I have been struggling to find words to address the sadness I’ve felt in the days since learning that Leibel Fein passed away. I have deleted and rewritten and deleted and rewritten. I guess I will start with what is simple: I feel very sad. Leibel Fein, whom I had the privilege of getting to know and spending a few long, intricate, joyous evenings and afternoons with over the past three years, was an incredible person. He was a teacher and mentor to hundreds -maybe thousands- and a voice of decency, perseverance, creativity and hope in a context that so often lacks all four. I met Leibel in the fall of 2011, along with my brother, Jesse. We had both been granted the New Israel Fund/Shatil Social Justice Fellowship, which Leibel helped launch in memory of his daughter, Nomi, and on a trip to Israel that Fall, Leibel informed us that he was taking the two of us out to lunch. The three of us spoke for two and a half hours, as if we had known each other for years. And in a way, we did, because Leibel was such a foundational part of the American Jewish movement that sought to express its love for Israel through seeking justice for all of its residents, Palestinian and Jewish, as well as its subjects that have no residency rights, Palestinians -and African asylum seekers. This was a movement Jesse and I had been raised in and gravitated towards instinctively. So in a way, maybe, we had known each other for years.
We began corresponding over email, and meeting up periodically when Leibel was in Jerusalem for borekas and coffee or lunch. Reinforcing this feeling that we had known each other for years, Leibel did not hesitate to compliment when I did or said something that he resonated with (which can be said of many people, although Leibel’s praise was often phrased with a particular grace) or to critique when it was the other way (which can be said of far fewer). But there is a deep love and respect that shines through critique, even as it is hard to hear in the moment. I’ve been reading through old correspondences with Leibel over the past few days, and one particularly struck me as an illustration of just this:
In an email entitled “sundry” (which I had to look up! It means: ”of various things, several”) Leibel wrote to me the following:
I am so glad we had a chance to shmooze.
I watched your alternative Yom Atzma’ut gig — a virtuoso performance. Y’asher kochacha.
That said, I am concerned that you may be boxing yourself out of a significant public career. So I want you to be more careful than comes to you naturally.
Do you really have Arabic?
Here I will sound patronizing: Find some ways to take down time. I fear burnout.
When will you be in Boston area?
And I trusted every word. I was also so glad that we had a chance to shmooze (and grateful to have formed a friendship with someone who used the word shmooze in its original Yiddisher way). I appreciated his warmth about my poem, which was the first time I felt anything resembling creativity since being released from military prison five months before. The question about a public career and boxing myself out was an open question then (and remains an open question now) but the reminder that I should do whatever I do -whether it is carefulness or uncarefulness- with full consciousness, grace and intention was one that I needed to hear. (I did and do know Arabic, at least enough to get around!) And his warning against burnout was not misplaced, nor did it feel patronizing: it felt right. He had been doing this work for more decades than the years in which I’d been doing it, and he noticed, even from a far and even through a video, the claws of this thing called burnout that were all too real. And so I did. I did take down time. I stepped back from demonstrations, met with people like David Shulman and Hagit Ofran, both of whose writing and activism I deeply admired and both of whom had been doing this work for years in ways that struck me as combining the forces sustainability, radical change-seeking and deep decency. And I took up ultrarunning (I needed to channel my frenetic energy somewhere!).
By the time I made it to Boston that summer, with my partner, Kayla, I was on my way towards healing. Leibel invited Kayla and me to join him for an evening once we arrived, and we did: for conversation, politics, admiration of Leibel’s immense home library in his beautiful flat, stories of activism and writing and about Leibel’s family and his daughter, Nomi, and also about the Community and the People and Justice, all accompanied by good wine, and then for a delicious meal at a French restaurant nearby, words filling our table with warmth and joy and hope or at least hopefulness.
We said goodbye, and that was the last time we saw each other.
I guess I will finish with quoting a line that Leibel wrote, in one of his many, many pieces of beautiful writing, “Life, after all, is about finding ways to join riduf tzedek, the pursuit of justice, with g’milut chesed, deeds of loving kindness.”
And maybe also a thought to Leibel: I am so grateful that you reached out to us again and again over the years, and I am sorry that we didn’t get a chance to shmooze again. Thank you for your friendship, your guidance, your inspiration.