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The Uncivil Servant: Bernie Comes Home

Mitchell Abidor
April 9, 2016

by Mitchell Abidor

RTSE85M-layout-comp-725x483SOMEONE FROM the local Bernie campaign had the absolutely brilliant idea for Bernie to hold a rally not just anywhere in Brooklyn, but deep in the bowels of the borough, on East 26th Street and Kings Highway, in front of the building in which he grew up. The rally was announced at the last minute, and since I live a mere four blocks from there, even though I knew exactly what he’d say, I couldn’t pass it up. Nor could a couple thousand others.

Even though he badly fluffed a basic New York test this week — saying you get on the subway with a token — and had absurdly suggested that Hillary Clinton is not qualified for the presidency, standing there on his home block, tired as he looked, scratchy as his voice is from shouting about the millionaires and billionaires for almost a year, Bernie was energized as he spoke about playing boxball — pointing out that the sidewalks were in better shape when he was a kid — asking if people still played punchball (they don’t), and pointing to his high school, James Madison, down the block, and his elementary school, P.S. 197 behind him and to his right. In front of that crowd on that street, he was a man very clearly at home. (On the subject of James Madison High: I received an article this week saying that if Donald Trump were elected president — ptooey ptooey ptooey — he would name a second Madison alumna to the Supreme Court, along with Ruth Bader Ginsburg: Judge Judy Scheindlin!)

WP_20160408_003Part of the reason I attended also was to see who would attend from this godforsaken stretch of the city, which is populated by Orthodox Jews who supply the settler movement in the West Bank, and Russians who shop in stores where nary a word of English can be found.

It was something of a surprise.

IT WAS, as Bernie’s reputation would have it, mainly a white crowd. But who the whites were was interesting. There was a large number of the young ’uns you would expect, but also a large contingent of non-hip older people from neighborhoods like Sheepshead Bay and the rest of the southern, isolated, close-minded wastes of Brooklyn. The street itself is right in the heart of Orthodox Brooklyn, and the number of black hats and yarmulkes was astounding. In fact, they far outnumbered African-Americans. (Is it time to give up on Blacks for Bernie and start Black Hats for Bernie?). This is both a good sign and a bad sign. As my wife pointed out, if there were as many frummies as I saw, given how in lockstep they march politically, there must be even more of them not out in the open for Bernie. As I left the rally, a group of young men in front of a shtibl, their tzitzis proudly flapping, were waving Bernie signs.

I was able to get a spot right in front of the candidate because I was befriended by a young Ukrainian woman with a baby in a stroller, and since people in wheelchairs and strollers were given priority spots, I pretended to be her father-in-law and moved to the head of the crowd with her. We discussed her presence and the absence of her fellows. She explained that she’d been talking up Bernie among her friends and family, but they have no interest in the election, so she was pretty much the representative of Eastern Europe there. Given how reactionary they tend to be when they are interested, this was no shock.

We’d had to wait almost two hours in the cold, and we were all frisked and searched by the Secret Service; cops were posted on roofs on all sides, and a police helicopter hovered overhead. We were penned in in separate groups behind portable gates. As Bernie spoke, people were shifting into impossible postures to take selfies with Bernie in the photo. People waved signs and cheered right when they were supposed to. A young man walked the line as we waited to be allowed onto the street of the rally distributing “Hugs for Bernie.” It was silly and it was exalting. And it gave hope that maybe, just maybe....

Mitchell Abidor, our contributing writer, is the recipient of a Hemingway Grant from the French Ministry of Culture for his new translation of Emmanuel Bove’s A Raskolnikoff. His other new books are Voices of the Paris Commune and his collection of writings by and about the anarchist “propagandists of the deed,” Death to Bourgeois Society.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936 – 1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.