Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Before There Were Numbers


Someone, sometime, 

saw things,
and called them things,
just things,
flowers were flowers,
birds were birds,
people were people,
the sun rose
and set, the moon too, 
the day was the day,
a cold day was cold,
a hot day hot,
and no one said things like
age is just a number
and no one looked their age,
or didn't,
and no one ever told anyone else 
to act their age.
No one was ever late
for an appointment, 
to the consternation of some
and the relief of others,
the trains always ran on time,
or not,
if there were trains, that is,
and as for a job, well that was something
you did because you wanted to, 
or maybe had to,
stuff was produced, a service rendered, 
it was all like art
for art's sake,
not a measure of value, 
because no one asked themselves "how much?"
or thought about having more 
or less
than anyone else,
there was no rich
or poor,
no jealousy
or shame,
and we saw in each other
the endless
the infinite
the present
until the counting began.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

 Mount-Royal Cemetery, Section L 
(250 meters from the south gate off Rembrance Road/ Camilien Houde Dr.) 

Spanish and Portugese Synagogue Cemetery, lower Mount-Royal, Outremont entrance, left of the front gate, about ten rows back.

 Shaar Hashomayim Synagogue, lower Mount-Royal, Outremont entrance, right near the front. 

Friday, October 19, 2018

Eichmann in a Box

Watched the film Operation Finale the other night. Mediocre movie in just about all aspects with the exception of Ben Kingsley's performance as Adolph Eichmann which is chillingly riveting in an Anthony Hopkins' as Hannibal Lecter kind of way. What we know of Eichmann's character is only what we can discern from his Jerusalem trial: the bespectacled, bookish-looking, headphone-wearing person standing in the bullet-proof glass box. He looks like an accountant or a bureaucrat, stoically convinced that he was 'just following orders' as Hannah Arendt says. But Ben Kingsley's version of Eichmann is far less banal. Since the movie is about the capture of Eichmann, Kingsley's portrayal begins with his domestic life in Argentina and shows a paranoid man with secrets; a sinister, clever, cold, calculating individual with psychopathic tendencies simmering just below the surface. Watching Operation Finale was preceded coincidentally a few days before by watching a documentary on TV called "Scrapbook from Hell: The Auschwitz Album" about a relatively recently discovered album of photographs that belonged to SS officer Klaus Hoecker who was at the most notorious death camp of all during the period in 1944 when the murder factory was in highest gear as the liquidation of Hungarian Jews was in full swing. The album is shocking for its banality - page after page of SS officers drinking, smiling, socializing together with family, friends and colleagues, after a long day of working the gas chambers and crematoria. It's truly sickening. So in this week of thinking about the true nature of evil and the unredeemable acts of unrepentant men, and in particular people like Eichmann and Hoecker - who was convicted of aiding and abetting over 1,000 murders at Auschwitz, but because he could not be conclusively identified on the selection ramp, in a travesty of justice, was sentenced to a mere 7 years in 1965, and in 1970 returned to normal life as a bank clerk where he worked until retirement - I have been imagining what would have been a more fitting  punishment for them and people like them. Death by hanging was too good for Eichmann. Life in prison would've also been too easy. Surely there is another more innovative and appropriate method, a truly hellish prison to which Eichmann could be committed. I would have injected Eichmann with a serum that would paralyze him permanently from the eyes down. Render him unable to do anything but blink, like the so-called locked-in syndrome that tragically afflicts some people who've suffered strokes. Then I would hook Eichmann him up to machines that ensured he is nourished and cleaned regularly for as long as his natural (and perhaps unnatural) life permits. He would continue to live with awareness and consciousness but without possibility of interaction that would offer any type of enjoyment, pleasure or satisfaction. And then I would put him in a bullet proof glass box, maybe the same one that was used during his Jerusalem trial, and display him in a public venue in Israel, so that the people (and by people I mean the entire nation) he victimized could come to see him. I imagine school children learning about the Holocaust coming by the busloads, their teachers pointing him out, saying this is what we mean when we say 'evil', look how ordinary he is, how harmless he looks, this was the unrepentant architect of an attempted genocide, one of the most despicable people who ever lived. I imagine Holocaust survivors and their children and grandchildren spitting at him, cursing him, laughing at him, teasing him, crying in his face as they show him photos of the loved ones he and his crew murdered. I imagine ordinary people gawking at him in disgust. Day in and day out people would come and stare at Eichmann in his box, and he would have to listen to their pain and suffering, for eternity.     

