In the 24 hours after Bernie Sanders launched his presidential bid on May 26, the No. 2 most frequently Googled question about America’s newest potential president was: Is Bernie Sanders Jewish? As always, the particulars are much more interesting than the question of is he or isn’t he. For one NPR host, the idea that Sanders was Jewish and had spent time on a kibbutz meant that he probably held an Israeli passport, an instinctive conflation of Jewishness and foreign loyalties that might have once been more common on the right. Others were simply puzzled by how a socialist Jew wound up as a senator from Vermont.
Bernie Sanders is a typical American Jew of his generation in that his story doesn’t hew to any preconceived narratives or stereotypes, except for the fact that it begins in Brooklyn, where he and his brother Larry grew up in a modest apartment located off Kings Highway. Like many Brooklyn families, the Sanderses aspired to become middle-class Americans while living in the shadow of the Holocaust.
In 1921, Larry and Bernie’s father, Eli, left his family in Slopnice, a rural village in the South of Poland, and immigrated to the United States. During the Nazi occupation of Poland, Slopnice’s wide-open fields were used for airdrops before the businesses and goods of the town’s local Jews were closed and confiscated. Most of Eli’s family was sent to concentration camps where they were killed.
“Politics was not an aside [for us],” Larry Sanders has said. “It was life or death.”
On Aug. 29, 2013, the U.S. senator, his brother, and their wives returned to Slopnice, where the mayor, Adam Soltys, greeted them as dignitaries and showed them around the sleepy village. The group was taken to the town’s war memorial, two of the local schools, and even the place where the Sanders family home once stood. They were shown the official documents and photographs of the house, preserved in Slopnice’s archives, which the visitors kept as souvenirs. A statement from the municipality of Slopnice described Bernie as being “warm, cordial, and friendly” during his visit to reconnect with his father’s place of birth. It explained that he wanted to know exactly how daily life in the village had changed in the hundred years since his father left.
During a discussion, Larry said Bernie pressed Soltys for any information he might have about his father’s family. Soltys recalled that his own father had gone to school with the daughter of Eli Sanders’ half-brother. His name was Romek, he said, but he was called Romek of the Abraham. Soltys told them that at the time the Nazis invaded Poland, Romek was the leader of Slopnice’s Jewish community.
“Which of course,” Larry said, “meant he was one of the first to be killed.”
Larry, who is seven years older than Bernie, explained that for him and his younger brother, the two political figures who held the greatest influence were Adolf Hitler and Franklin Roosevelt. “Politics could go desperately wrong,” Larry said, “but it could also have a positive impact.” Although the Sanders family did not directly benefit from Roosevelt’s New Deal, the program remained an important symbol. In the lingering shadow of Nazi oppression, the American ideals of hope, justice, and of prosperity for all was a beacon.
Bernie and Larry both attended James Madison High School and Hebrew school on the weekends. There they studied Torah, learned about the prophets, Egypt, and the Jewish history of slavery. Larry told me that for him and his brother the stories did not hold great religious significance per se. Rather, in them, justice, and the way humans must distinguish right from wrong were plainly evident. “[Scripture] was encountered on an unintellectual level, but nonetheless it went very deep,” Larry explained. “We did not distinguish Jewishness from being American.”
In his 1998 memoir Outsider in the House, Bernie Sanders credits his older brother with introducing him to “political ideas.” Larry was the president of the Young Democrats club at Brooklyn College and, in “fulfilling his sibling duties,” he would “drag” his kid brother along to their meetings. The group’s first campaign was the halting of an urban renewal project in New York’s Lower East Side that would result in the eviction of low-income residents. Larry went door to door around Kings Highway, with Bernie in tow, requesting signatures from people in support of overturning the project. Unfortunately, despite racking up a considerable amount of local support, for one reason or another (to this day Larry suspects fraud), their efforts were unsuccessful. Like Bernie, Larry has pursued a career in politics: in the United Kingdom, where he currently represents the Green Party in Oxford West and Abingdon. Also like Bernie, Larry espouses the importance of universal health care and free college tuition.
Although Eli Sanders’ job as a paint salesman put food on the table for his wife Dorothy and their two boys, the family had to budget meticulously to get through each month. In the book The Jews of Capitol Hill: A Compendium of Jewish Congressional Members, by Kurt Stone, Bernie Sanders is quoted as saying about his childhood: “It’s not that we were poor, but [there was always] the constant pressure of never having enough money. … The money question to me has always been very deep and emotional.”
Alan Abbey, a reporter for the Burlington Free Press in the 1980s, described the milieu of post-Holocaust Jewish Brooklyn as having an acknowledged “outsiderness” combined with a strong sense of social conscience and a brute determination to survive. Abbey’s parents were of the same ilk as Sanders’, and he says the prevailing belief was that “[we are] here now” and “goddammit if [we] aren’t going to survive and prosper.”
Left-leaning, progressive, political thought was “in the air,” said Walter Block, a leading libertarian economist and a contemporary at James Madison, where he also ran on the track team with Sanders. “Most of our grandparents and parents had escaped either from Hitler or the Soviet Union,” Block said. “Everyone just took that view.”
