Prof. Amir Amedi of the Hebrew
University answers questions from attendees at a Jan. 16 presentation. (photo
by Pat Johnson)
A white cane has been used for generations to
help guide the mobility of people who are blind. Researchers at the Hebrew
University of Jerusalem created the EyeCane, which added technology that
indicates to the user the distance to obstructions. From there, other
technological advances were added to identify the types of items in the area –
a couch, chairs, table, lamp – and convey the information to the user’s ear.
Still not satisfied, the scientists combined the invention with artificial
intelligence and complex auditory accompaniments so that the user could
identify the size, shape, colour, brightness and other attributes of the space
around them to get a full “picture” of their surroundings.
Presented by the Vancouver chapter of the
Canadian Friends of the Hebrew University, Prof. Amir Amedi spoke at Schara
Tzedeck Synagogue Jan. 16. Amedi is a professor in Hebrew University’s
department of medical neurobiology and an adjoint research professor at the
Sorbonne in Paris. He is currently a visiting professor at McGill University in
The interdisciplinary marriage of computer
science, neurology, philosophy, rehabilitation, physics and other fields is
leading to unprecedented advances in aids for people with disabilities. Some of
the foremost innovation is taking place at Hebrew University, where Amedi works
with a large team across many faculties.
The EyeCane is just one example of the sorts of
tools being developed in Amedi’s lab, items that are known as
sensory-substitution devices (SSDs). The most common SSD is the written word,
Amedi explained. For millennia, humans communicated only verbally. Written
language is a device that substitutes two senses – speaking and hearing – into
a different form: writing and reading.
Amedi discussed the development of agriculture,
then cities, then written language, then printing, each of which took tens of
thousands of years to evolve, allowing the human brain plenty of time to
accommodate the changes. Today, though, new technologies come flying at us
daily and the question this raises, according to Amedi, is how our brains are
able to adapt so readily to such sudden changes – an issue Amedi refers to as a
“real estate problem” in the brain.
“How can the brain, in the slow evolutionary
process, adapt to more and more information, more and more technologies?” he
One theory posits that parts of the brain get
recycled to deal with cognitive tasks it has not previously confronted.
A parallel invention of Amedi’s lab is an
auditory process that allows blind people to “see” with their brain. Sight is
really a function of the brain, not the eyes, he said. The eyes are the
conduit, but the brain does the cognitive work of seeing. Bypassing the
non-functional eyes and going through the ears directly to the part of the
brain where sight is computed, Amedi and his team have been able to create a
complex musical language that allows blind people to absorb immense amounts of
information about the environment around them.
In a demonstration, Amedi walked the audience
through the first lesson users of the technology are taught. Simple sounds –
similar to Morse code – represent lines. A musical scale going up or down
represents stairs. A smile is depicted by a falling then rising tone. Pitch is
added to determine height. Timbre is introduced to depict different colours. In
a remarkably short time, blind people are able to ascertain immense awareness
of their visual environments.
Significantly, Amedi added, brain imaging
indicates that the part of the brain processing the information is identical,
whether a sighted person is looking at something with their eyes or a blind
person is “looking” at something using the auditory sensory-substitution
Susan Mendelson, founder of the Lazy
Gourmet, shares a little about herself and her business at the launch of this
year’s The Scribe. (photo by Kenneth I. Swartz)
One of Vancouver’s most successful food
industry professionals shared her story recently, helping to launch this year’s
edition of The Scribe, the journal of the Jewish Museum and Archives of
The topic of the 2018 issue is food, covering
restaurants and related sectors from the early days of the community up to destinations
that are still operating today. Susan Mendelson, best known around town as
founder of the Lazy Gourmet, brought her thespian side to the audience at the
Western Front Nov. 28, eliciting laughter as she guided the packed hall on a
tour through her remarkable career.
“My mother’s mother, Grandma Faye, was a large
influence in my life,” Mendelson said. An extraordinary baker and cook renowned
in her small Jewish community of Quebec City, Grandma Faye took it as a
challenge to keep a deep freezer filled with baking for when friends dropped by
or to be ready for a tea party.
As a child, Mendelson loved to cook and bake.
When the Six Day War broke out in Israel, in 1967, the family rallied to raise
funds to send to Israel. Young Susan planned a bake sale in their backyard. She
made all of her favourite squares and cookies and the neighbours snapped them
up. Mendelson’s mother only told her years later that the cost of the
ingredients was on par with what was raised that day. Thankfully, Mendelson told
the audience, that wasn’t a harbinger of things to come.
Mendelson came to Vancouver to study at the
University of British Columbia and gravitated to the theatre department. Her
theatre professor, Larry Lillo, became a close friend. He broke the news to Mendelson
that she would never be a great actress … though he really loved her
After third year, Mendelson took a break from
school and worked in a group home for troubled teens. There, she met Deborah
Roitberg, with whom she made the food for the kids in the group home. An
instant friendship developed.
After traveling to Europe and Israel, Mendelson
thought she would return to school and pursue social work. Around that time,
Lillo had founded Tamahnous Theatre, an experimental ensemble that was becoming
the resident company at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre. He hired Mendelson
as house manager, which allowed her to go to school during the day and work at
the Cultch, as the institution is familiarly known, at night. But the salary
didn’t cover her expenses, so she began to make cheesecake to sell at
intermission, later adding carrot cake and Nanaimo bars to her repertoire –
“when the curtain came down at intermission, the lobby was stormed by people
pushing in line to make sure that they got their piece of the cake.”
Anne Petrie of CBC radio’s afternoon show
called Mendelson, having heard about the cheesecake phenomenon, and asked her
to come on the program.
“I told her that I was putting myself through
university with the recipe, but that I would come onto her show to tell her
listeners how to make chocolate cheesecake, a recipe that my friend Miriam
Gropper had given me,” Mendelson said.
Her cheeky attitude was a hit with audiences,
and she was asked back. She returned for Valentine’s Day, talking about
aphrodisiacs. Soon she had a regular radio gig paying $25 per appearance.
Mendelson’s boss at the Cultch started asking
her to cater opening night parties. Wedding catering followed and then
Mendelson was given the responsibility of catering to all the performers at the
first iteration of the Vancouver Children’s Festival. She and Roitberg
discussed opening a take-out food business.
“Our concept was that people would bring in
their casserole dishes and platters and we would fill them with our food and
they would take them home and pretend that they had made them themselves,” she
said. “We would call ourselves the Lazy Gourmet, in honour of our customers who
wanted gourmet food but were too lazy to make it themselves.”
Over the years, Mendelson had shared scores of
recipes with radio listeners and some asked her to put them in book form. Mama
Never Cooked Like This sold out and went into reprints; it was picked up by
an American publisher.
To coincide with the publication of her second
book, which was written for children and titled Let me in the Kitchen,
the producer of the Children’s Festival, Chris Wootten, asked Mendelson to
produce her own show. The best part of that experience, Mendelson recalled, was
that a single dad in the audience brought his 7-year-old son and they bought
the cookbook and made recipes
from it. “Six years later, I met those two,”
she said. “And, seven years later, I married the dad and became stepmother to
the most wonderful young teen. I was so happy that Jack and Soleil had experienced
that show and that in some way we shared that amazing experience of my life.”
TV appearances followed and Mendelson was asked
to write a souvenir cookbook for Expo 86.
But the trajectory was not entirely positive.
After expanding the Lazy Gourmet from one store to three, the company began
losing money. They eventually abandoned two of the storefronts and Roitberg
left the business to raise a family.
Soon after the birth of daughter Mira,
Mendelson was invited to cater a new event that was coming to Vancouver: the
Molson Indy Vancouver.
“If you thought that the Children’s Festival
wore me out … you can’t even imagine what that event did to me physically,” she
said. “But, of course, I loved it and, by the last few years of the race, which
took place on Labour Day weekend – Jack will tell you that it was our
anniversary weekend that we didn’t celebrate for nine years – we were also
catering the Abbotsford Airshow, which took place two weeks beforehand and, two
weeks before that, we catered the Skins Game at Predator Ridge in the
In addition to hard work, Mendelson credits her
success to hiring people who she says are smarter and more talented than
herself. A couple of years ago, she gave shares in the company to two long-term
team members and moved into a part-time role. The company continues to expand,
including a lifecycle catering department. “We call it womb-to-tomb catering,”
she said, citing baby-namings, britot milah, b’nai mitzvah, weddings and
funerals, as well as personal events. More recently, Mendelson took on catering
the lunches at Vancouver Talmud Torah.
The Scribe launch also
included words from Cynthia Ramsay, editor and publisher of the Independent,
who has also, for the past nine years, edited The Scribe.
“When I started the job, the journal was a mix
of academic essays and community-related history,” Ramsay said. “But it soon
changed to become a means by which the museum could highlight its collection;
the oral histories, photographs and other artifacts that it houses on the
community’s behalf. We’ve done issues on the Jewish Western Bulletin,
the Jewish Independent’s predecessor; on the furniture industry; scrap
metal dealers; the clothing industry; on some of the community pioneers who are
buried in our cemeteries all around the province; and, this year, of course,
our issue is on the food and service industry.”
