We don’t choose the family we are born into. And yet, during the earliest, most formative years, our immediate families have the greatest impact on our development. We are indiscriminate, emotional sponges. The environment into which we are born sculpts our values and our personalities, which govern the choices we make during the remainder of our lifetime.
Later on, as our world and life experiences expand beyond these initial influences, our choices may sometimes appear to deviate from those core beliefs. Appearances can be deceiving, though. What may appear to be incongruous actions and decisions could in fact be more faithful to our upbringing than we are first inclined to believe.
I was born the youngest of three children in Montreal, on Nov. 5, 1952, to Doris and Eli Brown. High school sweethearts, their union was still somehow an unlikely one. Doris was an artist whose circle included Irving Layton, author Ted Allan and many painters. She also taught English to French students. I am told she was the first Jewish teacher in the French Catholic School Board, and that one time she asked her students whether they knew anyone who is Jewish. Apparently, no one did. “But you do!” she asserted to the dumbfounded students. “Me.”
She named me after the poet Percy Shelley. When I was young, she would often awaken me by quoting Virgil’s description of dawn in the Aeneid as she opened the curtains:
“And now the rising morn with rosy light
Adorns the skies and puts the stars to flight.”
Eli was a walking contradiction. His world was rough and physical. As a late, unplanned and presumably unwanted fourth son to my paternal grandparents, he was not treated well. He became a boxer and, in his teens in the 1930s was the amateur light heavyweight champion of Canada (he refused to compete at the Munich Olympics).
And yet, he loved art and classical music. We had a Heintzman baby grand in our living room, and every year, during the Montreal International Music Festival, we billeted classical musicians from around the world and especially befriended the Soviet musicians (who were required by the USSR to remain closely sequestered).
In the 1950s and the ’60s, many Canadian Jews sympathized with the civil rights and “ban the bomb” movements, as did Eli and Doris. My parents’ support for progressive issues was not merely vocal—I marched with them before I became a teenager through the streets of Montreal in favour of various progressive causes. During high school and college, I participated in demonstrations against the war in Vietnam.
Despite his leftist leanings, my father was a capitalist. At various times, he worked in or owned businesses selling televisions, jewelry and real estate. He also purchased what was then the Town and Country Motel on Cote de Liesse Boulevard. He earned and lost several modest fortunes until he purchased a health food store on St. Denis, “Les Aliments Naturels TAU,” and eventually expanded to three stores. He suffered a massive and debilitating stroke in 1994, at which point my brother and his sons took over, increasing the number of stores to six.
My parents were atheists. We didn’t belong to a synagogue, didn’t attend one even for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. We never fasted, and I don’t recall us having a Passover seder. It would be fair to say that religion was frowned upon. Nevertheless, Eli and Doris were deeply, proudly Jewish and they wanted me to learn about my heritage and culture. They sent me to the secular Peretz Centre, a couple of days a week after school to learn Jewish history. It was there that I learned Yiddish.
Strongly committed to Israel, my parents sent me to Pripstein’s Camp Mishmar in the Laurentians, where each morning we sang both “Hatikvah“ and “O Canada“ and, ironically, there were obvious religious elements in play. Before Friday dinner we had Oneg Shabbat, dressed in white. There was candle lighting. Every Saturday we had a Shabbat service. I truly loved that aspect of camp—particularly the post-service Hebrew songs.
When I was 12 years old, my father asked me if I wanted to have a bar mitzvah. I was surprised. I had assumed it would be obligatory (despite its religious connotations). Offered the choice, I declined. It was a decision I became increasingly uncomfortable with. Certainly, I felt a lack of connection to my Jewish friends and family members who had all had their bar mitzvahs.
Sixteen years later, in 1981, my wife and I and our two-week-old son moved to Toronto. Shortly after I told her that once I was working in an established law firm, I wanted to have a bar mitzvah. Eventually, I landed at Goodman and Fefergrad, where I told Irwin Fefergrad that I hadn’t had my bar mitzvah and that now that I was settled in Toronto I wanted to do so.
He offered to teach me my haftarah portion.
Irwin, as a former president of Beth Tikvah, was able to arrange for a private ceremony. My parents, my in-laws, my sister-in-law and her husband, my brother, sister, Irwin and his wife were present. Most importantly my wife and my two-and-a-half-year-old son Jared were there. My father called it my “dyslexic bar mitzvah.” I was 31 years old.
When I look back now on the reversal which led to my bar mitzvah, the decision I made is not such a mystery. In fact, given the example of humanity which Doris and Eli provided, failure to rectify my choice would have been a negation of the very Jewish values they instilled in me.
I recall my mother crying about four young black schoolgirls who died in a 1963 KKK church bombing. I recall my father’s commitment to a world free of nuclear arms. Both sensitized me to the racial, economic and social inequities with which so many struggle. They taught me that sitting on the sidelines is an abdication. They instilled in me a commitment to be involved. These sentiments have a strong Jewish foundation.
They gave me the compass. The path forward was easy to navigate.
Shelley Brown is a retired human rights lawyer and a community advocate in Toronto. He was the Ontario Liberal Party candidate in York Centre in the 2022 provincial election.