Emanuel / THE BROTHERS EMANUEL
Born to Protest
That is my first memory in life.
He looked harmless enough, bundled in a blanket and struggling to focus his eyes. My cousin Gary and I were fairly impressed with his grasp reflex—all babies will grab on to a finger as it touches their palm. Since this was his only real trick, he seemed pretty useless. My mother, however, acted like he was extremely precious and treated him with so much care that it was clear that she loved him every bit as much as she loved me. Although I could not form the words, or express the feelings they evoked, part of me knew that here was a competitor.
In December 1959, Gary was five years old and I was just two. Two skinny kids with the same dark brown hair, brown eyes, and strong chins, we looked like brothers and spent so much time together that we felt like brothers, too. For months my parents had been trying to prepare me for the arrival of a real sibling. They had given me a doll to play with and encouraged me to take care of her. And when the baby, a little boy they named Rahm, finally arrived, they encouraged me to help take care of him, too.
On this particular morning, Gary and I were jumping up and down on our convertible sofa. It was a monstrous, ugly piece of furniture covered in indestructible black Naugahyde. When opened, it practically filled the living room in our first Chicago apartment and the metal that held the mattress was so thin and springy that when we used the sofa as a trampoline we could make the whole frame shake.
My mother had made breakfast, dispatched my father to care for patients at Michael Reese Hospital, and fed and diapered the baby. Dodging the toys on the floor—including that doll, which I had beheaded—she brought the baby into the living room and called to us to stop our gymnastics and come look at him. We did as we were told, inspecting the snuffling, wizened little creature with very dark skin, a snubby nose, and a wild spray of black hair.
“I’m going to put Rahmy down here and you boys can watch him for a little while. Take care of him,” said my mother. Clearly, she hoped we might like being the big boys in charge for a few minutes. My guess is that she also needed a little break.
We seemed agreeable enough, so she laid Rahm down on the sofa bed’s mattress and surrounded him with pillows to make him secure before leaving the room. It took us only a few seconds before we decided to climb back up on the bed and invent a new game that might have been called “Bounce the Baby.”
We positioned ourselves on either side of the little bundle and timed our jumps so that we landed simultaneously. The mattress bowed and the metal bands that held it were loaded with enough energy to bounce Rahm on the surface of the bed.
Instantly, we grasped the situation’s potential. With enough effort, and perfect timing, we might bounce Rahm off the mattress and onto the floor. We couldn’t restrain ourselves, and we were too excited to remember to be quiet. The noise we made as we jumped like a couple of jackhammers brought my mother running into the room.
“Stop! Stop right now!”
It’s not so easy to stop bouncing once you get going. As Gary and I crashed together, my mother scooped Rahm off the bed with a sweep of her arm.
Tall, with long brown hair and a beautiful warm and open face, my twenty-six-year-old mother was young and strong but the sight of her second-born son being launched into the air had sent her heart racing. As Gary and I tumbled to a stop, she took a moment to catch her breath and choose her next move. Though we had behaved like idiots, my mother knew we were too young to have formed any malice aforethought. As a devotee of the pediatrician and author Benjamin Spock, who appealed to her with his radically sympathetic approach to childrearing, she had vowed to control the impulse to scream, hit, or punish us.
“Boys,” she finally said, “babies aren’t grown-up enough to play that way. You could have hurt Rahmy if he fell off the bed, or you fell onto him.”
She was right, of course. And she tried to correct us, without berating us. Few mothers would have exercised the restraint my mother showed that morning, and fewer still would have had such confidence in Spock’s advice that they would have followed it so closely, and with such conviction, in the heat of battle.
Later, she bundled us three boys up and bounced a stroller down the stairs so we could walk a few blocks in the stinging cold Decem- ber air to a local market. Along the way we passed some of our neighbors, older Jewish women who clucked in Yiddish, assuming she did not know that they were saying something disparaging about the “hillbillies” with all their kids.
