22 December 2013

Fierce Friend: Edgar M. Bronfman 1929-2013

A warm rain is appropriate for this gray December day, as I sit down to write and mourn the loss of a friend.  Edgar Bronfman died last night, at the physical age of 84 but forever young, as they say, surrounded by his family.  Until he drew his last breath, he kept making jokes, the mind sharp, the soul strong.

He was a strong man.  Powerful.  Determined that his wealth and wit would make a difference in the world.  He commanded the attention of governments and business leaders; fought valiantly and successfully for Holocaust victims, Soviet Jewry, restitution from Swiss banks, exposed Austrian leader Kurt Waldheim's Nazi past and represented a proud Jewish power for a post-Holocaust generation that was still very much in the process of being regenerated.

Edgar's wading into the past was his way of taking the still damp clay of history and forming into a present condition of Jewish life that was predicated, as he like to say, "on hope, not fear."

His laughter and disarming, ribald humor; his joyful generosity; his steely realism and unparalleled support of youthful innovation in Jewish life; his constitutional inability to do anything other than tell the truth as he saw it; his love of learning--Torah, Talmud, philosophy, music, and art with his beloved Jan--which kept his mind open to the endless well of Jewish civilization's greatest ideas; his pride in family, his children, and grandchildren:  all these and more still don't adequately approximate the measure of the man.

From Seagrams to the World Jewish Congress; from the Bronfman Youth Fellowships to Hillel to Birthright and everything in between (including Brooklyn Jews and then our work at CBE), Edgar made the most brilliant and generous of calculations in the last chapters of his life--to stand at the front of world Jewish leadership and boldly insist that so soon after the destructions and dislocations of the first half of the twentieth century, Jews had the opportunity to be renew our tradition, to celebrate the plurality of Jewish belief and expression, to proudly assert our ethical and moral mandate to be a light unto the nations, and to live life with joy and meaning.

Whether he spoke to the most powerful heads of state or a 17 year old Bronfman Youth Fellow stammering in awe of a legend, his message was always the same and delivered with the confident smile of a man who knew he was right.  The Jewish people have an obligation to spread hope and justice throughout the world.  As he wrote in his autobiography, The Making of a Jew, "Let us get to work, for there is much to be done."

Since 1998, when I became the Executive Director of the Edgar M. Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life at NYU, Edgar and I became friends.  It was explained to me by my boss, Naomi Levine, that if Edgar and Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg liked me, I would get to keep the job.  Weekly I'd show up at Arthur's office at NYU with a tuna sandwich and be tutored in his uniquely brilliant methodology of speaking truth to power (not infrequently tempered by the adage, "do as I say, not as I do!")

Edgar's sessions were more infrequent.  They were lunch at the Four Seasons, a New York power matrix, the dining room of the King of the Jews; and, especially in the last decade, Torah study, where teachers were asked to present texts and ideas to Edgar and the staff at the Samuel Bronfman Foundation.  These were moments of Jewish animation, the likes of which I will never forget.  Ancient Jewish stories would regularly ignite in Edgar the raging fires for justice, memory, pride and joy in being Jewish.  Torah study would trigger remembrances of political encounters; battles won and lost; and deep, spontaneous reflections on the choices one makes over the course of nearly 9 decades on Earth.  Remarkably, each session would end on a high note, a lingering laugh, and then Edgar would excuse himself to get home for Chili Night.

"Give my love to Rachel," he'd say with a glimmer in his eye, pronouncing my wife's Hebrew name.

That spark was his animated Jewish being, a stubborn rationalist's knowledge that one word in Hebrew can signify a prideful claim to Patrimony.  This was his later-in-life discovery about the centrality of Jewishness to the story of who he was that he felt, in turn, obligated to help young people discover themselves to also become.

I had the privilege of getting to know Edgar during the last chapter of his life, loosening his tie, as it were, on a lifetime that was using power and philanthropy for Jewish renewal.  On one such occasion, his first visit to NYU in 1998, we had the Bronfman Center shining bright, food arrayed for a reception in his honor, and every last detail of protocol ready for the entrance of a king.  Suddenly word came through that Edgar hated the color yellow and that if we didn't want heads to roll, we better do one last look over the room.  Sure enough, there on the vegetable platter were sliced yellow peppers--gone; on the fruit platter, offending sliced pineapple--gone.

Staff breathed a sigh of relief as Edgar's car pulled up and he walked into the room wearing the brightest yellow tie I've ever seen in my life.  It was radiant, like the sun.

But nothing like the smile on his face being among young people, from every walk of Jewish life imaginable, fulfilling the promise he had made to himself, to live a joyful present with a commitment to a hopeful future.

In September, the last time we studied together, Edgar shared some thoughts about his grandfather Yehiel, whom he never met but for whom he was named in Hebrew.  A proud non-believer, Edgar wrestled with the notion that the very person whom he never knew, whose name means, "God lives," inspired him perhaps more than any other, prompted Edgar to say after that study session, "For me, being named after my brave grandfather was enough to influence me to love my Jewish heritage, and want to begin a renaissance of Jewish life."

Thank you Edgar for the strength, the generosity, and the laughter you gave us.

Your life and your soul will be forever a source of inspiration to our people.

And may your family be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.






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