Father. Professor. Partner. Friend. Son. Mentor. Ally. Scholar. Teacher. Uncle. Blue Jays fan. Music lover. Zaida. These are all words that could describe Mark Golden, who on April 9 died of pancreatic cancer, a disease he had been stoically coping with for the past 17 months.
Mark taught classics at the University of Winnipeg for over 30 years before retiring in 2015. I did not know much of Mark’s contribution to the academy, but from the accolades coming in from his academic colleges, it is no surprise they were significant. I was never a student of Mark’s (at least in an academic sense) but I have no doubt that he would have made the old relevant, and the material presented in his classroom would have been be delivered with the same wit, wisdom and clarity that he brought to all his conversations.
Mark was an avid Toronto Blue Jays fan. I remember on more than a few occasions when Mark would have to leave a meeting or gathering early to get home in time to watch a game. There were also annual pilgrimages to Toronto to see a game in person, often along with his brother Peter. Mark understood the beauty and majesty of the game. This was lost on me, perhaps because baseball triggered early memories of having absolutely no trust in an opposing pitcher’s ability to keep the projectiles they were hurling at me inside the strike zone.
Mark loved music. I cannot remember a time when, having entered a room holding a piano, Mark would not immediately sit down and start playing. It was never chopsticks. It was always beautiful. And while those occasions were rare I have no doubt that his repertoire was vast and that with music—as with most of the passions in his life—Mark’s knowledge was both wide and deep.
We are all many things. To me Mark was a comrade, a friend, and a great provider of humour.
I first met Mark almost 20 years ago, when I became a member of the Sholem Aleichem Community, a secular humanist Jewish “congregation” where we practiced our Judaism. The community was, and is, a wonderful collection of mixed faith families, whose Jewish identity is shaped by the moral and ethical lessons that the stories from our history can teach about living in the world today. Mark was a member of the community from the very beginning and contributed greatly to its growth. Mark saw no place for religion in being Jewish, and would quietly leave the room at community shabbat dinners when the blessings were being said. Our holiday gatherings and celebrations were always pot-lucks and Mark’s cheesecakes were legendary.
For many years, I looked forward to the annual United Jewish People’s Order fundraiser for Outlook magazine, where Mark would serve as host. With no disrespect to any of the event speakers, Mark’s welcoming remarks and introductions were always the highlight. They were filled with a collage of self-deprecation, crafty wordplay (much of which went right over my head) and general hilarity.
I came to know Mark better when I got involved in Palestinian solidarity work through Independent Jewish Voices. Mark had a strong commitment to social justice and fairness, and could always be called upon to assist in organizing events no matter how big or small the ask.
I sat on many panels and was part of a few presentations with Mark where it inevitably came down to us having to defend ourselves against claims of either being self-loathing or the wrong kind of Jew. Mark had the ability to always display a sense of calm even though his passion ran deep. And there was always a place for humour.
In this time of crisis, where we are forced to do our grieving in isolation, let us promise to get to know our friends and comrades a little better. I wish I had done that with Mark.
Harold Shuster is an activist and former National Chair of Independent Jewish Voices.