I was ten years old in 1953 when the American Government executed Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for being Soviet spies. I went to school the next day, but nobody was there. Instead, the teachers sat in empty classrooms smoking cigarettes and commenting about “the Commie Jews” who got what they deserved. Then, they told me to go home.
I remember walking and wondering about these Rosenberg people. What had they done? What exactly was a Commie? Why had I been the only child in school? I guessed it was related to being Jewish, but I wasn’t sure. Everybody I knew was Jewish except for my mother and her family. We lived in the West Hollywood “ghetto” of Los Angeles, where Jewish holocaust survivors had planted themselves along the Fairfax Avenue corridor. Their children were my best friends.
Suddenly, someone called my name. “Hey, Suz! Wait up! I want to talk to you” It was Mr. O’Brien, a first-grade teacher at my school. Since he'd never been my teacher, I wondered how he knew me.
“Was it strange to be the only one at school today?”
“Do you know why? Do you know anything about the Rosenbergs?”
“What did they do?”
“They put America’s national security at risk by giving military secrets to the Russians.” I didn’t have a clue what he was talking about. “Are you worried about your friends? The ones who stayed home from school today?”
I shrugged. “What do they have to do with the Rosenbergs?”
“Your friends’ parents think the Rosenbergs were innocent and victims of ethnic prejudice. So they’re protesting their execution by staying home from work and keeping their children out of school.”
“What do you think?”
“I don’t know if the Rosenbergs gave information to the Soviets, but I do think their trial was unfair. Too rushed. Insufficient evidence.”
“Will anything happen to my friends?”
“Not now. Later in life, many of them will inevitably be victims of anti-Jewish prejudice.”
“Why? That’s so unfair!”
“Life isn’t always fair. But you can be fair. You’ll meet people who won’t like Jews just because they’re Jewish, and you can tell them that you went to school with Jewish children … that they were your best friends … that you know Jews are good human beings with humanitarian values.”
What values? Humanitarian? I could barely pronounce the word. I stopped walking. I didn’t want this conversation to end, but Mr. O’Brien turned and waved. “See you tomorrow! Come talk to me anytime you want.”
I rushed home to find a dictionary. I assumed “humanitarian” was related to “human,” but I wasn’t sure how to spell such a long word. Then I found it. “Humanitarianism: supporting human dignity by improving the welfare of all people, saving lives, and relieving suffering.”
I liked that. I wanted to be a humanitarian. I wanted to be kind to people and make their lives better. Eventually, I’d learn that humanitarian policies are often called “progressive” and that people in America who support progressive ideas are called liberals.
I kept thinking of my conversation with Mr. O’Brien. I knew I couldn’t talk about the Rosenbergs with my mother or anyone else in my family. I came from poor white Southerners, pejoratively labeled “white trash,” the uneducated illiterate who’d voted for Eisenhower. To them, Jews and the Irish were “dirty liberals” who’d voted for Democrats, especially FDR, the Communist.
I could hardly sleep that night. I couldn’t wait to see Mr. O´Brien and tell him what I’d learned. I went to school early the next day and found him in the teachers’ lounge. “I love it!” I blurted out.
He looked puzzled. “What?”
“You mean humanitarianism?”
“Yes! I looked it up. That’s for me! I want to be a humanitarian.” He smiled, waiting for me to say more. “Why don’t all people feel that way?”
“To believe in humanitarianism, you must believe in universal human dignity. Not everybody does. Many people think that those who suffer do so because God wants them to.”
“What? Who’d think such a dumb thing?”
“Many white people, the ones who have it good in life and think their circumstances result from God’s intentions. They believe God chose them to be white-skinned and gave them resources like shelter and clean drinking water. They look down on poor people, especially the ones with dark skin.”
“What do you think?”
“I think God created humans in her own image.”
“Why not? God is not in human form. Humans have God’s moral, spiritual, and intellectual nature.” I nodded. Mr. O’Brien was talking way above my head, but I didn't want him to stop. “This image of God means that every human life has value. Human worth is not based on race, ethnicity, gender, or economic status. Consequently, human dignity is universal.”
“But not everybody thinks like you.”
“Most certainly not. My opinions are politically progressive and highly offensive to Conservatives.”
“What’s a Conservative?”
"Someone who resists change. Conservatives believe social inequality exists because God favors some people over others. They say political activism to create socioeconomic progress is immoral because it challenges God’s natural order.”
“Why do you say Jews are humanitarian?”
"Anti-Semitic persecution has made Jews empathic and compassionate. Among the hatreds in the world, anti-Semitism is unique for its longevity, universality, and intensity. Did you know that the Nazis killed six million Jews during the war?”
“And you know what, Suz? There’s little agreement on why people hate Jews. Some Christians say Jews killed Jesus, but that’s not true. The Romans were responsible for his death. Some say Jews are too influential. Some hate them for being separate, while others find them a threat to racial purity through assimilation. Some claim Jews are capitalist exploiters, while others say they’re all like the Rosenbergs, revolutionary communists. There is no one reason that people hate Jews.”
