Editorial: Jewish Jurists Serve to Remind Us of Justice

Sept. 23, 2020 – As Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement approaches, we turn our minds to justice – appropriate, given the recent death of the legendary Jewish American Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Justice Ginsburg was a wisp of a woman but whose heart was Olympian and whose soul burned fiercely on behalf of those less fortunate, especially women who have, for much of the past century, been treated like second class citizens in the United States. Her decisions were wise, pointed, and filled with the juice of needed change and progress.

Justice has always played a central role in Judaism. Great Jewish biblical heroes, prophets, and philosophers have pointed to the key Jewish precept, “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof” (“Justice, justice shall you pursue.” It appears initially in the Book of Deuteronomy and is part of a set of regulations that bestow on the Jewish people a code of moral behaviour.

Why is the word “justice” repeated twice? The Torah is a very precise book. Each word has been measured for meaning and argued over by great rabbis over many centuries. Perhaps the most widely accepted explanation comes from the most broadly respected rabbi of the 11th century, Rashi, who explains that not only must judges make wise decisions, which accounts for the first “tzedek,” but, as importantly, those in a position of choosing judges must also choose wisely, referring to the second “tzedek.” This gives the people comfort knowing that the courts of justice are populated by good and decent people making judicious decisions.

There is another, more modern interpretation. Some believe the second cry of “justice-tzedek” emphasizes the Jewish values of treating the stranger fairly, feeding the poor, and extending love to our neighbours despite our differences.

In North America, Jewish men and women have figured prominently in the choice of judges. To our great fortune and that of society in general, these Jews have embraced their Jewish values of pursuing justice.

Undoubtedly, “Notorious RBG,” as Ginsburg came to be known, was one of many such Jewish jurists who graced courtrooms in the United States and Canada and did so with a Jewish heart. They were perhaps not as well-known, but certainly as deserving.

From Tillie Taylor, Saskatchewan’s first female Jewish magistrate; to Nathaniel Nemetz, former Chief Justice of British Columbia; to Samuel Freedman, Chief Justice of Manitoba. All three played a key role in the jurisprudence of western Canada.

On the east coast, Constance Glube was the first Jewish woman appointed Chief Justice of Nova Scotia.

In Quebec, where antisemitism was more prevalent than elsewhere in Canada, Jews nonetheless held senior judicial positions: Alan Gold was Chief Justice of Quebec’s Superior Court, and Harry Batshaw and Herbert Marx held sway as a Quebec Superior Court justices (Marx had also been Quebec’s justice minister.)

Ontario also saw the appointment of many Jews to the bench, including Charles Dubin as Chief Justice of Ontario; John I. Laskin, a justice of the Court of Appeal for Ontario and a former legal counsel to Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC); and Sydney Harris, a judge of the Ontario Provincial Court and former national president of CJC.

Today’s Ontario bench features another past president and legal counsel of CJC, Edward Morgan; Justice Katherine Feldman; Justice Paul Perell; and recently appointed Justice Edward Prutschi.

And of course, Canada’s Supreme Court has been positively influenced by some of Canada’s most eminent jurists. Bora Laskin also a former chair of CJC’s legal committee was, famously, the first Jewish Canadian to be Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada. Others on the land’s highest court were Rosalie Abella, the first Jewish woman to reach Canada’s high court, as well as Morris Fish, Michael Moldaver, and Marshall Rothstein.

Each of these jurists not only upheld the highest legal ethics, but did so as proud Jews who were raised with the understanding that in the Jewish tradition, justice and atonement are the highest ideals.

We at the Canadian Jewish Record are proud of those in our community who are lights unto the nation. As we encounter a very special, socially-distant Yom Kippur, may we all be judged for our good deeds. And may those we hurt either by deed or word forgive us.

On the Record: Canadian Jewish Musicians of Note

Zara Nelsova – (Dec. 24, 1917 – Oct. 10, 2002): Cellist, Teacher

Aug. 24, 2020 – By DAVID EISENSTADT

World-renowned cellist Zara Nelsova was born Sara Katznelson. Her Jewish parents and two older sisters emigrated from Russia to Winnipeg, lured by the offer of free land in Canada. Classified as a farmer, her professionally-trained flautist father, Gregor Katznelson, (later changed to Nelsov) recognized Sara’s potential at age four, converted a viola into a miniature cello, and as her teacher, helped Sara become an accomplished soloist.

Her father also arranged for young Sara to take lessons from Hungarian-born cellist (also a child prodigy) Dezso Mahalek, who played with a Winnipeg theatre orchestra.

The three Nelsova sisters (Sara was 10 at the time) founded the Canadian Trio in 1927, as The Telegraph reported, “touring the Dominion” and winning first prize at a Manitoba music competition.

One of the judges, Sir Hugh Robertson, conductor of the Glasgow Orpheus Choir, urged the family to move to London with the help of a grant from the province’s Ministry of Education. The clan was poor and needed subsidies.

Sara ultimately enrolled at the London Violoncello School, directed by Herbert Walenn. One of his previous students was John Barbirolli, from whom she claimed to learn her sound and who arranged for her to perform for renowned cellist Pablo Casals.

