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Jewish Journal

Two Men

November 18, 1999 | 7:00 pm

There are two men in town this week -- our century, at least the second half of it, stamped indelibly on them. Or, perhaps more accurately, it is they who have placed their stamp on our history. The men? Elie Wiesel and Bob Moses. They could not be more different.

Elie Wiesel has come to Los Angeles as part of a book tour for his new work, "And the Sea Is Never Full," the second and final volume of his memoirs. It begins in 1969, on the eve of his marriage at age 40 to his wife Marian, and takes us through most of the high moments of the past three decades, concluding with the sad lessons of Kosovo. Wiesel appears to have known everyone, presidents and prime ministers, generals and scholars, and to have borne witness to the present as well as the past.

"I am afraid of forgetting," he tells us. And indeed his life's mission (he is now 70) has been to keep alive the memory of those who died in the Holocaust. The camps are where he lost his childhood; where his parents, his younger sister, relatives and others suffered degradation and pain, and finally perished. He has been their spokesman, and our conscience ever since.

Wiesel clearly felt impelled to embrace the public role, to give it dominance in his life; perhaps he had no choice. It is almost as though he were selected to be the voice of those whose voices had been stilled. But it should be added that the public life suits him. His deep, inquiring learned mind; his passion and integrity; his intensity -- these all have cast him in the role of celebrity. No accident that he has been witness to the events that have defined our age -- the one who comments on the latest outrage, the abuse of human rights, the murder by a state of its citizens. And of course, no wonder that in 1986 he was awarded the Nobel Prize.

Bob Moses, perhaps not surprisingly, came into town almost unnoticed. No press conferences; no interviews; not a ripple on the media horizon. Most of the readers of The Jewish Journal have probably never heard of him.

First of all, he is a black man, not Jewish, and a mathematics teacher. But in the mid-1960s, he was the head of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the leader of the voter registration drive in the South, including the famous Mississippi Freedom Summer Project. It was this violent and bloody struggle, eventually successful, that helped turn around the civil rights movement in the South. And it was Moses, among others, who drew young college students (many of them Jewish) to Mississippi to help fight for the rights of black Americans.

Moses was bright, dedicated, undaunted. He did not work out of an office in Washington or New York, but put his body on the line along with those who made the overcoming of racial injustice their cause. It was not possible in those days to read Time and Newsweek and The New York Times without coming upon his name. He was The Movement's charismatic leader.

And then, almost at his high point, still a young man, he announced that he was changing his name: That the civil rights movement was larger than one public figure. Implied was the sense that the white media was making him a celebrity and this was a trap, at least for him. He believed that black people needed to become self-reliant; needed to have many leaders who assumed command and then fell back.

He disappeared from the front pages; after all, almost no one was aware of his name, and those who knew were not giving out information or interviews. And after the voter drive, he disappeared altogether. He went to Tanzania in East Africa for eight years, where he taught mathematics. When he returned to the U.S. he was awarded a MacArthur Foundation "genius" fellowship, a large grant of money for a period of five years.

With those funds he worked in Harlem as a volunteer math teacher; subsequently, he founded the Algebra Project which was designed to help both rural and inner-city youngsters gain some kind of mathematical literacy. That project still exists and has extended to more than 25 cities, one of which is Inglewood, California.

He was in Los Angeles this past week to receive an honorary degree from Occidental College and to be feted by the college and the Liberty Hill Foundation. It was, incidentally, the math department that initiated the invitation.

Two men; two lives; two paths. We are linked by them; we are in their debt.-- Gene Lichtenstein

Our staff correspondent Tom Tugend interviewed Elie Wiesel shortly after we went to press. His story will appear in one of our upcoming issues.


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