In closing the Heart Stirring Negev Event on Zoom, Ilan Pilo, executive director of JNF Pacific Region, talked about the important work done by Save a Child’s Heart, the organization at the centre of this year’s fundraising campaign. (screenshot)
Jewish National Fund of Canada, Pacific Region, held its first virtual Negev campaign event on Aug. 30. The original Zoom was recorded and shown again on Sept. 13 and 16. The object of the fundraising campaign is Save a Child’s Heart (SACH), an Israeli-based global organization with the mission of improving “the quality of pediatric cardiac care for children in developing countries.”
“This year, we’re collaborating with Save a Child’s Heart to build a treatment room in the pediatric surgical wing,” explained Lance Davis, chief executive officer of JNF Canada. “Thanks to your support, JNF can fund the bricks and mortar to house the wonderful doctors and staff who perform life-saving surgeries. JNF will literally fund the foundation of the [new children’s] hospital to provide the necessary facilities to advance this beautiful tikkun olam project. Together with you, our generous donors, we truly are building Israel.”
This tagline – “Building Israel Together” – forms part of the new logo for JNF Canada. The change comes in part because, while JNF Canada continues in its environmental mission, it has become more involved in social infrastructure projects, such as youth centres, playgrounds and healthcare facilities. The current Negev campaign is the latest example of this shift: the treatment room is one of possibly two that JNF Canada will fund (depending how much the campaign raises), which are being constructed in the International Pediatric Cardiac Centre at Wolfson Medical Centre in Holon, Israel.
After Ethan Doctor, a King David High School student, sang O Canada, and Beth Hamidrash’s Rabbi Shlomo Gabay sang Hatikvah, Bernice Carmeli, JNF Pacific Region president, welcomed everyone to the virtual Negev event, which was emceed by JNF Pacific Region past president David Goldman.
Dr. Saul and Lindsay Isserow were honourary chairs of the evening. “Our family became aware of Save a Child’s Heart when my oldest daughter, Jenna, volunteered there one summer,” said Lindsay Isserow. The chance to support an Israeli organization that highlights the contributions Israel makes to the world and to the region is another reason the family was part of this event, said her husband, who specializes in preventive cardiology, among other areas. “The cardiology [aspect] is important to me, obviously, because this is something that’s treatable,” he said.
A video showed some of the work SACH has done – it has saved the lives of more than 5,400 children from 62 countries.
Co-campaign chairs Lana and Doug Pulver first visited Wolfson Medical Centre years ago. “I was moved by the way that this organization takes care of children from all over the world regardless of their background, regardless of where they come from, and ensures that their lives are saved,” said Lana Pulver, who was so taken with SACH that she joined its national board a few years ago.
“Each child that is saved is a whole world – and those worlds learn of the compassion of the Jewish people and the nation of Israel,” said Dr. Lior Sasson, lead surgeon at SACH, in his remarks and thanks.
The remainder of the evening was spent with David Shore, one of the producers of The Good Doctor and of House, interviewing Israeli TV show Fauda’s co-author, Avi Issacharoff, and actor Itzik Cohen, who plays the character of Captain Ayub (Gabi). They talked about many topics, including Fauda’s international popularity; how Cohen, a comedian who does musicals, got his (very serious) part as an interrogator; some of Issacharoff’s and Cohen’s favourite scenes; and, of course, SACH.
Ilan Pilo, executive director of JNF Pacific Region, wound up the program by thanking all those who made the event possible: the donors, the boards, staff and others.
After the Sept. 16 streaming, Pilo spoke with the Independent. About 250 people viewed the event over its three nights, he said, noting that it was just the first of two main parts to the local Negev campaign. The next is called Join Us in the JNF Virtual Sukkah, on Oct. 8, 7pm. “It is a Jewish cardiologist panel,” said Pilo. Isserow will spearhead that conversation, and the cardiologists on the panel with him are Drs. Arthur Dodek, Zach Laksman and Joshua Wenner. For more information and registration, visit jnf.ca/vancouver/campaigns/negev-campaign.
The annual Negev Dinner would have normally taken place in the spring or summer. Looking back to March, when COVID hit in full force, Pilo said, “We had plans, and then we were thinking about doing something in April or May, but we realized that people were not going to leave their homes and we had to reconsider our plans…. We had to do everything very quickly. In a month we had to put together an event. And it’s different. On the one hand, it’s in a way easier because you don’t have to serve dinner. On the other hand, you have to be very creative and prepare everything in advance for the online campaign.
“For instance, we have made videos of local young Vancouverites who had volunteered in the past for SACH,” he said. To do this, the former volunteers had to be tracked down and convinced to record themselves. “This way,” said Pilo, “they became part of the online campaign…. You need to get people’s attention and interest and this was a great way [to do that].”
He hoped that the Heart Stirring Negev events would inspire people to contribute to the SACH’s project, “a cause that brings so much pride to the Jewish people everywhere.” Donations are still being accepted at vannegevdinner.ca, 604-257-5155 and [email protected].
Bonnie Nish, executive director of Word Vancouver. (photo by Andrew Bagoly)
“We believe that Word Vancouver is a vehicle for community connection. It is important on so many levels right now to provide a space for collaboration, discourse, and a safe and accessible platform for people to share their stories,” festival executive director Bonnie Nish told the Independent.
Normally, the annual event takes place in Downtown Vancouver and people drop in to see author talks and participate in other activities. This year’s festival will be online, running Sept. 19-27.
“Like most organizations, we knew we had to either cancel or pivot by late March,” explained Nish about the impact of COVID-19. “Our festival takes place in September, so we had more time than others to make this decision.
“Word Vancouver’s mission,” she said, “is to bring readers and writers together to celebrate literary arts. The question was could we make the change from an in-person festival to an online festival and still serve this mission. We decided that, yes, we could, and, in doing so, we might even extend our reach with the in-person barrier removed. We could now seamlessly collaborate with national partners like Word On the Street Toronto and authors who were not physically in Vancouver, while keeping our main focus on local authors.”
Several changes had to be made.
“We needed to get prepared for the new online delivery format,” said Nish. “With the live in-person festival, we would not have any pre-registrations, as people would just walk into the events as they happened at the Vancouver Public Library. Now, we have a complex communications plan, along with a registration system, so our audience can secure their place and be given step-by-step instructions on how and when to participate.”
On the down side, she said, “We were working with a great site management team last year and we are sad we aren’t able to have them on our team for this festival.”
There have been other challenges, as well.
“We have had to prepare for the decrease of revenue from the exhibitor booths by reducing our staffing substantially,” said Nish. “Our board is very supportive of our new situation but they are also very risk averse, as they should be. We have found the most amazing volunteers and, for that, we are truly grateful. Programming is reduced somewhat, but we still have managed to book 140 authors and schedule over 50 events. Our community collaborations are stronger than ever. We have reinvented the exhibitor platform and now offer online exposure both on our website and during the events. It is a hard sell to some, but we honestly think the reach and return for exhibitors will be close to on par with the in-person version.”
Of the 140 authors participating this year, many are members of the Jewish community, and the Independent was able to speak with two of them – Alex Leslie and Rhea Tregebov – in advance of the festival.
Leslie writes poetry and short fiction, but is working on her first novel. Her latest collection is Vancouver for Beginners (Book*hug, 2019), and its poems are filled with powerful imagery and strong views about her beloved city, where she was born and raised. Leslie’s unique use of language, infused with obvious passion for her subject matter, is energizing to read. Every one of these poems is political in that they call on readers to think about the way in which they inhabit the world, how they think of ownership, place, community and many other concepts. Most of the entries are short narratives (or microfictions) that, in a page, encapsulate the feeling of being in a certain neighbourhood; what we lose when we normalize poverty alongside great wealth; the opportunities we miss when we forget our past, or the misery in our present.
JI: Could you share a bit about your background, both as it pertains to writing, and to your involvement with the Jewish community?
AL: I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was a very young child. In my early 20s, I started taking short fiction more seriously as a writer and trying to publish in literary journals. It took awhile to place my first story, through a long period of reading, frustration, rejection and editing. From there, I published stories until I had enough to put together a manuscript, and that book, People Who Disappear, came out in my late 20s. I’ve essentially continued in the same way – working on material for long periods of time, attending readings, drilling away at projects around the time I spend on my paid work in the mental health field. I’ve always been a wanderer between fiction and poetry communities.
I’m a member of Or Shalom synagogue in Vancouver and co-curate a storytelling series there…. The Jewish side of my family is originally Ashkenazi, from shtetls in Ukraine, in the regions around Lvov and Odessa (when they immigrated they wrote down they were “Russian”). We’re what is called diasporic, as the communities we came from were lost to the Shoah (Holocaust).
JI: Jewish characters have appeared in your writings. What are some of the ways in which our Jewishness informs your political, cultural or other views/actions?
AL: Yes, my book of stories that came out in 2018, We All Need to Eat, centred around a young Jewish woman named Soma, and Jewish identity is a backbone of that book, as she processes the current rise of the alt-right and her family history that’s bound up in fleeing persecution in Eastern Europe.
