Shira Herzog, Cynic

Shira Herzog, Cynic


Howard Adelman

One of the difficulties of writing a blog in the early morning hours is that I write at an hour that Windows chooses to take over your computer to reconfigure and update windows automatically. A nice service, but it wipes out what you have been writing. I write fast so I do not save as I go along and, if fifteen minutes have not passed, I lose everything for the past fifteen minutes when windows goes to work on my computer. I vow to reprogram the computer so that everything is saved every five minutes, but I have never managed to figure out how to do that, or most other clever things a computer can do.  Further, recovery only seems to work if I have saved the file already. So this first page is the second version of my blog rather than the original version that I send out with all its errors and typos.

Last night at the Donalda Club in Toronto I attended a tribute evening in honour of Shira Herzog with the proceeds to go to the New Israel Fund of Canada (NIFC), a fund which was represented on the program by Joan Garson, its Canadian national chair, and by a recorded video and written tribute by Rachel Liel, Executive Director of NIF. A number of friends said that they would feel uncomfortable attending a tribute dinner to honour someone when the person was no longer alive; the evening should have been renamed a memorial tribute.

In fact, Shira was present. She had set the agenda, not just the overall agenda, but the details of what was to be said and when. And also what was to be sung. As Aviva Chernick said when she introduced the last song of the trio she sang near the end of the program, it was a song Shira asked her to sing but she had first declined since she had not yet worked it into her repertoire. But she had changed her mind and sang with the music on a lectern – not exactly her usual style. The song was taken from the words of a Jewish mystic at the time of the first century. Not only was the song beautiful and haunting, not only was it sung in the unique style of an outstanding Ladino/Spanish singer whose two previous songs for the evening came from those two sides of her repertoire, but this final song made Shira’s presence all the more acute because Shira’s controlling hand was at the till even after her death. The song chosen allowed her to be fully present.

So fears of the evening being uncomfortable because Shira had passed away and would not be at a dinner honouring her were mistaken because she was there. Her voice was there as, in part of the program, a recorded tribute to the National Israel Fund by Shira was played in which Shira described how the fund was born at the same time as she entered the philanthropy field in the mid-eighties with the Kahanoff Foundation. She described the philosophy she had adopted and, in partnership with the NIFC, had introduced into Israel of using charity to enable people to stand on their own feet rather than to receive hand outs. Shira was there in the slide show, “A Life Well-Lived”, in pictures of Shira’s aristocratic Jewish family, for her grandfather had been chief rabbi of Ireland (we visited his small home in Dublin in June), her uncle had been the President of Israel and her father had been the first ambassador to Canada.

Shira had a commanding presence that was not very evident in the pictures of her as a baby, as a young girl and as an awkward teenager. But as those pictures progressed through her life and showed her – often smiling though her projects and philosophy of life always remained serious – as a strong commanding presence as she consorted with the mighty titans of Israel and on the international stage. She grew in stature and the aura she gave off. And, as her cousin, the Honourable Yitzhak “Bougie” Herzog said in his tribute speech to Shira, it was because her roots were so steeply based on love of family. So the slide show of her life ended appropriately with pictures of her with her son, Kobi, his wife, Shelby, and Shira’s two grandchildren, Olivia and Ethan. She beamed with sheer joy and happiness as basically someone who, in the end, was a mother and a savta at heart.

And heart was the central image of a tribute movie sent from Israel of people who threw around a balloon heart from one to another representing the wide range of causes in which she had been involved, from equal rights for Arab academics to Bedouin women and Ethiopian immigrants and, in the last slide, young children who represented the future of Israel. Shira, with all her management skills and micromanagement to the finest details of what she accomplished, always brought heart to an enterprise, a compassion for the underdog married with a strategic sense of how to make the world a better place.

Whether it was the Consul General of Israel, D.J. Schneeweis quoting from the Torah in an Australian-accented Hebrew and complementing Rabbi Baruch Frydman-Kohl’s very secular tribute, even though Shira in her last years had returned to her grandfather’s love of Torah scripture as she studied with Rabbi Friedman-Kohl, everyone spoke to the same characteristics and virtues Shira exhibited in her life. She did so always with more than just a trace of Jewish mysticism, Though the highlight of the evening was the long and very personal tribute of Shira’s cousin, “Bougie” Herzog, leader of the Opposition in the Israeli Knesset, the message that ran through the evening was that realistic strategic planning, private and public partnerships, could be and should be married to a sense of justice and enhancing the lives and experience of those in need. Hence D.J. commentary on the Torah portion for the week Shira died on “Justice, Justice”.

