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My Breakfast with Paul Wellstone

This article is reprinted with permission of The American Jewish World of Minnesota.

ST. PAUL, Minn., Oct. 30--I've always enjoyed talking with Paul Wellstone, and my last interview with him was especially engaging. For about an hour, we sat across from each other in a booth in a restaurant located on the ground floor of the St. Paul building that houses the Wellstone campaign office. It was April 12.

Over coffee and toast, we talked about the issues in the senatorial campaign, about Jewish stuff, about Israel. When my allotted time was up--Paul would have gladly talked for another hour or two, I guess--Tom Lapic, Wellstone's deputy state director, came to collect the senator and take him to his next appearance.

It was late morning Friday, so I wished Paul "Shabbat shalom," in parting.

"That's a great thing to say!" he responded.

Sadly, both Paul Wellstone and Tom Lapic are no longer among us. They and six others, including Sheila Wellstone, Paul's wife of 39 years, and their daughter, Marcia Wellstone Markuson, perished in the small airplane that crashed in an Iron Range peat bog last Friday.

I'll always think of Paul Wellstone as a great Jewish soul.

So, he married someone who wasn't a Jew, and he let his children choose their own religious orientation.

This isn't great for "Jewish continuity," I suppose, but the Wellstones sure seemed like a loving, close-knit family.

Sheila Wellstone was an exemplary campaigner against domestic violence, a contemporary plague that gets too little notice. Their daughter, Marcia, was beloved by her Spanish students in White Bear Lake. The Wellstones who have departed this world leave a legacy for all of us struggling for a more humane society.

Thinking about what it means to be a Jew, Paul Wellstone mentioned a favorite quotation from Albert Einstein, which appears on a poster from the Jewish Fund for Justice. He said that he displayed the poster in his home and in his Washington, D.C. office.

Einstein wrote, "The pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, an almost fanatical love of justice and the desire for personal independence--these are the features of the Jewish tradition which make me thank my stars that I belong to it."

For Paul, that represented something of his upbringing. He noted that his father was raised as an Orthodox Jew back in Russia. "I didn't have the official upbringing, I wished I'd had; but, boy, I was raised on Abraham Heschel, and Buber and books and ideas. It's not surprising I was a teacher." He was a popular political science professor at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, for twenty-one years.

He said that as he grew older, he appreciated more deeply how his parents has imparted their values and concerns to him--notably, a love of education and ideas and a "passion for justice, if I can put it that way." His parents, Leon and Minnie Wellstone "were always on the lookout for decent people's basic liberties. They were the best. Pretty amazing people."

Paul Wellstone was not a pious, go-to-shul Jew, but his Jewishness was expressed in energetic activism for a more just social order that has been a durable strand of the modern Jewish experience. As Bernard Raskas, Rabbi Laureate of Temple of Aaron Synagogue in St. Paul, sees it, Paul was a critic of injustice in the Jewish prophetic tradition.

"Somebody called him a mensch (a kind and generous person)," Raskas said during a lengthy telephone conversation we had Sunday night. "He was more than a mensch. He stood for what the prophets stood for. He spoke the truth from the prophets, and he moved me very deeply as a rabbi."

"A lot of my identity, a lot of what informs me," Paul Wellstone told me last April, as he searched for the right words, "I mean, I think the prophetic tradition of our faith is that to love God is to love justice . And, hey, I don't meet that goal, but I try to do everything I can to live by that."

Although he won election to the U.S. Senate twice from Minnesota, Paul Wellstone was a controversial figure in the state. People here had strong views, pro and con, about the outspoken populist politician. In this vein, Raskas mentioned that the prophets of old were not popular guys. Someone once called them the first anti-Semites because of how they railed against the corruption they saw in the Jews of their day. In some cases, the ancient kings, the objects of the prophets' tirades, killed them. Of course, the prophets' unpopular views are part of our scriptures and generations of Jews have tried to live out their meaning.

Paul then segued to the topic of human rights--"a big part of my passion in foreign policy"--which he again related to the "history of Jewish people, of persecution, of my own family."

The people around the world who challenged the most repressive governments were Paul's heroes, and he fought for them within the corridors of power.

Toward the tail end of our conversation at the restaurant, Paul expressed an optimistic attitude about how things would turn out on Nov. 5. He really thought he was going to win.

Then he mentioned the advice he gives to his children and his grandchildren: that come what may, "you just act with purpose and you do your best."

Back in April, we didn't know how the campaign would end.

"What will be the winds and the tides in October and November, you know, in this world that we live in right now? Seriously." Paul asked, and his question now has an eerie premonitory sound to it. "And what will be the mood piece in Minnesota? You never quite know. So, you might as well just do what you think is right, do it to the best of your ability."

The mood among many us in Minnesota is one of grief and profound dejection. We're heartbroken after Oct. 25, but we'll remember Paul and Sheila Wellstone and all their good works for people. And we'll rededicate ourselves to their vision of tikkun olam, working for peace and justice in a world where too many are deprived and without hope.

Hebrew for "Sabbath [of] peace," a greeting on the Jewish Sabbath. Hebrew for "repairing the world," a goal of the Jewish covenant with God. Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." Yiddish term for an honorable, decent person, usually means "a person of integrity and honor," someone of good character and a deep sense of what is right. Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation. Yiddish for "synagogue."
Mordecai Specktor

Mordecai Specktor is managing editor of The American Jewish World, the weekly newspaper of the Jewish community in Minnesota.

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