"I've been described as a tough and noisy woman, a prize fighter, a man-hater, you name it. They call me Battling Bella, Mother Courage, and a Jewish mother with more complaints than Portnoy. There are those who say I'm impatient, impetuous, uppity, rude, profane, brash, and overbearing. Whether I'm any of those things, or all of them, you can decide for yourself. But whatever I am--and this ought to made very clear--I am a very serious woman."
For more than fifty years, Bella Abzug championed the powerless and disenfranchised, as an activist, congresswoman, and leader in every major social initiative of her time—from Zionism and labor in the 40s to the ban-the-bomb efforts in the 50s, to civil rights and the anti-Vietnam War movements of the 60s, to the women's movement in the 70s and 80s, to enviromnemtal awareness and economic equality in the 90s. Her political idealism never waning, Abzug gave her final public speech before the U.N. in March 1998, just a few weeks before her death. Presented in the voices of both friends and foes, of those who knew, fought with, revered, and struggled alongside her, this oral biography will be the first comprehensive account of a woman who was one of our most influential leaders.
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About the Author
Suzanne Braun Levine and Mary Thom are both nationally recognized authorities on women's issues. Most recently, Levine is the author of Inventing the Rest of Lives and Thom is the author of Inside Ms.
Suzanne Braun Levine is a nationally recognized authority on womens' issues. Most recently, Levine wrote Inventing the Rest of Lives.
Suzanne Braun Levine and Mary Thom are both nationally recognized authorities on women’s issues. Thom is the author of Inside Ms.
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By Suzanne Levine, Mary Thom
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2007 Suzanne Braun Levine and Mary Thom
All rights reserved.
The Early Years: A Passion for Social Justice
1920 On July 24, in the year American women secure the right to vote, Bella Savitzky is born in New York City to Esther and Emanuel Savitzky, both immigrants from Russia.
1932 Twelve-year-old Bella collects money on the New York City subways for the creation of the State of Israel and makes Zionist speeches in front of her father's butcher shop, the Live and Let Live Meat Market on Thirty-ninth Street and Ninth Avenue. Between 1922 and 1940, Jews increase their numbers from 11 percent to 30 percent of the population of Palestine under the British mandate from the UN and, on May 14, 1948, they proclaim the State of Israel, the day before the mandate was to expire.
1934 Bella, along with her lifelong friend Mim Kelber, attends Walton High School in the Bronx, New York.
1935 Eleanor Roosevelt begins writing her syndicated newspaper column, "My Day," which Walton students follow.
1938–1942 Bella and Mim attend Hunter College and in 1941 Bella is elected president of the student government; she is active in the American Student Union, which Joseph Lash called "the student brain of the New Deal." She also studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary.
1939 The Hitler-Stalin Pact is signed, disillusioning many in the leftist student movement. 1940 —
1942 New York legislators, in early Joseph McCarthy — like hearings, search for Communist influence on college campuses.
1941 The attack on Pearl Harbor brings the United States into World War II; the pacifist Jeanette Rankin, Democrat from Montana, the first woman elected to the House of Representatives (1917), casts the only vote in the House against entering the war.
1945 Bella graduates from Columbia Law School after being an editor of Law Review and marrying Martin Abzug in her final year. She begins her law practice, specializing in civil liberties, civil rights, and labor law.
1945 World War II ends, bringing a halt to price and wage controls and ushering in a period of strikes and union agitation.
Late 1940s Bella joins the law firm Whitt and Cammer. She chairs the Civil Rights Committee of the National Lawyers Guild, a progressive bar association for lawyers and law students founded in 1937.
My parents had the foresight to give birth to me in the year that women got the vote. I was born July 24, 1920, in a South Bronx apartment on Hoe Avenue. All the rooms were on one side of a hall that ran the length of the apartment. Mama and Papa shared a room, as did my grandparents (on Mama's side). Uncle Julius, the youngest of Grandpa's four sons, had a room. He lived with us until he married my gorgeous Aunt Janet. I think I slept in my parents' room. My sister, Helene, slept on the couch.
