Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Janet Solberg: A life with meaning

“A life with meaning to repair the world.” This is the mantra of Janet Solberg. The words seem to flow from her lips as effortlessly as the air that carries them, as we walk along a busy sidewalk near her office in the heart of Toronto’s Chinatown.

We continue to chat as we enter a crowded Chinese restaurant and head straight for an empty booth at the back. She slips off her coat and quickly slides along the faded red leather bench.

“I can’t stand the disparities that exist in our society,” she says, speaking over a rattling stack of dinner plates that roll past our table on a waiter’s trolley. Her tone displays an unusual combination of intensity and compassion. “We’re one of the richest countries in the world, it’s just insane.”

Solberg is the daughter of David and Sophie Lewis. Her father is one of the architects and a former leader of Canada’s New Democratic Party. She is also the younger sister of Canadian icon Stephen Lewis. Like her father and older brothers Stephen and Michael, she chose to express her disagreement with the ‘system’ by becoming actively involved with the New Democratic Party (NDP). She is the current president of the NDP’s federal riding of Toronto-Danforth and a former president of the Ontario NDP.

“What’s interesting about the [Lewis] family is that there are a lot of families where the kids studiously avoid what their parents are doing,” says Solberg, expressing a deep-felt pride for her family’s long history of fighting for democratic socialist values. Solberg’s grandfather, Moishe Losz was a Jewish Labor activist in his native Russia. He moved his family to Canada in 1921, where he changed the family name to Lewis. “In my family it’s been generation after generation of political activism.”

Solberg grew up in a predominately Jewish neighborhood in north Toronto during the 1950’s and 60’s. She remembers her parent’s annoyance with the unchecked consumerism of the post-war era. “All my friends…their houses just got bigger and bigger. They got more and more cars in the driveway and my parents would say things like, don’t be ridiculous,” she says. “I remember my father would say to us, ‘how many beds can a person sleep in? How many cars can a person drive?’ ” She explains that her family only had one car. “And we’d say, can we have another car? And he’d look at us in complete disbelief and say, ‘what for? So share.’ ”

For Solberg, that type of progressive thinking epitomizes her parent’s commitment to not only repairing the world, but also doing something about it. But, as someone who has witnessed first hand the enormous strain and frustration associated with running as a New Democrat in this country, she is quick to point out that family ties only go so far. “It has to come from more than being loyal to ones family. It has to come from a personal commitment to making the world a better place—as a life’s job.”

She still remembers the tremendous strain that her father’s political aspirations placed on the family, particularly her mother. With David’s political career keeping him away more often than not, Sophie was often left with the difficult and lonely task of raising four children (older brothers Stephen and Michael, Janet and her twin sister Nina) alone. “When my father was home things were wonderful. We had a wonderful childhood…but there was an intensity and a loneliness that came as a result of his commitment to the party.”

As an adolescent, Solberg experienced the need to explore her Jewish heritage. Although her parents were proud Jews, they were vehemently opposed to organized religion and “God talk,” says Solberg. “ We were cultural and secular Jews, meaning: we didn’t celebrate any holidays, we didn’t go to synagogue. There was no real outward manifestation of being Jewish, other than we didn’t go to school on Jewish holidays.” She has a special memory of her father asking her what she wanted him to bring back from a business trip to New York. “I asked him to bring back a Menorah because I think I was trying to make being a Jew more concrete.”

The idea of identifying oneself as a Jew without actually doing anything Jewish was confusing for Solberg. She began to ask herself what it meant to be a Jew. “To be honest, when I was a child, I thought being a Jew was the same as being a socialist. When I first met Jews that didn’t vote NDP I thought, what planet are you from? The two were really connected in my mind.”

By the time she graduated from High School, Solberg had become interested in the Jewish socialist ideology of Labor Zionism (a left-wing belief that the Jewish state could only be created through the collected efforts of the Jewish working class to settle in Palestine). Against her parent’s wishes, the nineteen-year-old Solberg moved to Israel to live on a Kibbutz. “It was a very easy way to be a socialist and Jew,” she says.

Solberg returned to Canada with an even greater awareness and appreciation for the socialist ideals she had grown up with. “When I left Israel, when I left the Kibbutz, I realized the value of those ideals in a way that wasn’t there before.” She can remember thinking, “I don’t care about individual choice, particularly. I don’t care about consumer goods…what I really want to care about is human relationships to each other, human decency and compassion and equality.”

