On the Record: Canadian Jewish Musicians of Note

Dec. 7, 2020

Sheldon I. (Shelley) Posen (Apr. 12, 1946 – ) Folklorist, Singer, Songwriter, Museum Curator

By DAVID EISENSTADT

Shelley Posen is “keenly concerned about Jewish continuity and aware of the realities we face,” he told me in a recent phone conversation.

Posen has written two (of many) songs that reflect his concerns: Will The Children Light the Candles? from his CD, Menorah: Songs from a Jewish Life and The Chanukah and Christmas Song, about an interfaith household “because there are so many and some very close to me.” That one will be on his next recording Jacob Solomon, to be released post-COVID.

Thanks are due to friend Cynthia Nathanson, who introduced me to Posen, a versatile singer and multi-instrumentalist whose career includes researching, teaching, writing, composing and performing.

For the past decade, Posen has been writing “Jewish songs that sounded as if the Gershwins or Irving Berlin had written their music about Jewish life instead of about southern Black folks or Christmas, and weren’t afraid to use Hebrew, Yiddish and Aramaic.”

As he explains, his Jewish songs “aren’t religious enough for Orthodox Jews, are too religious for Israelis and some Europeans, aren’t Yiddish or ‘klezzy’ enough for klezmer lovers and have too much Yiddish, Hebrew and Aramaic in them, not to mention religion for secular and non-Jews. One of my songs, And We Sang Ha Lakhma Anya, I’m told, is sung around Pesach seder tables the world over. That’s tremendously satisfying.”

Born to Aaron and Bernice (Bidnowitz) Posen in Toronto, young Sheldon and the family reveled in music. “My Mum made singing part of everyday life and Jewish holidays,” he recalled.

He was a Beth Sholom Junior Congregation cantor while at Associated Hebrew Day School. He attended the National Music Camp in Interlochen, Mich., majoring in choir and operetta. He played ukulele and guitar, and learned to play the banjo, influenced by Pete Seeger.

Posen toured with the Hart House Glee Club and the University of Toronto Chorus, continuing to perform folk music at festivals and hootenannies. He was a regular at two iconic Toronto coffeehouses, the Riverboat and Fiddler’s Green folk club.

“My Dad was less supportive of my venturing into music as a career because he wanted me to follow him into orthodontics,” he said.

Posen pursued graduate studies in folklore in 1970 at Memorial University of Newfoundland, where he “absorbed the music of fishermen singing in their kitchens and of the Irish and country music entertainers in popular St. John’s nightspots.”

He became a founding member of the Newfoundland bluegrass band Crooked Stovepipe, and while writing his Master’s thesis in Toronto, “served as Director of Mariposa in the Schools in the pre-dawn of the Canadian children’s folk music boom.”

He received his doctorate in Folklore from the University of Pennsylvania, carrying out ethnographic research on Irish-Canadian singing traditions in Chapeau, Que. on Allumette Island, across the Ottawa River from Pembroke, Ont. Posen said he became involved in the burgeoning northern revival of southern American choral singing from The Sacred Harp, an early American hymn book. His thesis became a text book in 1988, Singing and Dancing and All Sorts of Fun.

Posen moved to Ottawa in 1983, formed the Ottawa Shape Note Chorus, and taught shape note (a musical notation to facilitate group singing) and harmony singing at the Ottawa Folklore Centre. He also directed Congregation Beth Sholom’s men’s choir.

He formed the vocal trio Finest Kind with Ann Downey and Ian Robb in 1990, and for the next 25 years, the group recorded seven CDs and performed in Canada, the U.S. and UK. Around the holiday season each year, they reunite to perform seasonal concerts in the National Capital Region, but for 2020. they will perform virtually.

Posen was curator of Canadian Folklife at the Canadian Museum of Civilization from 2001-2015; his wife Maxine Muska is assistant director of Ottawa’s Soloway Jewish Community Centre.

He has recorded five solo CDs covering various genres and styles. Others have sung his songs. One about the end of the Newfoundland fishery, No More Fish, No Fishermen, has been performed by folk legends Gordon Bok and Lou Killen, and was a favourite of Helen Schneyer. Eve Goldberg, Claudia Schmidt and Jane Voss recorded his Cole Porter-inspired song Having a Drink with Jane.

