The Lives of Brian: a book review by Rabbi Jeffrey Cohen

August 1, 2018 by Rabbi Jeffrey Cohen
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I must begin this review with a caveat. Over the years Brian Sherman and my own life have occasionally crossed. Sometimes it was at an opening of an exhibition at Sherman Galleries (established by his wife Gene); once it was at a screening of a movie made by his son Emil (who later won an Oscar); and often just hearing about him.

To say this is a heavy book is to play not only on its weight but also to recognise the diverse life Brian has had. While the book is somewhat sequential I would argue that it has perhaps four components: Life in South Africa; family; community activism and leadership; and finally business. I have been aware of all except for the first for I did not return to Australia until 1996 long after he and Gene and their two children had settled in Australia. It was also after he and Laurence had established EquitiLink but every so often at an exhibition opening when asking Gene about Brian she would say he was off in North America with another “roadshow” (the expression describing the marketing of investments in Australia to potential investors). It required not only flair but also perseverance which was reflected in how successful EquitiLink was. Like reading about Warren Buffet it is interesting but no matter how many hints he may give the reader it is the je ne sais quoi[and that is a slight tilt to his wife Gene who has a PhD in French and has taught French in one of Sydney’s leading girls private schools] that he and his partner had which separated them from the rest of us!

His community activities were many. The three most significant were being Finance Chair of the Sydney Organising Committee for the Olympic Games which were held in Sydney in 2000.  Following the Sydney Olympics he assumes the chair of the Australian Museum and finally his other charitable activity has been his commitment to his charity Voiceless.

Reading his reminiscences on the 2000 Olympics and the 4 years preceding it when he first became involved, one wonders not only about the few pages devoted to his involvement from when he is asked in 1996 by the Minister, Michael Knight, to the conclusion of what the Olympic President described as “the best games ever”. Just as fascinating is what has been left out but one must suspect that it might be part of his papers which one would expect will eventually find their way to either the National Archives or the NSW State Library [and probably with an embargo for many years after his death].

At the end of 2000, after the sale of his business and the ending of the Olympics the Premier offers Brian Presidency of the Australian Museum Trust. His Vice President is Brian Schwartz, another South African who is CEO of Ernst and Young. Some in the museum community describe the leadership of the museum as “the Two Brians”. In his time as President he is faced with two challenges. One is still an ongoing issue for museums funded primarily by government and that is that they are an easy target when governments wish to save money. Brian was not the first President and won’t be the last to face this obstacle and still maintain a reputable and venerable institution. The other challenge of his Presidency was being alerted by Tim Flanney that artefacts were being stolen by one employee- actually thousands of specimens and artefacts- some extremely rare. Although the description of this event only takes a couple of pages it has major consequences for the Museum. During his Presidency he not only raises money, primarily from the State Government but also the Eureka prize is established for Science.

Brian, as well as his daughter Ondine, has a strong commitment to animal welfare. He establishes the charity Voiceless and he devotes a whole chapter to not only its story but that for which it stands. It reflects his values as well as those of his family.

Sprinkled through this narrative are so many pieces about his family, beginning with his parents and siblings (and others) in South Africa. Each person is met in reading this book and I am sure if he really done them justice the book would be more than twice as long.

Two stories will strike any reader of this book. First is the story, and movie, made about Brian’s uncle, Chatzkel, who lives in Lithuania and while living in the same town throughout his life has lived under a variety of types of government and in a number of countries without ever having left home. It is a powerful piece made by his nephew and son and not long after it was made its star dies at the age of 97. It was featured at the Sydney Film Festival and screened on SBS. In 2016, over 400 copies are distributed to teachers in Lithuania. To this day I remember the movie fondly.

The second family story which strikes the reader is that of Brian and Gene’s twin grandsons. Not only do Dov and Lev live in Israel (with their parents Ondine and Dror) but by the time they are four months old it has been noticed that there are problems in their development. Brian’s description of the journey not only for the parents but grandparents too could best be described as understated. It must have bordered on hell as they searched for both diagnosis and potential treatment. After searching both in Israel and North America, a diagnosis of Allan-Herndon-Dudley syndrome is given, an extremely rare male genetic disorder. The search took some eighteen months. Brian accurately describes it as “the boys, Dov and Lev, are voiceless and utterly and completely vulnerable.” To see the photographs of Brian together with the twins and their older sister, Jasmine, is heartwarming. Brian’s description of the search for a cure is moving. Part of the twins’ treatment involves Stem Cell treatment. Something seems to work for when Jasmine celebrates her Bat Mitzvah Brian does observe that while the boys may not be cured, they are happy and interact with family and while they are in motorized electric pushbikes and can communicate by touching picture symbols on a tablet.

I may not describe this book as a page turner but Brian’s narrative definitely kept me involved. I hope that each person who picks up this book will have as good an experience.

Brian Sherman with AM Jonson

Melbourne University Press 2018 322 pp $49.99 RRP

Rabbi Jeffrey Cohen is Associate Professor, School of Medicine (Sydney Campus), Notre Dame Australia. He has been CEO of the Sydney Jewish Museum and Visiting Senior Research Fellow at UNSW Sydney

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