By Steve Slavin
Let me tell you how I got into politics. I was living on the Lower Eastside because it was cheap and relatively convenient. Would you believe I was paying just $70 dollars a month for a two-room apartment in an elevator building? A struggling graduate student at NYU, I could actually afford to live in Manhattan and could get to school or work in twenty minutes.
The immediate area where I lived – just north of Delancey Street -- was primarily Puerto Rican, while the area to the south was mainly working-class Jewish. The buildings on our side of Delancey were mostly very old five-story walk-ups inhabited by relatively poor families. But south of Delancey, most of the buildings were high-rise co-ops.
Politically, the neighborhood was run by the Lower Eastside Democratic Association, which was a vestige of the corrupt Tammany Hall Democratic political machine. But the times, as Bob Dylan wrote, they were a-changin.’ In 1961, Ed Koch had ousted Carmine De Sapio as leader of the New York County Democratic Party, and the reform movement of the party was up and running, gaining control of much of the Upper Westside, the Upper Eastside, and the Greenwich Village, which had been De Sapio’s base. Would our neighborhood be next?
So, the 1960s would witness a battle between the Regular Democrats and the Reform Democrats. And I was about to learn, the entire Lower Eastside – basically everything below East 14th Street and east of Broadway – was still in the hands of the Regulars. Just a couple of months after I moved into the neighborhood, I would get my first taste of local politics.
One warm spring day, I saw our local Congressman, Leonard Farbstein, a Regular Democrat, campaigning on Delancey Street. I found myself in conversation with a man I took to be his manager. Naively, I asked why the Congressman was campaigning in April if the election wasn’t until November.
“He’s got a primary from some jerk named ‘Haddad – an Arab! “
“Come on! Here in the Lower Eastside, how could Haddad even stand a chance?”
“Oh, he don’t! But Congressman Farbstein don’t like tuh take chances. Anyway, this Bill Haddad is not only an Arab, but get this: he’s married to Kate Roosevelt. You know, President Roosevelt’s granddaughter?”
“Sorry, but I’m not following.”
“She ain’t Jewish!”
“And your point is…?”
“This is a Jewish neighborhood, right? Jews marry Jews and the goyem (Yiddish for non-Jew) marry other goyem. So, tell me, why did this Haddad marry a shiksa (Yiddish for non-Jewish woman, but also meaning ‘unclean’)? That’s adding insult to injury.”
This made absolutely no sense. Why shouldn’t an Arab marry someone who wasn’t Jewish? I decided to try to ask Farbstein himself about this, but he was walking the other way, arguing with someone else. As he got into a car he shouted back, “I’m tellin’ yuh! That fuckin’ Haddad is a goddamn anti-Semite!”
Although I hadn’t gotten to actually meet Congressman Farbstein, I instantaneously felt a visceral hatred for the man. He was so despicable that he could have turned me into an anti-Semite, except that not only was I Jewish, but years later I would actually write a book on corporate anti-Semitism. If you don’t believe me, you could google it.
This Farbstein was a liar who appealed to the voters’ worst instincts, and I could tell, just by listening to him speak, that he was a complete schmuck. How could a jerk like that be representing me in Congress?
I was still fuming minutes later as I entered the Essex Street Market, just around the corner from my apartment. It was one of several city markets that had been built during the Depression to get thousands of pushcarts off the street as well as to provide small merchants with an affordable space to sell their goods.
There were stalls where they sold fruit, vegetables, groceries, meat, fish, and there was even a guy who called himself “Julius, the Candy King.” He had one of the smallest stalls, maybe eight or nine feet long, where he sold loose candy that he sold for two or three cents an ounce.
I was friendly with Rubin – or Reuben – the grocer, never learning whether that was his first or last name. When he saw my expression, he asked, “So whatsa matta, boychik? (Yiddish for young boy.)
I told him what had just happened, and he agreed that Farbstein made a political career out of being a “professional Jew.” “The guy wears it on his sleeve. But what can I do about it? Vote against him? That’ll do a whole lot of good!”
“Why don’t you go to work for the other guy’s campaign? “
“Rubin! You’re a genius!”
“If I’m such a genius, then what am I doing in this dump?”