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

RIP Sears

Sears means a great deal to me. Not because I ever shopped there. Because they were one of the biggest, if not the biggest, retailer of clothing in Canada. And that means they bought more Canadian-made clothing than anyone. They were the foundation of the shmata industry. Which also means that they supported my family for at least two generations. My grandfather Sam Solomon (Sample Manufacturing Corp.) and my dad (Carla Jane Dress Inc.) sold millions of garments to Sears over the years, both through their stores, but more importantly through their catalogue. Sam was the industry innovator of the private label dress business and Sears (the label I remember best was 'Jessica') was his biggest customer for a long time. Some of my fondest memories growing up came from being in dad's office and listening to him and his brothers Hy and Charlie talk about Sears 'check-out' of their styles and the 'back-up' Sears was demanding for their catalogue. Sears always pushed them to innovate. They were the first to demand that their suppliers use computer coding to maintain inventory for 'just-in-time' supply management. In more recent years, as manufactured garments turned to imports, Sears demanded rebates from suppliers on exchange rates, which gave my dad fits. They also imposed prohibitive penalties for late delivery. But there was no way of getting around the terms Sears demanded. They were simply too big and important to the industry to shun their business. The more Sears scrimped and saved to try to survive in the last decade, the more obvious it became the industry as we'd known it was on its last legs. With the writing on the wall, my cousins decided to close the business founded in 1949 a year after dad died in 2012. 

PS. The cartoon was something I drew in '99 using the pseudonym Solomon as a tribute to my grandfather. 

Friday, October 5, 2018

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Sam Solomon, artist (1913-1989)

Sam Solomon circa 1980
I think I've finally reached the age to begin to understand my grandfather's interest in art. He painted most of his life, at the same time as he designed dresses for his successful garment business - Sample Manufacturing Corp., which at one time was the country's largest maker of ladies dresses. He ran his business and took night classes in drawing at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Montreal. He was young (in his late thirties, after working from the age of 13) when he semi-retired to Florida where he painted in his garage-studio during the winter months, coming back to Montreal in the spring to manage the business and design the dress lines his company would manufacture in the next twelve months. 

Sam never deigned to call himself an artist even though he spent so much time making art, thinking about it and talking about it. He produced hundreds and hundreds of canvases during his lifetime. He went through artistic 'periods', playing with a variety of styles from Van Gogh-esque landscapes, to richly Expressionist colour-ladened interior scenes, to gestural Jackson Pollock-esque drips, to black and white 'sculptures' on canvas when he would apply black paint to white canvas cutting away negative spaces to create a shadowy image, to his own personal readings of the urban hieroglyphics of graffiti art. He was chiefly a copyist, aping the styles of trending artists he read about in magazines, in the same way as he would visit London and Paris on styling trips to poach the fashion he saw in the stores there to use as models for his cheaper 'knock-offs'. On those seasonal trips he would also visit the galleries on the Montmartre and buy paintings. 

Jackson Pollock-esque
The term 'artist' I think was fraught for Sam. I have no doubt that he truly loved art, enjoyed its sensual and decorative qualities, admired its history and beauty, and there is little doubt that he had a talent for making it himself. And yet, in spite of the hundreds of canvases he produced he never exhibited, never had a gallery show, and never sold a single painting (except, he once mentioned, to his friend Hershel Segal, founder of the Le Chateau clothing chain, who insisted on paying for one of his canvases despite Sam's protestations.) Instead, he gave his artwork away, some as gifts to friends and business associates, but mostly he loaned them out. His Last Will instructs his executors to collect his artwork from the recipients, and to distribute the paintings among his heirs according to random lots drawn by them. I suspect he realized how impossible it would be to track down all his art. It makes one wonder about what art really meant to him, given that he cared enough about it to consider it part of his legacy. Given that he spent so much time viewing it, reading about it, thinking about it and doing it. And given, perhaps strangely, that he sought no formal recognition of his art from others except close friends and family. 