Low rents and easy access to public transportation had made our neighborhood popular with poor whites from Appalachia who flocked to Chicago seeking jobs. Distinctive in the way they talked, and dressed, these newcomers had met their share of bigotry and the term hillbilly was a put-down. My mother, who refused to use the word, startled the women with a little Yiddish admonition—“Ich bin a yid,” which means “I am a Jew”—to remind them of the ugliness of prejudice and their own ignorance.
In this one morning, the very first memory of my life, Marsha Emanuel had confronted, as a matter of routine, most of the responsibilities and issues that would define her adult life. She had risen early to cook breakfast, care for three kids, and see her husband depart for a day’s work that might not end until late in the evening. Before noon she had saved Rahm’s life, taught Gary and me some life lessons, confronted bigotry on the sidewalk, and done a little shopping. All this would be repeated, in a rough way, for at least four thousand more days until the Emanuel boys—me, Rahm, and soon-to-come brother Ariel—started to be more self-sufficient. In that time, we would begin to define ourselves and begin to imagine our places in the world. The process began, of course, in the tiny community that was our family and in the even smaller circle that we made as brothers.
As in most families, especially in generations past, our mother was the parent of record and spent much more time with us than our father, Benjamin, did. Certainly he was very involved in our upbringing, and his parenting style—lots of hugs, kisses, jokes, and play—was unusual for the sixties. But he was the sole wage earner in the family, and as a young, poorly compensated medical fellow at Michael Reese Hospital, he worked more than seventy hours per week to support us.
My earliest memory of my father finds me standing at the window of the same apartment where Rahm was nearly bounced to the floor. Heat pours out of a steam radiator that squats below the window and my cousin Gary fidgets beside me. My nose is pressed against the glass as I stare down on a city street that is white with salt and banked by snow pushed off the traffic lanes by city plows. My father, on crutches after breaking his leg while dancing at a bar mitzvah, crosses North Broadway and hobbles to a spot where a sign lettered in faded yellow and green paint marks the stop for the 151 and 153 buses.
Gary and I watch as big cars with swooping tailfins slowly creep past. Within minutes a flat-faced city bus glides to a halt at the stop across the street. When it departs in a puff of diesel exhaust, my father and the others who had been standing there have disappeared.
More than a half hour would pass before my father arrived at the hospital, which was on the South Side of the city. His research group, led by a famous Harvard-trained autocrat named Dr. Jack Metcoff, had begun by testing Chicago’s first kidney dialysis machine on dogs. At the start of 1960 they moved to clinical trials using human beings. The demand for treatment, including emergency cases of attempted suicides by poisoning, was so great that the fellows worked around the clock. On any given day, my father wasn’t likely to return from work before I was asleep for the night. I saw that a man’s work was important, that he must pursue it tirelessly, and that it might require certain sacrifices, like being away from the warmth and comfort of home.
Of course I had mixed feelings about Rahm’s arrival. But as Rahm grew stronger, crawled, and then toddled after me, I enjoyed him more and more. He wasn’t as much fun as a puppy (we’d get one of those later) but he was just as physically expressive. When he was upset, his brow would become furrowed and his whole face seemed to darken. When he smiled, the corners of his mouth turned up sharply, his eyes sparkled, and a dimple would form on his cheek. It was a charming but also mischievous look, the kind that lets you in on a secret joke. The Hebrew word for a kid with this look is shovav, which means “little devil,” and Rahm was a shovav. His tendency to show his feelings would stay with him for life and evolve to the point where he could communicate a whole range of emotions—puzzled, content, annoyed, you name it—without saying a word. In many staff meet- ings at the White House, when he was chief of staff and I was working on health-care reform at the Office of Management and Budget, I would see him turn down the corners of his mouth just a bit to show his displeasure with an idea. Or his brow would tighten when he was about to chastise someone. And he remains one of the great subtle eye rollers, especially when someone else is making an observation about political machinations he finds obtuse. What might come as a shock to most people is that as a baby and through his early childhood, Rahm barely spoke at all. When we were young children, I frequently spoke for us both.
“Rahm, do you want something to eat?” my mother would ask.
“He’s not hungry right now,” I’d reply. He’d just as easily go along if I said, “Yes, he wants two pieces of toast with margarine and lots of jam.”
