MONTREAL — Avriel Butovsky, LEFT, was a brilliant scholar of Islamic history and culture at a time when the world was paying much less attention to this civilization.
He was at the start of a promising career as a teacher and a writer on the Middle East when he was killed at age 34 in a road accident in Syria in 1993.
On the 15th anniversary of his tragic and sudden passing, his parents Rivka and Mesh Butovsky and the Concordia Institute for Canadian Jewish Studies are honouring his memory with the creation of the Avriel Butovsky Research Library.
As Rivka noted, Avriel loved and avidly collected books, as does his father, who taught English literature for nearly 40 years at Concordia University. The library’s 3,500 volumes on modern Judaica represent just a fraction of the massive number of books on countless subjects Mesh Butovsky has amassed over his 80 years.
“Effectively, this library constitutes a gift from father to son: Mesh’s deep love for books embodied in his deep love for Avriel,” Rivka Butovsky said at the inauguration.
The institute’s chair, Norman Ravvin, welcomed the fact that the Judaica collection was received intact. The books range from works on religion and philosophy to Bible studies and the history of 20th-century Jewish culture.
The library is housed at the institute’s premises in the Samuel Bronfman Building, at 1590 Dr. Penfield Ave., which is also the site of the Canadian Jewish Congress’ national archives. Open to academics and students, the collection is expected to be of special interest to scholars of Jewish thought and history, and the literature of postwar North American Jews.
Mesh Butovsky taught Canadian and American Jewish literature, the Bible as literature, Holocaust narratives and modern Israeli literature.
An interest in Islam such as Avriel Butovsky’s, pre-9/11, might seem odd for a young man who attended the secular and Zionist Jewish People’s School in Montreal, and was in the first graduating class of Bialik High School. At the time of his death, Avriel was living in Cairo.
Avriel’s brother Yaron, a lawyer, however, sees the “Folk Shule” as the place where his younger brother’s love of “the life of the mind,” openness to diverse cultures and strong notions of justice took root.
After Bialik, Avriel, then 16, left for Israel to study history and international relations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. During those four years, he became fluent in Hebrew and Arabic.
He then went to Oxford to study the origins of present-day Islamic fundamentalism. The late professor Albert Hourani, who was of Lebanese background and was considered the founder of modern Middle East studies, became a mentor and role model.
Yaron Butovsky said his brother saw himself as an intermediary between Israelis and Arabs. “He would often tell us of his awkward situation: defending Israel before his Cairo Arab colleagues and friends, while defending his Arab friends against the charges of his Israeli colleagues.”
After graduating with a master’s degree from Oxford, Avriel Butovsky worked in London as a research officer for the World Jewish Congress.
With an award from the Egyptian government, he returned to his graduate studies at Cairo University in 1987-88, studying Egyptian history, Arabic, and Ottoman Turkish. It was then on to Harvard to pursue a doctorate in Middle Eastern studies, in particular Egyptian social history. His research on his dissertation took him back to Cairo, a city he loved, Yaron Butovsky said.
Avriel was nearing completion of that work, which examined the anomaly of the Egyptian royal family’s use of French and Italian in court, rather than the Arabic of the people they ruled.
Avriel’s parents earlier established two scholarships in his name at the Hebrew University and at Harvard. The first is designated for an Israeli-Arab student, the second to buy the latest literature in Arabic.
Two of Avriel Butovsky’s friends from his days at Bialik also spoke at the inauguration: Howie Gold, now a professor of political science at Smith College in Massachusetts, who actually met him in kindergarten, and Mia Barsheshet, now an interior designer and community activist.
Gold remembered how at ease Avriel was moving in both the Jewish and the Arab cultures while living in Jerusalem, and his fervent hope for peace, even then, between the two peoples.
“I honestly believe that even as a teenager, Avriel had an unusually acute sense of humanity and decency; he felt that humanity and decency were lacking on both sides and were necessary to bring about lasting peace.”
One person who never knew Avriel personally also reflected on his legacy. Matthew Ellis is a doctoral candidate in Middle Eastern studies at Princeton, whose interests parallel Avriel’s. He knows the man he considers his intellectual guide only through the writings he published.
“It has become clear to me that, for Avriel, intellectual and academic endeavours were always fundamentally bound up with the personal and the moral… Avriel’s intellectual vision… was also an impassioned moral one.”
A catalogue of the library’s books is available on the Institute’s website: www.concordia.ca/jchair.