“I am not religious,” Posen reflects, “but I write many songs as if I were because I am intimate with and highly value Judaism’s beauty, fragility and resilience as a religion and as a culture. If Jews of whatever persuasion and non-Jews see themselves in my songs and find them entertaining and meaningful, then I’ve done my job.”


David Eisenstadt
David Eisenstadt

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

Another Complaint Against Judge in U of T Hiring Dispute

By STEVE ARNOLD

A second complaint has been filed against a Jewish judge accused of interfering in the hiring by the University of Toronto law school of a scholar who has been highly critical of Israel.

Justice David Spiro

The new complaint was filed with the Canadian Judicial Council (CJC) on Oct. 10 by the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, Arab Canadian Lawyers Association, and Independent Jewish Voices of Canada (which supports the BDS campaign against Israel).

It alleges that Justice David Spiro, a judge on the Tax Court of Canada, used his influence to oppose the hiring of Valentina Azarova, a scholar with a record of supporting Palestinian human rights.

“If the allegations against him are true, Justice Spiro’s conduct fails to meet the standard of integrity and impartiality required of a judge,” the association said.

Backers of the new complaint have asked for their issues to be joined with an earlier complaint filed by two law school professors.

Valentina Azarova

The complaints allege that U of T offered to hire Azarova as director of the law school’s International Human Rights Program. The offer was allegedly withdrawn after a university donor complained of Azarova’s history of anti-Israel work.

Law school dean Edward Iacobucci has never denied being approached about the hiring, but has said that while there were initial talks with an applicant, an employment offer was never extended because of immigration difficulties.

Edward Iacobucci

Spiro, who, along with his extended family, has helped U of T raise millions of dollars, was identified as the source of the alleged interference by reports in the Toronto Star and Globe and Mail. 

For Azarova’s supporters, the affair challenges academic freedom.

“The BCCLA is deeply invested in the resolution of this complaint for two main reasons: to uphold judicial independence and to protect freedom of expression, both of which are crucial to the democratic process,” said Meghan McDermott, Interim Policy Director of the BCCLA.

“As a civil liberties organization, we always fear the chilling effect that public decisions can have on the expressive rights of individuals and the general quality of public discourse. What happened to Dr. Azarova appears to us to fit into an escalating pattern of people being censored or otherwise penalized for expressing their views about the human rights of Palestinians.”     

CJC communications director Johanna Laporte said in an email that the Spiro complaint is “under active review.”

Meantime, the university has appointed Bonnie Patterson, former president of Trent University and the Ontario Council of Universities, to review how the search was handled and whether any university policies were breached.

Patterson’s report is to be submitted by mid-January. U of T president Meric Gertler has ordered that the final report be submitted directly to him and not to administrators involved in the decision. He promised to make it public “subject only to respecting the privacy of individual candidates involved in the search process.”

He said he has followed the controversy with “deep concern.”

“Any suggestion that academic freedom has been violated must be treated with the utmost gravity. It is also critically important that the integrity of our search processes be upheld,” Gertler wrote.

James Turk, director of Ryerson University’s Centre for Free Expression, said the moves taken by Gertler are “a good step” but don’t fix the real problem.

“Clearly, the U of T felt a lot of public pressure because of its mishandling of this,” Turk said in an email. “The only proper solution is to restore Prof. Azarova’s job offer.”

U of T Hiring Controversy Continues to Swirl

Oct. 20, 2020

By STEVE ARNOLD

Jewish groups are urging the University of Toronto’s law school to stand firm and not employ a scholar with a long history of criticizing Israel.

Valentina Azarova

At least two Jewish U of T faculty, B’nai Brith Canada, the Canadian Antisemitism Education Foundation, and Canadians for Israel’s Legal Rights are calling on U of T to refuse to hire Valentina Azarova to lead the law school’s International Human Rights Program (IHRP).

U of T professors Stuart Kamenetsky and Howard Tenenbaum have started a petition arguing Azarova’s long history of targeting Israel in her writings make her unfit for the appointment.

