WHAT MAKES ALVIN ABRAM RUN . . .
It’s a strange opening but I’ve never been able to figure out what I am or have become. I seem to be a lot of things. I believe I have evolved rather than grown up.
If there is any one person that motivated me to amount to something, it would have to be my father but for all the wrong reasons. My father was a barber by trade but never made a living. Not because he couldn’t but because he devoted himself to his left-wing cause. He was an intellectual who believed in socialism; a writer and an orator. I was born at the time of the Depression and my mother worked at Tip Top Tailors making pennies for every pad lapel she sewed into a jacket. She was the breadwinner of the family. My father’s time was devoted to improving mankind; not his family’s circumstances. He was full of anger and, he would strike out at my older brother Murray and me as a form of punishment, whether justified or not. He ignored our youngest brother Mort, the child who wasn’t supposed to be. Eventually, Murray ran away from home at age 16 and joined the air force.
I didn’t know at the time that I had A.D.D. – Attention Deficit Disorder. My grades in school were very poor. I was called a malingerer, a troublemaker and someone who would amount to nothing. My brothers and I were an embarrassment to my father. To him we were losers. None of us attained the academic heights worthy of his expectations. To my relatives we were known as “Annie’s kids”, a term that was derogatory, a put-down. My father, however, was not associated with our disgrace.
While in my teens, I worked in a printing plant from 4:00 p.m. until midnight, Mondays through Fridays to supplement my mother’s income, and, on weekends I sold programmes at the CNE, Pinecrest and, on occasion at Ancaster. I wanted to be a journalist but high school was a dismal failure for me and I didn’t have the grades. When it came time to graduate, I was given my high school diploma on the condition that I not return. Two weeks after I graduated, my father died of a fatal heart attack and school was no longer an option anyway. I was 18.
My father’s friend, a printer, took me under his wings and taught me to be a typographer. I discovered I had a talent to create images from the visuals in my head. Because of my A.D.D. it was harder for me to focus but it was easier to cast aside the stigma of failure and try again. To accomplish anything, I did things the long way, not the efficient way. I learned to be a plodder. I never would allow myself the luxury of quitting. Quitting was not an option. Whatever I did, I had to succeed. And to me, success was determined by wealth. I needed to prove to my relatives that I wasn’t what my father once called me – a loser.
When I was 21, I met 15-year-old Marilyn Epstein, a short, overweight girl with bangs and braces, who stuttered. Three years later, in 1960, I married her. Over the years, I have discovered the swan inside the young duckling. A swan with foresight and direction.
The year we married, we formed The Myasthenia Gravis Foundation of Ontario. My cousin Pauline was afflicted with this illness, a life-threatening disease that robbed women of the ability to swallow. Pauline died shortly afterwards but I managed the Foundation for ten years raising thousands of dollars for research Fellowships. I joined the Grand Order of Israel, rising to Vice Noble Master and I received The Man of the Year Award for my volunteer work in the community before moving on to B’nai Brith where I refined my commitment to service volunteering.
Together we became volunteers for The Muscular Dystrophy Association. We were part of the first telephone canvassers for the Labour Day Telethon, in the days when we had to bring our own dinner with us to Sears in Hamilton where the telephones were located. Marilyn stayed with them for over 15 years but by 1970, I was drained both physically and mentally. Many of the friends I had made, patients with the illness, had died and each death took its toll on me. I arranged with Ruth Aziz of The Muscular Dystrophy Foundation to take over my work and to include my members as a Chapter within the Foundation. When I turned over all funds in my possession I also turned over another leaf in my life.
In 1963, I embarked on my own business. The printing industry was in flux. Technology was changing the method of typesetting. I built the largest linotype house in North York and I wrote several white papers on the changing technology that won International Awards. In 1972, I took a partner, Dennis Rowe, whose foresight changed the direction of the company. It became a forerunner in what would become known as a graphic studio using computers to create images. My focus was the Jewish community – non-profit organizations. Dennis left the company in 1979 to join the gay community. In his absence, my company maintained its position in the graphic field but no longer grew.
I became the President of Leonard Mayzel Ontario Lodge, B’nai Brith in 1978. That year, we were the first Lodge to raise in excess of $100,000 and the first Lodge to make a single donation to one group of $10,000 to Baycrest Home and the second largest contributor to Jewish National Fund. I received the Man of the Year Award from LMOL. It was the year I had my first heart attack.
In 1979, Marilyn and I became volunteers with Jewish National Fund, both of us becoming Directors and I continued on to be Vice President until I stepped down in 2005. I was awarded the Bernard M. Bloomfield Medal in 2002 for my work in the organization.
By the end of the 70s, Marilyn and I were also the parents of three children – two daughters and a son. I purchased other companies and sold some. In 1979, in agreement with a sale, I withdrew for one year from the graphic industry. I chose to become an art auctioneer during that time, travelling from Halifax to Edmonton selling art as a means of fundraising for Jewish non-profit organizations. I was responsible for raising a million dollars being raised throughout the Jewish community until I gave the business up in 1990.
At this time, my desire to be a writer never died. I continually scribbled down stories that were never published. I was self-trained which meant I was not trained at all. In the early 1980s I agreed to compile the writings of Rabbi Abraham Feffer: My Shtetl Drobin. My mother would ask me when I was going to put my dreams onto paper. That was her way of referring to the stories I made up but never wrote. I answered that I was too old to become a writer. To which her answer was, “It is never too late to dream.”
