We recently marked the shloshim, the end of the 30-day mourning period after the burial of Elie Wiesel. Since his death thousands of words have paid tribute to his singular impact on the world’s memory and to the moral authority that he, perhaps more than anyone in our time, commanded.
I deeply admired the public Elie Wiesel, the Nobel Peace Prize-winner and dedicated humanitarian who didn’t hesitate to speak truth to power. But I knew him also in a private mode as a friend who loved to exchange anecdotes, who encouraged me in my writing, and who adored my husband with whom he shared a chasidic background. When our daughter got married, Elie (as he liked to be called) and his wife Marion rushed to her wedding from a trip abroad so he could chant one of the sheva b’rachot (seven blessings) in his soft, melodic voice. When I was sitting shiva after my parents died, he paid condolence calls to my home, although he had never met either of them.
He was like that. He did acts of kindness for friends and others without calling attention to himself. His critics have accused him of being too theatrical, too much in the limelight. Those of us privileged to know him saw his modesty, his shy — sometimes ironic — smile, his pleasure in extending himself for someone else.
I was first introduced to him in the late 1970s by Gerson Cohen, then chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, and his wife Naomi. Elie studied every morning with the great Talmudic scholar Saul Lieberman, who taught at the seminary. Lieberman’s wife, Judith, had been my beloved teacher and principal of Shulamith School for Girls in Boro Park, which I attended as a child, and in part that connection triggered our friendship. Without being asked, Elie offered to write a comment for the book I was working on at the time. After reading the manuscript, he phoned me apologetically one morning to say he was on his way to the airport for a European meeting and did I mind if he dictated his quote to me, because he didn’t have time to send it to my publisher. Mind? I was bowled over.
I have since discovered that Elie always went out of his way for authors. The novelist Nessa Rapoport had met him at the Shabbat table of Rabbi Wolfe and Jackie Kelman, and through them he gave her an endorsement for “Preparing for Sabbath,” her first novel. “Elie was so good to me as a young Jewish writer who was just beginning,” she says. “He was already world renowned. You can imagine how thrilled I was by his generosity.” He identified with writers and journalists and regarded himself as one of them. He once told me that the minute he finishes one book, he immediately starts writing another, to keep the momentum going. Although the myriad obituaries about him emphasized the impact of his first, searing book, “Night,” in fact he wrote dozens of other works — novels, memoirs, stories, even a cantata. And he felt close to people in the publishing world. As novelist Gloria Goldreich put it, “He was generous to all those who labored in the field of literature.”
Altie Karper, editorial director of Schocken Books, remembers publishing the soft-cover version of the second volume of Elie’s memoirs, “And the Sea Is Never Full.” He had made corrections on the proof pages sent to him, and Altie was having trouble deciphering them. She phoned his assistant, who put her on hold for a moment, and then she heard Elie’s unmistakable accent. “You can’t read my handwriting?” he said, “I can’t read it either.” He invited Altie to his office to review the corrections together, then asked about her work and the books she was publishing as though he had all the time in the world.
Many of his books were published by Knopf (like Schocken, part of the Random House complex), and there, too, he was not a distant VIP, but a colleague. He had a fondness for a kind of plum the French call reine claude, his editor, Jonathan Segal, recalled. One afternoon, when Jonathan was in France, he phoned Elie just to say teasingly that he was eating a particularly succulent one of those plums, and sadly for Elie he wasn’t. Elie roared with laughter. “I cherish that memory,” Jonathan says. “I could sense how weighted down he was by the problems of the world, and it gave me great pleasure to make him laugh, to lighten his load.”
Yes, he carried the burdens of the world on his shoulders, but he wasn’t a saint, who lived apart from that world. He was a mentsch who labored in it and left it better for his having been there.
Francine Klagsbrun’s latest book was “The Fourth Commandment: Remember the Sabbath Day.” Her biography of Golda Meir will be published in 2017.