Prof. Irwin Cotler

My name is Irwin Cotler. I’m the son of Nat and Fay Cotler z”l of blessed memory. I mention them because that’s really who I am, and all the good that I have I owe to them. I’m presently a member of parliament in this riding of Mount Royal where we’re now sitting, a law professor at McGill University, and I’ve been involved in human rights work most of my adult life.

One of my first memories of Rabbi Kramer is actually one of my first memories in life. I was very close with my late grandfather for whom Rabbi Kramer was the Rebbe in all respects, and since I did many things together with my grandfather I would encounter Rabbi Kramer very often. I recall many times him coming to our house or us going to the Lubavitcher Yeshiva for many encounters. Rabbi Kramer was really the Rebbe for the whole family, the whole mishpacha. Any one of my aunts and uncles, my grandfather’s children, would all have the same kind of connection, and in particular I would say that occurred with respect to my parents and was then passed on to my children. So it’s one of those almost inter-generational connections whereby Rabbi Kramer was intimately involved in all levels of the family, beginning with my grandfather and his children, including my mother, and then through me to my children. I have to say that I always saw Rabbi Kramer as the personification of what the best of a Rebbe would be. He was really a tzaddik in the best sense of the word. To give it any form of translation would have it lost in translation. He was the embodiment of what it meant to be a tzaddik. And he was, I would say, a mailitz yosher, he was always there for other people. The astonishing thing that I found as I went through life and even after his passing is how many people he touched in his life, how many people would say the same things that I do. It’s astonishing to appreciate that one man could have had such a profound impact on so many people. When I say a meilitz yosher, it’s that I think he was a righteous person who was always there for everybody, I can guarantee that everybody else will tell you the same thing, that he was always there for everybody. He was a mechanech, a real educator, in the best sense of the word, a real teacher. And so, to describe him would be to take all these things together: a meilitz yosher, a mechenech, a teacher, and someone who was always there for everyone. I remember personal experiences growing up relating to the profound impact that he had. My own bar mitzvah is very closely associated with Rabbi Kramer, with his teaching. He was for me as a teacher, a mentor, a confidante, somebody that I could rely on, somebody that I could turn to, somebody that played a profound role in my life.

My mother was unfortunately ill for many years. In fact, she lived some thirty years longer than the doctors said she would. And I always remember that when we were told at different junctures that my mother would not make it, sometimes during the weekend, Rabbi Kramer would come. He would be there and even his presence was far more important almost than any doctor. I saw how my mother reacted, as ill as she was, you could just see it in the eyes and then there would be a bracha. And somehow miraculously my mother would recover. This happened on several occasions where we thought that was the end and Rabbi Kramer was always there with her. She looked to him as the embodiment of what caring and compassion and righteousness was all about. These words sometimes don’t have the meaning that they deserve because we live in a world that’s become very cynical about things. Rabbi Kramer embodied all these qualities and gave expression to them every day with all the people with whom he was in touch with.

Then, about sixteen years ago, my mother fell into a coma. In fact we thought she had already passed away. Her body was completely like stone, as if the life had left her, and the doctor basically said that she was gone. There was no movement of any kind from her. Her body was cold, her face was lifeless, it was as if the person had left. We called Rabbi Kramer who had lived around the corner from my mother. He came over instantly, and I still remember him looking over at her on the bed and talking with her, and also giving her a bracha. In some miraculous way my mother went from being stone, with no movement and lifeless, to all of a sudden coming out of a coma. She came out of it and began to talk and react, and then to be alive again. It was one of the most incredible encounters that we had. I remember it like it was just yesterday and I still see my mother’s lifeless body on the bed, I still see her face motionless, no expression, nothing; I see Rabbi Kramer coming in and sitting on the side and talking to her, and continuing to talk to her, and continuing to talk, and the bracha, and then all of a sudden I see the beginnings of movement and my mother becoming alive again. It’s an incredible thing. It was like a life giving encounter. Unbelievable!