For me, a core Jewish value is tikkun olam, which translates roughly to “repair of the world/universe.” Tikkun olam influences my work in the mental health field, as there is the prerogative there of contribution and not turning away from difficult areas of the mind and the concept that energy and goodness can be found in dark places. Persistence and dark humour – humour where others may not find humour! – are practices I’ve taken from Jewishness as well.
JI: Do you still co-curate Koreh at Or Shalom? Why is it important for people to have a platform to publicly read their work?
AL: Yes! Our next Koreh is on Saturday, Sept. 12, for Selichot. We have 10 readers! I curate this with Or Shalom’s Rabbi Hannah Dresner. This Koreh is centred on the idea of the pandemic as a crossing or transformation and everyone is welcome to be part of our audience. Here is the link with the Zoom information: orshalom.ca/event/leil-selichot-a-koreh-event-with-high-holiday-melodies.
This is our third year of curating Koreh. I feel it’s a special space for people who may not consider themselves “writers” to share stories, poems and reflections on their experiences and how they relate to the world. We’ve had Korehs focused on the natural world, on repose/restoration, on sanctuary. Rabbi Hannah asked me to co-curate it with her when we started it up. It was really her concept in the beginning and it’s been a pleasure to get to know so many writers and listeners adjacent to Koreh.
JI: What compels you to write and publish?
AL: My love of writing coincided with my love of reading. I’ve honestly wanted to be a writer since kindergarten. I remember writing stories about our neighbours, and my mother copying them out again in her handwriting. As I got older and wrote more and more, publishing emerged as a natural goal.
I read constantly and loved that I could see the world precisely from another person’s emotional perspective. I suppose that I wanted to replicate that experience, and share in it. Also, for me, it was about language, and using and manipulating language as a medium. Selecting, ordering and controlling words is a fascination for me, the way I suppose a mathematician may feel about algebra, or an investor might feel about predicting stocks. It’s a system.
JI: What is the importance to you of words?
AL: I think that words can put you in another person’s mind, so the power here would be empathy, radical transportation. Words also have a power of deep-layered description – so the power would be complex evocation, mixing emotional and physical parts of reality, making something 2-D into something 3-D, like a life-giving power.
Words can also move us to action. During the pandemic, I have been reading a lot. Endless online stuff is tiring and alienating after a long period of time. I’ve read a few extraordinary novels during this time – two are Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami and Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli. I also read Norman Doidge’s two books about neuroplasticity. I’m grateful for how these books moved me and took me out of this moment and showed me something I couldn’t have imagined on my own.
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Born in Saskatoon and raised in Winnipeg, Tregebov moved to Vancouver from Toronto in 2004 to teach in the creative writing program at the University of British Columbia. Though she retired in 2017, she holds the position of associate professor emerita and continues to teach a bit. She has written several children’s books and is working on her eighth collection of poetry. Rue des Rosiers (Wolsak & Wynn, 2019) is her second novel.
Based on events leading to the 1982 terrorist attack in Paris on Goldenberg’s Deli, which killed six people and injured many more, Rue des Rosiers is a poignant and lyrical story about two women with vastly different backgrounds but both trying to figure out who they are and their place in the world. Canadian Sarah Levine makes decisions by flipping a penny that she carries with her and, at 25, she is decidedly lost, for a number of reasons. When she has a chance to go to Paris, she does and, while there, her story crosses over with that of Laila, an Arab immigrant living in one of the city’s slum neighbourhoods. In the author’s notes, Tregebov writes that she hopes her novel will “act as a memorial to the six people who died in the attack.” It does that, and more.
JI: Rue des Rosiers has so many layers and motifs, tightly woven, not a phrase seems superfluous. Can you share some of your creative process, from the idea of the novel to its publication last year?
RT: The novel began with two impulses: to explore the relationships among sisters and to understand the impact of terrorism on perpetrators as well as victims. Both are rooted in personal experience. I am one of three sisters, and I was living in Paris in 1982 very near where the attack on Rue des Rosiers occurred. Working through these issues was a long, sometimes joyous, sometimes exhausting process.
JI: Could you speak a bit about how Judaism or Jewish community infuse your work and/or life?
RT: I grew up in the shadow of the Holocaust and the moral issues the Holocaust raises are core. I also grew up in a vital Winnipeg community that modeled ethical commitment and progressive values that I still find of immense value.
JI: Coteau Books, which initially published your novel, has closed. What are some of your thoughts on the future of publishing?
RT: Small presses like Wolsak & Wynn (who, happily, have picked up the novel) are a mainstay of literary publishing. We still have an infrastructure of support that allows these smaller presses. I’m concerned that the consolidation that characterizes the larger presses may contribute to a narrowing of available voices and perspectives.
JI: In an interview, you say, “I’ve said that the book is trying to ascertain the humanity in inhumanity.” Are there any risks in doing this, in finding the humanity in inhumanity?
RT: It can be difficult to attempt to empathically understand behaviour that is anathema to one’s own moral schema. I didn’t want to justify or validate acts or attitudes that dehumanize the Other. But, as one of the characters in the book says, “I’m interested in goodness, the mystery of goodness.” And, to examine goodness, one has to examine evil as its corollary.
JI: In another interview, you mention being “intrigued by the problem-solving involved in writing a novel.” Can you flesh out that idea?
RT: These large projects are so complex and absorbing. In the early stages, you have to hold a world that isn’t yet fully formed in your head. I’ve joked that it felt like wearing a giant hat! I (mostly) love the cut and paste and revision aspects of writing, how solving one small element sometimes acts to realign the entire book in a positive way.
JI: I’m always intrigued by imagery that enriches the storytelling, but is not technically needed for the story to be told. In Rue des Rosiers, you write sentences like, “A scraggly American elm sapling is handcuffed to a post as if it’s committed some crime”; “A gardener in blue coveralls sweeps the sand path, wiping away the traces of pigeon footprints”; “Light is a wave and a particle and so are the bees.” When or how do these types of flourishes enter your writing process?
RT: I think they’re a natural product of my life as a poet. Much of my writing is about looking, and I process looking through words. So having imagery present in the narrative is integral in world-building.
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Word Vancouver is completely free and some events are already full, so visit wordvancouver.ca sooner than later. The festival is welcoming financial support via donations, its Adopt an Author and silent auction programs, information about which also can be found on their website.
A husband competes with his oldest daughter for his wife’s affections, a man ponders whether he is more attracted to a 10-year-old girl or her divorced older sister, a woman has an abortion she didn’t necessarily want, a young man violently rebels against his abusive father. Jonah Rosenfeld tackles difficult subject matter in his short stories, with no compulsion to solve any particular problem or correct behaviours, but to explore the thoughts and feelings of his characters, and thereby offer insight into parts of humanity that we may shy away from contemplating. English readers can now access these stories and ideas, originally conceived in Yiddish, thanks to a newly published translation by Langara College’s Rachel Mines.
The Rivals and Other Stories (Syracuse University Press, 2020) comprises 19 of Rosenfeld’s stories. Born in Chartorysk, Russia (now, Chortorysk, Ukraine), the prolific writer lived from 1881 to 1944, immigrating in 1921 to New York, where he was a major contributor to the Forverts. In total, he wrote 20 volumes of short stories, a dozen plays and three novels. Rosenfeld’s “stories provide a corrective to the typical understanding of Yiddish literature as sentimental or quaint,” writes Mines in the book’s press materials. “Although the stories were written decades ago for a Yiddish-speaking audience, they are surprisingly contemporary in flavour.”
The first Rosenfeld story Mines read, in Yiddish, was The Rivals (Konkurentn), six or seven years ago. “I’d only been studying Yiddish for a few years at that point and was reading to improve my language skills,” she said. “I was so impressed with the story that I decided, just for practice, to translate it into English. Later on, I found out that an English translation had already been published in [Irving] Howe and [Eliezer] Greenberg’s A Treasury of Yiddish Stories, but, by then, I was hooked on both Rosenfeld and Yiddish translation.”
Mines was a Yiddish Book Centre Translation Fellow in 2016 and The Rivals was her translation project during that fellowship year. “I’d already translated several stories before that, but 2016 was when everything started coming together in terms of improving my skills as a translator,” she said.
The project was her own idea, not work assigned by the Yiddish Book Centre, although the centre did support it.
“I should also mention,” she added, “that Vancouver is a veritable hotbed of Yiddish translation (who knew?), with a number of active translators, all of whom have been helpful at various times. Helen Mintz, in particular, was a huge inspiration and support. Her book of translations, Vilna My Vilna, a collection of Abraham Karpinowitz’s short stories, was published (also by Syracuse UP) in 2017. Helen and I spent several years together on Skype, regularly workshopping each other’s translations and helping each other out with advice and information. We’re still doing that, in fact.”
It is his exploration of the psyche that attracts Mines to Rosenfeld’s work.