I found Haddad’s headquarters -- a shabby storefront filled with cartons of campaign literature. There was an eclectic mixture of people making phone calls, sorting campaign literature and several more just bullshitting with each other. Some were from the neighborhood – mainly whites, along with a few Puerto Ricans and Blacks. There were also some long-haired hippies in their twenties. And then there were the suits – middle-aged lawyers, with their beautifully dressed wives, all of whom who seemed to be taking themselves very seriously.
No one bothered to welcome me or even ask if they could help me. I saw a short middle-aged man, a bit on the stocky side, who seemed to be in charge. I heard him addressed as “Sam.” He looked like he was from the neighborhood – not that I was exactly an expert on this subject.
Sam was rounding up a bunch of younger people and handing them stacks of leaflets. Then he noticed me and quickly figured out I was there for the first time, “You here to help out, or just to stand around?”
Before I could answer, he handed me some leaflets and then told us to go to a group of twenty-story buildings. He explained that the easiest way to do this was to take the elevator up to the top floor, put leaflets under every door, walk down the stairs to the next floor and repeat. He thanked us and promised not to ask us to do this for at least the next few days.
When I thanked him, he looked at me like I was nuts. He shook his head and explained, “Nah, I’m not being nice. We just ran out of the leaflets we’re giving out this week. But don’t worry, we’ve got plenty of other stuff for you to do if you want to come back tomorrow.”
I soon found out that most of the suits and their fancy ladies were old friends of Bill Haddad. And since Bill knew the Kennedy family, by extension, that made all of us friends of the friends of the Kennedys – for whatever that was worth.
Bill Haddad was born into a well-to-do Jewish family. His father was born in Egypt, and his mother was from Russia. Bill had a very successful career as a newspaper man, and had helped Sargent Shriver – President Kennedy’s brother-in-law – to set up the Peace Corps. He was clearly very smart, and somewhat of a liberal ideologue. Whatever else might be said, he was no Lenny Farbstein.
Farbstein had grown up on the Lower Eastside and never left. He had already served five terms in Congress, and like roaches, he had proven very hard to get rid of. One of his biggest campaign issues was being a strong supporter of Israel. At least three quarters of the neighborhood were Jewish – and they cast close to ninety percent of the votes.
Some were liberals, or even old lefties, but politically, most were a lot like the folks now living in the ultra-orthodox neighborhoods in Brooklyn – loyal Trump voters who thought he was a great friend of Israel. Farbstein and Trump would have considered each other landsmen (Yiddish for people who came from the same area in Eastern Europe during the first decades of the twentieth century).
Farbstein’s Lower Eastside base was part of the 19th Congressional District, which stretched across Manhattan below 14th Street and then ran up the Westside to 83rd Street. The Upper Westside, Chelsea and the Village were bastions of Reform Democratic voters, but Little Italy and the entire Lower Eastside were completely dominated by the Regular Democrats. Haddad and his friends believed that if they could hold down Farbstein’s wide margins in Lower Manhattan, they had a good chance of beating him.
Each weekday evening after work, from Monday to Thursday, Bill’s friends would ring doorbells in the high-rise coops in our neighborhood. They would talk politics with scores of people each evening, trying to persuade them to vote for their friend. By the time of the Democratic Primary in early June, they had compiled a list of the names of several thousand “favorable voters” in our neighborhood who they believed would very likely vote for Bill. Many of those people had never voted in a primary before.
On the day of the primary, we ran a huge “vote pulling” operation, calling or knocking on the doors of all these “favorable voters,” to remind them to vote. To our amazement, many of them actually did. Minutes after the polls closed, all of us gathered in the storefront as the numbers were phoned in, election district by election district.
But very quickly, our optimism began to wane. Not only was Farbstein killing Haddad, but he was doing much better than he had two years before against a seemingly weaker opponent. And we had been largely responsible because we pulled out thousands of Farbstein voters who might have otherwise stayed home.
We were soon on the phone with our allies at the other Lower Eastside Clubs Reform clubs– the Downtown Independent Democrats, the Bolivar-Douglas Reform Democrats and the Rutgers Independent Democrats. Bill was losing there too, although the vote was considerably lighter. There was no way Bill could win unless the Westside, Chelsea, and Village clubs won by very large margins.
