On the Record: Canadian Jewish Musicians of Note

Oscar Brand (Feb. 7, 1920 – Sept. 30, 2016): Folk Singer, Songwriter, Radio Host, Short Story Writer

July 31, 2020 – By DAVID EISENSTADT

Does the tune Something to Sing About ring a bell?

The Canadian song propelled advocates to lobby Prime Minister Lester Pearson’s Liberal government and Parliament in 1965 for the composition to become Canada’s national anthem. It didn’t happen.

Composed by Oscar Brand, Something to Sing About extolled Canada and became the premise for Let’s Sing Out, a weekly TV show hosted by Brand which launched on CTV in1963 and was broadcast later on CBC. It was the Canadian pavilion’s popular theme at Expo ’67.

Brand composed around 300 songs and released some 100 albums, many with Canadian and American patriotic lyrics, but was best known as a radio show host for an amazing 70 years.

The Guinness Book of World Records confirms he holds the radio show host longevity record, beginning on Dec. 10, 1945 and ending Sept. 24, 2016. His 10 p.m. Saturday fixture, Oscar Brand’s Folksong Festival, ruled that slot for seven decades on New York City’s WNYC-AM 820. He never had a contract and wasn’t paid.

Of Romanian-Jewish heritage, Oscar was born in Winnipeg to Isadore and Beatrice Brand, and the clan lived on a wheat farm near the Manitoba city. His father was an Indigenous interpreter for the Hudson’s Bay Co., ran a theatre supply company, then a pawnshop.

The clan moved to the U.S. in 1927, living in Minneapolis, Chicago and New York City. Residing in Brooklyn’s Borough Park, his parents sought medical treatment for Oscar, who was born with a missing calf muscle, according to Brand’s obituary in the New York Times.

After graduating from high school, he barnstormed the United States with his banjo, working on farms to pay his way. Returning home, he graduated with a psychology degree from Brooklyn College.

He joined the U.S. Army in 1942 as an induction centre psychologist and edited a newspaper for psychiatric patients. Following his discharge, he moved to the Greenwich Village music scene and wrote a book, How To Play the Guitar Better Than Me.

The music bug had bitten Brand at age seven because he loved listening to player-piano rolls. He was a creative sort who, growing up, wanted to be “on the radio.” He was hired by WYNC, a New York city-owned AM station, and never left. 

His show was a coveted appearance for talented musicians like Joan Baez, Harry Belafonte, Lead Belly, Harry Chapin, Arlo Guthrie, Emmylou Harris, B.B. King, Phil Ochs, and Pete Seeger.

As a radio and stage performer, Brand’s gritty and sometimes off-key voice had believability.

He applied the voice “to old, new and sometimes deliberately mangled songs, both on and off the air,” the Times pronounced. “He was also an accomplished songwriter: Doris Day’s version of his song, A Guy Is A Guy reached No. 1 on the Billboard chart in 1952.”

In 1959, Brand was one of the original organizers of the Newport Folk Festival. During the ‘60s he was on the Children’s Television Workshop Board advisory panel, helping to develop Sesame Street. A somewhat prickly advisor, it was rumoured that the Oscar the Grouch character was named after Brand.

Still in the ‘60s, he was a Mariposa Folk Festival mainstay, later in 1987 and at the Festival’s 50th Anniversary in 2010.

According to one profile, he scored ballets for Agnes de Mille and commercials for Log Cabin Syrup and Cheerios; wrote music for documentary films, published songbooks, short stories; and hosted the children’s television shows The First Look and Spirit of ’76.

As a budding radio jock at the University of Alberta’s radio station UACR in Calgary, I was taken with these performances. Brand’s Canadiana love-initiative revived the careers of folk music pioneers like the Womenfolk and the Weavers, and helped kick-start then little known musicians like Gordon Lightfoot and Joni Mitchell.

Brand was a civil rights activist who participated in the 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches. The House Committee on Un-American Activities branded his show a “pipeline of Communism because of his support for First Amendment rights for blacklisted artists to be allowed to have a platform to reach the public,” reported the New York Daily News. Even so, Brand, reportedly was anti-Stalinist and not a Communist Party member.

