"Nine months ago, we began our campaign here in New Hampshire.”
Bernie Sanders, the 74-year-old, Brooklyn-born Democratic senator running for president, was speaking on the night of his New Hampshire primary win. He gripped the podium with both hands, and pronounced “our” like ow-wah and “here” like hee-yuh. The septuagenarian clearly still had the fight in him, a fight he seemed to be enjoying very much.
The crowd screamed with excitement.
“We had no campaign organization,” Sanders continued. “We had no money, and we were taking on the most powerful political organization in the United States of America. And tonight, with what appee-yuhs to be a record-breaking voter turnout… because of a YOOGE voter turnout… and I say yooge! We won.”
On February 20, all eyes turned to the Nevada caucus to see if Bernie could turn his fans’ enthusiasm into a winning streak. Among Democrats, Nevada’s voting population is relatively diverse: 65 percent white, 15 percent black, and 15 percent Latino. Clinton was supposed to have a strong lead there, but the final delegate numbers came in rather close—as of this writing, Clinton winning 52.7 percent of the vote to Sanders’s 47.2. Bernie treated the results like a win for momentum regardless, promising a revolution by Super Tuesday; others treated it like yet another failure for the Democratic underdog. The same weekend, toxic human hot dog Donald Trump cleaned up at the Republican primary in South Carolina, earning 50 delegates with a 10-point lead over Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz.
For what it’s worth, I would not call myself a Bernie supporter. I don’t trust the cult of national politics enough to align myself with any human being who wants to be president. I plan on voting for whoever wins the Democratic nomination—because I am not an idiot—but until then, until we know who the nominee is, I will continue to avoid confrontations with rabid fans of either candidate.
That said, something strange happened to me when I watched Bernie Sanders’s New Hampshire acceptance speech. In Yiddish, we use a word called kvelling, which in English translates roughly to “feeling happy and proud.” But kvelling means much more than that. I’ve only ever heard my family use kvelling in reference to the accomplishments of their closest loved ones. Kvelling is a combination of pride and love so strong that it can bring the kveller to tears. Sometimes, you don’t even have to do anything special to be a subject of the kvelling. Both my parents have kvelled over the fact that I am, you know, alive.
As a 25-year-old American Jew, the only time I had ever truly kvelled was over my younger sister or cousins. But when I watched Bernie Sanders give his acceptance speech that night, I was kvelling so hard, I nearly cried.
Most people are rooting for Bernie for one big reason: his economic policies. I like those policies, too. But the reason I kvelled watching Bernie’s speech touches on something else, something that Bernie rarely mentions: his Jewishness.
When Bernie Sanders, a white-haired Brooklyn Jew, was up there at a podium flapping his arms about economic inequality, he reminded me of family members across the political spectrum. My Uncle Andrew, who also has a strong Brooklyn accent but small business, fiscally conservative politics. My dad, who’s now campaigning for Bernie in Pennsylvania and has devoted his entire Facebook feed to the cause. My aunts, two incredibly warm, strong women who are never afraid to say exactly what’s on their minds. And my grandmother, who may be one of the most intimidatingly smart and indefatigably curious people I know.
What I saw in Bernie looked familiar to me in a way it might not to most Americans. I saw family.
Gal Beckerman echoed a similar sentiment in an op-ed published on February 15 in the New York Times. “Every time I hear [Bernie’s] voice, I am returned to Passover seders where I’ve often been cornered by one of my uncles pointing a finger at my chest and yelling about something very important I must listen to right now,” he wrote. “And I know I’m not alone.”
You are not alone, Gal. Bernie could show up at one of my family’s loud, argumentative seders and instantly be accepted as kin.
But when I’m not kvelling about Bernie, I find myself struggling with what Bernie—what Bernie’s Jewishness—means.
That struggle led me to text my dad, a Jew from Brooklyn, and ask him for a favor. It was two days after a Jewish Democratic Socialist from Brooklyn won a presidential primary—two historic firsts—and I needed my dad to do something for me.
I needed him to send me the family House Un-American Activities Committee transcripts.
1. CANNON FODDER
I have no idea how to spell my great-grandfather’s name. According to the records of online family trees, it ranges from Bronstein (like Leon Trotsky’s real name) to Braunstein to Brounstein. My dad was just a kid when he used to hang out with his grandfather, but he remembers the names spelled on the buzzer outside his Brooklyn apartment as Harry Brounstein.
Harry Brounstein came over to New York from a shtetl, a small Jewish town or de facto ghetto, in what is now Moldova and used to be called Bessarabia. (At Ellis Island, administrators marked the country down as Romania.) Harry came by boat in 1910 to escape the tumult between Russian revolutions. According to my grandfather, who has since passed away, his father fled Bessarabia because “he didn’t want to be cannon fodder for the czar and he didn’t want to be cannon fodder for the Bolsheviks.”
