Home Perspectives Features ‘He never stopped playing:’ Jack Rabinovitch’s life-affirming legacy

‘He never stopped playing:’ Jack Rabinovitch’s life-affirming legacy

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Jack Rabinovitch, left, with 2014 Giller Prize winner Sean Michaels, and Brian Porter. TOM SANDLER PHOTO, GILLER PRIZE WEBSITE

Jack Rabinovitch once told me that when his mother Fanny died in a Catholic hospital in Montreal, one of the sisters in the hospital told him, “Don’t worry, she’s with Jesus and the angels in heaven.”

“You wanna bet?” he replied.

Jack Rabinovitch lived life fully, and although we all feel a sense that at 87, his life was still cut short, let us celebrate through the tears.

I knew him as a philanthropist, a lover of the arts, sports, kibitzing, politics and simply of life itself. Above all, I came to love his ability to make and keep friends. That to me is his legacy, above all else. He cared about his friends, but never treated friendship as a club with a closed door. He was always curious about new ideas, new books, new people. He never stopped learning and asking questions. George Bernard Shaw once said that it’s not that you’re too old to play, it’s that you’re old because you’ve stopped playing. Jack never stopped playing. And that is what gave his energy its timeless quality.

He grew up in Montreal as one of St. Urbain’s horsemen – poor, smart, irreverent and quick to learn about life. His father was a “newsie,” and Jack used to say that he learned his math skills counting pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters for the family business. To say that he had “street smarts” hardly captures it – he had dreams and hopes, but few illusions. His early life also meant that he was not afraid of anyone and that he never believed he was any worse, or any better, than anyone else. No matter how high he climbed, he never forgot where he came from; he never seemed intimidated by anyone’s success.

‘I came to love his ability to make and keep friends. That to me is his legacy, above all else’

Before I met Jack, my wife, Arlene, knew his late wife, Doris Giller, as a fellow book reviewer at the Toronto Star. Arlene was devastated by Doris’s illness and eventual death from cancer, and it was this that brought us together. Jack came to see me to talk about building a new Princess Margaret Hospital on University Avenue in Toronto. My brother David had died after his own battle with lymphoma in 1989, and when I became premier of Ontario in 1990, the challenge of taking the new hospital from a blueprint to reality was on my desk. Jack visited my office and said he wanted to focus his energies on the new hospital, as a volunteer. He wanted to bring the project in under budget and ahead of schedule, and this he proudly did. He also made sure the savings stayed with the hospital. This was Jack’s first tribute to Doris.

Jack Rabinovitch, right, with, from left, Esi Edugyan, Jonathan Lethem and Margaret Atwood at the 2013 Giller Prize gala. Scotiabank Giller Prize photo.

The second was the Giller Prize, which was based on three of Jack’s loves: Doris, writing and the game of life. The Giller Prize, the pre-eminent literary award in Canada and one of the most prestigious in the world, has coincided with the explosion of Canadian literary talent over the past three decades. It has, without a doubt, helped Canadian writers and the publishing industry immeasurably. The annual dinner and announcement of the prize’s winner has become an unforgettable event. At the heart of it all is the affection and support that people feel for Jack.

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All of us will have our own memories of our times with him. From poker groups to breakfasts, tennis matches, lunches and dinners, phone calls and late-night conversations, he made all of us feel special. In moments of political stress and disappointment, he has been my most loyal and fierce supporter. He has also taught me some clear lessons about negotiation. For Jack, the art of the deal was not about “winning,” or beating the other guy. “Remember two things,” he would say, “your reputation follows you wherever you go, and if you leave something on the table, it means you can always do business again.”

He also reminded me that it’s impossible to be smart and angry at the same time.

Like all of us, Jack was human, and sometimes contradictory. He could be gruff, blunt, stubborn and difficult. He adamantly refused to wear his hearing aid. He could hold a grudge as well as anyone. But he was also funny, sentimental, loving and caring. He thought about a broad range of people, and made them part of his network. It was not a network bound by race, class, age or ethnicity. He was boundless in his energy and his curiosity. He told great stories (often more than once) and loved to listen to other people’s stories (which he did not appear to mind hearing again and again). He loved to laugh and he was not afraid to cry. He never gave up or gave in, although he was sometimes baffled and discouraged by the unfairness of life.

Since his passing, I’ve been asked about Jack’s greatest legacy. I think it is his gift of love and friendship. The best thing we can all do is learn from him how to love and how to live.


Bob Rae was a member of Parliament and served as the interim leader of the Liberal Party of Canada. He was also premier of Ontario. The preceding is an edited excerpt of a eulogy he delivered at Rabinovitch’s funeral.