On an early morning in the fall of 1917, Herman Smulevitz hurriedly kissed his mother and then slipped onto a ship docked at a port on the Black Sea. He was ten years old. He would never see his mother again.
World War I was nearing its end and Russia was in turmoil, in the midst of a revolution that would soon lead to a civil war. The country, and vast parts of eastern Europe, were swept up in what would become the third wave of devastating pogroms—the organized massacres of Jews that had been periodically ravaging this part of the world for more than a century. This last wave was the most savage of them all. Anti-Semitic mobs, stirred into a frenzy by the chaos in Russia, raped and pillaged and murdered Jews in the former Polish-Lithuanian lands within Russian borders, known as the Pale of Settlement, where Herman and his mother lived.
Herman’s mother had come to the stark conclusion that the only chance of survival her son had was to flee to the United States. She was most likely correct: There is no record of her existence after she told her son goodbye that day.
I am eternally grateful and indebted to her for her sacrifice and for the love she had for her son. Herman Smulevitz was my grandfather.
Herman boarded that boat by himself, a stowaway. He had with him only a few useless coins in his pockets and a note with the name of his father, who had abandoned his family and left for the U.S. after Herman was born, and the word “Indiana” written on it. Weeks later, Herman landed at Ellis Island in New York City, that great gateway of hope and renewed dreams for so many like him, and made his way to a small town in Indiana. There he somehow found his father’s house. But when he arrived at the front door—unable to speak English, dirty, and probably wearing the same tattered clothes he’d had on since the day he left Russia—his new stepmother shut the door in his face, turning him away. With nowhere else to go, Herman traveled to Chicago, where he found an uncle who worked on Maxwell Street, a gateway neighborhood for immigrants on the Near West Side of the city. It was there that my grandfather began to seize his opportunity for a new life.
My grandfather’s formal education ended in the fifth grade, but he sat at the kitchen table every morning before breakfast and forced himself to read newspapers and books, teaching himself to speak English and learning about the world. He started earning a wage as a young teen, jumping from one odd job to the next, sweeping floors or delivering goods on foot. He grew quickly and grandly, exiting his teenage years as a six-foot-three, 230-pound man. He began to box. He fought for prize money all over the Midwest, though he was denied the chance to fight for the bigger purses offered in the South because of his Jewish surname. He had huge hands, with fingers “like big Polish sausages,” as my brother Ezekiel always described them. He later found work in lumberyards and steel mills. He butchered meat. He was a union man through and through, and would become a staunch Franklin Delano Roosevelt Democrat. His longest-serving job was as a deliveryman for Scandinavian Meat. He was charismatic and loud and profane, a big presence, and not just physically. My two brothers and I nicknamed him “Big Banger,” which, when we said it, sounded like “Big Bangah.” He was a tough, hard man, a true laborer, but also a people person. Sometimes he would take my brothers and me with him on his deliveries. He’d barge into a store and shake the hands and slap the backs of everyone he saw. He knew everyone’s name, it seemed, and everyone knew his. Later in his life he would help build a community synagogue on Kedzie Avenue. He eventually moved to North Lawndale, on the old West Side of Chicago, then known as the “vest side” to his fellow eastern European Jews who lived there.
At a dance one night in Douglas Park in the mid-1920s, Herman met a woman named Sophie Lampert. She had her own remarkable immigration story, having only recently escaped from Moldova, a part of Romania, on a ship with her two sisters. Herman and Sophie eventually got married and had three daughters and two sons. One of those daughters was named Marsha. She is my mother.
Marsha became a radiologist technician at Mount Sinai Hospital in the North Lawndale community. There she met a man named Benjamin Emanuel, a pediatrician who worked at the hospital. His father, Ezekiel Auerbach, had been a pharmacist in Israel. When the family lived in Israel, Benjamin’s brother, Manuel, was struck in the leg by a bullet while attending a protest in Jerusalem in 1933. He died a few weeks later from an infection. Soon after, the Auerbachs changed their surname to Emanuel in his honor.
Benjamin and Marsha married and had three sons—Ezekiel (Zeke), and then me, and then Ariel (Ari)—and later adopted a daughter named Shoshana. We grew up in a series of different apartments in Chicago, starting in neighborhoods with low rents and a mix of immigrants, Jews and Catholics and poor whites who had migrated north from southern Appalachia. We fled one of those apartments—a crumbling flat with leaky faucets and peeling paint—because one night my mother found a rat sitting next to me in my crib. (We moved to Wilmette when I was in the fifth grade. I would return to the city—to Cornelia Avenue in Wrigleyville—after graduating from college in 1982.)
My father coupled his hospital job with a private practice, and he worked seventy hours a week seeing a range of patients, from those so poor that he provided them with free treatment to the sons and daughters of famous ballplayers on the Chicago Cubs. But he always made time for his kids. His favorite game to play with us was chess. He never took it easy on us, never let us win. He encouraged us to think three moves ahead and always to imagine our opponent’s response to our potential moves.
My mother was an activist. She believed that it was our duty to fight for people who were suffering in this world. She was arrested numerous times while protesting. She stood in the crowd at the Mall in Washington, D.C., and watched Martin Luther King, Jr., deliver his “I have a dream” speech. She marched in protests with her three toddler sons in tow, and always took us along to the polling station to watch her vote. She took us to hear King speak in Chicago in 1966. She helped organize a local chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality. Our landlord kicked our family out of an apartment on West Buena Avenue because he didn’t like the mixed-race gatherings my mother hosted there.
I know it might be hard to believe now, but I grew up as a quiet, attentive child. My mother and brothers tell me that I didn’t speak much when we were gathered together, but merely observed. That changed after an incident when I was seventeen. I sliced the middle finger on my right hand while working one day at my job at an Arby’s. The finger—and my hand and arm—eventually became infected, and I spent seven weeks in the hospital. The doctors were able to save my hand and arm, but they were forced to remove half of my middle finger. I don’t remember much after the surgery, but Zeke told me that when the doctor unwrapped my hand for the first time, I flipped everyone the bird and then declared that I would have to do it twice now for the desired effect. Something changed in me after that accident. A quiet, introverted kid suddenly became transformed into a garrulous teen full of energy and a fierce and focused desire to succeed.
While we were growing up, the city of Chicago was our playground. There were movie theaters, libraries, museums, a zoo, parks, and a mass transit system that made it possible to get to all of those places. There were people of all different backgrounds and races and religious beliefs who had one thing in common: a profound yearning to improve their lot in life. The city had its hazards, too. There was poverty and crime. There were dark alleys that we avoided. My brothers and I were more than once taunted for being Jewish. The city shaped us. It held all of the promise and all of the peril in the world.
At the center of everything was Big Bangah. By the time he and Sophie were in their late forties, they’d scraped together enough money to move from North Lawndale to Albany Park, on the Northwest Side of Chicago. Their new neighborhood wasn’t materially much nicer or further up the socioeconomic ladder than their old one, but it was a solid blue-collar area (as it is today), and it did signify to Big Bangah that he had scratched and clawed his way firmly into the lower middle class. My grandparents were over the moon about the move, believing they had made it. (My father’s private medical practice had served Albany Park, my uncle was a cop there, and I would wind up representing the neighborhood in my first years in the U.S. Congress. The joke in our family was that we had traveled many miles but we had never gotten very far.)
Every Sunday, with no exceptions or excuses tolerated, we all went to Big Bangah and Sophie’s for dinner on the third floor of a three-flat, where we were joined by my aunt Shirley and her six kids and two of my uncles. These dinners were not sedate affairs. There was chaos everywhere, with kids running around and political arguments at the table that ended in shouting matches. There was no peace. There was no quiet. But we always entered the house as a family, and then, after all the battles and bickering, we left that same way, sent off with kisses from Sophie and a huge bear hug from Big Bangah. All to be repeated the following Sunday.
Big Bangah never explicitly told us what he expected from us in our lives, but it was implicit in everything he said and did, and we all heard it, loud and clear. And if we ever needed an actual physical reminder, all we had to do was look at a framed piece that hung on my parents’ family room wall. Within it was the purse that Sophie had had with her when she arrived in America. Sticking out of the purse were the immigration papers that she and her two sisters had had with them then. The most haunting aspect of the piece, though, was the black-and-white photos surrounding the purse—pictures of my mother’s and father’s families, of the aunts and uncles and cousins whom we never got to meet because they never got out of eastern Europe and presumably succumbed to either the pogroms or, later, the Holocaust.
The contents of those photos mesmerized my brothers and me. The message conveyed by them—and by the life and deeds of our grandparents—was simple: We sacrificed and struggled and left behind family that we never saw again. That sacrifice will not be dismissed. You are going to work hard to get an education. How dare you get a B on your report card? You are going to make something of yourself.
Big Bangah and Sophie eventually moved into our home for a while, and we got to feel and witness this message in a closer and more powerful way. Though Big Bangah was retired by that time, he rose at 4:30 a.m. out of habit, to read newspapers and books at the kitchen table and continue his self-education, sitting there in a tank top, boxers, knee-high socks, and slippers. There was no ambiguity when it came to the meaning of his life. Big Bangah had worked his ass off in pursuit of his big dream: that his children and grandchildren would be provided with an education and the opportunities for better lives than he’d had.
We internalized his dream. There is a reason that Zeke is a leading oncologist and bioethicist and that Ari runs one of the most significant talent agencies in the world and that Shoshana has overcome her physical disabilities to lead a happy and productive life.
I took Big Bangah’s dream, sprinkled in my father’s work ethic and my mother’s activism and their shared desire to help those who were suffering and in need, and entered the world of
politics. I joined my first campaign in 1980, working for David Robinson in his ultimately unsuccessful bid for the U.S. House of Representatives. Two years later, after finishing college at Sarah Lawrence, I joined the very successful campaign of U.S. Senator Paul Simon. I got a master’s degree in speech and communications at Northwestern and then became first the regional director and then the political director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC). In 1991, I joined Bill Clinton’s campaign for the U.S. presidency and then his administration, where I would become the senior adviser. In the midst of all of this, I found and married Amy and we had three great children, creating a family that is the love of my life. I took a two-year break from politics to work in finance and then ran for the U.S. House of Representatives. I won four consecutive terms as the representative of Illinois’s fifth congressional district and ended up running the DCCC and chairing the House Democratic Caucus. And just as I had won my fourth term and positioned myself to become perhaps the first Jewish Speaker of the House, I answered the call of then President-elect Barack Obama and became his chief of staff at the beginning of his first term in 2008.