‘Mensch’ Father John Walsh Mourned by Jewish Montrealers

Nov. 20, 2020

By JANICE ARNOLD

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?”

First Volume of Leonard Cohen Bio Sheds Light on Enigmatic Troubadour

Oct. 22, 2020

By RUTH SCHWEITZER

Leonard Cohen rarely gave candid interviews and he also managed to avoid media scrutiny. He was a man of mystery cloaked in bohemianism.

Generations of fans of the brilliant Montreal-born poet, novelist and singer-songwriter have been touched by his interesting mind and his penetrating song lyrics for decades. They’ve connected to him, sometimes deeply, yet know little about him.

Leonard Cohen
Leonard Cohen

A new Cohen biography, Leonard Cohen, Untold Stories: The Early Years, published by Simon & Schuster Canada, reveals more about Cohen’s personal and professional life than previous biographies do. At nearly 500 pages long, it will certainly satisfy the inquisitive.

This is the first volume of Michael Posner’s series about Cohen. Posner, a former writer for the Globe and Mail, interviewed more than 500 of Cohen’s friends, associates, one-time lovers, and acquaintances, and gathered enough material for three books. The second volume is due in the fall of 2021, with a third to be released in the fall of 2022.

They are oral biographies, made up of brief excerpts from the interviews Posner conducted, with some quotes from Cohen himself. Posner doesn’t vouch for the accuracy of those memories that often come into conflict. Was it Cohen who gave LSD to the 15-year-old son of his muse, Marianne Ihlen, or was it the boy’s father? From the accounts in the book, it was probably not Cohen, but we’ll never know for sure.

In his introduction to volume one, Posner writes that one of the virtues of oral biography is that “everyone gets to take the stand, and the jurors – readers – decide whose version of the truth they endorse.”

The book opens with chapters about Cohen’s family and his youth in Montreal during the 1940s and ‘50s – he was born in 1934 – and ends in 1969, by the time he’d achieved minor stardom as a songwriter and singer.

Cohen’s grandfather, Lyon Cohen, was president of Montreal’s Shaar Hashomayim synagogue, where the extended Cohen family filled two rows during services. About Judaism, Cohen said: “What I missed in the tradition was that nobody ever spoke to me about methods, about meditations. I was hungry as a young man – I wanted to go into a system a little more thoroughly. I wanted to be exposed to a different kind of mind.”

What Cohen found lacking in Judaism was the seed that propelled him on a lifelong spiritual search, from Scientology to Zen Buddhism. Then at the end of his life, the search brought Cohen back full circle, to Judaism.

Leonard Cohen with his mother, Masha

The most influential woman in Cohen’s life was his mother, Masha. Cohen’s longtime friend, fellow poet Irving Layton, paints a picture of Masha as a stereotypical, domineering Jewish mother, commenting that “her eroticism was directed at Leonard.” Linda Clark attributed his inability to make a full commitment to a woman to Masha, because part of Cohen heart always belonged to her.

But Cohen had a huge appetite for sex. Deadly charming, he was frequently on the prowl and seduced many women. “A friend of mine once asked me if Leonard had ever hit on me,” Cheryl Sourkes says. “I said no. She said, ‘We must be the only two women in Montreal [that he didn’t hit on].’” Many worshipful women were drawn to Cohen, too, attracted to him like metal filings to a magnet, recalls Max Layton, Irving Layton’s son.

Some readers may be troubled by the sexism of Cohen’s generation of men and his younger, artistically inclined male followers, who got easy access to the women around Cohen. “The men around him were treated to the women, whether they were married men or not,” recalls Carol Zemel. “It was one of the ways he held men in his thrall – there were always women around. If he wasn’t sleeping with them, he shared them.”

In 1960, Cohen moved to the Greek Island of Hydra, where he lived with Marianne over a period of seven years, when he wasn’t in Montreal or New York City. Hydra was an artists’ colony and, being the 1960s, sexual freedom was blowing in the wind. But freedom didn’t necessarily make for happiness. “Relationships were unraveling. Everyone was sleeping with everyone else,” says Aviva Layton, Irving Layton’s wife. “Open marriages. It really was a painful, emotionally dangerous time.”