“I’m interested in psychology – always have been – and particularly in people’s unconscious, and sometimes counterintuitive, reasons for thinking and behaving the way they do. So Rosenfeld’s insight into the darker corners of the human mind was an instant draw. I should say that his stories stand up very well to many current theories of human thought and behaviour. For example, the protagonist of The Rivals is a classic malignant narcissist – he ticks all the boxes. It’s interesting to note that Rosenfeld’s story was first published in 1909, several years before Otto Rank’s and Sigmund Freud’s theories of narcissism came out. Rosenfeld was an intuitive psychologist, and a very perceptive one.
“Another reason Rosenfeld’s stories appeal to me is that they work very well in a 21st-century, multicultural setting,” she said. “I’ve taught a number of the translations to first-year students at Langara, and students are attracted by his stories’ takes on immigration, women’s rights, male-female relationships, generational conflict, culture clash – this list goes on. Clearly, these ideas are as relevant today as they were when the stories were first written.
“Finally, I like Rosenfeld’s attitudes to his characters, even the less admirable ones. He seems interested in and sympathetic to their dilemmas; as an author, he doesn’t judge or blame his characters – he leaves that up to his readers. I like that Rosenfeld is more interested in exploring his character’s situations and psychology than he is in blaming or moralizing.”
Mines, who is retiring this year, taught in the English department at Langara College since 2001. One of the department’s main offerings has been a first-year class on the short story, she said. “Around the time I started translating, I started introducing stories with a Jewish theme to my classes. A bit to my surprise, despite coming from non-Jewish backgrounds, my students found the stories interesting and engaging, so I gradually added more and more stories with Jewish content. The last few years, I’ve been teaching Rosenfeld’s stories exclusively. My students love the stories and readily identify with (or at least understand) the characters and their predicaments. We’ve had many lively discussions!”
In an introductory chapter to The Rivals, Mines poses several questions she hopes keen PhD students or other researchers will take on, including where Rosenfeld’s place might be in the American literary canon. With the disclaimer that she is “just a lowly translator,” Mines said, “But, if pressed for an answer, I’d have to say it’s Rosenfeld’s psychological insights. He’s not entirely unique – other Jewish and/or American authors of his time were psychologically astute and wrote compelling character studies. But Rosenfeld went a bit beyond, in that his stories are almost Greek tragedies – his protagonists fail in their quests (for love, belonging, security, etc.) not because of external forces, but because of some internal, self-defeating habit of thought that they may not be consciously aware of. Rosenfeld isn’t the only author to explore this type of psychological dichotomy, but he does so very consistently.”
Last year, I requested two books from Simon & Schuster Canada. Both contained strong female protagonists and stories that sounded compelling. While it took the pandemic slowdown before I had time to read them, I enjoyed both and would recommend them, albeit one with a caveat.
Let’s start with the debut novel, the one I breezed through even though I found the premise tenuous. I wanted to know how Samantha M. Bailey’s thriller Woman on the Edge ended, even as I cursed aloud at the two main characters – Nicole Markham, founder and head of a widely successful athletic wear company, and Morgan Kincaid, a woman who has rebuilt her life after her husband was caught swindling people and then killed himself.
For reasons not revealed initially, Nicole hands her baby to Morgan at a subway stop, then jumps to her death, though video of the incident makes it seem like Morgan may have taken the baby then pushed Nicole onto the tracks. Alternating between Morgan’s attempt to clear her name and how Nicole came to give her baby to Morgan, the read is thrilling, even as it is too obviously contrived. At any point in time, a question or revelation from Nicole or Morgan could have shed light on their respective situations and cleared up critical matters. Yet, both women – unrealistically – keep their suspicions to themselves. The silences are necessary for the plot to work, so I chose to go where I was being led and relish the craziness of it all.
While there is no overt Jewish content in Woman on the Edge, Toronto-based writer and editor Bailey is Jewish. In her first novel, she shows a talent for creating dramatic tension, if not overall story structure. Despite its weaknesses, I found this novel a good escape read.
An absolute pleasure to read, and just as page-turning, is veteran author Alice Hoffman’s latest novel, The World That We Knew, set during the Holocaust. In it, there is magic. It is tangible – the golem Ava, created by Ettie, the precocious daughter of a respected rabbi, to protect Lea – and more abstract, in the loyalty of Ava to Lea and the beautiful friendship that develops between Ava and a blue heron along their journey.
After her husband is murdered and her daughter Lea is almost raped, Hanni knows she must get Lea to Paris, but she herself cannot leave Berlin. So, she turns to the rabbi for help, but making a golem is risky business and he won’t do it. Ettie, though, plans to escape with her younger sister, and Hanni’s payment will help her do that. Ettie has observed her father at work, and is able to bring Ava into being. As Ava becomes more seemingly human, however, and forms a bond with the blue heron, the main tension of the novel arises – will her appreciation for her own life and its possibilities outweigh her responsibility to Lea?
Many other tensions and relationships mingle with history, which is sometimes pedantically told but always interesting. The World That We Knew is a well-woven and moving story that offers an understanding not only of the past but of the emotions that motivate us and the connections we make with one another.
I was introduced to the Sephardi and Mizrahi tradition of a Rosh Hashanah seder by a dear friend, at whose home I celebrate most of the Jewish holidays. This New Year’s, given the pandemic and that we are not in each other’s immediate bubble, I will join their seder on the first night of Rosh Hashanah either outdoors, weather permit, I was looking, perhaps, to prepare myself mentally for this year’s socially distanced gathering, and a Zoom with my family in Ontario, when I thought of the idea for the cover, which is created using watercolour and ink (and surprisingly little Photoshop).
In a Sephardi or Mizrahi seder, special dishes are served of specific foods whose Hebrew or Aramaic names are linked in a blessing to another word that has the same root letters. Puns flourish. So, for example, the Hebrew word for carrot and that for decree have different vowels but the same root letters – gimel, zayin and resh – and the blessing over the carrots translates as, “May it be your will, Lord our God, that that our bad decrees be torn up and our merits and blessings be proclaimed.” The word for leeks, chives or scallions – karti – is akin to yikartu, cut off, so the blessing over these vegetables is, “May it be Your will, God, that our enemies be cut off.”
Spinach or beet leaves also symbolize the hope that God will make our enemies retreat and we can “beat” a way to freedom. Dates carry the hope that hatred will end; the many seeds of a pomegranate that our mitzvot will be many; an apple that we will have a sweet year; string beans that our merits will increase; a pumpkin or gourd that God will “tear” away all evil edicts against us, while our merits are proclaimed. You get the idea.
Corey Hirsch is among the honorees of this year’s Courage to Come Back Awards. (photo from Courage to Come Back)
“Believe me when I say that the stories we share are true journeys of bravery, resilience and strength in the face of adversity. They will leave you inspired and optimistic – a weekly dose of courage that I believe we need now, more than ever,” Lorne Segal, longtime chair of the Courage to Come Back Awards, told the Independent.
While the annual gala event had to be canceled because of COVID-19, every week this month, one of the five award recipients is being announced, and a video of their stories shared.
“We’re also sharing videos highlighting some of the incredible work of Coast Mental Health’s frontline workers during COVID-19,” said Segal. These can be viewed at couragetocomeback.ca.
“Every year,” said Segal, “the Courage to Come Back Awards raise critical funds that support over 40 of Coast Mental Health’s programs, which provide food security, mental health support for youth, peer support services and so much more. They are vital to the recovery of vulnerable people living with mental illness.
“In community mental health, the only way to meet this crisis is to increase capacity – that’s where Coast Mental Health comes in. Coast provides shelter, a roof overhead, a support system of caring individuals, and the dignity of a job and training through employment opportunities, all for individuals, young and old, dealing with mental health challenges.
“This life-saving work would simply not be possible without the generous support we receive during the Courage to Come Back Awards,” he stressed. “I invite people to watch, and share these incredible videos of courage. Then, if you can, I’m asking you to join me in supporting Coast Mental Health as they prepare for the second wave of this pandemic, a mental health crisis potentially as devastating as the first wave of COVID-19.”
At press time, three of the award recipients had been announced: Corey Hirsch in the mental health category, Amanda Staller in the addiction category and Rumana Monzur in the physical rehabilitation category; the youth and medical categories are still to come.
Hirsch was the first honoree announced. While not Jewish, he said, his surname is and, that “[t]here is very much the possibility that I have Jewish ancestry; it’s just never been investigated.”
A former NHL goaltender and goaltending coach, Hirsch is a commentator with Sportsnet, as well as being a public speaker and an advocate for mental health and wellness. Born and raised in Alberta, he was drafted by the New York Rangers in 1991 and was a member of the team when they won the 1994 Stanley Cup. Also in 1994, he won a silver medal with the Canadian men’s hockey team in the Olympics at Lillehammer. In 1995, he was traded to Vancouver, where he began losing his struggle with mental illness, but eventually reached out for help, and was diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Of the Courage to Come Back Award, he said, “It was very humbling to realize that I was in that category of people. And it was probably the first time it opened my eyes to realizing that what had happened – with coming out with my story in the Players Tribune [in 2017] – made a colossal impact on the world of mental health.
