Full Biography of Gurion Joseph Hyman

originally written as part of the book "The Lord is My Strength, and My Song: The Nearly Complete Collected Works of Music and Poetry of Gurion Joseph Hyman" by Shayne, Belarie and Avi Hyman, August, 2017


Gurion Joseph Hyman was born in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, in 1925. He was the only child of Ben Zion Hyman and Fanny (Faygle) Constant (Konstantynowski).

Ben Zion Hyman hailed from Mozyr, Belarus (at the time part of Tsarist Russia). He came to Toronto via his Engineering studies in Odessa, Ukraine and initially settled in Guelph, Ontario. Fanny Constant was born in Wysokie Mazowieckie, Poland (although she was primarily raised in Warsaw), before immigrating to Canada. Ben Zion and Fanny met in Toronto in the early 1920s, and were married in the summer of 1922.

Gurion’s parents were both ardent Zionists, and after marrying, moved to Eretz Yisrael for a period of time. Upon their return to Toronto in 1924, and pregnant with Gurion, they rented rooms in the house of the parents of local politician and community activist J.B. Salsberg on Cecil Street just east of Spadina Avenue. This was Gurion’s first home.
In 1925, Gurion’s parents opened a bookstore on Spadina Avenue, at first on the east side, and from 1926, on the west side, between Nassau and Oxford Streets. The family moved into one of the apartments above the store, and Gurion lived there until his marriage to Ruth Warner in 1952. The store became a landmark in Jewish Toronto, in part because of the social activism of Ben Zion and Fanny, and in part because of some unique business practices introduced in the store (including stocking a large selection of non-religious English-language Jewish and Zionist themed books, and their establishment of a Bar Mitzvah registry). Over time, the store expanded to sell Judaica and general stationary, and they provided a number of services to local businesses and organizations. One such service was access to a mimeograph machine and an assortment of typewriters in different languages, which allowed people, both Jewish and not, to publish newsletters quickly and efficiently. Ben Zion and Fanny Hyman also provided translation services to their customers (translating everything from personal letters to news).

Gurion’s parents were extremely active in the community. Ben Zion served as a delegate at the first Canadian Jewish Congress session in 1919. Later, he founded the Toronto Jewish Public Library, and was active with Keren Hatarbut and the Farband Labour Zionist Organization. In her own right, Gurion’s mother, Fanny, was very active with The Jewish National Fund, and was one of the original initiators of the annual Negev Dinner awards. She was also a member of the city’s burial society.

Gurion was very close with his father’s parents, who had also emigrated from Belarus (his mother’s parents were murdered in the Shoah in Poland). His grandfather, Menachem Mendel Hyman, was a teacher and certified religious slaughterer (a shoichet) and his grandmother Bella Kaplan was the homemaker. Gurion spent much time studying religious texts with his grandfather. His grandfather passed away in 1948 and his grandmother in 1953.

This was the environment in which Gurion was raised, exposed constantly to culture, literature, religion, politics, and multiple languages.

At the age of 18, in 1943, during the height of the Second World War and having recently completed high school, Gurion was called up for army service, reporting to the signal corps at Fort York in Toronto. When Gurion was seven, he had contracted Scarlet Fever, which damaged his right eardrum, culminating in a loss of hearing. As a result, Gurion was medically discharged, and never saw active duty.

Instead, on the advice of his grandmother, and in keeping with his interests in science, Gurion enrolled in Pharmacy at the University of Toronto. After graduating at the end of the war, Gurion worked in a number of local pharmacies.

Gurion is recognized by all who know him as a ‘renaissance’ man –with interests in science, languages, art, architecture, religion, politics and computers; however, his one abiding passion was music. He was an avid and accomplished pianist, and from the age of 14, a composer. It was an avocation that he would pursue for more than 75 years.
Gurion met Ruth Warner in 1950, while they were both active in young adult Zionist advocacy groups (where Gurion would often play piano). They were married in 1952, and in 1953 they opened a ‘northern’ branch of Hyman’s Bookstore on Eglinton Avenue near Bathurst Street in Toronto; they sold the business in 1962, though the original bookstore on Spadina Avenue remained opened until 1971. With two daughters, and a son on the way, they bought a house in the Cedarvale neighbourhood of Toronto in order to be close to their synagogue and their children’s Jewish Day School. They continue to live in their home as of this writing.

