A Family History is Told Through Possessions Left Behind

Dec. 18, 2020


MONTREAL—Clearing out a home after a parent dies or moves to a care facility is bound to evoke memories and often turn up surprises.

Sharon Kirsch
Sharon Kirsch

Toronto writer Sharon Kirsch’s widowed mother’s departure for a seniors’ residence and the sale of the family home set Kirsch on a years-long research project. She delved into her parents’ relationship, and hers with them, as well as the lives of long-dead relatives they rarely talked about – for very different reasons.

Kirsch’s new book The Smallest Objective (New Star Books) is a very personal memoir set in the Jewish Montreal of the 20th century, fascinating for its frank examination of mothers and daughters, revelation of family secrets, and showing how the past is always somehow present.

It’s about what material goods we leave behind say about us – and her parents left an awful lot behind.

Born in 1960, Kirsch was the only child of Rene née Rutenberg and Dr. Archie Kirsch. She grew up in the suburban split-level her parents bought new in 1955, the same house Kirsch was tasked with disposing of after her mother’s worsening dementia made it impossible for her to continue living on her own.

Rene Kirsch signs the registry on her wedding day, April 4, 1955 at Congregation Shaar Hashomayim in Montreal

Kirsch avoids pathos. In fact, the book starts out as a mystery. Her father, a Second World War veteran 17 years older than her mother, always claimed he had buried a treasure under the floorboards of the master bedroom.

Kirsch spends considerable time and expense, even hiring experts in ground penetrating radar, but finds nothing. It was only the beginning of obsession.

Sharon Kirsch’s great-grandfather Abraham Kirsch (father of Simon), who brought the family to Montreal from Lithuania.

That micro exploration grows to the macro level as Kirsch methodically goes through her parents’ stuff. While not exactly hoarders, the couple seem to have kept all manner of ephemera, in addition to the usual photos and documents, letters, postcards, invitations, recipes, grocery lists, newspaper clippings and obscure collections.

These prove to be a more valuable trove than the illusive hidden booty. The ever-unfolding memorabilia contrasts with the mental decline of her mother, a once fashionable and fastidious woman, until her death in 2013.

Kirsch comes to a better understanding of her mother’s lifelong anxiety and the fractiousness that marked her marriage. Although she had attended college and become a teacher, Rene, typical of her generation, gave it up for an idealized domesticity.

The title, The Smallest Objective, is a term that expresses the magnification power of a microscope, a found object that takes Kirsch on a journey back to the generation before her parents. It also suggests the minutiae which affords a glimpse into the bigger picture.

The microscope had belonged to her father’s father, Simon Kirsch, a Lithuanian immigrant and son of a peddler who got into McGill University and studied botany, earning a PhD in the early 20th century.

Sharon was named for Simon but he died long before she was born and was only mentioned at home in vague terms.

Simon Kirsch would work for the U.S. Forest Service in the Wisconsin woods, then become a McGill professor, unusual for a Jew, she finds out. He then branched into real estate and left academe to make a modest fortune investing in land and mining around Quebec. At his death, he was regarded as a respected Jewish community leader.

After finding clippings of his obituary, Kirsch then set her sights on the family “black sheep,” her great-uncle Jockey Fleming, born Moses Rutenberg at the end of the 19th century to a Russian immigrant family.

Charitably, Jockey was a colourful Runyanesque character who hobnobbed with entertainment and sports figures and was a favourite subject of Montreal newspaper gossip columnists. More realistically, he was a ne’er-de-well who lived on the margins of the law, scalping tickets after earlier stints as a featherweight boxer and singing waiter.

Kirsch was 14 when he died in 1974 but she only saw him by accident on a downtown street. Her mother quickly steered her away from him, muttering the family was ashamed of him.

As she does with Simon, Kirsch spins bits and pieces into an imagining of the larger historical and social circumstances that made Jockey into who he was.

The other relative almost as rarely mentioned by her parents was her aunt Carol, her mother’s younger sister and sole sibling. The reason was not shame; on the contrary, Carol Rutenberg was beautiful, talented and outgoing. She had a career as a physiotherapist and married a dashing ex-Air Force pilot.