Just as Rabbi Kramer was so very close to my mother, for my father he was also an advisor, a confidante, and a mentor. He was the one unifying figure in the entire family. He was the one person that we all agreed to turn to for advice, confide in, or share a concern or hope – Rabbi Kramer was all that to everyone. I have to say that he is the person who was intimately involved in the fact that I’m married to Ariella. In fact, my friends would go even further and say that he’s responsible for the fact that I got married at all!

I was approaching forty, I was thirty-eight years old and unmarried. Rabbi Kramer had made a promise to my father who was ill and then passed away (but managed to be there for the wedding which took place in the hospital). Rabbi Kramer promised my father that he would find somebody for me to marry. It was a big undertaking because that was the one request my father asked of him, that before he passed away Rabbi Kramer should find someone for me. As it happened, interestingly enough, when I met my wife Ariella in Israel, Rabbi Kramer had otherwise known of her or even knew her, because she was part of the parliamentary whip for the likud party and they were very close with Menachem Begin and Lubavitch. So he knew Ariella, and together there was even an involvement with regard to the legislation of ‘mi hu yehudi’, and I think that helped influence the outcome of the legislation. So when Ariella came to Montreal in the spring of 1978 over pesach, my father was already in the hospital and she came and she visited with my father. Rabbi Kramer met her then, and for him there was no doubt. However for me there was a doubt. Maybe there would’ve been a generic doubt and that’s why I wasn’t married up to that point, but he felt that this was it. And I’ll never forget two things. The first thing he told me was that if I didn’t marry her he was going to give me a petek, a note, that I shouldn’t open for another ten years. If I didn’t marry her then when I would open that note (ten years later) I would understand more about the decision, meaning about the mistaken decision. And you have to understand I had a lot of feeling and confidence in relying upon Rabbi Kramer so I took those things seriously, but it still was not enough. Then, in the summer of ‘78 I was going on a trip to the Arab countries. I used to go in the summers of ‘75, ’76, ‘77, ‘78 to Egypt, Syria, Jordan the West Bank, and then to Israel. People used to say “why are you going there every summer?” and I would say because I’m involved in an Arab-Israeli conflict I have to have an understanding not only of Arab foreign policy but Arab culture and psychology. So before I left on that trip in the summer of 1978 the second thing Rabbi Kramer said to me was that I would have a message somehow, and realize why Ariella is the person for me. So I remember being in Egypt with my friend Phil Baum and after being there for about a week Phil said, “Look, I’ve had enough of this, it’s very hot, I’m worried I’m going to get malaria. I take all these anti-malaria pills but you don’t take anything. I’m going to Israel, I’ll meet you there.” And later on Phil tells me that when he arrived in Israel via Cyprus, he went to Jerusalem and that night he suddenly felt terribly, terribly sick. He passed out in his hotel in Jerusalem and when emergency personnel came they said it was food poisoning, a very bad case of food poisoning. I was in Egypt that night and I guess we both ate the same thing, we both had food poisoning, because I had the same reaction. I remember Phil Baum telling the story to me later and he said he felt so sick he thought he was going to die he, and when I felt that sick in Egypt I remember saying ok, I’ll think about it! In other words, this was Rabbi Kramer sending the message. When I came back from my trip and I shared this story with Ariella, she said you better not tempt fate again! After I came back I never really got over the food poisoning, it was just one of those things because I was going from one place to another, so I came back feeling tired etc.. I was also constantly being interviewed since it was during the summer of preparing the legal brief for Anatoly Sharansky, who had been put on trial. In fact, I was in Syria, in Damascus when I read in the Damascus paper that Sharansky was being put on trial, and therefore I felt I had to get to Israel as quickly as possible.