Rahm was similarly passive when it came to play, choosing to sit back and observe and only participate when invited or encouraged. In part his attitude may have been connected to the fact that I was far more aggressive. I was perfectly happy to talk for him and to think up things for both of us to do, like sitting on the window seat drumming on pots with wooden spoons.
For my parents, however, Rahm’s slowness to talk and relative passivity became a concern. During her pregnancy with him my mother had undergone general anesthesia to have a benign tumor removed from her breast and she worried about how the drugs might have affected him. When he was born he was, at six pounds, eleven ounces, her smallest baby. When he reached age two he seemed unusually quiet to my parents. They took him to a specialist to see if his verbal skills were developing normally. It turned out that there was no developmental delay. He could talk perfectly well. He just seemed perfectly content not to—and leave the talking to me.
It seems to me now that during those quiet early years Rahm learned from and about the world not by physically engaging it the way I did, but instead by carefully observing it from a safe distance. Rahm studied his environment and dissected how people interacted; he asserted himself only when it was necessary. But back then I thought of him as kind of a blob, too slow to keep up with a hyperactive, hyperverbal kid like me. When he finally started using full sentences at the age of three and a half, my mother’s anxiety disappeared. But she made the mistake of once telling him how she had worried over the prenatal effects of the anesthesia. Ever the politician, he latched on to this confession and, when it suited his purpose, would say, “You owe me, Mom.” She’d feel guilty, and he’d get what he wanted.
Rahm stayed small as he grew into adulthood and when we were young his size did make me feel protective, especially when we left the apartment. On any given day, we would take an outing—a walk to the park, maybe a stop at a store—but every once in a while we’d bump the baby carriage down the stairs and take a bus downtown, or perhaps to the South Side. From all appearances my mother was just another homemaker schlepping her kids to a museum or a department store. Many times we actually went to those kinds of places. But on other occasions we went to the Board of Education building on Clark Street to join picket lines or to South Side schools where black parents lay down in the street to block the delivery of temporary classrooms. Called Willis Wagons, after the superintendent of the city schools, Benjamin Willis, these trailers made it possible for the school system to expand classrooms at black schools, maintaining segregation as Chicago’s black population grew and hundreds of thousands of whites moved to the suburbs. They were both the symbols and the instruments of the city’s racism.
My mother wasn’t, as she says, a “lie-down-in-the-street kind of person.” As a mother, she recalls, “I had to make sure I wasn’t arrested, because I had children to worry about. And, believe it or not, I also had in my mind the idea that I had to get home to make your father dinner.”
My mother saw nothing inconsistent in her traditional desire to look after her husband and children and her radical politics. She began her civil rights work before most people had ever heard the word feminism and in those early years she was focused on racial justice. She later confessed that she felt some twinges of resentment over the sacrifices—setting aside her education, career, and other ambitions—that she made for her family, but her protests were on behalf of others. At neighborhood schools, she stood with black parents who gathered by the hundreds in the street to demand equal access even as white neighbors gathered to jeer. I did not understand the issues, but I knew that something important was happening and that it involved people of many different ages and races who were united in a way that felt good.
After she had put in an hour or so at one of these protests, my mother made sure we caught the Chicago Transit Authority bus home in time for her to make dinner and get us kids into bed. More than once we would return home with the same bus driver who had dropped us off. He’d greet my mother with some benign remark—“Had a nice time shopping?”—and she would smile as if that were exactly what she had been doing.
In the time when my mother began standing up against prejudice and racism the vast majority of white Americans rarely thought about civil rights. When polled they denied that the country even had a serious racial problem. They believed, instead, that America really did offer equal opportunity, and that discrimination was an unimportant exception and not the rule. At the same time the majority simply knew that a woman’s place was in the home and certainly not on the sidewalk carrying signs and singing freedom songs, and absolutely not with her toddlers in tow. This was, after all, a nation that had waited until 1920 to give women the vote and as of the early 1960s still did not guarantee women equal access to employment and education. Many prestigious universities and colleges, such as Yale and Princeton and my own Amherst College, did not yet admit female students. Women who stood up for themselves and others were routinely criticized as selfish, man-hating battle-axes who certainly must be inadequate wives and neglectful mothers. However, in my family there was nothing strange and everything right about standing up in public for what you believe, especially if justice was at stake. Indeed, standing up was a tradition for us.
