Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders had a homecoming Wednesday when he was spotted buying kebabs in Midwood, the Brooklyn neighborhood where he was born and raised. As it turns out, he was there giving a tour to CBS Evening News anchor Scott Pelley, filling in his back story in the wake of his primary win in New Hampshire. Though Sanders has represented Vermont as a U.S. Representative and Senator since 1990, the Democratic Socialist’s accent clearly reveals that he has deep roots not in the Green Mountain State, but New York.
Born in 1941 to Jewish immigrants from Poland, Sanders lived in a rent-controlled three-bedroom apartment on East 26th Street with his parents and brother. His family was solidly working class: his father, Eli, worked as a paint salesman, and Sanders has said that seeing his parents struggle to make ends meet informed the path he would later take in his political career.
During Sanders’ childhood, Midwood was known as a Jewish neighborhood. According to the blog A Week In New York, which chronicles the life of the city as it existed in April of 1946, the area was socio-economically mixed. It was an enclave with a suburban feel, dotted with well-manicured, two-story homes, and Sanders’ neighbors might have included doctors, rabbis, lawyers, and accountants, as well as lower-income folks. The senator might also have rubbed elbows with the likes of other Midwood-born luminaries, including Woody Allen, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Arthur Miller. The Midwood of today still maintains a suburban, family-oriented feel, and is home to a large population of Orthodox Jews, as well as more recent immigrants from Asia and Eastern Europe.
In his interview with Pelley, Sanders recalls long days spent roaming the streets with the other neighborhood children. He points out an apartment building where they used to play handball; he says he would leave his house at 9 am and return in the evening, exhausted. “But it was a happy exhaustion,” he says.
Sanders adds that a lack of adult supervision meant that the children decided for themselves what games to play and worked out conflicts according to their own set of rules, which he calls a “lesson in democracy."
As a teenager, Sanders attended Midwood’s James Madison High School—Ruth Bader Ginsburg is also an alum—and, as a New York Times article notes, was an athlete-scholar, a strong student who also distinguished himself on the track and baseball teams. The school was crowded, and a former classmate of Sanders’ mentions that amid so many students, “we wanted to count.” Sanders stayed local for university, attending Brooklyn College, in part to stay close to home, where his mother was suffering from a heart condition. After she passed away, he transferred to the University of Chicago.
Sanders tells Pelley that his mother’s dream had been to get out of their cramped apartment and purchase a home of their own, something that, due to limited finances, never came to pass. The family’s financial woes were a “cause of constant tension,” he remembers. “When you are five or six years of age and your parents are yelling at each other, it's, you know—you think back on it now, you know—it's traumatic and it's hard."
His political career began at the University of Chicago, where Sanders earned a degree in political science and became involved in the civil rights movement. A few years after graduating, he relocated to Vermont, where he would later become mayor of Burlington and, ultimately, a senator.
Interestingly, though Sanders met his wife in his adopted state, she, too, is Brooklyn-bred, having grown up a mere 15 blocks away from Sanders’ home on East 26th Street.