“Few have sung and strummed more prolifically,” his New York Times obit lauded. “The hundreds of songs he recorded include election songs, children’s songs, vaudeville songs, sports car songs, drinking songs, outlaw songs and lascivious ditties about Nellie the Barmaid.”

Sadly, much of his and hundreds of other artists’ original masters and recordings were lost in a fire at Universal Studios Hollywood in 2008.

His numerous awards and honours included a 1995 Peabody Award for “more than 50 years in service to the music and messages of folk performers and fans around the world.”

Brand died at age 96, survived by his wife Karen, four children, and nine grandchildren.


David Eisenstadt
David Eisenstadt

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

AMIA Bombing Remembered in Canada, but Justice Lags

July 20, 2020 – By STEVE ARNOLD

A quarter century after 85 people died in the terrorist bombing of a Jewish centre in Argentina, two of Canada’s major Jewish organizations and some leading politicians continue to demand justice for the victims.

No one was ever charged or convicted for the July 18, 1994 attack on the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA) centre in downtown Buenos Aires – a fact many believe means that the scars from the event can never heal.

“We have seen a quarter century of justice denied in this case,” B’nai Brith Canada CEO Michael Mostyn said in a July 16 YouTube commemoration of the attack. “An entire generation has passed without a single perpetrator being brought to justice for this crime.”

On the morning of July 18, 1994, a van loaded with explosives was driven at the front entrance of the seven-storey headquarters of the Argentina-Israel Mutual Association in the capital, Buenos Aires.

The AMIA building housed all of Jewish Argentina’s major organizations, as well as a theatre, library and a job bank. It was where community members went to arrange a funeral, and it housed the precious records of a hundred years of Jewish life in the country.

When the dust cleared, 85 people had been killed and 300 injured. It remains the deadliest antisemitic attack in Argentina’s modern history.

It is widely believed to have been carried out by terrorists linked to Iran, with suspected involvement from Argentina’s then-president Carlos Menem, who is of Syrian descent (last year, a court cleared Menem of covering up the attack, but the court jailed the retired judge who led the investigation into the bombing, along with an ex-intelligence chief).

Alberto Nisman, a state prosecutor who tried to investigate the incident, was murdered in 2015 on the day he was expected to testify before Argentina’s congress that the attack was carried out by Hezbollah terrorists, with help from Argentine accomplices.

The current government of Argentina continues to push, without success, for a full accounting from the previous regime. Despite that failure, the country’s ambassador to Canada told the B’nai Brith memorial the incident has not been forgotten.

“This was a disgusting and cursed attack,” Eugenio Curia said. “This was a real crime against humanity.

“Our government has been pledging its commitment to find the people responsible for this attack,” he added. “The idea is to prosecute and condemn the people responsible for this, but we need other state friends to achieve this.”

That commitment to pursue some form of justice for the victims of the attack was echoed by Canadian politicians taking part in the event.

Peter Kent, Conservative MP for Thornhill, said it is clear the government of Iran, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, and Hezbollah were involved in the attack. Despite this, he accused the Liberal government of continuing to stall on a Conservative motion to have the IRGC declared a terrorist organization.

Earlier this year B’nai Brith launched a lawsuit against the federal government seeking to force action on the issue. It accuses the government of “failure to carry out the will of Parliament.”

For Manitoba Conservative MP Marty Morantz, that determination is important in facing up to the wave of antisemitism sweeping the world today.

“Antisemitism has not gone away and is unfortunately on the rise today,” he said. “We must be clear that there is no room in Canada for this kind of intolerance and discrimination.”

Away from political outrage, the attack remains a vivid scar on the memory of people who lived through it.

Anita Weinstein, for example, told the B’nai Brith event she had walked into the building that morning heading for her second floor office at the front of the structure.

“A few minutes later, I remembered I had to see a colleague at the rear of the building, and that made the great difference for me,” she said. “As soon as I got there we heard a loud explosion and material started to fall from the ceiling. There was an intense darkness and cloud of dust that covered us and we could hear panic and shouting everywhere.”

In a separate commemoration event on Facebook, representatives of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) remembered the attack as the event that changed the world for Argentine Jews.

Nico Slobinski and Graciela Najenson both work for CIJA in Winnipeg now. In 1994, however, they lived in Buenos Aires and felt the pain of the attack.