An hour after the polls closed, we were clearly winning in those areas, but not by nearly enough to even make it very close in the entire 19th Congressional District. Lenny Farbstein had easily won the Democratic Primary, and would earn a sixth term in the general election in November.
By now, virtually all of the friends of Bill had gone home, kindly leaving behind quite a nice spread of deli from Katz’s and enough champagne to keep us from getting thirsty for quite a while. Also left behind were the neighborhood people and a bunch of volunteers – among them some old Bohemians, young hippies, a scattering of political lefties from other parts of Manhattan, and even a few folks from the outer boroughs.
Before we shut it down for the night, we all decided that since the rent had been paid on our storefront for the rest of the month, why not set up our own neighborhood political club and even take on Lenny Farbstein when he ran again just two years down the road? Sam and a couple of other wise “old heads” suggested that we all sleep on it, and meet the next evening at seven p.m. to discuss this further.
At a quarter to seven the next evening, the storefront was already packed. Soon, there was an overflow out onto the sidewalk. Sam ran the meeting. He gave a rousing talk about what a complete piece of shit that Farbstein was, and how corrupt his club, the Lower Eastside Democratic Association, was. Like other vestiges of Tammany Hall, the club delivered votes in exchange for city jobs – many of which were of the “no-show” variety – such as the club president Mitch Bloom’s position as an Assistant Commissioner. There were also plenty of rumors of kickbacks and bribes.
Then Sam’s tone changed: Let me be very frank. Bill Haddad’s friends came into our neighborhood and worked very hard. But they ended up getting thousands of Farbstein supporters to come out and vote for him. Bill’s friends were very well-meaning, but we’ll never see them again. In the meanwhile, we’re still stuck with Farbstein.
Then someone yelled out: “So whadda are we going to do, Sam?”
Sam didn’t say anything. I began to sense what he was doing. He just waited.
Then someone else yelled, “Let’s start our own club!”
Someone else added, “Yeah, a neighborhood political club!”
Sam looked around. More people were yelling. Then he said something that I wasn’t expecting.
“Does anybody object?”
Holy shit!! This was what he had wanted all along! It’s what we all wanted.
We quickly agreed to call our club the Lower Eastside Reform Democrats to distinguish ourselves from the Lower Eastside Democratic Association – the Regular Democratic club. It was Farbstein’s home club, and to them, he was the local boy who had made good.
To us, he was not just part of a corrupt political machine, but came off as a “professional Jew.” Evidently, what I had witnessed that morning on Delancey Street was just the tip of the iceberg. Although he had held office for ten years, he clearly represented just the Jews, making the support of Israel his main issue in each of his primaries. Calling Haddad an Arab was just the icing on the cake. His political club was almost entirely Jewish with a couple of Italians, but absolutely no Black or Puerto Rican members, even though the area North of Delancey Street was composed of tenements and low-income projects filled with these minorities.
There was something deeply offensive about how the Congressman wore his religion on his sleeve. In fact, by all accounts, the only time he was inside a shul was to electioneer. His lies about Bill Haddad were unforgivable. As I quickly found out, almost everyone in our club felt the same way as I did about “Lenny” He may have been our best recruiter.
Just weeks after the formation of the Lower Eastside Reform Democrats, we were sued by the Lower Eastside Democratic Association for having picked a name that could easily be confused with theirs. I thought they actually did have a point. But on the other hand, did they have a monopoly on the words “Lower Eastside”?
One evening, a bunch of us were on our way to our clubhouse on Henry Street – just down the block from the famed Henry Street settlement – when someone delivered the bad news. We would have to change our name. At just that moment we passed a vest-pocket park named after someone none of us had ever heard of – Rose D. Cohen.
Perfect! We would become the Rose D. Cohen Reform Democrats. As someone observed, even the most unwanted bastard still deserved a name, so what better name than that of this truly obscure person? When we got to our clubhouse, we informed Sam, our president, and by far, the most politically savvy person in our club. He reacted in his usually mild-mannered way.
“Who the fuck is Rose D. Cohen?”
“Who cares?” answered Gwen. I think it’s about time a so-called “reform club” was named after a woman!”
“Yeah, I agree with you a hundred percent, but you guys just picked the name of a woman – literally – right off the street!”
”Hey, we’re democrats! And I’m using the small ‘d’ here. I say we vote on it!” someone shouted from the back of the room.