Here’s a funny story: I arrive at the Allenby bridge (at the border) to go into Israel, and you have to understand, as I said, I had been sick with the food poisoning and I never really felt better so I looked sick, disheveled etc.. I’m at the border and the Israeli border guard asked me “who are you?” I tell him who I am, he said “where are you coming from?” and I say “Damascus”. He says “and why are you coming to Israel?”, I said “because I represent Anatoly Sharansky who’s in a Soviet prison and I’m his lawyer”, so the border guard then tells his friend in Hebrew, “look at this crazy guy, he’s coming from Syria, tells us he represents Sharansky, he wants to come into Israel because he says he has to work on the Sharansky case, this guy is really crazy”. So I understood what he said in Hebrew so I then told him, “look, I know you might think I’m crazy but you call up Ariella, she is a party whip for the likud, she’ll tell you who I am”. He happened to know who Ariella was so he calls her and brings me into the little cabin. He tells her in Hebrew all these things about a crazy person, who looks crazy, says these crazy things and so on, and then he comes back to me and says “yeah, she said that you are the person you say you are and that I should let you in, but she agreed with me that you’re crazy!”. Anyhow, I then came into Israel, I worked a bit with Ariella, and then came back to Canada to work on the case. I still wasn’t feeling that great, and one day I had an interview with a radio person on the Sharansky case when I was suddenly in this pain that enveloped me in my body. I didn’t know what it was and they took me to a hospital, into intensive care. I said I have to make one call, I MUST call my rabbi. So I called Rabbi Kramer and I told him everything that was happening and he said, well I don’t want to tell you that that’s another message. I said never mind, I don’t need the message, I’m getting married, that’s it. And he was essential at every juncture of that relationship, as he was when we were married and with each of our children. After we had three girls Rabbi Kramer said our next child will be a boy. As it turned out the next one was a boy named after my late father. So there is an almost existential connection to my family, from my grandfather, through my parents, to me and Ariella, and to our children. Quite remarkable I have to say. I can’t describe how essential, how inextricably bound up Rabbi Kramer was wound up in our lives in all respects. And I think that if you speak to Ariella she will tell you similar stories. She was very, very close to Rabbi Kramer and him to her. It was a very, very deep and profound relationship. When I say a deep and profound relationship, he had this with every one of the members of my family, starting as I said with my grandfather. But I have learned over the years, I learned while Rabbi Kramer was alive but as much since his passing, how profound the relationship he had with so many people. My best friend Sammy Gewirtz was very, very close with Rabbi Kramer. He always says that my marriage is a partnership between him and Rabbi Kramer – it was their understanding, encouragement and joint involvement, so till this day if you ask Sammy about my marriage he’ll say it was a partnership between him and Rabbi Kramer. But look, the impact of Rabbi Kramer on Sammy’s family (I’m using it just as one case study) is not unlike the impact on my family. Same with Sammy’s parents, very close to Rabbi Kramer, his entire family very bound up with Rabbi Kramer. We would talk about it even amongst ourselves, how essential, how crucial Rabbi Kramer was to our lives, and I’d have to say that every facet of my life was in one form or another influenced by Rabbi Kramer as him being my Rebbe, being my mentor, being my mechanech, my educator, my confidante. And what I say of him would be said of him by my wife, my parents, my grandfather, my kids, and by other families who have been impacted by him as we did.

