My first meeting with Edgar was not what you’d call auspicious. I was 17 and had just, mysteriously, been selected for Edgar’s newest philanthropic venture, the Bronfman Youth Fellowship in Israel.
This was a mystery because I was a very sheepish and reluctant Jew — as Edgar himself had been at that age — and was confused about why I’d even been included. At a welcoming reception that summer of 1988, Edgar asked me in his Winnipeg/Montreal/somehow-Boston brogue about a baseball team I knew nothing about; I stammered a sheepish response.
Yet Edgar would go on to become a great patron of mine, shaping my life in ways even he probably wouldn’t have anticipated. A few years later, the fellowship led (again mysteriously — I wasn’t qualified) to a job at another Bronfman venture, UN Watch, which launched my career as an Israel-obsessed journalist with a growing fascination with Judaism. More job offers — always mysterious — would issue from the Seagrams Building, Edgar corporate headquarters in Manhattan, over the years (to assist with a book, to work with his philanthropy). Perhaps foolishly, I turned those down. But these encounters led to others, including an irregular series of lunches for two at the Four Seasons. At each, my patron, in his deceptively simple way, would ask deceptively hard questions about what I was doing and thinking — questions that pushed me to learn more, work harder, dig deeper.
Twenty-five years later, the sheepishness, at least, is finally gone, and even the reluctance has faded. I have a career, an intellectual life, and a Jewish home that I owe, in no small part, to that other once-reluctant Jew’s generosity and encouragement.
And I have a wistful sense that I never properly expressed my gratitude for all those gentle nudges — and for the man they helped me become. Which makes me feel a little sheepish.
Jonathan Tepperman is managing editor of Foreign Affairs, a publication of the Council on Foreign Relations.
I Never Said Thanks to Edgar Bronfman