“There were people that came before me,” he acknowledged, pointing to Sheldon Kennedy, Theo Fleury and Clint Malarchuk. “Their stories helped me get my story out and made me feel safe,” he said.
Kennedy and Fleury were both abused by a coach when they were in junior hockey. Malarchuk, a fellow goalie and a friend, struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder after his jugular vein was accidentally severed by another player’s skate, as well as with obsessive-compulsive disorder, even attempting suicide.
“OCD, typically, doesn’t start from childhood trauma,” explained Hirsch, adding, “Most people I know can tell you the time, place, where they were at when their brains just kind of broke. There could be childhood trauma with people, but, for me, [there wasn’t any]. I was on my way to the NHL, I had athletic talent as a kid, lots of friends, no real signs of mental health [issues]. I had anxiety issues, [but] a lot of kids do.”
Hirsch grew up in Calgary, with parents he described as loving, and an older brother. Sports were encouraged. “Hockey was something that, you know, it’s a religion in Canada,” said Hirsch who, at age 16, moved to Kamloops to play the sport. “I had a really good junior career, won a national championship. From there, I went on to the Olympics. Things were looking like I was going to make millions playing in the NHL. I was on the road.”
Hirsch describes in detail the type of OCD with which he struggles in his article on the Players Tribune media platform.
“I think that what people thought OCD was, was the hand-washers, someone that’s organized and all that. There was a misconception, through stigma and other things, about OCD and people thought it was that,” he told the Independent. “So, how bad is that? You wash your hands too much. They didn’t take it very seriously … because that’s how OCD was portrayed.”
Hirsch is concerned about overall mental health, not only OCD. “I want to change the stigma to all of it,” he said.
As to why the stigma remains, he said, “Well, people don’t like to look inside, afraid of what they might find out. But, what you find out is that there’s a better life out there and you learn things…. Fear keeps people from getting help, stigma keeps people from getting help. It’s a great built-in excuse to say that you’re a man and men don’t get help; it’s a great built-in excuse if you don’t want to look internally. I get a lot of that.
“I got help, I live a great life. I’m not perfect – I’ll never say I am – but I still play hockey. I can still drink beer, I can still fix cars, I can still do all those things that are considered manly – I haven’t lost any of that. And the people around me are better for it. It’s tough to look inside and a lot of people don’t want to, but I know now it’s the best thing I’ve ever done.”
One of the reasons Hirsch decided to open up about his experiences is that, back when he was at his worst, in the mid-1990s, there was no readily available information on what he was experiencing.
“I scoured bookstores,” he said. “I did everything I could to try and find some hope, or even self-diagnose or [determine] that I wasn’t going to be like this the rest of my life. I felt so alone. I found nothing…. Part of it was because I didn’t even know what to look for, and I always said to myself, if I got better, that, one day, I would tell my story.
“I didn’t tell anybody anything, other than people close to me, for 20 years. I kept it in my chest. [But then] I met another NHL player who was active, in my retirement, and I met him, and he was in rehab for drugs. We got to talking, and I know now that mental health and addiction go hand in hand, so I spilled my story to him. And he looked at me and he said, that’s exactly what I’m going through.”
That was when Hirsch realized his story could help others who are suffering. “I need to let them know that they’re not alone,” he said.
Vancouver-based Hirsch is waiting out the pandemic in Toronto with his girlfriend. He is writing a memoir about his life with OCD, he plays golf, and spends time playing his guitar. “I’m terrible,” he said. “But I love it,” he said. “It’s been incredibly freeing. Music is so powerful and great for mental health. Any kind of art, it’s a great way to express, therapeutically, yourself.”
He is continuing his work in mental health and would like to see it become part of the curriculum in schools.
“If I could have known what I had when it happened to me and I could have gotten help the next day, I would have never ended up making an attempt on my life,” he said. “I don’t know what my NHL career would have looked like, but I would have never suffered and gone through what I went through for all those years, because early diagnosis is crucial with mental health.
“It’s not hard to teach our kids in high school, middle school, about anxiety, depression, OCD, bipolar, those things. They need that information. Why are we withholding it from them?”
“It’s like anything – teach our kids in school and then give them the tools and then hopefully we can put a dent in it,” he said, citing a need for a countrywide curriculum in health class. “That’s where we’re going to end the stigma … and suicide needs to stop being a taboo topic, it really does. It’s real and it’s happening and pretending it isn’t happening doesn’t make it go away.”
One could be forgiven for thinking there was a Jewish dance festival coming up, as there are so many community members participating in this year’s Dancing on the Edge, which takes place July 2-11.
Adapting to the circumstances of the pandemic, which limits public gatherings, DOTE festival producer Donna Spencer recently announced that, while it won’t be possible to present the initially planned 30-plus live performances, the festival “will be offering instead some specially curated digital programming with live-streamed performances, premières of dance films, dance discussions, four outdoor live performances in the Firehall’s courtyard and one dynamic theatre performance at the Firehall Arts Centre theatre (all live performances for very limited audiences with safety precautions in place).”
Among the featured dance companies and choreographers are, in alphabetical order, Action at a Distance (Vanessa Goodman), All Bodies Dance (Naomi Brand, with Carolina Bergonzoni), Ben Gorodetsky, Ne. Sans Opera and Dance (Idan Cohen), Radical System Art (Shay Kuebler), the response. (Amber Funk Barton) and Tara Cheyenne Performance.
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Action at a Distance is presenting Solvent, a new work created in collaboration with musician Loscil (Scott Morgan).
“I have been incorporating video footage into my work for years, and the recent time at home has provided an opportunity to generate material and experiment with new editing techniques,” said Goodman. “In some ways, this is an extension of our previous work together. Our first video collaboration was for a song on his album, Monument Builders. Since then, we have built four works together for my company Action at a Distance, including Never Still, which was presented by the Firehall Arts Centre in 2018.”
When the pandemic hit, Goodman said, “At first, I found myself grasping for something substantial to hold onto and tried to reschedule all the tours and premières that were being canceled. It was challenging to let go of everything. Eventually, I came to terms with the downtime and embraced the slow pace as best I could.”
When the need to isolate began, she said, “I started making short dance films for myself and my 96-year-old grandmother to help us stay connected. At times, it has been tough to stay motivated during the shutdown, and this was a simple way to stay creative.
“There’s no way to compare these sketches to a staged dance performance,” she said. “However, when I shifted my frame of mind and started to approach video as a whole new medium instead of an altered version of an existing piece, I became more comfortable with the idea of sharing work this way. I am very grateful to DOTE for bringing the community together to share work right now.”
Even in such times, arts and culture are “absolutely vital,” said Goodman. “Without them, we’re living in the dark ages. It is essential to have creative outlets for expression. Right now, finding connections through creativity can help cut through the isolation. Art can provide much-needed escape and levity in challenging times, as well as reframing current issues and inspiring insight around movements of essential social change.”
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All Bodies Dance Project (ABDP) is bringing Ho.Me to the festival. “The film was commissioned by F-O-R-M, Festival of Recorded Movement, last year … and is a collaboration between longtime ABDP company members Carolina Bergonzoni (choreographer/director), Peggy Leung (dancer), Harmanie Rose (dancer), Mathew Chyzyk (dancer) and Vancouver-based artist Gemma Crowe (cinematographer/editor) and Alex Mah (composer),” said Brand. “Ho.Me explores themes of belonging and comfort in relation to inhabiting one’s own body. The film is comprised of three personal solos shot inside the dancers’ own apartments. In the piece, we get to see these three very different bodies dancing within the privacy of their own homes among the objects that have meaning to them.
“While the film was created long before the pandemic, the significance of moving inside our homes feels really different now since we’ve all been spending so much time inside. Many dancers have been figuring out how to turn our living spaces into places where we can also practise, explore and move, as studios haven’t been an option.”
Since the start of the pandemic, ABDP has moved some of its community dance programming online.
“We also started a weekly virtual gathering for our community of dancers in order to prevent social isolation,” said Brand. “Many of our projects have been on hold. There is so much about what we do as a company that just isn’t compatible with the necessary restrictions of COVID life. Our work is based on bringing people with different bodies, backgrounds, experiences and abilities together to move, share and make in real-time. We’ve been thinking a lot about what kinds of things translate into the digital space and what things just can’t be replaced.”
She said, “Now more than ever we need community and collective experiences, as so many have been isolated during these past few months. People with disabilities in particular have experienced a lot of isolation and so we are even more committed to our purpose at All Bodies Dance Project.”
She added, “Dance is about each of our essential relationship to our own bodies. During COVID times, many of us have learned a lot about our own physical experience of moving through the world and the social choreography of physical distancing. There has been so much choreography on the sidewalks, grocery stores and, of course, in the streets during the incredible protests during this pandemic.”
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Gorodetsky, who is Russian-Canadian, is one half of the political comedy duo Folk Lordz, with Cree co-creator Todd Houseman. The pair tackle racism, among other social ills, and have created a 15-part series “[r]eflecting urban-Indigenous, immigrant and activist perspectives through the lens of biting satire.” A second series of sketches is on its way, but Gorodetsky is bringing a very personal work to this year’s DOTE.
