The term Renaissance Man is defined by Wikipedia Encyclopedia as “a person whose expertise spans a significant number of different subject areas.” Many of us might think we know someone of that calibre, but does the person really have such a span of knowledge and impact on others?
I often speak with clients about one’s legacy. One’s legacy is how he or she is remembered or thought of, often after one’s death. However, our legacy starts very early in life. Are we conscious of our own legacy? In fact, sometimes we don’t even know, or understand, the legacy of some of our own family members. Let me explain.
We have very good friends in Toronto who recently suffered a terrible loss. Over Sukkos the family gathered together at one family member’s home in New Jersey. To their great shock and dismay, their oldest son, who had joined them the night before, passed away in his sleep at the age of 47. This tragedy opened a page in the life of their son which they had not known about. They knew their son had been traveling around the world connecting with people from a variety of backgrounds. Of course, they knew of his upbringing, his schooling, some of his interests, but they didn’t realize until his death the depth of his knowledge, his influence on others and the span of his travels. Now, this was a not a family with a lack of communication. It seems that this son was jut incredibly modest and his profound life journey did not afford the right opportunity to share his adventures with his family and friends. After his death, Azriel was referred to by the Jerusalem Post as the “Mystical Renaissance Man.”
Let me introduce you to Azriel Cohen. He grew up in Toronto where he attended religious day schools. After graduation he learned in Israel for five years. He obtained a B.A. in psychology and a graduate M.F.A. in computer art. Somewhere along the way he also received a diploma in conflict resolution and began body healing through somatic experiencing therapy. His professional years centered on visual arts, promoting external and inner peace and Jewish education. As such, he supervised an Israel summer tour, a Jewish camp and a Jewish student organization. For several years he focused on developing innovative approaches to healing the rifts between different segments of the Jewish communities. In addition to Hebrew and English, he also spoke conversational French, Arabic, Thai and Hindi. Azriel took note of the mass influx of Israeli army youth going to India and set up a huge sukkah in one part of the country and hosted many Pesach sedarim there are well. Azriel was also one of the founders of the eco-village and artists’ colony established by Vertigo Dance Company in Israel’s Eila Valley.
He was best known for the Traveling Jerusalem Café art installation, which he pursued during the second intifada. The Jerusalem Post article written after his death noted, “He knew the ‘in’ places to go and made friends with everyone – he was just that kind of person.”
It was most amazing when his parents recently said to me that they were overwhelmed by the tributes from around the world they have received since their son’s death. His legacy was one beyond their own awareness of their son. In fact, they shared with me some of the letters, e-mails and messages they received. I would like to share with you some of the extraordinary comments about this most amazing young man.
“He was able to connect, it didn’t matter who they were and where they were from,” said a close friend. “You [could] see it in his face, this acceptance of people and love of people.”
A friend from Singapore talked of the magical Chanukah her family spent in Chiang Mai while visiting Azriel last year, when they sent lanterns floating into the night sky for each of the eight nights, and the jazz mural he painted this past August when he visited her in Singapore.
One friend wrote that she had met Azriel when she was a freshman in college. She was “wowed by his art.” Another time he told her about the amazing work he was doing in India. She described him as “humble, matter-of-fact” in how he described his “incredible” work.
Other than being referred to as the mystical Renaissance man and the descriptions of Azriel above, additional words of praise included: magnetic personality, enthusiastic about whatever he did, passion for creating bridges between cultures separated by strife including Jews and Arabs, enormous curiosity, very sensitive man. A close friend and founder of an international organization admired Azriel’s “honesty, open-mindedness and curiosity, his kindness to all people of all backgrounds, his courage in facing difficulty and his noble refusal to step even an inch away from his deeply felt sense of integrity under any circumstances.”
People from around the world admired Azriel for his art and peace promotion activities.
How is it that these remarkable tributes caught his parents by such surprise? Perhaps we parents know the goodness of our children only through our own eyes without understanding them through the eyes of others. Perhaps his parents really didn’t know the tremendous impact their son had on the world. His legacy truly preceded him through the eyes of so many. Azriel was truly “a person whose expertise spans a significant number of different subject areas” – a Renaissance Man.
Our legacy is a gift. We build it with great difficulty and we can lose it with one foolish act. Our challenge as parents is to instil in our children the wonderful, caring, good qualities most of the world cherishes – and the means with which to accomplish them. Then we need to teach them to share them with us. Love them, teach them and they will make you proud – just as Azriel did for his parents. His soul should rise and his memories should be a motivation to us and our children.
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