She credited museum staff Alysa Routtenberg,
Marcy Babins and Michael Schwartz, and the publications committee, which this
year included Routtenberg, Perry Seidelman, Gary Averbach, Debby Freiman, Fred
Swartz and Ronnie Tessler. The JI’s production manager, Josie Tonio
McCarthy, does the layout for the journals.
Seidelman, president of the JMABC, urged audience members not to
throw out photographs or documents. “Give them to us,” he said.
Crimes against identifiable groups in Canada have spiked sharply, according to the latest data from Statistics Canada on police-reported hate crimes. Jews and Jewish institutions were the foremost targeted group, but hate crimes against Muslims comprised the largest increase.
Across Canada, there were 2,073 police-reported hate crimes in 2017, an increase of 664 incidents over the previous year. Almost half of all hate crimes were reported in Ontario. In British Columbia, 255 hate crimes were reported to police, including 68 that targeted Jews, 36 incidents against black people, 19 against Muslims and 18 crimes based on sexual orientation. Reported hate crimes against the Muslim, black, Arab or West Asian and LGBTQ+ communities all increased nationwide.
Across the country, hate crimes against the Jewish community rose by 63% between 2016 and 2017 – from 221 incidents to 360 – and the Jewish community remained the most frequently targeted group in both absolute and per capita terms, the report stated. Hate crimes against the Muslim community increased 151% between those years, from 139 police-reported incidents in 2016 to 349 in 2017.
In one of few comparatively bright spots in the report, violent incidents decreased as a proportion of all hate crimes, accounting for 38% of reported hate crimes in 2017, down from 44% in 2016. But this proportional decline is tempered by the raw numbers. The actual number of violent hate crimes increased 25% but decreased as a proportion of hate crimes overall only because the number of non-violent crimes increased that much more – non-violent offences like mischief and public incitement of hatred increased 64%.
Of the 360 police-reported crimes against Jews or Jewish institutions across Canada in 2017, 209 of those were in Ontario and 49 in Quebec – making British Columbia not only the second province in raw numbers of anti-Jewish attacks, but almost tying Ontario on a per capita basis and surpassing all other provinces by far.
Hate crimes in Canada have been creeping upward relatively slowly since 2014, according to Statistics Canada, but 2017 saw a leap of 47% over the previous year. Most of the crimes involved hate-related property crimes, such as graffiti and vandalism.
Despite the large increase in 2017, however, hate crimes still represent a very small proportion of overall crime – about 0.1% of the more than 1.9 million non-traffic crimes reported by police services in 2017. That said, a 2014 Statistics Canada study, General Social Survey on Canadians’ Safety (Victimization), in which Canadians self-reported incidents of perceived hate crimes, indicated that two-thirds of such incidents were not reported to police, suggesting that the numbers in the hate crimes reports might underestimate actual incidents substantially.
“Police-reported hate crimes refer to criminal incidents that, upon investigation by police, are found to have been motivated by hatred toward an identifiable group,” explains StatsCan. “An incident may be against a person or property and may target race, colour, national or ethnic origin, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, language, sex, age, mental or physical disability, among other factors. In addition, there are four specific offences listed as hate propaganda offences or hate crimes in the Criminal Code of Canada: advocating genocide, public incitement of hatred, wilful promotion of hatred, and mischief motivated by hate in relation to property used by an identifiable group.”
Hate crimes against Muslims, particularly in Quebec, contributed significantly to the overall spike in 2017 reported incidents. Hate crimes in that province increased 50% over the previous year, with incidents targeting Muslims almost tripling to 117 reports in 2017 from 41 the previous year. Perhaps most disconcertingly, the biggest spike in anti-Muslim incidents in Quebec occurred in the month following the mass shooting at the Islamic Cultural Centre of Quebec, where six Muslim men were murdered in a shooting rampage on Jan. 29, 2017.
In response to the statistics, which were released Nov. 29, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs called on the federal government to take a three-pronged approach to hate-motivated crime and related matters.
“In the wake of this report, we are reiterating our call on the Government of Canada to take three key steps to combat hate,” Shimon Koffler Fogel, chief executive officer of CIJA, said in a statement. “First, we are grateful that the prime minister announced he will enhance the Security Infrastructure Program. We urge the government to expand it to cover training costs, especially given that emergency training saved lives during the Pittsburgh synagogue attack. Second, we need a national strategy to combat online hate. Experience shows that vicious rhetoric online can fuel and foreshadow violence offline. Third, the federal government should strengthen the capacity of law enforcement to combat hate crime. This should include enhancing legal tools to deal with hate speech and supporting the creation of local hate crime units where they are lacking.”
University of Ottawa’s Prof. Jan Grabowski delivered the Rudolf Vrba Memorial Lecture at the University of British Columbia Nov. 15. (photo by Pat Johnson)
Jan Grabowski, a University of Ottawa professor who is a leading scholar of the Holocaust, delivered the annual Rudolf Vrba Memorial Lecture at the University of British Columbia Nov. 15 – the same day he filed a libel suit against an organization aligned with Poland’s far-right government.
The Polish League Against Defamation, which is allied with the country’s governing Law and Justice Party, initiated a campaign against Grabowski last year, accusing him of ignoring the number of Poles who saved Jews and exaggerating the number of Jews killed by their Polish compatriots. Grabowski’s book, Hunt for the Jews: Betrayal and Murder in German-Occupied Poland, won the 2014 Yad Vashem International Book Prize for Holocaust Research. An English translation of an even more compendious multi-year analysis undertaken by a team of researchers under Grabowski’s leadership will be published next year. His Vrba lecture provided an overview of some of the findings in the new work. It is a harrowing survey that brought condemnation from Polish-Canadians in the Vancouver audience.
The new book, which does not yet have an English title, is a work of “microhistory,” Grabowski said. Holocaust studies is one of the fastest-growing fields of historical research, he said, partly because it got off to a slow start and really only picked up in the 1980s. Much of the written work being completed today is in the area of survivor memoirs, second- and third-generation experiences, including inherited trauma, and “meta-history,” the study of the study of the Holocaust.
“This assumes that we actually know what has happened,” he said. Grabowski maintains there is still much primary research to be done. “We are still far away from knowing as much as we should about this, one of the greatest tragedies in human history.”
There are millions of pages of relevant historical documentation almost completely untapped – primarily in provincial Polish archives, police records and town halls – that spell out in detail the often-enthusiastic complicity of Poles in turning on their
Jewish neighbours. By combing through these previously ignored records, Grabowski and his co-authors have amassed evidence of widespread – and eager – involvement of Polish police and other Poles in assisting Germans to identify, hunt down and murder Polish Jews.
The work has been met with official condemnation. Earlier this year, the Polish government adopted a law that would expose scholars involved in the study of the Holocaust to fines and prison terms of up to three years. The criminal component of the law, including imprisonment, was rescinded after international backlash, but the atmosphere around Holocaust inquiry in Poland remains repressive.
Grabowski said that the “explosion of right-wing extremists, xenophobia and blatant antisemitism” in Poland is related to the “undigested, unlearned and/or rejected legacy of the Holocaust” – the fact that Polish society has, by and large, refused to acknowledge the wounds of the past or to deal with its own role in the extermination of three million of its Jewish citizens between 1939 to 1945.
The concept of microhistory, which is the approach Grabowski’s team uses, is not local history, he said, “it is an attempt to follow trajectories of people.” He instructed his researchers to focus on the exact day, often hour by hour, when liquidation actions took place in hundreds of Polish shtetls and ghettoes. To do so upends a conspiracy of silence that has existed for decades.
“Why the silence?” he asked the audience. “There were three parts to the silence. One was the Jews. They were dead. They had no voice … 98.5% of Polish Jews who remained under German occupation, who never fled, died. You have a 1.5% survival rate for the Polish Jews. So, the Jews couldn’t really, after the war, ask for justice, because they were gone.”
The communist regime that dominated Poland for a half-century after the war was viewed not only as a foreign power inflicted on Poles from the Soviet Union, Grabowski said, “but, more importantly, as Jewish lackeys – that was a term that was used.
“So, it wouldn’t really stand to have trials of those accused of complicity with the Germans for murdering the Jews,” he said. “That would only confirm the widespread accusations that the communists were here doing the Jewish bidding.”
The third factor in the silence were the interests of Polish nationalists, whose ideology is inherently antisemitic, and who are the dominant political force in the country today.
While clearly not all Poles were collaborators, it would have been impossible for almost anyone in the country to claim ignorance of what was happening.
“Mass killing was taking place in the streets,” the professor said. Researchers found bills of sale charging city officials for the sand municipal workers needed to cover the blood on sidewalks.
“When you say that blood was running in the streets, it’s not a metaphor, it’s just a description of what really happened,” he said.
