Sid Lezak died this morning, the 24th of April, 2006. I already miss him more than I ever realized I would. Not just because we had lunch semi-regularly over the last five years since he warmly welcomed me to Portland -- he did that for many people. Not just because he was a quintessential, decent and unrepentant liberal who knew how to cut a deal and gave politics a good name. And, not just because he told great stories, like the one where early on in his 20 career as U.S. Attorney, he told the Attorney General of the United States, Bobby Kennedy -- a force to be reckoned with -- that he had no intention of firing someone in his office because they didn’t have the right politics. And not even because, while I suspect deeply spiritual, he was, like me, a Spinozan Jew -- always just one step away from being ex-communicated -- and skeptical of formal religious practices.
I’ll miss him because he is one of that rare breed of human being that is so present and unassuming that the profound importance of who and what he is about can be all-too-easily taken for granted. fear not having taken full advantage. His brillience, and I do mean brilliance, snuck up on me. He was the consummate Rabbi, a teacher, in the fullest and best sense of the word. Always by story or question, laced with a bissel of humor, he raised a concern or gently chided me for a view held too strongly. There is no small irony in the fact that he was a great teacher that shied away from the classroom.
He was an exceptional conflict mediator for many of the same reasons. I know this first hand -- I observed and co-mediated with him on several occasions. While I tried to intellectually dress up and elucidate the ‘process’ with explanations and conceptual framings, he quietly channeled what real mediation has been about for centuries. He told a few stories, put people at ease, and then, when he had sufficiently engaged them, kept them thinking and talking about how the matter could be worked out with a subtle, but relentless, tenacity. It was not in his nature to cajole or beat parties into settling their case. But, if they did not settle, it was not because any stone was left unturned. The parties supplied the frustrations and aggravations, Lezak supplied the faith that whatever the issues, they could work it out.
It’s not disrespectful to just call him ‘Lezak.’ That’s how he often referred to himself, and how Muriel, his wife of 56 years, addressed him. They had grown up together in the same neighborhood in Chicago and had come to Portland in the 1950’s, when it was truly ‘Bean’ town and the style of politics was rough and tumble. Lezak, however, after having served as a navigator on B-17 bombers in World War II, and growing up in Chicago, was un-phased.
Lezak could have been a character right out of a story by his contemporary, the great Chicago writer, Studs Terkel. An unassuming guy, who by his telling just fell into being the United States Attorney and remained through six administrations, both Democrat and Republican. He continued until his dying day to be respected by officials of every faith, race and political affiliation. He was the face of justice through some of the roughest times in our country’s history, making hard decisions and enforcing the law, without losing his bearings. For him, the rule of law was necessarily tempered by compassion and common sense. That’s what made him so exceptional, especially in this day and age. As he, himself, suggested, that’s also what drew him to practice mediation.
Lezak would be pleased that so many will remember him and think so highly of him, but I suspect that, if we do any tributes, he’d want some good cause to benefit. For me, I’ll miss seeing this old guy in his signature blue denim shirt and bowtie, bound through the door with his ever-present smile, sit down at the table, mess around with the adjustment to his hearing aid, and launch into questioning me about how I’m doing, and asking me what I think about some current case he has. His picture or the video interview offers a glimpse of what I mean.
To my mind, very few are worthy of the title Rabbi, people who have dedicated their lives to teaching and service. While drawn from Jewish tradition, the title is not intended to be limited to that sectarian focus. While there are many who profess and some who teach, only a very few are genuine Rabbi’s in the world. Lezak was one of them.