I feel a little like the widow but of course I am not. Leibel had two former wives and I was neither of them. But Leonard Fein and I had an enduring romance, the chastest of romances, and it lasted from the day I met him until last night when he died. We met — indeed I made it my business to meet him — soon after he published “Smashing Idols,” a ground breaking 1994 piece that had been commissioned by the Nathan Cummings Foundation to investigate the status of liberal Judaism. I was mesmerized. I was a new Jew (not the Israeli “New Jew” born into a rediscovered homeland, but really a new Jew, having converted shortly before). “Smashing Idols” argued that “Jewishness has been transformed from a condition to an option.” All Jews were Jews by choice. I was instantly legitimized. To me, he was the king of the Jews. I wanted to be the queen.
In all of these years, I don’t think I wrote or publicly uttered a word he had not edited if not written. I am not alone in that. So many people — far more influential than me — must confess to the same. He also gave me a crack at most of what he wrote. I especially relished critiquing his political columns about Israel, usually telling him not to be such a wussy middle-of-the-roader, which amused him enormously in light of the grief he so often took for being a lefty.
We went to Israel together a few times, one of those times (in 2012) also to Gaza, where, on our crossing back into Israel, he was strip-searched. He was already an elderly person using a walker and they literally took off all his clothes. Just before they started, the Israeli interrogator told me to come into the little room to take off “your husband’s pants.” I didn’t know whether to laugh or call a lawyer. I explained to the guard then as I am explaining now, “He’s not my husband!” Leibel loved telling that story, not so much for the bedroom farce as for the suggestion that he still had his edge: maybe he had been profiled because he looked like such a dangerous criminal!
He had so many good lines. One of my favorites was, “I don’t know if Sinai happened but I know I was there.” This man who had been to a thousand shuls all over the world said that B’nai Jeshurun in New York (where he would have been for Sabbath services on August 15) was the only shul he ever went to voluntarily.
He was blissful at his 80th birthday last month though, when I look back on it, it was a funeral in disguise. Scores of the people he loved most in the world were there canonizing him, including Sam Norich publisher of the Forward who read one of Leibel’s brave and beautiful columns from years ago which was as fresh and moving as it had been the day it was published. Leibel just loved that. But the praise that meant the most by far was his eldest granddaughter Liat, the child of Leibel’s own deceased daughter, Nomi, who spoke of how she loved her papa and how he had led her to love Judaism and justice. That is Leibel. He did that for multitudes. And that is not all. Another of his best lines was: “Sometimes you have to learn to rise above principle.”
He had dinner at my house the last night of his life, and, in brilliant company, he was in fine form. He brought two fancy bottles of wine, he ate and drank happily and talked with great cheer, holding forth on Gaza and Iraq. He stayed for a while after everyone else left to chat and dish. He asked me to marry him as he often did — it got to be a bit of a joke. He went home (to his time-share nearby) and didn’t make it to his room. He collapsed in the lobby and never regained consciousness.
In my life, I have lost a mother and a father and a brother and others but I have to say, God help me, this loss leaves me bereft. He was my news on the Rialto. We talked almost every day. He was the one to whom I took all of my questions about the situation in the Middle East and whether our Zionism has a chance or a future. It is he I wanted to call this morning to talk about last night’s party. I cannot imagine tomorrow without him.
Leonard Fein, My King of the Jews