In some ghettos, as many as half the Jewish population was killed on the day of the action, with massive participation from Polish society.
“One area more, one area less,” he said. “Usually between 10 and 20% of Jews were slaughtered simply in order to frighten the remaining 80% to go to the trains, to be herded to the trains,” said Grabowski.
In Poland’s smaller communities, centuries of Jewish and Polish social, commercial and civic interactions did not result in camaraderie – on the contrary.
“The deadliest places of all [were] small shtetls, small towns, where anonymity was not available when the authorities were not far away,” he said. In one instance, a Jew in hiding heard his neighbour assure the Nazis he would return with a hatchet to help them break into the hiding place seconds before the door was axed down.
In another example, Grabowski described in minute detail the atrocities committed by Germans, Poles and Ukrainian recruits in Węgrów, a town in eastern central Poland with a Jewish population of about “10,000 starving Jews who have been terrorized for nearly three years and now the final moment has come.”
Rumours of liquidation swirled for months, as Jews fleeing neighbouring communities brought narratives of destruction. In the day or two before the liquidation, wives of Polish military and other officials rushed to their Jewish tailors, shoemakers and others craftspeople to obtain the items they knew would soon become unavailable.
“With mounting panic, people started to prepare themselves for a siege,” said Grabowski. “They built hideouts to survive the initial German fury, they started to seek out contacts on the Aryan side of the city, looking for help from former neighbours, sometimes friends and former business partners.”
On the eve of Yom Kippur in 1942, Polish officials in the town were instructed to assemble horses, wagons and volunteers. A cordon of Nazis and collaborators surrounded the city at intervals of no more than 100 metres.
The mayor of the town wrote: “Jews who woke up to the terrible news ran like mad around the city, half-naked, looking for shelter.” The same leader noted that, when the Germans demanded he produce volunteers to help with the task of rounding up their Jewish neighbours, he feared he would not be able to meet their needs.
“Before I was able to leave my office, in order to assess the situation and issue orders for the removal of the bodies,” the mayor testified, “removal of the bodies had already started. There were carts and people ready. They volunteered for the job without any pressure.”
For Jews, the Germans were to be feared, but their Polish neighbours were also a threat.
“The greatest danger was not associated with the Germans, but with the Poles,” said Grabowski. “Unlike the former, the latter could easily tell a Jew from a non-Jew by their accent, customs and physical appearance.”
Poles were rewarded with a quarter-kilo of sugar for every Jew they turned in.
“The searches were conducted with extreme brutality and violence … the streets were soon filled with crowds of Jews being driven toward the market square, which the Germans had transformed into a holding pen for thousands of ghetto inmates,” he said.
On the streets, “the cries of Jews mixed with the shouts of the Germans and the laughter of the Poles,” according to an eyewitness.
“All of this was done in a small town where everybody knows each other,” said Grabowski. “It’s not only the question of geographic proximity, it’s social proximity. These people knew each other.”
People were taking clothes, jewelry and other possessions from the dead bodies. A husband would toss a body in the air while the wife pulled off articles of clothing until what was left was a pile of naked cadavers.
“They even pulled out golden teeth with pliers,” said Grabowski. A court clerk responded defensively to accusations that the gold he was trying to sell was soaked in human blood. “I personally washed the stuff,” he protested.
The prevalence in the Polish imagination of a Jewish association with gold partly accounted for the actions.
“This betrayal, due to widespread antisemitism and hatred of the Jews, was combined with the seemingly universal conviction that Jewish gold was just waiting to be transferred to new owners,” Grabowski said. “The myth of Jewish gold was so popular and so deeply rooted among Poles that it sealed the fate of [many Jews].”
The historical records indicate many Poles saw no need to cover their collaborationist tracks. Police and others who took it upon themselves to aid the Nazis without pressure defended their actions.
One policeman, after the war, depicted the killing of Jews as a patriotic act, one that saved Polish villagers from the wrath of the Nazis, who would have learned sooner or later about Jews in hiding and who then, he claimed, would have burned down the entire village.
As efficient as the Nazi killing machine was, Grabowski contends it could not have been as effective without the enthusiastic complicity of so many in Poland and other occupied countries.
“It was their participation that, in a variety of ways, made the German system of murder as efficient as it was,” he said.
With trepidation, Grabowski and his fellow researchers followed the documents and met with people in the towns. They would review documents from a 1947 trial, for instance, then go to the village in question.
The entire village would be conscious of its war-era history, he said. And the people who are, decades later, ostracized by their neighbours are not those who collaborated in the murder of Jews.
“The person that is ostracized is the family who tried to rescue the Jews, because they broke a certain social taboo and it still visible 75 or 76 years after the fact,” he said.
“Every time I present a speech to a Polish audience, the question of Polish righteous is presented as if it is a fig leaf behind which everyone else can hide.”
In the question-and-answer session, Grabowski shut down a persistent audience member who identified as Polish and who took exception with Grabowski’s research, arguing that Poland has more Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem than any other country.
“Every time I present a speech to a Polish audience, the question of Polish righteous is presented as if it is a fig leaf behind which everyone else can hide,” said Grabowski, who was born and educated in Warsaw. “The thing is, do you know how many Jews needed to be rescued? Poland had the largest Jewish community and using today Polish righteous as a universal and, let’s say, fig leaf behind which situations like I described here can be hidden is absolutely unconscionable. I protest against any attempt to overshadow the tragedy of Jewish people [with] the sacrifice of very, very few Poles.”
While Poland’s far-right government removed the mandated jail sentence for anyone found guilty of “slandering” Poland or Poles with complicity in Nazi war crimes, acknowledging the participation of Polish collaborators in the Holocaust remains a civil offence and Holocaust scholars in the country – and in Canada – face death threats and intimidation.
In introducing Grabowski, Richard Menkis, associate professor in the department of history at UBC, paid tribute to Rudolf Vrba, a Slovakian Jew who escaped Auschwitz and brought to the world inside information about the death camp, its operations and physical layout. Vrba, with fellow escapee Albert Wetzler, warned in 1944 that Hungarian Jews were about to face mass transport to the death camps. The news is credited with saving as many as 200,000 lives.
Vrba migrated to Canada and became a professor of pharmacology at UBC. He died in 2006.
The Vrba lecture alternates annually between an issue relevant to the Holocaust and an issue chosen by the pharmacology department in the faculty of medicine.
At risk of universalizing a book with a particular theme, The Aging of Aquarius: Igniting Passion and Purpose as an Elder is valuable not just for those who are retired or pondering it – though it has plenty of age-specific content for that demographic. At root, it is a book about living well, and that makes it a valuable volume for people of any age.
Author Helen Wilkes, a Vancouverite and member of the Or Shalom community, has penned an optimistic, uplifting book. But let that not deceive the reader, she warns early on, into misjudging who she is.
“Lest you think I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth or that I am one of those insufferably cheerful people,” she writes in the preface, “permit me to introduce myself.”
She talks about being born to Jewish shopkeepers in a village in the Sudetenland, part of Czechoslovakia that was among the first places occupied by the Nazis in advance of the Second World War.
“Our village fell to Hitler when I was still in diapers and, as a consequence, I have spent a lifetime with fear and negativity as my constant companions,” she writes.
Her childhood was lonely and her parents uncommunicative. Her marriage ended when her daughters were 3 and 4 years old.
“Divorce at the time was still so shameful that it took my mother several years to accept what she and her friends labeled as my ‘failure as a woman.’”
Yet Wilkes pivots to optimism.
“If, despite a childhood in the shadow of the Holocaust, and if, despite a lifetime of experiencing myself as an outsider with little sense of self-worth, I have found cause to hold my head high and to face the future with optimism in my retirement years, there is reason for others to hope,” she writes.
This is not a handbook on aging so much as an illustration by example of how to do it right. She does acknowledge, though, that a person has to make the effort to age well. Each section of her book ends with ideas and actions that might help on the path to success.
“Everywhere, there are opportunities to meet new people, yet surveys indicate that social isolation is a major problem despite the fact that simply joining a club is as good for your health as quitting smoking, exercising or losing weight,” writes Wilkes, who has a PhD in French literature. “The Vancouver Foundation reports ‘a precipitous decline’ in how many people made use of libraries, community or recreation centres in 2017, that only about one in four people took part in any kind of community or neighbourhood project.… And that, in a city as diverse as ours, only about one in four people attended an ethnic or cultural event put on by an ethnic or cultural group different than their own.”
Finding joy in the simple things – again, good advice for people of any age – is one of her key findings.
“Aging has made me a connoisseur of life,” she writes. “It has taught me to savour not what is rare or high-priced, but what is ordinary. The small moments that sometimes overwhelm me with heart-stopping joy. An incredible blue-sky day. The first sip of my morning coffee. The laughter of family and friends. Whenever I am walking in the woods with a boisterous dog, whenever I sit on a log at the beach while the sun dips slowly below the horizon and paints the sky with hues no artist could capture, whenever I stroll through a harvest market where farm-fresh produce overwhelms with its rich ripeness, whenever my grandchildren burst through the doorway to give me a hug, or whenever I am engaged in any number of absorbing activities, I so often have an overwhelming sense of not wanting to be anywhere in the world except exactly where I am at this moment.”
