Sanders has spoken at times and written occasionally about his youth in Brooklyn, where he was raised in a small, rent-controlled apartment the decade after World War II. But his refusal to weave it more deeply into his campaign message, or address his family history in a political context, has been a source of frustration among some of his allies, who are desperate for the 77-year-old to articulate a fuller picture of his life to voters. Aides say that in a pair of speeches this weekend, the second coming on Sunday night in Chicago — where he graduated from college and became an activist in the heat of the Civil Rights movement — that will change.
“I also learned a great deal about immigration as a child because my father came to this country from Poland at the age of 17, without a nickel in his pocket,” Sanders, according to prepared remarks, will say on Saturday. “He came to escape the crushing poverty that existed in his community, and to escape widespread anti-Semitism. Needless to say I would not be with you today if he had not made that trip from Poland because virtually his entire family there was wiped out by the Nazis.”
Eli Sanders, his father, came to the United States in the early 1920s, eventually marrying Dorothy Glassberg, the daughter of immigrants. They had two children, older brother Larry, who would become a politician in the United Kingdom, and Bernie, who in 2016 became the first self-identified Jewish candidate to win a major party presidential primary when he defeated Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire. Sanders’ mother died decades earlier, shortly after her younger son graduated high school.
“Coming from a lower middle class family I will never forget how money — or really lack of money — was always a point of stress in our home,” Sanders says in the written remarks. “My mother’s dream was that someday we would move out of that rent-controlled apartment to a home of our own. That dream was never fulfilled. She died young while we were still living in that apartment.”
Connecting those experiences and addressing them openly is a challenge Sanders has mostly avoided in his public life. His career in politics didn’t begin until he settled down in Vermont, the state that he has represented in both chambers of Congress, in the early 1970s. As a senator and, more recently, a candidate for president, Sanders has routinely batted down personal questions in interviews as “gossip” or a “distraction” from issues like his push for single-payer health care, efforts to fortify the social safety net with higher taxes and more robust government investment, and work to empower organized labor in its fight with corporate giants.
“I did not come from a family that had the power to go on television to entertain people by telling workers: ‘You’re fired,'” Sanders is expected to say on Saturday, a shot at Trump that aligns with his broader message. “I came from a family who knew all too well the frightening power employers can have over everyday workers.”
If Sanders follows through — he has been known to go off script in public speeches — with this more personal framing, it will also signal an new willingness to take advice from longtime allies and lieutenants.
“People need to know how he got to where he is right now, what makes him tick,” Sanders campaign co-chair Nina Turner told CNN on Friday morning. “All of us have stories, everybody has a story and our stories are our strength, our stories are what connect us. So (people) need to hear his biography from him.”
Comparing 2020 to 2016, she added: “This time around, people really, truly understand his mission, but they don’t know the why. And him telling his story will give them the why.”
Questions over Sanders’ discomfort highlighting his own story began to bubble up as his campaign gathered steam three years ago. Asked by CNN’s Anderson Cooper at a debate with Hillary Clinton in 2016 about concerns voiced by a group of Jewish leaders that he was downplaying his Judaism, Sanders offered what was then a rare glimpse into what he described as an “essential part of who I am as a human being.”
“I am very proud to be Jewish, and being Jewish is so much of what I am,” Sanders said. “My father’s family was wiped out by Hitler in the Holocaust. I know about what crazy and radical, and extremist politics mean. I learned that lesson as a tiny, tiny child when my mother would take me shopping, and we would see people working in stores who had numbers on their arms because they were in Hitler’s concentration camp.”
Months earlier, in October 2015, Sanders waved a young Muslim student on stage after she said Islamophobic rhetoric from Republican candidates like Ben Carson and Donald Trump had made her “sick.”
“Let me be very personal here if I might — I’m Jewish,” Sanders said, waving off applause from a crowd at George Mason University. “My father’s family died in concentration camps. … I will do everything that I can to rid this country of the ugly stain of racism which has existed for far too many years.”
More than three years later, Sanders began his 2020 campaign with an email calling Trump “a pathological liar, a fraud, a racist, a sexist, a xenophobe and someone who is undermining American democracy as he leads us in an authoritarian direction.” The language, which grabbed headlines at the time, mostly tracked with how Sanders has described Trump for much of his presidency.
But in the early stages of a primary that has seen Democrats test different ways of addressing Trump, Sanders’ biggest question could lie in how he talks about himself.
“It’s a different approach from the last campaign where Bernie definitely broke through, and he built a huge following, but a lot of people didn’t really know his story,” Maurice Mitchell, the Working Families Party’s national director, told CNN. “Especially in such a crowded field, all of the candidates are going to have to really tell their personal story and connect it, ultimately, to the change that they’re trying to bring today. That full arc is going to be essential.”