My grandfather never spoke to me about the virulent anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe at the time his father fled. Harry Brounstein escaped from a country seized by the belief that Jews were part of an international conspiracy against Christianity. A notorious piece of anti-Semitic propaganda, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, described the minutes of a fabricated meeting among Jewish leaders to perpetuate the conspiracy, and the czarist government distributed it widely to drum up xenophobic, nationalist fervor against Bolshevik revolutionaries—revolutionaries that the czar wanted to associate with Jews.
It worked. Thousands of Jews died in pogroms, or massacres, across Russia in the early 1900s. (For the record, Jews also fought back.) In 1903, the New York Times described a pogrom in Bessarabia, where my great-grandfather was from:
“The Jews were taken wholly unaware and were slaughtered like sheep… The scenes of horror attending this massacre are beyond description. Babies were literally torn to pieces by the frenzied and bloodthirsty mob. The local police made no attempt to check the reign of terror. At sunset the streets were piled with corpses and wounded. Those who could make their escape fled in terror, and the city is now practically deserted of Jews."
Once at a family gathering, a long time ago, I remember someone laughing about the fact that my sister and I had light-colored eyes and freckles. “Someone got raped by a Russian soldier!” a relative suggested, giggling. This is one of the luxuries American Jews have now. We’ve found ways to remember these traumas as jokes.
Harry Brounstein worked his ass off once he got to the United States. And, like many new Jewish immigrants, he worked in the thriving garment industry in New York’s Lower East Side. Eventually, Harry became a labor organizer with the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), the same group that went on multi-thousand person strikes after 146 shirtwaist makers died in a fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. At the ILGWU, Harry fought for working conditions that have become the foundation of the modern labor movement.
In 1929, the stock market collapsed. Harry, worried his family wouldn’t have enough to eat, made a savvy business decision: He’d open a deli. As a kid, my grandfather and his brother, David, worked at Harry’s Delicatessen in Brooklyn, hauling 60-pound bags of potatoes into the kitchen.
Harry had a heavy Russian accent and also wore tefillin, small black boxes with Torah parchment tucked away inside. He fastened them to his head and his left arm with leather straps when he prayed. He was also paranoid about being hunted down by the Soviet government, so in later years he refused to watch TV for fear that spooks would use the TV set to spy on him. My grandfather and his brother grew up listening to the radio.
My grandfather’s name was Saul Brounstein—or it was for the first 17 years of his life. He loved the radio and he loved to whistle. Saul was also blessed with a deep, rich radio voice and a storyteller’s talent. As a teen, he started working as a radio announcer for WNYC, and because of that, he changed his name. In 1940, the radio station didn’t think it was a good idea (this according to my father) for someone named Saul Brounstein to be reading the news, so Saul Brounstein became Paul Brownstone. And why would a radio station be afraid of broadcasting an American Jew immediately before and during World War II? While Jews were being herded into cattle cars in Europe, anti-Semitism still ran rampant in the United States. Jews were barred from living in certain neighborhoods, joining white health clubs, or attending certain universities.
David Brounstein, meanwhile, was following a different path. My great-uncle had gone to Brooklyn College at age 16 and got into Cornell University for law. While Saul (now Paul) focused on his radio career, David fell in love, married, and had a child, Douglass, named after Frederick Douglass. David, too, had also changed his name to Brownstone, partly because Harry and his wife, Molly, wanted it that way.
But David was also much more political than Paul. He moved to Buffalo to see if he could start organizing workers and assumed an alias. His son Douglass, a newborn, would receive an alias, too. Doug’s father went by Fred Werner, and his mother took the name Trudy Werner. “We basically lived underground, moving every five months,” Doug remembered. “And I was their son ‘Laddie.’ Nobody called me Doug until I was 5.”
When Doug was 6, his father was subpoenaed to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee. It was 1957, the committee was no longer at the height of its powers, but it was still destroying lives. Two years later, it would be called “the most un-American thing in the country today” by former president Harry Truman.
3. AMERICAN INNOVATION
The House Un-American Activities Committee, or HUAC, was created to investigate subversive activities on the part of private citizens and organizations suspected of having Communist ties. The committee then proceeded to witch-hunt Communists with hearings that gripped the nation and routinely destroyed the lives and careers of those called before them. By 1957, the Senate had already taken the extraordinary step of censuring the fire-breathing, homophobic, demagogue Joseph McCarthy. McCarthy died the same year that my great-uncle was subpoenaed, and McCarthy’s legacy (as well as the committee) would be lampooned for years until it was dismantled in 1975.