While she challenges the conceptions some people have of retirement as a time to sit in a hammock with a fancy drink, she does also acknowledge that, as Danny Kaye said, “to travel is to take a journey into yourself.”
She talks about an eye-opening trip to China, where she went as a chaperone to her 10-year-old twin grandsons. Having heard of the panoply of human rights abuses in China, she was shocked to see an English-language newspaper with a headline asking “How dare they?” above an article cataloguing racism and human rights abuses in the United States and other “free world” countries. Having heard about China’s reputation as a major contributor to global warming, she was pleased to see solar panels and wind turbines throughout the country. The rapid transit system they used to get everywhere contrasted with what she is familiar with in Vancouver.
“China held up a mirror that led me to reexamine the history I had been taught in high school and university,” she writes. “Day by day, it became more difficult to view the West as having brought enlightenment to backward Asians.”
Wilkes acknowledges that not everyone can travel to foreign countries and says there are ways to experience some of that diversity without getting on a plane.
“Next week, I anticipate attending a Hindu baby-naming ceremony to which I’ve been invited. Last week, I was invited for dinner at the home of a Muslim family from Pakistan. Being at their table, sharing our limited knowledge of one another’s culture, these to me are opportunities for much more than just personal enjoyment or emotional enrichment. They are occasions where it is possible to create a gram of kindness in a world where political and regional and religious differences tend to divide rather than link. I never fail to feel uplifted by experiencing our common humanity writ large. When I can no longer travel, I hope I will still reach out to people from other lands as graciously as people elsewhere have reached out to me,” she writes.
She speaks about another trip – this one to Berlin, for the launch of the German translation of her previous book, Letters from the Lost: A Memoir of Discovery, which explored her survivor’s guilt as she discovered, in adulthood, a cache of letters from family left behind in Czechoslovakia after she and her parents fled just after Nazi occupation of the Sudetenland.
“In Berlin, forgetting is impossible,” she reflects. “Over the years, Germany has made remembering an art as well as an official policy. Germany tells the world that it is only by remembering the past that we have any likelihood of avoiding similar mistakes in the future. The reminders are unavoidable. In Berlin, history is omnipresent. Even the sidewalks are studded with Stolpersteine, raised stumbling blocks inscribed with the names of Jews who once lived in the adjacent buildings.”
Since so many people’s identities are entwined with their profession, she writes, moving into retirement, for many people, can demand a complete reinvention of self. She proceeds to ask a litany of questions about what identity means, and even, as a member of a particular culture, what culture means.
“Such questions and many more continue to haunt me as I age,” she writes.
And, while she turns to books for answers, the process of asking questions may be an end in itself when addressing the existential issues the book confronts.
Among everything else it is, The Aging of Aquarius is also a very Jewish memoir. Both in her personal history and in the theological exploration she discusses near the end of it, her Jewish identity and experiences play central roles in the story.
At a book launch at Or Shalom on Nov. 4, Wilkes said she approaches the later years of life with many unanswered questions. But, as difficult as finding answers may be, she suggested responding affirmatively.
“I know it’s not easy, but if the answer to how is yes,” she said in conclusion, “let us all say yes to life. Yes to aging. L’chaim.”
Kristallnacht, which took place 80 years ago this month, saw hundreds of synagogues burned, Jewish-owned businesses destroyed, 100 Jews murdered and 30,000 incarcerated. (photo from commons.wikimedia.org)
Kristallnacht, which took place 80 years ago this month, was the “Night of Broken Glass” that saw hundreds of synagogues burned, Jewish-owned businesses destroyed, 100 Jews murdered and 30,000 incarcerated. The state-sanctioned pogrom was staged to look like a spontaneous uprising against the Jews of Germany, annexed Austria and occupied Sudetenland. It is frequently seen as the beginning in earnest of the Holocaust. According to Prof. Chris Friedrichs, who delivered the keynote address at the annual Kristallnacht commemorative evening Nov. 8, global reaction to the attack, which took place on the night of Nov. 9-10, 1938, sent messages to both Nazis and Jews.
“The world was shocked,” said Friedrichs, professor emeritus of history at the University of British Columbia. “Newspapers in the free countries of Europe and all over the Americas reported on these events in detail. Editorials thundered against the Nazi thugs. Protests took place. Demonstrations were held. Opinion was mobilized – for a few days. But soon, Kristallnacht was no longer front-page news. What had happened was now the new normal in Germany, and the world’s attention moved elsewhere. And this is what the Nazis learned: we can do this, and more, and get away with it. Nothing will happen.
“And the Jews of Germany learned something too,” said Friedrichs, himself a son of parents who fled the Nazi regime. “By 1938, many Jews had emigrated from Germany – if they could find a country that would take them. But many others remained. Much had been taken away from them, but two things remained untouched: their houses of worship and their homes. Here, at least, one could be safe, sustained by the fellowship of other Jews and the comforts and consolations of religious faith and family life. But now, in one brutal night, these things, too, had been taken from them. Their synagogues were reduced to rubble, their shops vandalized, their homes desecrated. Nothing was safe or secure. The last lingering hopes of the Jews still living in Germany that, despite all they had suffered at the hands of the Nazis, they might at least be allowed to live quiet private lives of work and worship with family and friends, collapsed in the misery of fire, smashed glass, home invasions, mass arrests and psychological terror on Nov. 9, 1938.”
Friedrichs’ lecture followed a solemn procession of survivors of the Holocaust, who carried candles onto the bimah of Congregation Beth Israel. The evening, presented by the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre (VHEC) and Beth Israel, was funded by the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver annual campaign, with support from the Robert and Marilyn Krell Endowment Fund of the VHEC and the Azrieli Foundation, which provided every attendee with a copy of Dangerous Measures, the memoir of Canadian Joseph Schwartzberg, who witnessed Kristallnacht and fled Germany with his family soon after.
“We are gathered tonight in the sanctuary of a synagogue,” said Friedrichs, who retired in June, after 45 years of teaching and researching at UBC. “A synagogue should indeed be a sanctuary, a quiet place where Jews can gather, chiefly but not only on the Sabbath, for prayer, worship and contemplation. Recent events have reminded us only too bitterly that this is not always the case.
“Our minds are full of mental images of what happened in Pittsburgh less than two weeks ago, but I invite you to call up a different mental image,” he said, taking the audience back to the time of Kristallnacht. “Think of a synagogue. Just a few days earlier, on the Sabbath, Jews had gathered there, as they have gathered in synagogues for 2,000 years, for prayer, worship and fellowship with other Jews. But now, suddenly, in the middle of the night, a firebomb is thrust through a window of the synagogue. As the window glass shatters to the floor, the firebomb ignites a piece of furniture. Within minutes the fire spreads. Soon the entire synagogue is engulfed in flames. It is an inferno. The next morning, the walls of the synagogue are still standing, but the interior is completely gutted. No worship will ever take place there again.”
Friedrichs paused to note that some in the audience would recall a similar attack that destroyed Vancouver’s Reform synagogue, Temple Sholom, on Jan. 25, 1985. He recounted the reaction of police and firefighters, civic leaders and the general public, who rallied around the Vancouver congregation at the time, and compared that with the reactions of non-Jews in Germany and the territories it controlled at the time of Kristallnacht.
“Police and firefighters are on the scene,” Friedrichs said of the situation during Kristallnacht. “But the firefighters are not there to put out the blaze. They are there only to make sure the fire does not spread to any nearby non-Jewish buildings. The police are there only to make sure no members of the congregation try to rescue anything from the building.
“The next morning, crowds of onlookers gape at the burnt-out shell of the synagogue. Some of the furnishings and ritual objects have survived the blaze, so they are dragged out to the street and a bonfire is prepared. But first, the local school principal must arrive with his pupils. Deprived of the opportunity to see the synagogue itself in flames during the night, when they were asleep, the children should at least have the satisfaction of seeing the furnishings and Jewish ritual objects go up in smoke. Most of those objects are added to the bonfire, but not all. Not the Torah scrolls – the Five Books of Moses, every single word of which, in translation, is identical to the words found in the first five books of every Christian Bible. No, the Torah scrolls are not added to the bonfire. They are dragged out to the street to be trampled on by the children, egged on by adult onlookers, while other adults rip apart the Torah covers to be taken home as souvenirs.
“And now consider this: events like this did not happen in just one town,” Friedrichs said. “The same things took place in hundreds upon hundreds of cities and towns throughout Germany and Austria, all on the very same evening and into the next morning. There were minor variations from town to town, but the basic events were exactly the same, for it was a nationwide pogrom, carefully planned in advance.”
Friedrichs, who devoted 25 years to serving on the organizing committee of the Kristallnacht commemorative committee, including eight as president, reflected on the history of Holocaust remembrance in Vancouver, including the decision to single out this date as one of the primary commemorative events of the calendar.