Six months before my mother was born, our maternal grandfather had joined the first big American protest against Hitler, a march of fifty thousand that helped unify Chicago’s Jews against the Nazis. Herman Smulevitz understood the way that bigotry can become violent. He was born in Russia in 1902, at a time when mobs of anti-Semites were attacking Jewish communities in murderous pogroms. We were told that he stowed away alone on a ship that brought him to America at the age of ten. After landing in New York he began searching for his father, who had abandoned his mother, remarried, and settled in Indiana. When he finally arrived at his father’s home, exhausted and bewildered by all he had experienced, Herman’s stepmother refused to take him in. He would forever call her the macha- shaifeh, which is Yiddish for “witch.”
Big and strong for his age, and toughened by all he went through, young Herman eventually found refuge with an uncle in the Jewish community around Maxwell Street in Chicago. He worked odd jobs until he enlisted in the army near the end of World War I, where he saw combat only as a champion boxer. Nearly six feet tall and weighing 250 pounds, he had a long reach and huge hands with fingers the size of Polish sausages. This physique, joined with his life experience on the streets of Chicago, made him plenty tough.
After the war, Herman labored as a lumberjack and did track work for a railroad. In 1927 he married a Romanian immigrant named Sophie Lampert. In just six years they had three daughters—Shirley, Esther, and Marsha. A son named Shelden came in 1940, followed by Leslie in 1948. In this time Herman worked as a grocer and a union man who used his muscle, when necessary, to organize steel mills and meatpacking houses. Herman, who taught himself to read English, devoured newspapers and books and held strong opinions about what he read. He was a loud and sometimes profane man who would say almost anything to win an argument.
As a child, Marsha Smulevitz stayed out of the fray, watching her older sisters argue in vain with their father and noticing that her younger brothers were often scolded in a way that seemed to diminish them. She feared her father, resented his bullying, and was devastated when he demanded that she give up the money she had saved for college to pay for her brother Shelden’s college tuition. She complied, but never got over losing her chance to continue her education after high school.
But as much as my mother hated his authoritarian streak, she also listened to what her father said about standing up against injustice. The contradiction inherent in a bully who urges the oppressed to challenge their tormentors was obvious, but it did not make the message any less important. She sought out moments when she might experience the struggle for justice herself. The first chance came on a Thursday afternoon in December 1946. She heard that some whites were organizing to take action against black veterans who planned to move their families into a new public housing project that had been planned as an integrated community. She hopped on her brother’s bike and went to see what might happen.
When my mother arrived at the apartment complex, hundreds of whites, mostly women who were homemakers, stood in the street to block two black vets who had arrived with moving trucks filled with their belongings. Dozens of police officers were at the site and they helped the drivers inch their trucks through the crowd of angry onlookers. When the trucks stopped, the police officers moved in to protect the men as they tried to unload their stuff. The crowd surged forward. Some of the women screamed threats and racist insults. Others threw rocks and dirt.
Just a thirteen-year-old girl, my mother was shocked to see adult women shrieking with anger, and the police swinging batons to move them. When one of the trucks got stuck in the mud and its wheels began to spin helplessly, the driver switched off the motor and the men inside ran to a nearby office. Rocks rained on them and the vehicle. The truck’s windows were broken and eight people were injured in the melee as more stones flew and the officers pushed the crowd back.
In that moment, my mother promised herself that she would always support anyone who sought equal rights. Back at home she kept what she saw that day to herself because she knew that her father would never approve of a girl taking such a risk. As she became an adult and went out into the world she developed some courage to go with her convictions. By the time I came along she was comfortable arguing with my grandfather even when he banged on the table and shouted. The noise he made when he slapped his big sausage hand down inspired me to call him “Big Banger.” Actually I pronounced it “Big Bang-ah,” but he did not frighten or intimidate me.