My dad was thrilled to share the file with me—especially now, at this moment. I knew the transcript existed, but I’d never read through all of it. My dad was somewhat sheltered from the side of the family that had to go into hiding, and it was only now, in his 58th year, that he was exploring his own activist side in the form of canvassing for Bernie. My dad’s dad felt that his brother’s political activities deterred him from going into politics, but now my dad was embracing a form of socialism.
Our Jewish socialist—hell, communist—relative was persecuted for his political beliefs and activities. But now a Jewish Democratic Socialist had just won the New Hampshire primary and was being taken seriously as a potential president. Sixty years ago, members of my family had to change their names and go into hiding because of their radical politics or their Jewishness or both. In the year 2016, however, this radical Jew had achieved—was achieving—mainstream political success.
The even weirder part? Bernie’s Yiddish socialism may be the very thing that makes him so attractive to voters. According to labor historian Daniel Katz, writing in the Forward, Bernie symbolizes “the central tenets of Yiddish Socialism, the dominant political and cultural current among the working-class Jews of Brooklyn where Sanders was born at the end of the Great Depression.” Sanders’s revolution, Katz writes, is “steeped in a specific tradition, time, and place, does not privilege class warfare over identity politics, or vice versa. This is the key to his growing appeal.”
The very thing that makes Bernie Sanders so appealing to so many Americans in 2016 would almost destroy my family in 1957.
4. A GOOD WORD
The House Un-American Activities Committee had one goal: to make David “Fred Werner” Brownstone, my great-uncle, admit he was a Communist, and thus, because of his beliefs, implicitly admit to what those legislators viewed as treason.
The transcripts laid out a pretty clear narrative. According to the synopsis of “investigation of Communist activities in the Buffalo, N.Y. Area,” David Brownstone worked as a laborer in a steel factory in upstate New York just so he could foment a revolution. He dropped out of school one class shy of a Cornell law degree. He assumed an alias and used a fake Social Security card in order to find employment in upstate New York factories. An FBI informant ratted him out to the Committee—along with other labor organizers working in the area.
Unlike some of the other people subpoenaed that day, David had a good lawyer by the name of Victor Rabinowitz. The first person called to testify that day, an African American man named Charles Asque, had a public defender who apparently didn’t advise Asque to take the Fifth Amendment. (I have no clue what ended up happening to him.) But my great-uncle, like many people called before the committee, took the Fifth throughout. But he also went one better—David Brownstone pleaded the First Amendment, too, suggesting that the House Un-American Activities Committee itself ran counter to the Bill of Rights.
[Richard Arens, House Un-American Activities Committee staff director]: You have not broken from the Communist Party like the man who preceded you on the witness stand, have you?
Mr. Brownstone: Sir, there are many questions which one might like to answer but one's convictions preclude one from cooperating to that extent with this committee, as I do not believe the committee has the right in our democracy to ask me that question. Therefore…
[Edwin Willis (D-Louisiana), subcommittee chairman]: Is that the basis of your refusal?
Mr. Brownstone: Therefore, I refuse on the basis of the First and Fifth Amendments to answer that.
Mr. Willis: Your cute little speech there addressed itself to the First Amendment, but you wind up by invoking the privilege of the Fifth Amendment. The only right to invoke the privilege of the Fifth Amendment is that you have an honest fear that if you would answer a question you would subject yourself to criminal proceedings. Do you have that honest fear?
Mr. Brownstone: Sir…
Mr. Willis: Aside from your dislike for this committee?
Mr. Brownstone: Sir, I am interested in shielding myself against an unjust prosecution. Therefore, I invoke both the First and Fifth Amendments to the Constitution in answer to that question.
Mr. Willis: Three witnesses who did not feel like you about it, and who felt an obligation to truthfully answer questions, answered under oath, subjecting themselves to the pains and penalties of perjury if they were not telling the truth, and said that you were a Communist. What are you talking about unjust prosecution if three witnesses swear that you were a Communist? If you want to invoke the privilege of the Fifth Amendment, don't give us the usual act of being cute around here. Are you invoking the protection of the Fifth Amendment because you feel that to honestly answer the questions might subject you to criminal proceedings?
Mr. Brownstone: I am answering under the First and Fifth Amendments of the Constitution. In relation to the Fifth Amendment, I am attempting to shield myself against an unjust prosecution.
Mr. Arens: Would the prosecution of yourself as a Communist be unjust?
(The witness conferred with his counsel.)
Mr. Willis: You found yourself a good word now.
Mr. Brownstone: I beg your pardon?
Mr. Willis: You found yourself a good word, that unjust prosecution. Give us an answer to that last question.
Mr. Brownstone: The last question will be answered in this way: I refuse to answer that question on the basis of the First and Fifth Amendments.