“Why should we commemorate the Shoah at this particular time in November?” he asked. “Consider this: 91 Jewish men died on Nov. 9th and 10th, 1938. Yet, on a single day in the busy summer of 1944, up to 5,000 Jewish men, women and children might be murdered in the gas chambers of Auschwitz on one day. Why not select some random date in August 1944 and make that the occasion to recall the victims of the Shoah? Why choose Kristallnacht?”
The earliest Holocaust commemorations in the city, he said, citing the work of local scholar Barbara Schober, was an event in 1948 marking the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
People who had founded the Peretz School in Vancouver, in 1945, hoped to preserve the memories and values of the East European Jewish culture, which had been almost totally wiped from the map, he said. “Yet, rather than focus on the six million deaths, their intention was to honour those Jews who had actually risen up to fight the Nazi menace – the hopeless but inspiring efforts exemplified above all by the heroic resistance of the Warsaw Ghetto fighters who used the pathetically meagre supply of weapons they could find to resist the final liquidation of the ghetto by the Nazis in the spring of 1943,” said Friedrichs. “That effort failed, but it was not forgotten.”
This event continued, with the support of Canadian Jewish Congress, into the 1970s, he explained.
“There was an emerging concern that Jews should not just recall and pay tribute to the victims of the Shoah,” said Friedrichs. “The increasing visibility of the Holocaust denial movement made it apparent that Jews should also make their contribution to educating society as a whole – and especially young people – about the true history of what had happened. Prof. Robert Krell and Dr. Graham Forst undertook to establish an annual symposium at UBC at which hundreds of high school students would learn about the Holocaust from experts and, even more importantly, from hearing the first-person accounts of survivors themselves. It was in those years, too, that the Vancouver Holocaust Education Society was established to coordinate these efforts. The survivor outreach program, through which dozens of survivors of the Shoah in our community spoke and continue to speak to students about what they experienced, became the cornerstone of these educational efforts. Their talks are always different, for no two survivors ever experienced the Shoah the same way, but the ultimate object is always the same – not just to teach students what happened to the Jews of Europe between 1939 and 1945, but to reflect on the danger that racist thinking of any kind can all too easily lead to.”
But this was education, he noted, not commemoration.
“With the decline of the Warsaw Ghetto event in Vancouver, the need to commemorate the Shoah came to be filled in other ways. One of those ways was the emergence of the Vancouver Kristallnacht commemoration. The origins of this form of commemoration lie right here in the Beth Israel congregation. In the late 1970s, members of the Gottfried family who had emigrated from Austria in the Nazi era, now members of Beth Israel, proposed that their synagogue host a commemoration of Kristallnacht.”
Friedrichs spoke of the burden carried by each of the survivors who carried candles onto the bimah moments earlier.
“You might think that a candle is not very hard to carry, but, for each one of these men and women, the flame of the candle has reignited painful memories stretching back 70 or 80 years, to a dimly remembered way of life before their world collapsed,” he said. “These men and women survived, and sometimes a few of their relatives did as well, but all of them, without exception, you’ve heard this before, had family members – whether parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, siblings, or cousins – who were murdered. One could not reproach these men and women if they had chosen to stay home on a night like this. But, instead, they are here.
“Many of these men and women have done more, even more, as well,” he continued. “For many of them have done something for years and continue to do so even now: to speak of their experiences to students in the schools of our province. To stand in front of two or three or four or five hundred students of every race and every heritage and describe life in the ghetto or the camp or on the death march or the anxiety of living in hiding and being pushed into a basement or a closet every time some unwanted visitor arrived – this is not easy. But there is a purpose. The young people of our province are barraged with images and messages and texts telling them that people of certain religions or races or heritages are inferior and unwanted members of our society. They must be told just what that kind of thinking can lead to. No textbook, no video, no lecture can do the job as powerfully as hearing a survivor describe exactly what he or she experienced during the Shoah.”
Corinne Zimmerman, vice-president of the VHEC, welcomed guests and introduced the candlelighting procession. Cantor Yaacov Orzech chanted El Moleh Rachamim, the memorial prayer for the martyrs. UBC Prof. Richard Menkis delivered opening remarks and Helen Pinsky, president of Beth Israel, introduced Sarah Kirby-Yung, a Vancouver city councilor who read a proclamation from the mayor. Nina Krieger, executive director of the VHEC, introduced Friedrichs. Beth Israel’s Rabbi Jonathan Infeld provided closing remarks, and Jody Wilson-Raybould, minister of justice and member of Parliament for Vancouver Granville, sent greetings on behalf of the Government of Canada.
The Jewish Federations of North America held its annual General Assembly this year in Tel Aviv Oct. 22-24. (photo by Pat Johnson)
The Jewish Federations of North America held its annual General Assembly in Israel, as it does every five years, Oct. 22-24. This time, for the first time, the convention met in Tel Aviv. The event was marketed with the theme “We need to talk,” the provocative title suggesting that the meetup would frankly confront the many points of contention between Israelis and Diaspora Jews.
By the time about 2,500 delegates, including a sizeable number of Israelis, arrived at the conference centre, the theme had shifted from the ominous pre-romantic-breakup phrase to the more upbeat “Let’s talk!” Delegates talked among themselves and listened to a plethora of speakers, including Israel’s president, prime minister, leader of the opposition and other elected officials, heads of civil society organizations, a recipient of this year’s Israel Prize and leading figures in the Federation movement.
While some observers – including the organization Am Echad, which placed a full-page ad in the Jerusalem Post – said the conference did not reflect the diversity of demographics or opinion in Israel, Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver chief executive officer Ezra Shanken refuted the criticism.
“I think that we’re never going to have a shortage of people who want to criticize our gatherings,” he said. “I don’t believe that that is actually accurate. When I look around the room, I see kippot on people’s heads, I see people coming from the Modern Orthodox side of the community and I see people coming from the liberal side of the community. We have made an effort, in Jewish Federations of North America and the Jewish Federations of Canada and our Federation, to dialogue with as wide of a group as we can. I think there is a lot of diversity here.”
A two-and-a-half-day conference provides an intensely limited time to address, let alone resolve, the range of issues on the table. Topics included broad issues like the stalled peace process, treatment of Eritrean and Somali asylum-seekers in Israel and a Nation State Law that some say undermines the democratic nature of the country. There are also a host of issues that cause friction directly for North American Jews, including the reversal of the promised egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall, and Orthodox control of lifecycle events in Israel, which negates Reform and Conservative members, who make up the preponderance of North American Jews. If anything, the GA in Tel Aviv was the beginning of a conversation, or the widening of a conversation already in progress.
Some of the divisions were illustrated in public opinion poll results that were projected throughout the convention centre. The percentage of American Jews who believe that non-Orthodox rabbis should be permitted to officiate at Jewish ceremonies in Israel is 80%, compared with 49% of Israeli Jews. Fifty percent of Israeli Jews believe in God “with absolute certainty,” compared to 34% of American Jews. Among Israeli Jews, there is 85% support for the decision by the United States to relocate its embassy to Jerusalem, compared with 46% among American Jews. Support for the existence of a mixed-gender prayer area at the Western Wall stands at 73% among American Jews, compared with 42% of Israeli Jews. Among Jewish Israelis, 42% believe that Jewish settlements in the West Bank improve Israel’s security, compared with 17% of American Jews. Sixty-one percent of American Jews believe that Israel and an independent Palestinian state can coexist peacefully, compared with 43% of Israeli Jews.
Jerry Silverman, president and chief executive officer of Jewish Federations of North America, illustrated some of the lines of divergence.
“As North Americans and Israelis, we ask very similar questions. But each through a different lens,” he said. “North Americans may ask, after nearly a century of unwavering support, do Israelis really think our opinions should not be considered when it comes to policies that affect us? Israelis ask, why should anyone other than Israelis have a say in the decisions of our democratically elected government? North Americans, we may wonder how Israel can claim to be the nation state of all Jewish people when it doesn’t recognize the value of Jewish practice of 85 to 90% of Jews living outside of Israel. Meanwhile, Israelis feel that, well, we live here, so what makes you think you have the right to define what it means to be Jewish in the Jewish state? How is it possible, North Americans may ask, that the chair of the board of Brandeis [University] or a student from Florida are questioned or prevented from entering Israel because of their activism and views? Is this a democracy, or isn’t it? Israelis ask, what gives anyone the right to question our security decisions when we are the ones under constant threat?
“These are just a few of the questions of two proud communities who have learned to thrive in two very different environments; two members of one family who operate in their own political realities, where North Americans are seeking validation, empathy, partnership and understanding from Israel and Israelis who are living in a sovereign state have largely been insulated from a global conversation about Jewish peoplehood. I don’t have all the answers to all these questions, but I can tell you this – we will only find the answers if we start asking the questions to each other and if we really start working together.”
One after another, speakers acknowledged the challenging differences between the two communities, which together make up more than 85% of world Jewry, and then accentuated the commonalities.
