Remembering Leon Charney — A Mensch For All Seasons
Leon Charney — lawyer, real estate giant, author, TV host, philanthropist and more who died at 77 on March 21st — had been a special friend to my family. I first met him in the 1980’s and through the 1990’s at the Catskills’ crown jewel The Concord, where he was the resort’s attorney and self-appointed “greeter” who made sure my husband Joe and I met the week’s “Who’s Who” guests and celebrity roster “for your Forward column.”
Author of “Special Counsel” (1984) a behind-the-scenes memoir of the Camp David Accord proceedings and advisor to president Jimmy Carter, Charney would hark back to his days as a theatrical lawyer when he escorted Sammy Davis Jr. to Israel. “’Baby, I’m in my homeland’ said Davis.’ “I corrected him: ‘Sammy, this is Israel, not Uganda.’” Davis’ comeback: ‘I was converted!’”
Not one to sit by silently, among Charney’s many “wins” was the rescue of the Maccabiah Games in 2001. Back from a four-week stay in Israel, during our Concord chat Charney recalled: “During a conference call with the 35-members of the American Maccabiah Committee I made on behalf of [then] Israel’s minister of culture, arts and sports, I told them three things: ‘One: If America did not come they would be shooting a mortar into the heart of Israel. Two: They would be crowning [Yassar] Arafat as victor of Israel, Three: [it] would give support to the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe and indirect support to Arafat’s system of terrorism. No matter what—there can be no postponement. The American flag must be raised at the Maccabiah!’ Two hours after the conference call, they said they were coming. Then the Brits and the Australians came.”
At the December 12, 2007 Foundation for Ethnic Understanding Benefit honoree Charney said: “There is no such thing as a ‘good book’. We all have a good book—the Bible, the Quran, the Old Testament. I abhor the [word] tolerance—it is condescending.” That evening’s surprise guests were two young men who had made international headlines. One was Hassan Askari a 20-year old Bangladeshi Muslim, then living in Brooklyn who five days earlier came to the aid of 23-year old Walter Adler of Brighton Beach and his girlfriend — both Jewish — who were assaulted on a subway by a trio of men shouting Anti-Semitic slurs. Akari’s courageous response to a hate crime was in contrast to the other passengers who sat with—as they say in Yiddish “farleygte hent”—folded arms.
I recall Charney’s quick-witted quip as dinner chair at the December 8, 2005 American Friends of Tel Aviv’s Reuth’s Medical and Rehabilitation Dinner: “My mission tonight is to save you from becoming POJD’s—prisoners of Jewish dinners.”
Charney’s timeless gift to people of all faiths, will be his 2006 opus “The Mystery of the Kaddish: Its Profound Influence on Judaism” written with Saul Mayzlish (Barricade Books). “Why Kaddish”? I asked Charney. “When my mother died, I was confronted by the issue of having to say Kaddish and obligated myself for 11 months —three times a day. I was curious as to the prayer’s authorship. Thus began an exploration that “chanced on the transcultural and German ritual elements in Kaddish!”
When on June 26, 2006 I read the NY Times’ obit for publisher Lyle Stuart, I immediately called Charney whose book “The Charney Report: Confronting the Israel Arab Conflict” had been published in 2001 by Stuart’s company Barricade Books. My husband Joe and I often met Stuart at the annual American Booksellers Association Conventions as well as with Charney when he exhibited his book.
Charney was distraught. “On Friday [June 23] I had lunch with Lyle to deliver the final manuscript of “The Mystery of Kaddish” I had worked on for three years. We were planning a book party. It is ironic that Lyle—an atheist—would publish a book on Kaddish. His wife Carole, asked me how does the prayer go and I sang it cantorially. Lyle died that night!” lamented Charney.
The last time I saw Leon Charney and his beautiful devoted wife Tzili was at the December 2015, Beit Hatfutzot Dinner at Cipriani 42nd St. How I will miss this dear friend.