“Frankly, we believe that she should not even have been considered as a candidate to lead the IHRP,” the professors say in their preamble.

In a news release, B’nai Brith CEO Michael Mostyn called Azarova’s past associations “worrying,” adding her body of writing is “overwhelmingly devoted, arguably obsessively committed” to Palestinian causes.

“Far from being an impartial academic, as she is often portrayed, Azarova is actively devoted to using a wide variety of platforms to promulgate anti-Israel advocacy,” Mostyn said.

Azarova and her supporters claim she was offered a position as director of the IHRP but that the offer was withdrawn after a Jewish mega-donor objected.

The controversy grew so intense that the university agreed to an “impartial review” of how the law school has handled the affair.

And the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) is threatening the school with censure.

At the same time, the Tax Court of Canada judge whose alleged interference in the hiring process ignited the affair is being investigated by the Canadian Judicial Council. 

Law school dean Edward Iacobucci has denied that a formal employment offer was ever made to Azarova because of immigration difficulties.

Azarova’s supporters allege the university reneged on the deal because Justice David Spiro of the Tax Court objected to her history of legal writing that has accused Israel of widespread violations of Palestinian human rights. Spiro and his extended family are major donors to the university.

CAUT says if the allegation of donor interference in the appointment is true, it violates the principle of academic freedom.

On Oct. 15, CAUT’s executive council passed a motion approving a process of censuring U of T if “satisfactory steps” are not taken.

The imposition of censure still requires the approval of CAUT’s governing body. That meeting is set for Nov. 27.

Censure by the association would ask its more than 70,000 members at 125 universities and colleges across the country to refuse appointments, speaking engagements or honours at the University of Toronto.

In addition, CAUT will also “widely publicize” the dispute and ask associations of academic staff in other countries to respect the censure.

“The facts that have emerged strongly suggest the decision to cancel Azarova’s appointment was politically motivated, and as such would constitute a serious breach of widely recognized principles of academic freedom,” CAUT executive director David Robinson said in an Oct. 15 statement.

In an earlier letter to U of T president Meric Gertler, Robinson said that “an institution of higher learning fails to fulfill its purpose and mission if it accedes to outside pressure or asserts the power to proscribe ideas, no matter how controversial.”

CAUT’s voice is only part of the chorus condemning the situation around Azarova’s hiring. The entire advisory board to the International Human Rights Program, and a member of the search committee, resigned in protest. Lawyers and academics from around the world have expressed anger.

Last week, for example, a letter signed by nine U of T law school faculty accused Iacobucci of “high handed” management that threatens to destroy the institution’s reputation.

Another letter to Gertler from 200 international law and human rights practitioners and law school faculty and staff said the signers were “deeply concerned” the dean allowed external pressure to influence an appointment.

They called for an investigation of the affair, reinstatement of the offer to Azarova, sanctions against those responsible at the university, and apologies to Azarova and affected faculty and staff.

Iacobucci has never denied that a donor contacted the school about the potential appointment. In a letter to law school faculty released by the university, he called claims of outside interference “untrue and objectionable.”

He added: “Other considerations, including political views for and against any candidate, or their scholarship, were and are irrelevant.”

University leaders have backed that position since September, but on Oct. 14, they announced an independent review of the controversy to be led by Bonnie Patterson, former president of Trent University and the Council of Ontario Universities.

In a statement on the university’s website, Kelly Hannah-Moffat, U of T’s vice-president of human resources and equity, said Patterson is to “review all relevant documents and conduct interviews in order to provide (a) a comprehensive factual narrative of events pertaining to the search committee process and (b) the basis for the decision to discontinue the candidacy of the search committee’s preferred candidate.”

Participation in the review is voluntary and Patterson’s recommendations will be made public. Her report is due in January.

The terms of reference for the review have drawn derision from commentators, however.

James Turk, director of Ryerson University’s Centre for Free Expression, told the CJR that “there’s not much investigation left to do” because the facts of the case are already well known.

Both Turk and Robinson criticized the review’s terms of reference, noting they do not include the central question of whether Azarova was offered a job or whether improper pressure scuttled an offer.