“It’s a movement video piece honouring my grandfather, Dolik (David) Lutsky. He died on April 3, 2020, and, since we could not gather for his funeral due to the pandemic, we were left to sort through our grief alone,” he shared. “One small relief was my grandmother mailing me a box of his clothes. Using these garments as performance artifacts, I created a digital video piece reimagining grieving rituals in the age of COVID.
“I explore the ceremony of wearing Dolik’s clothes and reactivating the narrative, cultural and physical threads of his life. Spoken oral histories exploring my grandfather’s immigration (I was born 10 days after they landed in Canada), identity (he was the official communist ‘propagandist’ at the coalmine he worked at in Ukraine) and faith (he went from being an ardent anti-religious communist to a practising Lubavitcher Jew) provide textual counterpoint to the dance video. The visuals themselves were all created through aerial drone photography, creating a fluid visual style for this interdisciplinary new video work. Country roads, forests and lakes frame this physical score exploring grief, memory and family history.”
Gorodetsky said, “I think if I had been able to grieve, remember and connect with my family after Dolik’s death, I would have no need to explore these ideas artistically. But, since I have not, I have a nagging need to articulate this particular pain through movement, story and visual composition.”
Since COVID, Gorodetsky has become the fulltime caregiver for his 2.5-year-old son. “Time and energy have become scarce resources,” he said, “so I’ve had to get better at working furiously fast while he naps. Focused blasts of creativity.
“Also, my family has been displaced from our home and all our possessions in Brooklyn, N.Y. We were in Kelowna (where I was teaching on a one-term contract at UBC in the performance program) when the border closed and we could not return to our home as planned. So, we’re in Waterloo, living at my sister-in-law’s house, until [who knows when]. Honestly, my mental health is brutal right now. Anxiety grips me in a way I had never experienced before, and I have had to find tactics for replenishing my depleted stores of happiness and hope. One thing that really helps is long bike rides with my son Gus. We get out of the city and follow country roads – we live near Amish country! It’s a small way to feel free, alive and empowered in the midst of these deeply destabilizing times.”
For Gorodetsky, who grew up in Metro Vancouver – in Burquitlam – “dance is a way of moving your grief around. It helps me shake the weight and sediment of catastrophe off and meet my grief as an equal, rather than as a victim.
“Gus and I developed a habit of walking to a beach or body of water, finding a big tree stump, climbing on top and dancing to a playlist called ‘Klezmer Dance Party at Home’ (lots of Klezmatics, Michael Winograd, Frank London, Socalled and Di Naye Kapelye). It’s been a real lifesaver.”
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Ne. Sans Opera and Dance’s Trionfi Amore (The Triumph of Love) was commissioned by Peter Bingham for EDAM’s Spring Choreographic Series, April 2019.
“It is a trio created for three phenomenal Vancouver-based performers, Kate Franklin, Jeremy O’Neill and Ted Littlemore,” said Cohen. “Besides being excellent dancers, these three are also trained musicians, and the piece utilizes their many talents.
“The trio is inspired by the opera Orfeo ed Euridice and is a part of my ongoing research on the theme of Orpheus,” he explained. “It speaks of love, and of the power of music and art to move, entertain and touch us. It also speaks of the power of manipulation and control on the individual and, as we prepare it for DOTE during this time, we find that new meanings present themselves to us.”
Cohen said, “The act of presenting something as abstract as the notion of love in a dance performance is quite a challenge by itself, and nowadays even more so – how do you speak of love without being able to touch, to be close to one another? Instead of looking at this as an obstacle, we choose to look at it as a source of inspiration, a new adventure. As artists, we reflect what we experience and then monitor, or direct, those notions into our actions and creative choices. My responsibility here is to stay true to the origins of this piece, but also to protect the viewers and the performers while offering art that speaks of relevant issues and current experiences.”
It hasn’t been easy.
“Ne. Sans had to stop our season and rethink and rearrange our commitments,” said Cohen. “It has been painful to see how many creative ventures that have been in the planning for quite awhile have been postponed or canceled, and to realize the ensuing financial and emotional toll…. I believe in the value and presence of arts in our community and in our lives, in countless ways, and tackle issues that I find not just relevant for myself, but that reflect on many lives. At the same time, I recognize how privileged I am to be here, in Vancouver, and to be safe and healthy.”
Whether theatre, music or dance, one thing common to all forms of live performance, said Cohen, “is that they are alive.” They all involve the human body, both “the performing bodies and the ones watching.”
“As an artist who uses movement as a primary artistic discipline,” he said, “I have a huge love and respect for the human body in its most basic form. When you learn to love and accept your body, you can truly love and respect people. That love is also where my queer identity(ies) meet my Jewish ancestry. So much hate is being inflicted on the body; if we don’t learn to love and appreciate our bodies, how can we truly love and appreciate someone else’s? How can we heal? With so much violence in our history and in our present, in a world polluted with ignorance and hate, how do we learn to love and forgive our ancestors, our pasts? The arts bear a huge responsibility. Artists need to change our priorities, acknowledge our inherited racism and create new stories.
“Ne. Sans is an organization that is centred on Western European music and dance, and my origins are in Western Europe,” he continued. “Our main goal in Ne. Sans is not to present a notion of nostalgia, romanticism and artificial beauty, but to raise the issues of violence and inequalities created by that culture, recreate its narratives and bring those up into the surface.”
In Jewish teaching, there is the concept of tikkun olam, repairing the world. “We can all be involved in tikkun olam at any given moment,” said Cohen, “and we need to keep adapting and correcting our values, individual or systemic. We have a responsibility to help and support one another. We have survived horrible historical events. Looking straight at our bleeding past and present: in the face of injustice, we cannot and will not stay silent.”
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Kuebler, who has performed at the Chutzpah! Festival and is connected to the Jewish community through his sister’s family, will be presenting Momentum of Isolation at DOTE. Started last year, he said, “This first chapter of research is a chain of solos, for seven performers, that was developed by company artists online and in isolation.”
Given the restrictions required to control COVID, this part of “the project has taken on a much more singular focus on each artist’s personal interpretation,” said Kuebler. “As these solos were developed in home spaces and in isolation, the artists are performing their solos in smaller performance spaces – averaging six-by-nine feet – as well as performing these solos in relation to walls and surfaces in their environment.”
Of COVID’s impacts, he said, “There was certainly sadness and stress from losing work and touring opportunities. The company was two weeks away from a European tour when all the social protocols came into place. We were fortunate to receive some support and, after assessing the financial losses, we were able to move forward with a different creative practice for this phase of this project.
“The new creation practice of working online and in isolation actually revealed some very interesting new approaches and beneficial tactics. This online format had us focus on different dance techniques and improvisation tasks that could both challenge our individual movement skills and develop more group unity in movement. It also opened a window for focused study around the social content in the project.”
Kuebler said, “For myself as an artist, this time has offered me some space to ‘fill the well.’ I have been creating, traveling and supporting multiple projects simultaneously for a solid amount of time. This time in isolation, although not in the form that I would have wished for, or for anyone for that matter, has offered me space and time to just research and train…. I’ve found that, with this space, I’ve been more creative and have developed further outlets to express my creativity.”
He said, “I think that art holds a very important place in society. It offers people an escape from certain stresses and can help inspire them to find their own creativity. I believe that being creative can help you live with greater curiosity, humility and awareness of the world around you, which can make you a better member of society…. From this standpoint, I believe that art and artists gain greater relevance during challenging times and times of change.”
* * *
Barton’s company, the response., will host a special-edition, two-day version of Dance Café, which will feature eight Vancouver-based professional dance artists during DOTE.
“Together with my administration assistant, Kaia Shukin, we have been presenting Dance Café since 2017,” said Barton. Originally, it was held once a year as an informal, free event in studio, but, since May of this year, they have been presenting professional dance artists online using Instagram Live, and did so in June, as well. Given the positive response, Barton would like to keep the free event going monthly until the end of the year, but it will depend on resources, and she hopes people will donate to help make that happen.
With the arrival of the pandemic, Barton said, “It felt like many of the things I do changed overnight. At first – and there are still many moments at present – I felt overwhelmed with the learning curve of teaching and rehearsing on platforms such as Zoom. I feel that the act of participating in these online platforms, whether you are ready to or not, forces you to be creative just by showing up. In many ways, the act of applying for grants and the typical administration side of what I and the company do haven’t changed, but the artistic side of it is what I find is in question. How can we continue and how can we share and create work in a safe environment? Those are my biggest questions right now.”
For Barton, “Art can be a reflection of what we are experiencing in the world and can act as a mirror. It can be cathartic. It can also help us escape. We are all listening to music, watching films and trying to make sense of what is happening and/or trying to make time pass by. No one can deny that their consumption of art is interwoven in the daily fabric of their lives.”
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At DOTE, Tara Cheyenne Performance will share two films made in collaboration with Allison Beda/Amuse Productions and possibly a live online performance, said Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg. “These works are a continuation of my solo I can’t remember the word for I can’t remember, which premièred at the Firehall in 2018.”