Then in 1989, my friend, Andy Reti, asked that I meet his mother Ibi Grossman, a Holocaust survivor. I thought I knew all about the Holocaust, about the Jews and Hitler. I wasn’t interested in the Holocaust and found many reasons not to meet her. Finally I relented. What happened at that meeting changed my life forever. I expected to hear a story of pain and death; about loss and anger. I was wrong. I listened as Ibi read to me love letters she had sent to her husband in a labour camp which were returned to her by mail, unopened, when the war ended. He had died and she had been unaware. When she read me those letters, I then realized that the Holocaust was not about numbers but about people and each one had a story that needed to be told.
I was born with Congestive Heart Disease and in 1990, I was advised that my heart had weakened and that my work pace had to be modified. I dissolved the art business and stopped buying companies, focusing on the original graphic design business. In 1990 and 1992 in anticipation of my health declining Marilyn and I went to Israel and found ourselves committed to the survival of this fragile country.
I also volunteered to assist the Survivors of the Shoah in videotaping Holocaust survivors in Toronto and heard stories of bravery and love. I realized there was pain but I also became aware that these people did something unheard of; they experienced something that set them apart from most of us. They had lived life second by second and that had changed them.
It was at this time that my values changed as well. I no longer worked a 15-hour day. Marilyn had insisted that I come for Sabbath dinner one Friday night. I had hardly seen my two daughters in weeks. When I came home, I was too tired to do more than eat and doze off before dragging my tired body up to bed. I had to be up at 5:30 the next morning to begin my cycle again. In 1995, I had an almost fatal heart attack. If not for Marilyn’s insistence that I go the hospital I might not be alive. I was told I was beyond surgery. While sitting in the hospital waiting for the doctor, Marilyn asked if I had any regrets. I told her my secret of wanting to be a writer. I had stories in my head but didn’t know how to put them on paper. When the doctor came, he confined me to the house and non-work activities for three months. But Marilyn had other plans. Without my knowing why she drove me to York University in September 1995 and I found myself enrolled as a day student in the Fourth Year Creative Writing Course.
By the time I returned to work, I was torn between trying to run a business and being a student. I found myself contemplating quitting school because I found the two activities too much of a mental burden for me. Age does not lessen the effects of A.D.D. To live with this affliction, it is necessary to find a formula that allows the person to function at their peak. School and work were two problems that I had trouble formulizing. But one day, Dennis Rowe walked into my office. I hadn’t seen him in years. We discussed the ‘old days.’ He asked me where his old desk was. I told him it was in the plant. I asked him why he wanted to know and he said he was staying until I got better. He stayed until I retired five years later. I continued with my education. I graduated from York, went on to University of Toronto for a night course and then the following summer to Humber College.
In 1997, I wrote my first manuscript, The Light After the Dark; true stories of six children who survived the Holocaust by chance and circumstance and turned their lives into something positive. I was 61-years-old and unpublished. No one was interested. Marilyn insisted that I self-publish. She felt the stories needed to be told even if only to a handful of people. I self-published and sold more than a 1,000 books within six months and had to publish another run. Professor Irving Abella interceded on my behalf and gave Key Porter Books a book. They offered me a contract and published a further 3,100 copies. All together, more than 8,000 copies were published and almost all have been sold.
Three important things came about because of that book. A woman in Orlando, Florida read it and called me to find the address of Michael Rosenberg, one of the people in the book who she had thought had died in the war. Another woman in Miami, Florida was told that her long-lost friend, Faigie (Schmidt) Libman from the DP camp, was living in Toronto. She flew to Toronto and they were reunited.
Finally, I had promised the six people in my book that if the book every made a profit, I would donate the profit to Jewish Charities. In 2004, I invited the six to my home, and turned over $20,500 in royalties to several charities. Fifteen thousand went to J.N.F. to purchase a grove of trees in Israel in their names.
In 1998, I sold my first short story to Chicken Soup for the Parents Soul. I have had 30 stories published to date in such publications like Women’s World Magazine (New York), mystery anthologies, newspapers, short story collections and in-house publications. Between 1998 and 1999, I suffered three more silent heart attacks. Fortunately the damage was minimal but enough to curtail some of my involvement in community work.
Over the years, I have published a children’s book, Why, Zaida?, other short stories collections, The Light After the Dark II, and Stories I Wrote, a detective mystery, The Unlikely Victims, which was nominated for the Arthur Ellis Award in 2002, the first novel in a trilogy, An Eye For An Eye, which won the International BookAdz Award in 2005, and now The Minyan, part two of the trilogy. I am currently writing the third novel, In the Name of Justice – a story of anti-Semitism.
All my stories are about being Jewish. Many of the incidents I write about have been taken from my own experience or from the stories of those who revealed portions of their past to me and that I felt were significant enough to put into a story. I try to show those readers who may not be Jewish what a Jew is. My stories are character driven. They are about people. I use the Holocaust as the backdrop because I feel it is a subject that should not be forgotten.
I have had more than 100 speaking engagements. I try to focus on non-Jewish organizations and, especially feel it is important that schools in which English is a second language become aware of what the Jewish faith represents. The purpose is to destroy the myth that Jews control the government, that all Jews are rich, that Jews never fought in the war, and so on.
What makes me run?
Adrenalin. And the need to put onto paper what I see.