Pregnant with their first child, Carol miscarried and died days later at age 26. Kirsch, who was not yet five, has only vague memories of her. It seems the shock and grief was so great, her mother simply shut her emotions away with cherished mementoes of that short tragic life she kept in albums and boxes.

These were the true buried treasure.

As Kirsch concludes, “I began The Smallest Objective by studying possessions and myself became possessed, claimed by my subjects.”

‘Mensch’ Father John Walsh Mourned by Jewish Montrealers

Nov. 20, 2020


MONTREAL—To many, “Father John” was the Montreal Jewish community’s priest. Some even respectfully called him “Rabbi Walsh.”

All considered him a mensch – and a beloved one.

That’s been abundantly clear, given the outpouring of sadness, gratitude and, as he would have wished it, humorous reminiscing since Father John Walsh’s death at age 78 on Nov. 9.

Surely this was the first time in its century-long history that Paperman’s funeral home listed a Catholic priest among the funerals, with links to the interreligious memorial planned for him and to his favourite cause, the Nazareth Community, which serves the homeless.

The Paperman family said it “mourns the loss of a compassionate leader, a bridge builder and a dear friend” to the community. The scores of condolences on the website concurred.

“He endeared himself to Jewish Montrealers, who considered him one of their own,” tweeted Eta Yudin, vice-president of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs-Quebec.

In a nod to Father Walsh’s Irish heritage, one synagogue’s cantor sang Danny Boy at the Shabbat service after the priest’s death.

His longtime friend and collaborator Rabbi Michael Whitman of Congregation Adath Israel, posted a “secret” on social media: “The rabbis of Montreal knew that Father Walsh was much more popular in the Jewish community than any of us.”

Over the decades, Father Walsh had a bond with the community that went beyond interfaith dialogue, a term he avoided. He was not an emissary of the Catholic Church; he acted on his own volition. This was personal, even visceral.

Everyone has spoken of his genuine love and interest in each person, whoever they were. But Judaism and the Jewish people were the strongest among his ties to other religious and cultural groups.

He joked that with his initials – his full name was John Emmett Walsh – predestined him to a kinship with Jews.

His goodwill was constant in good times and bad, said Rabbi Whitman. Whenever there was an act of antisemitism in the world, he immediately called to express his solidarity.

As Rabbi Lisa Grushcow of Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom put it at an interreligious memorial on Nov. 14, “those in interfaith work build relationships on theology or policy, but Father John built relationships for the relationship; nothing got in the middle.”

The memorial, which was webcast from a funeral home due to pandemic restrictions on gatherings, preceded Father Walsh’s funeral Mass, also invitation-only, on Nov. 16.

After studies in Rome, Father Walsh continued his education in theology and scripture at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He learned Hebrew and his command of the language delighted Jewish audiences.

His ministry in Montreal spanned close to 50 years until his retirement from St. John Brebeuf Parish in LaSalle a decade ago. After that, he devoted even more time to what was dear to his heart.

In 2012, he, Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz of Congregation Tifereth Beth David Jerusalem, and Imam Zijad Delic, created a blog called Faith Blender. Each clergyman offered his perspective on current issues or common human dilemmas. Their goal, as the site points out, was not to convert anyone, but rather to share their respective traditions.

Father Walsh died of a heart attack as he was about to officiate at a funeral. He had been well and active until then. Just a few days before, he was feted by the Nazareth Community, with which he was associated for 40 years, when its newest shelter, a home for young men, was named “John’s House.”

Israeli Consul General David Levy made a donation on behalf of his country, to which Father Walsh remained faithful. Cantor Gideon Zelermyer of Congregation Shaar Hashomayim sang on that occasion, as he did at the interreligious service.

Zelermyer had been friends with Father Walsh since the young American cantor came to Montreal some 20 years ago. This was not a polite acquaintance, but a deep relationship that extended to Zelermyer’s entire family.

He recalled the first time Father Walsh was a guest at his home for a Passover seder. The priest apologized that he had forgotten his kippah. Zelermyer’s young son quickly fetched one. “It was a red velvet one. A big smile came on John’s face and he exclaimed, ‘Hah, a promotion!’” alluding to the headwear of Catholic cardinals.

