HAMILTON — Physician, former president of Temple Anshe Sholom, Jewish community leader, mohel and philanthropist Tony MacFarlane is all of these things.
He will receive the University of the West Indies’ Vice-Chancellor’s Award March 10 at the Four Seasons Hotel in Toronto at the third annual benefit gala hosted by the university.
MacFarlane is bequeathing his Hamilton home to the University of the West Indies in Jamaica, which was established in 1948. “You donate the house, you live in it until you die, and then the university takes it over,” MacFarlane said.
He has also donated 2,000 classical CDs to the university and sends it money every year for a scholarship fund and a prize. The Vice-Chancellor’s Award “recognizes what I have been doing for the alumnus association,” he said.
MacFarlane was born in Salisbury, Jamaica, in 1937, where he grew up on his grandparents’ plantation.
“My grandmother was the most important person in my life,” he said.
He attended four elementary schools because his grandfather was able to afford the tuition. He was surrounded by poverty and said he was the only boy in the school who could afford shoes.
MacFarlane was a student at the University of the West Indies from 1957 to 1959. He then came to Canada, originally on a 10-week holiday, and ended up staying and completing a two-year pre-med course at McMaster University in Hamilton. He attended the University of Toronto medical school from 1961 to 1965. After interning in emergency medicine in Hamilton, he decided to take a year off and travel to Paris. He learned to speak and read French fluently so that he could read books in the original form. He also had the opportunity to study the piano.
After he returned to Hamilton and opened an office, MacFarlane began collecting rare books and has donated parts of his book collection to McMaster University, York University and the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library at the University of Toronto.
MacFarlane had known as a child that his grandmother, Agatha Mendes, was Jewish. She was the illegitimate child of David Pereira Mendes. But it wasn’t until MacFarlane came to Hamilton in 1959 and attended Temple Anshe Sholom that he became interested in his Jewish background.
The congregants at the Reform temple had never heard of the Jewish surname Mendes, and MacFarlane eventually recognized that the congregation’s members were primarily Ashkenazi Jews.
“I went into the library and looked into the Jewish Encyclopedia and found six pages of the name Mendes,” he said. He realized then that his roots were Sephardi, and traced his ancestry back to the Portuguese Jews who left Spain, moved to Portugal and eventually emigrated to the Caribbean and Jamaica.
“I came to Canada, I stayed, I discovered my Jewish roots,” he said.
In 1988, Hurricane Gilbert struck Jamaica. MacFarlane took the first flight back to check on the status of a house he owned on the northern coast. He found himself in Kingston on Erev Yom Kippur and attended services at a Reform synagogue that had been badly damaged by the hurricane. When MacFarlane inquired if the services were still taking place, he was told that part of the roof had been torn off and they had no electricity. They suggested that he bring his own umbrella and his own folding chair.
“This synagogue has sand on the floors,” MacFarlane said. “It’s an old Morrano custom. It’s supposed to deaden the footsteps of the people when they are in the cellars praying.”
The Morranos, or Conversos, were the Jews of the Iberian Peninsula who converted to Christianity but secretly practised Jewish customs.
The service was an awakening for MacFarlane. “I went to the Kol Nidre service, and that’s when I felt Jewish. Because when you convert, how do you know when you’re going to feel Jewish? I always assumed it would happen, but I didn’t know when. And it happened in Jamaica.”
Every year, MacFarlane returns to the same Jamaican Synagogue for the High Holidays.
In 1992, Rabbi Irwin Zeplowitz at Temple Anshe Sholom was looking for people to become mohels, as the Reform movement was beginning to certify mohels. He encouraged MacFarlane to complete the course, and the doctor practised as a mohel in the Hamilton area for many years.
“It was an interesting experience being a mohel, meeting different kinds of people,” MacFarlane said.
“Everything came together for me, and all because of Hamilton, of all places. Who knew?” he said.