Sam Ajzenstat

IN MEMORIUM: Sam Ajzenstat


Howard Adelman

Sam Ajzenstat died in his sleep on Thursday in the early hours of the morning. He suffered from diabetes for years. More than a year ago, he had a severe stroke and had been living in a full care facility at ShalomVillage. He had retired as a professor of Philosophy at McMasterUniversity a few years earlier. He will be buried this afternoon on Hamilton mountain at the HessStreetShulCemetery. There will be a service first at the United Hebrew Memorial Chapel Funeral Home in Hamilton at 4:00 p.m. and a shiva following at the home Sam and Janet lived in for decades at 172 Cline Ave. N. in Hamilton.  As his son, Sandor, wrote, Sam “was a man of words, and a man of love.” 

Sam Ajzenstat and I attended the same high school, Harbord Collegiate, in Toronto. He was one year behind but had already made a name for himself throughout the school. He was one of the few students to take Greek as well as the Latin, French and German that the rest of us studied. Further, he became infamous when he asked one of the few shiksas in our school overwhelmingly populated by Jews for a date to the prom and then even more infamous over the year book he edited.

We both attended the University of Toronto. When he became editor of the Varsity at university, I was its chief drama critic and Peggy Atwood was the poet in residence. We undertook many political pranks together. I played a minor roll in a sting operation Sam generated to show that sororities and fraternities, which were given extraordinary privileges on campus at the time, were then ridden with racism. Those university privileges were henceforth taken away from those social clubs. The revolution had begun.

We both majored in philosophy. We were both then pacifists and naïve idealists. One of the most infamous editorials Sam wrote was on Remembrance Day and Sam celebrated pacifism. I was influenced by Gandhi. Sam took his pacifism from his own moral precept of integrity, Kant`s injunction to be a self-legislator and not allow others to determine your course of action. He found that precept of autonomous rational self-legislation supported in the Torah and in God`s rejection of David`s offer to build Him a temple because David was a war-monger with blood on his hands.

Sam and I studied for our PhD comprehensive exams together. One day we started a discussion and a philosophical argument. It went on for 28 hours. In the last hour, Sam recapitulated the whole argument we had covered clearly stating both my and his point of view as the debate unfolded. I could not even remember what I had said let alone what he said. I conceded total defeat. 

I was a universalist anti-Zionist until the build up to the 1967 war when I witnessed my struggle between my ostensible indifference to the existence of Israel and the tremendous fear that I felt that this small and unique country would be wiped off the face of the earth. My emotions were totally at odds with my head. I vowed to visit Israel and did so with my wife and first four children just before the 1973 war. I became a Zionist, slowly but surely. I credit Harry Crowe, a gentile and philo-semite, for my conversion. Sam became a Zionist on his own as he gazed down at Israel from a visit to the Golan Heights and threw off his pacifism. For though he was unwilling to go to war to save his own skin, he was no longer willing to forfeit the war option and give up protecting the skin of his loved ones and his people. Secondly, pacifism was surrendering control over the moral project of taking responsibility for one`s life and surrendering it to the man of power, the one who carried the big stick.

In a piece Sam wrote called “Reflections on an ‘incurable tension'” in 2008, he said, “Of course, just because we are still in a world of hard choices, made even harder by Israel’s genuine desire to live up to high moral standards, doesn’t mean we can’t ever criticize the choices she makes. Criticism is not treason. Israel’s real enemies are those who think there are no hard choices because we must always choose purity above survival. That naïve idealism is our worst enemy. It only begins to turn into anti-semitism (or Jewish self-hatred) with the realization of how deeply Judaism rejects naïve idealism.” Sam was a Kantian. I was and am a Hegelian. But we were both wedded to critical rational discourse and saw the idealization of purity above survival as the source of deep evil, that naïve idealism, which we had both embraced in our teens, as mankind’s worst enemy.

