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Eli Shayla KinzeyEli Herscovitch: “I might not be able to play my instruments, but I have a family!”
A personal reflection about musician Eli Herscovitch by KINZEY POSEN
It was Wednesday morning around 10:30 am, January 3rd and I was waiting outside in the car for my wife Shayla. Suddenly, Shayla opened the garage door to say Daniel Koulack just called.

He told us that Eli had literally just passed away. In 20 minutes time, we were supposed to meet Daniel and Myron Schultz at the hospital at 11, to play for our old friend and Finjan bandmate Eli Herscovitch in his hospital room. Sadly, Eli Herscovitch is physically no more. He officially passed on Wednesday, January 3rd at 10:30 am as a result of pancreatic cancer and an infection. He was only 68.

I first met him in 1980 when he and his wife, Dr. Esther Ravinsky, arrived in Winnipeg from Regina. They had moved there from their hometown of Montreal to further their education and careers. It was shortly after their marriage and they arrived there in 1978. Esther began working as a pathologist in the hospital and Eli went back to school to get his teaching degree. Two years later they moved to Winnipeg - the next logical step for their careers. Without a doubt, our city was richer for their arrival. Esther settled into what’s become a long successful career in pathology at the Health Sciences Centre and Eli began his memorable profession as a multi-instrumentalist and raconteur.

Eli was first and foremost what we call a natural musician. That means his talent went well beyond just playing well. A natural musician has the ability to tap into a source that channels pure music that is honest and inspiring and can excite or tame an audience. He was that musician and more. We first worked together in several bands, such as Planet, where we improvised and played standards. We eventually started a group to perform at weddings, bar mitzvahs and other simchas. After meeting Myron Schultz, we joined forces to create Canada’s first klezmer ensemble called Finjan. Eli was a founding member and his contributions were through his exemplary musicianship and compositions. He also had a flair for performing and his musical duels with Myron were often the highlight of the concert. He played the entire saxophone family, plus flute, guitar and harmonica.
In the early years, many of our rehearsals were at the old Y.M.H.A., or at Eli’s house. Besides having all the family around at his place, Eli always had a dog, which at times seemed to be part of the band. Often Shayla and Eli would be riffing jokes and we’d have to repeatedly tell them to stop fooling around and play.

Eli shared with us his upbringing in Montreal and the challenges he had with his own family. His mum died young and his father remarried. Eli carried deep emotional scars that could break your heart with how he was treated. Despite the hardships, he developed a warm outgoing personality, a truly entertaining sense of humour and an ability to observe and recognize real humanity.
He would explain in great detail the famous Jewish foods and restaurants he grew up with in Montreal and tell us about his musical experiences there. One of my favourite stories was how he met Suzanne, yes the very Suzanne whom Leonard Cohen wrote about in the song “Suzanne.” Eli was the object of her affection post Cohen and remembers going to her apartment. He described the flat and said, “There I was sitting at the table and there in a bowl, were oranges all the way from China, and she served tea, which also came all the way from China.” Eli reflected on how he was probably sitting in the very same place as Leonard Cohen had; he also sensed that this wouldn’t be a relationship that would be worth pursuing.
Besides his formidable musical prowess, Eli had a part of his personality that seemed to be perpetually tightly wound, much like those old toy motors you had to wind up - an energy that could be a force to be reckoned with if engaged. Over the years, that part of him diminished and he became more of a pussycat.

It was in 1996 that Eli began to face his greatest challenge yet: a diagnosis of brain cancer. After undergoing surgery, Eli thankfully recovered. The operation affected his memory though and he had to relearn to play his instruments, read music and drive a car. Think about what that means! I remember Eli saying, “I looked at my instruments and I realized that they were mine and I must have played them, but how to do it escaped me.” Painstakingly, he did relearn everything and after a year he was back in action. It was a remarkable achievement. His ever present humour and positive nature was a way of dealing with the challenge.

Unfortunately, in 2010, the brain cancer returned and this time it was inoperable. He was treated with radio and chemo therapy and it worked, but once again, Eli had to relearn everything he fought so hard to regain the last time; the playing, the reading and his ability to drive. He found the resilience and fought back. Esther was a huge positive force for him and despite her feeling that this time it might be extra difficult, Eli once again achieved the impossible. Imagine what that means and how a lesser person might say……..Ok I’m done. Not Eli. On he went, playing his music, recording for countless other people, collaborating and telling his stories the best he could.

We’re constantly reminded in our lives of how fleeting our time on earth is. Mortality lurks around the corner and surprises us when we least expect it. This past year in April, Eli developed pancreatic cancer - a formidable diagnosis that rarely ends well. Nonetheless, he was upbeat and his chemotherapy was working, that is, until an infection complicated his recovery. Once he was made aware of the reality, he resigned himself to the inevitable outcome and spoke with his family with clarity of how he wanted the final process of his life to go. He wanted to make sure that his family would not be burdened.

Throughout all this pain and hardship, Eli’s rock and caregiver was his beloved wife Esther. He called her his ‘angel’ and they were together for over 40 years. She was always there to support him and he never took her love for granted.
His memorial service was held on the evening of Sunday, January 7th and Finjan was honoured to play for it. In fact, it felt as if he was playing with us one more time. Many of Winnipeg’s finest musicians were in attendance to pay their respects. His son Charlie and daughter Rachael spoke lovingly from the heart about their father, and close friend Sid Robinovitch also reflected on Eli’s life and their friendship. Sid shared some of Eli’s last thoughts, such as how he identified with being Jewish and how important it was to him. And, that towards the end - when he couldn’t play anymore, Eli told him, “I might not be able to play my instruments, but I have a family!” A very loving family indeed! Eli is survived by his wife Esther, son Charlie (Judy) and grandchildren Jacob Elias and Ronald James, daughter Rachael (Chris).

Eli is fondly remembered by us all and I can only imagine the music his soul is playing now.

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#1 a great human beingRicki Segal 2018-01-21 18:08
It is with a sad heart that I want to express my sympathy to the family of the late Eli Herscovitch. May his memory be a blessing to all