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.”

Natan Sharansky and Irwin Cotler: ‘Mr. No’ and ‘Getting to Yes’


My wife jokes that the two reasons she failed to learn constitutional law at McGill University’s law school are named Irwin Cotler and Natan Sharansky.

In the mid-1980s, Cotler, her constitutional law professor, was busy flying to Moscow and missing lectures in an effort to free Sharansky from the Gulag. Today, I joke that two of the reasons I don’t get a lot of sleep are named Cotler and Sharansky.

At the age of 80, the indefatigable Cotler sets such a high standard of productivity and impact, you want to keep up. Just yesterday, he was named by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as Canada’s first Special Envoy on Preserving Holocaust Remembrance and Combatting Antisemitism. Meanwhile, his younger 72-year-old friend, Sharansky, and I just finished a three-year-marathon writing and rewriting and more rewriting project, which resulted in our new book, Never Alone.

These days, I hope, young people will joke that two of the reasons they balance their deep pride in being Jewish and Zionist with a broad commitment to human rights and fixing the world are named Cotler and Sharansky, too.

Sadly, in our either-or world, these human rights activists and traditional liberals risk being unfashionable. Beyond supporting Israel, they dare to be complex thinkers. When people demand they choose liberalism or nationalism, identity or freedom, Jewish particularism or universalism, they answer, “yes, both.” They understand that to row effectively, you need two oars; that for a bird to fly, let alone soar, it needs two wings.

In the late 1970s, Cotler, already a renowned McGill law professor and human rights lawyer, started representing Sharansky, essentially deputized by Natan’s wife, Avital. Back then, even some Israeli operatives read Zionism too narrowly. As we describe in Never Alone, these Zionists-with-blinders feared that Sharansky’s work with the Soviet human rights icon Andrei Sakharov and the broader dissident movement endangered the Refusenik movement’s fight for free emigration for Soviet Jews to Israel. The Israelis didn’t understand that to the KGB, seeking to leave was as threatening as speaking out. Still, they pressured Avital, suggesting she divorce her husband because the KGB was going to jail him, and Israel wouldn’t be able to protect him because he crossed some line They also pressured Cotler, among others, to stay away from Sharansky. None of them broke.

While appealing to international tribunals and Soviet courts, snaring the Communist dictators in their own hypocrisies, Cotler helped score a huge victory. Two months after Sharansky’s arrest in 1977 on trumped-up charges of espionage, rumours were flying about him in the West. Cotler and other lawyers, especially his Harvard law school colleague Alan Dershowitz, turned to Dershowitz’s former student, Stuart Eizenstat, then U.S. President Jimmy Carter’s chief domestic policy adviser. Eizenstat convinced Carter to break from standard American policy and declare that Sharansky wasn’t an America spy. Denying one accusation risked implying that others might be guilty. Carter’s bold statement helped tremendously.

For all their similarities in vision and ideology, for all their contributions to Zionism and human rights, there’s a profound difference. Our book is divided into three parts – 9-9-9 – for Sharansky’s nine years in Gulag, nine years in the Israeli government (he served in four cabinets, including as interior minister and deputy prime minister), and nine years as head of the Jewish Agency for Israel. He often jokes that he doesn’t know where he suffered most, but usually replies, “in politics.”

Not that he wasn’t effective. His many accomplishments range from helping Russian immigrants settle, to furthering Israel’s privatization, to building bridges between Israeli Arabs and Jews, the ultra-Orthodox and others, and between Israel and the Diaspora.

Still, Sharansky hated being a politician: the compromising, the posturing, the nattering. He jokes it was easy in prison. “All you had to say was ‘no.’” He describes his political “failure” by saying: “I was in four prisons and never resigned; I was in four governments and resigned twice.”

By contrast, Cotler served for 16 years as a Member of Parliament, as a Minister of Justice and Attorney General for three of those, and thrived. He retired, somewhat reluctantly, in 2015 at age 75, having been selected by his peers as Canadian Parliamentarian of the Year. Recalling that when he was 11, his father told him the Parliament represented vox populi, Cotler said: “This is the voice of the people. This is the seat of governance. This is where the laws of the country are made. This is where the national debates take place. This is where coalitions can form across party lines on certain cases and causes and move them forward.”

