Ezra Rotchin was born Israel Rotchtin on February 14th 1928. He was the youngest of nine siblings, eight of whom survived to adulthood. Born with one ear to a mother in her mid-forties, Ezra grew up in the hardscrabble neighborhoods of the Plateau where he learned to resist the taunts and teasing of his peers, and learned quickly that blood was thicker than water. If he lived by any one credo for the rest of his life it would be this: Family above all else.
He was the ‘baby’ of the family, loved all his older siblings (Sarah, Ida, Charlie, Jene, Hy, Florence, and Marcia) and admired his mother Leah for her strength, business acumen and strong-mindedness. But as a child who was regularly victimized for his perceived inadequacies; it was with his father, Abraham affectionately known as Popsy, with whom he developed a special bond. Popsy was a peddler and a young Ezra would often accompany his father on his neighbourhood rounds to take orders and collect monthly payments. Popsy sold well, but when it came to collecting he wasn’t as adept. Leah complained that not enough money was coming in. So one day when Popsy was too sick to make the rounds Ezra went in his place. When Ezra returned home with pockets full of cash, more than Bubbie had ever seen before, Popsy - the big-hearted Socialist that he was - was horrified. “How can you take the money from those poor people?” he protested, “They need it more than we do.”
The experience with Popsy would be one that dad would never forget for the rest of life. Family comes first, but never forget those less fortunate than you. As an adult Dad was involved in several philanthropic organizations including the Knights of Pythias, Camp B’nai Brith and, more recently, as a benefactor of the Montreal Oral School for the Deaf. The people he empathized with the most weren’t his golfing buddies at Elm Ridge, or his ski buddies - though he certainly loved skiing and playing golf with family and friends - it was the buddies who’d fallen on hard times, guys like his dear friend the late Joe Saad who he brought into the business after Joe had suffered business and personal setbacks, and in the last decade, his neighbor and close companion Emile Annatone who loved Crown Royal almost as much as dad did, and watched out for dad through his years of declining health like a blood brother.
After Popsy died in 1949, Ezra was devastated. He ran off to California but soon had to return when things didn’t work out as planned. He was immediately taken back into the family garment business founded by Hy, no questions asked. Aside from Popsy and Bubbie, no two people were more important in dad’s life than Charlie and Hy. He loved them, felt indebted to them, and ironically, fought with them more than anybody else.
Being a Rotchin meant many things to dad. It meant taking care of one another. It meant absolute loyalty. It meant you drove to work together, you worked hard together, you fought for what you believed in, and at the end of the day, you resolved your differences and drove home together in the same car as you came.
In the business, Charlie handled sales, Hy took care of styling and production, and Ezra was the numbers man. He was the innovator, the one who convinced the brothers that they had to adopt new production and costing methods to meet the changing times, and to invest in technology; they had to adapt if they were going to remain competitive. Adapting, staying a step ahead of the competition, creating new strategies, these were skills that might have come in handy to a one-eared boy trying to make his way on the unforgiving streets of Montreal in the 30s and 40s. Whatever the recipe, part innovation, part love, part battle, the brothers somehow made it work, and the company, now in its third generation, has been in continuous operation since 1947, an astonishing 65 years. Billy, Michael and Jeremy's choice to enter the business, and their commitment to continue it - an achievement not often seen in family businesses - is a testament to the legacy of family devotion and loyalty. The cousins always appreciated what the 3 brothers built, and they were appreciated in return. I was fortunate enough to be a part of it for a time. I worked with my dad for more than a decade, and shared lunch with him together with my uncles and cousins nearly every day for the past 25 years.
Dad loved business almost as much as he loved the family itself. He started several different businesses during his lifetime, some more successful than others. And he involved family in each and every one. To him, there was no benefit unless the family benefitted together. He never forgot the break given him by Charlie and Hy, and the moral and financial support he’d enjoyed from his sisters and parents.
Dad possessed an odd mix of hope and cynicism. He believed there was always an angle; if you were creative enough, you could always find a way to get things done. For instance, two years ago, when his legs were failing him and he relied on his wheelchair to get around, Glen took him to get his driver’s license renewed. Before getting into the car to take his road test, Glen caught sight of dad secretly slipping the examiner a rolled up $50 bill. He told the examiner with a wink that it was a token of his appreciation, and he suggested the examiner take his wife out for a nice dinner. Of course, the man refused. As the test began, Dad admitted to the examiner that he had limited movement and sensation in his legs, was unable to turn his head to look behind him, and had hearing in only one ear. He passed the test anyway, and his license was renewed for five more years.