Drugs were easily available on Hydra and Cohen indulged in several, including cannabis, hashish, LSD and amphetamines. Always a hard worker, drugs didn’t stand in the way of his creative output, maybe even enhanced his work.

Leonard Cohen

Several books of Cohen’s poems were published in the 1960s: The Spice Box of Earth in 1961; Flowers for Hitler in 1964, and Parasites of Heaven in 1966. His semi-autobiographical novel, The Favourite Game, came out in 1963, and a second novel, Beautiful Losers, was published in 1966.

The critic Leslie Fiedler said Beautiful Losers was either one of the best or worst novels he’d ever read – he wasn’t sure which. 

Critic Myra Bloom wrote that Beautiful Losers’ “experimental form, along with its critique of history, religion and other metanarratives, make it a perfect object lesson in Canadian postmodernism.” But she added that “lately, though, the book has started to resemble a how-to guide for writers who want to tank their literary careers.”

Sales were poor for Beautiful Losers, so Cohen decided to become a singer-songwriter. But it was not just for the money, Barry Wexler, a Canadian writer and producer and friend of Cohen’s for 50 years, maintains: “Leonard never thought he’d be spoken of in the same breath as T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound and e.e. cummings – or even first-rate poets like Sylvia Plath, Langston Hughes, and Allen Ginsberg,” Wexler said. “He knew he was good, but didn’t think he was great. That, in part, is why he applied his talent to song. There, a minor poet – no small thing in itself – could become a major lyricist.”

The release of Cohen’s first album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, in 1967, foreshadowed the kind of chart success he would go on to achieve. The album, which included Cohen’s signature song, Suzanne, reached No. 83 on the Billboard 200 and peaked at No. 13 on the UK Albums Chart. Cohen had made it to the bottom rung of stardom.

Cohen wasn’t a good singer, but by 1967, that no longer mattered, after a folksinger with a whiny voice, Bob Dylan, had paved the way for Cohen to become successful singing his own songs. Audiences were beginning to appreciate what songwriters bring to performances of their own material.

Leonard Cohen, Untold Stories: The Early Years is a detailed account of Cohen’s fascinating early life and career. For serious Cohen fans, it’s a page-tuner.

On the Record: Canadian Jewish Musicians of Note

Malka Marom (Jan. 21, 1936 – ), Joso Spralja (May 23, 1929 – Aug. 8, 2017)

MALKA & JOSO, Folksingers

Sept. 25, 2020 – By DAVID EISENSTADT

One of the joys of writing Canadian Jewish Musicians of Note is that I get many suggestions from many people from many places about many musicians.

My long-time Ottawa friend David Dunlop nominated Malka & Joso by reminding me that he was “smitten” by Malka when he was a host at Expo ’67’s Canada pavilion in Montreal. Recalled Dunlop: “I met Malka Himel (as the Canadian Encyclopedia lists her surname) when she and Joso were playing there. I invited her as my date to celebrate at the Canada Day party for the hosts and hostesses of all the national pavilions. After that, I never saw her again.”

A Holocaust survivor, Malka Marom and her Polish parents came to Palestine when she was six weeks old. As a child, she debuted in The Village Tale, the first Israeli-produced TV movie. And as a teenager, she loved folk dancing and singing in the Dalia Festival.

Malka moved to Toronto in the early 1960s, got married and ultimately formed half of the folk singing duo Malka & Joso with fellow singer, Croatian-born Joso Spralja. They are credited with “bringing ‘ethnic’ music to Canada for the first time and never tried passing as WASPs,” Robert Everett-Green wrote in The Globe and Mail.

Joso (who was not Jewish) arrived in Canada from Croatia in 1962 and was introduced to Malka by guitarist Eli Kassner (who later played lead guitar on all of Malka’s recordings) at an after-hours club in Toronto’s Yorkville district, called The 71. Thus began a partnership as an eclectic-world folk music duo, with their first performance at Toronto’s Lord Simcoe Hotel in 1963, followed by tours across Canada, the U.S. and UK.

