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.