My Mother: A Nana for Obama


I can truly say that I was the youngest person in America to vote for FDR in his first term election. When she pulled the lever for Roosevelt I was in my mother’s womb, so I suppose I could be called an intra-utero Democrat. My mother, Lillian Yellen, is long gone now. Had she lived she would be one hundred and five and voting for Obama. She was run down by a reckless driver in Manhattan twenty five years ago as she was bringing some food to a poor, sick woman who was a member of her Hadassah group. That driver jumped the curb while she was waiting for a light to change and took her life. Mother was eighty at the time. We rented the smallest room in the Riverside Chapel for the funeral service knowing that she had outlived most of her friends and family and believing that few would come to the ceremony of a private woman who was not famous. But to our amazement the room soon overflowed with so many people we had never met, and we were obliged to hold the service in the largest room available for the many whose lives she had touched with her wisdom and quiet generosity, the many who came to pay her tribute.The reason for this crowd was simple. Mother cared about the welfare of others on both a personal and a political level, and she did it naturally, graciously. Generosity was her gift, her talent, her life’s work. She simply helped those in need on a daily basis, and her politics were simple: vote for people and programs that would improve the lives of those in need. And since such progressive programs were “good for the Jews” it was an easy decision for her to make.

As a three year old Jewish child who had escaped the pogroms of Russia, she understood oppression, and as an adult who had seen the consequences of the Holocaust she cared deeply about the fate of Israel as a homeland for the survivors. My mother, Lilly, had grown up in great poverty and knew life shattering tragedy early on. As a nine year old child she experienced within a year the loss of her mother, her older sister and brother to the “white death” of tuberculosis when they lived in squalid conditions on the Lower East Side. Her first school teacher was a Miss Emily Stokes, a young African American woman who favored the beautiful motherless Lilly, helping her with her lessons, teaching her the lovely flowing handwriting she used for a lifetime, and giving her a wonderful rag-doll, the only doll my mother would ever own. That personal experience Lilly had of the daughter of a former slave taught my mother to see beyond skin color to the value of the humanity within.

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