Note the power of programming. Sharansky survived in the Gulag as “Mr. No.” Cotler thrived as a lawyer, professor, activist, and parliamentarian by getting to Yes. Democracy in general and human rights work in particular requires both skill-sets – from different practitioners. You need Sharansky-dissidents taking those stands as outsiders, and you need Cotler-lawyer-legislators as insiders building the platforms on which those stands are made – as well as the safety nets to save the dissidents when necessary.

I have benefited immensely by learning from both. Their lives prove that when you belong to the Jewish people you are Never Alone – and that no matter how brave or visionary you are, you cannot accomplish much alone. You need teamwork, people with different skills, changing the world step by step, insiders and outsiders, “Mr. No” and “Getting to Yes,” working together.

Gil Troy
Gil Troy

Recently designated one of Algemeiner’s J-100 – one of the top 100 people “positively influencing Jewish life” – Gil Troy is a Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University, and the author of nine books on American history and three books on Zionism. His book, Never Alone: Prison, Politics and My People, co-authored with Natan Sharansky, was recently published by PublicAffairs of Hachette.

BGU Palliative Care Centre Memorializes Kappy Flanders

Nov. 13, 2020 


MONTREAL—“I don’t beat around the bush. I can’t use all these euphemisms. In my book, people don’t pass away, they die.”

That memorable quote from Kappy Flanders summed up her unflinching attitude toward death. People retreat into vague terms because of fear, she believed, and avoidance of reality has meant that too many endure their final days without proper care.

Kappy Flanders
Kappy Flanders

Flanders, who died in June at age 81, devoted her last three decades as a volunteer to the improvement of palliative care, urging greater access and quality and, equally, dispelling misconceptions about what it is.

She endowed an academic chair in palliative medicine at McGill University in 1994, the first of its kind in North America, and was instrumental in the creation of the grassroots Council on Palliative Care in Montreal, a public education and advocacy group. She went on national initiatives.

Flanders cringed at “medical aid in dying,” insisting on calling it euthanasia. If there was adequate end-of-life care, relieving physical and psychic pain, doctors would not have to be put in the position of terminating lives, she contended.

The motivation for her activism was watching her husband Eric suffer for 18 months with the lung cancer that would kill him in 1991 in his 50s. Medical treatment was intense, but no professional support to ease the course of his illness was known to her in Montreal.

When her mother, who lived in Israel, died of cancer a couple of years later there, Flanders was impressed by the hospice approach that allowed her to die comfortably and peacefully.

In 2000, Flanders established the Eric M. Flanders Endowment Fund in Palliative Medicine at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) to strengthen its nascent training in palliative care.

Flanders, who grew up in a Zionist family in London, England, remembered meeting David Ben-Gurion as a child. Her husband was a founder of the Canadian Associates of BGU in 1973 and its first president.

Two decades on, BGU has fulfilled Flanders’s vision. In October, it inaugurated the Kappy and Eric Flanders National Palliative Care Resource Centre, described as the first of its kind in Israel. It brings under one roof multidisciplinary academic education, practical training and research, as well as play an advocacy role.

Dr. Pesach Shvartzman, director of the palliative unit at Soroka Medical Centre and chair of the health ministry’s committee to establish national standards in palliative care, is the centre’s director.

“We believe this centre will help make palliative care much more accessible throughout Israel, just as Kappy would have wanted,” he said.

The centre, in whose development Flanders took a keen interest up to her death, was made possible with a significant donation from the Prosserman family of Toronto. Ron Prosserman said at the virtual dedication, that it was his longtime friend, Dr. Vivian Rakoff, former head of psychiatry at the University of Toronto, who died earlier in the month, who suggested the gift.

Flanders’s three daughters, Susan, Judith and Elle, said the centre is a fitting tribute to their mother’s work from which she never flagged. 

“When she believed something should happen, she made it happen,” said Susan of her mother, who inducted into the Order of Canada in 2015.

In addition to Shvartzman, the centre’s founding members are Drs. Yoram Singer and Mark Clarfield, both originally from Canada, and Tali Samson. The centre also has an international advisory board that includes Dr. Bernard Lapointe, chief of palliative care at Montreal’s Jewish General Hospital and until recently, holder of the Flanders chair in palliative medicine at McGill.

“Kappy was a connector, bringing together volunteers, professionals, intellectuals, artists and leaders, all around the cause of quality end-of-life care,” said Lapointe, who called her a mentor.

