A still from The Rabbi Goes West: one of Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Chaim Bruk’s goals is to see a mezuzah on the door of every Jewish home in Montana.
In their documentary The Rabbi Goes West, filmmakers Gerald Peary and Amy Geller have succeeded in a difficult task – providing a balanced, respectful and entertaining glimpse into what happens in a state with a small, minimally affiliated Jewish community when Chabad-Lubavitch arrives.
A branch of Chassidism, Chabad-Lubavitch was started some 250 years ago in White Russia, in what is now Belarus. After the Holocaust, the movement began its outreach in earnest, trying to reach non-religious and unaffiliated Jews almost literally everywhere in the world. There are now approximately 5,000 Chabad emissaries in more than 90 countries.
While emissaries may receive some seed funding to start a new centre, they must raise their own funds to stay active. In 2006, Chabad Rabbi Chaim Bruk ventured from Brooklyn, N.Y. – Chabad headquarters is in Crown Heights – to Bozeman, Mont., to scout it out. Encouraged by the growing population and the amount of tourism, Bruk returned to Crown Heights to get the OK to set up a centre there. Given the green light, he and his wife Chavie did just that in 2007. The rabbi’s goal? To ensure that every one of Montana’s 2,000 Jewish families has a mezuzah on their door. One of the ways in which he makes headway on this task is by traveling all over the state, asking safe-looking strangers (who are the vast majority, he says) whether there are any Jews in the area and then, when he finds them, boldly introducing himself and his purpose.
As charming and open as Bruk seems, his presence, the ultra-Orthodox Judaism to which Chabad adheres and the movement’s expansionist mission – two more Chabad centres have opened since the Bruks arrived – are not universally welcomed by the Montana Jewish community. The Rabbi Goes West includes interviews with fellow rabbis Francine Roston (the first Conservative woman rabbi to lead a large congregation), who came to Montana from New Jersey in 2014; Allen Secher (co-founder of Chicago’s first Jewish Renewal congregation), who came to Montana after he retired in 2000 but retook the bimah when he found out he was the only rabbi in the state at the time; and Ed Stafman (a former trial lawyer), who came to the state from Florida. The film also includes commentary from local Jews from all four congregations.
While Bruk has limited involvement with the other congregations and rarely, if ever, joins their events – he contends that most of them violate some aspect of Judaism, such as the laws of kashrut, for example – the Jewish community does unite, along with other religious and secular groups and individuals in the state, when faced with neo-Nazi threats and cyberattacks.
The Rabbi Goes West is a documentary well worth seeing, both for its content and the way in which that content is presented. Sponsored by the Vancouver Jewish Film Centre, it screens at the Vancouver International Film Festival Oct. 7, 6:30 p.m., at Cinémathèque, and Oct. 8, 11:30 a.m., at International Village 10. For the full festival lineup, visit viff.org.
In an interview with the CBC last week, federal Green party leader Elizabeth May was asked who her personal hero is. She responded, “Jesus Christ.” Almost immediately, she apologized, saying that she had responded while failing to “self-edit.”
Canadians, by and large, are not so open to publicly discussing matters like religion, politics or other things that could be perceived as controversial. But political leaders should be prepared to discuss things in their lives that have shaped them. In fact, religion seems likely to be more central in this election than it has been in decades.
New Democratic Party leader Jagmeet Singh felt compelled to address his religion in an ad (notably aimed at Quebec voters) about how his identity as a Sikh influences his worldview.
While Quebec’s Bill 21, which bans the display of religious symbolism in the public service, means Singh would not be permitted to teach in the province or hold certain roles in the civil service, he managed to finesse the issue quite neatly. He found a sort of common ground by acknowledging that Bill 21 is an effort by Quebecers to protect and preserve their identity, the importance of which he acknowledged paralleled his own pride in his identity and the importance it holds in his life.
Over the weekend, he also managed to continue discussing the topic while having a few laughs, which rarely hurts. Singh, who has struggled to connect with voters in the pre-election period, may come out of this round a winner by making Quebec voters and other Canadians take a good look at him for the first time.
Meanwhile, Liberals are trying to portray Conservative party leader Andrew Scheer as having a hidden agenda, based on his Catholic religious beliefs, on issues like reproductive freedom and equal marriage.
Scheer and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, both Catholics, have taken similar approaches, asserting that their religious views will not dictate party or government policies. However, there is probably a different calculation being made on each side. Trudeau’s policies are probably more liberal than the teachings of his church, so segmenting the two prevents an undesirable schism with his church. Scheer is probably calculating that his beliefs in the teachings of his church are not shared by the majority of voters; therefore, segregating his political and religious positions may have a hint of political expediency. In both cases, Trudeau and Scheer have been vague and both have attempted to move past the topic. (This is tougher for Scheer, whose grassroots supporters, in many cases, are more religiously conservative than the average voter. Working on not alienating them while courting middle-of-the-road voters places him in a bit of a bind.)
The reticence by Trudeau and Scheer to enthusiastically discuss their religious views, and May’s odd flip-flop on Jesus, may be a consequence of a root misunderstanding around the separation of church and state: the concept is that religious institutions should not unduly influence, or be influenced by, governments. It does not mean that individual elected officials should neuter their religious views as they cross the threshold into the legislature. If one’s deeply held religious beliefs and values are what make up a person’s identity, worldview and morality, these are things that should very much be on the table for people seeking the public’s trust. By example, there is plenty in biblical literature that May could have cited as motivators for her environmental priorities. That kind of openness would be refreshing. Singh tried it. We’ll see what happens.
If religious adherence is an important part of who a candidate is, it would be nice to think that they would not be embarrassed or shy to share these perspectives with us. Canadians would perhaps understand our leaders better – including when they say that they personally believe one thing but would not legislate it on the country, which is an entirely legitimate position.
What likely makes voters suspicious or skeptical is when a politician seems to be hiding something, is ambiguous about how their beliefs might guide policy positions, or is ashamed of who they are.
Harriet Frost performs at Jacob’s Ladder Festival in Israel last May. (photo from Harriet Frost)
How best to describe Harriet Frost’s music? “Impressionistic poetry, witty wordplay, music that is intimate and universal,” is what CBC Radio had to say. “Folk rock with a jazz funk twist,” read another recent write-up ahead of a performance at the renowned Jacob’s Ladder Festival in Israel this May.
“My music explores personal, topical, political and spiritual landscapes. They can be humorous, joyful, painful, ironic, beautiful and not so beautiful. It’s poetry, folk, jazz, rock, spoken word, ancient and postmodern,” she says in her own words.
What is not open to interpretation is that the Vancouver singer, songwriter and musician has had a busy spring and summer. In addition to her Israeli performance, she has been organizing local house concerts in town and working on a new album.
Music is an integral part of what she does outside of being on stage or in a studio, as well. Her work at the Louis Brier Home and Hospital has shown the therapeutic effects music has on people regardless of their age. “You can reach people, even those in deep states of dementia, through music,” she said. Frost also teaches Judaic studies, trains youth and adults to chant from Torah, and has been exploring cantorial music.
The Israel connection
Jacob’s Ladder is more than a music festival to Frost – it is the title of a song she wrote and dedicated to her father, who escaped Nazi Germany for Palestine in 1939. He witnessed the birth of the Israeli state in his decade living there. The song is featured in the Lucy McCauly documentary film Facing the Nazi Era.
Canada ultimately became home for the Frost family, yet the connection with Israel remained. When it was time for university, Harriet chose four years at Hebrew University in Jerusalem – a student by day and a musician playing in the cafés at night. She was the musical director of the groundbreaking theatre troupe, the Gypsies, made up of Palestinian, Israeli and North American artists who performed peace-themed musicals for Israeli and Palestinian youth. Her personal musical biography is so resonant with Israeli content that when a friend told her last year about Jacob’s Ladder and urged her to look into it, she couldn’t resist. The invitation from its organizers came a few months later.
Founded in 1976, Jacob’s Ladder is the longest and most established music festival in Israel, featuring a wide selection of folk genres and international music presented each spring and fall. Located in the north, on the Sea of Galilee, Frost said her first feeling upon arrival was like being at the Vancouver Folk Festival at Jericho Beach Park, due to the proximity to the water.
“It was 45 degrees,” she recalled. “I had no idea what to expect. When I was first introduced as a Vancouverite and the only Canadian performing at the festival this year, people started cheering. It was so welcoming and fantastic.”
She played in an air-conditioned 250-seat hall filled to capacity with an audience comprised of Americans, Israelis, Europeans, Canadians and fellow musicians “of all ages,” she said, “teenagers, families with kids, millennials, a full arc of generations.”
At the Ginosar Kibbutz and Hotel, which hosts the famous event, she met numerous performers who had come to the festival and were playing music in the hotel lobby between their own sets. It was an extraordinary opportunity to connect with some of the country’s most notable folk musicians, she said.
Concerts and album
Through November and beyond, along with other venues, Frost is organizing a series of house concerts, given the positive response to one she held in April in advance of her Jacob’s Ladder appearance. As the name suggests these are concerts hosted in someone’s home, where, according to Frost, “musicians have an opportunity to present their original material in a concert situation, unlike in a café or club where folks may be eating, drinking and socializing.
“There is an intimate concert vibe that is created in the home. You have the freedom to play a full night’s worth of material and really connect with a small audience (between 30 and 50). People attend specifically to listen to new music.” Currently, Frost has been collaborating at these concerts with Vancouver multi-instrumentalist Martin Gotfrit.
And a new album is in the works. Working title: Jacob’s Ladder.
For more information about the album and upcoming concerts, visit harrietfrost.com.
Sam Margolishas written for the Globe and Mail, the National Post, UPI and MSNBC.
Stan Shear has been on countless stages with figures Benjy, Jasper and his original puppet, Danny, now retired at the Vent Haven Museum in Fort Mitchell, Ky. (photo from Stan Shear)
To walk into Stan Shear’s studio at his Oakridge home is to take both a step back and a step forward in time. A portrait of a penny-farthing hangs on the wall, old manuscripts and books line the shelves, yet in among the memorabilia is the technology he believes will connect the past with the future.
Shear is launching My Audio Memories (myaudiomemories.com), a project in which he takes recordings – some made in his studio, others that may have been passed down within a family – and combines them into a high-quality MP3 file on a USB stick.
His service is directed at private individuals and, because it is based in his home, he can create recordings at a cost far below those of commercial services.
The process is straightforward but requires a seasoned hand to deal with the production side, which, with decades of musical and engineering experience behind him, Shear offers.
First, you would go to his studio with stories you would like to record, along with any other audio files or recordings you might already have. These are then mixed together with various inputs and accompaniments – i.e., music and other sound effects – to capture the perfect backing for the end result. Finally comes the mastering, the stage that distinguishes a professional from an amateur recording.
“I can bring a recording to the highest level with the resources and experience I have to create a unique sound that will bring out all the hidden qualities of a person’s talents and make them come alive,” said Shear.
The cost of an individual project will vary depending on the amount of production involved.
The man behind the sound
Born in Pretoria, South Africa, Shear was a well-known pianist in his younger days. He appeared on SABC (South Africa’s national radio) on several occasions and, at the age of 19, performed the Beethoven C minor Concerto with the Johannesburg Symphony Orchestra. Playing in concert halls around the country during his youth, he later became a licentiate in music.
At the same time, he studied electrical engineering at the University of Johannesburg, earning his master’s and doctor’s degrees, and specialized in information systems, working mainly on hospital communications systems. He would later teach information systems at the University of Cape Town until his retirement.
Shear, who came to Vancouver in 2004, remains a versatile entertainer and keeps a busy schedule. He plays a number of other musical instruments – guitar, harmonica, piano accordion and ukulele – and has had an active career as a singer, performing in solo concerts and singing with choirs.
In 1976, while still in South Africa, he became fascinated with ventriloquism after discovering a book at the library. Since then, he has been on countless stages, including the International Puppet Festival in Israel, with figures Benjy, Jasper and his original puppet, Danny, now retired at the Vent Haven Museum in Fort Mitchell, Ky. (See stanshear.com.)
He also has been officiating as a chazzan for 40 years, both in South Africa and Canada.
Together with his wife Karon, he is a practitioner of auditory integration training (AIT), a method for improving listening and cognitive skills. Their processes are used to help overcome learning disabilities and improve foreign language skills.
Shear has woven his own story into his new project. He divides his account into three periods, starting with his early, formative years, devoted to growing up, schooling and other events that shaped his life. This is followed by his post-secondary education and early career, and includes extracts from concerts and broadcasts.
The third stage comprises Shear’s mid-career to the present, a “mature” but nonetheless very fruitful time, with musical performances, ventriloquist shows and the My Audio Memories project, as well as his positive views on the future, as he sees it, in his senior years.
“I am following this up with a separate project of my memories of my parents, including recordings that I’m fortunate to have of my mom and dad and members of their families talking, singing and playing the piano,” said Shear. “My mom’s family were very musical and I’m lucky to have these recordings made on an early tape recorder by my dad, and transcripts of my dad’s memoirs, which he wrote.”
Sam Margolishas written for the Globe and Mail, the National Post, UPI and MSNBC.
National Council of Jewish Women of Canada, Vancouver section, members. Seated, left to right, are Lisa Boroditsky, Jill Kipnis and Sandi Hazan Switzer. Standing are Heather Sirlin, left, and Jane Stoller. (photo from NCJWC Vancouver)
Members of National Council of Jewish Women of Canada, Vancouver section, have been busy close to home, not only supporting various initiatives for disadvantaged children in local schools – Books for Kids, HIPPY, Operation Dressup, and hygiene and nutrition school programs – but learning more about the Jewish history of the city.
On Sept. 8, more than 25 people participated in a sold-out walk through the “old city” of Vancouver, organized by Lisa Boroditsky, Jane Stoller and Sandi Hazan Switzer. Participants were enthralled by the stories of Harry Hammer, by the geographical and architectural details, to say nothing of the oral history of horse-drawn carts, family stores and tales of running to the bus for cheder.
NCJWC members also worked nationally, supporting successful efforts by CIJA (Center for Israel and Jewish Affairs) to get Parliament to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism; and internationally, issuing a call to action to participate in the campaign to free human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, who has been imprisoned in Iran’s Evin prison since June 2018.
In May of this year, Prof. Irwin Cotler, chair of the Raoul Wallenberg Institute in Montreal, addressed the executive of the International Council of Jewish Women on the issue of human rights. He made a compelling case for participation in the campaign to free Sotoudeh, sentenced to 38 years and 148 lashes in Iran because of her work defending women’s rights. She has been imprisoned four times since 2010.
Freedom of expression and peaceful assembly are integral to ensuring rule of law and the functions of democracy; they are fundamental principles clearly defined in international law and they are the inherent right of all people. These two democratic themes were betrayed in 2018 when, as part of peaceful protests, some women removed their hijabs and waved them like flags and then were prosecuted for this behaviour. For defending these women, Sotoudeh has been unjustly imprisoned.
The International Council of Jewish Women executive voted to support Cotler’s recommendation and Debby Altow, vice-president for Canada on this executive, circulated a backgrounder and sample letter of protest for 33 affiliates worldwide. Both email and postal addresses for United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres and UN Commissioner Michelle Bachelet, were distributed, making such protest letters easier to submit. For more about Sotoudeh and NCJW Vancouver section, visit ncjwvancouver.org.
Left to right: Nicole Encarnacion, Ruthie Shugarman and Lisa Ford. (photo from Louis Brier Home and Hospital)
This summer, the Louis Brier Home and Hospital celebrated the transformation of part of its outdoor space into a place of beauty and quiet.
On the morning of June 30, the wider community came out to support the Louis Brier Home and Hospital’s community of residents living with dementia. The special care unit, which is home for 17 residents who live with severe dementia, has its own outdoor space for the residents and their families. Dubbed the “secret garden,” this space has been tended by residents’ families and, now, thanks to the vision and support of local realtor Ruthie Shugarman, it received a major overhaul.
The project was spearheaded by former master gardener Lisa Ford, who visits her mother, Laura Ford, a five-year resident of Louis Brier, several times a week. Since her mother moved into the special care unit two-and-a-half years ago, Ford has been planting and caring for the space. With Shugarman’s help, the private courtyard has become a welcoming space for families to spend time together with dementia-friendly design components recommended by the Louis Brier’s nursing lead, Nicole Encarnacion.
One of Tag Meir’s annual events is Flowers of Peace. Participants hand out roses on the streets of the Old City in Jerusalem on Jerusalem Day. This year, they gave out some 2,000 flowers as a message of peace to Muslims and Christians in the city. (photo from Tag Meir)
To counter what Tag Meir head Gadi Gvaryahu described as incitement by radical settlers through Tag Mechir (Price Tagging), Tag Meir (Light Tagging) was formed.
Tag Meir, which started in 2011, is operated by members of the same segment of religious Zionistic Judaism that started price tagging (attacking Palestinian property and people) in 2009. Members of Tag Meir started visiting victims on both sides of the conflict in an effort to show solidarity and repair physical and psychological damage.
Today, Tag Meir is supported by many organizations and institutions in Israel from all segments of Jewish society – secular, Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews – coming together to stand against hate and intolerance.
Though he now lives in Rehovot, Gvaryahu still considers Jerusalem home. He is the eighth generation of his family to live there.
Gvaryahu was deeply affected by the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the fact that the killer had come from his segment of religious Zionism, Kippot Srugot (Knitted Kippot). He decided he had to put his passion for helping animals aside – he is a farm animal behavioural researcher by training – to find ways to mend Israeli society.
“I decided it’s about time to be more involved in public business – not politics, but more education,” said Gvaryahu. “Me and a few other families initiated a synagogue, an Orthodox synagogue in Rehovot, named after Yitzhak Rabin.”
Gvaryahu realized there was something wrong with the education system when he received a call from the head of his son’s yeshivah, demanding his son apologize for an outburst.
“Six months after Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, a famous rabbi came to my son’s school,” recalled Gvaryahu. “He said that now, with Rabin dead, all his bad things were forgiven. And he didn’t even mention that he was murdered. He just treated him like someone who’d sinned a lot, talking to the whole synagogue, like 400 students, including the head of the synagogue … and they were all silent, except one person – my son.
“My son said, ‘How dare you say that? He just passed away! And, how dare you say that he has sins? He was killed, murdered!’ Then, he left the room, crying.”
When the rosh yeshivah called, Gvaryahu commended his son’s actions and said, “This rabbi should apologize. I’m not going to ask my son to apologize.”
Eventually, they consulted a leading rabbi who declared that Gvaryahu’s son “did a wonderful job and there’s no reason for him to apologize.”
It was at that point that Gvaryahu decided they needed to start their own school.
The first time that Israelis heard the term “Price Tag” in the context of payback was in December 2009. It was dubbed so by a small group of extreme right-wing West Bank settlers who had begun indiscriminately attacking Palestinians.
Gvaryahu explained the psychology behind it: “Something happened to us by Palestinians, by the army, by politicians, whatever … someone will pay the price. The thinking is, we don’t care that you’re innocent, we don’t care that you are Christian, Muslim…. You’re not Jewish, you’ll pay the price. We’ll burn, damage your mosque, your house, your car, your olive trees, and that’s called, ‘Price Tag,’ happening almost daily in the West Bank. Most of them, we don’t hear about. But, after a terror attack by Muslims, unfortunately, we have a bunch of them in the last two months … there’s been attacks by extreme settlers.”
While Tag Mechir destroys, Tag Meir aims to rebuild and bring light. “So, we call the people, the victims, in hospitals, villages, wherever, mosques, monasteries or churches, and we create a solidarity visit,” said Gvaryahu.
“Over the years, we’ve gained many, many Jewish, Christian and Muslim friends, and that’s very important. It’s important, because it’s a correct response to that crime, because they want to create terror or fear, especially among Muslims and Christians. So, those visits strengthen the relationship between Jews and Muslims and Christians. We have three Facebook pages – one in Hebrew, one in Arabic and one in English – with 35,000 followers.”
People in Israel not connected to Tag Meir have started solidarity visits by themselves, aiming to mend fences with Palestinian neighbours. “First, you know, I’m happy about Tag Meir,” Gvaryahu said about this development. “Second, that they get that this is the right way to respond to a hate crime or a price tag attack – it’s wonderful. It’s what we want to happen.
“This isn’t something that can be solved quickly. It’s education. We try to educate society, especially the Zionist society, we hope.”
This year, due to the rise in Tag Mechir attacks, Tag Meir held an education symposium on Sept. 10 at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, near the home of the president of Israel, Reuven Rivlin. Among the speakers were the former head of the Israeli security agency, Shin Bet, Yaakov Peri, senior rabbis from different segments of society, and the mother of one of the Jewish victims of terror, Sarah Rosenfeld.
“Her son [Malachi Moshe] was murdered and she will give her strong condemning opinion about ‘price tag,’” said Gvaryahu prior to the symposium. “When we came to visit the Rosenfeld family, she said that, if Malachi would be with us, he would join Tag Meir.
“This is very unique about Tag Meir, that we visit both settlers and victims of Tag Mechir on the Palestinian side. It’s not that pleasant an activity sometimes, but we feel it’s very important.”
One of the yearly events Tag Meir hosts is a flower giveaway called Flowers of Peace. They go out into the streets of the Old City in Jerusalem on Jerusalem Day and hand out roses. “This year, we spread 2,000 flowers all over the Old City,” said Gvaryahu. “It’s a symbolic act, sending a message of peace to Muslims and Christians in Jerusalem.”
While Gvaryahu said 40% of the people in Jerusalem are Muslim, Jerusalem Day is only celebrated by the Jewish population. He said some of the songs that are traditionally sung must irritate the Muslim population. “Unfortunately, we don’t celebrate it, in our opinion, in the right way,” he said. “We just march with Israeli flags from West Jerusalem to the Western Wall through the market. Not all the songs are horrible, but a few of them are. So, this is our response. We march with Flowers of Peace.”
Left to right: Lucien, Grisha, Carole, Leanne and Svetlana at the airport in Kiev, Ukraine. (photo from Carole Lieberman)
My husband Lucien, our daughter Leanne and I recently traveled to Kiev, Ukraine, to meet Lucien’s first cousin and his family for the first time.
History has an interesting way of unfolding. Lucien’s father was one of 10 children born in Russia. The oldest daughter Sophie immigrated to Canada in 1912, to marry a farmer living in Rumsey, Alta. In 1923, Lucien’s grandparents, along with four of their children, including Lucien’s father Leo, made the cross-Atlantic journey from Russia to Alberta. Sadly, in 1927, their daughter Lucy, for whom Lucien was named, ended her life there at age 25 and, in another tragedy, their daughter Sophie, mother of five young children, was widowed.
Shortly after these tragedies, their daughter Manya chose to return to Russia on her own. And, in 1928, the grandparents were determined to return to Russia. And so, in November of that year, two brothers – Leo Lieberman, 33, and Sam Lieberman, 29 – embraced at the Calgary CPR station. Sam was escorting their parents back to Russia. Since their parents were in their 60s and were considered elderly, they could not manage the trip on their own. Sam expected to return to Canada once their parents were settled in Kharkov, but he never did. The brothers’ last words were about Leo’s new winter coat. “Leo, I like your coat. Where I am going you can’t find such a coat.” So, the brothers exchanged garments. They did not meet again until 1966, when Leo and his wife Clara went to the Soviet Union to try and find family.
Lucien grew up in Calgary aware that his parents had both left large families in the Soviet Union and that the Second World War had devastated those families. Sam’s story was tragic. He worked in Moscow in the 1930s as a translator. When the war came, he was taken into the army and survived four years in combat roles. He was wounded and, in 1946, he was arrested, charged and tried for the offence of being “anti-social to the regime” and sent to the Gulag, where he laboured for 10 years in a camp beyond the Arctic Circle. After Stalin’s death, Sam was discharged and allowed to return to his city of last residence, Chernivtsi in the Ukraine. There, at the age of 57, Sam married a younger woman and fathered a son, Gregory (Grisha).
The next generation of family in Canada always knew about Uncle Sam and Cousin Grisha. We had heard that Grisha lived in Madagan, which is closer to Anchorage than to Moscow. Decades passed without any contact but finally, in 2016, we learned that Grisha, his wife Svetlana and their two children were living in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine. We met our new cousins on Skype in 2017 and began to catch up on decades of this lost connection.
Grisha and Svetlana’s son, Stanislaus Lieberman, is married to Natasha, has a 2-year-old daughter and is a lawyer in Kiev. Their daughter,
Tatiana Lieberman, affectionately called Tinotchka, is known throughout Ukraine as Tina Karol (tinakarol.com). Tina is a renowned singer who represented Ukraine in the 2006 Eurovision competition at age 21. She is the “face of Ukraine,” with billboard ads throughout Kiev for Huawei and many cosmetic companies, and has the largest fan club in all of Ukraine. Her 10-year-old son Veniamin attends school in England and returns to Kiev frequently. Tragically, Tina’s husband, Eugeny Ogir, who was her manager, died in 2013 at the age of 33, shortly after being diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer.
Grisha speaks a reasonable amount of English and, thanks to Google Translate, we communicated well. We came to feel very close to our cousins after many Skype visits and plans were made to visit. There was no discussion – they insisted that we stay with them in their apartment so we would really get to know one another. It certainly was not our custom to stay with people we had never met in their two-bedroom, 1.5-bathroom apartment for eight nights but the visit was incredibly memorable and very special. Days before our arrival, Svetlana wrote that “they were trembling with anticipation.” We felt the same.
Our daughter Leanne, a teacher and a published author, met us at the airport in Kiev. We were welcomed at the airport with a “Lieberman” sign and the warmest hugs and happiest tears. Throughout the visit and several times every day, Grisha would grab Lucien, hug and kiss him, saying, “You are my dear cousin.” Despite the 18-year age difference, there was a very strong cousin connection between the two men, cemented further by the traditional home-cooked Ukrainian food that we were so generously fed each day. We awoke to the smell of kreplach, borscht, haluptsi, cheese latkes and potato pancakes prepared by Svetlana and we enjoyed eating delicacies such as forshmuk, a chopped white fish salad. It was food that was so reminiscent of what Lucien’s mother had prepared for him when he was growing up in Calgary. We all laughed together when we were offered barbecued “kitchen.”
Our entire week was planned in advance and included not only family visits and meals, but a visit to a wonderful Ukrainian folk dance show at a huge auditorium where we were seated in the president’s box, welcomed with a champagne reception and presented with traditional Ukrainian outfits for Vishivanka, all arranged by Tina. Tina’s driver took us to a 26-acre monastery for a private tour and we were taught how to make varenikes in a private master class at lunch.
We gained a good sense of Tina’s personal life when we visited her stunning home and gardens, complete with a 24-hour armed security guard. Tina’s fans adore her and swarm her when they see her out in public.
Kiev is a stunning city, with the Dneiper River running from north to south. The climate is warm in spring and the air is often beautifully fragrant with the scent of acacia trees, stronger in the morning and in the evening when we all strolled along the river. It has beautiful kashtana (chestnut) and lilac trees and a number of impressive bridges and lookouts. There are many parks, huge squares and an excellent subway system, accessed with the longest imaginable escalators. Like so many cities, it has far too much traffic (propka).
Tina arranged a private guided tour of Babi Yar for us with an English-speaking local woman. Babi Yar is now a beautiful treed park approximately a kilometre square in the northwest outskirts of Kiev. On Sept. 29, 1941, Nazi troops rounded up Kiev’s 34,000 strong Jewish community and massacred them all within 48 hours. Victims were shot and buried in the ravine. The Nazis then rounded up the local Romany people and residents of mental hospitals and extended the killing. During the two-year Nazi occupation, more than 100,000 bodies were dumped into the Babi Yar ravine. When the Red Army recaptured the city in 1943, there were only 80,000 people in Kiev, one-tenth of its former population.
Today, there is little evidence of a deep ravine, only undulating terrain. There are numerous monuments, some remembering the many children killed, several with Hebrew inscriptions, and a beautiful bronze wagon, which depicts a typical Roma caravan. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Ukrainian government invited the state of Israel to erect a monument, which was done in the form of a large menorah. Babi Yar is possibly the most prominent site representing the Holocaust in the former Soviet Union.
During the week that we were in Kiev, a new president was sworn in. With Svetlana, we watched the televised inauguration of President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, a 41-year-old former comedian and the first Ukrainian president with a Jewish background, and we loved seeing Svetlana proudly sing the national anthem, in tears.
We visited Maidan, the central square of the city, saw the parliament buildings and surrounding Marinsky Park. We toured a fascinating military museum, visited an old synagogue and were taken to the famous opera house, where we thoroughly enjoyed seeing the ballet.
Every day was full of memorable moments. We spent several evenings sharing family photos – it was fascinating to see photos of us from the 1970s and ’80s, which were mailed to them by my in-laws and other relatives before we lost contact. We laughed, hugged, cried and shared stories, always with “Grishinke” grabbing and kissing “Lucienke” and proudly saying, “you are my cousin.” Together Grisha and Lucien enjoyed shemiskes, aka sunflower seeds, that only people who were raised by siblings would enjoy the same way.
We celebrated our last night together at a beautiful restaurant overlooking the river and marveled that the restaurant, like many other quality restaurants, had an excellent playroom where Stanislaus’s daughter Vesta played while we dined.
When we finally hugged everyone goodbye and thanked them for a visit that exceeded every expectation, Grisha responded, “I am the son of Sam.”
In 1951, after spending five years in the Gulag, a fellow prisoner was released and Sam asked him to please send a letter to his brother Leo informing him that he was still alive, giving him the address – Leo Lieberman, Calgary, Alberta, Canada. When the man was able to mail the letter, he omitted “Calgary” and the letter ended up in the Edmonton post office. The letter was sent to a Mr. Lieberman in Edmonton by a caring employee and was subsequently forwarded to Leo Lieberman in Calgary.
Carole Lieberman, a longtime Vancouver resident, is originally from Montreal. She is a mother of three, grandmother of four, and has enjoyed selling Vancouver real estate for almost 30 years.
The author took refuge from the perils of the streets by joining a kibbutz as a volunteer. (photo from Victor Neuman)
In this eight-part series, the author recounts his life in Israel around the time of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. The events and people described are real but, for reasons of privacy, the names are fictitious.
Before the War: Part 1
“The bomb shelters can no longer be used as discotheques.”
It was Oct. 6, 1973. Gidon, our kibbutz commander, was announcing that we were under attack and giving us our preparation instructions, including the immediate clearing out of bomb shelters for use in the event of air attack.
Syria had overrun the Golan defences and Egypt was pouring into the Sinai. I was in disbelief over the whole thing. Last year, I was writing my master’s thesis, analyzing Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. Now I could be writing something more like Warfare: A Tourist’s Guide. How had my life gone so abruptly from pondering literature to pondering existence?
There’s an expression Israelis use: “I could sell you.” In other words, you are ripe for the plucking and I could easily take advantage.
When I arrived in Israel on my first trip, in 1968, I was totally pluckable. No knowledge of Hebrew. No knowledge of the country. No tour group guide to protect me. All I had was my curiosity about this country that had recently achieved a stunning victory in the Six Day War. I think that event had caught the attention of many like myself, and there was a huge influx of tourists and volunteers to visit this remarkable place.
I was bought and sold in the streets of Tel Aviv. Simply buying a prickly pear fruit was fraught with fraud.
“One-and-a-half lira please,” the street vendor told me. I paid him and started walking away. Then an Israeli stepped up to the stand.
“One-and-a-half lira please.”
This time, the buyer was having none of it. “Yes, one-and-a-half lira, but you’ll take 75 grush.” Leaving no opportunity for a response, he paid what he wanted and took the fruit. I had just paid double for the same thing.
At another time, I tried to be smarter. I needed to change my German marks into Israeli money. I was aware there was a black market for foreign currency and the street usually offered better rates than the bank. It didn’t take long to find a dealer. They can smell a tourist a mile away. One came up to me asking if I had foreign currency to change. I asked him what rate he was offering for German marks. He gave me a number that sounded pretty good and we agreed on a transaction. I handed over the Deutschmarks – he could have bolted but he was an older guy and I figured I could outrun him if I had to.
He took my money and began counting out Israeli currency. I thought there was something odd about the way he wrapped the money around one finger as he flipped the bills and counted them out to me. Later, when he was long gone, I recounted what he gave me and found I was several bills short. He had flipped the bills so that he had ended up counting the same ones twice and giving me less than we had agreed upon. In the end, I was “sold” again and had even less than I would have gotten at the bank.
You never really lose at these things because they always come with lessons. In most cases, you win some and you learn some. The only time you really lose is when misfortune befalls you and you’re sleeping through class.
I took refuge from the perils of the streets by joining a kibbutz near Haifa as a volunteer. Kibbutzim are basically communal societies where all wealth, housing and equipment are owned by the collective. Material perks like TVs or stereos are doled out on a seniority basis. No one – even those running the place – has any real power over others or more wealth than others. The top jobs are considered something to be avoided. You have all the responsibility and headaches of administering the mess without any particular rewards. In my experience, a kibbutznik generally takes the top job when it is their turn in the rotation and they simply can’t get out of it. Socialism in its purest form and no commissar overlords.
Kibbutz life was good. Nobody tried to rob me and, in return for picking grapefruit and oranges, I got accommodation, food, Hebrew lessons and free tours of the countryside. Sometimes, on my days off, I went further afield.
One of those forays was particularly memorable. My girlfriend, Suzanne, was a kibbutz volunteer from Paris and together we decided to attend Independence Day celebrations in Jerusalem. We booked a hotel room in the Arab quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City and thought about our plans for the evening. The debated options were hanging out in the room or going to the cinema to take in a movie that was a modern American take on Romeo and Juliet. Romance won the day and we left for the movie. The movie was mediocre. Things back at the hotel were less so.
When we got back, we were met by police and the hotel manager. The manager apologized for the inconvenience but we were being moved to another room and could we please collect our luggage from the original room. The sight of our old room was amazing. It was all sparkly. The windows were gone and every horizontal surface was covered with dust. Someone had set off a bomb in the alleyway outside our room.
You might think that a bomb blast would send great shards of glass flying across the room. A blast close by doesn’t. Instead, it pulverizes the glass into a fine dust and that’s what is blown across the room. Objectively speaking, the room looked beautiful – like a fantasy bed chamber decorated in fine diamonds. In reality, we were shaken, as we carefully swept the glass from our bags and began hauling them to our new room on the opposite side of the hotel. It was nice. It had windows.
And the movie? We upgraded its rating from mediocre to fantastic.
Suzanne and I had different travel plans and, after Jerusalem, she traveled to be with friends on a kibbutz north of Hadera. I was concerned that I didn’t have enough money to fly home if the need arose. I was also learning very little Hebrew from the kibbutz we had been on and it was getting annoying needing Suzanne to translate for me wherever we went. When we parted, I headed south to find work in Arad, hoping I could make some serious money and learn Hebrew by some kind of immersion method.
The immersion was profound. I was plunked down in an environment where nobody spoke English. The Arad employment office put me on a crew building a pipeline that would take Dead Sea chemicals to a refinery in Tishlovet. The crew consisted of central European Jews, Israeli Arabs, some local Bedouins and an assortment of thieves, bastards and criminals who were probably one step ahead of an Israeli SWAT team. One of them stole my camera (a beautiful Zeiss Ikon that my father had gifted me) and an assortment of items from all of the crew. We were put up in a motel and, the day the thief quit, he still had the key to the motel room. He made the most of it.
On the job, I was low man in the pecking order. I had to fetch tools when yelled at and woe to me if I didn’t understand what was being asked for. With this bunch, everybody knew only enough English to swear, and little more. I was sworn at in English, Arabic, Romanian, Hungarian, Polish and Hebrew. It was somewhat typical of what I heard in other parts of the country. Israelis have a knack for adopting the choicest insults from all the languages they encounter. Understandable when you come down to it. Spoken Hebrew was basically invented by linguistic scholars around the time the state was created. They had the difficult task of updating ancient Hebrew to cover things like helicopters and toaster ovens. They didn’t spend a lot of time thinking up swear words. Israelis had to improvise and they did a fine job of it.
The upshot was that, in two months on the pipeline, I learned more Hebrew than in a year of kibbutz Hebrew school. I was getting pretty fluent and I had a good ear for the accent. I began to find that, when I spoke, I was often being mistaken for a Sabra. And, as a bonus, I could swear like a sailor.
* * *
Living in Arad, I now had a decent amount of money rolling in from my work. I decided to take an offer from a guy I’ll call Bad Lennie. Bad Lennie was a South African Jew who had immigrated to Israel with his brother, Good Lennie. Good Lennie lived in one part of Arad with his girlfriend; Bad Lennie had his own apartment. When the two of them were in the same room, I noticed Good Lennie seemed somewhat embarrassed around his brother and often cringed when his brother rambled on about his life in South Africa. In time, I found out that he had good reason to be embarrassed.
Bad Lennie was between jobs and needed money, so he offered me a chance to share his flat if I split the rent with him. I couldn’t pass up the chance to leave behind the den of thieves that were my pipeline crew, so I moved in with Bad Lennie.
Bad Lennie had some disturbing fantasies. He had undergone some military training in his home country. He had a lot of stories to tell me about his time in the military. According to him, he was a top-notch officer in command of hundreds of blacks. His favourite story was of the day one of his men questioned his authority in front of the others. Bad Lennie calmly walked up to the offending black soldier and put a bullet in his head. After that he never had trouble with the others. He told me many stories with pretty much the same theme. The den of thieves was starting to look better to me.
Bad Lennie had a revolver. I found out about it one day when he had this huge grin on his face and told me to feel under his arm. I wanted to pass but he grabbed my hand and stuck it in his armpit.
“What do you think? It’s a gun!” What did I really think? He was wearing a holstered gun under a turtleneck sweater! Not a bad James Bond look except that his turtleneck quick draw was going to need some work. I knew he was an idiot but now I was beginning to wonder how dangerous a one.
Bad Lennie pestered me to get him a job on the pipeline so I did. He lasted three days. On the third day, he came up to me and said, “Watch this.” Then he proceeded to go up to our Arab foreman and swear a blue streak at him in English. He turned back to me with that same stupid grin on his face. “It’s OK. The bugger hasn’t a clue what I’m saying.”
I had been on the pipeline long enough to know different. Everybody in this bunch was fluent in Swearese. Bad Lennie was fired. He still seemed confused about why but he was a goner nevertheless. And his problem became my problem. Bad Lennie was getting half the rent money from me but it was not enough and he started borrowing my money. I saw no chance of getting repaid because Bad Lennie now had no job. He spent most of his time hitting on his brother for money and going to the cinema in Beersheva to watch the latest Western. After coughing up a fair amount of cash, I cut him off. Then he offered to sell me some of his coffee table books on Israel. Truth be told, they were beautiful books but I was still living out of a backpack and couldn’t see myself schlepping all that weight.
I said, “No thanks.” He looked pissed but I didn’t care.
One day, I returned from work and walked through the door of our flat. There was Bad Lennie standing kitty-corner across the room with his gun pointed straight at my head. I just froze. I felt a powerful urge to say something but nothing came to mind. Then he pulled the trigger and there was this loud “snap.”
“It’s empty,” and he was grinning again. “I’m just kidding around. I wasn’t really going to shoot you.”
I decided then and there that I had made enough money and my Hebrew would suffice. Bad Lennie’s gun was empty but I was sure he kept bullets somewhere. It was time to get out of Dodge. On the day I decided to leave, I left the job site early and headed for the apartment. I knew Lennie wasn’t around because they were playing a new Western at the cinema. I grabbed all my things and stuffed them in my bag. There was a little room left, so I grabbed Bad Lennie’s books and stuffed them in my bag as well.
Lastly, I wrote him a note: “Hi Lennie, I’m leaving town to go to a kibbutz in the north. Take care and best of luck. P.S. I’ve changed my mind about your books. I’ll buy them after all. Just deduct what they are worth from the money you owe me and we’ll call it even. Cheers.” Then I headed for the nearest road out of Arad and started hitchhiking north. It was a bit nerve-wracking. I wasn’t sure who would show up first – my ride or Bad Lennie. I was in luck. My ride came first and I was on my way to join Suzanne.
As I mentioned, Suzanne and I had met at our previous kibbutz, near Haifa. She was Jewish and, like me, had come to Israel to check it out and become a volunteer. She was a huge fan of Leonard Cohen and, as a consequence, had a real thing for dark, brooding, handsome Canadians. All I had going for me was the Canadian thing and, happily, she settled for that. For me, the trigger was her incredibly sexy French accent. It was like listening to music.
She also spoke her mind entirely with nothing held back. Tears or laughter came at the drop of a hat and you were never in doubt about what she thought or how she felt. It was a raw honesty of emotion that took some getting used to but, once you did, it was exciting in a scary kind of way. The ride was bumpy but never ever dull. And nothing frustrated her more than people suppressing their feelings. Once, when I was being particularly uncommunicative, she booted me in the rear to try to get me past it. I don’t recall if it worked but, after that, if I felt withdrawn, I made sure I was sitting down.
Suzanne worked in the children’s house and I had a steady job in the banana fields with a guy named Lev as my boss. Banana life was good but there came a time when I worried that I was spinning my wheels. I wasn’t sure I wanted kibbutz life forever and I thought I had the beginning of a career back in Canada. I had a BA in English literature, after all. It had to mean something. I felt I needed to return to Canada and see what I could make of my life there. I was in a dark, who-am-I kind of mood. When I told Suzanne I was going home, she was angry.
“I won’t be the one left behind,” she told me.
Before I knew it, she was on a plane bound for Paris and I was sitting in the middle of a very empty room. Worse than empty. The life had gone out of it. To my surprise, I actually wept. I never realized until then how much I would miss her. Typical of me. Why not save steps? Burn the bloody bridge while you’re still standing on it.
I couldn’t bear that empty room and so, in the time I had left before going home, I joined an archeological dig in the Negev near Beersheva. The work was hot, dirty and finicky. We had to move a lot of dirt to get down to the Iron Age town we were looking for and, at that point, the work had to be much more careful. Every find was scraped, brushed clean, surveyed for location, photographed and, finally, removed to our storage room at the base of the hill.
I was particularly proud of finding an intact Iron Age kiln, circa 700-600 BCE – basically, a three-foot-wide, clay-walled cylinder standing on its end. I carefully brushed and excavated the kiln to its base, always careful to leave the dirt in the centre as support for the walls. After three days of clearing the outside of the kiln and the floor around it, I was told it was time to take it down and go deeper. It had been photographed, measured and catalogued and now it had to be removed. Strangely, my fellow volunteers had all dropped their tools to come and watch me take a pickaxe to the kiln. Not sure what was going on, I swung the pickaxe and buried it in the centre of the kiln. There was a horrible sound of glass breaking.
“Crap!” I thought. “I’ve just destroyed some 2,600-year-old glass artifact that was situated in the middle of my kiln.” Everybody who had gathered round gasped loudly in horror. Feeling disgraced, I dejectedly began pulling out bits of glass. But there was something peculiar. The glass had a colour that was unlike any ancient glass I had ever seen. In fact, it looked a lot like.… “Alright,” I said, “Who buried the frigging beer bottle in my kiln?”
Aside from the pranks, we did a lot of good work and, by the end of the season, I was standing on the streets of ancient Beersheva where Abraham once walked.
When the dig ended for the summer, it was time to go home. My first trip to Israel was over. I returned to Canada in 1970, got an MA in English literature by May 1972 and, damn me, I still didn’t want to teach. I was no further ahead in knowing what I wanted to do. Also, I missed the kibbutz. I decided to go back to Israel later that year. My thinking was that I’d spend some quiet time there deciding about my future. I didn’t realize that I’d have to do my contemplating in the middle of a war.
(Next Time: The War Begins)
Victor Neumanwas born in the former Soviet Union, where his family sought refuge after fleeing Poland during the Second World War. The family immigrated to Canada in 1948 and Neuman grew up in the Greater Vancouver area. He attended the University of British Columbia and obtained a BA and MA with majors in English literature and creative writing. Between 1968 and 1974, he made two trips to Israel, one of which landed him on a kibbutz at the time of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Upon his return to Canada, he studied survey technology at BCIT and went on to a career of designing highways for the Province of British Columbia. When he retired, he reconnected with his roots in creative writing and began writing scripts for Vancouver Jewish Folk Choir concerts and articles for the Jewish Independent. Neuman and his wife, Tammy, live in southeast Vancouver and enjoy the company of friends, their extensive extended family and their four sons.
This year’s Jewish Independent Rosh Hashanah cover photo features a bumble bee on a heartleaf oxeye daisy flower – it was taken in Saanich, B.C., by David Fraser. Many native bumble bees are in decline, a concerning trend given the role they play in pollination of plants, including many food crops. Pesticides, habitat loss and introduced bee parasites and diseases are thought to play a role in this decline.
Apples are one of the main symbolic foods we eat on Rosh Hashanah, as we wish for a sweet year, with the help of some honey. Apples are the fruit of choice for this wish perhaps because Rosh Hashanah coincides with the sixth day of creation, when humans – Adam and Eve – were created and they ate the fruit (apple) of the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden. It could also be that apples symbolize the relationship between God and the Jewish people, as poeticized in the Song of Songs, or that the Zohar (kabbalah) describes paradise as a holy apple orchard.
Regardless of the reason for the fruit selection, apple production is dependent on bees and other pollinators. It would be fitting then for us to wish for more than a sweet, fruitful year, when we are dipping our apple slices into honey. We might consider our role in the decline of not only the bumble bee populations but of the environment at large, and what we can do to reverse it.