A few days after I wrote a column eulogizing Joseph J. Wilder I found myself performing a less agreeable mitzvah involving another law school classmate. On Friday, May 14th, I helped lay Saul “Shelly” Zitzerman to rest at the Rosh Pina Memorial Park.


Seventy-nine is not the prime age for a pall bearer but Shelly had been living in Toronto for the past three years and the local talent pool was rather shallow. (Dr. Dave Brodovsky, who recruited me, is over eighty.) After we had laid our burden down I thought of what George Burns said to a fellow comic at Jack Benny’s interment: “Hardly worth driving home.”
But I did make it home, and now that I’ve disposed of my boyhood friend’s mortal remains I will perform my second mitzvah by immortalizing him in the pages of a journal he read, religiously, and to which he occasionally contributed.
“Great idea,” my wife said. “But don’t say that he went to jail.”
I laughed. That would be like writing a Bill Clinton biography without mentioning Monica Lewinsky. My flamboyant classmate and boyhood friend had many sterling qualities and one defining weakness. When I first met him, in high school, his reputation had preceded him. “He’s a bullshitter,” I was told. But a lovable one, I came to learn. Shelly’s tendency to improve on the truth did not stem from any impure motive or nefarious scheme. His innocent fabrications weren’t calculated to con you out of your lunch money - merely to enhance his image... like a politician claiming to be named after the man who conquered Everest, even though she was born years before Edmund Hillary accomplished that heroic feat.
“Pinocchio” Rodham Clinton, as everyone knows, is on the cusp of becoming the first female POTUS and, for a while, it looked like Saul Benjamin Zitzerman was living up to his illusions of grandeur. Shelly articled for his uncle, the highly respected Louis Matlin, Q.C., who was not only a prominent member of the Jewish community but, coincidentally, a former editor of The Jewish Post. A year after Shelly joined Matlin Kushner Buchwald, in 1960, the senior partner died prematurely. But the firm not only survived but was reborn as Buchwald Asper Henteleff, destined to become the most prominent Jewish law firm in Western Canada. And Shelly was in on the ground floor. While the rest of us were on the lowest rung of the profession our classmate seemed to be sprinting up the ladder.
Shelly and Zelma, who had gotten married in law school, moved from their cramped North End apartment to a spacious two storey house in Garden City, then, a few years later, to a luxurious Tuxedo bungalow, with an indoor therapy pool that made our modest Waverley Street bungalow look like a shack. While Brenda and I would occasionally drive down to Grand Forks for a shopping week-end (or a curling tournament), after the children were old enough to be left alone, the Zitzermans were flying to Palm Springs, California, for the winter.
Shelly had not only become a partner at Buchwald Asper, but was following in the very large footsteps of Harold Buchwald, Izzy Asper, and Yude Henteleff, who were not only prominent members of the legal and business world, but leaders of the Jewish community. Eventually Shelly’s resumé would include: president of Imperial Developments, president of Talmud Torah and president of the Jewish National Fund of Canada. In the 1990s Shelly hit the headlines with a financial coup. He had made a deal, in partnership with former Manitoba Conservative Party leader Sid Spivak, husband of Senator Mira Spivak, to build a multi-million dollar senior citizen complex in Charleswood. But for some reason the project kept getting delayed. Then the house of cards came tumbling down.
I’ve done some things in my life of which I’m not proud but failing to visit Shelly in “cheder” was unforgivable. I didn’t even bother to find out where he was serving his time, the length of his sentence, or the details of his offence. I didn’t have to. It was a familiar story. When an ambitious and imaginative lawyer has custody of hundreds of thousands of dollars, sitting idle in some trust account, it seems a shame not to put that capital to work. It’s not theft, merely a loan - one you fully intend to repay. If it takes a little longer than anticipated for the profits to roll in, you will, temporarily, use Peter’s funds to pay Paul. Until Mary blows the whistle. Then you have to pay the piper.
It’s a tribute to the strength of Shelly’s character that he weathered this storm as he had all the others, without flinching. He not only had “chutzpah”, he had guts. Nothing daunted him. He was an incurable optimist with the fortitude of Job. When he was still in university he had an accident that would leave him crippled for life. At a summer job in a printing plant the blade of a machine went through his right hand, severing most of the muscles and tendons. But when I visited him in the hospital you’d have thought he’d just had his appendix removed. He was as upbeat as ever as he related the gory details...and the reconstructive surgery and physiotherapy he had to look forward to. For once he didn’t have to exaggerate. It was a great story. Then he told me about a great student nurse he had met. She was expecting my call.
