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Senator Feinstein on Being Jewish: The Jewish Ethic and the Public Arena

This is the essay that Senator Dianne Feinstein, who passed away today, wrote in the book, "I Am Jewish: Personal Reflections Inspired by the Last Words of Daniel Pearl," edited by Judea and Ruth Pearl.
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September 29, 2023
(Photo by Astrid Riecken/Getty Images)

July 31, 2003

Over the centuries, Jewish scholars and laymen alike have battled over the question of what it means to be a Jew.

I think there are no easy answers to this question. But for me, being Jewish has given me a great desire to enter public service and replace my divot. Had I been born in Poland or Russia – the birthplace of my grandparents – I probably would not be alive today, because I was born at the time of the beginning of the Holocaust. I certainly wouldn’t have had the opportunities afforded to me.

My story is a familiar one and part of a common Jewish commitment to make this a better world.

I was born of first generation immigrants. My Mother emigrated from St. Petersburg, Russia, when she was very small. Her family came over during a Russian Revolution via haycart through Siberia, and then by boat to Eureka, California. Whatever possessions they had with them were stolen.

My Grandfather died two months after his arrival at the age of thirty-two, leaving my Grandmother penniless with four small children and no source of income, unable to speak English. It was a rough life, and my Mother was sick as a child, spending three years in a sanitarium with tuberculosis.

At the age of 18, she had virtually no education. She was a very beautiful woman and became a model. Incidentally, she was Russian Orthodox in her religious beliefs.

On my Father’s side, my Grandfather was born into a Polish family in a small town on the border with Russia. He left by himself at the age of 14, out of fear of conscription into the Polish Army and to avoid having to participate in some of the Pogroms that were being carried out by the Polish Military.

He was a stowaway on a ship, which landed in 1890 in Boston Harbor, where from 14 to 19, he worked as a shoemaker. He then worked his way to Sacramento where he met a young Lithuanian immigrant – my Grandmother.

They were married and moved to San Francisco. My Grandmother had six children, in five and a half years. She worked in a shoe store, and she would say that she could deliver a baby in the back of the shoe store, and still complete the sale.

They opened two small stores – one in the Mission District, one on Market street. In 1906, their house fell down in the earthquake. One business burned, and the other was dynamited to stop the fire. Following the fire, they moved to Berkeley. They had five more children, for a total of eleven. Because the family was poor, one child worked while the other went to school.

My Father was one of the lucky ones. He was designated to be educated. He became a physician, and he became the first Jewish full professor at the University of California Medical Center. Imagine my family’s pride at that accomplishment.

My Uncle, who helped put my father through school but had little education himself, also fulfilled the American dream and became a successful businessman with an abiding interest in politics.

And this uncle was one that really gave me my desire to participate in public life, when he would take me down on Monday afternoons to what he called “the Board of ‘Stupidvisors”. And he would say to me, “Dianne, you get an education, and you do the job right.” And for some reason, it stuck.

My Father wanted me to be a doctor. At Stanford University, I took Bio 1, 2, and 3, and I got a D in Genetics. I came home and said, “Dad, I don’t have the aptitude for this. I can’t possibly be a doctor.” And then he told me the first and last lie he ever told me. “Don’t worry, I got a D, too.”

I knew, because of what it meant to his family, that my father never saw the south side of an A. I recognized I wasn’t going to go into medicine, and I began to take a number of diverse courses.

One of those course was American Political Thought. In that class, I could write my heart out and earn a very good grade. This told me something about where I belonged.

I then went on to be a Coro Foundation intern in San Francisco, which gave me an opportunity to do a team project in the Post Conviction Phases of the Administration of Justice.

 I sent the paper to the then Governor, Pat Brown, and he liked what he read. He appointed me to the California Women’s Board of Terms and Parole, where I became the youngest member of a parole board in the United States.

I also served on the Crime Commission, the jail investigative body, and I developed a portfolio of expertise in the criminal justice system.

Then, I decided the time came then for me to try to do what my uncle said I should do, and I ran for the Board of Supervisors, and topped the ticket, which entitled me to be the first woman President of that Board.

Some editorial writers were opposed to having a woman as President of the Board of Supervisors. They said I should do the statesman-like thing, and yield to the next higher runner up.

I looked around, and I saw the next runner-up who was man and a real estate broker, and I decided that I should not give up my spot, and I became the first woman President of the Board. During my time on the Board, my husband, Bert Feinstein, became ill with cancer, and it was terminal. It was an experience which for me has made the battle against cancer one of my top priorities as a United States Senator. It was anexperience which led me to the decision to retire from the public life.

On my first day back to the office after taking leave, I went in the press office and said, I am not going to run for Mayor. Forty-five minutes later, Dan White shot and killed George Moscone, and Supervisor Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in the United States.

I was absolutely determined that the assassination would not succeed in changing the Administration. So I kept all of Mayor Moscone’s staff, slowly making them, I believe, loyal to me.

From that experience, I drew my greatest political lesson – that the best way to govern a diverse society is from the center of the political spectrum. If you do this, you can listen to the right, you can listen to the left, you can make judgements as to what is the best thing for all the people. And I did that for nine years as Mayor.

San Francisco was the first city to experience AIDS, which tore the City apart and caused a riot. It left deep scar tissue much as the Rodney King episode did in Los Angeles. I believe that there is a dark current that runs deep within our society, and must always be guarded against.

My experience is that bigotry and prejudice in diverse societies, ultimately lead to some form of violence, and we must be constantly vigilant against these things.

I was born during the Holocaust. I find that looking at Jewish history and cultural tradition, the horrors that can take hold of a society, and the memories of six million people who were murdered, keeps alive an historic commitment of social justice and progress.

That is the legacy for me, as a Jewish American in this day and age. Despite terrible events, so deeply etched in our souls, Jews have forged themselves with the renewed commitment to the social good, to justice, to equality for the underdog, for the rights of every person regardless of their race, creed, color, sex or sexual orientation, to live a safe, good life.

For those of us who hold elected office, governing in this complex and diverse country can often be very difficult. If we’ve learned everything from the past, it’s that it takes all of us who treasure our nation’s beauty and the character of our people to be mindful and respectful of one another.

Every day it calls on us to put aside our animosities, to search together for common ground, and to settle differences before they fester and become real problems.

Our Jewish culture is one that values tolerance with an enduring spirit of democracy. The right of an individual to speak out, the right of an individual to live and grow and thrive in a society.

For me, that’s what it means for me to be a Jew, and everyday I rededicate myself to that ideal.

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