For Friedenberg, life during COVID has been “up and down.”
“Some days are good – home schooling actually happens (we have an 8-year-old), I might even take an online dance class and have a virtual rehearsal with my dramaturge Melanie Yeats. Other days, making lunch and trying to figure out Grade 3 fractions is too much,” she said. “I’m not loving the many, many Zoom meetings. I feel like our brains and bodies are compromised being in front of screens so much.
“Artistically, it has been invigorating and challenging – also very frustrating and often sad, to be honest – to try to reach my audience. I was recently working on a video of past work and noticed that, in every show, I literally climb into/onto the audience. My focus right now is how do I break the fourth wall when it is a virtual fourth wall.”
When asked the importance of the arts in such a stressful social and economic period, Friedenberg said, “We absolutely need to share stories and experiences right now. I feel like it is my duty to offer levity, commentary and my own feelings in order to facilitate those moments of community and recognition. My grandfather toured Europe playing piano for Maurice Chevalier leading up to the war, then here in Canada during the war. I feel like it’s in my blood to offer what I make, especially during difficult times. I’ve been making these very silly satire videos of my character Laura Lockdown, which people are enjoying I think because they allow us to laugh at the extreme situation we are all living through.”
Friedenberg also has been recording, for almost a year now, the podcast Talking Sh*t with Tara Cheyenne.
“I interview artists about their work, their lives and how they manage,” she said. “These interviews are even more interesting in the time of COVID-19. Creativity, and how we navigate its absence in the face of difficulty is so useful for all of us. Right now, I’m leaning towards interviewing artists of colour – voices, art and ideas that need to be heard.”
SD Holman, artistic and executive director of the Queer Arts Festival, which takes place July 16-26. (photo from QAF)
“Since the very beginning, I said not doing the festival was not an option … because my belief is that they [the arts] are really, really important – I would say essential.”
Sharing their appreciation for the vital work being done by those on the frontlines of the COVID-19 crisis, SD Holman, artistic and executive director of the Queer Arts Festival, said, “art is really keeping people alive, in different ways than the amazing health workers that are taking care of folks right now. Even people who say they don’t like art – if you read a book, if you watch Netflix, you take part in the art world.”
This year’s Queer Arts Festival, which takes place July 16-26, will happen mostly online. This is, of course, not what was initially planned.
By mid-May, Holman said, “we had to have a plan. And, right now, we’re still working on how the delivery is going to look because it’s not all digital. One of the things that was really important to us, to me, is that, not all people have computers, not all people have a stable wi-fi access, people can’t go to the libraries [now] if they don’t have computer, so how do people access it? If they’re not privileged enough to have this little box in front of them, how do we deliver a festival?”
One of the things being considered is billboard art. As well, there is the possibility of using parks as venues.
The planning of such a festival normally starts a year in advance, not the couple of months that COVID has allowed for a reimagined version. Some elements – such as the visual arts show – have been adapted for the new circumstances, while some will have to be postponed, as they do not lend themselves to online viewing, because they are interactive on some level, or the artists can’t make it to Vancouver.
When asked about the process for choosing festival artists, Holman said, “I talk a lot to people, I try and keep abreast of what’s going on. I always want to support local artists and also bring in folks from away, so that there are great conversations that happen of what’s going on in the world, as well as what’s happening here.”
The festival programmer does research and people can also apply to be part of the festival. As well, Holman said, “There’ll be people that talk to me about wanting to do something, and that usually percolates for two or three years before anything ever happens.”
Holman has been with the festival since its beginnings as a volunteer collective in 1998. “Two-spirit artist Robbie Hong, black artist Jeffrey Gibson were the main founders of Pride in Art [Society],” they explained. “I was an artist and then I became involved in the collective in 2005, when Robbie was wanting to step away … and I called in Dr. Rachel Kiyo Iwaasa because she had approached me about something and I said, ‘Come and join me on this.’ And we spearheaded making it professional, making it a festival…. It was a community visual art show up until that point…. As an artist myself, I wanted to pay artists – too often artists are expected to do stuff for free, and that’s impossible.”
According to the festival website, PiA became a not-for-profit in 2006, mounted its first festival in 2008 and rebranded to become the Queer Arts Festival in 2010, obtaining charitable status in 2012.
“Rachel has finally managed to extricate herself,” said Holman, “because we also both have our own arts practices and it’s very hard to run this organization and also have an arts practice; it might have fallen a bit by the wayside, but Rachel is a concert pianist. [She’s] no longer staff with us, [but] she’s still doing some contract work with us and passing over her organizational knowledge.”
While Holman is a photo-based artist, the festival remains their focus. It is the belief that “art changes people and people change the world” that motivates them, “because it’s important work” – “when a country is taken over, the first people they suppress are the artists.… You take over the media and you get rid of the artists because people can be completely destroyed – the first thing they start doing [to recover] is making art, whether it’s in a mud puddle, making a mud pie, they start, that is, expression; that’s what brings them back.
“Art reaches you on a visceral level,” Holman continued. “There’s this thing called confirmation bias, so we take in more what we already agree with, but art can get you in a way that can transform our ways of thinking.”
For Holman, being queer and Jewish are parts of their larger identity. Holman has self-described, for example, as “a queer pagan Jew” and “a Jewish, butch, bearded dyke.”
“I come from L.A.,” they told the Independent. “I was born and raised in L.A., and I have had several Jewish friends be, ‘Oh, you’re too much for Vancouver.’ And I’ve been here for a long time … [but] people are, ‘Why aren’t you in New York, why aren’t you in L.A.? Why aren’t you where you can be more?’ I always get this feeling here … that people are always trying to be, ‘Shh, could you just be a little bit quieter, could you just be not quite so much?’ There’s this too-muchness about Jews. And there’s kind of this too-muchness about queers, too. There’s this assimilation. My family assimilated – I got, from my bubbie and my great-aunt, I would get Christmas cards. We’re Jewish! But we assimilated because that was what was safe for us. And so there’s all this assimilation and erasure that happens with queers and Jews, because, also, many of us can pass; we can pass as straight, we can pass as not Jewish.”
Despite skepticism about the possibility of Jews being fully accepted – the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville a couple of years ago featured chants of “Jews will not replace us,” for example – Holman is completely out there in her Jewishness and queerness, in a seemingly fearless way.
“Oh no, I’m afraid of everything, that’s why I do it,” they said. “Although, that’s not true anymore. Since my wife died [in 2009], I don’t fear anything because the worst thing has already happened to me. But I used to be, I was quite fearful.… [However] I’ve never been able to be in the closet about anything really. And, I guess, for me, that’s kind of Jewishness, [being] more emotive and not afraid to debate, not always trying to please people. For me, it comes from my Jewish heritage.”
Despite the many accolades for their art and for their work with the Queer Arts Festival, including the 2014 YWCA Women of Distinction Award in Arts and Culture, Holman said, “I have been a failure all my life.” Among their reasons for that description, Holman said they are dyslexic. They added, “I’m butch, so that’s a failure as a woman; feminists were called failures as women.” But, they said, they are working with that in their art and, on the positive side, being a failure “frees you up to make your own rules, so make your own rules.”
The theme of this year’s Queer Arts Festival is “Wicked.” The press release quotes Oscar Wilde: “Wickedness is a myth invented by good people to account for the curious attractiveness of others.”
“It’s always really multi-layered the theme and then people take different stuff out of it,” said Holman. “So, there’s also the book Wicked … because Wicked is about it’s not easy being green, it’s not easy being different. It’s not easy being a Jew, it’s not easy being queer. It’s not easy being butch, it’s not easy being an activist. It’s all actually about activism, the book Wicked.”
In addition, there is, as Holman writes in the press release, the question, “What do we lose – who do we lose – if we accept induction into the dominant order, and reframe ourselves as a ‘moral minority’?”
“It’s a bit of a double pun,” they explained to the Independent. “The ‘Moral Majority’ years ago, who were trying to say [what’s acceptable in society], the right-wing, and there’s the ‘model minority,’” the Asian community, whose perceived greater-than-average success and stereotypical politeness are used to downplay the existence of racism. “It totally ties in with what I was talking about ‘too-muchness’ and excess and how we, as queers, work towards justice and inclusion.”
While becoming “more acceptable,” Holman said, “it’s still, ‘please don’t scare the horses.’… So, it’s OK if you want to be gay and lesbian and you want to get married and you want to have kids and you want to buy a house and be part of the whole heteronormative [framework] … be part of society’s morals, but could you leave the drag queens and the leather dykes at home?… Even with gender stuff. We know now that it’s a real spectrum and people are getting [more accepted], trans are really out in the world [for example] and it’s OK if you want to be a ‘real woman’ or a ‘real man,’ whatever that is, but people in between are still, ‘Come on, could you choose a side?’
“There’s this whole [feeling like], we’ve given you these things, we’ve given you marriage rights, you can have children, you can affirm your gender, you can do those things, but could you now just be nicer to us? And, I think, we have to be careful of that – being sanctioned by the state of what’s OK [because] then people get left behind, and that’s what we’re seeing right now … the more privilege you gain, you have to be really careful of that,” of remembering that not everyone is being treated well.