The point is, that for dad, trying and failing was admirable. Not trying at all was inexcusable. He knew that whatever you chose to do in life, it was not going to be easy. He understood that everyone had shortcomings, and felt that focusing on them was fruitless. There were no free rides in life. You had to earn every inch.
When he finally left home at the age of thirty-three, Ezra knew that above all else he wanted to be a father and a family man. Weeknights, he coached the neighborhood hockey teams on Hampstead's outdoor rinks, and every weekend he took us skiing to Jay Peak. He took us on fishing trips to such exotic places as the Maritimes and northern Quebec. Our home at 92 Hampstead Road boasted the town's first driveway basketball court - attracting kids from around the neighborhood and beyond. His greatest joy was to spend time with his children, and growing up we felt loved, wanted and respected. He fought for other kids too, briefly getting involved in municipal politics, battling with the mayor and town council to acquire the vacated Heather curling club because he felt the kids deserved a community center and indoor rink.
Our parents worked as a team, during those years. We did everything together. One summer dad reasoned that for the price of expensive summer camps, a family car trip could be afforded and then some. With my brothers and I, ages 8, 9 and 10, the station wagon was packed up and our parents took us across the continent on an unforgettable six-week 5000 mile journey covering central and western Canada and more than a dozen states in the US.
Dad was an extraordinary family man, and it was one of the great disappointments in his life that our parents’ marriage was ultimately unsuccessful.
But dad knew that when you threw yourself wholeheartedly and passionately into any endeavor – and that was the only way to do it - you always risked disappointment. You had to keep going. And he was rewarded for his effort. It wasn’t long after his divorce from our mother Arleen that dad met Shirley.
In Shirley, dad found a truly remarkable individual and mate. They cared for each other through decades of ups and downs, physical difficulties, and many, many family celebrations, including the birth of seventeen grandchildren. In Shirley, he found someone who not only had an abiding capacity for love and devotion, but someone who he admired as an accomplished individual in her own right; who had overcome adversity, worked and raised a family singlehandedly, and possessed initiative, independence and fearlessness. She valued his strength, forthrightness, honesty and loyalty, and he respected that she was traditional, hardworking, loving and caring to a fault. In Shirley, dad met his true match, his basheret. Shirley gave dad renewed hope, not to mention a new family and sense of home. Shirley also gave dad Elana, the loving daughter he never had, but always wanted. Dad's devotion to Elana and her devotion to him was reciprocal.
Dad was a man of contradictions. He could be awkward in social situations and yet knew how to enjoy himself and relished the company of his closest family and friends. He was a man of few words, and yet had a lot to say, and when he spoke, he was direct, no mincing words. He was skeptical of organized religion, was never a shul-goer, and yet, I think appreciated the beauty of our ancient traditions. He viewed others with some cynicism and yet, never lost sight of the beauty of the world, particularly its natural beauty. He was never more at home (and spiritually at peace) than when he was at the top of a mountain, or skiing down it, and yodeling at the top of his lungs to the rhythm of his perfect ess-turns.
Dad enjoyed his crown royal. So much so, that he was convinced that his daily dose was lowering his blood sugar levels, reversing the effects of his emphysema, and reducing the inflammation caused by arthritis. If you were a betting person, you would have shorted crown royal stock when you heard of Dad's passing.
Dad was rock solid, an anchor. He commanded respect and expected others to earn his. He didn’t have much tolerance for outward sentimentality (although on the inside he was a softy), and so I’ll not dwell on the final weeks of his life; I’ll only say that his days ended just as he lived them, with courage, dignity and strength. He put up a great fight. And when it was time to stop fighting, he chose the moment, sparing his family the pain of witnessing it.
The final word must go - as he would have wanted - to family. Dad took so much pride in the accomplishments and achievements of his many nieces and nephews. We always knew it when the Gellers were excelling in sports, or how the Halperin boys were becoming doctors. He supported the business decisions made by Billy and Michael, even while pushing them to move the company in new directions, and when cousin Audrey struck it big with her illustrated children’s books a couple of years ago, dad planned to go into business with her on a line of children’s clothing.
How he would have loved to make it to this year’s edition of our legendary family seder. He was planning on it. He fought hard, but it was not to be. He was well aware that in life, you can’t win every battle.The seder was all about family to dad. His greatest joy was to see the new generation of kids running around. Spending every Sunday with his grandkids in Florida was the highlight of his winter, and when he and Shirley bought their house in TMR, they knew it had to have a backyard pool, so that the Montreal grandkids would come over to swim on the weekends, which is what we did countless times.
Dad would want his main legacy to be the strong ties that bind family together; his children to each other and to their chosen spouses, his grandchildren to their parents, grandparents and cousins. And if that’s the ultimate measure of your life dad, you can rest easy: Mission accomplished.