At James Madison, Bernie Sanders was a talented athlete and a natural leader. Block recalled how the high school’s freshmen would look up to him during their senior year track sessions. A man named Nathan Crinsky, whom Sanders dubbed “Nate the Nose,” coached them, and the nickname stuck. In that same year, Sanders ran for student-body president. His campaign promise was to get James Madison to “adopt” a Korean orphan, by providing scholarships for children whose families had been torn apart by the Korean war of 1950-53. Of the three candidates running for the position, Sanders received the fewest votes. However, despite his loss, the high school decided to follow through with his proposal and did in fact set up the scholarship fund.
After Sanders graduated from James Madison in 1959 he enrolled at Brooklyn College, where he was miserable. Block, who went with Sanders to Brooklyn College, told me that Sanders “was constantly complaining about the teachers and that the school wasn’t academically rigorous enough.” That same year his mother, Dorothy, died. Sanders decided to leave the city. He transferred to the University of Chicago where he eventually received a political science degree. The Chicago years were crucially formative for the man the New York Times would later call the “Socialist Senator.” In the predominantly black areas surrounding the university, Bernie was “thrown right in the middle of the civil rights movement,” Larry said. At the university he joined student organizations like the Young People’s Socialist League and the Congress of Racial Equality.
Sanders writes in Outsider in the House that at the University of Chicago he largely neglected his formal studies, instead opting to spend hours in the library’s stacks poring over the works of Jefferson, Lincoln, Marx, Engels, Debs, and Trotsky. “I read everything I could get my hands on—except what I was required to read for class,” he writes. Outside the library, Sanders was involved in a sit-in protest against the University of Chicago’s policy of racial segregation in off-campus housing. He was also part of a march on Washington, D.C., to protest the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Sanders’ student jobs included working briefly for a trade union, the United Packinghouse Workers, as well as in a California mental hospital as a volunteer for the American Friends Service Committee. After scraping through to his graduation in 1964, he briefly returned to New York where, according to the National Journal, he started teaching children from low-income families for the new Head Start Program.
But in that same year, filled with a post-graduate thirst for adventure, Sanders decided to leave the city once again to travel abroad. Larry, who was also overseas at the time, said that they both made plans to spend the longest period of their trip in Israel. Larry told me that the decision was an unreflective one. “It never occurred to us not to visit Israel,” he said. “It was quite natural.” Neither he nor Bernie were Zionists in a “deep sense,” Larry explained, but he mentioned that they were impressed by their cousin, who lived in Israel, and who stressed the fundamental importance of equality to the Zionist vision.
‘The kibbutz was marvelous. People could do things in which they had no background whatsoever.’
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.
On Oct. 23, 1980, Alan Abbey, then a 26-year-old City Hall reporter for the Burlington Free Press, broke the news about Sanders’ entry into the race for the mayoral seat in Vermont’s largest city. “Historian and film-strip maker Bernie Sanders,” the article reads, “the Liberty Union gubernatorial candidate in 1976, said he is testing whether he can build a coalition of poor people, blue collar workers, and university students for the March 1981 election.”
During his time in Vermont in the late ’60s and throughout the ’70s, Sanders lived something of an impoverished existence. When he first moved to the state, Sanders initially lived in a converted sugar mill with dirt floors. He scraped a living together by working a series of odd jobs ranging from carpentry to freelance writing. But it was during these transitional years that he discovered the Liberty Union Party, a small coalition of left-leaning Vermonters that offered local voters an alternative to the two-party system. According to Outsider in the House, Sanders became a representative for the party after going to a small Liberty Union meeting. Once there, Sanders writes, “full of enthusiasm for what I believed was right and just, I offered my views on education, the economy, and the war in Vietnam.” Sanders was chosen on the spot as Liberty Union’s candidate for the then-open seat on the U.S. Senate. Sanders had launched his political career.
Over the next decade, Sanders earned a reputation around Vermont for his tireless campaigning. He ran twice for a seat in the senate and twice for the position of governor—unsuccessfully each time. “He was always a fringe player,” said Abbey, “as much an outsider as he is now in his presidential campaign.” Sanders put his political career on hold in 1977 because he felt Liberty Union had reached a point of stasis. Sanders writes in Outsider in the House that, at the time, Liberty Union was not “attracting new members, new energy, or new leadership.”
During this break, Sanders founded a company he named the American People’s Historical Society. It produced educational filmstrips intended to expose college-age youth to “extraordinary Americans” they wouldn’t have otherwise heard of. Of the films he made, his greatest work was a half-hour biopic of the “life and ideas” of Eugene Victor Debs, founder of the American Socialist Party. The film was distributed around American colleges and was even broadcast on Vermont public television.
Abbey described the city of Burlington at this time as a “standard blue collar,” declining industrial city, with a population made up primarily of Irish and French Catholics. He said that, at this point, the city could have gone either way: “upscale and hipster,” as it is today, or further into decline.