And a review of the affair by Hannah-Moffat, Iacobucci, and U of T provost Cheryl Regehr is also troubling because all three have been involved in the scandal, Turk said.

“Any first year law student would know this is just crazy,” he said.

In a news release, Robinson of the CAUT said the proposed study’s flaws undermine its credibility.

“Given the seriousness of the case, what is needed is an independent review,” he said in a news release. “Instead we have a deeply flawed review where the investigator is appointed by and reports to the Vice-President for Human Resources who has already publicly defended the Dean’s decision to terminate the hiring of Dr. Azarova.”

To see Prof. Azarova’s curriculum vitae, click here: https://cdn.ku.edu.tr/resume/vazarova.pdf

For Zack Babins’ view on the Azarova controversy, click here.

Mohammed Hashim: The Right Man at CRRF

Oct. 16, 2020

By BERNIE FARBER

(CRRF) was created in 1997 as a Crown corporation, born of a dark chapter in Canadian history: The imprisonment of Japanese-Canadians during the Second World War.

These were Canadian citizens of Japanese ancestry. There needn’t have been any suspicion of treason or support for Japan, even though it was part of the Axis powers. That their ancestors were from Japan, some, going back many generations, was enough to uproot entire families, confiscate homes, disrupt professions, and imprison all, from young infants to the elderly. It was a gross abuse of political power, racist, and in the eyes of history, despicable.

Jews, of all people, well understood what this form of discrimination was about. Among those Jewish leaders in Canada who fought vigorously for Japanese-Canadian redress was Milton Harris, president of Canadian Jewish Congress from 1983 to 1986.

But amends would take decades. Under the guidance of the newly-established National Association of Japanese Canadians and its leaders – Art Miki, Roger Obata, Audrey Kobayashi, Maryka Omatsu, along with others, including Harris – redress and compensation, as well as a full apology, were realized in Parliament on Sept. 22, 1988.

On that date, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney rose in the House of Commons to apologize for Canadian human rights abuses against Japanese-Canadians. Mulroney announced individual redress payments, as well as a living legacy: A multi-million dollar community fund that would educate and engage in social and cultural programming emphasizing the vital need for positive race relations in Canada.

And so was born the Canadian Race Relations Foundation.

CRRF has been a force for good in Canada since its establishment. Its mandate to promote and facilitate race relations training, support development of effective policies to combat racism, and has been a shining example of Canada’s commitment to multiculturalism as a political ethos.

Each of its past executive directors put their own stamp on the organization. Moy Tam was followed by Dr. Karen Mock, a friend and colleague who used the same advocacy spirit at the CRRF that she brought heading B’nai Brith Canada’s League for Human Rights. Then came Ayman Yassini, Anita Bromberg (also formerly from B’nai Brith Canada), and Dr. Lillian Ma. We should also note that Rubin Freidman, a fixture in Canadian Jewish communal organizations, worked effectively for CRRF in its communications division, as did Len Rudner, who had come from the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs.

Mohammed Hashim
Mohammed Hashim

On Oct. 6, 2020, Mohammed Hashim was named the new executive director. Anyone who knows Hashim and his work will agree that he is unquestionably the right man for the right job at precisely the right time.

He arose from student activism during his days at the University of Toronto to become a labour organizer and human right rights advocate. Most recently, he spent considerable energy as a senior organizer with the Toronto and York Region Labour Council.

His organizing skills were equalled by his ability to relate to people. Their faith, sexual orientation or skin colour never mattered. He has always been present in the fight for fairness and empowerment. A devout Muslim, he has Jewish friends from across the religious spectrum. He is young, dynamic, wise, and warm.

Mohammed Hashim (centre) with Jeffrey Brown, president of Beth Avraham Yoseph of Toronto Congregation (left) and Bernie Farber, publisher of the CJR and chair of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network.

This is a tough time to be the executive director of the CRRF. With racism reaching unprecedented levels and white nationalism expressing itself in violent words and actions, those of us doing human rights advocacy welcome his appointment with strong and open arms.


Bernie Farber
Bernie Farber

Bernie Farber is publisher of the Canadian Jewish Record and Chair of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network.