Edgar Bronfman, Prince of the Jews

Appreciation

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By Ami Eden

Published December 23, 2013.
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Occasionally I would get a call that Edgar wanted to get together. Almost always the agenda was simply to talk about the state of things in the Jewish world. He asked as much as he answered, talked as much as he listened.

There were other journalists, academics and rabbis with whom he spoke far more often. From time to time he would put us all in a room – when we were really lucky, at a resort in Park City, Utah – and it was the same as our lunches. Sure, he had his two cents, but he was there to learn, to be excited by new ideas.

He would tell you what he thought, however crazy, but he always wanted to know what other people were thinking, however crazy. And in the diversity of bios and backgrounds of the people in those larger get-togethers, you could see the passion and concern he had for Jews of various stripes from around the world.

In politics, he was an increasingly rare combination – an unabashedly outspoken liberal with a nearly unparalleled track record of sticking up for the Jews.

You can find plenty of wealthy liberals ready to make the case for electing a Democratic president in the United States or dismantling settlements in the West Bank. But how many of them also can boast of having played a lead role in exposing Kurt Waldheim’s Nazi past? Or fighting for the freedom of Soviet Jews? Or pushing for the repeal of the U.N. resolution equating Zionism with racism? Or battling the Swiss banks on behalf of Holocaust victims?

“In terms of defending Jews, I’m a Jew,” Bronfman said. “And I was in a position to do so, so I did so.”

Unlike many liberals, Edgar was increasingly, deeply curious about Judaism itself.

“As I was growing up, my knowledge of Judaism was limited to lessons for my bar mitzvah and attendance at a junior congregation that I found dull and pointless, especially since I knew my father did not attend synagogue on Saturdays – he went to the office instead,” Bronfman wrote in his 2008 book, “Hope, Not Fear.”

Not surprisingly, as an adult he avoided Jewish practice, privately raising his children in a home mostly devoid of Jewish life even as he publicly dove into Jewish activism. Over time, that involvement led to a religious awakening of sorts.

“Starting in my sixties, I began to make changes in my life,” Bronfman wrote. “I lit Shabbat candles with my wife every Friday night. I stopped eating pork and shellfish to assert my Jewish identity. I became a proud Jew, in my home and my heart.”

Edgar felt it was time for Jewish organizations and Jewish leaders to let go of fear as a selling point. He also believed ordinary folks needed to take an active role in reclaiming their heritage, to make personal commitments to Jewish religious observance and text study.

In the end, Edgar’s view of the Jewish tradition could serve as a metaphor for his own legacy – he was not without flaws, but he was grand, provocative, tirelessly generous and devoted. Most important, he was ours.

Goodnight, sweet prince.


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