Jewish Journal

My Role Model’s Gone

by Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin

August 19, 2014 | 5:27 am

If you are reading this blog, it is because of Leonard Fein. 

Leonard, known to everyone as Leibel, died this past week at the age of eighty. He was a writer, sociologist, educator, founder (with Elie Wiesel) and editor of Moment magazine, a social activist who founded MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger and who gave his later years to a fevered fight for American literacy, a pundit – and one might say, the consummate Jewish public intellectual. He made me want to be a Jewish writer  – someone who would put the written word (not to mention the spoken word) at the very center of my rabbinical calling, and at the very seat of my soul.

Leibel was not the first editor to publish my work. That was Professor Eugene Borowitz, who recently turned ninety. He published my remonstrations about how the Left had turned against Israel in the wake of the Yom Kippur War. That was in Sh'ma, and it was (gulp) 1974, when I was a young college student. (Good news and bad news. The good news: I recently re-read that piece, and it is still relevant. The bad news: I recently re-read that piece, and it is still relevant).

But it was Leibel who published my first full-length essays in Moment magazine. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, I cherished, loved, devoured, and waited around the mailbox for each issue of Moment. Each issue was a masterpiece, featuring work from the best and the brightest Jews in the world. Leibel had named Moment magazine after a now-tragically defunct Jewish journal that had existed, pre-Shoah, in Warsaw.

I wrote about the film “Chariots of Fire” (along with my dear friend, Robert Levine, who died far too young), and then, some years later, “Shylock in Drag?”, a realization-in-print that JAP jokes were simply a form of kosher misogyny and thinly veiled anti-Semitism to boot; if the only American princesses that we laugh at are Jewish, we got a problem. Leibel published my work, and in so doing, he encouraged me to write more and to further develop my voice. 

I became a Fein-phile. I would hear him speak wherever and whenever I could. I would welcome him to lecture at my congregation. We would see each other at conferences and have long conversations about the important issues of the day. Last time I saw him was two years ago at his home in Boston. He was already somewhat ailing, but he was perfectly capable of telling me, in no uncertain terms, that my evaluation of a recent work by Walt and Mearsheimer was ill-founded. He thought that they had a good point. I didn’t.  Oh, well. When you were with Leibel, you didn’t mind being “wrong.” The conversations were always so much fun that it didn’t matter.

Leibel was a vanishing breed of Jewish liberal. I loved his liberalism because I shared most of it, and because it was of an older, perhaps more venerable variety – the Old Left. He loved to tell the story of his father, who was a great Jewish educator, who went to Philadelphia just to go to Independence Hall, and just to see the Liberty Bell – and to be more precise, just to see the crack in the Liberty Bell. He taught his son that his job was to try to mend that crack – which was precisely what he went on to do.

But the Jewish stuff -- that was why I loved him. Leibel Fein was the first person to puncture a hole in the whole Jewish survival bit, and to ask the crucial question (which I once turned into a “party game” at a synagogue board meeting): Complete the following sentence – “The Jewish people should survive so that _____________.”

Leibel cut away all of the verbal and ideological “fat” that surrounded the possible answers. None of those answers, or at least the most common and typical answers, were good enough – certainly not each one in and of itself. To remember the Shoah? The state of Israel? Jewish culture? Pure nostalgia?

No. Leibel taught that those answers, or those answers alone, were not enough. No, you could not build a religion around merely remembering the Shoah; it was too morbid. No, you could not build a religion around merely the State of Israel; it let other Jews do your Jewish stuff for you. (Note: Leibel was not terribly interested in vicarious Judaism. Neither dead Jews nor Jews on the other side of the world could carry the burden of Jewish identity).

Leibel resolutely believed that it was not Jewish interests that needed protecting; it was Jewish values. And what were those values? The marriage of universalism and particularism; a commitment to Jewish literacy, competence and meaning; asking questions that pointed to the beginning of a spiritual search; and the (now ubiquitous) notion of tikkun olam. Read his vastly underappreciated Where Are We? The Inner Life of American Jews and marvel at how damn well he put it all together. When it came to knocking nouns against verbs and getting them to sing, there was no one like Leibel. To be in his presence and to learn from him: who else but Leibel could pull out an old tape of the original version of "If I Were A Rich Man" and show that it had contained a reference to giving tzedakah -- and then bemoan the teetering fate of that Jewish value? 

And, lest you walk away with the impression that Leibel was a tough, intellectually and morally demanding Jewish curmudgeon (which he could be), you needed to see his soft, vulnerable side. Which is precisely what we all saw when he losthis beloved daughter, Nomi, and put his sorrow into a memoir –Against the Dying of the Light: A Father’s Journey Through Loss. http://www.jewishlights.com/page/product/978-1-58023-197-8 With utter dignity and a total lack of bathos, Leibel ripped open his kitschkes, and described his tears, and coined a phrase that has always been with me, a phrase to describe Nomi’s untimely death – “a presence of an absence.”

That’s how I feel about Leibel now – the presence of an absence. Never again will we read his ruminations in the Forward or elsewhere; hear his tough though affectionate tones and words from a podium; allow ourselves to be jarringly unsettled and challenged by his wisdom. Don't take my word for it. Read his collected short works: http://bjpa.org/Publications/results.cfm?Authored=Leonard-Fein&AuthorID=412 You might not agree with everything that he said, but he said it so well. 

Paul Simon once sang: "Who'll be my role model, now that my role model's gone?"

That's how I feel right now. We needed Leibel Fein, and we still do. 

The only question is: In a world where Jewish public intellectuals are in short supply, who will take his place?

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Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is one of America’s most prolific and most-quoted rabbis, whose colleagues have called him an “activist for Jewish ideas.” An award-winning writer...

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