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Remembering Lennon…and Lenny

The Jewish Advocate
December 7, 2000

BOSTON—Monday, December 8, 1980, and it's cold in Amherst. It's also the end of the semester and final papers are due. But, for one college senior, the paper will have to wait at least until the middle of the night.

The Patriots are playing on Monday Night Football, and have a chance to make the playoffs.

After some negotiation I obtain a small black and white TV for the evening, and the sketchy outline of the Orange Bowl in Miami appears. The game is close, and as I begin to write my paper, midnight approaches.

Banging out the essay on an old Smith-Corona, I am startled by Howard Cossell's voice. He's talking about a breaking news story in New York. As I reach over to turn up the volume, Cossell announces that John Lennon has been shot and killed.

The players continue to run formations; the announcers talk but I wonder if it is a mistake. With seconds left the Patriots miss an important field goal and lose the game.

I look out at the black sky. The whole campus seems to be awake. And then, one by one, stereos begin to play in dorms, and I know that the dream really is over. Imagine, Working Class Hero, Revolution and A Day in the Life echo in between 22-story towers. Even the next day, as I read the New York Times, I am stunned.

I recall this story some 20 years later, on the yarzheit of another great man who would have turned 47 this year. My friend, Lenny Zakim, died a year ago after a long struggle with cancer. On Tuesday, 14,000 high school students paid tribute to him in the Fleet Center at the Team Harmony event. They applauded at the mention of his name, and many wept openly when they watched a tribute video on the wide screen monitors.

Lenny actually reminded me of Lennon because he was an original thinker and dreamed big dreams. He could move a mountain with his words. Part politician, preacher and rock 'n' roll star, he was most comfortable in front of an audience. His style was passionate and he believed in action. Racism, anti-Semitism and intolerance were his enemies. For Lenny, there were no prepared scripts or canned speeches. Seconds after he would begin to speak, people would sit straight up in their chairs and listen. He quoted freely from Heschel and the Torah;

Springsteen and the Grateful Dead. After nearly every speech, the assembled would stand and applaud and think hard about his challenge for man to respect one another and coexist peacefully. Many people changed after hearing Lenny speak. He had that ability to reach deep down into a person's soul and plead for a better world.

As a reporter, I was fortunate enough to know Lenny because he seemed to be everywhere. I remember in 1990 covering a Holocaust revisionist's trial in Malden. As the head of the Anti-Defamation League, he was the lone representative of the organized Jewish community at the trial, and he comforted many a Holocaust survivor who stood outside the courthouse in the bitter cold to show they wouldn't be intimidated. "The Holocaust is not a subject of debate," he told the assembled media. He was the lone voice of sanity in an insane world that day.

I visited him about a month before he died and we talked about politics and music. I discovered that his father's paint store was next to my father-in-law's clothing store some time ago in Pompton Lakes, New Jersey. He pointed to his guitar and talked about playing, and then described a recent Springsteen concert where the singer had invited him up on stage and dedicated The Promised Land to him. "The old Lenny would have picked up a guitar and played along," he told me.

Now, a year later, they're talking about the new Leonard P. Zakim Freedom Bridge, which will be the gateway into Boston from the north. Whenever I drive over it I'll think of Lenny and Torah, Springsteen and Lennon and all those who deserve the proper dignity and respect life should afford to human beings. It's a massive concrete and steel structure, but it'll have the heart of human inspiration.

Perhaps that's another song that needs to be written.

Steven Rosenberg is the editor of The Jewish Advocate.

© The Jewish Advocate, 2000. May not be reproduced without written permission


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