After I quit teaching at TrinityCollege at the University of Toronto and had vowed never to teach in a university again, Sam tried to lure me to McMaster where he was then ensconced in the philosophy department. At the same hiring hall at the meeting of the American Philosophical Association in New York – Canada did not have its own learned philosophical society then – I was offered a job at AtkinsonCollege at YorkUniversity where I was assured that I would only have to teach students who were dedicated and hard-working. Instead of taking the job offered at McMaster, I opted for Atkinson and York. It was the right choice for me but, as a result, Sam and I saw each other much less frequently as the years passed. I had watched his wife, Janet, become a noted academic and political theorist in her own right, and his children, Sandor and Oona, grow up. Oona became a professor of Jewish studies and my daughter, Rachel, became a professor of rabbinics at a rabbinical college in Boston. Neither of us could have predicted such an outcome when Oona and Rachel were teenagers, though it was predictable that Sandor, and my daughter, Shonagh, would both enter the field of art.

Though others may have been able to predict that, as we grew older, religion would become a central theme in our lives, neither Sam nor I foresaw such an outcome. Sam became an Orthodox Jew decades ago and played a very important role in saving and reviving the Hess Street orthodox synagogue in Hamilton. As Sam wrote, the Sabbath ends with God making a distinction between the sacred and the secular. We both took the injunction to mean that one should not try to import the world of pure spirituality into the everyday world of mankind. It did not mean excluding religious practices or different forms of religious dress and self-expression from the secular world, for that was to make the secular a sacred idol and a betrayal of the rationale for the original distinction. Sam wrote, “Secularism, with as as-yet unchastened sense of its liberatory power, has no tradition by which to see the point of accommodation with the sacred. For it, modernity must be secular relativism: the struggle of the secular finally to gain exclusive authority over the civil order.” We both found secular revivalism, as an agent of the same coercive uniformity that made society eject organized religion from much of everyday life, as something to protest and criticize.

Sam loved opera. I love Broadway musicals. Sam became a commentator on opera on the old CBC program, Saturday Afternoon At The Opera. I may not have had a taste for opera, but I appreciated his insights and evaluations. Last evening, my wife and I went to hear Audra McDonald at Koerner Hall. Audra McDonald is a soprano who trained at Julliard and has sung opera — Poulenc’s “La Voix Humaine”, and most notably, Kurt Weill’s “Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny” that won her two Grammys, one for Best Opera Recording. However, last night she sang a medley of show tunes and other songs for which she is much better known – she has won an outstanding five Tony awards in the past. But the song she sang last night that made me think of Sam and that she delivered with such articulation and feeling was a song I had never heard before, and for which she accompanied herself on the piano. It was dedicated to her father who died seven years ago in the crash of a plane he was piloting. It is called “Migration V” written by Adam Guettel for his musical The Light in the Piazza that won a Tony Award.

The lyrics go as follows: 

We sail above the weather
We search the ocean floor.
We rival our creation,
Still yearning for more.
But can we fly together-
A migratory V?
How wonderful if that’s what God could see.

A single voice in whispered prayer
Can only pray to travel there.
But all as one,
We sound the everlasting sound
And sing our salvation.

Aloft and in formation,
A migratory V.
How wonderful if that’s what God could see.

Sam sailed above the weather, always the lead bird in a migration that soared above us all. Always in intellectual flight, he nevertheless also always articulated, not what he professed or what he believed, but tried, as a true neo-Kantian would, to express “what God could see” and to marvel at its beauty, wisdom and ethical coherence.

Audra McDonald also sang a number from the Kander and Ebb oeuvres, the last one they wrote before Ebb died, the song “Go Back Home” from The Scottsboro Boys. The musical is the story of the Scarborough nine, five black youth convicted totally unjustly of rape and sentenced to death in Alabama at the end of the thirties, a conviction later reversed but they were convicted again – and again and again on retrial after retrial – though they were unequivocally innocent. In the musical, performed as a Minstrel show, as the boys await execution in death row after their first conviction, they sing about what they most want (“Go Back Home”). I thought of Sam who has now gone back home and who was a pioneer in seeking racial justice before any of us. I also thought of Sam during another song written by a very young composer, Adam Gwon, called “I’ll Be Here”. Though it is written about a woman who loses her partner and deep love in 911, the song is so moving and universal that Audra McDonald sang it as a hymn to the recovery and rebirth she and her mother experienced after her father’s tragic death and that I saw that Oona, Sandor and especially Janet would necessarily have to go through. 

I know with Sam as their father, they will be reborn and will be truly here. I will miss Sam and his loving wisdom.