Edgar Bronfman, Prince of the Jews
(JTA) — In the coming days, many eulogies will attempt to capture the magnitude of the loss suffered this week by the Jewish community. Really, though, all you need are eight words: Edgar Bronfman was a prince of his people.
There are other machers who devote much of their time and money to Jewish causes. But none of them boast the same combination of lineage, intrigue, eccentricity, wonder, grandness and love for Judaism and the Jews.
By birth, he was the son of Samuel Bronfman, chairman of Seagram Ltd. and president of the Canadian Jewish Congress, making him the scion of a family renown both for its beverage empire and its tradition of Jewish leadership. And on both counts it showed: He was never quite like the other boys, never quite like the other billionaires.
The differences were on display the first time I met him, at a conference in Chicago in 2000 dedicated to making synagogues more meaningful and attractive. He shared the stage with two other mega philanthropists, financier Michael Steinhardt and oil and gas magnate Charles Schusterman.
Steinhardt berated the Reform and Conservative rabbis in the audience, sounding very much like a Wall Street guy who made enough cash not to suffer fools lightly. But he was balanced by Schusterman, who was more humble and modest than most of the rabbis getting the Steinhardt treatment – not surprising for a self-made man who, though he literally struck it rich, never thought of himself as too big for Tulsa.
And then there was Edgar. He talked about how holding the end-of-Shabbat Havdalah ceremony on Saturday night didn’t feel right to him in the middle of his ski weekends, so he started doing it on Sunday night. High Holidays services were boring, so he started putting together his own in his East Side apartment building. Then mid-session, without comment, he stood up, left the stage and exited the room. When he returned a few minutes later, he let us know – with his particular brand of self-assuredness – that it was just a case of a man’s got to go when a man’s got to go.
In those moments, I saw the silver spoon side of Edgar and had little trouble comprehending his tabloid-rich family history or his roller-coaster business record. It also wasn’t hard to see how two other traits – his occasionally vulgar rebuke of political opponents and his reliance on and loyalty to a cadre of lieutenants – helped fuel the controversy and dysfunction that would bring an end to his otherwise storied tenure as the president of the World Jewish Congress.
But in between, and in the years since his stepping down as WJC president, what became clear was that his immeasurable contributions to the Jewish people far outweighed the bumps and were byproducts of the same set of life experiences and character traits.
Edgar’s memory is already a blessing, and will be for decades to come, because he chased big ideas and remained true to himself in a way that few of us could afford to be.
He lived large but was no dilettante, neither in his defense of Jewish rights around the world or his determination to connect young Jews to their heritage. He was passionate about studying Jewish texts and hearing what the policy experts had to say, but at the same time never hesitated to speak out against tradition or convention.
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.