Passings: Irving Abella  


Historian Irving Abella died on Sunday, July 3, the day after his 82nd birthday. Abella was the J. Richard Shiff Chair for the Study of Canadian Jewry and professor emeritus of history.

Irving Abella
Irving Abella

Abella was born on July 2, 1940 and was married to Canadian jurist and retired Supreme Court of Canada Justice Rosalie Silberman Abella for 53 years. They have two sons: Jacob, father of Felix, is married to Marny Hershorn; and Zachary, father of Maysie, is married to Susannah Gora. For Abella, family was the most important part of his life. 

Abella was a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, and a history professor at Glendon College and at York University for 45 years until his retirement in 2013. He was Chair of Canadian Studies, the Shiff Professor of Canadian Jewish History, Chair of Canadian Professors for Peace in the Middle East, Chair of Canadian Jewish Archives, governor of York University, editor of Middle East Focus, Chair of the Governor General’s Literary Awards for Non-Fiction, president of the Canadian Historical Society, president of the Academy of the Arts and Humanities of the Royal Society of Canada, president of the Canadian Jewish Congress, Chair of Vision Television Network, among many other positions. He started the field of Labour History in Canada and was the founding Chair of the Committee on Labour History and the founding Editor of Labour/Le Travail: The Canadian Journal of Labour History.  

Associate Professor David Koffman, who serves as acting director at York University’s Israel and Golda Koschitzky Centre for Jewish Studies said Abella’s “absence leaves an unfillable moral and intellectual hole in Canada, in Canada’s Jewish community, in York’s faculty, Department of History, Centre for Jewish Studies, and – most gapingly – for his friends and family. We send our condolences to the mourners and to all those who lives he touched.” 

Koffman served as Abella’s first successor in the J. Richard Shiff Chair for the Study of Canadian Jewry, a position established at York University in 1997. 

“Irving Abella’s importance as a historian stands in its wide public reach, in its impeccable and incisive scholarship, and in the fact of his fellow historians’ steady citations of his work from a wide range of Canadian and modern Jewish historical subject areas,” said Koffman in his tribute.  

“When I spoke with Dr. Abella shortly before his 80th birthday and asked him what accomplishment he was most proud of, he seemed unprepared; he hadn’t been keeping track. After a moment of reflection, he told me that he was proud of creating the first course in Canadian Jewish Studies to be taught at a university, in this case at Glendon College in the early 1970s. There were no books and few articles to read or assign; it was a field he himself would pioneer.” 

Koffman noted, “Abella was among the first generation of professional scholars to take up Canadian Jewish subjects, and his writings and findings left an indelible print on the now-mature and professionalized field.” 

Abella is the author of hundreds of articles and many books, including A Coat of Many Colours: Two Centuries of Jewish Life in Canada and is co-author of None is Too Many: Canada and the Jews of Europe 1933–1948, a winner of the National Jewish Book Award (Holocaust Category), the Canadian Historical Association John A. Macdonald Prize and featured in The Literary Review of Canada 100: Canada’s Most Important Books. He was the recipient of the National Book Award, the Order of Ontario, the Order of Canada, a Louis Rosenberg Distinguished Service Award from the Association for Canadian Jewish Studies and several honorary degrees. 

“I wish to extend my sympathies to the family, friends, colleagues and students of Irving Abella,” said J.J. McMurtry, dean of the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies. “Professor Abella has left an indelible mark on our Faculty, York University, and Canada. A recipient of the Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship, the National Jewish Book Award, the Queen’s Jubilee Medal, and many more honours. Professor Abella will be best remembered for his remarkable contribution to Jewish Canadian scholarship.” 

A funeral service took place on July 5 at the Beth Tzedec Synagogue in Toronto. Memories and condolences have been shared online.