“Are there any seconds?” asked Sam.
“Almost everyone’s hand went up.”
“I call for a vote!” shouted Gwen.
Sam just sadly shook his head. This is what he gotten for helping to organize a club full of crazies.
There were just three nays. Besides Sam, there was Ruth Mooney, perhaps the oldest person in the club, who had been political friends with Sam since the early Stone Age of liberal politics.” And there was Phil, who proudly bore the title we had awarded him, ‘club contrarian
Ruth Williams, who had grown up in the neighborhood, was curious enough to go to the public library to find out what she could about Rose D, Cohen. At our next meeting, she passed copies of her findings. Just two sentences long, her hand-out had all the essentials:
Born in 1872, Rose D. Cohen was a founding member of the Communist Party of Great Britain and a lifelong suffragist. She moved to the Soviet Union during the 1920s where she held some high government posts, and was executed during the Great Purge in 1937.
That’s all Sam had to hear! “She’s a fuckin’ commie! And I say that even though a lot of my best friends are commies too. She sounds like a great person, but you gotta remember that most of the people in our neighborhood would not be too pleased.”
This led to a long, impassioned debate, which Sam managed to moderate with great skill and tact. As was his custom, he called everyone by their first name. When he asked Ruth Williams a question, Ruth Mooney, who was a little hard of hearing, started to answer.
Sam then observed, “I didn’t realize that even in this small group there are two Ruths.”
Then a woman named Ruth Moscowitz piped up. “Hey, I’m also Ruth!”
“That’s amazing!” declared Sam. “What are the odds that we had three Ruths!”
“Just then, still another woman who was sitting near the back cleared her throat and said, “Well, I hate to tell you….”
This was my perfect opening. “Well, no one can ever call this club ‘ruthless.’”
When the groans finally died down, Marty, aka the Great Compromiser, had a proposal. He noted that we had chosen Rose D. Cohen pretty much out of spite, but then it turned out that she not only was a real person, but a very admirable one.
“In another place and time, she would have been the perfect choice. And so, by the power of my unofficial title of Great Compromiser, I suggest that we replace Rose D. Cohen with another great person – someone a lot less controversial and a lot more familiar to the people of our neighborhood.” He paused here for effect.
“Let’s call ourselves ‘the Eleanor Roosevelt Independent Democrats!’”
Everyone started cheering and clapping. Sam waited until the noise died down, drew a deep breath, and stated emphatically, “I declare the motion carried!”
Later, when I was walking home, there was a definite spring in my step. Surely, Eleanor Roosevelt was the perfect choice. Her decades of good works far surpassed those of nearly every other twentieth century humanitarian. The woman was a saint, right up there with Mother Theresa. I believe that even Rose D. Cohen would have enthusiastically approved our name change.
We would not be able to take on Farbstein for another two years, but our club managed to not just survive, but even expand its membership. We paid the rent by charging a dollar-a-month-dues, and even held an occasional fund-raising party in our clubhouse. Since most of the other reform clubs did this too, we became part of the huge and growing singles social scene in the city. And all this, decades before our neighborhood became “hot.”
By the end of 1965, national events had completely overtaken our parochial concerns over who would represent our neighborhood in Congress. President Lyndon Johnson had pushed a vast array of progressive legislation through Congress, including the creation of Medicare and Medicaid, and the most far-reaching civil rights legislation in a century. But then, the president decided to bet the farm on a massive intervention in the Vietnam War.
In New York, the Reform Democratic clubs began lining up against our involvement in this war, while the Regular Democrats quickly fell into line to support it. By early 1966 over half a million American troops had been sent to Vietnam, and despite subsequent reports of seeing “the light at the end of the tunnel”, it would take almost a decade for our nation to finally extricate itself from the war.
By early 1966, with the Democratic Congressional Primaries coming up, the big issue in the 19th Congressional District – even more important than the degree of our nation’s support of Israel – was our involvement in the war. Congressman Farbstein, like the other Regular Democrats, was a reliable supporter of President Johnson’s war. So, the Reform Democrats cast about for an anti-war and politically savvy candidate to oppose him in the Democratic Primary.