Papa was a serious man, but not too good at making a living. First he owned a laundry with his brother-in-law Geffen, but down went the laundry. Then he owned a "dry" stationery store — it sold no drinks. That didn't work either. So my mother's brother Hymie set him up in the butcher business. Papa put on a white coat, hired some butchers, and put up a sign over the store that read, "Live and Let Live Meat Market." This was his philosophy, and his personal protest against the imperialist World War I.
Helene Savitzky Alexander When I was about fourteen, Bella's and my father, Emanuel Savitzky, didn't want me to be on the street with boys, so every Saturday, I came down to his store on Ninth Avenue in Manhattan. It was cold, and I would always get burned because I sat at this box with the heater. One of the butchers would give me a ticket, which I stamped and took in the money. Then the butcher went back and got the meat. The box had holes where you would put in the quarters, dimes, and nickels. The bills went underneath. On a Saturday, I would take in a thousand dollars — a lot in those days. Customers would come from across the river in Jersey. Bella was five years younger than I was, and she got so jealous that she started to come down and sell bags for shoppers to carry their provisions. She'd sell these paper bags along Ninth Avenue for maybe a nickel or a few pennies.
We were good kids — nothing like the rebellious kids today. For instance, my father would say to Bella, "Now you were fresh. You go stand in that corner." She'd say, "I'm not gonna stand in that corner!" That was her rebellion. My father was actually a very gentle man.
Papa was a big disciplinarian. When he would tell me to stand in the corner, there was a big struggle between us. "For what reason should I go into the corner?" I'd say. "How will that change anything?"
Helene Savitzky Alexander Bella was a hot Zionist as a young kid — about eleven or twelve. She would get dressed in this gold outfit with an orange tie and go to meetings and come back late. Our mother, Esther Savitzky, never made a fuss about it. She was the disciplinarian of the family, but with Bella, she somehow understood. Bella would go on the subway trains collecting money for Israel, and she wouldn't come back until her blue jar was completely full. When I think back, my mother was remarkable with Bella — very supportive. She never said, "You can't do this." She knew where my sister was and what she was doing, and she understood that this was Bella's interest.
I spent most of my free time with a group called a Kvutzah in Hebrew. We sang songs, danced the hora, studied socialism and communal living and the history of Israel. This was 1931. Few people understood what we meant by the establishment of a homeland for Jews.
Robin Morgan Bella was the first person to ever reposition Zionism for me, by saying, "For Christ sake, it started out as a national liberation movement like every other national liberation movement but it kind of has gone — you know — bad. It's a problem now."
I would go on the subways and make a speech in between stops describing the need for a homeland. This all seemed to irk Papa, especially the late hours. His exasperation reached a peak when I borrowed a dolly and pulled our Victrola and records — including Caruso and Chaliapin — through the streets of the Bronx to the local synagogue because they had no entertainment. I have no recollection of having the Victrola returned. It was then that Papa used his belt.
Papa came and stayed with me the first time they sent me to camp, and I cried and wanted to go home. Papa stayed for a week, and by that time, I hardly had time to say goodbye when he left.
Liz Abzug We have a picture of her on the cover of the camp brochure throwing a ball, and she looks like such a little tomboy.
Helene Savitzky Alexander When our father was in Russia, he worked for his brother, who had a club in Kiev, so he danced very well — folk dancing particularly — and he taught me. We grew up in a large family and had these big weddings where I would dance with him. Bella was younger and in the background. So she always felt that I was my father's favorite.
I played the piano, and he taught me how to sing in Russian, so I would play and sing for his family when they came. Bella played the violin until she stopped and didn't practice anymore. I have her violin now. Of all her things, when the kids asked me what I wanted after my sister died, I wanted that violin. We would play for my father on Friday nights. Bella had a marvelous voice, and when she was young, it was much higher. When I was music counselor at camp, Bella was the soloist in my choir. She was also the camp bugler — she played it by ear. Years later, her friend Judy Lerner would give these great New Year's parties, and they invited me once. I played the piano and they sang all these oldies and the folk songs. Liz is the musical one in Bella's family.
