On June 20, 1942, Edgar Miles Bronfman was called to the Torah at Montreal’s Orthodox synagogue Shaar Hashomayim in celebration of his bar mitzvah. In keeping with the custom of the day, the religious service at Shaar Hashomayim was followed by a kiddush lunch. The synagogue bulletin instructed invited guests “to stand on either side of the Hall until the Bar Mitzvah has made the Kiddush, after which Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Bronfman will be happy to receive them.”
There were good reasons for this rather drab notification. The same synagogue bulletin that announced the Bronfman bar mitzvah contained instructions for joining the Canadian Reserve Army “for possible service in Canada in the event of invasion or similar emergency.” On the following page, Shaar Hashomayim congregants were asked to open their homes to Jewish foster children in the community. “The war is adding to the number of broken homes,” the bulletin noted. “Providing care for these children is a job that must be done on our home front.”
At a celebration with the Bronfman Youth Fellowship in 2012, a year before his death last December at 84, Edgar Bronfman recalled the dire circumstances surrounding his coming of age as a Jewish adult in the midst of a war that threatened to engulf the Jewish people. “There wasn’t much to celebrate or rejoice about in those years,” Bronfman explained to the group gathered at the New York Academy of Medicine, of wartime North American Judaism.
But relative to many he knew, young Edgar was blessed. In a previously unpublished 12-page letter Samuel Bronfman wrote to his son that day—which was found in Edgar’s office after his death and shared with me by his staff—the elder Bronfman reminded Edgar of his good fortune in having a large extended family present for his celebration, at a time when other Jewish families feared for the lives of their relatives in Europe. “The presence of your Grandma and Grandpa Rosner, who have come from a distance to be with us all today, enhances the joy of the occasion,” Sam wrote, in his florid cursive.
Nonetheless, he acknowledged, “happier still would this occasion be, if there did not hang over the world that threat to civilization which for the last three years has darkened the sky.” Samuel Bronfman did not mention Jewish suffering explicitly but wrote in more general terms of the European catastrophe: “Evil men have risen up to destroy all of that which mankind has cherished most dearly. Destruction and suffering follow in their path; until they are defeated, no celebration of any kind can be completely joyful.”
At the time, Canada was doing almost nothing to help Jewish refugees; between 1933 and 1948, the Dominion admitted fewer Jews than any other Western country. Yet Samuel invoked his family’s patriotism and sense of sacrifice in reporting to the young Edgar, “I know that you will be pleased with the decision of your mother and myself who have decided to commemorate this great day in your life by making in your name a contribution to the war effort.”
It’s impossible to say how this particular charitable gesture influenced the son’s future munificence. Samuel Bronfman’s philanthropic example surely made an impression on Edgar, particularly in the range of Jewish causes that the father supported. Unlike other Uptown Montreal Jews, Samuel Bronfman expressed his affection for Montreal’s Yiddishists by funding their school and keeping their newspapers afloat, despite his obvious disinterest in Socialism. And yet, he wrote his son, “Remember too, that there are in the world other religions and other faiths, and that they are entitled to your respect.” It was, Sam went on, not just right, but wise: “Accord them therefore that respect, and you will find that in the long run your own faith will have won the more respect, because of such an attitude.”
At the same time, Sam hoped his son would demonstrate the independence of mind that had already guided two generations of Bronfmans to singular success in their new homeland. “It was after keen observation and long experience that your grandfather came to the conclusion that ‘every man nominates his own position in life.’ How true that is, the future will show you time and time again. Every man is ‘the master of his own fate and the captain of his soul,’ and the manner in which you steer your course determines the port at which you arrive.” And yet, he reminded his son, “It is from a great and honourable race that you spring—a race of a noble history—an ancestry which has given the world great prophets and leaders, who kindled lamps by which men still guide their steps along the paths of righteousness.”
Edgar Bronfman never saw himself as a prophet. “I am not a prophet, nor a learned rabbi, nor a Nobel Laureate,” he wrote in the last decade of his life, with the self-awareness of one who has spent time in such esteemed company. Yet he was happy to be a leader, and a lamp-kindler. “I am a proud Jew who senses a need and am trying my best to follow my star in the time left to me,” he wrote. “I now have the chutzpah to try to tell others what they must do,” he conceded. “I apologize for that, but I am doing it anyway.”
Through his philanthropic projects, Edgar Bronfman achieved his goal of helping to create a renaissance in Jewish life. The House of Seagram, built under the leadership of Edgar’s father in the 1950s, was never envisioned as a potential beit midrash—until a half-century later, as Edgar welcomed teachers and friends to weekly study sessions examining what his father had referred to, in his letter, as the “law and lore of your people.”
Edgar was palpably proud of every bit of Jewish knowledge that passed through his office at 375 Park Avenue, just as he had once been proud of earning “stack privileges” at McGill University’s library, so that he could wander, acquiring book learning on his own. “The subjects of our study might seem arcane,” Edgar wrote. “A Talmudic story about Rav Eleazar Ben Doria, who chased after prostitutes; a ruling about the legal status of the mamzer, or bastard; an analysis of a biblical text concerning the treatment of the Gibeonites, a tribe condemned by Joshua to carry water for the Jewish priests; biblical readings on how the Israelites celebrated victories and harvests.”
Of the years of religious school leading up to Edgar’s bar mitzvah, Samuel Bronfman had written, “Then did you lay the groundwork for the building of your character.” Not only because it was in the nature of their relationship would Edgar have disagreed with his father, but because he had had the courage to continue his Jewish education, laying new groundwork, and changing his own character and, thereby, the character of Jewish life in the modern world.
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