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Sen. Arlen Specter brings life’s tale to Forest Hills

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Specter gave a lively 25-minute talk that segued into a book signing at Congregation Machane Chodosh on 108th Street in Forest Hills last week, starting with his parents' emigration from czarist Russia in the early years of the 20th century."The czar wanted to send young Jewish men to Siberia. He thought they were troublemakers," Specter told the audience. "My father didn't want to go to Siberia - he heard it was cold. So instead he chose Kansas."Specter, 78, grew up in Wichita, Kan., but when his sister reached an age where her marriage prospects were up for discussion and the future senator was the only Jewish boy in town, their parents pulled up stakes and moved to Philadelphia, he said. There his sister found a suitable Jewish beau. As for the future politician, he attended the University of Pennsylvania, and after three years at Yale Law School returned to Philadelphia and began a law career. He later served as district attorney from 1965-73 before being elected to the U.S. Senate in 1980.The senator peppered his talk with anecdotes that led to cliffhanger pauses that he followed with the sales pitch, "and if you want to know the rest, it's $24.95." He obviously learned the tactic of giving customers just enough to entice before reeling them in for the sale.Specter had survived two brain tumors and a double bypass operation before being diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma, a cancer of the immune system, more than 20 years into his career as senator and shortly after he had been tapped to chair the Judiciary Committee."You have the most liberal and the most conservative [Congress members]. It's tough to chair that committee," he said. His cancer treatment began in 2005 as the committee was entering confirmation hearings for John Roberts, who was named chief justice of the Supreme Court in September of that year."It left me bald, it left me thin, it left me pale," he said, holding up a photo of himself with President George Bush in July 2005 in which Specter is nearly unrecognizable."The president's body language is none too friendly. He's wondering, 'Is he going to make it? Is it contagious?' " Specter said. "If you've got cancer, people sort of shun you."Specter said his father was a World War I veteran who had been denied a $500 bonus the government had promised them. Some 20,000 men in the same position marched on Washington, D.C., in 1932 and set up a tent city, vowing to stay until former President Herbert Hoover gave them their pensions. They became known as the "Bonus Army.""President Hoover called in the Army and they fired on the veterans. That inspired me to go to Washington to get my father's bonus," Specter said. "I was 2 years old. I still don't have my father's bonus, so I'm running for re-election."Reach reporter Alex Christodoulides by e-mail at achristodoulides@timesledger.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 155.

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