Eve Abzug My mother never said she regretted giving up studying the violin, but she would say, "They paid more attention to Helene." She said they pushed her sister, and then, when they got to my mother, they didn't really pay much attention to her musical education.
Helene Savitzky Alexander Our grandfather was the one who took a cotton to Bella as a youngster, so to speak. He was crazy about her. My grandfather wasn't a religious man when he was in Russia. He owned a saloon there. But he came to this country and had nothing to do — his sons sent him money to live on because there was no unemployment insurance or anything like that. He started taking Bella to the synagogue with him when she was six years old. She became very knowledgeable in Hebrew. Of course, the synagogue was Orthodox, and she went upstairs with the women. They all asked her to point out the place in readings. She would say later that's when she started to be a feminist, because they separated her from the men.
He was my babysitter, and since he spent a lot of time in the synagogue, so did I. He was very proud of me, but after showing off my reading prowess to his cronies, he would dispatch me to sit with the women behind the "mechitzah" [curtain].
Liz Abzug My great-grandfather Wolf, the one who took her to the temple, he would say in Yiddish, "She's an 'oytser' — a jewel!"
Helene Savitzky Alexander I didn't know what the word [oytser] meant until I asked the women at Women's Space here in Great Neck. They said it meant "treasure." There was something in Bella that my grandfather found. And she always kept that part of her — her Jewishness. Perhaps the cultural aspect more than anything else, but she always belonged to a temple. Even when she was in Congress, she would come home for the holidays no matter what. She would tell them, "This is my holiday. I'm leaving."
Eve Abzug My understanding growing up was that Judaism teaches you that Jews care about social responsibility, that you aren't free until every person is free. What my parents stood for instilled in me a desire to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves and has become the foundation for all the work that I do.
Helene Savitzky Alexander Bella was young when our father died. He had hardening of the arteries — today they have all kinds of things they can do for that, but they couldn't help him then. She was very affected by his death. In the Jewish religion, the child of the deceased goes to the synagogue to say Kaddish. Well, they never had women do that. And I didn't do it, but Bella went every day for one year, in the morning before school. When she was running for Congress, one of the volunteers, a man, came in and said, "I will never forget your sister, eleven or twelve years old, how she came to the synagogue every morning."
I stood apart in the corner. The men scowled at me but no one stopped me. It was those mornings that taught me you could do unconventional things. After I had become a congresswoman, I was invited back to speak at that synagogue. [I spoke about securing] the right of women to become rabbis and for women congregants to be able to participate as "persons" in all rituals. The rabbi — perhaps wanting to outsmart his speaker of the evening — said, "I disagree. How would it look if Elizabeth Taylor was walking down the aisle carrying the Torah and the men, as was the custom, in reaching out with the talesim [prayer shawls] to kiss the Torah, one of their hands slipped and touched Elizabeth Taylor?" I replied, "It would be wonderful. The synagogue is always looking for more congregants. This would be, to say the least, an enticement." Later, when I got to know Elizabeth Taylor — she attended my sixtieth birthday party with Shirley MacLaine — she got a great kick out of the story.
Shirley MacLaine I remember when Elizabeth Taylor gave her the little tiny diamond. She wore that thing on a chain that Elizabeth gave her. And the chain got tighter and tighter. It became a choker, but she would not take that diamond off. Wore it for ten years.
It was not until I was in my sixties that I actually was permitted to go up to the bimah — the platform in the synagogue on which the Ark rested — to chant an opening prayer. My actor friends Renée Taylor, who is Jewish, and Joe Bologna, who is Italian, had agreed that their son should have a bar mitzvah, and so began a search for a synagogue that would allow this uncircumcised Italian to accompany his son with his wife to the bimah. We found a conservative synagogue in need of funds and a rabbi who figured out a way for Joe to participate without being circumcised. When I stood up there and started to chant "Baruch atah Adonai" — blessed art Thou oh Lord — the tears came to my eyes. At long last I was considered a human person in my own religion.