Flanders died – not passed away – the way she wanted for herself, and everyone: at home, surrounded by her family.

An Undelivered Submission on Bill 168

Nov. 2, 2020

On Oct. 26, Ontario’s cabinet surprised many when it decided to bypass committee hearings and adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism, contained in Bill 168, the “Combating Antisemitism Act.” Ontario thus became Canada’s first province to adopt the definition.

Bill 168 passed second reading earlier this year and according to one source, more than 100 Ontarians had requested a chance to appear before the Standing Committee on Justice Policy to have their say – both for and against adopting the IHRA definition, or to suggest amendments.

Among the undelivered deputations was the following from Randi Skurka, appearing as an individual.

Good morning/afternoon, 

Firstly, I’d like to thank the committee for the opportunity to participate in today’s hearing.

As the most widely accepted definition of antisemitism in the world today, endorsed by a growing number of countries, academic bodies, even making inroads in the Middle East, it is crucial that Ontario adopt the IHRA definition.

I am forever grateful to my grandparents, who bravely left Poland a century ago to make their home here in Toronto. Fleeing pogroms and deeply ingrained prejudices, they came in search of a better life where they could live as Jews in freedom and safety. My 92-year-old father remembers the antisemitism he experienced as a young person, even here. I grew up believing that those days were over. But I was wrong.

According to Statistics Canada, Jews are the most targeted group for police-reported hate crimes in the country. Jewish students on campuses across Canada have been singled out, ostracized or attacked for years simply for expressing their Jewish identity. For example, over the past year alone, they were denied kosher food at the University of Toronto, kicked off the student union at McGill University for planning a visit to Israel, and at York University, were threatened with violence for attending a talk featuring Israeli speakers. Antisemitism masquerading behind the veneer of anti-Zionism is a growing problem in Canada and internationally.

It all starts with words. When Israel Apartheid Week was launched at U of T in 2005, it used hateful rhetoric singling out Israel alone as a human rights abuser. Together with the BDS movement, which has been condemned by our own prime minister, Justin Trudeau, as blatantly antisemitic, these campaigns have proliferated around the world, creating a toxic atmosphere in which harassment and targeting of Jewish students have become mainstream.

These movements represent themselves as peaceful, nonviolent forms of protest. But the last two decades have proven otherwise. Conceived by known anti-Israel activists, whose clearly stated goals are the complete elimination of the State of Israel, the manifestation of these movements has been nothing less than the total isolation and social death of any student or faculty member that dares to defend Israel’s right to exist. 

A recent survey has shown that the Canadian Jewish community, small but mighty, defines itself with things like Holocaust remembrance, tradition, and working for social justice. Though widely diverse religiously and politically, one feature among all others unites them – for a full 86 percent of Canadian Jews, their connection to Israel is an important and essential part of their identity. 

The IHRA definition clearly states that criticism of Israel in the form of civil discourse is not considered antisemitic. Yet, all too often, this criticism is presented in a historical vacuum without any sense of context, intended to mislead its audience. This is exactly what the Soviet Union did starting in the late 1940’s – take those old canards and hateful caricatures, and harness them to persecute and demonize Jews now behind a façade of anti-Zionism. How soon we have forgotten the decades of oppression and incarceration of Soviet Jewish dissidents simply because of their identity.

These are the same dangerous myths that are rearing their ugly heads today.

Just this past July, two anti-Israel rallies, one in Toronto, one in Mississauga, graphically demonstrated how anti-Zionism is used as a cover for plain old antisemitism. They were organized by known hate groups with a strong presence on Ontario campuses. Far from peaceful, they quickly devolved into hatemongering and incitement to violence, with the chanting of slogans such as “intifada, intifada”, “from the river to the sea,” and most frightening of all, “The Jews are our dogs.” Is this any way to rally for human rights, here, in Ontario?

The Arab-Israeli conflict is longstanding and very complex. The only way to resolve the issues is for the two parties to sit down together at the negotiating table and have direct dialogue. Just recently, Canada applauded as Sudan followed UAE and Bahrain in establishing a peace agreement with Israel. The Middle East is rapidly changing and finally acknowledging Israel as a partner and a neighbour. This is the way of true progress and liberalism.