Painting was Sam's avocation, but art certainly had greater meaning for him than a mere pastime. It seems to me that he could not call himself an artist for two reasons; a. he did not earn his living from his art, and for Sam, owing to his impoverished upbringing, only making money at an activity gave it true legitimacy and value, and b. he could never wholly commit himself to it, because ultimately, I don't think he could ever truly believe in it. On the contrary, I think he considered art, especially the modern and contemporary art which he most tried to emulate, to be the very antithesis of possessing any intrinsic value, because it had no discernible functionality or utility, not even a religious or didactic purpose as in centuries passed. Aesthetically, contemporary art was principally self-conscious and self-referential. Market forces had made art an elitist absurdity. Owning a certain kind of art - determined arbitrarily by taste-makers and marketers - was valued only for the prestige and status that it accorded, and therefore no different than owning a Dior or a Cadillac, except that Dior covered your body and Cadillac could get you from one place to the next. 

'Picasso' drawing, signed and dated 1947
And so, if he acknowledged Picasso as a true modern genius, which he did, it was not just for Picasso's art-making abilities, which were undeniable, but just as much for his skill at branding, self-promotion and celebrity. Sam Solomon had his own kind of local 'celebrity' as a dress manufacturer among his industry peers. He pioneered private labeling - manufacturing product for retailers who promoted their own brands. In a way he was to dress manufacturing the very antithesis of what Picasso was to art-making. Millions of women wore Sam Solomon-made dresses but none of them knew the maker's name. So valued was the Picasso moniker, he could pay for dinner at a cafe by simply signing his name to a paper napkin, and reportedly often did. Sam understood that in the 20th century the objet d'art had become less important than the idea the art attempted to convey or even the notoriety of the artist. Any lasting aesthetic, historical, emotional, intellectual or cultural value that the art object might have had was now sapped away by the forces of the marketplace. The masses were like sheep, Sam often said disdainfully, who only followed the latest trends and fads. They were fools who could be persuaded to believe anything; and art, which had no purpose other than that it existed for its own sake, was the prime example. The 20th century had begun by turning art into an absurdist game, when Marcel Duchamp placed a urinal in a gallery, called it "Fontaine" and signed and dated it. The joke was on us for taking it seriously, and I suspect that Sam was laughing even as he continued painting. He steadfastly refused to exhibit or show because he didn't want to be part of the joke. He didn't need the money, and didn't want to contribute to the fraud the marketplace perpetrated on the collectors who paid ridiculously high sums for work by the latest 'hot' artist. 

'Sculpting' with paint
His own mimicking of artistic styles in his art practice may be seen as a skeptically ironic social commentary from the margins of the art world. A way of drawing attention to the elitist  foolishness he witnessed all around him - literally around him, since in the last quarter of his life he resided and painted in tony Palm Beach. After Sam died one of his best friends who'd known him for decades contacted the executors of his estate imploring them to whisk away the Picasso, Dali and Matisse drawings, and the large Leger and Pollock canvases that hung on the walls of his Palm Beach home, put them into storage, and replace them with less valuable art so that the estate would be spared a huge tax hit. He had no idea that the artworks in question were fakes, done by Sam himself, forgeries down to dates and signatures. It was one of Sam's best jokes that not even his closest friends were in on the prank. They believed the artwork was authentic not because they were artistically convincing (they were, Sam was a skilled copyist although I suspect that an expert would not be fooled) but because, in context, his friends wanted to believe it. Sam understood that all it took was wanting to believe. If you drove a Rolls Royce you must be successful. If you owned a Matisse you must have taste and discernment. I suspect that Sam did not want to 'taint' the art he made by selling it. He didn't want it to become just another hocked product, like one of the dresses he manufactured. Better to keep his two worlds separate; the world of his art untouched from the 'business' of art, ironically so, since much of his work imitated many of the current popular trends. 

