In this excerpt from “The Nation City,” a new book by Rahm Emanuel, the former Chicago mayor writes of growing up in a high achieving, highly competitive and fiercely loving family, and how this shaped his own “fierce and focused desire to succeed.”
Benjamin and Marsha married and had three sons — Ezekiel (Zeke), and then me, and then Ariel (Ari) — and later adopted a daughter named Shoshana. We grew up in a series of different apartments in Chicago, starting in neighborhoods with low rents and a mix of immigrants, Jews and Catholics and poor whites who had migrated north from southern Appalachia. We fled one of those apartments — a crumbling flat with leaky faucets and peeling paint — because one night my mother found a rat sitting next to me in my crib. (We moved to Wilmette when I was in the fifth grade. I would return to the city — to Cornelia Avenue in Wrigleyville — after graduating from college in 1982.)
My father coupled his hospital job with a private practice, and he worked 70 hours a week seeing a range of patients, from those so poor that he provided them with free treatment to the sons and daughters of famous ballplayers on the Chicago Cubs. But he always made time for his kids. His favorite game to play with us was chess. He never took it easy on us, never let us win. He encouraged us to think three moves ahead and always to imagine our opponent’s response to our potential moves.
My mother was an activist. She believed that it was our duty to fight for people who were suffering in this world. She was arrested numerous times while protesting. She stood in the crowd at the Mall in Washington, D.C., and watched Martin Luther King, Jr., deliver his “I have a dream” speech. She marched in protests with her three toddler sons in tow, and always took us along to the polling station to watch her vote. She took us to hear King speak in Chicago in 1966. She helped organize a local chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality. Our landlord kicked our family out of an apartment on West Buena Avenue because he didn’t like the mixed-race gatherings my mother hosted there.
I know it might be hard to believe now, but I grew up as a quiet, attentive child. My mother and brothers tell me that I didn’t speak much when we were gathered together, but merely observed. That changed after an incident when I was 17. I sliced the middle finger on my right hand while working one day at my job at an Arby’s. The finger — and my hand and arm — eventually became infected, and I spent seven weeks in the hospital. The doctors were able to save my hand and arm, but they were forced to remove half of my middle finger. I don’t remember much after the surgery, but Zeke told me that when the doctor unwrapped my hand for the first time, I flipped everyone the bird and then declared that I would have to do it twice now for the desired effect. Something changed in me after that accident. A quiet, introverted kid suddenly became transformed into a garrulous teen full of energy and a fierce and focused desire to succeed.
While we were growing up, the city of Chicago was our playground. There were movie theaters, libraries, museums, a zoo, parks, and a mass transit system that made it possible to get to all of those places. There were people of all different backgrounds and races and religious beliefs who had one thing in common: a profound yearning to improve their lot in life. The city had its hazards, too. There was poverty and crime. There were dark alleys that we avoided. My brothers and I were more than once taunted for being Jewish. The city shaped us. It held all of the promise and all of the peril in the world.
At the center of everything was my maternal grandfather, Big Bangah. By the time he and my grandmother Sophie were in their late 40s, they’d scraped together enough money to move from North Lawndale to Albany Park, on the Northwest Side of Chicago. Their new neighborhood wasn’t materially much nicer or further up the socioeconomic ladder than their old one, but it was a solid blue collar area (as it is today), and it did signify to Big Bangah that he had scratched and clawed his way firmly into the lower middle class. My grandparents were over the moon about the move, believing they had made it. (My father’s private medical practice had served Albany Park, my uncle was a cop there, and I would wind up representing the neighborhood in my first years in Congress. The joke in our family was that we had traveled many miles but we had never gotten very far.)
Every Sunday, with no exceptions or excuses tolerated, we all went to Big Bangah and Sophie’s for dinner on the third floor of a three-flat, where we were joined by my Aunt Shirley and her six kids and two of my uncles. These dinners were not sedate affairs. There was chaos everywhere, with kids running around and political arguments at the table that ended in shouting matches. There was no peace. There was no quiet. But we always entered the house as a family, and then, after all the battles and bickering, we left that same way, sent off with kisses from Sophie and a huge bear hug from Big Bangah. All to be repeated the following Sunday.
Big Bangah never explicitly told us what he expected from us in our lives, but it was implicit in everything he said and did, and we all heard it, loud and clear. And if we ever needed an actual physical reminder, all we had to do was look at a framed piece that hung on my parents’ family room wall. Within it was the purse that Sophie had had with her when she arrived in America. Sticking out of the purse were the immigration papers that she and her two sisters had had with them then. The most haunting aspect of the piece, though, was the black-and-white photos surrounding the purse — pictures of my mother’s and father’s families, of the aunts and uncles and cousins whom we never got to meet because they never got out of Eastern Europe and presumably succumbed to either the pogroms or, later, the Holocaust.
The contents of those photos mesmerized my brothers and me. The message conveyed by them — and by the life and deeds of our grandparents — was simple: We sacrificed and struggled and left behind family that we never saw again. That sacrifice will not be dismissed. You are going to work hard to get an education. How dare you get a B on your report card? You are going to make something of yourself.
Big Bangah and Sophie eventually moved into our home for a while, and we got to feel and witness this message in a closer and more powerful way. Though Big Bangah was retired by that time, he rose at 4:30 a.m. out of habit, to read newspapers and books at the kitchen table and continue his self-education, sitting there in a tank top, boxers, knee-high socks, and slippers. There was no ambiguity when it came to the meaning of his life. Big Bangah had worked his ass off in pursuit of his big dream: that his children and grandchildren would be provided with an education and the opportunities for better lives than he’d had.
We internalized his dream. There is a reason that Zeke is a leading oncologist and bioethicist and that Ari runs one of the most significant talent agencies in the world and that Shoshana has overcome her physical disabilities to lead a happy and productive life.
I took Big Bangah’s dream, sprinkled in my father’s work ethic and my mother’s activism and their shared desire to help those who were suffering and in need, and entered the world of politics.
Excerpted from “The Nation City” by Rahm Emanuel. Copyright © 2020 Rahm Emanuel. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.