It’s time to leave the ancient myths and medieval tropes in the past, where they belong. To embrace each other and give each other space. To listen to one other. To rely on data and facts on the ground. To promote freedom. To build bridges, instead of threatening destruction. The IHRA definition of antisemitism will help to confront the escalating revival of an ancient hatred, and stop it once and for all, so that all of us may feel welcome and safe.

Thank you.

Randi Skurka

Randi Skurka is a writer and lay leader in the Jewish community, with a focus on education and antisemitism. She sits on the boards of Beth Sholom Synagogue and StandWithUs Canada, and holds a Master of Arts degree in Jewish Studies.

On The Record: Canadian Jewish Musicians of Note

Chilly Gonzales, aka Jason Beck (March 20, 1972 – )
Pianist, Singer/Songwriter/Producer, Rapper

Sept. 30, 2020 – By DAVID EISENSTADT

Classical piano compositions with a pop music sensibility. That only begins to describe Jason Beck’s musical contributions.

“After making his name as an average alt-rocker and a rather awful comic rapper, the Canadian eccentric now dresses in a smoking jacket and serves as a one-man cheerleader for the piano,” wrote John Lewis in The Guardian.

The son of Ashkenazi Jews who fled Hungary to Toronto during the Second World War, Beck began playing the piano at age 3. As a classical piano student at McGill University, he co-composed several musicals with his brother, billing himself as a jazz pianist.

“Growing up, I had a complex relationship with studying music,” Gonzales told completemusicupdate.com in 2017. “I wanted to be inspired and challenged, not ‘taught.’”

After leading the alternative rock band Son in the 1990s, he was signed by Warner Music Canada to a three-album contract in 1995. But, as The Montreal Mirror reported, his dealings with the Canadian music industry’s expectations were “difficult,” so he moved to Berlin in 1999.

Beck spoke no German, “but declared himself the President of the Berlin Underground and adopted the name Chilly Gonzales,” reported Neil McCormick in The Telegraph.

The moniker is a brand, not a persona, he told The New Yorker’s Alex Wilkinson. “At a certain moment, Jason Beck didn’t sound so good. There was Beck and there was [guitarist] Jeff Beck. I wanted a name that dared people to underestimate me. To be a classical musician and an amateur rapper isn’t that much of a stretch if your name is Chilly Gonzalez.”

He sometimes introduces himself as “Chilly Gonzalez, musical genius.”

“Take a classically-trained pianist with a depth of knowledge in musical theory and harmony, add the comprehension of pop/rock with the ability to rap, and you have Chilly Gonzalez,” summarized the CBC.

His most notable works are contained on Solo Piano, his best-selling album produced in 2004, and Solo Piano II in 2013, widely known for the song Never Stop, some of which was used by Apple in the first iPad commercial. Gonzales released Solo Piano III in 2018.

His talent for producing and writing songs for other artists led to work with singer Jane Birkin, indie rocker Leslie Feist, and Peaches. He collaborated with Feist on her 2003 album Let It Die and her 2007 album The Reminder, which was nominated for four Grammy Awards and won five Juno Awards. He also worked closely with Jhene Aiko and on Drake’s third album Nothing Was The Same.

He also collaborated with Daft Punk to produce Random Access Memories, which won a Grammy Award in for 2013’s Album of The Year.

Gonzo, as he is known to close friends, signed a contract with Mercury in 2008 and released a pop recording, Soft Power, which listeners likened to the styles of Billy Joel and the Bee Gees.

In 2009, Gonzales set a new world record for the longest solo-artist performance, with a total time of 27 hours, 3 minutes and 44 seconds, playing over 300 songs.

In 2018, he launched The Gonzervatory, a groundbreaking music school “where freedom and fun coexist with discipline and reverence,” as his website described the initiative.

Open to every musician 18 and older from all parts of the globe, students, together with their professors, explore what Gonzales calls “Musical Humanism, audience psychology and what it means to be a performing musician in 2019.”

Those chosen as finalists hone their skills in preparation for a final concert led by Gonzales himself.

He expects to be back on tour in Europe in December to play all his shows that were cancelled by COVID.

Anyone who has seen him live cannot but note that Gonzales is deeply talented and has a lot of fun on stage. Musicians “shouldn’t have to choose between fun and knowledge,” he believes. “It’s a false choice.”

David Eisenstadt
David Eisenstadt

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