The QAF opens on July 16. “And we’re going to have a binge/party at the end, on the 26th, and there’ll be prizes,” said Holman. “We’re going to play the whole entire festival. I think it’s going to be 12 hours or something – we’re inviting people to get into their best dress jammies.
“Everything is going to be pay-what-you-can, by donation…. Pay as much as you can, please, because we want to support the artists.”
Among those artists are Jewish community members Avram Finkelstein, from New York, who helps open the festival (see jewishindependent.ca/political-art-of-living) and locally based Noam Gagnon, whose work This Crazy Show (July 25-26) is described as “a reflection on the quest for love, through revisiting the worlds of childhood, both real and imagined.” In it, he “choreographs and performs, pushing himself to his physical limit to explore and expose ‘the art of artifice’ in a culture obsessed with pretending authenticity. This Crazy Show explores just how precarious and ambiguous identity can be, through the evolution of the body and the self, as both are continuously morphing, unfixed and boldly celebrated.”
Avram Finkelstein will be participating in the Queer Arts Festival, which takes place July 16-26. (photo by Alina Oswald)
A lot of it feels familiar, said New York-based artist and activist Avram Finkelstein about the current situation in the United States. The same American institutions that failed during the HIV-AIDS crisis are failing to effectively deal with the pandemic. And, when he was a teenager in the 1960s, cities were also being burned in America.
“It’s sad to think that we will be having the same struggles,” he told the Jewish Independent in a phone interview last week. “But, also, as you get older, you realize that progress is not a pendulum swing from left to right, it’s actually a spiral going forward and things do move to the right and they move to the left, but [there is] incremental change. So, part of me feels like we’re seeing the dying gasp of a world that I hope we’re leaving behind, and I see a world in the future that I want to live in. So that’s kind of helping me through this.”
Finkelstein was scheduled to come to Vancouver next month to participate in the Queer Arts Festival.
A founding member of the Silence=Death and Gran Fury collectives, as well as the political group ACT UP, he is the author of After Silence: A History of AIDS Through its Images (University of California Press, 2017). His artwork is part of the permanent collections of MoMA, the Smithsonian, and the Victoria and Albert Museum, to name but a few places, and his work has been shown around the world. He was set to unveil one of his new works in Vancouver. As it is, with the restrictions required to minimize the spread of COVID-19, he will be helping open the festival remotely, as part of a panel discussion chaired by curator Jonny Sopotiuk, which will also provide viewers with a tour of the festival’s art exhibition.
“I have a large mural that was going to be in the exhibition and now it’s going to be in a virtual space,” said Finkelstein. “I’m very excited about this piece and the fact that Jonny chose it – it’s the first time I’ve shown it…. I had a commission to do a work for the Shed, which is a new art space in New York, and, while I was waiting for the weaving tests of the final pieces – it’s a very large jacquard weaving – I decided to start drawing from the same source material as the cartoon for the weaving. I hadn’t drawn since recovering from a stroke; I had a stroke about two years ago…. I then realized that my hand isn’t my own, my body is no longer my own.”
The source material, he explained, “is a portrait of a gender-non-conforming friend who later transitioned. The work was all about corporeality as an abstraction and the ways in which we’re allowed to look at certain things, and what is public and what is private about gender and sexuality. And then, all of sudden, I realized, I’m actually talking about my own body in these drawings because my own body is not my own body anymore. I realized that I had made this sharp pivot from an abstract, theoretical idea of corporeality to this kind of war or dance, or I don’t know how to describe the physical process of having to use your entire body to hold a pencil.”
Despite the health, political and other challenges Finkelstein has faced, he remains hopeful.
“We’re trained to think that, if we don’t have hope, then the only thing that’s left is despair, but the truth is, hope isn’t so much the point – it’s the horizon that hope is sitting on and, so long as you can see a horizon, I think that, to me, is the same thing,” he said.
“I’m Jewish, as you know, and I think that Jews have a very different relationship to memory and to witnessing. If your people have been chased all over the globe for centuries, you take a long view. You sleep with one eye open, but you take a long view, and I think, therein, I’m eternally hopeful.”
In an interview in 2018, Finkelstein predicted that the situation in the United States would worsen before it improved.
“Which is another thing about being Jewish – you learn that there is no such thing as paranoia because it’s all real,” he said. “So, one could have seen, as plain as the nose on one’s face, where America was heading. And, in actual fact, what happened with Trump’s election was, we’ve joined the international march of global totalitarianism…. And, it’s not about to get really bad, it’s really, really bad. It’s really bad and I think that, here again, you can’t be Jewish and not think – not think your entire life, actually – in some way being prepared for, OK, what are the risks I’m willing to take if this happens? How far would I be willing to fight for other people if that happens. The shadow of Nazi Germany never escaped your consciousness.”
So how does Finkelstein conquer the fear?
“I guess I’ve replaced it with anxiety,” he said, laughing. But, he added, “I don’t know why I’m not fearful. I think that I was just raised – a day doesn’t go by that I’m not reminded of another lesson or another incident or another part of Jewish-American social history in the 20th century that my family was directly there for. I almost feel like I’m the Zelig of the left. All the stories you would tell my mother or my father, they’d be like, ‘Oh, yeah, we were there. We were there at the Robeson riots. Oh, yeah, we were there when they closed The Cradle Will Rock and everyone walked down the street’ – exactly the way it was in the last scene in Tim Robbins’ movie. When I saw it, it seemed too preposterous, I called my mother, said, ‘Could that have happened?’ And she started singing the song that Emily Watson sings in the film.
“So, I think I have such a sense of self that one could interpret it as fearlessness, but I think that it would be more accurate to say I was not given an alternative role model. I was raised to feel the suffering of others and, if other people are suffering, there’s no night’s sleep for me. So, there’s really no option – you’re either closing your eyes to something terrible or you’re doing everything you can to try and make it less terrible. And I think that that’s the Jewish condition.”
He described Jews as being like queer people. “We are everywhere,” he said. “We’re in every culture, we’re in every race, we’re in every gender, we’re in every country. We have every type of ethnic community that we surround ourselves with. An Ethiopian Jew is different from an Ashkenazi Jew, but we’re still all Jews.”
Though raised by atheists, he said, “I don’t think you’ll find anyone more Jewish than I am or than my family, but Jews are prismatic. We are many things. Consequently, I feel like I can’t speak on behalf of other Jews, I can only speak on behalf of myself.
“Likewise, I’ve always had people of colour in my family; I just always have. And, I learned very early on back in the ’60s, when the civil rights movement was fragmented between King and Stokely Carmichael and the Panthers, and everyone was choosing sides, I think that’s another example of what I’m talking about – there are many ways in which to be black. And so, I don’t feel like what I have to say about this current moment is anywhere near as important, essential, vital, critical … [as] a person of colour – what a person of colour has to say about this moment is much more important.”
Finkelstein was one of the minds behind the now-iconic Silence=Death poster, which has been adapted over the years by many people. A variation of it could be seen in at least one of the recent protests. The original iteration encourages viewers to use their power and, for example, vote. In general, working towards solutions is an important part of Finkelstein’s activism.
“I think critiques are easier,” he said. “I think also we mistake public spaces, we mistake the commons, as a declarative space. I tend to think of it as an interrogative space. I think that, even in late-stage capitalism, when someone is trying to get you to put your money in a bank or go buy a soft drink, there’s something Socratic about the gesture of trying to get you to do something … you’re responding to it, you’re engaged in it, and that’s the interrogative part that I think is easy to overlook. And I think that’s where the answers are.
“I think that the way that the Silence=Death poster is structured is it’s really like a bear trap. We worked on it for nine months – the colour has certain codes and signifiers, and the triangle has another set of codes and we changed the colour of the triangle from the [concentration] camps and inverted it to obfuscate some of the questions about victimhood. And the subtext has two lines of text, one that’s declarative and one that’s interrogative, and the point size forces you into a performative interaction.”
This poster and other work with which Finkelstein has been involved include aspects that “people are very afraid to experience,” he said, “which is fallibility, mess-making and tension. And I find all of those things as generative, as kindness, support, community. They’re differently generative and … hearing so many people who are trying to figure out how to find their way in, as white people, into the conversations that are happening in America right now, is the same struggle as a young queer person trying to find their way into the AIDS crisis. I mentor a lot of young queer artists and activists and the first thing they say, their immediate impulse is, I have no right to this story, I wasn’t here, I didn’t live through it. To which my response is, immediately, you have every right to the story – it’s your story, it’s the story of the world…. Race is a white person’s problem. People of colour are paying the price for it, but the problem, the genesis of the problem, is whiteness. And we have to figure out how to talk about it…. But I think now is the time for listening.”
He said, “We have to know what our responsibilities are and this goes back to Judaism – our responsibilities as witnesses. You can’t let your discomfort change the importance of this moment or overshadow the importance of this moment.”