Big Bangah got most excited when the subject was elections or party politics. He was a rabidly loyal Democrat, because the Democratic Party represented the workingman. He believed Franklin Roosevelt had literally saved America from the Great Depression and had, in World War II, defeated the most evil entity in history. A true Chicagoan of his generation, Herman believe that whatever policy the Demo- cratic Party pursued, he was for it. If he could have, he would have controlled every vote in his family and delivered them to the Democrats each election day.
My mother was more discerning. She was a liberal and a Democrat, but she had no patience for politicians of any party who blocked civil rights legislation. She also gave credit to those Republicans—Nelson Rockefeller, Everett Dirksen, and others—who took the right position on civil rights.
Any time my mother praised Dirksen, Rockefeller, or other open-minded, moderate Republicans she got a fierce response from Big Bangah. More than once these arguments developed such intensity that the sound and the fury could make one or both of them come a little unhinged.
One of the most memorable of these battles would arise in the fall of 1966, as Republican Charles “Chuck” Percy challenged the incumbent Democratic senator Paul Douglas. Douglas was my grandfather’s kind of Democrat. He was an intellectual and a political activist who also was a friend of the workingman. He had taught economics at the University of Chicago before entering politics as an anti-machine candidate, in a losing campaign for mayor. A long shot, he had won election to the U.S. Senate in 1948 with a campaign that stressed Truman-style anticommunism as well as civil rights, social programs, and public housing. Since then, he had been a Democratic stal- wart, which included supporting John F. Kennedy’s decision to send “advisors” to Vietnam and Lyndon Johnson’s escalation of the confrontation with the Chinese-backed North Vietnamese.
As the 1966 election drew near, American deaths in Vietnam surpassed five thousand and troop levels approached four hundred thousand. Public opposition to the war was still small, but growing, with protests occurring in many cities. My mother, who was deeply affected by all this, told her father that she was thinking of voting for Percy, who opposed the war. Percy was the blond-haired, blue-eyed chief executive officer of a huge company called Bell & Howell. A product of the best local schools and the University of Chicago, he lived in the ultrarich lakeside suburb of Kenilworth, where Jews, Catholics, and blacks were even less welcomed than Democrats. Add all of his ad- vantages to his GOP credentials and stir in the exclusionary taint of Kenilworth and Percy was a man of the ruling class whom Herman could not abide and he let my mother know it. We boys stood back and watched as our grandfather’s voice grew louder during a Friday night Shabbat dinner.
“If you are going to vote for that man,” he finally said while swinging his arm to point at the door, “then get out of my fucking house!”
My mother, insulted and furious, turned on her heel and slammed the door as she left. She was on the sidewalk, fuming and talking to herself, when she realized that she had just been ordered to leave her own home.
On election day, my mother walked us all to the polling station, which was in a basement-level community center of some sort. We always joined my mother on the trip to the polling station, so she could show us democracy in action. She checked in with the registrar, who knew her by name, as is the tradition in Chicago politics to this day, and then brought us three brothers with her down the narrow hall that led to the voting machines. While we waited for a booth to open up, I remember Rahm and me pulling the various switches on the instructional voting machine model. We then followed her to one of the machines, where we three boys crowded in around her. She pulled a big lever to close the curtain behind us.
Inside that booth, Rahm, Ari, and I watched as our mother flipped all the switches along the Democratic Party column except for the one marked “United States Senator,” where she paused, and then flicked the little lever for Percy. I howled, “Mommy! You can’t! That’s Percy!”
As my cries echoed through the polling station, I reached up to pull the Douglas lever and change my mother’s vote. She slapped my hand as if I had touched a hot burner on the stove and then quickly yanked on the red handle that recorded her votes. The curtain opened. The privacy of the booth evaporated, and around us people paused and just stared. My mother herded us like chickens, pushing with her hands until we went out the door and up the few steps to the street.
Percy won, upsetting Douglas by 56 percent to 44 percent.