Rosalie Silberman Abella
Justice, Supreme Court of Canada
I met Jerry Shestack 25 years ago when we were both speaking at a conference on Human Rights in Banff, Alberta. After my speech, he came up to me and told me how surprised he was that a Canadian could give a decent speech on human rights. Then he told me I’d love his wife, Marciarose, who was a beautiful and famous journalist in Philadelphia. And then he told me a joke. I realized that I had just met a candid, generous, uxorious, feminist, and funny man. We bonded immediately. Only later did I come to realize that he was also a brilliant polymath.
That first conversation turned out to contain the foundational Holy Trinity of our relationship – human rights, Marciarose, and jokes. In 25 years, we never had a conversation that wasn’t punctuated by all three. There was never a human rights issue he wasn’t preoccupied with, never a day he wasn’t reveling in something Marciarose said or did, and never a joke he thought was too old to be unworthy of retelling.
And as the layers of our friendship deepened, I got a front row seat on how this man lived. And, watching him, I went from being a Jerry fan, to being a Jerry fanatic, to being a Jerry addict. I watched a prodigious reader devour books to satisfy a hunger for learning and understanding; I watched a man with a passionate connection to his Jewishness take the visceral influences of its culture and history and weave them seamlessly into his dream of tolerance for all; and above all, I watched how tenaciously the long arc of his moral universe bent towards justice.
And what an arc! He was a naval officer, law clerk, law professor, litigator, pro bono founder, ambassador, Bar president, author, lecturer, mediator, mentor, community leader, international icon, philosopher, poet, and, ultimately, legend. He was a consummate professional, deeply proud to be a lawyer, and unabashedly romantic about justice. He transformed every organization he touched – from the ABA to the UN – because he saw them not as they were, but as they could be, and sprinkled the same transformative magic on colleagues, friends, and children of friends.
Above all, the profound humanity at his core carried him to the front of this generation’s human rights parade – for women, for African Americans, for persons with disabilities, for political prisoners, for the whole world. For him, human rights was justice, and his lifelong mission was to pursue both, one injustice at a time. It was amazing to watch this justice juggernaut as a human rights warrior, aiming his majestic rhetorical weapons with unerring accuracy, using law as his ammunition and optimism as his inspiration.
From watching all this, I learned. I learned that you could be a lawyer all your life and still believe that law and justice have a working relationship; I learned that there was no justice without compassion; I learned that it’s about your character, not your curriculum vitae; I learned that unless you remembered where you came from, you couldn’t appreciate where you’d arrived; I learned that to succeed sometimes meant compromising your time and ideas, but never your values; I learned that it’s not just what you stand for, it’s what you stand up for; I learned that you could walk with the workers and still ride with the bosses; I learned that idealism and common sense were not oxymorons; I learned that the status quo was only the beginning of the conversation; I learned that courage was a transcendently trustworthy companion for controversy and conscience alike; I learned that being playful and opinionated was not inconsistent with being serious and open-minded; and I learned that you didn’t have to play to the crowd to lead it.
Most indelibly, I learned that what counts most in life is family. I learned this from watching with increasing enchantment the intensely symbiotic partnership he had with his beloved Marciarose. They both had charismatic brains and personalities, which they made endlessly available to each other; and they each had a preternatural capacity for generosity and friendship, which they made available to everyone else.
I saw them as the Fred and Ginger of American public service, choreographing some fabulous routines in law, diplomacy, journalism, the arts, and human rights, routines which consistently brought the dazzled audience to its feet.
But of course their favorite routine was the private one they created at home whenever they could with Jonathan, Jennifer and grandchildren, twirling around them lovingly in terpsichorean splendour, and marveling at the exquisite people they cherished and proudly called family. They made Jerry smile, they made him kvell, and they made him happy. They were the music to his and Marciarose’s lyrics.
And it is with lyrics that I want to end. They are from the songsheet I see every day when I’m in my office and sitting at my desk. It’s an original George Gershwin songsheet Jerry sent me after he heard me recite some of the words from the song at an ABA meeting. I used to think that the songsheet was Jerry’s way of reminding me that law, life and love should co-exist in exuberant harmony. Now when I think of the words, I think they could’ve been written just for Jerry – part elegance, part schmaltz, all-American:
Of Thee I Sing, Baby
Summer, Autumn, Winter, Spring, Baby
Shining Star and Inspiration
Worthy of a Mighty Nation
Of Thee I Sing.
Jerry, we will always sing of thee. . .