One of the things Finkelstein does is teach social engagement via flash collectives. “I think we’re never put into a position where people mentor our personhood,” he said. “We have people mentor us as computer programmers or healthcare providers or tax accountants or artists or writers, but … there’s something primeval which is missing in the way we’re acculturated, and the flash collective is almost shamanistic in that regard; it taps into this primal thing that is quite astonishing when you let it out.”
Understanding that he will not live forever, he said “the Silence=Death poster casts a very mighty shadow and it makes it very difficult for people to figure out how to make new work, if that’s what they think it has to be…. It became obvious to me that I could be talking about Silence=Death until the day I drop, but, one day, I am going to drop and I want other people to start making those new works and I thought this would be a way to get people to make new work.”
He described the collectives, which teach political agency, as being “like a stew of the top 10 hits of grassroots organizing in a condensed workshop that’s tailored to the individuals in the room.”
He said, “I believe that I don’t necessarily have to change the world because I know that there could be a teenager in 2050 who sees something that someone I worked with did that made them think of something else that I never would have thought of. That is the point of the work, not the how do I fix it before I’m gone, which is the dilemma of Larry Kramer [who passed away last month]. He really thought, and I think it’s really male, but it’s very men of a certain generation also – he really thought that he could fix the AIDS crisis, and it didn’t happen.”
Unfortunately, space doesn’t allow for most of what Finkelstein shared with the Independent about Kramer, who he described as “a complicated person.”
Kramer was a rhetorician, said Finkelstein. “And I’m a propagandist. We’re both rhetoricians in a way, but what was the dividing line that made Larry incapable of understanding the work that I did?… I felt like I understood his process better than he understood mine. And I started to think, well, here’s the difference between a person who articulates their rage with words and a person who articulates their rage with every tool in the toolbox…. Not to make myself sound superior, but I realized that I think of rage as sculptural; he thought of rage as rhetorical. I think of rhetoric as sculptural, I think of it as casting a shadow and activating social spaces. And I think that he was a Jewish gay man of a different generation and a lot of his rage was tied into his personal struggles. And I did not have those. I had other personal struggles, but I did not have them.”
As part of the Queer Arts Festival, Finkelstein will lead a flash collective on the question, “What does queer public space mean in a 21st-century pandemic?” He hopes the resulting work will be shown in a public space.
For more information about the festival, visit queerartsfestival.com. The next issue of the JI will feature an interview with QAF artistic director and Jewish community member SD Holman.
A travelogue of observations and experiences from the unique to the mundane, the personal to the universal, a mix of prose and poetry, Goosefeather: Once Upon a Cartographic Adventure has arrived. Its journey, which started in 2011 when storyteller Naomi Eliana Pommier Steinberg interviewed her grandfather in Paris, will culminate in a book launch in Vancouver on June 9 that will stream live on Facebook and YouTube.
Vancouver-based artist Steinberg asked her maternal grandfather, who was not Jewish, more than 100 questions. In particular, she told the Jewish Independent in a 2018 interview, “I wanted to know how he had helped my Jewish grandmother survive the Second World War and why he was a collector of maps, weights and scales. Given his work with the metric system, I also thought it would be interesting for us to talk about measurements in general.” (See jewishindependent.ca/around-the-world-in-382-days.)
More than a year of research followed and, while she was able to show her grandfather pieces of what would become the performance work Goosefeather, he passed away before the work was completed. The JI saw the 2014 Vancouver Fringe Festival show, in which, the article notes, “Steinberg intersperses what she knows and learns about her grandfather with observations about the concept of measurement, of time and space. What do we measure? Our waists, our burdens? What are our favourite measuring tools? A yardstick, the position of the sun?” (See jewishindependent.ca/jewish-flare-at-fringe-festival.)
The idea that there is no such thing as an exact measurement is accented in the book Goosefeather, as an opportunity for readers to consider what they don’t know, to accept and embrace the unknown, and the fact that there will always be a margin of error, not just in our measurements, but in our perspectives and approaches to life.
“What I arrive at in the book is that: ‘Practising right-relation is predicated on allowing space for not knowing, space for humility, space for listening.’ It is a term borrowed from Buddhism,” Steinberg told the Independent in an interview last week.
“In Judaism,” she said, “there is kavanah, the stilling of self to prepare for entering the mystery. The setting of intention. Before ritual gestures, we centre ourselves, humble in the light of all there is, intending to practise peace. For some, the experience is made desirable and the longing for union acute through visualization. Then, I believe that tzedakah is one of the ways we can practise right-relation. With my own liberal interpretation and limited understanding, I could say that Judaism wrote laws to ensure the circulation of wealth, including, for example, tithing and taxation systems. Tzedakah, charity, is a mitzvah – a very important good deed. Finally, slichot [forgiveness prayers], the ability to recognize what is important … what needs to be let go, instead of focusing on negatives.”
The ability to adapt, to make quick decisions and to remain positive serve Steinberg well as a storyteller, no doubt. These attributes also helped on her travels, where things didn’t always go as planned, or were even left unplanned until the last minute. Her 382-day journey – by almost every mode of transportation except airplane – covered just under 56,000 kilometres and took her to many countries, including Canada and the United States, as well as Australia, China, Japan, Russia, Norway, England, Scotland, France, Switzerland and Belgium. She performed Goosefeather, as well as did other storytelling, along the way – 37 productions in all, according to the press material.
From countless experiences, Steinberg has created a concise account that is informational, philosophical, lyrical and thought-provoking. Some days, she records the details of her travels; other days, she ponders larger questions; yet other days, she simply notes how something smelled or sounded.
“An itinerant artist is a human on the road,” she explained. “There are ups and downs on life’s road. Parts of the 382 days on the road were uncomfortable or stretched out, long and slow. Well, we know it’s not all just fun and games in life. I wanted to keep it real. Much of what I was trying to do by sharing those moments was enter the banality of the day-to-day; to bring readers’ bodies there, evoking images, awakening senses, remembering experiences. That’s what storytellers do!”
Steinberg not only performed during her travels, but gave workshops, in which she offers her experience in crafting a story to communications professionals and other groups, stressing the importance of play and movement.
“The diaphragm is a great muscle that holds a lot of tension,” she explained. “It works super-hard every day, as does the heart, to maintain a flow of oxygen to all parts of the body. That’s amazing. We can practise gratitude towards our bodies every day! Sometimes, the tension in the diaphragm can be released through conscious breathing, laughter, certainly through yawning, and, probably, hopefully, through crying. These are four good ways to release the diaphragm. When we play, the diaphragm gets shaken up a bit and we can relax. Try it!
“Play is fun, charming, disarming. Play is guileless. Otherwise, you may as well call it manipulation and dress it up in propaganda’s clothes. Play can be surprising, logic threatening, synaptic gap leaping. These transformations in perspective can be subtle yet profound.”
Such thoughts come full circle back to the concept of margins of error and how our recognition of their existence could make us less quick to judge and more open to others’ ideas and perspectives.
Steinberg cited American writer and translator X.J. Kennedy, who, she noted, “says: ‘To leap over the wall of self, to look through another’s eyes – this is valuable experience, which literature offers.’
“Lateral movement is good for the body,” said Steinberg. “In theatresports, there is a game called space-jump – you literally leap in and out of scenarios, putting your whole self in an imaginary situation. Playing this feeds agility, spontaneity and willingness.”
Books, she said, are essential for many people, including, or perhaps especially during difficult periods, such as the COVID-19 pandemic we are currently experiencing. “Escaping into other experiences, or trying to understand what’s happening through the lens of historical accounts, can be a kind of lifesaver,” she said. “Books provide solace in challenging times. The act of writing can record, reflect and frame.”
Describing Goosefeather as “a memoir and travelogue with literary aspirations,” Steinberg said, “I have tried to bring my strength as an oral storyteller from the stage to the page. I hope the readers of Goosefeather feel included in a process of emergence and discovery. That a lightness and delight is found in the journey and that there is emotional resonance with humanity and with the planet. In some ways, I want to position the book as an antidote to the propagation of fear and the dangers of isolation.
“We are living a tremendous story of transformation,” she said. “The most gripping stories I’ve listened to or read, the ones that were somehow useful to my psyche, were the ones that gave insight into how a character might navigate difficulty, or might share their love and appreciation for what makes life wonderful. Listening, generosity, caring … these are manifest around the globe in a thousand small gestures and are giving shape to our emergent global culture. My hope is that Goosefeather’s story, her journey around the planet, contributes to this.”
And is that journey now complete?
“I like the idea that the performance is over, and need that for my own closure,” said Steinberg. “It ensures celebration of achievement. I can say, ‘Done’ – journey around planet as singular gesture towards time-space, ‘check!’
“Then there is the show, which I suppose could be performed again, but I’d have to relearn the text fresh and new. I’ve toyed with the idea of Goosefeather’s character doing a different stage performance, but, truth be told, I don’t actually know what comes next after this book! Maybe someone will pick it up and help with soft cover distribution? For now, I have 500 hardcover, first-edition, silver-gilded books for sale, and the desire to produce an interesting and entertaining live-stream launch event.”