Jewish Journal

My Story with Leon Wieseltier

Leon Wieseltier.

“Are you waiting for Shmuel?”

“I’ve been waiting all my life for Shmuel,” I said.

He laughed. “You’re funny.”

We’re at the fax machine; it was my first interaction with Leon Wieseltier. I was in my twenties; he was roughly 10 years older. A bit shy, I couldn’t believe I actually said that, but out it came and so began a literary friendship that lasted for the nearly four years that I was at The New Republic.

We talked a lot. About everything. He loved to talk. He found intelligence sexy before it was cool to find intelligence sexy. He also encouraged me a great deal. With Leon’s guidance, I wrote three major essays on feminism for The New Republic, one a major cover story that led to a book contract. As an editor and a writer, he brought a fierce, distinctive intelligence to his work and never shied from an intellectual fight.

Were our conversations tinged with sexual innuendo? Sometimes. But for me they fell into the realm of flirtation. Other men in the office flirted, too. Only once did something “happen.” He asked me if I wanted to watch a movie in his apartment. I said yes. He tried to kiss me; I said no. He stopped immediately. That moment never came up again, and never affected our relationship.

We talked a lot about Judaism. I told him that right before my Bat Mitzvah, my family had moved to a big, sterile synagogue, which I hated. I hated it so much that I literally didn’t set foot in a synagogue again for a decade. When he heard this story, he said, “We’re going to synagogue this Shabbat.” And we did. At one point during the services, I cried. Tears of sadness, joy, reconnection. Leon said nothing, just offered quiet support by sitting next to me. He let me reconnect privately and never took credit for it.

Because of an email chain that I was not a part of, Wieseltier has now been Weinsteined. Shamed and disgraced. As far as I can tell, the worst he is being accused of is trying to plant an unwanted kiss and boorish behavior; perhaps there is more that we don’t know.

I respect—in fact, insist on—a woman’s right to speak up. If someone finds something offensive, it’s not for me to judge. But speaking out works both ways. I also have a story to tell, and part of that story is that I did experience harassment in the offices of TNR, but it didn’t come from Leon, and it wasn’t sexual.

It was verbal bullying. One editor in particular would look for reasons to scream at me and at the other young women. His bullying was well known. We put up with it, but it wasn’t pleasant.

With Leon, there was a lot of laughter. No matter what was going on in the world, we laughed. And he listened. He listened to my ideas, to my thoughts about men, women, sex, anything and everything. There was no quid pro quo; there was no manipulation. Wieseltier was nothing like Weinstein.

My purpose here is not to defend Wieseltier against the charges of other women. I have no special interest in defending him. We haven’t worked together in years. I bumped into him last year; it was the first time I had seen or spoken to him in ages.

I’m writing not to negate anyone else’s story, but simply to tell my own. I want to say that this particular man inspired me to be my best self, made me into a thinker, and helped me reconnect to my Judaism.

I’m telling my story also because we’ve reached a very sensitive point. I’m tremendously grateful that Harvey Weinstein’s monstrous behavior has come out—it should have come out decades ago. And the #MeToo campaign has enabled women, and men, to talk about inappropriate behavior from many others.

At the same time, we have to resist the temptation to turn every incident into a Harvey Weinstein scandal. Not all stories are similar. Not all sexual innuendo in the office is harassment. Not all women are victims.

Some, like me, have been empowered by men who came into our lives at a particular moment, took no for an answer, and then raised us up and let us go.