Obituary: Dr. Hy Goldman, 96, co-founder of KlezKanada, was a dedicated pediatrician and a tireless promoter of klezmer music

Hy Goldman

Hy Goldman, a physician who devoted what could have been a well-deserved retirement to the revitalization of klezmer music on a global scale, died May 19 in Montreal. He was 96.

The word “tireless” hardly begins to convey how much time, energy and vision Goldman put into creating and sustaining KlezKanada, an annual weeklong retreat in the Laurentians celebrating traditional Eastern European Jewish music and culture. Since its modest beginning in 1996, the nonprofit KlezKanada has grown into an event that attracts hundreds of musicians, scholars and lovers of Yiddishkeit of all ages each summer.

The majority of participants come from outside Quebec, and KlezKanada evolved into what its artistic director Avia Moore described at Goldman’s funeral as an “international, inter-generational and inter-denominational movement.”

Some call it a community; Goldman preferred to think of it as a family.

Some years ago, Goldman was determined to breach the “East-West” divide, and saw to it that artists from the former Soviet Union and Communist bloc, the birthplace of klezmer, came to KlezKanada.

He took special pride in a scholarship program that enables emerging artists from around the world—whatever their background—to attend KlezKanada and learn from some of the greatest klezmorim today.

In addition to the retreat every August at Camp B’nai Brith, KlezKanada expanded to include concerts and other activities in Montreal and online.

Goldman was 70 when KlezKanada was launched, and still maintaining a full-time medical practice at the Montreal Children’s Hospital (MCH). He and his wife Sandy ran KlezKanada themselves for most of its history, every year raising the money to keep it going.

They not only gave their time, but also personal resources.

KlezKanada finally hired its first executive director in 2018, but Goldman remained engaged in every aspect of its planning and an enthusiastic presence at the retreat.

In announcing his passing, the KlezKanada board stated, “One can’t describe or define KlezKanada without Hy Goldman, and one can’t describe or define Hy Goldman without KlezKanada.”

Montreal-born Goldman grew up in the old Jewish neighbourhood and attended fabled Baron Byng High School. He was among the generation who in later life reconnected with the Yiddish language their immigrant parents had spoken.

Although he could not play a note himself, Goldman was a lifelong music lover, not only of klezmer, but also genres ranging from classical to Big Band to the country stylings of John Denver.

He, along with the late Sara Rosenfeld, director of Canadian Jewish Congress’s Yiddish committee, and Jack Wolofsky co-founded KlezKanada, hosting its first edition in 1996. As his son Ilan said at the funeral, there was considerable skepticism that the project would succeed; the klezmer revival was in its infancy.

Goldman’s capacity for work, both in his profession and on behalf of the community, was legendary. He regularly kept hours a person half his age would find exhausting.

In contrast to his zeal, Goldman was laconic, self-effacing and steadfast. Compared to his brother and sister, he was known as the serious, studious one, said Ilan.

Goldman’s specialty was endocrinology, specifically childhood diabetes. He was a pioneer in the isolation of pancreatic islet cells, establishing the first tissue culture lab at the MCH in the early 1970s. However, he was happiest working in the emergency department, and despite the stress that entailed, eagerly returned to the hospital each morning after late-night shifts.

He headed the MCH Council of Physicians for decades, and generations of interns appreciated him as a mentor.

Coming from a family of modest means during the Depression, Goldman might never have become a doctor if not for the Korean War. At 18 he went to New York and was drafted into the U.S. Army. After serving in the Korean conflict for two years, he entered medical school at the University of Illinois on the G.I. Bill and completed his education in Switzerland.

After starting his career in Cleveland, Goldman returned to Montreal in 1959 and joined the MCH staff where he would remain for more than 50 years. Reluctant to retire, at a still vigorous 81 he started a new job at the Tiny Tots clinic, finally hanging up his stethoscope at 91.

Goldman was past 40 when he married, and perhaps for that late blooming truly cherished family life. Friday night dinners were sacrosanct, even more so as grandchildren came along, they remembered at the funeral. Despite his demanding schedule, he was there for their games and piano recitals.

Material things were not important to Goldman, said Ilan, who remembered the decrepit cars his father got around in.

For many years Goldman was a regular at Congregation Tifereth Beth David Jerusalem and visited Israel numerous times. One of his wishes in his final days was that the entire family visit Israel together, said daughter Ronit.

Son Daveed credited his father with inspiring him to found in 2011 Choir! Choir! Choir! popular drop-in singalongs in Toronto.

Moore said fond memories have been received from around the world from those whose lives were impacted by Goldman and KlezKanada. Former executive director Sebastian Schulman said Goldman’s “powerful sense of vision and indomitable will made things happen.”

Two former KlezKanada artistic directors, leading American klezmer musicians, Jeff Warschauer and Frank London, performed at the funeral.

In 2016, Hy and Sandy were awarded the Governor General’s Meritorious Service Medal in recognition of their leadership of an arts festival that over two decades had “grown and gained international stature.”

Friends and longtime KlezKanada supporters Sara and Irwin Tauben noted, “At an age when most men might have retired to the golf course or happily taken up a hobby, Hy not only continued his duties as a doctor, but began to seriously pursue his interest in Jewish music.

“He could have simply learned to play an instrument, focusing on klezmer tunes. Instead, he made it possible for thousands to learn to play multiple Jewish musical traditions while deepening their understanding of Jewish history, culture and folkways. He directly impacted four generations, while KlezKanada continues to inspire and motivate participants from around the world.”