“We are not strategic allies,” said Reuven Rivlin, the president of Israel. “We are family…. We don’t have shared interests. We have shared faith, a shared history and a shared future – and a very bright one. It may not be easy to have the truly honest conversation, but this is, I believe, what needs to happen.”
Rivlin suggested a “reverse Taglit,” a Birthright-like program for young Israelis to travel to Diaspora communities, summer camps and schools.
Danna Azrieli, who, with Israeli high-tech entrepreneur and philanthropist Marius Nacht, co-chaired the assembly, has a personal history suited to facilitating a conversation between the two communities. Born and raised in Montreal in a Zionist family, she made aliyah 18 years ago and now heads her family’s business operations in the country, Israel’s largest commercial real estate enterprise. She was born in June 1967, at the time of the Six Day War.
“My mother tells the story of how, when she was giving birth, the radio was on and the doctor would be listening to the news from Israel between contractions,” Azrieli said.
“We have come to this ‘let’s talk’ conversation about our future together from very different starting points,” she noted. “For example, how do we as North Americans begin to understand what we perceive as backward thinking, when women are not allowed to pray at the wall? And yet, the prime minister reneged on the Sharansky Compromise because of the pressure exerted by religious extremists. As a North American, you are probably asking, how could he have done that? Some of you, and I know a few, might go even further and ask, why should I support a country that does not support the way I practise my religion?” On the flip side, she acknowledged the fears of religious Israelis, who see any diversion from tradition as a step toward assimilation and extinction.
“Since I come from the real estate world, I’m going to use an image of an arch,” she said. “An arch is two sides pressing together. North American Jewry and Israeli Jewry are like two sides of an arch. We need each other. We need to push against each other to stay strong. By leaning into each other, by providing each other with the right amount of resistance and the right amount of support, we will have the strength to withstand the pressure from all sides. But one side of an arch cannot stand without the other. The art is to find the right amount of resistance, the right amount of pressure and the right amount of dependence and independence to ensure that our two sides will always remain strong vis-a-vis one another.”
She acknowledged the differences over policies, but tried to differentiate this from core support for the state of Israel.
“We don’t give up when we disagree with our leaders,” she said. “Don’t walk away because your liberal sensibilities are insulted. Don’t assume that nothing can change. Things do change, just painfully, slowly, incrementally, and with all of our help. Help by continuing the dialogue. Help by infusing your children with a love of our heritage. Let’s celebrate the good. I am not suggesting that we ignore the things we disagree with. I am simply suggesting that we remember: it’s a marathon, not a sprint.”
Isaac Herzog, the former leader of the opposition who recently became head of the Jewish Agency for Israel, said the growth and successes of modern Israel could not have been forecast.
“No one could have imagined that, 70 years later, [Israel’s] population would increase more than tenfold, its GDP would grow more than fiftyfold, its share within the Jewish world would grow from six percent to 45% and that Israel would become what a great country it is today.”
Herzog, a grandson of Israel’s first chief rabbi and the son of a president, added: “Israel is not the only Jewish marvel in the last 70 years. You, too, North American Jewry, are a marvel. The saga of North American Jewry is one of the most exhilarating and inspiring success stories of the modern era and your success is evident not only in your high level of education and income, and in the fact that the number of Nobel Prize winners that you’ve got are over 120, but because your success is palpable in the fact that you are organized, committed and energetic. You donate more than any other group in society, both locally and globally, and your success is manifest in 3,500 congregations, in 150 federations, in 350 JCCs and countless organizations and foundations that you’ve created together into a beautiful, unique civil society.”
He spoke of the historical bonds between the two communities.
“You nourished us ever since we were a helpless newborn,” Herzog said. “We were, we are and we shall always be reliant on one another. Our alliance is profound, is heroic and is eternal.”
He added: “I see the growing rift between our communities and am shaken to my core. In Israel, there are those who shamefully refuse to recognize the great non-Orthodox Judaism of North America and, in North America, there are those who disavow the centrality of Israel in Jewish life.
“Ironically, in this, the first era in our history when the external existential threats we have faced are greatly diminished, we ourselves are endangering our own existence. It is up to each and every one of us sitting here together in this hall to look into the eyes of our young generations and see where did we go wrong. The obligation we all share is to listen to their pains, to listen to their questions and to listen to their frustrations and ask ourselves, how can we do it better? We must dare to think anew, dare to act differently.”
Herzog called for a renewed dedication to the Hebrew language.
“Our first act should be to find a common language,” he said. “When I say common, I mean both literally and figuratively. We have a rare and sacred national treasure: the Hebrew language, the language of the Bible and the state of Israel. For all of us to be able to speak to one another and listen to one another and to debate, discuss and delight one another, we must return to our national heritage and treasure. We must enable every young Jewish person in the world to learn Hebrew.”
He called on the government of Israel to allocate funds for a program that teaches Hebrew all over the world.
“From here on, it will be every young Jew’s birthright, wherever he or she may live, not only to visit this historical homeland, but to learn the language of the Jewish people,” said Herzog. “Hebrew can be a common denominator of all Jews from all streams of Judaism – a beautiful language can serve as a tool for unity.”
Other ideas being mooted, he said, include a Jewish “peace corps” that brings Diaspora and Israeli Jews together for tikkun olam projects around the world, and inviting thousands of young Jews from around the world to Israel to participate in groundbreaking “startup nation” technology projects.
As head of the Jewish Agency, Herzog promised to “reach out to all of you to advance hundreds of faction-crossing, stream-crossing, continent-crossing dialogues under one common tent. Israelis will learn to appreciate and know the magnificent civilization of world Jewry, while world Jewry will learn to appreciate the achievements of Zionism and the beauty of Israeliness. Reform and Conservative Jews will learn to cherish Jewish orthodoxy and Orthodox Jews will learn to respect the Reform and Conservative. We shall learn from one another and learn to appreciate one another and endeavour to resolve our internal differences through a new Jewish dialogue. All that I ask of you is not to despair and not to give up. Indeed, let’s talk.”
Yuli-Yoel Edelstein, speaker of the Knesset, addresses delegates in the parliament’s Chagall Hall. (photo by Pat Johnson)
Before the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America began on Oct. 22, a local delegation, headed by Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver board chair Karen James and chief executive officer Ezra Shanken, toured Vancouver’s partnership region, the Upper Galilee Panhandle, which includes Israel’s most northerly communities.
Shanken said that a “mirror” volunteer board of community members from across the panhandle region has been created, including people who are sourcing projects, bringing them in and deciding, along with funders from Vancouver, which critical projects within the region will receive support.
“Those can be everything from a kitchen that we just opened that’s helping developmentally challenged individuals learn cooking skills, or we are looking at education programs … really trying to lift up the north,” he said.
The periphery in Israel has always faced more challenges than the centre of the country, Shanken added. Trying to rebalance that situation, he said, involves engaging the people in the partnership region to take ownership of the projects funded from Canada.
“One of the great things that we saw was the graduation of [the first cohort of] something called Galilee Up, which is something we’ve been working on,” he said. “It’s a leadership development program where we looked around the table and said, who’s going to be the great volunteer leaders of tomorrow?”
More than 20 individuals with leadership potential, mostly younger adults in the early stages of their careers, have been brought together, participating in courses at Tel Hai College. On the Vancouver group’s October visit, the cohort pitched concepts that could help improve the region.
Shanken also celebrated the reopening of a medical centre in Kiryat Shmona, for which Vancouverites had advocated alongside residents of the panhandle.
“This was a huge, huge win for us,” he said.
Democracy in Israel
Speaker of the Knesset Yuli-Yoel Edelstein assured delegates that the health of democracy in Israel is strong.
“Purposely misquoting great American author Mark Twain, I can say that the rumour of the demise of Israeli democracy has been slightly exaggerated,” he told a special evening plenary held in the Knesset’s Chagall Hall. “Israeli democracy has been strong, is strong and will be even stronger.”
He encouraged Diaspora Jews to write, email and telephone members of the Knesset with their concerns.
At the same event, Tzipi Livni, leader of the opposition, offered an alternative view, warning that the Nation State Law undermines the democratic leg of the “Jewish, democratic state.”
She said that her opposition to the law is not based on what is in the law, but what was left out. Israel’s Declaration of Independence states that Israel is a Jewish nation, but guarantees equal rights for all its citizens.
“When the state of Israel was established,” she said, “all the Jewish leaders signed – we’re talking about socialism, communism, revisionism, Charedim – they decided, this is a moment in which they should put aside all the differences and say that Israel is being established as a nation state for the Jewish people, but also giving equal rights to all its citizens.”
This assurance is missing from the Nation State Law, she said.
“And it’s not that somebody forgot it,” she stressed. “It was part of the discussion here. I wanted to add in the first article of this bill: keeping Israel as a Jewish, democratic state. The answer was no. Let’s refer to the Scroll [Declaration] of Independence. The answer was no. I said, let’s have equality. The answer was no. Israel is a democracy and we will keep Israel as a democracy, but, frankly, this is a challenge now.”
