Tomorrow morning I will be attending the funeral of my very good friend Abe Rotstein. In the evening, I will attend the shiva at his house on Admiral Rd where he has lived for over half a century. I only received notice late afternoon yesterday that he died. The message came from Massey College where we both are Senior Fellows. (I have attached the notice.)
I was taken totally aback. We were to have lunch this month in what we all called “Abe’s Group”. I was looking forward to attending as I had been away since 21 September of last year and had missed our monthly gab sessions over lunch in the UofT Faculty Club. The lunch was cancelled because most of the participants were out of town and could not attend. (Late April and May are the times when most Canadian faculty travel to international conferences.) Abe planned to reschedule for May.
I did not at first know the cause of Abe’s death. I thought it could have been from the prostate cancer he has had for years but kept a closely guarded secret from most who knew him. However, just before midnight last night, a very old friend sent me a note that Abe had died of heart failure. Though Abe moved much more slowly lately than his customary graceful walking style, though his puns came less frequently and no longer had their previous acerbic acuity, he could still deliver puns better than the rest of us put together.
When I sent my eldest son, who is a professor of history at Princeton University, the notice of Abe’s death, he sent a brief reply: “It made me cry.” Abe was at Jeremy’s Bar Mitzvah. Abe organized the weekly meetings at Hillel that allowed our children to get some semblance of a Jewish education. Jeremy was the first to have a Bar Mitzvah at that Hillel group.
But my relations with Abe go back further, to the period when I was an activist graduate student at the University of Toronto. Actually, even further back. For Abe had attended when my play was put on at Hart House. He was a junior faculty member then and we had not yet met. He sent me a brief note applauding the play. I was very flattered.
Abe sat on the first Board of Directors of Rochdale College and continued on after I left. Together we helped organize Praxis, a research institute on applied democracy in the seventies. That was torched by the Mounties. Abe was part of our bi-weekly Hegel discussion group in the seventies. He was the one who showed me that Hegel had lifted sections from Martin Luther holus bolus into the Phenomenology of Spirit (Then, scholars had a different view of what we now call plagiarism.) This gave me my breakthrough in totally re-interpreting Hegel in a radically different way than the interpretation I and many others had inherited from Alexandre Kojève. (Incidentally, Abe resembled Kojève physically in many ways.) In September before I left, Abe told me that his final version of his manuscript on Hegel had been accepted for publication. I do hope it will still appear.
Abe edited Canadian Forum. He was an old style political economist belonging to a radically different camp than modern economists who differentiate themselves radically from political scientists. But he passed through radical changes and upheavals with a remarkable equanimity.
When he was younger, he was a heavy smoker. But he smoked cigarettes with a long elegant holder somewhere between a theatre and a dinner length, that is, slightly longer than the cigarette holder used by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Noel Coward or Hans van Bűlow. I never asked him whether he used a cigarette holder for practical reasons to filter out carcinogens or simply to keep tobacco flakes out of his mouth and the smoke further away from his eyes. I know he detested the idea of having nicotine stained fingers so I suspected he used a cigarette holder primarily as a statement of style.
For Abe was unusual for an academic. He had a high sense of elegance. And he was always a gentleman – certainly not in the sense of belonging to the landed gentry or of being of noble birth. For Abe came from Montreal as a son of a Jewish worker. He had been a member of Habonim, a leftist Zionist movement. This was not a background that usually produced gentlemen. But Abe was a gentleman in the much larger sense – courteous, kind and considerate of others. He had gracious manners that never failed to amaze me. If chivalry had been a modern virtue, he would have exemplified it. Pithily, he was a noble spirit and an honourable individual.
In the last few years he has tried to convince me to write a certain type of book that he insisted only I could write. A year ago, he renewed the effort. I even made a stab at it. I am convinced, but never succeeded in convincing him, that a memoir from me about the last sixty years was beyond my capabilities.
Perhaps I will try again. I will miss him.
Notice from Massey College follows.
Professor Abraham Rotstein
1929 – 2015
We are very saddened by the news of the death of Senior Fellow and renowned Canadian Political Economist, Abraham Rotstein. Prof. Rotstein died on April 27 in Toronto. His association with the Massey College goes back to 1973 as Senior Resident and soon after graduating to Senior Fellow (Continuing). For decades he had an office in House 1 while holding the title of Senior Southam Fellow. Known by all as Abe, he advised scores of mid-career journalists as they took up their positions as Southam Fellows and had a reputation for first of all, asking the most challenging questions in their interviews but following up during the year with sound advice on their courses interspersed with unforgettable puns. Tribute was paid to Prof. Rotstein in the 2008-09 MasseyNews on his third and final attempt to retire from the position. Quipping quotable quotes such as “Every dogma has its day” and “Much will have to change in Canada if the country is to stay the same”, Prof. Rotstein claimed to have ‘tried to retire on three separate occasions, but no one seemed to listen’. He held the Southam Program together so wonderfully that his efforts to retire were certainly ignored until a High Table in his honour in 2008. He continued to come by the College frequently after that and was often seen in Ondaatje Hall at lunch.
Prof. Rotstein was a courageous economist and compelling nationalist. He was a wondrous intellectual and leading force in Canada.
We send our deepest sympathy to his family, close friends and colleagues.
The flag on the College bell tower has been lowered to half-mast in his memory.
Thursday, April 30 at 11:30 a.m. at Benjamin’s Park Memorial Chapel, 2401 Steeles Ave. West.
See the website of the Chapel for more details:
Shiva address: 102 Admiral Road, evening services at 8.00 p.m.; Shiva concludes on Monday evening, May 4.