Montreal Jewish lawyer named to the Senate
Yoine Goldstein, born on Bagg Street in Montreal’s old Jewish neighbourhood, muses on what his poor immigrant parents would think of his being appointed a senator.
Working late in his 41st-floor downtown law office, Goldstein, 71, recalled that his long-deceased father and mother came here from a small Ukrainian shtetl in the 1920s and struggled for many years to buy a modest duplex.
“That background has kept me humble and appreciative of what Canada has offered me,” he said.
Goldstein, who was named to the Senate last week, grew up in a Yiddish-speaking home and graduated from Baron Byng High School, which produced generations of notable Canadian Jews.
Goldstein is a highly respected bankruptcy lawyer and a much-honoured Jewish community leader in Montreal, nationally and internationally. He was president of the Montreal federation from 1995 to 1997, a recipient of the coveted Samuel Bronfman Medal in 1998, and a governor of the Jewish Agency. He was a member of the “emergency cabinet” of UIA Federations Canada a couple of years ago that evolved into the Canadian Council for Israel and Jewish Advocacy.
He will definitely be the Jewish senator from Quebec, a post that has become a tradition since the late Lazarus Phillips was sent to the upper chamber in 1968.
Goldstein’s name was put forward by his friend Eric Bissell, a stalwart of B’nai Brith Canada, which actively promoted his nomination.
“With a community of 100,000 and 45 Quebec seats in the Senate, it’s proportionally reasonable to have at least one person with an understanding of the community,” Goldstein said.
With the anticipated retirement of Leo Kolber in January 2004 after 20 years, several well-known community members’ names came up as contenders and the unofficial race was particularly intense between Goldstein and his successor as federation president, Stanley Plotnick, 65. B’nai Brith originally lobbied for one of its ex-presidents, Ted Greenfield, but backed Goldstein in the end.
Goldstein insists he was surprised, however, when Bissell told him he had put in his name. It was May 2004 and Goldstein and his wife Elaine were just back from Uzbekistan on an American-Jewish Joint Distribution Committee mission. (Goldstein is the only Canadian on the JDC executive.)
Goldstein, who will sit as a Liberal, is firm that his is not a patronage appointment. “I have not been active with the party. I was briefly a member when Sheila Finestone was the MP for Mount Royal, and I contributed to Irwin Cotler’s campaign, but I am not a Liberal fundraiser,” he said.
His only brush with politics was in the late ’70s when he was one of the three Montreal lawyers who led the first constitutional challenge of Bill 101, Quebec’s language legislation.
Goldstein intends to be a full-time senator, and will significantly reduce his workload at Goldstein, Flanz & Fishman and cut back most of his community activities. He will fulfill a commitment to assume the presidency of the Jewish Community Foundation of Montreal this month, and will remain co-chair of the Caravane de la Tolerance, an anti-racism program in Quebec schools.
Goldstein admits that he, like many Canadians, was skeptical of the relevance of the Senate, until 2003 when he served as special counsel on insolvency to its standing committee on banking. “Going to Ottawa two or three times a week, for three or four months, I got to know and became very impressed with the quality of its work, especially in committee.
“The fact that senators are unelected is an advantage because they are a lot freer to express views without fear of having to keep their seat,” he said.
He hopes to serve on committees where his legal expertise can be of use. (One of his major clients was the Reichmann family’s failed Olympia & York, which he restructured.)
Goldstein has always had a strong drive to succeed,
After graduating in law from McGill University in 1958, he went to the Universite de Lyon for a doctorate and to perfect his French.
As his longtime friend and colleague Max Mendelsohn said at tribute to Goldstein by the Quebec Bar Association a few years ago: “He was a kid but, as a junior lawyer, he was already a legend within the profession...a young, up-and-coming, brilliant lawyer.”
His devotion to the community and Israel came from a family that, while not religious, had a strong cultural sense of identity. Thanks to financial help from the Jewish community, Goldstein attended a Jewish afternoon school.
But this attachment took on a whole new dimension after his first visit to Israel in 1960. As is the Jewish custom, his parents sent him a dollar to give to charity, which it is believed will ensure the traveller’s safe journey.
“In Haifa, I saw an elderly man with pieces of tire tied to his feet instead of shoes, and I gave him the dollar. We spoke in Yiddish, and when I told him I’d be returning to Canada, he put his hand in his pocket and took out a coin that was probably worth 1/10th of a cent. He gave it to me and asked me to do a mitzvah so I would be protected on my voyage.
“I was so moved; I realized that we are a very special people, and I had to be involved in the community.”
He’s been married for 35 years to Elaine, also a dedicated community volunteer. She is a former advertising copywriter, whose claim to fame is coming up with Wonderbra’s “We Care About the Shape You’re in” line. They are members of the Reconstructionist Synagogue, which is also the spiritual home of Supreme Court justice Morris Fish. Son Doron is a lawyer in New York; and daughter Dahna is in Washington developing software.
And what about the name? On his birth certificate, it’s Yona, but when he began Fairmount School, his mother was advised that it would be thought a girls’ name. He assumed the English equivalent: Jonah.
But through school, the other kids – mostly Jewish – called him Yoine (pronounced Yoy-nee), similar to the Yiddish Yoineh, and the nickname stuck on into university.
When he entered the bar in 1961, his papers arrived addressed to “Miss Yona Goldstein.”
“I went to court to have it changed legally to ‘Yoine,’ although it wasn’t easy to convince them that I wanted to keep it. But it’s part of my identity.”
So, Senator Yoine it is.