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Dayenu: Losing Irving Schwartz

Sunday, October 3rd, 2010

October 3, 2010

“We have a useful expression in Hebrew, Dayenu,” said Ron Caplan. Tall, grizzled and warm, Ron is the publisher of Breton Books in Wreck Cove, Cape Breton.

“It means, ‘it would have been enough,’” Ron continued. “It’s what comes to mind when I think of Irving Schwartz. It’s from a vigorous song sung at Passover. God brought us out of Egypt. Dayenu: it would have been enough. He didn’t have to part the Red Sea as well. But when He did part the Red Sea, Dayenu. That would have been enough.

“Irving did so much for so many people. Even a small part of what he did — Dayenu. It would have been enough.”

“The Canadian International Demining Corps,” I said, remembering Irving’s outright joy at being able to create an organization based in Sydney, Nova Scotia to remove some of the tens of millions of land mines buried in war zones around the world.

“Exactly,” Ron nodded. “If the demining were the only thing he’d done, Dayenu, it would have been a wonderful contribution for anyone to make, all by itself. But Irving did so many more things, started them from seed or gave them support. Some of them were in public, public service, fundraising, things like that. But I’ll bet you he did 500 other things that we’ll never know about.”

“I’m sure you’re right,” I said.

Irving Schwartz was an exceptionally gifted businessman who literally learned about business at his mother’s knee. Rose Schwartz was widowed young, and at 13 Irving was travelling to Montreal, buying for the family store in New Waterford. He was rooted in the furniture business, and he became an iconic figure in Cape Breton for appearing in his own commercials, ending each with his trademark slogan, “I guarantee it!” As he prospered, he branched out into high-tech, cable TV, travel agencies, health-care and more.

His community service work was legendary — everything from Children’s Aid and Junior Achievement to the Lions Club, the regional hospital and Cape Breton University. That commitment to service runs in the family; his sister, Ruth Goldbloom, is a celebrated philanthropist and humanitarian in Halifax, the driving force behind the transformation of Pier 21. Her achievements, like Irving’s, have been recognized by the Order of Canada.

I spent a lot of time with Irving in the mid-1980s, when we were both trying to develop Centre Bras d’Or, an arts organization in Baddeck, into an east-coast analogue of the Banff Centre. The idea was good for Cape Breton, so Irving gave it his full attention. Early on, the Board decided to organize a world-class summer performing arts festival. One Board member realized with horror that we’d have to sell tickets. How would we do that?

“How do you sell anything?” cried Irving. “Nothing down! No payments till next year! I guarantee it!”

Then he turned to me and to Dr. Donald F. Campbell, “Father Donnie,” the president of the university in Sydney.

“You fellows get out and raise $10,000 for Centre Bras d’Or in Sydney,” he said. “I’ll raise $10,000 in Baddeck.”

With Irving’s coaching, Father Donnie and I raised about $8000 from Sydney businesses in a couple of weeks of diligent effort. And Irving?

“I raised mine one Saturday afternoon on the main street of Baddeck,” he said gleefully. “And I sold 40 television sets and two fridges too.”

I loved a lot of things about Irving Schwartz — his humour, his generosity, his intelligence, his thoughtful analyses of people. A visit to his modest office at the back of the furniture store was among the great pleasures of Sydney. But perhaps what I loved most was his zest, his delight in being able to make good things happen, his joy in his life, his family, his community.

He died early on September 18, aged 81, having spent his morning at the store and his evening at the synagogue. When I heard, I was heartbroken. I wept like a child. Dayenu: a tenth of what he accomplished would have been enough. But no matter how long he had lived, it would not have been long enough for me. Or for Cape Breton.

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