Liz Abzug After my mother's father died, my grandmother Esther worked in S. Klein's and another department store so that she could feed her daughters and nurture them and put them in the best of everything. She was short, five feet, but very tough. She was a young woman when my grandfather died, but she never went back with a man. She would say to both her daughters, "You can do anything you want and then some." But she was also very much a mother who would cook and care for them in the traditional way. She had enormous endurance. My mom got it from somewhere!
Helene Savitzky Alexander Bella used to win all the street games from the boys. My mother wouldn't buy her a bike — she thought it was dangerous — so Bella rode every boy's bike in the neighborhood. I have a neighbor here in Great Neck who remembers that she borrowed his bike. Once when we were kids, someone rang the bell and told my mother, pointing at me, "Your daughter hit my kid." Mama said, "You got the wrong daughter."
I never saw a reason why girls couldn't play immies — which were marbles — down the sides of the gutters, or checker games on the sidewalks, which only boys played. Yes, I jumped rope, played potsy — a game like hopscotch — with the girls. I had a doll and a carriage, but I also wanted a real bicycle.
Helene Savitzky Alexander Every night with her supper, Bella would sit in front of the radio for her three programs — Just Plain Bill, Myrt and Marge, and one other one. I was never interested in that, but I used to read a lot. My mother had twenty volumes of The Book of Knowledge. They had everything — including fairy tales — and I read them all. I was a good student and my mother was a frustrated teacher. In those days you would skip grades if you knew the material, and I knew all the multiplication tables because she would drill me as we walked to school. With Bella she didn't do anything like that because she was so tired of doing it with me, I guess. Anyway, Bella was just naturally bright, and she immediately showed it. My sister was born with a sense of herself.
My mother more than any other person gave me self-esteem and selfassurance. She would meet me after school every day, take my books, and give me my Hebrew school books. I attended Hebrew school all during my elementary and high school years. My mother always worried I might become a rabbi. Then, when I became a lawyer, she said it was too much work — I should have been an actress. In my mother's view, an actress led a charmed life, lying around in a beautiful negligee.
Claire Reed One day during the Vietnam War, I'm at a demonstration with Mrs. Savitzky, that's Bella's mother. Mrs. Savitzky is standing next to me, and she's going, "Oy vey. I don't understand. I don't understand." I said, "What is it that you don't understand?" "My Bella has worked so hard against this war, how come it hasn't stopped?" She wasn't kidding! She was totally serious. If you're brought up to believe there's nothing you can't do — which is how Bella was brought up by her mother and father — then nothing can stop you. There was nothing that Bella couldn't do.
Liz Abzug Everything was extreme with her — the sports, the violin, the bugle. How is it that a young girl rose up in the 1930s and knows she wants to be a lawyer when she doesn't even know any lawyers — women or men? How did she come up with that? How did she know that she should go and collect nickels on the subway for this homeland they were trying to create that she didn't even really understand at twelve years old? I don't know.
In my home always there was a fair sense of social justice, based on no ideology — just hardworking sincere people with a tremendous sense of values and standards. They subscribed to philosophical Judaism, which relied on the creed of justice for all. That's one of the reasons I wanted to be a lawyer ever since I was a little kid. I had no role models. But I always thought if I could become a lawyer I could set things straight.
Excerpted from Bella Abzug by Suzanne Levine, Mary Thom. Copyright © 2007 Suzanne Braun Levine and Mary Thom. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Preface: What Would Bella Do?,
1 - The Early Years: A Passion for Social Justice,
2 - Civil Rights and Civil Liberties — and Raising a Family,
3 - Building a Peace Movement,
4 - Transforming Local Politics,
5 - Running and Winning: Building a New Coalition,
6 - An Outsider on the Inside,
7 - Building a Political Women's Movement,
8 - Becoming a Legislative Force in Congress,
9 - Running and Losing — and Regrouping,
10 - Mobilizing American Women Voters,
11 - Building an Agenda for Women — One Meeting, Conference, March at a Time,
12 - Loss, Poker, and Family Politics,
13 - Going Global,