Another area Rabbi Kramer was involved in was with each of my children’s naming. It’s amazing how involved he was. My daughter Gila has 3 names; Gila Rachel Kreina. She is named after my grandmother who was also very close to Rabbi Kramer, and died unfortunately at a younger age. Her name was Friedel and Gila was like the personification of that grandmother and was named after her. But Rabbi Kramer wanted that there should also be the name of my father’s mother, not just my mother’s mother, so Kreina was the name of my father’s mother, and Rachel was the name of Ariella’s grandmother, so that was the three names that Gila embodied. After Gila is our daughter Tanya, and Tanya was directly the result of Rabbi Kramer, because Tanya was the feminine name for my father, who’s Natan. Tanya of course has all the religious significance bound up with Lubavitch. But I remember Ariella had a name that she wanted for naming her after my father. The name really wouldn’t have been appropriate, it was Nataniella, and it just wouldn’t sound or resonate right. I wanted Tanya and once Rabbi Kramer said Tanya that was it – and she looks like a Tanya somehow. And then, when it came to our son Yoni, Ariella was going on forty-two years of age. We didn’t expect that we would have another child and Rabbi Kramer not only was talking to us about having another child but said it would be a boy, and it turned out to be a boy. His name in the full sense of the word is Yehonatan, that G-d has given, and so that’s his full name, Yehonatan. We call him Yoni but it was Rabbi Kramer that named him Yehonatan, because he was a gift from G-d, and a boy, our only son, our youngest and our ben zkunim. Again, Rabbi Kramer was intimately involved in the name Yehonatan as he was with Tanya and Gila. In fact, the naming of the three children tells you something about the connection to each of my kids, because a name sometimes imbues a person with a personality. They respond to the name, becoming part of who that name is. Gila means happiness and Gila is thank G-d a very, very happy girl to this day, just a happy kid, and knows whereof the name Gila comes from. Tanya, who we always associated somehow with beauty and with education, turned out to be a beautiful girl but intense, involved in studying, getting her doctorate in clinical psychology. And Yehonatan, Yoni, we always see him as being “the gift”. This was our gift, and I think that he has in fact lived up to being that gift, of all my kids. I say that they’re each unique and distinguishable, and of course there’s Michal from Ariella’s first marriage, who also was close with Rabbi Kramer and with whom he had a special relationship. So the first three were girls, and Yoni was the youngest and only boy, but I would have to say with a mischievous sense of humor since he was a kid, and I mean a marvelous sense of humor. When your youngest, your ben zkunim has that sense of humor and can always make you laugh, it’s a real gift.

I’ll share one of many stories about him. I don’t know regrettably how emails work, or computers, or videos. Yoni’s now twenty-three. When he was three years old he already had a sense that I didn’t know how any of these things work. He came to me one day, I still remember it, he looked up at me with that impish grin of his that remained his trademark, and said “Daddy, can you help me fix the video?” and I said “Yoni, I don’t know how to fix the video”. He broke into a kind of grin and said “I know daddy, all I’m asking you to do is pick me up because I can’t reach it”. Whereupon later that day Gila came to me and said “Daddy, do you know what Yoni told me?” He said “Gila, daddy may be a nice man but he’s not very smart, he’s not very smart”. So this has been the kind of bantering that Yoni and I have had, a very good and deep relationship, and a funny relationship. And so it’s been like that to the present day.

I also remember an incredible little vignette. When my daughter Gila was about 2 years old we went to Rabbi Kramer’s home on Kent Ave. We were in the house and Rabbi Kramer was sitting there with us. Gila was looking up at a picture on the wall of the Lubavitcher Rebbe – I’m telling you she was only about 2 years old – and she looked at the Lubavitcher Rebbe and looked at Rabbi Kramer and she said “Daddy, same person, same person”. It was true that there was an amazing resemblance between the two, but I was amazed that she picked it up. And I don’t think it was only the physical resemblance, I think she picked up something when she was there, kind of a neshamadika feeling. And that’s the way it was. Every one of my children internalized Rabbi Kramer’s persona as an essential part of their lives.

I think Rabbi Kramer saw me as becoming a lawyer almost from the time he knew me. That may have been because he was very close with my father who was also a lawyer. I think he saw some of the things my father was not able to accomplish (as a brilliant lawyer, an incredible jurist, and one of the great legal minds) due to the circumstances at the time, including the economy, graduating in the depression, and ending up having to go work within my grandfather’s business. Then eventually, later on in life, he went back to becoming a lawyer. I think Rabbi Kramer saw me becoming a lawyer, not only for me to be a lawyer, but almost fulfilling through me my father’s own dreams. And so it became an extension really of what he saw in my father, seeing my father’s greatness as a lawyer. Interestingly enough, three of my four kids are lawyers. Our eldest Michal is a lawyer, Gila is a lawyer, and Yoni is now studying law. Tanya, who’s doing a doctorate in clinical psychology, used to say, “Is there something wrong with me that I didn’t choose to become a lawyer?” We said no, no, we all need a clinical psychologist, that’s great. But I think the legal heritage goes back to my father, and he imbued me with a love of the law.

