The Giving Tree
By Wayne L. Firestone
When the iconic New York City’s Four Seasons Restaurant closed this summer, one participant attending the auction event likened it to a “shiva call.” Yet the discussions that I recall as a guest of one of the restaurants’ most loyal patrons – Edgar M. Bronfman, still linger like a vintage wine from his personal cellar:
“Do you think Judaism can survive if we only experience it in a synagogue?”
“How can [modern] Jews reject intermarriage and insult some of their own family members?”
“Why do we fault young people for wanting a better Israel?”
“Would your daughter attend a college where students felt excluded because of their race or religion?”
Indeed, the provocative questions Edgar probed over many meals and visits around the Jewish world, like “Why be Jewish?” – the title of his posthumously published book, launched inter-generational discussions that may well outlive the value and utility of the restaurant’s auctioned ice buckets and ash trays.
While Edgar’s impeccable taste ensured that any meal he hosted would be appetizing, his art for conversation – and delivery of a punch line – made them memorable. While sitting at his dining table over several years in our work and travels on behalf of Hillel International, I witnessed how Edgar eagerly solicited contrary views and not merely what you expected he wanted to hear. Through his incisive questioning, Edgar became most animated and intellectually engaged.
His questions formed the basis of several books including “Hope not Fear” – written in collaboration with a young writer Beth Zasloff. When the three of us appeared on a panel at the DCJCC book fair, Zasloff explained that she met Edgar as a teenager in one of his family foundation sponsored programs – the Bronfman Youth Fellowship in Israel – which boasts literary alumnae including some of today’s most provocative young writers (e.g., Jonathan Safran Foer, Anya Kamenetz, Dara Horn and Daniel Handler a.k.a. Lemony Snicket) as well as my oldest daughter Lital. In this and other philanthropic ventures he supported, Edgar targeted young gifted people, listened to them, invested in them and then reaped the benefits by kvelling for years to follow as their work and insights enriched readers of many ages and backgrounds around the world.
Edgar, like the Seagram building, was towering – to some, intimidating. His family members called him “tree.” For myself and others privileged by virtue of his philanthropic support to sit at his generous tables – in Manhattan, Jerusalem or Sun Valley, we might have borrowed from the Shel Silverstein classic and anointed him “The Giving Tree.” Meeting Edgar at the end of his life as business and philanthropic icon was like reading the Silverstein book from the end. My version started with the life of the octogenarian now bent over and not as towering, yet still offering wisdom with all that remained.
“Well, an old stump is good for sitting and resting. Come, Boy, sit down. Sit down and rest.”
But with Edgar, there was no “free lunch.”
My first official lunch with Edgar was a “litmus test.” That is how former Hillel President Richard Joel once described his crash course on dining etiquette when lunch is at the Four Seasons Restaurant and your lunch date is the former CEO of Seagram Corporation for which the skyscraper at 375 Park Avenue housing the restaurant was originally named.
“Edgar notices all of the details, which fork to use for the appetizer, which drink to order based on the entrée, whether your socks are matching,” Joel told me. Over seven years of lunches at that table, I was usually only certain about the matching color of my socks.
The maître d’ escorted us to Edgar’s reserved table and whispered in my ear that I should sit on Edgar’s right because, “he will hear you better on that side.” The maître d’ looked me over quizzically, but with a warm smile. He scanned me toe to head – my boyish long uncombed hair and off-the-rack suit. Like others whom he seated over the years, I was neither family nor nobility, and yet you would not know it based on Edgar’s interest and attentiveness to his guest regardless of age or title.
Over lamb stew or grilled branzino (based on the seasonally adjusted menu), Edgar shared nostalgic stories about his father starting an alcohol business during prohibition, his college years at Williams, and more than a few “war stories” about negotiating with Swiss officials for the return of property confiscated by the Nazis, arguing with Soviet officials for the release of Jews, and several business trips selling vodka to people who didn’t drink vodka as well as those like the Russians who do.
“I once told a Vatican official, I do not want to be tolerated as a Jew,” he said more than once. “I want to be respected.” It was obvious that his recommendations and some of his observations were the product of great taste and fortune. Others, I would learn, were the result of wisdom gained from loss or misfortune.
Although he had his own strong opinions, he valued true discourse and disagreement if it represented an exchange of ideas. He shared in many settings with students we visited together that he grew up without a strong Jewish education and only later as an adult discovered the value of intense study, delving into Talmud in a weekly study group and learning how to listen to multiple perspectives on a single line of text or verse.
“The subjects of our [Talmudic] study may seem arcane,” he wrote. “[However,] we invariably find ourselves addressing key topics…” How do we treat the outsider? How do we balance the needs of our own people with a larger commitment to human rights? How do we negotiate respect for tradition while adapting to a changing world? How should we mourn and how should we celebrate?”
Edgar’s Memorial Service held at Lincoln Hall in January 2014 boasted many moving tributes from family members and dignitaries, including Hilary Clinton – who alluded to one of his off-color jokes: “I remember the joke well, I just can’t repeat it,” she added, confirming to the audience that the rumored anecdote was real. Earlier in the evening his son Matthew shared one of those jokes. Commenting on his father’s multiple marriages and large extended family he quoted Edgar’s patriarchal confession: “I can remember the names of all the grandchildren; it’s their mothers’ names I have a hard time with.”
At the memorial, we also heard the powerful testimony of his first son Sam who had been abducted and held for ransom in 1975. Over the objections of the FBI, Edgar insisted on delivering in person the $2.4 million in ransom and securing the safe release of his son.
“Come, Boy, come and climb up my trunk and swing from my branches and eat apples and play in my shade and be happy.”
When Edgar’s life was captured in a vignette in the off-Broadway Musical Stars of David at the Roth Theatre in 2014, it was aptly entitled “LDor V’Dor” – from generation to generation. It invokes a conversation between Edgar and one of his granddaughters at the seashore and concludes with both a lesson and a prayer:
“Enrich a life, Enrich a world, and then you’ll know what your role is for. L’dor v’dor, L’dor v’dor.”
Wayne Firestone is CEO of the International Lifeline Fund and Executive Innovator in Residence at the Kogod School of Business at American University.