Malka was the spokesperson for the twosome, since Joso knew little English. She introduced their songs and translated the lyrics, inventing storylines to augment the numbers that made up each set.

They played the Mariposa Folk Festival in 1964 with Ian & Sylvia, Jerry Gray and The Travellers, and Gordon Lightfoot.

They were signed by Capitol EMI Canada, the result of an introduction made by iconic retailer Sam (“The Record Man”) Sniderman. Their first album, Introducing Malka & Joso, included guitarist Rafael Nunez and bassist Fred Muscat.

“They recorded each song as if it was performed live – vocals and instrumentals in one take, producing enough material for two albums,” wrote Croatia.org. They released three additional albums: Mostly Love Songs (which won an RPM Award in 1965, when the duo won the year’s Best Folk Group); Jewish Songs – Hebrew & English and Malka & Joso – Folk Songs From Around the World.

In 1966, they headlined a weekly CBC-TV series called Malka & Joso’s a World of Music TV, “which projected an image of cosmopolitanism that is perfect,” wrote Toronto Star music critic Robert Fulford. 

The duo parted ways in 1967, with Joso becoming a celebrity restaurateur. Malka continued singing on her own. Between tours, she hosted, wrote and sang on the weekly CBC Radio show, Song of Our People and CITY TV’s weekly show Mosaic.

Over the years, she interviewed Pablo Casals (three months before he died at 96), Leonard Cohen, Moshe Dayan, Joni Mitchell, Nana Mouskouri and Gilles Vigneault. She was nominated five times for ACTRA Awards, winning one for her eight-hour radio documentary, The Bite of the Big Apple.

Malka wrote her first novel, Sulha during tour of the Sinai. It was lauded by Canadian critics. The Jerusalem Post reported, “Rare in the avalanche of books on the Arab-Israeli conflict, most of which take a stand. Sulha gives every side its say in the infinitely complex situation.” She told the Post, “I refused to make it simple. Life is not simple, nor is forgiveness, reconciliation and peace, especially in the Middle East.”

Her second book, Joni Mitchell: In Her Own Words, was published in 2014, and Conversation with Leonard Cohen in 2015.

A CD retrospective of their music was released in 2001. Famed tenor Andrea Bocelli “could learn a lot from Joso,” pronounced the Globe and Mail. “But Joso probably would not have been as effective without Malka’s alto sung in such an intimate way as to make it seem like the sound of drying salt water tears or full-throated, like a field worker with both feet in the soil.”

Married and living in Toronto, Malka is the proud mother of two sons: TV and film documentary producer Martin Himel, who lives in Tel Aviv, and Daniel Marom, an educator living in Jerusalem.

She’s currently writing a book about Malka & Joso. The focus, she told me, “is about our contribution to creating a better understanding of the challenges facing immigrants coming to Canada.”


David Eisenstadt is Founding Partner of tcgpr.com and a graduate of Carleton University’s School of Journalism and the University of Calgary

Pulling Up Steaks: Venerable Moishes Leaves The Main After Eight Decades

By JANICE ARNOLD

MONTREAL—The bold, red sign looming over St. Laurent Boulevard that immortalized a poor Romanian-Jewish immigrant for generations will soon disappear with the closure of the eponymous Moishes restaurant, which has been at the same location since it opened in 1938.

The landmark is one of Montreal’s oldest and most famous dining establishments.

A casualty of the pandemic and possibly the vision of the upscale steakhouse’s new owners, Moishes will rise again someday, somewhere, promises its manager Lenny Lighter, son of Moishe. But if it does, the restaurant’s legion of devotees know it will never be the same.

Lighter and his brother Larry, who took over the eatery from their father, sold Moishes to the Sportscene group, a company that most notably owns the Cage aux Sports chain of resto-bars, in December 2018. Lenny stayed on as manager.