In 1980, Sanders decided to resurrect his political career and run for mayor of Burlington after Sugarman, whom he shared an apartment with, “dragged” him to the city’s clerk office to rifle through the breakdown of results of the 1976 gubernatorial election. Sugarman revealed that although Sanders’ popularity waned across the state, it was fairly strong in Burlington itself. Sanders writes in Outsider: “Richard reasoned that if all our efforts were concentrated on our hometown, we might win the upcoming mayoral election.”
The incumbent government of Burlington immediately dismissed Sanders’ chances. Abbey said that this is because it was a “very creaky democratic machine” that had not had a truly contested race in years.
In that first article Abbey wrote on Sanders, he quotes the new mayoral candidate as stating: “The goal must be to take political power away from the handful of millionaires who currently control it through Mayor [Gordon] Paquette and place that power in the hands of the working people of the city who are the vast majority of the Burlington population.” The Sanders of the 1980s, Abbey comments, mayoral hopeful, and the Sanders of today, presidential hopeful, are saying “word for word” the same thing. “The only difference is he’s changed the word millionaire to billionaire.”
Throughout the bitterly cold Vermont winter of 1980, Sanders’ campaign strategy was to knock on as many doors as he could, telling people—according to Outsider in the House—that “[he] would do [his] best to represent those in the city who had long been locked out of City Hall.” Abbey would sometimes accompany Sanders as he campaigned. Together they would go from “the bluest of the blue” neighborhood in Burlington, the Old North End, characterized by its rickety houses, walking up through the increasingly affluent neighborhoods to eventually reach Burlington’s wealthy New North End. Abbey would stand behind Sanders as he knocked on each door, furiously scribbling into his notebook as the disheveled candidate, dressed in a “frumpy winter coat,” discussed gritty issues, like the state of the sewage network and garbage pickup schedule, on the door steps of Burlington’s residents. Abbey said Sanders did not try to present any “grand socialist ideas”—rather, as Sanders puts it in Outsider: “I listened to their concerns and supported their grievances … as I stood in kitchens and stood on front stoops in low-income houses, I heard the bitterness in their voices.” According to Abbey, the message Sanders conveyed was a simple one: that “this is your city and it’s time to take it back.”
The Sanders campaign began to pick up momentum. In the newsroom of the Burlington Free Press, Sanders’ became known as “Total”—said in a thick Brooklyn accent—because of his grouchy, “full tilted” way of delivering his attacks against the current state of the city: “This is total travesty that … !” And the locals started to listen. “It was clear to me he was connecting to people,” Abbey said. “He was a newcomer and an outsider, but I saw people’s eyes and I saw them responding.”
In response, the seemingly entrenched democratic governance in Burlington started to become unsettled. Burlington’s Oasis Diner was made famous locally because it was a pit stop for even highly placed Democratic politicians hoping to curry favor with local voters. Photographs of these numerous diplomatic visits lined the Oasis’ walls. Shortly before the mayoral election, Abbey, who because of his reporting had become closely associated with the Sanders campaign, visited the diner and found himself being berated by its Greek owner. The man, whom Abbey refused to name, was a staunch Democrat who was known to be a “behind the scenes player” in the local politics. Abbey told me that the owner lamented Sanders’ growing popularity and interrogated the young reporter, delineating exactly how and why Sanders would be “terrible” for the future of the city.
“The issue of [Sanders] being Jewish did not emerge at all” during his campaign, Abbey commented, “except toward the end and only in a negative sense.”
A week before the mayoral election, a series of mimeographed fliers began appearing around town. “The big story,” the flier read, is that “Bernie Sanders and the parents of Alan Abbey attended the same high school in Brooklyn.” The information on the flier was factually incorrect, Abbey told me. His parents attended Midwood High School, not James Madison. But the point was “to tar [Sanders] with the ‘New Yorker’ brush,” i.e., to highlight the fact that Sanders and Abbey were Jews. The Jewish community in Burlington was small, and Sanders was not a part of it. Sanders was, and still is, notoriously private about his personal life, wanting the focus to always be on the political issues at stake. But the flier disturbed Abbey in a way he’ll never forget. He described it as an underhanded attempt by local Democrats to tarnish Sanders’ reputation and discredit Abbey’s coverage of the election by appealing to the “latent anti-Semitism” in working-class “rural America.” However, “Bernie,” Abbey stressed, “never rose to the bait.”
Sanders ignored the flier as well as the resulting stir it caused. He won the election, beating the incumbent democratic Mayor Paquette by just 10 votes. Abbey said that what followed—Sander’s tenure as Burlington’s “Socialist” mayor coupled with copious media attention to “the red mayor in the Green Mountains” (as Rolling Stone termed him at the time)—was “really a revolution” for the city.
Abbey mentioned that the current commentary on Sanders’ presidential campaign is comparable to that of his mayoral campaign over 30 years ago. The common refrain being: “Of course he won’t win, but … ”
“The conditions are right,” Abbey said. Sanders’ authenticity, his “bedrock sincerity,” is currently resonating with the same sorts of disaffected groups as it did in the past. He added, “Don’t underestimate Bernie.”
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Jas Chana is a former intern at Tablet.