“There was a cloud of dust and smoke that could be seen for miles that day,” Soblinski recalled. “That same dark cloud that descended on downtown Buenos Aires descended on all of us.”

Soblinski said he lost close family friends among the 85 dead, and recalled how the attack added to his family’s desire to seek a safer home in the world.

“We had many conversations around the dinner table about this new, pervasive feeling we now had that we were no longer safe in this place we had called home for four generations,” he said.

Najenson recalled the Jewish community’s new obsession with security after the attack, and the effect that had on her.

“We had to realize that now there were always barricades in front of the building that were there to protect us, but this was not the way we should live,” she said.

In 2014, Yitzhak Aviran, Israel’s ambassador to Argentina from 1993 to 2000, said that the perpetrators of the attack had, for the most part, been eliminated by Israeli security forces operating abroad.

Bombing Changed Argentine Jewish Life ‘Forever,’ Rymberg Recalls

July 15, 2020 – By STEVE ARNOLD

Even 26 years later, Gustavo Rymberg can’t forget the shock of the morning in 1994 when Jewish life in Argentina changed forever.

It was July 18, winter in the southern hemisphere, and Rymberg was working in his Buenos Aires office, meeting with a colleague on a graphic design project.

The telephone rang. It was a friend with the devastating news that a terrorist had just driven a truck full of explosives into the Jewish community headquarters three blocks away.

Gustavo Rymberg
Gustavo Rymberg

“That was something that changed Jewish life in Argentina forever,” Rymberg recalled in an interview with the CJR ahead of a B’nai Brith commemoration of the attack set for tomorrow evening (July 16).

“It was one of the worst chapters in Argentine history,” he said. “It’s something for which the country has never given us answers or justice.

“For some reason, the government will not make an explanation for this or tell us the truth,” he said.

The attack on the seven-storey headquarters of the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina (Argentina-Israel Mutual Association, or AMIA) killed 85 people and injured as many as 300 more.

No one was ever arrested in what remains the deadliest antisemitic attack in Argentina’s modern history. It is widely believed to have been carried out by terrorists linked to Iran and Argentina’s then president, Carlos Menem, who is of Syrian descent. One prosecutor who tried to investigate the incident was murdered during his probe.

Beyond the carnage, however, Rymberg and many of the country’s Jews saw it as an attack on the heart of their community.

The AMIA building, he said, housed all of Jewish Argentina’s major organizations, as well as a theatre, library, and job bank. It was where Jews went to arrange a funeral, and it housed the precious records of 100 years of Jewish life in the country.

“Every Jewish person in Argentina had to go to AMIA for something,” Rymberg said. “Suddenly, you started to be very careful about everything. Children going to school now had to go through security like at an airport.”

While Argentine antisemitism had never been openly acknowledged – until the AMIA attack, the worst event was a 1992 bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, which killed 29 civilians – the aftermath of the attack brought fundamental changes to Jewish life, starting with a communal obsession with security.

“Suddenly you felt like you were living behind walls,” Rymberg recalled. “For a lot of young families that was the point where they started to think there was nothing for them in Argentina.”

Even a quickly-organized show of solidarity with the Jewish community, dubbed the March of the Umbrellas because it was carried out in the rain, failed to ease that new feeling of fear and uncertainty.

“Hundreds of thousands of people were marching in the rain to remember the victims,” Rymberg recalled. “It was something we never expected to experience.”

The Rymberg family’s own decision to leave the country of its birth, something members had been considering in the face of a poor economy and rampant corruption, was cemented by the event.

One of the final nails was news media coverage of the attack, especially one television story that reported 85 Jews, and many “innocent people,” had died.

“To hear someone saying Jews and ‘innocent people’ is something I will never forget,” he said. “All of those things came together to push us out.”

In 1997 Rymberg, his wife Marisa, and their two young daughters, became one of the first families brought to Canada by the Jewish community of Winnipeg through its Grow Winnipeg initiative.

In a new country, he embarked on a new career as a Jewish community leader, serving in Winnipeg, Ottawa, Toronto, and finally taking over as CEO of the Hamilton Jewish Federation in 2017.

B’nai Brith Canada’s League for Human Rights’ commemoration will be held online Thursday at 7 p.m. To join, go to: https://www.bnaibrith.ca/amia.


Steve Arnold
Steve Arnold