I've got ink in my veins
I never met him, but my great-grandfather has inspired my life's work
SANDY WOLOFSKY | Feb 14, 2005
The city of Montreal is about to name a park after my great-grandfather, Harry(Hirsch)Wolofsky. Well, not a park exactly. More like a patch of grass at the intersection of Roy and de Bullion streets where residents of the city's trendy Plateau neighbourhood walk their dogs. It has a graffiti-covered wall at one end and a foot-high fence that serves as a makeshift bike rack on the other three sides. Oh yeah. It's also where the local heroin junkies like to hang out. I know this because the lot is kitty-corner to Else's bar, a place we journalists and media types tend to frequent.
This parkette is not far from where Hirsch, who died decades before my birth, first set up shop in Canada. A plaque bearing his name will soon commemorate his contributions to Montreal's Jewish community, both as a newspaper editor and publisher and founding father of much of the infrastructure that serves our community.
Born in Poland, Hirsch arrived in Montreal in 1900 and started a fruit store on St. Laurent Boulevard. But my great-grandfather figured that the city's recent wave of eastern European immigrants needed a tie to bind them. He started Eagle Publishing Co., and in 1907 began printing the Keneder Adler(the Canadian Eagle), Canada's first daily Yiddish newspaper(until the 1950s, Yiddish was Montreal's third most-spoken language, after English and French).
World affairs were its raison d'être, but the editorial staff so understood its importance to the neighbourhood, they listed births and deaths on the front page. "If no one died that night," an aunt once told me, "it was called a 'clean paper.' "
For decades, writers and poets looking for acceptance in their new land went to the Keneder Adler and its sister publication, the English-language Jewish Chronicle. Soon-to-be-well-known scribes such as A.M. Klein, J.I. Segal and A.B. Bennett(father of Avie Bennett, former chairman of McClelland & Stewart)were given a voice. During the First World War, political columnists challenged readers to join the Jewish Legion of the British Army and fight for a Jewish state in Palestine. After the Second World War, the paper sponsored Jewish refugees languishing in Europe's displaced persons camps. My grandparents felt so strongly about this task that, to this day, our family celebrations are blessed with these "cousins" and their descendants.
On top of all that, Hirsch was seminal in establishing Jewish schools, libraries, hospitals, kosher kitchens, old age homes and welfare services. Samuel Bronfman called him "both a recorder and maker of Canadian history."
This heritage is the bane of my existence.
Since kindergarten, my Yiddish teachers have reminded me where I come from. My future became etched in ink during Mr. Silverstein's Grade 8 English class. "Well," he said one day, handing back a writing assignment, "that Wolofsky gene certainly runs deep." Momentary pride in ancestral accomplishment and my own future aside, 20-odd years later I beg to differ. Of close to 100 of Hirsch's descendants, I appear to be the only one carrying on his legacy. The bug-eyed looks I get whenever I ask my cousins whether they'd consider going into journalism end any further conversation. They, as I am forever reminded, have real jobs. They're engineers, architects, lawyers, professors, environmentalists, labour leaders, computer geeks and business people. You know, people who can actually pay the rent.
I've tried routine jobs, but they never last. That's not simply because a liberal arts degree doesn't qualify you for anything, but because it feels wrong. It was always my dream to enter the family "trade" and I had to follow it. Maybe if the business had stayed in the family, people wouldn't be perpetually encouraging me to find another line of work.
The publishing house was sold in the 1970s to eventually be succeeded by the Canadian Jewish News. I'm sure Hirsch would think they play their editorial philosophy too safe. His office was a hub of intellectual discourse, social justice and good-old fashioned debate. He, after all, was the man who once hired a youth who'd just told him, " 'You won't hire me.' "
"Why not?" Hirsch asked.
"Because you are a Zionist and I am not," the young man said.
"Wonderful," my great-grandfather responded. "I will write the editorials explaining why I think there should be a state of Israel, and you will write the op-eds countering them!" He was proud of that sort of bipartisan banter and proactive journalism. It's an inspiration for my own muckraking ideology -- and something our present media moguls need to learn.
Soon, I'll sit in Else's, stare out the window and be reminded of that DNA. Because of it, the securities of a typical North American adulthood will probably always elude me. But I'll raise my glass and say, "Thank you, Zaidie. Your name on the park's plaque is the sign I needed. Following this passion is my destiny. L'chaim!"
Sandy Wolofsky, a freelance writer, has filed stories from over 70 countries.