Categorized | Anachnu, Harrison_Donald_H

Anachnu: Joe Spier

By Donald H. Harrison

Donald H. Harrison

Donald H. Harrison

Joe Spier

Joe Spier

CORONADO, California – One of retired attorney Joe Spier’s favorite stories is about the one and only time he appeared before Canada’s Supreme Court in a case that had been appealed from the court of appeals in the Province of Alberta, where he lives.

The Calgary attorney carefully had donned the ceremonial gown that attorneys wear when appearing before the High Court in Ottawa, and made sure that his stiff shirt with high collar fit properly.  As the attorney for the party appealing the judgment of the provincial court presented his case, Spier mentally rehearsed what he would say when his turn arrived.

“I was so well prepared,” Spier related over a lunch in Coronado, the city where he and his wife Sondra like to spend a portion of their winters.  He recalled that when at last the opposing counsel sat down, he stood up to present his argument.  He said “Good morning” to the court, and a justice “looked at me and said ‘it won’t be necessary to hear from you Mr. Spier.  We’re dismissing the appeal.’”   So that was it: “All I got to say to the Supreme Court of Canada was ‘Good morning.’”

The case had involved the division of an estate in which Spier’s client had the choice of Property A or Property B.  She chose A, but the other side said she took B.  Somehow that case got all the way to the Supreme Court before her choice of A was finally validated.

Normally, Spier’s practice was far more routine, although there was considerable travel and fun associated with the job.  One of his regular clients was a man whose company purchased used airplanes from Air Canada, and then sold or leased them to other airlines.  “Many times if we would do a sale to a company, say in Greece, I would trot off to Greece with him and we would retain local counsel over there, but I would put it together. I did a lot of work in the States as well, and I was very familiar with the FAA rules for purchases.”

Most of the cases that Spier worked on involved legal transactions, although earlier in his career—after graduating from the University of Edmonton Law School—he did a great variety of legal work, including representation of some criminal defendants.

As his practice settled into a comfortable routine, Spier became involved in the leadership of Calgary’s Jewish community, where he had grown up a first-generation Canadian, the son of Eastern European Jewish parents, Sam and Pearl, respectively from Romania and Poland, who had immigrated to Canada before the Holocaust.  His mother’s family was completely wiped out: “My grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, all were killed in the Holocaust.”

His immigrant parents “only spoke Yiddish in the house,” Spier recalled.  “They were both Shomer Shabbat.  We never drove on Shabbat.  We had a neighbor, a Shabbos goy, who would come and turn the heat on in the winter, and turn the lights on for us.”

“That lasted until about when I got into high school,” Spier confided.  “I discovered Chinese food and that was the end of my kashrut days.”

Although Spier had been enrolled by his parents in Calgary Hebrew School, which met at 4 p.m. after public school concluded, he played hooky from his Jewish studies in favor of playing soccer.  “I didn’t tell my parents I wasn’t going to cheder,” Spier confessed.  “After a week or so, they get a call: ‘Where is Yossel?’  My dad (who owned a neighborhood convenience store) said, ‘He’s at school,’ and they said, ‘No, he’s not!’  Anyway that was the end of my Hebrew school.  My dad decided he would self-teach me.  He sat down with me for a couple of nights, but I don’t think it was more than two times.”

You might think that abandoning kashrut and cheder were signs that Spier had diminishing interest in the Jewish community, but there was another important influence that kept young Spier fully affiliated with the Jewish community.  From the time he was 8 years old, he attended B’nai B’rith summer camp, rising from camper to counselor.  It was at that camp, as well, where he met Sondra Bellas, who was a fellow counselor.  He had responsibility for a boys’ cabin; Sondra, who came from the small town of Medicine Hat, had charge of a girls’ cabin.  They were married between Spier’s second and third year at law school.

During the time the Spiers’ own children went to the Calgary Hebrew School (the name later was changed from ‘Hebrew School’ to ‘Jewish Academy’), he became the president of the school, and later moved through the chairs to the presidencies of the Jewish Federation of Calgary; the local Israel Bonds campaign; Canadian Friends of Hebrew University;  and later still headed the Calgary Jewish Federation’s Partnership Program which included such Israeli cities as Metula and Kiryat Shemona in Israel’s northern panhandle.

Spier’s first trip to Israel came upon the conclusion of the Yom Kippur War, when the fighting had ceased but soldiers still hadn’t been released from their units.  He remembers driving into the Sinai and seeing tanks with their treads blown out, a tank graveyard.  His most recent trip came during ‘Operation Protective Edge’ against Hamas in Gaza.  He recalls that he and his daughter Leanne were having lunch outside in southern Israel, when suddenly the “Red Alert” siren began to wail.

“We knew where the shelter was to which we ran from where we were eating, till we got the all clear, but I forgot my falafel on the table,” Spier said.  “So I figure that Hamas owes me one falafel.  I don’t think I’ll ever collect on that sandwich.”

In addition to Leanne, who works for an international engineering firm in Toronto, Spier’s family includes a son, Brad, who followed him into the legal profession, his wife Becky,  and their 10-year-old daughter, Zoey.

In between the Yom Kippur War trip and that most recent one, Spier has traveled to Israel approximately 25 other times, most of them as a leader of missions to Israel in behalf of Calgary’s Jewish Federation.  Typical itineraries, he said, included Yad Vashem and Ha Kotel in Jerusalem; Masada and the Dead Sea; an Army or Air Force base;  in-depth explorations of the Partnership Region in Northern Israel, and toward the end of each trip, a day or two of rest at Tel Aviv where people could relax at the beach before flying home.

It’s not surprising that when Spier stays in Coronado, it’s particularly close to the ocean. “At home I always had a boat, now my son has a boat – a 20-foot motor boat—which we take out on Lake Windermere in British Columbia,” he said.  Growing up, he confided, “We were pretty athletic as a family: skiing, tennis, water skiing, boating, but I am getting too old now.  (He is 77.)

Over the years Spier built a large home library, particularly well-stocked with books about Israel and Jewish subjects.  He began writing articles on Jewish history, which were published in Calgary’s newspaper, the Jewish Free Press.  Subsequently, he made the file of articles available to San Diego Jewish World, which has been publishing them at the rate of two per month.

“I had done a lot of writing as a lawyer (agreements mainly), so I decided that maybe I knew something about writing, and I tried,” Spier related.  “I got better over time.”

That was a typical Spier understatement.  His article about the role Alaska Airlines played in liberating the Jews of Yemen has drawn thousands of readers, one of the most popular stories that has been carried by this publication.

Harrison is editor of San Diego Jewish World.  He may be contacted via [email protected] . Comments intended for publication in the space below must be accompanied by the letter writer’s first and last name and by his/ her city and state of residence (city and country for those outside the U.S.)





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