After the sale of the store, Gurion decided to return to graduate school in order to pursue another of his fascinations, Linguistics. Attending the
University of Toronto in the Department of Anthropology, Gurion spent the next ten years studying, and getting by, taking on various teaching roles. Ruth also returned to school to study early childhood education, and then pursued a career as an early childhood and special needs educator. While in graduate school Gurion used early-generation computers to try and reconstruct the Proto-Semitic language (the source language for Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic, Syriac and so on). Unfortunately, due to the financial pressures of modern life, Gurion never completed his doctorate, and in 1974 returned to the practice of pharmacy until his retirement in 1990.

Gurion’s mother, Fanny, passed away in 1970, and not long thereafter, Gurion’s father, Ben Zion, closed the original Hyman’s Bookstore, liquidating the stock, and selling the building on Spadina after more than 40 years of serving the Jewish community. Ben Zion moved into Gurion and Ruth’s home until his passing in 1984.

Throughout it all, Gurion continued to write music (and often to paint and draw).
His primary work, as you will find in this collection – documenting his oeuvre from the 1940s into the 21st century — revolved around setting Jewish liturgy to music. Later, in his retirement, Gurion began to set the work of Yiddish poets to music. His production as a composer, and his ongoing interest in language, led him to undertake the challenge of translation, as he deepened his engagement with Yiddish poetry. Gurion also branched out into writing his own poetry. In fact, the reader should beware that some of his poems can be a bit risqué and acerbic.

Later still, he began to formally study Spanish (to add to his linguistic repertoire of English, Hebrew and Yiddish, with, as he would say, “a smattering” of German, Russian, French, Latin and Polish). Thus, this collection of music and poetry includes some of Gurion’s efforts to translate Yiddish poetry into both English and Spanish. To this day, Gurion remains extremely grateful to the esteemed poets Simcha Simchovich and the late Peretz Miransky, who both invited and encouraged Gurion’s collaborations as a composer and translator of their works.

For about a decade, while in his seventies, Gurion established a Yiddish band with the help of some family and friends. The group, operating under the name ‘De Shpeelers’, played both Gurion’s Yiddish music as well as a repertoire of classic and popular Klezmer and Israeli melodies at a variety of venues in Toronto, particularly the Baycrest seniors home. His works have been performed by others as well. During this period, Gurion’s linguistic roots were once again in evidence, as he began developing a Yiddish etymological dictionary.

Although the last few decades have seen a popular resurgence in Klezmer music, this genre was never an overt influence on Gurion’s style, neither on his liturgical work, nor even on his Yiddish music. Rather, Gurion’s olio has been influenced by classical composers like Bach and Vivaldi, early rock, including folk and alternative rock (he was particularly taken with the music of Annie Lennox), and Zionist pioneer music. His work often aims to capture the emotional context of the words he is setting to music, whether it be the depth of the Passover story found in the Haggadah, the spirituality of the Sabbath, the powerful metaphors of Yiddish poets, or in music composed for special family events (marriages, births). The songs are often contagious with subtle and easily accessible rhythms and melodies. And yet, despite these classical influences, the listener can often detect an avant-garde subtext, with hints of provocative reverence.

Throughout, Gurion has shaped his work with great care, selecting words and notes with deliberation so that the art of translation and music might together reveal the depth, nuance and integrity of the original liturgy or poetry which serves as the foundation of his practice.

Today, now in his nineties, Gurion continues to play the piano from time to time, but age has taken a toll on his hearing and ability to read the music. His fingers have also slowed, but music still fills the air, as his songs are often sung at family gatherings, and are well known by his grandchildren and extended family and friends. He will tell you, without hesitation, that he would not have been able to accomplish any of it without the support of Ruthie, his wife of nearly 65 years, and there is no doubt that this is true.

Our intention in compiling this collection of his music, translations and poetry is two-fold: first, of course, is our hope to share the beauty of Gurion’s mastery with a wider audience of players, listeners and readers. But there is also a second motive; we hope that one day, musicologists studying Jewish and Canadian 20th century music will find the vastness of the collection, including the reproduction of sidebar notes and edits in progress, a useful and illuminating source for scholarly work.

SHT, BHZ, AJH Toronto
2017 - 5776 

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