January 11, 2016
‘Rabbi, if I was good enough for Hitler, I’m good enough for you’: Great Canadian writer George Jonas dies, age 80
“Great” even though, like Conrad, English was not his native language. He was a refugee — when we still had real ones — from communist Hungary.
His columns were memorable in many cases for a single aphorism. Politicians who seek high office, for example, should be disqualified for being stupid enough to think they can do it. Crime is not wrong because it is illegal, it is illegal because it is wrong. Cold War Communists “could cope with bankruptcy; they had never been anything but bankrupt, beginning with Karl Marx himself.” Freedom is too fragile to put into words, so “if you write down your rights and freedoms, you lose them.” (…)
He was a wit, which is a higher art than being a jokester,” said Mark Steyn, a longtime friend and colleague. “His elegance had a magnificent compression to it, which I think comes in part from writing poetry or writing opera libretti, in both disciplines of which you have to say it in a very short space of time.” (…)
For all his interest in and experience with war, hatred and the ugliness of global affairs, though, he acknowledged that his most popular column was about a squirrel stealing a bagel from a bag left by a friend on his front porch, and his conversation with the rodent, which was first terrified, then seemed to understand and accept Jonas’s offer to just keep the damn thing, possession being nine-tenths of the law. Plus, as he put it, memorably, “You can’t wash a bagel.” (…)
He was also Jewish, in a way. In 1974, he and Amiel went to the late Rabbi Gunther Plaut of Holy Blossom in Toronto, asking to be qualified for a Jewish marriage. Amiel was OK, but the rabbi asked how he could be sure Jonas, who had never attended a synagogue, was Jewish.
“Rabbi, if I was good enough for Hitler, I’m good enough for you,” he said, in a joke that concealed a dark history of religious denial, which probably saved his life. His father, who once gave him fencing lessons for self-defence, had told him as a young man: “Your penis is your worst enemy. It can hurt you at the best of times, but in times such as ours you must be especially careful to keep it firmly inside your pants.” (…)
As he grew old, Jonas wrote that he did not fear the ravages of time, but neither did he romanticize them. In a recent column, he reflected on the increasing rarity of flirtatious glances, and the increasing frequency of grunts of discomfort as he tied his shoes. He also had a deep admiration for the stoicism that comes with advanced age, which he recalled in the long ago memory of an 80-year-old man — the same age he was as he wrote — crossing a street in a newly occupied town in a war-torn European winter, “then boldly raising his walking stick to stop an approaching Russian tank.”
“‘Aren’t you afraid, Uncle?’ a cowering civilian asked him when he got to the other side. The old man seemed genuinely puzzled. ‘Afraid?’ he asked. ‘Afraid of WHAT?’” (…)
In 1998, he had a heart attack in Arizona, where a doctor recognized him and said “Thank your lucky stars that you’re a conservative columnist. If you were the other kind, I’d let you die like a dog.”