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  • Writer's pictureRabbi Jeffrey L. Falick

REMEMBERING NORMAN LEAR

Just as we were completing the year-end edition of this newsletter, news arrived about the death of Norman Lear at 101 years of age. If ever there was a mensch who deserved the full mythical lifespan of Moses' 120 year, it was Lear who came as close as realistically possible. And if ever there was a Humanistic Jewish role model it was also Lear who perfectly fit the description.


Though he was completely uninterested in prayer or religion, Lear maintained a strong connection to Judaism. He called himself a "total Jew" and his Judaism really was our Judaism. It was cultural and historical, grounded in both ethics and his bubbe's Shabbat gefilte fish. I don't know if he was the slightest bit acquainted with our movement but he did have a rather unpleasant encounter with the worst of Detroit. Just a few years before what he described as a meaningless Bar Mitzvah, he happened upon the infamous broadcasts of notorious Detroit-based antisemite Father Charles Coughlin. Hearing the man's vitriol made Lear realize that there were people who hated him and other Jews just for who they were. This was the genesis of his lifelong commitment to work for justice and equality.


It also helps explain why, when given the opportunity to produce a situation comedy for CBS, he decided to make it a vehicle to address bigotry and other serious problems facing America. By borrowing the basic premise of a British show and combining it with memories of his own narrow-minded father, Lear created Archie Bunker and "All in the Family."


I started watching the show some years before my own rather meaningless Bar Mitzvah. Thankfully, my parents did very little to monitor my television consumption so they missed the warning that accompanied the first episode. It alerted viewers that the program they were about to see "seeks to throw a humorous spotlight on our frailties, prejudices, and concerns. By making them a source of laughter, we hope to show – in a mature fashion – just how absurd they are.” If my parents saw the weekly reminder that the show was suggested for a "mature audience," it didn't prompt them to change the channel. I'm happy it didn't.


"All in the Family" introduced me to some of the darkest realities of America. It's where I first learned about racism, feminism, homophobia, transphobia (in the 1970s!) and even rape. Many have argued that Archie Bunker was a little too endearing, even eventually lovable, to represent the prejudices of too many Americans. I would argue that it was the character's humanity that made him an excellent representation of American bigotry because it forced us to look at ourselves. My parents were not haters, but they were also not free of racism. They made jokes. They called the grown compassionate woman who cared for my siblings and me "the girl." Black people they called "shvartzes."


Lear's examination of America's strengths and weaknesses continued with programs like "Maude," "Good Times," and "The Jeffersons." He also invested much of the fortune he made from these shows in a program to improve America. First through a consortium of Jewish philanthropists and then, following the rise of Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority and other bigoted religious movements, by founding People for the American Way (PFAW) in 1981.


Rabbi Wine, who also founded organizations to counter what he termed the "sinister" forces of Falwell and others, commended PFAW for its work. There is much shared political DNA between Jews for a Secular Democracy (sponsored by our own movement) and Lear's PFAW.


Lear never eased off his activism. His art was recognized by numerous Emmy Awards, his humanist activism by the American Humanist Association, and our nation's deep appreciation for all that he did by its highest artistic tribute, the National Medal of Arts (Kennedy Center honor).


His life was a blessing to the Jewish people and our entire country.


May his memory now be a blessing to future generations.

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