Livni added that Diaspora Jews who spend a certain amount of time every year in Israel should have the right to vote in Israeli elections.
“Our decisions as an Israeli government affect your lives as well,” she said.
Trauma experts thanked
Stacy Kagan, the vice-mayor of Parkland, Fla., fulfilled a lifelong dream of visiting Israel, but acknowledged she never envisioned it would be under such circumstances. Kagan was at the General Assembly to thank Israeli emergency responders for stepping up after the mass murder at a high school in her city last February.
“In the days following the shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas high school, grieving and in shock, we received an outpouring of support from across the country, across the world and Israel,” she said. “Within days, experts from the Israel Trauma Coalition were on the ground in Parkland. They were training our local counselors, who were there themselves and unprepared to address the impact of a large-scale attack that terrorized our local residents. The team from the Israel Trauma Coalition was nothing short of incredible. Their experience was invaluable.
“Today, I stand before you not only as an elected official, but as a Jewish woman who has always wanted to visit Israel,” she said. “I’ve dreamed of this but never made it until now. I never could have imagined that I would be here under these circumstances. As a Parkland resident, I come here to express my appreciation to the Israel Trauma Coalition, the entire Federation movement and the people and government of Israel for standing with us. This was our time of need. You showed up. You gave us strength and you taught us how to be resilient. As a wife, a mother and a consoler to those families and children that were taken by this horrible tragedy, I am here to say todah. Thank you so much from the bottom of my heart.”
Danna Azrieli, co-chair of the General Assembly, spoke of the Zionism of her childhood, which was mixed with the intergenerational trauma of being a second-generation Holocaust survivor.
“I struggle with anxiety and fear that an enemy may lurk in a place I don’t expect,” she said. “I am always vigilant. I’m the graduate of a 95-day outdoor leadership training course, just in case, one day, I will have to survive in a forest. And I hope that my overactive antennae that work overtime all the time and have deeply psychosomatic effects on my health will save me if ever, one day, I am faced with an unexpected horror in a restaurant or dance club.”
Since moving to Israel, she has witnessed brutality on both sides, she said.
“I have been within six metres of a terrorist running down the main street of the city where I live,” Azrieli told the plenary. “I saw his knife. I saw him sweat. I heard the sirens because he had just stabbed a 70-year-old lady in the coffee shop on the corner. And I also saw the total abandonment of morality, the bestiality, that overcame my Jewish neighbours when they ran the terrorist over with a car and hit his legs with a stick as he was face down at the bus stop while they were waiting for the police to arrive. I am a product of all of these things.”
Deborah Lyons, Canada’s ambassador to Israel, delivered an address that repeatedly brought the audience to laughter and their feet. Citing the Federation movement’s commitment to helping people in North America, Israel and throughout the world, she said, “Your goals are nearly interchangeable with those of the Canadian government.”
She said, “We both are committed to supporting the most vulnerable around the world … regardless of background. And we both are strongly supportive of Israel, its future and a deepening, closer relationship with Canada.”
Both federations and the Canadian government are facilitating cultural and economic missions to Israel to strengthen connections, especially in the business sector. In recent months, Lyons said, Canada’s governor-general, prime minister and a large number of senior cabinet officials have traveled to Israel.
“Our international leadership is perhaps best demonstrated by our recent partnership in rescuing White Helmet volunteers in Syria, one of the best moments of my career,” she said.
Along with allies, “Canada and Israel answered the moral obligations to ensure the swift evacuation of 422 members of this incredibly brave civil defence group, and their families. It was the support from Prime Minister [Binyamin] Netanyahu and, in particular, the incredible professionalism and heart of the IDF that brought that evacuation about.”
The ambassador added that combined efforts include batting antisemitism.
“Canada has worked alongside Israel to produce an internationally accepted working definition on antisemitism and we will continue to work with Israel to combat this ill everywhere – wherever, whenever,” she said, adding that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will officially apologize for Canada’s turning away of the refugee ship MS St. Louis in 1939.
She reiterated Canada’s support for a negotiated peace between Israelis and Palestinians and spoke personally about her experiences living in Israel for two years now.
“It’s a complicated, invigorating and empowering place that can touch every emotion and challenge every belief,” she said. “It’s filled with energy, with incredible vitality and with endless warmth. I come from Canada – I know warmth when I feel it.… It’s simply very alive here.”
The most emotional presentation of the General Assembly was delivered by Miriam Peretz, winner of the 2018 Israel Prize for lifetime achievement and special contribution to society, whose story of the price Israeli families pay for the security of the nation had audience members sobbing. Earlier this year, Education Minister Naftali Bennett delivered the news of the award to her by arriving at her front door, the same door where, a decade ago, officers arrived to deliver, for the second time, the worst news a mother can receive.
“Ten years ago, on the eve of Passover, three angels knocked on my door,” Peretz said. “They didn’t bring with them the prophet Eliyahu. Rather, they were the bearers of terrible news. My second son, Eliraz, a deputy commander of Battalion 12 of Golani – a father of four little children, the biggest was 6 years old, the littlest was 2 months old; she didn’t know her father – he was killed fighting the terrorists in the Gaza Strip.
“As soon as I saw who was outside my door, I ran. I shut the door. I shut the window so no one could enter,” she recounted. “When they finally came in, I begged them and asked them, please don’t say the word, don’t deliver the news. Just let me [have] my son for one more minute. Because, as long as you don’t say this horrible news, my Eliraz still lives for one more minute. It has to be a mistake, I explained, for I had already paid the ultimate price of our country’s survival. A dozen years earlier, my firstborn, Uriel, an officer in a special unit of Golani … was killed fighting the Hezbollah in Lebanon. And, if it’s not painful enough, my dear husband, unable to bear the loss of Uriel, died five years after of a broken heart.
“So it was the eve of Passover and we were gathered to the seder without Uriel, without Eliraz, without Eleazar, my husband,” she continued. “And we read … we cried when we read in the Haggadah, l’dor v’dor, in every generation they rise up to destroy us…. There is no mother in Israel that wishes her children to be a combat soldier. When we have these children, we only pray to Hashem to let them be alive, to keep them healthy, but not to be soldiers. And my children, every time, when called upon to defend our nation, they did not hesitate. They said simply, Ima, it’s our turn.”
Peretz spoke of her childhood in Morocco and how, one night, her father told the family that “this night we will meet the Moshiach, the Messiah. I asked my father how he looked? And he said he will come with an open shirt, with shorts and with sandals. This is the shaliach of the Jewish Agency.
“They took us from the alleys of this place in Morocco to this country,” she said. “When we arrived to Haifa, I saw my father kneeling and kissing the ground when he said the Shehecheyanu. I didn’t understand the behaviour of my father and I never imagined that, one day, I will kiss this earth twice, like my father, when it covered the bodies of my children on Mount Herzl.”
She said that, after the death of her second son, she asked: “What can I do with this grief and sorrow? I can continue to sleep on my bed, to cry about my destiny, to blame the government, the IDF – this is not my way. I chose to continue and to hold the life. I chose to look outside … to see all this land and ask myself, every day, what can I do to be worthy of them? They gave their life for me. I didn’t want to waste my life, because life is not how many years you are here. It’s what you do with this minute that God [has] blessed you.”
Peretz has devoted the years since to comforting bereaved families and wounded soldiers.
“She did not choose the circumstances of her difficult life,” Bennett has said of Peretz, “but chose to live and revive an entire people. She is the mother of us all.”
“It’s not only my personal story,” Peretz told the General Assembly. “It’s the story of this land. It’s the story of faith and hope. It’s the story of the price that we pay for the existence of this state.”
Israel’s Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, addresses the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, in Tel Aviv Oct. 24. (photo by Pat Johnson)
The theme of the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America in Tel Aviv was “We need to talk.” The conference was explicitly dedicated to confronting the issues that divide Jews and alienate the Diaspora from Israel. But, when the moment came to meet with the most powerful man in Israel, conference organizers folded like a house of cards.
Outgoing chair of the board of trustees of the JFNA, Richard Sandler, sat with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on a stage and performed what Haaretz rightly dismissed as a “fawning” conversation. More Oprah than interlocutor, Sandler first offered belated birthday wishes to the prime minister, then proceeded with one softball lob after another, allowing Netanyahu to control the dialogue – which he could have done more effectively if he had delivered a conventional address instead of the folksy sit-down – while Sandler offered no resistance or challenge to anything the prime minister said.
The JFNA is a non-partisan organization, of course. But the very nature of this meeting was to frankly confront the very real divisions between Jewish people in the Diaspora and those in Israel.
Here was the first question: “I’m just wondering, when you were back in high school or college, did you ever imagine someday you would be the prime minister of Israel, and would you share with us a little bit of the path from that time to what got you here?”