The four themes of the evening – family, social justice, politics and communication – were all in evidence. Re the latter, Shira had been very active in the Canada Israel Committee, more as an educator than a lobbyist, had written a regular column in both The Canadian Jewish News and The Globe and Mail, had co-hosted with myself the weekly television program on CTS called Israel Today for eleven of its twelve years. She was a popular public speaker and analyst of Israel and of Canada-Israel relations. As Bougie acknowledged, with gratitude, but also with an ironic smile, Stephen Harper was a strong and steadfast friend of Israel, but, as we all also know, Shira was not a strong sympathizer of Harper’s sense of social justice.

The tone of the evening was set by Florence Minz, who was chosen from among Shira’s close group of friends, or her Council as she called them, a group of outstanding women in their own careers. In agreeing to chair, Florence brought her own extensive honours to the evening in which she modestly acknowledged she herself was honoured that Shira had chosen her. Florence might be a member of the Stratford Festival Board, Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Canadian Museum of Nature, a director and former chair on the Board of the Royal Conservatory of Music since 1999, a former director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, a member of the board of Opera Atelier, but her most outstanding contributions have been in the health field rather than her extensive involvement in the cultural life of Canada. For she has been chair and a director of the Board of Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care, a director of St. Michael’s Hospital, a director and former President of Oolagen Community Services, a member of the Fraser Mustard Task Force, more formally known as the Mustard/McCain Early Years Task Force for Ontario. All this has been the cap to her earlier career as an economic consultant and real estate developer. Most of Shira’s close friends had similar stellar lists of accomplishments.

What characterized them, and what characterized Shira, is that they are all dreamers who are also doers. They think and then they implement. They are visionaries and also strategic thinkers. They are, as Shira was, idealists who are also realists. That outlook stands in such strong contrast to many of the cynics involved in the quest for power and in politics.

A cynic in modern popular parlance is a person who believes that everyone is motivated by self-interest and they distrust anyone who claims they are not primarily motivated by such a force. These women were and are a testament to the falsity of that modern universal claim. For they are true Cynics in the Greek sense dedicated to “doggedness” – the literal meaning of “cynic” in Greek. The ancient Greek school of Cynicism founded by Antisthenes, a pupil of Socrates, was taught in the Cynosarges gymnasium in Athens. That Cynicism stands in sharp contrast to modern cynicism – without the capital.

Shira, ironically given the modern use of the term, could be characterized as a Cynic in the Greek sense who believed in living in complete harmony with nature, but it was not a nature driven by an individualist tooth-and-claw existence. She was, for a long period of her life and to the very end, devoted to the exercises (and philosophy to some extent) of the German-born (1883) Joseph Pilates who espoused naturopathy or natural healing to deal with the realization and fulfillment of the whole human being. That is why when she was given a death sentence of 3-6 months six years ago, she fought it with self-healing as well as with chemotherapy. This may explain why she outlived all the prognostications of her doctors.

Of course, wearing a constant breathing machine in her final years may seem at odds with Pilates’ belief that bad health was often due to bad posture and inefficient breathing. Pilates was an advocate of balance – of body, mind and spirit – but rooted in physical balance that combined coordination with strength and flexibility, all virtues that Shira exhibited in all of her initiatives and tried to reinforce by her dedication to her mat exercises known as “Contrology”. Her mat would accompany her on her many travels and those exercises always invigorated rather than tired her.

In that sense, Shira may have been dedicated to Israel and her Judaism, but she was also married to the tradition of the Greek Cynics. Cynics are not cynics. Happiness – eudemonia in Greek philosophy – in this school of thought is a product of discipline and rigorous training. It also entailed a rejection of any desire for wealth or power, or achieving happiness only through sensual gratification or fame. Those goals as dominating pursuits detracted from living in harmony with nature. In other words, the beliefs of the Greek Cynics were directly opposed to the inversion of modern cynicism. In fact, Cynicism developed into a secular religion of asceticism that had a powerful effect on early Christianity. As it developed, Cynicism became a parody of itself with Diogenes famously living in the streets in his bathtub.

What Shira exhibited, an every one of the speakers noted, and what I directly observed when working with Shira on the show, Israel Today, was her absolute clarity and lucidity, not characteristics I always exhibit myself. Though sometimes a bit vain, she was totally averse to being conceited and always dedicated to being serious, even about sensual pleasures, and totally opposed to folly. She was modest even though hyper-rational because she knew that deformed reason could result in false judgements with enormous negative consequences. Most of all, unlike modern cynics, the ancient Cynics believed in self-sufficiency but through dedication to all of humanity. The ancient Cynics were early cosmopolitans.

Shira’s Cynicism was of the early Greek variety and she eschewed its deterioration into a cult of asceticism and total disregard for the laws, norms, customs and social conventions. Shira respected conventions except if they imprisoned her mind and prevented her from “thinking outside the box”.  Shira was totally opposed to modern cynicism.

Shira in her life was a shooting star.