Although she has been told that she inherited the same sharp intellect and rigorous pragmatism of her father and older brother Stephen, Solberg differs drastically from them in her approach to career. “I never really had any career goals,” she says, without a semblance of hesitation. To her, a meaningful life has always included an emotional aspect. “The human relationship is most important. Loving someone is most important,” she says.

Her brother Michael insists that his sister could have accomplished much more than she did in terms of a career. “I’m frustrated. She could have done more. I’m sure of it,” he says. “She never climbed that ladder. Maybe it’s a lack of ambition? And yet, she could have. She’s got incredible talent.”

While Solberg’s career is not unimpressive (She served as President of the Ontario NDP in 1988 and she ran a labor arbitration firm for a short while), she admits, “In the end, I kind of hitched my star to Stephen and ended up working behind the scenes for him.” She currently works as a Community Liaison Officer for the Stephen Lewis Foundation. She is also Stephens’s main researcher and speechwriter. Michael still insists, “ She could have led an NGO, or a charity. She could have been the one to make decisions that bring change…I don’t think that she really met her potential.”

Solberg has never questioned her reluctance to follow a career path. “It was never really important to me,” she says. “It never occurred to me to plan a career. Maybe it’s a reflection of growing up as a girl in the 60’s? Also, my family had connections, so I never really had to plan. I’m not sure.” She pauses, “The only part that’s difficult for me to figure out is not so much my lack of ambition, but my need to be in a close and loving relationship—above anything else.”

She gently twirls a strand of her shoulder-length grey hair as she begins to talk about her first husband, David Solberg. They met shortly after her return from Israel while she was still only nineteen. By the time she was twenty they had moved in together. They married in 1974. “That probably had more of an impact on my life than going out to work full time,” she says.

Being part of a loving relationship has always been a necessary part of her self-identity. “I never felt completely fulfilled unless I was with someone.” Solberg isn’t sure if that is something that is as true for men as it is for women, “or whether it was putting my needs second to his, but it didn’t feel that way.” She says, “ It felt like I love this person. He was the love of my life; it’s more important than any career. So we’ll go to Toronto. Well go to England, whatever.” It is all part of her belief that, “a life with meaning has to include that emotional part. That loving part.”

David died of leukemia 1n 1986. This was a devastating blow. “When David died, I never thought I’d get over it. It cast me adrift emotionally,” she says. She moved in with her brother Michael and his wife at the time, Wendy Hughes. They had kids and Solberg quickly began to form a bond with them. Her eyes well up as she is reminded of what she calls her only regret—never having children.

“My husband didn’t really want kids,” she says, “And then when I persuaded him that it was important enough for me that we should have kids, it was taking time. There were some medical issues, his not mine, and then he got sick. So we probably would have had children had he lived.”

After David’s death, she began to seriously consider moving to Israel permanently. She went back and forth several times. “Had I been able to learn the language,” she says, “I’d probably still be there." Solberg decided to remain in Canada. But for her, life without a partner was incomplete. She struggled emotionally. Her family was supportive, but they likely never realized the full extent of her sorrow. “Because I came across as someone who is so strong and independent, my family was always more worried about Michael,” who always seemed to live under the shadow of the ultra-talented and charismatic Stephen. “They couldn’t have been more wrong,” she says.

With her husband and the hope of having children gone, she focused her attentions on the thing that mattered most—her family. “As a result, I became very close to my nieces and nephews,” says Solberg. “I know that often happens when you don’t have kids of your own. But I’m also the hub of the family in terms of personal relationships.” Her brother Michael agrees. He says, “ Janet is the glue. She is the one that keeps us in tack. She has always kept in touch with everyone. I think she’s the only one of us who could really write a family history.”

As luck would have it, Solberg eventually found a new love—Henry King. She begins to laugh as she tells the story of how they were introduced through mutual friends who thought the two would hit it off. “They approached Henry and asked him if he’d be interested in meeting someone and he said yes,” says Solberg. “ And then they came back to him and said she’s busy, she can’t meet you this summer she’s in St. Petersburg. And Henry said, ‘why would I want to meet someone who goes to Florida in the summertime?’ Except it was St. Petersburg, Russia,” she chuckles. They soon met and fell in love. They will celebrate their ten-year wedding anniversary in September.

No comments: