NEW YORK — His family and friends called him “Tree.”
He loved doing crossword puzzles, watching “Jeopardy” and, after the age of 50, learning to play the piano and study Talmud.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a close family friend, recalled his risqué jokes and directness, including “occasional notes about my wardrobe choices.”
But most of all, in a grand, dignified “tribute celebration” to mark the shloshim, or 30-day mark, after the death of Edgar Bronfman, he was described lovingly by the former first lady and family members as a man of both regal bearing and genuine warmth who cared greatly about justice, honesty and doing the right thing.
Bronfman, the legendary businessman, philanthropist and activist Jewish communal leader on an international scale, died Dec. 21, 2013, at the age of 84.
More than 1,500 people, including a wide range of Jewish leaders, filled Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall Tuesday, Jan. 28, to mark the occasion and recall a man whom Rabbi Andy
Bachman, in a brief invocation, called a “fierce friend and advocate of the Jewish people” who “redeemed captives and revitalized youth,” referring to his championing the cause of Soviet Jewry and launching programs like the Bronfman Youth Fellowships and providing major support to Hillel, the Jewish campus group.
The hall was darkened and the large stage was bare except for four large photographs of Bronfman, a memorial candle, and a tree in the middle, no doubt to mark his family nickname as well as symbolize roots, blossoms and growth.
Samuel Bronfman II described his father as a man of strength who told him, on joining the Seagram’s board he led, that his son would have two voting choices: “Aye, or I resign.” But in the hourlong service’s most emotional moment, his voice choked in recalling his father’s bravery after Samuel was kidnapped 40 years ago. Warned by the authorities against giving in to the kidnappers’ demand that Bronfman himself deliver the ransom in person, he defied the police and readily agreed — an act, his son said, for which he would always be grateful.
In a video presentation, Bronfman, in interviews, spoke of the importance of Judaism in his life as a source for his pursuit of “justice and truth” and the value of a Jewish education “to know who you are.”
Jeremy Bronfman, one of Edgar’s 24 grandchildren, followed with reflections on his grandfather’s commitment to family. It was a complicated one — his father was married three times though only Jan Aronson, his third wife, to whom he was married the last 25 years, was mentioned publicly.
Dana Raucher, executive director of the Samuel Bronfman Foundation, recalled how she met Edgar when she was a 16-year-old Bronfman Youth Fellow and noted that more than a decade later he tapped her to head his foundation.
“He took young people seriously,” she said, “he believed anyone can change the world” and taught that “a philanthropist is someone who does, not just funds.”
Matthew Bronfman, one of Edgar’s seven children, spoke of his father as a Jewish leader, a man who cared less about being liked than being respected. As president of the World Jewish Congress, his son recalled, in 1985 his father chose to expose Kurt Waldheim’s past as a former Nazi officer even though the Austrian leader was running for president at the time. “For my father it was not a political issue, it was a moral issue, and he felt how dare he not do something?”
Matthew also spoke of accompanying his father to a key meeting in Moscow in 1990 with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to call for the release of Jews from the USSR. Despite the high stakes, Bronfman boldly interrupted a long monologue by the Soviet leader to bring up the issue of Soviet Jews — a move, his son said, that won him Gorbachev’s respect.
In a video presentation, Israeli President Shimon Peres said of Bronfman, “he came from the lions,” a “brave leader never reluctant to face the truth,” adding: “He was not afraid to argue with non-Jews, and with Jews as well.” Bronfman’s “real wealth,” he said, was not money but “service to his people.”
Hillary Clinton’s talk blended warm personal remembrances with praise for Bronfman’s direct style as “a champion for justice and human dignity.” She spoke of his commitment in the 1990s to gain financial restitution for thousands of survivors and their families by forging an agreement with Swiss banks to release Holocaust-era accounts. “He knew it would not be easy but that it was the right thing to do,” she said, “and that time was running out.”
Bronfman received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest U.S. honor for civilians, from President Clinton in 1999.
In closing remarks, son Edgar Bronfman Jr. said his father “died without regrets” and that he did not hunger for power but used it “for the betterment of mankind.”
“Thank you, Dad,” he said, “for the standards you set.”
The program began and ended with Rabbi Angela Warnick Buchdahl leading the audience in a Havdalah “niggun” (or melody without words) Bronfman loved. A fitting coda to a man who infused countless young people with a love for their Judaism.
(Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publisher of The New York Jewish Week, can be reached at Gary@jewishweek.org. This column previously appeared in the Week.)