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My Mother: A Nana for Obama

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I can truly say that I was the youngest person in America to vote for FDR in his first term election. When she pulled the lever for Roosevelt I was in my mother’s womb, so I suppose I could be called an intra-utero Democrat. My mother, Lillian Yellen, is long gone now. Had she lived she would be one hundred and five and voting for Obama. She was run down by a reckless driver in Manhattan twenty five years ago as she was bringing some food to a poor, sick woman who was a member of her Hadassah group. That driver jumped the curb while she was waiting for a light to change and took her life. Mother was eighty at the time. We rented the smallest room in the Riverside Chapel for the funeral service knowing that she had outlived most of her friends and family and believing that few would come to the ceremony of a private woman who was not famous. But to our amazement the room soon overflowed with so many people we had never met, and we were obliged to hold the service in the largest room available for the many whose lives she had touched with her wisdom and quiet generosity, the many who came to pay her tribute.The reason for this crowd was simple. Mother cared about the welfare of others on both a personal and a political level, and she did it naturally, graciously. Generosity was her gift, her talent, her life’s work. She simply helped those in need on a daily basis, and her politics were simple: vote for people and programs that would improve the lives of those in need. And since such progressive programs were “good for the Jews” it was an easy decision for her to make.

As a three year old Jewish child who had escaped the pogroms of Russia, she understood oppression, and as an adult who had seen the consequences of the Holocaust she cared deeply about the fate of Israel as a homeland for the survivors. My mother, Lilly, had grown up in great poverty and knew life shattering tragedy early on. As a nine year old child she experienced within a year the loss of her mother, her older sister and brother to the “white death” of tuberculosis when they lived in squalid conditions on the Lower East Side. Her first school teacher was a Miss Emily Stokes, a young African American woman who favored the beautiful motherless Lilly, helping her with her lessons, teaching her the lovely flowing handwriting she used for a lifetime, and giving her a wonderful rag-doll, the only doll my mother would ever own. That personal experience Lilly had of the daughter of a former slave taught my mother to see beyond skin color to the value of the humanity within. But she was soon obliged to leave school and the comfort of Miss Stokes to help support the younger, surviving children in the family.

Denied a higher education by the poverty which forced her to work from twelve years on, it was my mother’s astonishing beauty that kept her from the sweat-shop factories that swallowed young immigrant girls alive. She found work as a dress model in an elegant showroom/salon, later she managed a dress shop, met and married my father, and began their family, which was made up of my older sister; and later me, Sherman, the pre-natal voter. Mother found what she had always wanted, children to whom she could devote herself, educate, and pass on her values; and ultimately the grandchildren who called her Nana and loved her absolutely. Although she had a cheerful disposition and a brilliant smile, like many Jews of her time the Holocaust was a cause for an unsettling private guilt and grief. There were those troubling unspoken questions: Was there something more that could have been done to save those who were murdered in Europe? Was the revered FDR remiss in keeping the lid on pre-war immigration for the persecuted European Jews and for later failing to bomb the German and Polish railways that carried the Jews to their deaths? These unanswered questions shook the souls of many a Jew and non-Jew. She joined Hadassah to make certain that Israel would be a safe refuge for Jews everywhere.

My family was called “comfortable” in the early years of the Great Depression, a little below rich and a lot above poo
r. Mother never took her new prosperity for granted. And she never forgot those she left behind as her own life improved. The flaunting of wealth that we see everywhere today would have seemed disgusting to her. Not wanting to show off before her less fortunate neighbors when she went out to the theatre for an evening with my father, my mother would carry her new fur coat in a large paper grocery bag together with her jewelry, only putting it on when she was well out of sight of those who did not share her prosperity. Modesty, an unknown virtue today, was at the core of her nature. She knew that she was one of the lucky ones, and that good fortune was something to be shared, not flaunted.

She might suffer occasional doubts about FDR but my mother always regarded Republicans as the spawn of the devil, suspecting them of a corrupt greed and an endemic anti-Semitism, the kind she saw in Charles Lindbergh and Henry Ford. We would never own a Ford car as long as that old bigot lived, so we saw the world in our merry Oldsmobile. Mother had a shorthand way of knowing who to trust and who to avoid. She would have taken one look at John McCain and seen a man driven by ruthless ambition, an ally of all the haves in the world, an unconvincing impersonator of a good guy; the self-proclaimed protector of America, but not a protector of her America which honored the Bill of Rights and the Constitution.

Mother was less a liberal than an old fashioned moralist, loyalty was all to her, and McCain’s abandonment of his first wife Carol for the newer, richer Cindy, after Carol had waited out the years of his POW imprisonment would have been viewed by her as disloyalty and opportunism, and forever bought her distrust. I doubt if her view of FDR and JFK would have remained the same had she known of their extramarital shenanigans. She was very much a woman of her time who believed in the sacredness of the marital vows. For her it would not be about hanky-panky but a violation of honor.

I was recently advised by my brother-in-law Ed who lives in Florida that many, if not most of my mother’s counterparts - present day Hadassah members - will be voting for McCain. Although Ed is for Obama, he thought it would be a waste of time for the Democratic candidate to campaign in Florida. He warned that Obama has lost the white working class vote as well as the elderly Jewish vote that had once been solidly Democratic. Many older Jewish voters cannot separate Obama from some of his unsavory predecessors, and the rants of Reverend Wright helped evoke that Jessie Jackson “Hymietown” remark, and all the Al Sharpton demagoguery, as well as the rabid anti-Semitism in some of those Farrakhan Muslims who identify with the Palestinians in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Sadly, these elders fail to hear the bigoted rants of the evangelical supporters of McCain, which can best be described as “not good for the Jews” and they forget their own occasional forays into bigotry. Sadly, they fail to see the Barak Obama who stands high above such racial politics.