The blind date did not quite live up to advance billing, but Shelly’s heart had been in the right place.
Even if his right hand now looked like an eagle’s claw, this crippling injury didn’t put a crimp in Shelly’s curling game. He simply shrugged it off - just as he would shrug off every other disaster fate had in store. He was an accident waiting to happen. One year he was almost done in by a tainted taco from a Jack-In-The-Box. He survived with a chronic gastro-intestinal problem and an undiminished appetite for fast food. Shelly kept Kelekis restaurant in business well past its “best before” expiry date.
Rail thin as a teenager Shelly blew up like a balloon after he had paid his debt to society. The most successful member of our class, from all appearances, ended without the proverbial pot. We stood by him. It was agreed that, due to his recent run of bad luck, we would pick up Shelly’s tab at our 40-year reunion. But he only attended one event - as usual, without his wife.
Zelma Zitzerman’s chronic (and mysterious) illness, which kept her virtually housebound throughout their 60 year marriage, was another burden Shelly bore uncomplainingly. Constantly medicated, Zelma would occasionally have outbursts of erratic behavior, but Shelly never lost his cool. He was unfailingly supportive. When the children were young Zelma would tell them bedtime stories she had made up, about an imaginary set of twins, and Shelly wanted her to write them down. But she didn’t think she had sufficient education to become a writer. “I didn’t get past high school,” she told me, when Shelly called upon me to encourage her. So I quoted Albert Einstein: “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”
It did the trick. Shelly found an illustrator and made his wife’s dream come true. He arranged to have her stories published as a series of children’s books. Shelly wasn’t a flawless human being, but he had a heart of gold. Unlike most people who are not shy about blowing their own horn he wasn’t only a good talker, he was a good listener. He was the furthest thing from a narcissist. He was always interested in what you were doing. One day, with nothing more pressing on his schedule, he dropped into my walk-up office and asked what I was up to. I read him a short story that would, years later, be the basis of my first radio play. He was very encouraging. “It’s like Isaac Bashevis Singer,” he mused.
He should know. One summer, in the 1950s, when I was looking for a paperback to read on the beach I bumped into Shelly at the Winnipeg Beach drugstore. He recommended a short story collection by a writer of whom I had never heard. Over the next few decades I would not only devour everything I.B. Singer wrote, but abridge his novel, Enemies, A Love Story, for CBC-Radio, in ten 15-minute episodes that I read over the network. It was the crowning achievement of my radio career.
Years later, Shelly did me another good turn that didn’t work out quite so well. One day, out of the blue, he called me at the office to tell me he was now into “film development.” He and his U.S. partner, a former William Morris agent, were looking for properties. Did I have anything for them?
His partner (the “creative” half of the team) didn’t think the script I submitted was commercially viable but was sufficiently impressed to suggest, to the “financial” half of the team, that I be hired to write a screenplay based on an idea he, the former Hollywood agent, had been kicking around for years. The resulting script never saw the light of a movie projector, but Shelly kept food on my family’s table during a fallow period in my legal career... with funds, I suspect, in light of later events, he had to beg, borrow or steal.
Shelly Zitzerman left a few financial victims in his headlong rush through life but it was all collateral damage. He never deliberately harmed another human being. He was a generous friend, with a good heart, who was always willing to give you a helping hand - and who never forgot a favor. He was endlessly grateful for the reference I provided when he adopted his adorable blond-headed daughter, Mira. “I don’t know what you said,” he told me with a laugh.
I had merely written the truth: that he and Zelma were wonderful parents, absolutely devoted to their son David, who is now a successful entertainment lawyer. Mira is an interior designer. They both live in Toronto, with their five children, where their ailing father spent his declining years. It’s a comfort to know that, after the devastating loss of his “best friend” in 2010, Shelly died in the bosom of his family. He was not a flawless human being, but the good he did far outweighed the harm. I not only admired him, I envied him. Shelly Zitzerman was the bravest person I ever met. A free spirit with a gusto for life that brightened up this humdrum world for a brief period. Or, in the words of Ian Jessiman, in a recent email: “The most memorable member of our class.”