Cohen: Irving Abella: A modest Jewish colossus who never abandoned his roots

If there was one touchstone of Abella’s Judaism, it was food. What a pleasure it was to dine at her moaning table. The party, intellectual or not, was memorable.

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Three years ago I attended a friend’s funeral with Irving Abella and his wife, Rosie. As we approached the synagogue on a sunny summer afternoon, Itchie, as he was known, stopped, lingered, and studied the murmuring crowd.

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“My people,” he said quietly. “My people.” Itchie wasn’t lecturing. He was acknowledging, in his own way, the faith at the heart of his busy and consistent life, which ended on July 3 when that fierce heart gave up.

Irving Martin Abella was many things: historian, educator, lawyer. He is a member of the Order of Canada and a member of the Royal Society of Canada. Father and husband of his talented partner, who served 17 years on the Supreme Court of Canada, outgoing with applause of appreciation last year.

Itchie was Jewish. More cultural than devout, he wore his identity as comfortably as his wool sweater. none is too muchhis groundbreaking book (with Harold Troper), revealed how Canada blithely refused to admit Jews fleeing Nazi Germany. A coat of many colors it was a lively history of Canadian Jewry.

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He was president of the Canadian Jewish Congress, whose purpose he celebrated and whose end he lamented. He persecuted Nazi war criminals, supported liberal immigration, developed labor history, and pioneered Canadian Jewish studies. “He was the preeminent Canadian Jewish leader,” says Bernie Farber, his esteemed colleague.

Of Abella’s scholarship you will read in obituaries What you won’t read is how his Judaism shaped him. He was in the bones of it. It was in his strong support for Israel. He had a keen, sometimes comical instinct for run-of-the-mill anti-Semites, whom he found behind every tree.

In an argument, he never invoked the Holocaust to win an argument. The disagreements were not personal.

Like many Jews of his generation, he refused to visit Germany, until he did, gently escorted through Jewish Berlin by Peter Boehm, then the Canadian ambassador.

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However, if there was one touchstone of his Judaism, it was food. Neither he nor Rosie cooked. They ate out or brought it in, preferring blintzes, schnitzel, chopped liver, and challah. They boycotted vegetables and banned leftovers.

Itchie fondly remembered Abella’s Lunch, the family’s popular dairy restaurant on Spadina Avenue in Toronto. His father worked behind the counter, his mother in the kitchen. She washed dishes and waited tables. They served Jewish garment workers. “The food was excellent,” she said, “and the menu was constant.” He recalled split pea soup and potato latkes (Tuesday), vegetable soup and salmon patties (Thursday), cream of mushroom soup and gefilte fish “perhaps to attract some Catholics” (Friday).

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For Itchie, food was identity; it was humor too. When I argued that Montreal bagels were the best, he scoffed: “The Cohens may be our high priests (of Judaism), but they are not high priests of the kitchen.”

There were heated discussions about smoked meat. Among us it became the subject of Talmudic interpretation. Lean or fatty? Machine cut or carved?

This existential discussion reached its zenith, or nadir, at a “smoked meat summit” hosted by David Jacobson, the likable US ambassador to Canada. In pursuit of cross-border courtesy, he invited us to bring our own variation to his residence: pastrami, corned beef, or some regional facsimile. Of course, the only option was the smoked meat from Schwartz’s in Montreal.

Over the years, Abella has served up large helpings of wisdom. “Let’s get out of the depression by eating,” she said after Donald Trump was elected. “That’s the Jewish way.”

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He was upset when Canada banned the legendary Hebrew National hotdogs from ballparks because their content was suspicious. “I enjoyed the dogs much more than the game,” he said. (Baseball was a passion.) When asked how he was celebrating “Hot Pastrami Day,” he groaned, “Unfortunately, I’m back in Ottawa. It will mark the day at Tim Hortons.”

Itchie Abella was a joy: owlish, self-effacing, unassuming, unfailingly kind, a Jewish colossus who never abandoned his roots.

Oh, what a pleasure it was to dine at his groaning table. The party, intellectual or not, was memorable. And laughter and love were always on the menu.

Andrew Cohen is a journalist, professor at Carleton University, and author of Two days in June: John F. Kennedy and the 48 hours that made history.

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