Wrote Sara Margolis in Strings Magazine, “At 12, she was already a great cellist. But seeking improvement long past the beginning of her professional career, she went on to study with the three great cellists of the day: Gregor Piatigorsky, Emmanuel Feuermann, and Pablo Casals. Nelsova’s humility in seeking out further guidance was coupled with confidence and assertiveness, qualities that stood her in good stead both musically and professionally.

“She gained the opportunity to study with Piatigorsky by showing up unannounced to play prior to an early morning departure at his hotel. She caught conductor William Steinberg’s attention by planting her cello directly in front of him after a rehearsal and just started playing. All that plus a name change, and before long, Zara Nelsova had been crowned cello royalty.” 

At 13, she was a guest soloist with the London Symphony Orchestra, appearing with Sir Malcolm Sargent.

Over the next 10 years, Zara Nelsova played as a soloist and with her sisters Ida, a violinist and Anna on piano, travelling throughout Australia, North Africa and South Africa.

Returning to Canada in 1939, Nelsova became principal cellist of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra from 1940-43. She also formed a new Canadian trio with Ernest MacMillan and Kathleen Parlow.

After the Second World War, The Guardian reported, “Zara was left the use of a Stradivarius cello that belonged to [Portuguese cellist Guilhermina] Suggia. Though perhaps a little small for her very swollen fingers later on, it was a lovely instrument, and the sound she drew from it was exceedingly special.” Her 1726 Stradivarius cello was known as the Marquis de Corberon.

“Further studies with Emanuel Feuermann and Gregor Piatigorsky, and after 1946, with Pablo Casals, opened up solo and concerto engagements for Nelsova,” noted The Canadian Encyclopedia. “She made recordings with Samuel Barber and the cello music of Ernest Bloch, who said ‘Zara Nelsova is my music.’”

She became an American citizen in 1955, performing with many global orchestras as a soloist, including the New York Philharmonic and orchestras in Montreal, Winnipeg and Boston and overseas in Berlin, Amsterdam and Warsaw. She married American pianist Grant Johnannsen with whom she often performed and recorded.

As a soloist, she performed with conductors who became household names: Leonard Bernstein, Daniel Barenboim, and Zubin Mehta. She was the first American cellist to tour the Soviet Union in 1966, and taught at New York’s famed Juilliard School of Music from 1962 through 2002.

“For me, playing music is about sharing, sharing my love for music and sharing my love for what we are as human beings,” she told cello.org in 2000. “The minute I start to play, I’m in a different world, and I’m so caught up in the music and in my desire to share it with the audience that all else fades away. The overwhelming feeling I get is a sense of connection with each person in the audience; I want the audience members to know how much I love what I am doing and how much I love them. And how do I do it? I do it by trying to communicate my love through beautiful music.”


David Eisenstadt
David Eisenstadt

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

Comper Revamps Group that Fights Antisemitism

Aug. 4, 2020

The rise in antisemitic incidents has revitalized FAST.

Fighting Antisemitism Together, or FAST, was founded in 2005 by former Bank of Montreal CEO Tony Comper and his late wife, Elizabeth.

Elizabeth and Tony Comper

It had the backing of some 30 blue-chip non-Jewish business executives, including leaders of Toronto-Dominion Bank, Manulife Financial Corp., Bombardier Inc., Stelco, Bell Canada, and BCE Inc. Each executive put $10,000 toward the effort.

Over the past 15 years, FAST has fashioned free education programs geared to middle schools and high schools, and has reached 4.4 million students at more than 22,000 schools.

According to a recent report in the Globe and Mail, FAST is now joining the Canadian Institute for the Study of Antisemitism (CISA), a scholarly organization that publishes the academic journal Antisemitism Studies. CISA founding director Catherine Chatterley, who teaches modern European history at the University of Manitoba and edits the journal, is taking over as FAST’s chair and president.

Polls and surveys show that antisemitic incidents continue to rise in Canada, and that in Toronto and suburbs, Jews are the most targeted group for hate crimes.

According to B’nai Brith Canada’s most recent audit, there were 2,207 antisemitic incidents nationally in 2019 – more than six a day – an eight percent increase over the year before. It was the fourth consecutive record-setting year for antisemitism in Canada, and online harassment was up by 11 percent, the audit revealed.

“The obvious question is, if you’re doing such a wonderful job, why isn’t it having an impact on antisemitism?” Comper was quoted as telling the Globe. “The increase in the incidences justifies exactly why we’re doing what we’re doing and the need for it.”

The classroom is the ideal incubator for change, he said.

Tony Comper. Photo University of Haifa

“To fundamentally change, you need to focus on education of young people and equip them with an alternative narrative to what they’re hearing either at home, or in the street or in the school yard,” Comper said.

He has promised to fund FAST for the next two years, and plans to stay on as an adviser working with Chatterley to build fundraising and administration.

CISA is “very pleased to be affiliated with FAST,” Chatterley told the CJR via email.

“We plan to build on FAST’s demonstrated success and ensure that all Canadian students have an opportunity to study this award-winning human rights curriculum with an emphasis on anti-Semitism,” she added. “We hope to work toward making these subjects a permanent part of the school curriculum in all regions of Canada.”

CISA one of seven institutes in the world dedicated to the scholarly study of antisemitism.