don't know if Sam believed that in the age of Warhol's Campbell Soup Cans and Brillo Boxes art could still be original. But I do think that he maintained a nostalgic, romantic notion of the artist as heroic, the artist as protean visionary creator whose work can have influence, transcend and leave a genuine mark on the world. Ultimately, maybe he thought his art could never rise to that lofty status, and maybe he feared that he could never be anything more than a salesman.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Eulogy for ARLEEN SOLOMON ROTCHIN who passed away on October 18, 2017

[The mourners are wearing denim today, and if you knew Arleen you understand why]

There is Hasidic wisdom that says, every person born into this world represents something new, something that never existed before, something original and unique, and the foremost task of every person is to actualize his or her unique, unprecedented and never recurring potentialities, and not to repeat something that another - even the greatest - has already achieved. It is said that a short while before his death Rabbi Zusya proclaimed: “In the world to come I shall not be asked ‘Why were you not more like Moses? I will be asked why were you not more like Zusya.” 

The question asked of Rabbi Zusya will not be asked of Arleen Solomon Rotchin in the afterlife. Because Arleen was undeniably, uncompromisingly, one-of-a-kind and completely Arleen.

When our father Ezra Rotchin passed away we felt it was important to eulogize him by telling his story from beginning to end. That was because dad was a man of few words and was not very good at telling his own story. Arleen was exactly the opposite. She loved telling her story, was very good at telling it, and told it to whoever would listen.

Most of you knew our mother - a woman of many facets - in your own unique way. So all we hope to do today is to fill in some gaps. To tell you about the Arleen we knew. Mom was so good at telling her story in fact, that eventually, when she was already well into the Third Act of her life, she published three books, a creative memoir and two novels, and she started a blog that told the stories and celebrated the achievements of accomplished fabulous women. Many of the women she wrote about she felt had not been sufficiently acknowledged, most of them were artists and in their later years. According to mom older woman could stay vibrant and creative, as she did. Age, she liked to say, was only important if you were a cheese. 

For mom, life itself was a work of art, a constant creative act, a performance, a shining statement about who you were and what you were passionate about. And she was passionate about a lot of things.

Mom’s life had many acts, many great performances, because she was such a supremely talented, intelligent, curious and gifted individual. She excelled at virtually everything she put her mind to doing, and the list is impressive in breadth and scope.

Her early years were marked by athletic excellence. As a teenager she was a State of Florida champion golfer. Those who knew her as a camper and counsellor at Camp Hiawatha for 16 years will recall her as one of the best athletes in camp, someone who could throw a baseball harder and farther than many of the boys. Growing up on Hampstead Road we played catch with mom as often as we did with dad. Mom was also women’s champion of Cedarbrook golf club, winning the title when she was 8 months pregnant with Randy, if you can believe that. The others competitors cried foul, two against one they said.   

Arleen married our father when she was 22 years old and he was 11 years older. She was an incredibly devoted, loving mother, embracing motherhood with heart, soul and youthful vigour, which explains how she was able to pump out three boys in 22 months - she always said she would have had 6 if she could have. 

She kept a fastidious home that provided everything we needed. Breakfast was on the table every morning with orange juice and Flintstones vitamins, and dinner was prepared every night, often brisket, steaks on the grill or her famous shepherd’s pie. We did everything together, mom was all about the family. We enjoyed winter weekends skiing at Jay Peak, and suffice to say mom could keep up with the men, pushing herself perhaps a bit too far on one of the mountain’s steeper slopes and breaking her ankle in the deep snow. Mom had her hands full with a house full of men but didn’t back down from a challenge in those days and was seemingly capable of anything. 

I could speak of the numerous memorable family vacations, the 6-week summer car trip across North America, the bi-yearly trips to Florida. Mom non-judgmentally encouraged, indulged and supported all our childhood interests and passions, from rock collecting and stamp collecting, to sports and painting. When Randy decided he wanted to attend  art school in New York for university, dad was understandably bewildered and dismayed, but mom stood firmly behind Randy. How mom endured my noisy rock band practicing in our basement, is a bit of a mystery to me now, but she did it with a smile, and just shut her bedroom door. Mom understood that ultimately there was nothing more important when raising children, than to make them feel respected, wanted, and supported enough to express their passions whatever they may be. And she ensured that my brothers and I felt that completely.

