The Jewish community lost a towering figure with the December 19 death, at age 88, of Maynard Wishner. From his early years as a child prodigy in Chicago’s Yiddish Theater to his later years as president of several prominent national Jewish organizations, including the American Jewish Committee, the Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, and the umbrella group now known as the Jewish Federations of North America, Wishner brought with him special talents, warmth, vision and leadership.
Wishner was an attorney, and a business and civic leader, but his heart never left the Yiddish theater. Even in his later years, he could recite from memory in Yiddish all four stanzas of the poet Hayim Nachman Bialik’s great *al ha’shkhitah . * (“On the Slaughter”).
As fellow AJC officers, we traveled together to Israel and Rome in the mid-1980s. On that trip, I remember sitting down for lunch with young soldiers in Israel’s Negev desert, and Wishner, not knowing Hebrew, lapsed into Yiddish. It might just as well have been Chinese for these young Israelis, who did not understand a word of the mamalushin, or recognize it as the former language of the Jewish people. A few days later, I sat trembling in a Vatican meeting with Pope John Paul II, fearing that any minute Wishner would test the Polish-born pontiff’s knowledge of Yiddish. To my great relief, and probably the pope’s, he restrained himself
Wishner brought Yiddishkeit to the AJC, were he served as national president from 1980 to 1983. He also brought menshlekhkeyt to the organization. He led AJC’s interreligious and interfaith affairs, establishing particularly close ties to the Polish-American community in his native Chicago, and the Greek-American community throughout the United States. He led a delegation of Greek-American leaders on their first visit to Israel, and was honored by receiving the Coordinated Effort of Hellenes’ Frizis Award for fostering closer relations between the two ethnic communities and between Greece and Israel.
The menshlekhkeyt side of him was always present. For example, he refused to move ahead of a colleague when it was suggested that he be elected AJC president; he preferred to wait his turn.
But Wishner was never a pushover when it came to matters of importance for the Jewish community. He was a staunch civil rights advocate — he headed the Chicago mayor’s Commission on Human Relations — but in the 1970s he was adamant that the American Nazi Party not be allowed to march in Skokie, Ill. home to thousands of Holocaust survivors.
When told by the chief of staff to Menachem Begin that the prime minister’s schedule would not permit a meeting with AJC leaders during a 1981 trip to Israel, he immediately replied that the group had just met with Egypt’s new President, Hosni Mubarak, in Cairo and would not understand a last-minute cancellation of the meeting with Israel’s Prime Minister. Begin agreed to meet.
Perhaps Wishner’s finest moment came during the Washington March for Soviet Jewry in 1987. Upon his arrival in Washington, Mikhail Gorbachev, was greeted by a throng of 250,000 with signs proclaiming, “Let my people go.” There was Maynard in front leading the marchers. A few years later in a private meeting with Gorbachev, Wishner asked him about his visit to Washington. Gorbachev confided to Wishner how moved he was by what he saw and heard that day. The rest is history.
Alfred Moses, a former American Ambassador to Romania, is the honorary president of the American Jewish Committee, and the chairman of the International Council of Beit Hatfutsot: The Museum of the Jewish People.