The House Un-American Activities show trials weren’t benign. My great-uncle’s “cute speech” about the First Amendment looks brave on the page, but his behavior after the hearing suggests he got a little spooked. He had reason to be: Many of those called before the committee lost their jobs, became socially isolated. Some were blacklisted and unable to work or support their families. Scores of people committed suicide. After the hearing, David no longer worked to organize laborers. He took a job as a salesman, wrote books about taxes, and even did a stint as a corporate executive. It was only later in life that he dropped that career to write nonfiction books with his partner, Irene. (David, Doug, and Irene also worked together to publish an oral history about the experiences of immigrants to Ellis Island.) According to their son, Doug, David and Irene became partial-hermits, writing history books from their home. They included, whenever they could, perspectives that challenged the powers that be.
David’s son’s generation—which includes my father—is, for the most part, comfortable, well-educated, middle-class.
Doug didn’t grow up knowing what happened to his father with the House Un-American Activities Committee. David never talked about it, possibly because he would, like so many other American Communists, come to distance himself from any association with the Communist Party.
“I didn’t even know this until I was 16, and I was going down to the basement in our house and going through an old dresser, and there were all these clippings,” Doug said. “I was like, wow…”
When I originally called up Doug to talk about Bernie and our family, I was excited. I lost much of that excitement when, during the same conversation, Doug—who still maintains left-of-center views and is politically active—issued a warning. “If I were to run against [Bernie], I know exactly how to run a dirty campaign to blow him up. He’s a socialist. He doesn’t believe in God. Maybe because he’s a Jew. He’s a Satan-worshipper in parts of the country. He’s an Other. Do I disagree with him? Not at all.”
Could there be fallout for Jews in the United States if Bernie is the nominee? To suggest that anti-Semitism (or anti-Semitism-tinged Red-baiting) wouldn’t resurface after just a generation of distance is wishful denial. A recent Southern Poverty Law Center report tallied a 14 percent increase in antigovernment and hate groups in the year 2015. “Donald Trump’s demonizing statements about Latinos and Muslims have electrified the radical right, leading to glowing endorsements from white nationalist leaders such as Jared Taylor and former Klansman David Duke,” the SPLC reported. In a Daily Show segment that aired in December, Comedy Central correspondent Jordan Klepper asked a sample group of Trump supporters if they’d still back their candidate if he advocated creating “a national registry of Jews.” Two out of seven Trump supporters said they would.
Trump’s South Carolina win and Doug’s fears about Bernie made me think. White-skinned American Jews like Bernie Sanders—and me—currently occupy a place of privilege. Most days of the week we can swim with the otherwise privileged, well-educated whites and not get eaten alive for it. Because of this privilege, history shows that radical, secular Jews not only can get angry and agitate, they feel an obligation to. My great-grandfather and my great-uncle are only two small examples. Sanders, as a longtime agitator in the Senate, also fills this role. (If you need proof, just go watch that 1995 C-SPAN video in which Bernie slammed a Republican lawmaker from California for using the phrase “homos in the military.”)
But sometimes Jews do get eaten alive. Stranger writer Charles Mudede reminded me, for example, of Ruth First, a South African anti-apartheid leader (and a Jew), who received a parcel bomb in the mail. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, two young American Jews accused of spying for the Soviet government, were executed by electric chair—the only American citizens to be executed for these charges during the Cold War. David Brownstone, my great-uncle, abandoned his earlier activities after the House Un-American Activities Committee hearing. Doug, his son, told me he never wanted to talk about his involvement in the Communist Party.
And that’s where secular Jewish privilege reveals its limits. Non-Jewish Bernie Sanders fans love him because he gets angry and flaps his arms like a radical Jewish grandpa at a seder they’ve never been to. In their minds, he speaks truths that could win an election. And Jewish Bernie fans love him for the same reason. As explained in the New York Times, Bernie Sanders also expresses an older politics, one rooted in turn-of-the-century immigrant living in New York City.
But Jewish families also carry memories of what begins to feel like an inevitable response to our visibility: the dehumanizing, the fleeing, the changing of names, the spreading diaspora.
When I pulled up the old House Un-American Activities Committee transcript and reread it last week, I felt a high of recognition. These two moments in history—David Brownstone’s testimony before HUAC and Bernie Sanders’s speech after his New Hampshire victory—were somehow related, I felt.
I was proud.
But talking to David Brownstone’s son reminded me of the personal costs that accompany social progress. As opposed to Donald Trump’s fascistic rhetoric about winning, always winning, it seems like, no matter what, radicals like Bernie Sanders tend to lose. I reject the idea that Bernie is unelectable because of his Jewishness, or even his socialism. At the same time, I fear the ignorance and hatred these qualities might trigger in 2016 America.
Winning may not be our strong suit. Then again, maybe that’s why we’ve learned to enjoy the fight.