A friend who was a mensch for all seasons

November 23, 2003|By G. Jefferson Price III | G. Jefferson Price III,PERSPECTIVE EDITOR

A few months ago this column noted that a different caliber of leadership was alive, and mostly still active, in Israel when I first arrived there 30 years ago. David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir, Moshe Dayan, Abba Eban and other titans in the founding of the modern Jewish state were present.

But the man with whom I spent much more time was not a founder of the Jewish state. He would be the first to laugh about his name even being included with those heroes of Zion.

His name was Freddie Weisgal. He was a noble man, a lawyer of substantial accomplishment, a marvelous pianist and, I thought, one of the funniest men in the world. Others would say he was crazy. But when I arrived in Israel in the dark days after the Egyptian-Syrian invasion of 1973, he was the Baltimore expatriate who, with his wife, Jeanne, offered a home away from home, fantastic palaver, an occasionally dependable news tip and a hilarious view of important characters and their behavior.

Weisgal also came from an aggressive tradition of civil rights and civil liberties activism. He knew that peaceful coexistence between Arabs and Jews was necessary. Confronted with disappointment, he wrapped himself in humor.

This man could not even name his dog without making a joke. One of his dogs was named Lucy, because, he said, he liked to say, "I love Lucy."

Later, he named a dog Shane.

"After the famous cowboy?" I asked.

"No, the song."

"What song?"

"Bie mir bist du shane," he said. Of course! How could I not know that the man who once had a dog named for I Love Lucy would have another named after the famous Yiddish song, meaning "To me you're beautiful."

Weisgal often called me "the dumbest Jew in Jerusalem." In the order of profanity that he heaped upon the adored and the despised alike, this was mild. He first used it after giving me a "news tip" the very night I arrived in Jerusalem, a tip with a local angle.

Larry Adler, a world-renowned concert harmonica player, was performing for wounded Israeli soldiers at a hospital in Jerusalem. Freddie said he would take me there and introduce me. Then, exasperated, he said, "You don't know who Larry Adler is, do you? You are the dumbest ... "

I told him I was not Jewish. He said, "Who told you that?"

Adler had left the United States after being blacklisted during the Communist witch hunts of the 1940s. Most important, he was from Baltimore and had grown up in the same neighborhood as Weisgal.

Music, civil liberties, civil rights and Baltimore were Weisgal's vital forces.

After graduating from law school in 1945, he started a career of passionate advocacy for the deprived, the discriminated against, the imposed upon.

In 1947 he tried to get the first black student into the Maryland Institute College of Art. He fought to get rid of odious "covenants" designed to bar blacks and Jews from living in some of the city's neighborhoods. He represented Madeleine Murray O'Hare, the atheist fighting against prayer in Baltimore's public schools. He defended famed anti-war protester Philip Berrigan. He helped organize Vietnam War protests.

Weisgal was a diehard liberal. But he was not exclusive. He found merit on the side of just about anyone who had a beef against authority. In the 1970s, when he was living in Israel, Weisgal represented Meyer Lansky in the late mob figure's attempts to resist extradition from Israel to the United States. Lansky lost. Sometime afterward, I was leaving Jerusalem to return to my home in Beirut and Weisgal handed me an envelope addressed to Lansky in Florida. "Do me a favor," he said. "Mail this from Beirut. He'll get a kick out of it."

By 1969, at the age of 50, Weisgal felt he had accomplished all he could in Baltimore. In those euphoric days after the stunning Israeli victory over the Arab armies in the 1967 war, he saw opportunity and challenge, the prospect for a new adventure in Israel where he hoped to use his formidable legal talents to help Israel create a constitution. He did work in the Israeli justice department where he helped with advice on American law. But the higher mission was not on the agenda.

Weisgal was undaunted. He raised money for Israel, lots of it. He entertained generously at the home he and Jeanne had restored on the Street of the Prophets. He collected antiquities. He played chess. And he played lots of gin-rummy. (Opening a hand with lousy cards, he'd bellow, "Hitler should have this hand!" Or, "Sadat should have this hand!")

Most important, he played his music - any piece of music anyone wanted to hear, without ever looking at a sheet. With his grayed hair fluffing from a receding front, he would move with his music, his eyes laughing, always laughing.

On Christmas eve in 1973, he came to play Christmas carols at a party for the horde of news correspondents who were staying at the American Colony hotel in East Jerusalem. He knew them all, the music and the words. Late in his performance that night, he slipped, without missing a beat, from "We Three Kings of Orient Are," into the plaintive but hopeful music of "Hatikva," the Israeli national anthem. Freddie was gleeful.

Weisgal left Israel for good in 1987, the year of the first Palestinian uprising known as the intifada. He died in Baltimore four years later. We had celebrated his birthdays in Jerusalem. November 25, this Tuesday, would have been his 84th. Would that he were still among us, if just to tell him: "Freddie: Bie mir bist du shane."

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