Review of An Italian Renaissance:Choosing Life in Canada

from Perspectives: A Publication of Agudath Israel of Toronto, April, 2011

There are many books written by and about survivors of the Holocaust. The author, Mr. Robert Eli Rubinstein, has written an account dealing with life after the Holocaust. It is a relatively rare view of that period, especially since his account is from the perspective of the Second Generation, growing up in a family where the parents had suffered the Holocaust experience.

Looking at the book cover, the two-part title deserves some clarification. The author’s expressed intent is to chronicle “the healing and rehabilitation” that his parents underwent in the post-War period. As settings, Italy and Canada are historically correct. However, the second part of the title is not really secondary to the first.

As Italy was home to the Renaissance of Western culture in the modern world, the term also reflects the Rebirth of Mr. Rubinstein’s parents and family on Italian soil that enabled them to move forward into a future they hardly believed possible only a short time previously. Their condition was not of an evolutionary character. It is difficult enough for an outsider to comprehend what had transpired, let alone for the actual participants in the obliteration of the populace and infrastructure of Jewish Europe. For the author’s parents, it is virtually a reincarnation from their previous existence into the current way of life. For the psyches of the Rubinstein family, Italy was perceived as offering the locale and opportunity to be born once again into the human condition, a resurrection. Even though not totally borne out by the objective facts of life in and around the DP Camp environment presented in the book, Italy came to be endowed, from their perspective, with a sense of the humane that these lonely and struggling remnants of European Jewry needed in order to carry on with living.

The second part of the title, “Choosing Life in Canada”, does indicate the locale for both the struggle and opportunity for building lives and homes that would continue through the years. This was the natural second step which found its impetus in their initial renewal in Italy. Yet, perhaps more important in this part of the title is the choosing of life itself. Perhaps as an existential imperative, they heroically undertook, on a certain conscious level, to engage both a new environment and a new reality, and build a fresh, and, indeed, successful infrastructure for themselves, their families, and even the Jewish community of Toronto and beyond. As Mr. Rubinstein points out, his parents and extended Rubinstein-Hofstedter family actuated the Almighty’s directive, “Choose life, so that you may live, you and your descendants.” Canada was for them a place where they could find the freedom to take risks, impose purposefulness in their lives, and reclaim their humanity even in the face of the social and economic challenges that the author brings to our attention.

However, it is important to realize this choice of facing the challenge of life in the post-War world of Canada went beyond matters of livelihood and communal integration. It also embraced how they came to deal with their Jewish identity. Coming from the traumatic events of Europe, the preamble of the above verse, “I have set life and death before you, blessing and curse,” is quite applicable to their situation. Furthermore, life in the second part of the Twentieth Century displayed a marked anti-religious and anti-traditional frame of mind. In face of such a history and environmental trend, it required a tremendous commitment to once again engage Judaism as an integral part of life, whatever the challenge, such as not working on Shabbos or anger regarding the loss of loved ones. One might say that zchus avos (merit of one’s ancestors), through the loyalty to the memories of their parents and families who had been lost in the Churban of Jewish Europe, provided a beacon for their efforts to preserve their Jewish consciousness and to establish Jewish families in their new Canadian reality. The Jewish community of Toronto, in general, and the Orthodox community in particular, has fortunately benefitted from the choice made by the Rubinstein and Hofstedter families. Their efforts and leadership in Jewish education and philanthropy have served the community in an exemplary manner through the years.

Mr. Rubinstein comments how, over time, “my parents’ story actually became my story.” Whatever the facts or perceptions of the facts, he writes, “I must tread very gently in dealing with the view of the past that is my heritage: It has sustained and inspired me, and thus is sacred to me.” And this is the devoted account which we are privileged to have before us.

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