In Honour of Sylvia Lustgarten

Obituary Written by Cantor Ella Gladstone Martin
Photo credit: Michael Glassman
Sylvia Lustgarten: Yiddishist. Activist. Artist. Ageless. Born June 15, 1926, in Montreal; died June 9, 2023, in Toronto, following a major cardiac event.
Two weeks ago, (my relative) Sylvia Lustgarten died, six days shy of her 97th Birthday.
She was a force to be reckoned with.
Sylvia Lustgarten (née Bat Sheva Segal) was born to immigrant parents. Her mother, Elka, and father, famed Yiddish poet J. I. Segal, were born in what was then Russia and is now Eastern Ukraine. She had two sisters, Charna, who died at age eight from Diphtheria, and Annette, who, to quote Sylvia’s eldest son, Jacob, was “her lifelong best friend.”
Sylvia married her loving husband Peter in 1950. The pair, both social workers, were dedicated to leaving the world a better place.
After receiving her bachelor’s degree at Sir George Williams College (now Concordia University) and a master’s in social work from McGill University, Sylvia received several scholarships to study at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts under Group of Seven member Arthur Lismer.
When Sylvia and Peter moved to Toronto, Sylvia actively participated in the city’s arts and Yiddish scenes. She arranged and taught various art classes, led free, intergenerational Yiddish study groups, and directed the Committee for Yiddish at the Toronto Jewish Congress.
Though she formally retired in her mid 60’s, Sylvia remained staunchly committed to helping marginalized groups such as the elderly and the disabled and initiated a task force that established assisted living apartments for people with disabilities.
In May of 2021, Sylvia was recognized as one of 16 over 61 by the Wechsler Center for Modern Aging for cofounding the Ageless International Film Festival. A pay-what-you-can film festival aimed at dismantling ageism, Ageless was Sylvia’s brainchild. At their regular Shabbat dinners together as a family, she would (my mom), Judy Gladstone, the sister of Sylvia’s daughter-in-law, about her lofty goal to start a film festival that celebrates seniors in all their complexity. At first, Judy, who has had an award-winning career in the film industry, joked that Toronto already has too many film festivals. Then the pandemic hit. Over 70 percent of Canada’s COVID-19 deaths occurred among those 80 and older. Alarming information about the treatment of Canadian nursing home residents has been available for years, but when the coronavirus ravaged long-term care facilities, people finally seemed to take notice. It became clear to Sylvia and Judy that something had to be done, and thus, the Ageless International Film Festival was born. The organization was founded in 2020, and its third iteration will launch this November. Each film in the festival is curated explicitly for audiences of all ages to shatter stereotypes about older adults.
No one defied more stereotypes about seniors than Sylvia, who was energetic, quick-witted, and lucid until her death. From her deathbed, Sylvia suggested to her son Abba that they “compile a list of her accomplishments.” As quoted by her son, sandwiched between “helped two women get abortions at a time when they were not readily available and supported them through the process” and being “actively engaged in translating works of Yiddish women writers,” Sylvia was proud to recall how she “alienated many people.”
In the words of her son Jacob: “Sylvia will be deeply missed by those who knew her and by those she spoke for who may not have known her.” Sylvia’s legacy of taking no prisoners on her quest for societal betterment will surely live on.
Cantor Ella Gladstone Martin
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