“How do you know so much?”
He smiled. "Before I became a teacher, I went to theology school to be a priest. But that’s a long story for another time. There’s a lot to talk about. So come see me whenever you want to.”
And I did. I continued to have conversations with Mr. O’Brien until I left elementary school and afterward, while in junior high and high school, where my best friends were still Jewish. Later, in my early adult years, I sought him out whenever I needed to understand anti-Semitic politics. I was twenty-two, for example, when Northerners Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were lynched in Mississippi.
Along with Southerner Jim Chaney, segregationists murdered them for registering African Americans to vote. By traveling deep into the South, they were challenging the legitimacy of traditional authority. And it wasn’t a coincidence they were Jewish. I was shocked by this lynching, and since I was still in touch with Mr. O’Brien, I contacted him. “How could this happen?
“What Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner did was an expression of Tikkun Olam - repairing the world," Mr. O’Brien wrote, using his knowledge of Hebrew to explain. He predicted that their lynching would be vindicated, and he was right. Outrage helped pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
By then, I was old enough to realize how radical Mr. O'Brien was, and how he did not represent typical Catholics.
My best friends –always Jewish - were from aspirational families that expected them to go to college. If I went too, I'd be the first in my family to go beyond high school. I wanted a university education, but my aunt and uncle expected me to work for them in their dry-cleaning plant, employment endorsed by my divorced mother, a bakery sales clerk. They confronted me just before my eighteenth birthday.
"What's this we hear?" my uncle asked. "Ya gonna sit around all day on your lazy ass and read books! Yer not plannin' to work for a livin' like the rest of us?"
"I want to learn things," I said. "When I get my bachelor's degree, I'll get a job."
"Oh, so you wanna be better than your elders?" my grandfather asked.
"Education will make you an atheist," my grandmother said. "Highfalutin' folks don't believe in God."
My family, Southern Baptist zealots, cared more about religious dogma than human welfare. They believed rewards would come to you in heaven, not earthly life, making aspirational upward mobility a form of greed, therefore, a sin. Education was dangerous, they said. It destabilized society when it doubted the conventional answers to big questions.
I joined the Civil Rights Movement, and while participating in a sit-in on Hollywood Blvd, a police dog bit me in the leg. His teeth didn't penetrate my jeans, but the incident outraged my family.
"Why ya sittin' down wid dem niggahs?" My uncle bellowed. "Don't ya know God made 'em dark-skinned as a punishment?"
I ignored them and trained to be a Freedom Rider, the civil rights activist who rode interstate buses into the segregated South to challenge the non-enforcement of Supreme Court decisions.
"Now you've gone too far, missy!" my grandfather screamed. "You know nothin' about the South! You jest like them two Jewish boys from New York! They went to Mississippi, where they dint belong, and stuck their noses into business that wont theirs and got what was comin' to 'em!" I stared at him, speechless, until he slapped me. Twice.
I never went on that freedom ride. I lacked the courage.
Unable to live harmoniously with my mother and an invalid stepfather, I left home at sixteen and moved in with my best friend, Rachel Cohen, whose Jewish family never went to synagogue but observed cultural traditions. Her father was a house painter. His best friends were a vegetable grocer, a baker, and an assembly line worker in an electronics company. They were a clique of working-class intellectuals whose conversations were often about literature, art, and classical music with names I'd never heard before: Saul Bellow, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, John Dos Passos, Gustav Mahler, and Felix Mendelssohn.
Conversations with these secular Jews taught me to think critically and make distinctions. I learned the difference between Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms, as well as Marx, Lenin, and Trotsky. I learned about Franklin Delano Roosevelt's inherent decency, an American aristocrat whose New Deal legislation was humanitarian and politically expedient. I learned about the intrinsic dignity of physical labor and how unions protect workers from exploitation through collective bargaining.
I knew I wasn't Jewish, but I pretended to be at a high school where Jews were 99% of the school. My world was small and limited to this culture in which I was an ethnic minority. I wanted desperately to fit it, and I did. I was always welcome at Bar Mitzvahs and seders at Passover. By the time I graduated from high school, I had a sizable Yiddish vocabulary that I carried into my adult life, words like kvell, kvetch, mensch, schlepp, tsuris, mishigas, and verklempt. I like those words. There are no suitable substitutes when I need to express myself.
I loved the Cohens. They weren't like anybody I'd ever met before. They talked and listened. Their animated and passionate discussions gave me not just knowledge but emotional literacy. Mrs. Cohen was a frequent visitor to Las Vegas and a champion Blackjack player. In conversations that reminded me of Mr. O'Brien, she introduced me to the ethics of randomness and chance.
I learned that my skin color and nationality were not preordained, calculated gifts from a God who preferred me to little brown girls in Central America. Instead, I learned that my white skin was randomly conferred, resulting in the bestowal of white privilege, an existential condition giving me advantages and agency. I learned how I must defend and support those who don't have it and how everyone with white privilege has this obligation. Otherwise, how else could universal human dignity become a norm?
Were it not for Mrs. Cohen's generosity, I would never have gone to college. It started when she heard that I hadn't registered to take the SAT exam – the Scholastic Aptitude Test. I explained that my family didn't want me to go to college.
"They need me to work," I explained.
"Where? At their dry cleaners? Doing what? Waiting on customers who hand you their soiled garments? And ten years from now? What then? Education is what gives you choices in life, Suz. Taking a dead-end job is just meshuggah!" she said, using the Yiddish word for crazy. "You're smart enough for college. You should go!"
When I told her I didn't have the money to take the SAT, she wrote a cheque and handed it to me. "The next time we talk about this, I want to hear which UC campus you've chosen."
The University of California did not charge tuition in 1960 but a small incidental fee for administrative costs. The system was a gift to California residents who, if they qualified, were eligible for an excellent tuition-free education on several state campuses. My grade point average and SAT score were good enough for UCLA and UC Santa Barbara to accept me as a freshman. Mrs. Cohen volunteered to pay the incidental fee for the first four semesters.
"Why are you doing this?" I asked.
"Because you're mishpocha," she said, using the Yiddish word for family.
And so, in 1960, I defied my biological family and went to college with Rachel as my roommate, choosing Santa Barbara, the smallest campus in the UC system. At UCSB, I met a class of people I'd never encountered before, wealthy White Anglo-Saxon Protestants who didn't have the grades to get into Harvard, Yale, or Stanford.
They hated me. I was poor and not in a sorority. I liked Negroes. My best friend was Jewish. I endorsed labor unions. I supported the Catholic Presidential candidate, John F. Kennedy. They said I wasn't a real American. After one year, Rachel and I transferred to UCLA.
Paradoxically, the Jewish intellectuals I met through the Cohens prepared me for the ideas of N. F. S. Grundtvig (1783-1872), a Lutheran priest and Danish politician famous for teaching Danes that they should work to form a society"hvor få har for meget og færre for lidt." Translation: Form a society "where most people have enough, and only a few have too little."
Hearing about Grundtvig was a revelation. He was a Christian promoting social equality, an ordained minister who believed in the efficacy of activism. Improbably, I learned about Danish Grundtvig while living on an Israeli kibbutz.
In 1962, Israel was a popular destination for non-Jewish Europeans, especially Danes. They knew how the Danish resistance movement saved over 99% of Denmark's Jewish citizens by smuggling them to Sweden in 1943. Now, twenty years later, I met three young Danes who'd come to Israel to meet survivors of the Holocaust. We worked together harvesting melons during the day, and then, in the evenings, we met to talk politics after dinner. They told me about Social Democracy and the Danish welfare state. It was the first time I had ever heard of such a humane and progressive system of government.
"Our taxes pay for everybody's higher education," Mette, a teacher, told me. "Why? Because educated and well-trained citizens benefit the whole society."
"All families in Denmark with pre-school age children are guaranteed professional childcare," Inger, a psychologist, told me. "This is the only way mothers of young children can leave the home, use their education, and participate in the economy."
In Denmark, medical care was a right, not a privilege. "Modern medicine is expensive," Jens, a doctor, said. "Why should it be only for the wealthy?"
These conversations made a big impression on me. I'd grown up poverty level poor. When my step-father's medical issues absorbed 100% of our resources, my mother often had to choose between medicine and groceries. Later, in the 80s, I lived through the San Francisco AIDS epidemic and saw many young men without medical insurance needlessly die.
My "Jewish soul" longed to live in a society with policies that reduced economic and social inequalities. I finally got my wish when the Danish national media college invited me to teach broadcast journalism. I left my job as Editorial Director at KPIX-TV in San Francisco and went to Aarhus. Thirty years later, I'm still there. No longer just a liberal, I'm now a staunch European Social Democrat.
On August 11, 2017, hundreds of white nationalist neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, Virginia, chanted, "Jews will not replace us." I'd been living in Denmark for 26 years by then and was lonely for someone who could identify with my angst. Naturally, I thought of Mr. O'Brien, but he was no longer alive.
My mother, grandparents, aunt, and uncle are gone, but a few second cousins remain who watch Fox News and voted for Trump. They don't like me.
But I like me. I like who I am, the person I became. Mrs. Cohen was right. My education gave me choices. It opened doors, including extensive foreign travel to exotic Mongolia and Slovakia, where I taught democratic journalism. My education led to my Danish marriage, which gave me not just a loving life but an interesting one.
When Joseph R. Biden, Jr. was inaugurated as President of the United States, I thought of another Irish American: Mr. O'Brien, an ordinary school teacher but an extraordinary human being who cared enough about the feelings of a 10-year-old that he followed her home from school in 1953 to talk about the Rosenbergs, anti-Semitism, and Jewish humanitarianism. His friendship changed my life.