A man for all seasons. Renaissance man. A mensch. All of these expressions are appropriate descriptions of Victor Goldbloom, who passed away Feb. 15 at the age of 92.
He was without doubt a great man. In all of his pursuits, as a professional or volunteer, he was exceptionally accomplished and successful. With deference and dignity, he took on diverse responsibilities that often put him in roles outside of his comfort zone, even outside of his various communities’ accepted norms or public values.
But he had a vision of the virtuous and the just. He had a dream of a good world, and he pursued that to our benefit. Without fear or posturing, without trying to impose his views on others, he quietly and steadfastly proceeded to engage in good acts and establish relationships with others in the world at large.
The biographical details are fascinating. Like his father, Anton Goldbloom, Victor was a pediatrician, a caring doctor who made house calls. He took care of children by learning to listen to the young ones, by discarding the surface appearance and delving deeply into signs, symptoms and history that the child could not express. Letters indicate repeatedly just how gentle he was with children.
Victor was talented in his vocation and in applying these professional skills to his other concerns. He transferred that gentleness to adults, even to his opponents. These gifts of his worked well in the world of politics, which he entered in 1966. He worked on the environment, the 1976 Montreal Olympics, conservation and in other communal, social and political venues.
But his most outstanding contributions may have been in the field of inter-communal connections. He titled his autobiography Building Bridges, for that is what he did. He worked with the Canadian Council of Christians and Jews to foster dialogue, and he worked to protect and foster the French language. Both of these activities were not easily undertaken.
In recorded interviews, notably with the oral historian Sharon Gubbay-Helfer, he discusses how difficult these responsibilities were and admitted that the Jewish community did not especially favour them. Yet he believed in them, dedicated himself to them and achieved a great deal.
Many Jews feared the conversion goals of the Christians involved in dialogue. Victor had a different understanding and approach. He read a great deal and understood the history of Christianity. He knew the history of the papacy and of the Catholic Church during the Holocaust. He was able to find fault where it lay, but to also see the effects of Christian aid and attempts to hide and help Jews during the Shoah. He was willing to build on that.
But primarily, he did not feel his Judaism was vulnerable to conversion. He was confident in his own Jewish identity and that of his colleagues. In fact, he felt that the more they would have to stand up and explain Jewish practices or define Jewish experiences, the stronger their voices would become and the stronger their identities would grow. He felt that the more you talked about Judaism to a non-Jew, the more comfortable and eloquent you became. On this basis alone, he was more than willing to engage in dialogue.
But, of course, he had more compelling reasons. Fear did not dissuade him. Insecurity was not familiar to him. He was confident as a Jew, but his overriding goal was to bring Jews and Christians to a mutual understanding. He noted that in the beginning, there was tension, and deep theological issues were divisive. But eventually, they were able to move away from those, which in itself was a great achievement. His dialogue discussions and meetings were able to focus on the social justice and action issues to improve our shared world. This was truly a great achievement, and a benefit to all.
Victor always looked to understand the context of any issue. He sought the consequence of events for both the individual and the community. Rather than being pedantic or overbearing, in his own way, he gently educated and shared information with colleagues by sending them clippings and articles. Cardinal Jean-Claude Turcotte, from 1990 to 2012 the archbishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Montreal, once noted of Victor: “He only talks about what he knows.”
Victor’s legacy is directed at the critical matter of how to approach diverse communities. He taught that we must learn what inspires people who are not like ourselves and what hurts them. Those are his lessons and commandments to us. He taught the Christian world – those that would listen – the same things. He taught us all to be proud and confident, but not arrogant or haughty, and to be both gentle and strong. He also showed us that we can survive and prosper with French and with dialogue. What a wonderful heritage.
Consequently, when he passed away last week, we all lost. We lost a leader, an advocate, an activist, a mentor and, for the lucky amongst us, a friend. But, of course, his family lost much more. They have suffered the loss of a beloved husband, father and grandfather whose presence and dedication was fundamental to their lives and who imparted to them the central elements of their heritage.
Victor was blessed with Sheila, his wife of 67 years. They were a delightful and significant Montreal couple, adding to the dynamism of this community’s legacy. Each in their own way contributed much to the culture and ethos of Montreal, but together they formed a strong presence that should be celebrated. They formed a vibrant family with three children, Susan, Michael, and Jonathan. The chain of life that began on July 31, 1923, with Victor’s birth is alive and well, renewed in his grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and even in the work that Victor cherished and laboured over.
While active and eager to continue his work, Victor was very modest about his many very significant awards. In an interview with Gubbay-Helfer after being personally made a Knight of the Order of St. Sylvester in 2012 by Pope Benedict XVI, Victor said that one must think, why him? After all, his awards were often not the usual ones, but were singular, public and distinctive.
His answer was very instructive. He said the answer is for others to give. But most importantly, we must recognize that each of us tries to make the world a better place than when we came into it. He then noted that we must acknowledge we are all limited, but we are all able to do something. When it comes to interfaith dialogue, for example, small groups might have only limited, even minor, effect. Thus, one might feel insignificant.
But Victor felt that if each individual could feel the responsibility to dialogue, to reach out to others and improve the world, then as all those small steps would accumulate, and we could accomplish a lot.
That was his vision. That was what prompted his constant good work. And that is his legacy. We have indeed lost much.