That alliance of Jews and African-Americans once so important in changing the culture of segregation in the country has been sundered, particularly in regards to Israel. Quite a few older Jews feel betrayed knowing that so many Jews were active in the Civil Rights movement, and that some young Jews gave their lives for it. Based on a fear of Obama’s race these elderly voters cannot see the good man who stands before them, and they are ready to vote for a mediocre, untrustworthy candidate who will pack the Supreme Court with the kind of radical conservatives who will threaten their grand-children’s freedoms. My mother would tell them that they are turning away from the one candidate who represents the liberal Jewish tradition, who happens to be black, the one man who could offer the most hope for the future of the American family, and for the security of Israel itself, because intelligent plans for the Middle East, not saber rattling, is the only way to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict.

It would be a cruel irony if those people who suffered Hitler’s racial hatred could not see beyond Obama’s race to his decency and intelligence. I grew up in a racist world; my family was an oasis of good sense in a desert of bigotry. I can recall that as a small boy walking with my Dad during a holiday in Florida we passed the Kenilworth Hotel in Miami Beach (the favored vacation spot of Arthur Godfrey) and I saw a sign, “No Jews or Dogs Allowed.” I was just old enough to read and to be confused by it. My Dad said that the sign announced that fools lived there. This was the same city that forbade black hotel workers from staying in the city after nightfall. Times have changed a great deal in seventy years but for those who will not vote for Obama because he is black, my father’s words still hold, “Fools live there.”

Of course some are listening to the anti-Obama drumbeat of former New York Mayor Ed Koch, whose resemblance to the Chief Eunuch of the Last Empress of China is now quite astonishing, (God will play these little jokes) and that smiling old crock Joe Lieberman who hangs on McCain like lichen on a rock. Add “9/11 forever” Rudy Giuliani and you find a group of powerful men awash in personal nastiness and grudges; all eager to exaggerate any small misstep that Obama has made and exploit the fears of the “other” in the older voter. These are the star spangled front men for McCain and his never-ending Iraq war, passengers on the long derailed straight talk express.

Truth is, if my mother was still alive she would have first supported Hillary Clinton. She admired the grit of women who rose in the world from Eleanor Roosevelt to Francis Perkins to Golda Mier. But after Clinton lost the nomination she would be telling her friends that Obama was the best hope we have for our grandchildren, the man who will see that they will not fight in Bush’s misbegotten forever wars, that Obama is the only hope for an America that is not permanently split into two classes, rich and poor.

Mother would recognize that Obama’s wife Michelle was so like her own mother and grandmother, a feisty independent woman who struggled hard for a better life, loves her kids, and speaks her mind– not always tactfully – but honestly. “Remember Eleanor Roosevelt?” she would ask her friends. “This Obama woman is cut to her pattern. And if Israel is your concern, McCain will only continue the Bush policies spurred on by those evangelicals who want to see Israel fulfill some crazy biblical prophecy that will end in its destruction and the elevation of these nuts to a restricted Kenilworth heaven.” I know I am putting a great many words in a deceased woman’s mouth, but I know my mother’s mind, even decades after her death, and she would forgive me for this bit of filial chutzpah if it would help Obama, her candidate for her grandchildren.

Some may not wish to listen to me because I don’t carry strong Jewish credentials. I can’t claim to be more than a cultural Jew, one who enjoys Mel Brooks’ jokes, chopped chicken liver, Woody Allen’s early movies, and Dr. Brown’s cream soda. I don’t go to Temple; I am a non-believer, not proud of that, nor ashamed of it. I enjoy my secular life without guilt. Still, my beliefs shift with each new experience. An afternoon spent playing with my amazing three year old grand-daughter can often convince me of the existence of a benign God in a world of wonders. But time spent among some bigoted adults makes me doubt again. I do know this. It is deep within the Jewish tradition to honor those who came before us; we light memorial candles for our dead. But most Jews know that it is far more important to honor those who are going to live long after we are gone; our children and our grand-children. And to do so we must vote with our minds, our hearts, and not from our fears. Simply said, my mother would have voted for Obama to keep her promise to the future, “for the sake of the kids.” And I hope that many of those in Florida, and elsewhere, who are now planning to vote for McCain, think again, change their minds, and remember to vote not from past grievances and fears, but for a better future for their children and grandchildren. The world is not a gated community. It takes a great leader to break down barriers and create new understanding among people. So Lillian Yellen says hello to you in Florida. She’s over there: the good looking ghost in the Chanel style knitted suit with the Obama button on her lapel, the one carrying that large paper grocery bag with her fur coat hidden inside.

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Contributing writer, Sherman Yellen, screenwriter, playwright, and lyricist, has won two Emmy Awards, first for his drama John Adams, Lawyer in the PBS series The Adams Chronicles, and later for An Early Frost, a groundbreaking drama about AIDS in America. His Beauty and the Beast was nominated for an Emmy and won the Christopher Award. Yellen was nominated for a Tony Award for his book for the Broadway musical, The Rothschilds. Yellen's other plays include Strangers, December Fools and Josephine Tonight! Sherman Yellen received a lifetime achievement award in Arts and Letters from Bard College.
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