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Remembering Bernard Schiff

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On June 8, 1953, Bernard Schiff, who died unexpectedly some weeks ago, celebrated his bar mitzvah at the Bagg Shul in Montreal’s Plateau district. Bernie, who was rather small for his age, stood at the lectern and declared in a voice most earnest that actions will speak louder than words and that growing up to be a good person is more than sufficient.

He was succinct, made his points clearly and returned to his seat, tout suite. Unfortunately, his father Willy, who worked in the garment industry was cut from a very different cloth. Willy appreciated neither his sons’ parsimony, nor the menschlichkeit which was emerging there and then. “Good people finish last,” Willy told his son. “Six million ‘good people’ were murdered in the camps.” It was a dog eat dog world out there, and Willy expected his younger son to be the top dog.

“Actually, your father didn’t expect a son at all,” Bernie’s mother, Freda, would tell him. “We wanted a girl who would maybe help around the house and be at her father’s side when he got old.” Instead, Freda would say with a smile, “I was handed the ugliest baby you ever saw. When the nurse brought you to me, I told her that there must be some mistake. The nurse insisted, so what could I do? I took you and I thought, ‘who does this baby look like?’ And I remembered an idiot cousin left behind in Poland.” Bernie giggled self- consciously each time Freda told the story

Berl, as friends called him, was hardly the idiot cousin. On the contrary. He loved books, and Miss Vaughn, the librarian in charge of old Montreal’s children library, allowed him more than the quota permitted. Berl was the valedictorian in elementary school and again in high school. He was good at everything he did. Except at being a son. He taught himself to engage with laser-precision. He delighted in the accomplishments of others. He was there for a hundred friends whose entire lives he was able to hold in thought. He believed he could fix anyone.

At McGill College, Berl was again a superstar. He won the coveted Bovey Shield awarded to the best undergraduate debater on campus. In his final year, Berl applied and was accepted to medical school, but was not keen on becoming a doctor and even less interested in living at home. As a graduation gift, he asked his parents for an Olympia Lettera 22 portable typewriter and declared that he would become a writer. His father was devastated.

Berl left town. He traveled to Greece and boarded a ship to Israel. When he returned a year later, he considered launching his writing career but knew he could not do so without confronting his demons (which mostly meant his father). He was not yet prepared to do that.

And so, Berl abandoned his literary aspirations and signed up for graduate school in Chicago.  He left home and never returned except for brief visits, weddings and funerals. A stint at Berkeley, a tenured track position at the University of Toronto, secured with little effort, followed. He married Gissa, who came with an infant daughter, Vanessa. Berl adored Vanessa and raised her as his own. Jacob was born, and for a while life could be no better.

But the young professor was restless. The lab could only tell half the story. He considered becoming a psychiatrist, dabbled in real estate, gravitated toward art and music. When he retired from the academy and joined me at the Walrus, he realized that there were some broken souls which even he could not repair. But he also realized how much he could help.

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Berl was social in relation to the individual and an individual in groups. Dozens of intimate friends relied on his ability to put them together each time they fell apart. And Berl was always there for them. Ultimate truths made him nauseous, irritable, angry. He was a consummate analyst, but unlike Freud, who could not restrain the analytical urge, Berl sometimes could go easy on himself. When he did, he sometimes was able to experience the “oceanic feeling” which eluded Freud, but which reminds us that at the end of the day “all is one.”

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