Zelermyer concluded the memorial with Come Healing and If it Be Your Will, two spiritual songs by Leonard Cohen.

There were official tributes as well. Rabbi Reuben Poupko, co-chair of CIJA-Quebec, stated that his close friend “brought Montreal together. His sincerity and love were powerful forces that helped shape the life of the city.” Federation CJA CEO Yair Szlak commented that Walsh “embodied the spirit of tikun olam. A mensch to the core, he will be deeply missed by Jewish Montrealers…”

When he was honoured with the Sheila and Victor Goldbloom Distinguished Community Service Award in 2012, Father Walsh explained what motivated him. “My work in interfaith [dialogue] is to change humanity. If we can all reclaim that together, then we can make a better world. Yes, there will be differences. We need to say: How can we become better human beings?”

YidLife Crisis to Lighten That Other Crisis

Oct. 20, 2020


MONTREAL – Jewish community institutions are hoping a little comedy will lift pandemic-weary spirits and bring the socially distanced together, at least virtually.

The Segal Centre for Performing Arts is presenting A Call to Montreal, an original video show created by and starring the irreverent YidLife Crisis duo of Jamie Elman and Eli Batalion this Thursday (Oct. 22) at 7:30 p.m.

Jamie Elman, left, and Eli Batalion make A Call to Montreal outside the Segal Centre for Performing Arts. (Thomas Leblanc-Murray photo)

They promise to “lightly roast and toast” the city and its Jewish community with their trademark smart and sassy humour.

The 45-minute “one-time only” presentation was largely shot this summer on the Jewish Community Campus, with the enthusiastic participation of its key institutions: the Segal, the Sylvan Adams YM-YWHA, the Jewish Public Library, and the Cummings Jewish Centre for Seniors, which all ceased normal operations in March.

Elman and Batalion have been together since they launched YidLife Crisis as a web series in 2014 casting themselves as the youngish Yiddish-speaking odd couple, Chaimie (Elman) and Leizer (Batalion), who literally chew over the big questions of modern Jewish identity in the mama loshen they learned at Bialik High School.

A Call to Montreal follows on their first film love letter to their hometown, the 2018 documentary Chewdaism: A Taste of Jewish Montreal, which was nominated for four Canadian Screen Awards and played Jewish film festivals throughout the United States and elsewhere.

A Call to Montreal is in English with only a smattering of Yiddish, and eating is not on the menu, say the two boychiks, who have already packed on the “quarantine 15” over the past months.

The show is a mix of skits, musical performances, and surprise guests, shot respecting all health protocols on site, as well as remotely.

The Segal and its partner institutions see the event as a way of reaching out to the community and reminding it of “its vitality in the face of adversity.”

The show, which will be live-streamed, will be followed by a real live question-and-answer session between the audience, Batalion and Elman, who lives in Los Angeles but thinks of himself as an honorary Montrealer. He hopes the great Montreal diaspora – Jewish and not – will also be watching.

Tickets are $18 per person or $36 per household, with part of the proceeds going to the institutions involved.

A recording of the show will be available on-demand for up to 48 hours afterward for ticket holders.

The duo will be up against another comedy act scheduled for that night – the second U.S. presidential debate – but that starts at 9 p.m. and will have less Yiddish, they point out.

The idea is to make A Call to Montreal as inclusive as possible, so anyone who cannot afford a ticket should enter their plea at info@yidlifecrisis.com.

For those who want an authentic experience, YidLife Crisis has arranged with the Snowdon Deli a special menu of traditional fare that can be picked up before the show.

“After ‘exporting’ Jewish Montreal to the U.S. and beyond, it gives us great pleasure to ‘return’ to our resilient community and remind them of what they already know: that while we may be down, we’re still alive and – gently – kicking,” says the duo.

As Batalion exhorts in the promotional trailer: “Don’t be a shmendrick, buy your ticket now.” To which Elman adds tongue in cheek: “May you all be inscribed in the Book of Life for 5781 – in a Sharpie.”