Eventually mom became restless herself, which you might expect from a person with so much curiosity, intelligence and creative talent. She first tried spreading her wings by starting an advertising agency with her dear friend Rhoda Weitzman, who was probably the closest person mom ever had to a sister. Rhoda’s passing this past summer broke her heart. 

A little later on mom decided she wanted to try her hand at veterinary medicine, I kid you not, and took courses to be a veterinary medical technician. She even assisted in the operating room, doing kidney transplants on dogs. I was the coolest kid in my class in grade 5 when, for show-and-tell, I brought a dog’s kidney to class in a jar of formaldehyde that mom had managed to borrow from the lab. It wasn’t my idea, it was mom’s.

The next phase of mom’s life began when she took up the camera. She studied under several teachers including the renowned photographer John Max. She explored a variety of subject matter, documenting workers in a Chabanel street garment factory, awkward children taking beginner ballet lessons, and performing animals at the Barnum and Bailey circus, among them. As with all her endeavours it did not take long for her to become accomplished with a camera, publishing a portfolio of her work in one of the country’s premiere photography magazines. 

Photography led to one of the great passions of her life, her work with children.  At first it was children with disabilities at Summit School and then it was Shawbridge Youth Center. She had decided that instead of exhibiting her photography, she would teach young people how to use the camera as a means of developing their own sense of self-esteem, personal responsibility, freedom and individual vision. She became a certified photo-therapist and launched her own pilot project at Shawbridge working with youth in crisis and youth under civil protection. It is not an exaggeration to say that she was instrumental in changing the lives of dozens of kids who hadn’t been given a fair chance to succeed in life. During the years she was associated with Shawbridge she also lectured at Dawson and Vanier Colleges teaching phototherapy. 

Children were mom’s central passion in life, whether it was raising her own children, or giving photography workshops to kids privately in her home, or working with the kids at Summit School and Shawbridge, it was not just about teaching kids how to use a camera and develop film in a darkroom, it was more about empowering kids to develop their own personal visions and identities.

Mom was so excited when her first grandkids came along, eventually nine in total. She wasn’t your traditional chicken soup and knaidlach grandmother. Having grandchildren was for her a chance to share her exuberance, creativity and playfulness. In her Montreal home she built an art room and relished doing art projects with her grandkids. There was always a special activity with Granny, including excursions to the theatre and other events. In Florida, she had regular weekly activities planned for the grandkids, and never missed a chance, if the wind was good, to fly kites with them on the beach near her home.

The Third Act of mom’s life was characterized by another metamorphosis precipitated by the death of her father, our grandfather Sam, and a shift toward greater independence. She bought and sold and bought homes in Florida, decorating them with her impeccable taste. In her two communities; Palm Beach in the winter and Greene Avenue in the summer, her presence was felt, everyone seemed to know her on the street. 

Finally, she turned to writing to exercise her agile mind, talent and desire for self-expression. She had actually always written and been a voracious reader, going back to her days as a journalism student at the university of Miami. I remember her clacking away on a typewriter, and the reams of pages she produced in large stacks in our basement on Hampstead road. Writing again, was for mom, a rediscovery of herself, and resulted in the aforementioned 3 published books.

In mom’s second novel ZOO she draws on her experience as a photographer working with children, and I’d like to read the short prologue from the book because I think her own words give a sense of not only how good a writer she was and her unique literary voice, but also it provides something of a self-portrait. In the scene, the narrator is a photographer whose lens is trained across the street at her neighbour and friend Geena as she is being taken away by the police for a fraud she is alleged to have committed: 

