What are some of your early memories of your dad?
We had a summer home in Amagansett. I was probably three or four years old when we went there, and I remember him singing me Russian army songs. And I remember him trying to rescue a bird that had fallen out of a tree. I dragged him away from his desk where he was working because a little bird had fallen out of a tree. I got him to pay attention to the bird and help it.
What was he like as a dad? We’re familiar with his public persona; what can you tell us about his more private side?
My dad had an enormous amount of confidence in me, even though at times it might have seemed somewhat misplaced for where I was in life. He really only had two rules for me growing up. One he gave me early, and one he gave me later. The rule he gave me earlier was that I could do anything I wanted in life. It didn’t matter what profession I picked, the only thing that mattered to him was that my wife was to be Jewish (whether through birth or conversion he didn’t care). That was really the only ground rule I had with him for the first few decades of my life. I could do what I wanted and explore different things. I remember I came home from college with a purple mohawk my freshman year, and my dad was not fazed. He said, “I love you, and I would walk down the street with you any time, anywhere. I am not embarrassed. I would take you to shul like this and out to dinner. I love you. You are my son. You can do anything you want as long as you marry Jewish.” That was the major constraint. He was a good dad. I think that confidence he had in me, and that unconditional love, had a very good long-term effect.
The second rule was that he wanted me to say Kaddish for him every day after he passed. I’ve been doing that. Those were the only two substantial things he asked me to do for him.
Are there any other memories about your dad you would like to share with our readers?
I helped convince him to toss out the first pitch at a World Series game. The commissioner of baseball, Peter Ueberroth, called him in 1986 to ask him to throw out the first pitch. Originally when he got the message, my father was pretty scared. He wondered why he was getting a call from a commissioner, a word that had all sorts of military overtones for him and made him think of occupation. Finally he was persuaded to return the call even though he thought it was a mistake—what could they want with him that had to do with baseball? Then there was an issue that he couldn’t throw because it was still Sukkot, a Jewish holy day. But I told him he had to do it! We realized that if they had a car come for him, they could pick him up after sundown, just in time to throw out the first pitch. He did it and it was a really big deal for me even though I was a Yankees fan, not a Mets fan.
There are different cute stories along those lines, ones about my dad finding his way in the modern world. He knew the names of the staff on the Concorde by their first names, and they all knew him when it still used to fly. But on the other hand, he couldn’t pump gas for his car, and he was amazed when friends like Ted Koppel could!
There’s another story about a friend and me in seventh grade when we were studying for a test. We were playing soccer outside, and my father kept saying that we needed to come inside and study for our test. We said no. So he said, “If I take on both of you in soccer and I score a goal, will you go study for your test?” This came from a man who had probably never kicked a ball before in his life, so we said yes. As soon as we agreed, he turned into this super-amazing soccer athlete who was dancing rings around us and scoring goals—just to get us to go inside and study for the test. I don’t remember how I did on the test, though!
“Whenever I want to hear my father’s voice, I can pick up a book from my bedside and I can hear him speak.”
What did your father want his legacy to the world to be?
He wanted to be thought of as a good Jew. That was the only standard by which he measured himself. In most conversations, it wasn’t about which president he met or any of that—all of which was meaningful to him; he valued that he had grown to play a role on the world stage. But he looked at himself as his mother and father and grandparents would have evaluated him. That was always in his mind, what would they think of him and his life and what he had made of it. For him, the guiding principle that governed that lens was always, “Have I been a good Jew?” That meant many different things to him. If you unpacked what a good Jew was, it meant being a good human being and a good father; a leader in the community when leadership was needed; a good husband; someone who respected and brought respect to the memory and traditions and name of his ancestors; someone who was humbled by the concept of man’s place in the universe but still felt mandated to fix the world; and someone who, when approached by people, would make time to talk with them and make them feel welcomed and listened to.
What is his legacy to the world?
The actions he took, the speeches he made and the words he wrote. In him, we had such an exceptional person share the planet with us. The good news is that we don’t have to guess at his legacy. He left his words behind and, in most cases, they are unambiguous. For people who want to know what my father thought, they don’t have to ponder it and wonder what my father would have said. He was a prolific writer, and he wrote about many different circumstances with moral significance.
As I mourn him, I realize that I am not like other mourners because whenever I want to hear my father’s voice, I can pick up a book from my bedside and I can hear him speak. I think that is true in a larger sense as well in terms of his legacy. If people want to know what my father thought of something, they should read his books and reread his speeches. It is all there. If I had to pick one word about his legacy it would be “available.” His legacy is readily available to anyone who wants to know it.
When I had to pick a profession (and only one profession) to give the funeral home immediately after his passing, I chose “teacher,” as I think that is who he was in the broadest sense. But he also remembered journalism as his first and earliest profession, and it was one that he remained deeply invested in.
What did your father see as the most significant challenge facing Jews today?
Intermarriage was at the top of the list. He saw intermarriage and assimilation as very significant threats to the Jewish people. He always felt he was at a crux because he was at the end of a line. It was his job to continue it and to make sure that he was not the last. He felt a connection to the fact that for thousands of years, Jews had been transmitting information down the generations in a certain way with certain values. I think he was very concerned that the line would end with him.
If you were speaking to a young person, particularly to someone who had not had the opportunity to meet or hear a Holocaust survivor, about why they should read your father’s work, what would you say?
This is a hard question. In the 1930s and 1940s, there were many Jews who said, “I don’t practice, I don’t observe, I don’t affiliate. Why should I read books by Jewish authors? Why should I care about Jewish history?”
When the enemy came, they didn’t care whether you were a Jew who ate shrimp and lobster on Saturday morning or if you were a Jew who had payot and a black hat. If you are Jewish, this is part of your story and it is where you come from. If you are human, this is now part of your story and where you come from.
Do you think there is any risk of your father being forgotten?
For thousands of years, the Jewish people have faithfully transcribed the works and thoughts and identities of those who have contributed to the intellectual and spiritual learnings of the people. I am confident that for thousands of years to come, my father has earned his place in that community.
Elisha Wiesel is the son of Elie and Marion Wiesel.