After a hard-fought contest among four strong candidates for the Reform designation, New York City Councilman Ted Weiss was chosen by over one thousand members of the Congressional District’s reform clubs to oppose Farbstein. Ted would be his first opponent who actually held a political office.
Not only could Farbstein not accuse Ted of being an Arab, but Ted’s wife, Zelda, happily admitted that until then, she never really liked her name. But now it came in handy, since it had long been a very popular name among earlier generations of Jews both in the U.S. and in Eastern Europe. Indeed, my own great grandmother’s name was Zelda.
In Ted’s campaign biography, which was widely distributed, he described fleeing to the United States from Hungary with his family, one step ahead of Hitler. So, sorry Lenny, but Ted was no Arab and Zelda was no shiksa!
Our involvement in the Vietnam War was, by far, the most important campaign issue. Like the vast majority of reformers, Ted was fervently against our being in Vietnam. Farbstein, who had not had much to say about the war until then, announced that he too, opposed the war. But then Ted and his supporters pointed out that Congressman Farbstein had enthusiastically voted for every spending bill that financed the war.
His answer? Although he did not support the war, he did support the boys who were fighting it. He could not let them down. Ted suggested that the best way to support them would be to bring them home.
In 1966, most Americans still supported the war, but in much of the 19th Congressional district, perhaps half the people had turned against it. But in the Lower Eastside, our involvement in Vietnam still had strong support.
In what was, by far, the closest Congressional Democratic Primary in recent memory – and actually required a revote – Farbstein managed to edge out Weiss.
It was extremely depressing to have come so close, and then to have our victory snatched away from us. But like the old Brooklyn Dodger fans used to say, “Wait till next year!” In our case, we’d have to wait two years.
When 1968 finally arrived, almost every American knew that it would be a very memorable year, but no one could have predicted what would actually happen. The war would continue, although President Johnson did express his desire to finally end it. And then suddenly, he was no longer running for reelection. In November, there would be a three-way race among Richard Nixon, George Wallace, and Hubert Humphrey. In the meanwhile, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, and then, Senator Robert Kennedy, who had been running for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Overshadowed by these events, Ted Weiss made another run for Farbstein’s seat, and would again come up short. We despaired ever winning. That spring I moved to Brooklyn Heights, pretty much cutting my ties with our club.
Finally, 1970 rolled around, and Farbstein had still another challenger. Bella Abzug was already a well-known personality in New York political circles when she decided to run against Farbstein. This time, he really began running scared. One of his favorite tricks was campaigning every Shabbos (Yiddish for the sabbath) in a couple of the shuls in his district – which, if not breaking any religious laws, was blatantly shameful behavior. Of course, he would claim that he wasn’t really campaigning, but just dropping by to say hello to all his friends. Yeah, right!
To make things still worse, he had been lying about Bella’s position on our selling military jets to Israel. As things turned out, both she and he had exactly the same position on this issue – sell them as many jets as they needed to defend themselves.
But Farbstein could not help himself. Still, he would confide that even if she found out what he was saying, what could she do about it?
One Saturday morning, Bella found out where he would be. She barged into the shul and bellowed, “Lenny, you’re not going to out-Jew me!
On Primary Day, I came back to my old neighborhood to work at one of the polling places from opening to closing, keeping an eye on the Democratic election inspectors – all of them members of the Lower Eastside Democratic Association -- and other suspicious looking characters who were hanging around.
When the polls closed, I wrote down the totals from the six election districts that voted there. Just looking at those figures, I knew that Bella had won.
We usually lost those districts by at least 2-1. This time, we were losing by just 3-2. I knew that if we performed as well throughout the rest of the Lower Eastside and Little Italy, Bella would definitely win.
When I got back to the clubhouse, there was pandemonium. Everyone was hugging. It was as if I had never left. Sam was standing on a chair, reading off the results. He saw me and waved, I yelled to him, “I wonder if we have any of that champagne left over?”
He laughed, but there were tears in his eyes. It was Bella’s victory. But for those of us who had been there from the beginning, it was sweet revenge. Looking around at all the joy, I knew that I would probably never have a better feeling than I had just then, standing there in old storefront.
But it wasn’t just our victory – or even Bella’s. I knew that at that very moment Eleanor Roosevelt must be smiling down at us – and perhaps even Rose D. Cohen.