Leonard Fein's Columns Were a Jewel of American-Jewish Journalism

For all his passion for peace he had a capacity to surprise.

At Leonard Fein’s funeral the story was related of the rabbi from Moldova who told several followers departing for America that he’d heard there was a city there called Philadelphia. And there was in Philadelphia a bell. And this bell was inscribed with words from our Torah. Eventually the rabbi receives confirmation but also the news that the bell is cracked. So the rabbi sends back an assignment to mend the bell. Fein was spoken of as a “bell-mender.”

It was but one of many moving moments at the gathering for Fein, peace activist, journalist, scholar, teacher, and lion of the left who, at 80, died of a heart attack on Friday. There was standing room only at Levine Chapels in Brookline, Massachusetts. Fein’s coffin was on the bimah, draped in the flag of Israel. What a band of friends and family had gathered before his bier, and what an eloquent eulogy was delivered by President Obama’s nominee to be ambassador-at-large for religious freedom, Rabbi David Saperstein.

It was, I found myself thinking, a significant moment, coming as it did after another war in Gaza reminded that the “now” of Americans for Peace Now, of which Fein was a director, seems ever further away. The gathering gave a glimpse of why Fein’s friends and collaborators loved him so much — not because he was winning. On the contrary, he was increasingly disturbed by the direction Israel was taking. What his friends loved Fein for was how, in the face of disappointment, he maintained such an impassioned esprit, capacious personality, and commitment to Zion.

My own first meeting with Fein was in 1990, shortly after word leaked out that the Forward was launching a newspaper in English. Fein called me from Boston and asked if we could meet. We had a drink at the Harvard Club, where I learned that, though we differed politically, we shared a dream — for an independent national newspaper that would cover the Jewish beat on first-rate journalistic standards. I hired him on the spot as a columnist.

Fein became a part (even a dean) of the brilliant band of journalists who rallied to the flag of the Forward. His column, which he filed every week for the next generation, was a jewel of American Jewish journalism. He wrote not only of his passion for peace, but also of his obsessions with addressing hunger (he was the founder of Mazon) and literacy, of music, of spirituality, of culture, of politics, always through a Jewish prism. It’s not my purpose here to quarrel with Fein after he’s gone. Even when he was wrong he was worth reading.

Plus, he had a capacity to surprise, as he did in 1995, during the trial of an abortion opponent, John Salvi III, who had attacked two abortion clinics in Brookline, Massachusetts, killing two persons and wounding five. Savli was convicted and later committed suicide. The crime, ghastly though it was, moved Fein to, as he put it, “speak aloud thoughts that have for many years been stowed in the attic of my mind.”

Wrote Fein: “One, then two, now six dear friends, women all, have told me of their own deep anguish regarding abortion. They’re all pro-choice, of course; I doubt there are any among my good friends who are not. Three of them are not ‘merely’ pro-choice; they're active feminists, and I’ve learned much from each. It turns out, however, that being pro-choice does not necessarily reflect either enthusiasm for abortion or deprecation of the seriousness of the pro-life position.”

Fein went on to confess that “I’ve had my own reservations regarding abortion for many years now, but, having been beat up when I sought to express them, I've kept them to myself. It was early on made quite clear to me that such reservations were Neanderthal, reflected insensitivity to women, and, more generally, that males were not qualified to participate in the conversation.” That it took two murders in his hometown to bring him into the open on the issue does nothing to obscure the courage he showed.

Fein, at his funeral, was spoken of as spiritual but not religious. I like the way Rabbi Saperstein put it when he quoted Fein as saying, “I don’t know if Sinai happened, but I know I was there.” I have no doubt that he was. And it’s lucky there was a crack in the Liberty Bell for Fein to fix upon or he would have spent his days trying to mend the confounded calf.