My father would always teach me about the importance of tzedek tzedek tirdof – justice, justice shall you pursue. He would say to me that this is what you have to teach to your children as it is equal to all the other commandments combined. Growing up I never understood the full profundity of this teaching. I was too young to appreciate what it really meant until I was older. As I was growing up, my father would read to me from the books of the great legal scholars and jurists. I told a story recently when I was at Brandeis University that when I was a child my father would read to me from the works of Justice Brandeis, Cardozo, and here in Canada of Justice Rand, so I grew up living the law, breathing the law and my father with the imperative of “justice, justice shall you pursue”. My mother would say to me that if you want to pursue justice you have to understand and feel the injustice around you. You have to go in and about the community and feel the injustice. Otherwise the notion of pursuing justice is like a theoretical abstract. You have to feel as in the ground, in the trenches, not personified. My mother was always looking out for the welfare of others; she was like a lamed vovnik, a gute neshama in every sense of the word. That’s why I began by saying I’m Irwin Cotler, the son of Nat and Fay Cotler, because their teachings, their examples, their role modeling really represented to me what the best was in terms of parenting and justice. When I was sworn in as minister of justice they called me up to tell me about the oath of office. The oath of office was a kind of conventional oath, and I said to them, “Can I say after the words ‘I Irwin Cotler…’ the words ‘son of Nat and Fay Cotler?’”, because I felt that I was standing there that day being sworn in as minister of justice only because of those teachings. They said we’ll get back to you, and they got back to me and said sorry, it’s a conventional oath, it can’t be changed, and everyone has to swear the same oath. So when I said the oath I said “I, Irwin Cotler” pause, and I said to myself “son of Nat and Fay Cotler zichronam livracha”. And I say now zichron livracha because my father at that point when I was sworn in had already passed away. My mother was very, very ill at the time, but Ariella was speaking to her and somehow got through to her that I had been appointed minister of justice. Ariella repeated how my mother said “My son? My son is Minister of Justice? Really?” and it was such an incredible realization for her. We also all thought of Rabbi Kramer because of the particular encounter when he really gave her life and she lived many years after the doctors said that she wouldn’t be with us. So the legal legacy is very strong – it began with my father but it was nurtured by Rabbi Kramer in me because he saw me as the legatee of that legal legacy, and then was somehow nurtured with my children. And not only did he play a very important role in me becoming a lawyer, but he saw this in a much more profound sense, maybe in the sense in which it was not only bound up with my father and the continuation, but in my father’s teaching about tzedek tzedek tirdoph.

I’m a b’chor, so every Pesach, every single Pesach, for the siyum I’d go to Lubavitch, and that’s where Rabbi Kramer was and that’s where I’d be for a siyum, never missing a single year. And when I’d come for the siyum somehow if there was somebody that needed to be helped and Rabbi Kramer thought I could be of assistance then it would be part of that morning when I would come for the siyum, because that was a defined time since there was no question I would be there. Rabbi Kramer was very, very careful – I may have been involved in helping somebody but I wouldn’t even have known that I was doing this because it was in the real sense of the highest form of tzedaka, that the person giving it does not know to whom he is giving it and the person receiving it does not know from whom he was receiving it, as the Rambam would say. And that’s how Rabbi Kramer would work it out. This was a marvelous thing about Rabbi Kramer.

The one lesson Rabbi Kramer taught me is ve’ahavta lerayacha kamocha, which comes instinctively to mind because it’s a guiding principle. Rabbi Kramer was sort of the embodiment of Rabbi Akiva in that sense, because he was full of love, compassion, care and commitment, not only with everything he did but with everybody with whom he related to. But to describe Rabbi Kramer in one word would be to describe him as tzaddik, in the most profound sense that the word conveys. I can add to it that he was a mailitz yosher, there for everybody and helping everybody, that he was a mechanech, that he was an educator, that he was a Rabbi, a Rebbe in the most profound sense of the word, all of those things. But one word would always come to mind whenever I would think of Rabbi Kramer, a tzaddik, a real tzaddik.