“The past is this prologue. 
I have little to say about the shooting. 
I am on location at the circular driveway, snapping shots of them easing into their large shiny Mercedes. Their elegant prop. 
I am a dinosaur. I don’t use a modern digital camera.
The morning light is perfect for black-and-white film.
It is hush-hush except for the clicking shutter.
They are smoking cigarettes. I find it difficult to focus. My eyes are tearing.
She is wearing a blue Versace suit. The design is faultless.
It hangs off the shadow of her frame, sagging and drooping like an old elephant’s skin.
Not exactly what Versace had in mind when he designed the collection.
She looks like a frail bird of an imaginary species.
Her eyes are filled with fear and loneliness. I will crop out the fear.
She is terrified. Bewildered.
Her pale zombie face appears synthetic, overexposed. I will burn in her skin.
She bites her bottom lip. I will dodge out the bite.
My last two frames are Geena going forward and looking back like a terrified exotic animal off to the zoo to be stripped of her freedom. 
In no time they will be in Miami. She will appear before the Judge.

I cross the street, a voyeur, and wait to see what develops.
Will she be confined ... exhibited... ?”

(Zoo by Arleen Solomon Rotchin, pg. 11-12)

The prologue captures so much of mom, and especially her contradictions. She was fascinated by high fashion and the status symbols she saw exalted in Palm Beach, and was at the same time repelled by them, railing against them as fraudulent and unimportant. Be wary of what is seen, mom seems to be saying in the quote, sometimes it’s a deception. The photographer can alter the image, smooth away and hide the subject’s blemishes. The image is not reality. And those last startling lines : “Will she be confined ... exhibited ...?” Mom was of course writing about herself. Life is like a work of art, it may be beautiful, exquisitely crafted and framed, something to behold, put in a museum - exhibited. But then isn’t a museum also a house of confinement and hyper-control, a kind of jail. 

We live life in metaphors, mom used to say, and we project our personal metaphors onto our subject matter, metaphors that express the contradictions we struggle with. Mom was flashy, trend-setting, an attention-getter - high-school friends and neighbours still talk about seeing mom fly around Hampstead in her Jeep Laredo with the top off - and she was sociable, an engaging conversationalist who cultivated dozens of relationships with friends. And yet she cherished her solitude and fiercely guarded her own physical space. She was a formidable presence, extroverted, opinionated and outspoken, and yet she was also an introvert, sensitive and emotionally vulnerable. 

Mom was also a woman of great integrity, respect and consideration. She was never late for an appointment. She did not suffer fools lightly. And if you promised something you better deliver, her word was her bond and she expected the same from others. Many, many adjectives have been used to describe mom: quirky, edgy, cutting, clever, funny, witty, fun - it leaves us all shocked that someone so alive, so vital, could depart so quickly and unexpectedly.

Just before she went into the hospital mom told me I was her best friend. I suspect she said the same thing to Randy and Dean at different times, and may have said the same thing to many of you - mom always wanted to make people feel special and important, and they usually did, because you felt special just to be in her presence.

But I think mom and I had a special closeness. We had a kind of understanding of each other, a meeting of minds and hearts in an inexplicable DNA connection way. I got her, and she got me. I was very attached to her. Maybe too attached and she knew it. At 23 I was home from graduate school abroad and living in her house on Elm Avenue, when she politely invited me to leave. I think she said something along the lines of “Glen, you're doing nothing, it’s time to go.” Mom didn’t mince words. I didn’t like it very much at the time, found it harsh. But kicking me out undeniably jump-started my life. It motivated me to rent an apartment and find my first full time job. Mom was an independent person, with an independent style, independent tastes, independent opinions, and an independent spirit. She had the wisdom to understand that her baby needed a kick in the pants to take some independence of his own. 

Mom chose the symbol of the Calla Lilly to represent her blog, her last major project. The Calla Lilly is a flower that traditionally symbolizes unique elegance and fleeting beauty. It’s also known for its resilience and ability to re-grow. Like the Calla Lilly, mom evolved and flowered over and over again throughout her life. I will close with her own words, because I think it may be the best description of mom:

“A Calla Lilly has a style that is ageless. She is busy, unconventional, edgy, independent and intriguing. She knows who she is, and what she wants to say, and doesn’t give a damn. She carries the spirit of youth into old age and never loses her enthusiasm.”

Mom never did, and the beauty of her legacy will never fade.