Petaluman Al Hirshen has lived an ‘extraordinary’ life

Alvin Hirshen, a lively storyteller with a stellar past fighting injustice as a lawyer from the earliest days of the equal rights movement and traveling the world both professionally and recreationally, will introduce himself to the local community through his memoir, “The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man.” The official launch will be hosted at the Della Fattoria restaurant in Petaluma on Wednesday, Oct. 16, from 6-8 p.m.

A first-generation American Jew born to parents who emigrated from Kiev to the Bronx, Hirshen made the most of a public education (City College of New York) and further study at the University of Chicago Law School, and ended up working and living in Muslim and Arab countries, lecturing at Oxford, and, importantly, learning lessons about mankind, bigotry and racism.

He worked in some of the most important programs the country ever formed to combat inequality: President Johnson’s Anti-Poverty Legal Services Program, the National Housing Law Project (eventually leading it as its director), National Tenants Organization, Housing Assistance Council, Office of Community Investment, and USAID. In addition, he worked in India, Albania and Indonesia. He traveled to Morocco and built a home on Bali, and in addition to all of this, he survived alcoholism.

Hirshen, born and raised a Jew, goes into detail in his book about the religion and customs of Indonesian life in particular.

Hirshen’s contribution to our understanding not only of how governments and businesses work together, but also how individuals contribute, based on their own personal backgrounds, experiences, moral compasses and loyalties, is vast. He recounts playing tennis at Hampton Court and having dinner at the House of Lords, through folks he met at law school and elsewhere, but also presents his tireless work representing the oppressed and the poor with a Superman-like humility, marveling at humankind’s endless capacity for racism and discrimination, but also for collaboration and bravery against all odds.

Hirshen speaks openly and honestly, sharing his experiences as if they were common, but always retaining a sense of wonder at the world and hope for humankind. He recently sat for an interview at his Petaluma home. Following are some excerpts from the conversation:

Q: Was there a lot of optimism when you first started working in the civil rights division of the Justice Department in 1965?

A: Yeah, everybody thought you could do something about it, sure. The more systemic and not so visual problems are much harder to deal with, whether it be housing discrimination or school desegregation. And the incidence of violence against minorities went way down. And the civil rights movement was part of the reduction of violence and helped create a black middle class; there was no black middle class to speak of. You can see how that changes things. It changes the whole dynamic. You see that working best in D.C. Because with two federal salaries you can do all right.

Q: You mentioned your friend Oliver, who’s African American, and with whom you journeyed across America and in Wyoming in 1961, spending a night together in jail on purpose because no hotels or motels would allow him to stay with you. How’s he doing now, and do you ever talk about the continuing shooting of unarmed black men?

A: I see Oliver every few years. He’s the American dream: a professor of Intellectual European History at Wesleyen. He has three kids, two girls (twins), one’s a lawyer. His son is in school. He went to Choate. I sent him an article, and … he got into how it was still happening, to his kids, so we did talk about that. It’s changed and it hasn’t; that’s the reality. The world’s not fair.

Q: You went under cover to work on discrimination cases for short haul drivers. What was your experience?

A: I didn’t feel in danger, unlike in the south, where they wanted to kill you at that time. My mother just had this whole thing, “get on with it.” That’s who I am. I got that from her.

Q: You found the people willing to talk to you to be quite brave?

A: Yes, there was a risk. The place I saw real bravery over and over again was in the south. One guy I went and visited, it was his fourth dynamiting. He was 60-something. Brave as could be. …. (But you also) can become the discriminator. The (white) sheriff who came up to me, I was a smart ass, thought he was racist, and he was just making sure I didn’t get hurt. All of it is in all of us. And then there’s what you do with it. And you see that as I wrote about in Indonesia. It’s so fragile. So you have things going on now that in just a second could be ignited. Whether Indonesia or Bosnia.

Q: What do you have to say about public education, then and now?

A: For people that don’t have money, the equalizer is education. The example I give is my driver in Indonesia. This kid was as smart as could be; he was a whiz. But he grew up in a village, in a rural area, and his parents had no money. So he went through grammar school, that was it. Now if they had a public system, with high school and college, he would’ve been a doctor or lawyer. Education is the ticket out of poverty or menial jobs. The whole deal if you look at everybody from my block, that whole generation, mine and my brother’s, that’s what changed America. All those people could get an education.

Q: So does it prove that if you give people a good grounding and education, they can move up?

A: We know it’s stupid to say all the poor are stupid. Humanity exists among the rich, the middle class, and the poor. There’s a range. If you give people an opportunity and have not marginalized them so much that you kill their ambition, they’ll take advantage of it, so yeah, you can see that everywhere.

Q: Please talk more about how to have realistic goals, and optimism, and pessimism. How do you keep your eye on the prize, day to day?

A: It’s hard to stay positive. I wrote about when I was in the Carter administration and I called up my friend in the White House and said, “this one we can do something about.” It was about this presidential scholarship to medical school if the recipients worked on a reservation and did other things. That one you know you did good.

For information about Hirshen and his launch and other events, visit:

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