It was quite a Thursday for Bernie Sanders, who continues to gain steam in his run for the Democratic presidential nomination.
First, thanks to Haaretz and journalist Yossi Melman, the world finally learned which kibbutz Sanders stayed at in 1963: Sha’ar Ha’amakim. Since Sanders announced his candidacy, numerous media outlets, including Tablet, have profiled the Senator from Vermont, with many of them mentioning the formative months he spent at a kibbutz in Israel. Until Thursday, the Sha’ar Ha’amakim-Sanders affiliation was a mystery.
In August, Tablet contributor Jas Chana wrote a profile of Sanders’s Jewish roots, and the impact the kibbutz had on Sanders life, both personally and politically, as he headed to Israel with his brother, Larry:
Both brothers decided to spend their time in Israel living and working on kibbutzim. Bernie arrived in Israel first and was there for six months total; Larry showed up four months after Bernie’s arrival and didn’t leave until 1967. In that time, Larry met his first wife and lived on two kibbutzim: Matsuva in the north and Yotvata in the south. Unfortunately, no one I spoke to for the purpose of this article had any idea or recollection of the name of Bernie’s kibbutz. However, Professor Richard Sugarman, a religious-studies professor at the University of Vermont, one of Sanders’ closest friends, and the man who encouraged him to run for mayor of Burlington in 1980, told me it was one of the “oldest kibbutzim.” (Requests for the information from Sanders’ press office went unanswered.)
The Sanders brothers’ time in Israel overlapped by only two months and because they lived on separate kibbutzim they have only been able to exchange stories from their experiences as kibbutzniks later in their lives. Larry recalled being impressed with his younger brother’s tales of leadership on his kibbutz. While Larry was more interested in the day-to-day activity of kibbutz life, Bernie relished the “planning elements:” He loved the idea of people working together to complete every required task. Bernie would hurl questions at his fellow kibbutzniks, asking them, “What are you doing? What are your economic plans?”
“The kibbutz was marvelous in that sense,” Larry recalled. “People could do things in which they had no background whatsoever.”
Sugarman described Sanders as having a “prophetic sensibility of issues surrounding the connection between morality and economics.” For this reason, during his time on the kibbutz, Sanders was inspired by how willing people were to take up any kind of work. Sanders described the egalitarian, agrarian nature of kibbutz life as a “less alienating form of labor,” Sugarman said, and went as far to say it was “a utopian form of existence.”
“Bernie’s socialism was about trying to give people a better society,” Sugarman commented, and this was at the “heart of his thinking about Israel” at the time. According to Larry, Bernie also described the routine of 1960s kibbutz life as “a very good way to raise children” because parents, men in particular, were given much more free time than they ever could have had in the city.
Larry said the kibbutz experience was valuable for him and his brother simply because it showed them that “you didn’t need big bosses, you didn’t need massive wealth” to live a decent life. Socialism was something “that could work.”
But for Sanders, the kibbutz experience wasn’t just about politics. “[Bernie] wanted to see Israelis growing vegetables!” Sugarman said. Because they grew up in the city, both brothers felt a deep fascination with rural life and the ability to grow things. As a Boy Scout, Bernie would cry as the bus departed the campsite in upstate New York to travel back to Brooklyn. And in fact, it was Bernie’s synergy with nature, Larry said, not any political ambition, that inspired his eventual move to Vermont in 1967. According to Larry, Bernie saw the Green Mountain State as simply “a much more pleasant place to be” than the city.
Just hours after the name of Bernie Sanders’s kibbutz was reported, we learned more about the personal life of the Vermonter—this time by his own volition. In the closing remarks for his debate with Secretary Clinton—the last before New Hampshire’s primary voters head to the polls on Tuesday—Sanders departed from his usual emphasis on our country’s collective problems and, if only for a minute, got personal: He invoked his father, a Polish Jewish immigrant who found refuge and opportunity upon arriving to the United States as a teenager. Drawing on his own family’s American dream success story, Sanders then explained why that same dream is now near-unattainable for millions, and why a vote for him might change that.
Emotional, poignant, and surprisingly intimate, here are Bernie Sanders’ closing remarks:
My dad came to this country at the age of 17 from Poland. Didn’t have any money, couldn’t speak English. He died pretty young, and I think it would have been beyond his wildest dreams to see his son up here on this stage today running for president.
I love this country, and my dad loved this country, and he was the most proud American because of what it gave him in terms of raising his family — even though we never had much money.
But today in America we are the only major country on Earth that doesn’t guarantee health care to all people, that doesn’t guarantee paid family and medical leave. We have the highest rate of childhood poverty of almost any major country on Earth. We are seeing millions of families unable to send their kids to college in the United States of America.
I’m running for president because I believe it is just too late for establishment politics and establishment economics. I do believe we need a political revolution, where millions of people stand up and say loudly and clearly that our government belongs to all of us and not just a handful of wealthy campaign contributors. Thank you all.
Clearly, Thursday was a big day for Sanders’s campaign. And if the latest Quinnipiac University poll—which shows Sanders just two percentage points behind Clinton—is to be trusted, then the days to come might be even bigger.
Jordana Narin is an intern at Tablet