy.
“I think that it’s important that we focus on the real issues facing the American people. I think too much of politics revolves around personality,” he said. “Somebody has a compelling personal story, somebody may be a wonderful, wonderful father and a husband, or a great wife, or a mother … and you know what? They want to cut Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and education, give tax breaks to billionaires.”
The hardships his family experienced in Brooklyn clearly made a mark on Sanders, but he also has fond memories of his childhood. He rattled off a long list of youthful games he played, including softball, basketball, football, street hockey, “wall ball,” “stick ball” and “punch ball.”
He said these games were also a learning experience for government.
“We used to play what they call Chinese handball. I mean, there were a million games that the kids improvised. We played marbles, and a dozen variety of marbles. You’d flip cards,” he said. “...And they self-regulated. They determined the rules, and they obeyed the rules. It’s a good lesson in democracy.”
Sanders also described his professional sports memories in political terms. The senator said he learned an economic lesson when he was heartbroken, along with the rest of Brooklyn, when the Dodgers left the borough for Los Angeles in the late 1950s.
“I was very disappointed when I was a young man when the Dodgers left Brooklyn. I learned something about politics from that, as a matter of fact. What the power of money is about,” he said. “The Brooklyn Dodgers were a very unifying force in Brooklyn. They were an institution. And whatever makes them more money, a guy disrupted all that, moved them out to California.”
Eventually, Sanders left Brooklyn too. In his 2016 book, “Our Revolution: A Future to Believe In,” he said he discovered that he “really liked country living” at a Boy Scout camp as a child. However, he also made it clear that his move from New York City was an effort to put some of the more painful experiences he’d had there behind him.
“My mother had died a few months before. I wanted out of Brooklyn,” he wrote.
Sanders’s political career began when he became mayor of Burlington, Vt., in 1981. As mayor, he fought gentrification and sought concessions from real estate developers. A New York Times article from days after his election quoted him as saying, “We have a city that is trying to help a developer build $200,000 luxury waterfront condominiums with pools and health clubs and boutiques and all sorts of upper middle class junk five blocks from an area where people are literally not eating in order to pay their rent and fuel bills.”
In Congress two decades later, Sanders introduced legislation to create the National Housing Trust Fund to finance affordable housing. Now, as a presidential candidate, he has called for further expansions of federal funding for affordable housing. And he said he is rolling out a more detailed housing policy soon.
“The bottom line is that the nature of housing in America, housing is considered to be a commodity. And if I’m a real estate developer, and I have a whole lot of money, and I can buy out your apartment so I can throw you out on the street and force you to move from the neighborhood … that’s what’s going on,” Sanders said.
“We don’t talk about it enough, and we actually are just talking to my staff today, and we are going to be releasing very shortly a comprehensive housing program,” he added.
While Sanders describes his push for affordable housing using examples from around the country, his experiences of growing up in New York also shaped his views on the issue. He said he believes it’s getting “harder and harder” for someone to follow his example and go from lower-middle-class immigrant roots to the national political stage.
“In my family, growing up in the circumstances that we did, the idea that my parents’ son would become a United States senator or presidential candidate would’ve been unthinkable,” Sanders said.
Now, when he returns to New York, the city has been transformed by skyrocketing real estate prices and the elimination of rent control. Working-class enclaves like the neighborhood where Sanders grew up are becoming few and far between. While this issue has been at the forefront in urban areas, Sanders sees it as more universal.
“To be honest with you, I don’t spend all that much time in New York. And I spend less time in Brooklyn, but I am aware of the incredible gentrification that has taken place,” he said. “Not only in New York — I go around the country. You go to Greenville, S.C., gentrification is the issue of the day. You go to Los Angeles, it’s unbelievable. You go to Seattle.”
Brooklyn is clearly a major part of Sanders’s life and work. However, he no longer thinks of himself as a New Yorker.
“I’ve lived in Vermont for the last 50 years ... and Vermont is where I am from,” he said.
Sanders has even become a fan of New York’s most hated baseball team, the Boston Red Sox.
“The Red Sox are the team of New England, you know,” he said.
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