Like all restaurants, Moishes had been closed since March when the province went into lockdown. The Quebec government gave Montreal restaurants the green light to reopen on June 22, and patrons grew nervous as the weeks passed but no word came on when they could sink their teeth again into one of Moishes’ “charbroiled, dry-aged” strip loins, with sides like chopped liver and matzoh ball soup.

On July 8, a website post revealed that the owners were “still evaluating our options,” but the tone was upbeat. Then, this month, Lighter made known that Moishes was “on hiatus” indefinitely. Although it had not been public, Moishes’ lease was expiring at the end of this year and the owners had concrete plans to move the restaurant downtown, to Victoria Square.

Lighter explained the move would breathe new life into the venerable institution; moving it closer to offices and hotels, where it would attract more workers and tourists.

Sportscene was about to make a $5 million investment in the new premises and construction was set to begin Aug. 1, Lighter said, but when COVID hit and the restaurant industry went into a tailspin, it was felt it “would not make sense” to go ahead with the project.

Lighter said the “intent” remains that Moishes returns, but that will depend on the course of the pandemic and the economy.

According to legend, Moishe Lighter, who immigrated to Montreal in the 1920s, was a busboy who won the restaurant in a poker game. It was originally called Romanian Paradise, and was situated in the heart of the immigrant Jewish district, now known as the Plateau Mont-Royal.

The name was changed to Moishe’s around the beginning of the Second World War (the apostrophe was dropped in the 1970s to conform to Bill 101, Quebec’s French language charter.)

In its early decades, the clientele was largely Jewish. Traditional Eastern European fare was kept on the menu right up to the present day, although there was no pretense of being “kosher style,” as shrimp cocktail and lobster rolls were gradually added.

Also preserved over the decades was the ambience. Moishes was upstairs, removed from the bustle of the gritty “Main.” Patrons entered an elegant Old World dining room, with chandeliers and starched white table linen, subdued lighting, and hushed tones. Formally attired waiters were attentive but discreet. Many of the staff worked there for decades; at least one server clocked over 50 years. And Lenny and/or Larry were always on site seeing that diners were happy.

Their father’s black-and-white photo remained the logo, over the cursive Moishes signature.

For certain families, Friday night Shabbat dinner at Moishes was a long-running tradition. Eiran Harris, a volunteer in the Jewish Public Library archives for many years, said he made sure to conserve an old menu someone donated to its holdings because he recognized that the restaurant was a piece of Montreal Jewish history.

Plenty of celebrities ate there over that history: Hollywood actors, sports personalities, politicians. A Polish cardinal named Karol Wojtyla reportedly had a satisfying meal under Lighter’s watch during a Canadian visit in 1969. Wojtyla later became Pope John Paul II.

In 2012, Forbes magazine rated Moishes among the top 10 steakhouses in the world, just one of the numerous accolades the restaurant has received from the media and industry.

Writer Mordecai Richler was a frequent patron, apparently drawn as much to the Scotch as the steak. He made oblique references to a Moishes-like eatery in his novels.

Troubadour Leonard Cohen also came often when he was in town. Cohen, who died in 2016, maintained a home nearby.

Lighter recalled that Cohen, whom he considered a friend, preferred the lamb chops, accompanied by a red Bordeaux.

This was borne out with the posthumous publication in 2018 of The Flame, a collection of Cohen’s previously unpublished poems and lyrics that he had compiled as a final work. One of the pieces, entitled “Lambchops,” dated 2006, opens with the lines: “Thinking of those lambchops of Moishe’s the other night.” Fittingly, his family held a wake for Cohen at Moishes.

Moishes’ heyday was probably in the 1970s when expense accounts received little scrutiny, liquid lunches were de rigueur, and red meat was considered healthy.

Retired accountant turned thriller writer Robert Landori recalled that for several years, he took the manager of his bank to Moishes at least once a week mid-day.

“He was an aficionado of steak and Scotch – always two, and then back to work. What I remember most is our waiter; he knew everybody, he remembered what we ate and drank, how I liked my steak. We won’t see the like of Moishes again.”