A few days ago I took a trip to Manhattan, formerly my home town, to visit old friends. One friend was Laurin Raikin, a founder of NYU’s Gallatin Division. We’ve known each other for many years and among the ties that bind us is a shared love for Léo Bronstein. Léo was Laurin’s philosophy of art teacher at Brandeis University. He was also my father’s closest friend and a sort of godfather to me, from my earliest days and continuing into adult life.
As we talked in a Brazilian café on sixth avenue, way downtown, Laurin shared a story about Léo. I have heard him tell it before. I’ve never understood why it has such an effect on me. Maybe if I tell it here, I’ll know its meaning better or someone who reads this can explain it to me.
In his youth, Léo was very handsome and, as long as I knew him, he had a dashing Catalan style. How he acquired the Catalan style is a story in itself. Léo had gone from Russia/Poland to Paris, eventually to study there with Henri Bergson and Henri Foçillon, among others.
His student sojourn did not begin well, however. Soon after arriving in The City of Lights, Léo found himself cut off without a ruble by the Russian Revolution and additionally burdened with the original name (Lev Bronshtein) of a leading revolutionary who is known to history by his nom de guerre: Leon Trotsky.
Léo was down to his last few francs and faced an existential choice: should he eat for a week or spend it all at an expensive concert? The young think they will never die. Léo went to the concert.
At intermission, he got into conversation with a middle-aged Spanish gentleman who was there to soothe the pangs of a last unhappy love affair and noticed a hungry-looking boy in the seat next to him.
As things turned out, Narcis Serradel I Pascual, became Léo’s “foster father in name and deed,” supervising his education all the way through and taking him home to Catalonia on vacation breaks. In return, Léo would take care of Mr. Serradel to the end of his days, even seeing to the last rites requested somewhat embarrassedly by this typically anti-clerical, Spanish free thinker.
Léo was extraordinarily cosmopolitan. He had intuitive depth, a lyrical species of objectivity, a tenderness rare in grownups and an understanding of evil-doers that was not seduced or fooled by them. He simply saw what they prefer to hide but decided not to pull moral rank — even on the worst of us. It was not for nothing that, when he retired, his students at Brandeis named a celebratory weekend after him.
Here is the story Laurin told. In the last year of his life, Léo was diagnosed with leukemia. He was dying. He did not tell our family. We knew nothing of it. In this condition, one day he was walking about Lower Manhattan, accompanied by a middle-aged lawyer friend. Partway through the planned walk, he felt intolerably weary and had to step in to rest at the nearest refuge, a shtibl, one of those obscure and shabby halls where poor Jews go to pray together. There was no Technicolor musical “Fiddler on the Roof” atmosphere about it. It was a hole in the wall.
Without speaking or moving, he sat in one of the darkened pews. Presently a boy of about 15 years of age, assigned to sweep the place, came up and told him to get out. They were getting it ready for Shabbos, the Sabbath, and the stranger couldn’t stay there. He was in the way. Léo did not move and did not reply, so the boy went over to tell Léo’s companion to please get his friend to leave.
“Yes,” said the lawyer friend. “I’ll tell him. Soon it’ll be Friday night. I suppose you want to prepare the challah (sabbath bread), candles and wine.”
“What challah, candles, wine? We can’t afford any of that! We have no money.”
Overhearing this, Léo called the boy over and gave him a sum of money that was more than enough to cover the requirements.
”Who shall I say gave this?” asked the amazed boy.
“No one.” Léo shook his head.
“But I have to tell the congregants to whom we owe this generosity!”
“Tell them …
an old Jew.”
In the aftermath of this incident, Laurin told me, Léo roused himself from his mortal faiblesse. With his new-found energy, he repaired to the New York Public Library daily and began to read and read, everything he could get hold of, about Kabbalah, which is the mystical vein in Judaism. He discovered that all that he’d been trying to teach as the message delivered by art was also the message of Kabbalah. On the basis of this research, he wrote Kabbalah and Art, his last book. At his final medical exam before he left for Europe, all traces of the leukemia were gone.
He traveled to Europe chiefly to see the Gruenewald “Crucifixion” in Colmar in Alsace. Exiting from the cathedral, as he started across the street, the light changed. A motorcyclist speeding across the intersection crashed into Léo and killed him. The summer before his trip, Leo had been puzzled by a recurrent dream in which death was represented as a boy on a motorcycle.
This story of Léo’s last year is very striking to me. Perhaps some reader can tell me the answer to my question.
What does it mean?