7/22/2019 11:13:00 AM Bernie Sanders concedes: He needs to talk more about where he came from
NEW YORK (AP) — Back at Brooklyn College this winter to launch his second White House bid, Bernie Sanders paused to recall growing up nearby in a 3 1/2-room apartment beset by money worries.
“I know where I came from,” Sanders told supporters, “and that is something I will never forget.”
It was a noteworthy departure for a politician who has long resisted sharing his own story, rarely linking policy to personal experience. But relatives and those who grew up alongside Sanders — and occasionally now Sanders himself — say there are connections between the candidate’s Brooklyn boyhood and his decades of agitating to level the economic playing field.
Not least, they say, was the death of his mother, Dorothy, when Sanders was 18, an event he has done little more than mention.
“I remember my father ... came to me and said go downstairs and say goodbye to Aunt Dorothy,” recalls Sanders’ cousin, Maxine Glassberg, raised in the same apartment building his family lived in. “She was in bed, this was the end, and they knew she wasn’t coming back.”
The death helped shape Sanders’ views on the need for equal access to health care, the Vermont senator said in a recent interview, even as it pushed him to leave Brooklyn.
“Losing one’s mother at the age of, I believe, 18 ... was very, very difficult,” Sanders told The Associated Press. “In fact, I graduated Madison High School and went to Brooklyn College for one year, and I decided to leave Brooklyn because I kind of wanted to get away from the community that I’d grown up in.”
Sanders, 77, was raised in close-knit, mostly Jewish Midwood just before and after the Korean War.
“Our parents for the most part were American-born, but our grandparents weren’t, and we knew what it was to struggle,” says David Sillen, who often walked to school with Sanders.
Sillen and others recall that time in rosier terms than Sanders often has. That may be, in part, because of dynamics particular to the Sanders’ household.
Unlike most of his classmates’ parents, Sanders’ father immigrated to the United States, arriving from Poland as a teenager with little money or ability to speak English; many of his relatives were killed in the Holocaust.
Eli Sanders, a paint salesman, always had work. But to make do on his modest paychecks, Dorothy Sanders, a homemaker, became an uncompromising scrimper. The couple fought frequently about money.
“There were arguments and more arguments between our parents,” Sanders wrote in “Our Revolution,” published after the 2016 election. “Painful arguments. Bitter arguments. Arguments that seared through a little boy’s brain, never to be forgotten.”
Sanders’ mother aspired to more, relatives say. Sanders was reminded of that each time he visited cousin Benjamin Glassberg, whose father’s ownership of a garment business afforded a house with a yard on Long Island. Back in Brooklyn, Sanders and his older brother, Larry, slept on a trundle bed in the living room.
Sanders’ mother pushed her sons to work hard in school so they could do better, Glassberg said. “I think she felt at times that possibly it was her fault that that they didn’t have a more affluent upbringing,” he says.
Larry Sanders did not reply to an interview request, but he spoke about his and his brother’s early years during a 2015 interview with Vermont Public Radio.
“I think what Bernard and I took from that is that financial problems are never just financial problems,” he said. “They enter into people’s lives at very deep and personal levels.”
Bernie Sanders’ first foray into politics came his senior year at James Madison High School, when he ran unsuccessfully for student body president, pledging to raise money for a Korean child whose parents had been killed in the war.
Around that time, his mother’s health began to worsen. Sanders increasingly missed track practices, often showing up to run just before meets, former classmates remember.
With his mother hospitalized in New Jersey, Sanders enrolled at Brooklyn College and moved into an attic apartment with Steve Slavin, a fellow Madison graduate. Slavin says that despite nagging by their landlord to cut the noise, the apartment gave Sanders space to get away from tensions surrounding his mother’s illness. “He was sort of in denial as to how sick she actually was,” he says.
A few months later, his mother died and Sanders transferred to the University of Chicago. By the time Sanders graduated in 1964, his father, too, had died and his brother had relocated to England. Sanders returned briefly to New York before moving to Vermont.
A few years later, sitting down with cousin Benjamin Glassberg, Sanders mentioned that he was considering a longshot run for the U.S. Senate.
“Gee, Bernie, politics? What interests you in that?” Glassberg, now 77, recalls asking. “And he would tell me about his thoughts and the fact that he was very concerned about things such as medical care and ... because his mother was ill for that period of time, I could understand where he was coming from.”
Sanders says his family’s experience finding treatment for his mother helped shape his view that “health care is a human right — it’s not a privilege — and that was not the case back then and that certainly is not the case right now.”
Given the era and the generation, it is little surprise that Sanders struck out on his own, former classmates say.
Many former classmates still keep in contact with one another. But few were surprised when Sanders sent notice that he would not be attending a recent reunion.
That’s OK, they said, so long as Sanders does not forget the lessons Brooklyn taught.