Even Netanyahu seemed a bit embarrassed by the question and offered assurances that he was not, in childhood or young adulthood, some Machiavellian born with his sights on the levers of power. What seasoned politician would respond to such a question with, “Yes, I’ve been planning this since I toddled”?
Next question: “I’m wondering, in all the years you’ve been doing this, how do you see the relationship between our two countries, between Israel and the United States, evolving – and what concerns you most, if anything, about that relationship today?”
“If anything”? Thousands of people had traveled from North America to Israel to address the very tangible friction points between the two Jewish communities and the inteviewer effectively invited the prime minister to assert that everything is rainbows and unicorns. And Netanyahu accepted the offering. Everything is pretty great, he contended. The trajectory of American support for Israel is increasing, he said. When he and his wife walk around Central Park or visit the Strand bookstore in Manhattan, they get warmly welcomed. The audience of 1,300 at a performance of Hamilton gave him a standing ovation. (“How did you get tickets?” heckled an audience member. “My cousin’s wife works in the production,” the PM replied.)
Then it was time for the interviewer to get tough.
“One of the things that we spoke about, Mr. Prime Minister, that we’ve been talking about the last couple of days, are all the things that we have in common,” said Sandler, moving in for the kill, “We’re having frank discussions on some of the issues that concern many North American Jews and I’m sure you are aware, as I am, that we have a number of concerns about pluralism, acceptance of Reform and Conservative Jews here in Israel, the Nation State Law and.…”
At this point, Sandler’s words were drowned out by applause from an audience who seemed to think they were finally going to get some red meat. Instead, Sandler asked, “Are we missing something? And where do we have it right?”
“I don’t think you should be concerned, but I think you should be informed,” Netanyahu responded to a room filled with the leadership of every major Jewish community in North America. “So much of this is – let me be charitable – misinformation.”
Netanyahu went on to say that, from the first prime minister on down, Israel’s leaders have managed the status quo by making modest, incremental compromises.
“We have a series of slowly evolving arrangements and that reflects the evolution of the Israeli electorate,” he said. On the issue of an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall, Netanyahu acknowledged a delay in the opening, but insisted his goal remains a place where women and men can pray together.
On a two-state solution, Netanyahu dismissed the terminology. “I believe that a potential solution is one in which the Palestinians have all the powers to govern themselves but not the power to threaten us,” he said. “What does that mean?”
He explained by recounting a conversation with then-U.S. vice-president Joe Biden.
“Well, Bibi,” Netanyahu said, describing the discussion, “are you for two states or are you not? I said, Joe, I don’t believe in labels.”
Netanyahu committed that Israel would retain security control west of the Jordan River, envisioning a situation where Palestinians would govern themselves but that overall security would remain in the hands of the Israeli military. This is not only good for Israel, the prime minister said, but for Palestinians, including Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Israel uncovered and foiled a plan by Hamas to not only overthrow Abbas, but to murder him, Netanyahu said. Without Israel’s military control in the West Bank, Hamas would swoop in, overthrow Abbas’s Fatah and Israel would have another Gaza to the east.
“They’d be overrun in two minutes,” he said.
This is all true enough, perhaps, and the first job of the prime minister of Israel is to ensure the security of his country and people. But, in acknowledging that his position would negate the possibility of an independent Palestinian state, Netanyahu reduced it to a matter of nomenclature.
“Give it any name you want,” he said. “But that’s the truth. And this truth is shared much more widely across the political spectrum than people understand, because we’re not going to imperil the life of the state for a label or for a good op-ed for six hours in the New York Times.” Like a flailing comedian, Netanyahu then turned to the audience and complained, “Nobody’s laughing.”
Sandler’s final question to the prime minister was, “What are you the most proud of about Israel today that you want us to think about when we’re going home?” And Netanyahu offered a response worthy of the question, a meandering reflection on visiting a synagogue in his family’s ancestral home of Lithuania.
As the loudspeaker was trying to advise people to remain in their seats while the prime minister’s entourage departed, Netanyahu, already standing for his farewell, interrupted to take the opportunity to tell the audience that his real concern for the Jewish people was the loss of identity. “It’s not conversion,” he said. “It’s the loss of identity.”
He warned, “Jewish survival is guaranteed in the Jewish state if we defend our state. But we have to also work at the continuity of Jewish communities in the world by developing Jewish education, the study of Hebrew and the contact of young Jews coming to Israel.”
He talked about additional funding for programs to support study-abroad programs in Israel and other things the Jewish state is doing to advance the strengthening of Jewish peoplehood.
Given the last word at the close of the three-day conference – a meeting explicitly convened to address contentious issues between the parties – Israel’s prime minister took the opportunity to school the leaders of Diaspora Jewry in how their shortcomings could imperil Jewish survival. Then he departed.
A full house came out to the CIJA-SUCCESS townhall Sept. 23, which featured six Vancouver mayoral candidates. (photo from CIJA)
The refracted nature of Vancouver’s civic politics was on full display at a candidates meeting featuring six of the perceived front-running candidates for mayor. The near-implosion of the governing Vision Vancouver party, combined with divisions among erstwhile Non-Partisan Association members, has led to a race with both the left and right sides of the political spectrum divided and struggling to gain traction in a campaign with 21 contenders.
The afternoon event Sept. 23 was co-sponsored by the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs and the multicultural organization SUCCESS, which is rooted in the Chinese-Canadian community. Veteran Vancouver broadcaster Jody Vance handily moderated the occasionally raucous meeting.
Housing affordability topped the list of issues, with Kennedy Stewart, a former NDP member of Parliament for Burnaby-South who resigned that seat to run for Vancouver mayor as an independent, said his plan to attack unaffordability calls for building 85,000 new homes over the next 10 years, including affordable and market rentals.
Ken Sim, an entrepreneur who founded Nurse Next Door and Rosemary Rocksalt Bagels and who is the candidate for the centre-right Non-Partisan Association (NPA), responded by claiming that the construction industry does not have the capacity to meet Stewart’s construction schedule.
Wai Young, a former Conservative member of Parliament for Vancouver South, is running with a new party, called Coalition Vancouver, which was originated by a group of former NPA members who felt betrayed by what they call a lack of democracy in that party.
“Vancouver does not have a supply issue,” Young said about the housing situation. “There are no millionaires wandering around Vancouver that are unable to buy a house or a luxury condo. The issue is that we are not able to keep our young people, our young families, here because they can’t afford to buy a house. We have an affordability issue in Vancouver.”
“If I am mayor, we will have a three percent vacancy rate,” said Shawna Sylvester, who is running as an independent but has roots in Vision Vancouver. The rate today is about zero. She supports more co-ops, cohousing and what she called “gentle densification,” as well as addressing how the housing situation has particular impacts for women, who experience poverty in greater proportions than men.
Partly related to the affordability issue is the topic of Vancouver’s reputation as a place that is welcoming of people from diverse backgrounds.
David Chen, who is running with another new party, ProVancouver, noted that racism is alive and well in the city.
“My parents were first-generation Taiwanese [Canadian],” said Chen. “I was born in St. Paul’s [Hospital] because, at that time, it was the only hospital they were allowed to go to. During this campaign, I heard somebody say to me, ‘Go home.’ Well, I am home.” He added: “We haven’t progressed as much as we should or could.”
The NPA’s Sim echoed the experience and extrapolated it to the Jewish community.
“I’m 47 right now,” said Sim, “and I still remember the hurtful comments that I faced when I was 5 years old. It was tough. I think of what’s going on to our Jewish community right now. We still have a lot of issues. I’m acutely aware of what our Jewish community goes through because, when something happens halfway around the world, our friends in the Jewish community have to worry about their physical safety. That’s terrible. We will have zero tolerance for that, as mayor of Vancouver. We’re going to work with community groups, work with the Jewish community, work with all communities identifying threats to our communities and working on solutions to protect us, to protect our communities, and we will monitor our results.”
Hector Bremner, another former NPA member now leading another new party, YES Vancouver, is the only candidate for mayor currently sitting on Vancouver city council.
“Racism is a symptom, it’s not the disease,” Bremner said. “When do racial tensions flare up, when do they happen? They happen in a time when the people feel that resources are scarce and they feel pressure economically. It’s really a function of tribalism and nativism that occurs when people feel that it’s hard for them to make it. We look for scapegoats.”
Sylvester, who among many other roles is director of the Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue at Simon Fraser University, said people need to stand up to extremist voices and actions.
“There are forces in our communities, whether we want to acknowledge them or not, that are trying to divide us,” she said. “What we need to do [is] not be tolerant of any kind of hate crime, not be tolerant of antisemitism.”
Stewart said those who don’t subscribe to Canadian ideas of tolerance should be helped to change their minds.
“Immigration is really one of the best things about being Canadian,” he said. “We travel around the world and we brag about it. Multiculturalism is a Canadian word and it’s something we’ve exported. It’s something we should embrace, and most of us do. Those that don’t, we have to help them understand, change their opinions.”
Accusations of intolerance and implications of racism emerged in the debate.
Young, who had originally sought the NPA mayoral nomination, implied that her supporters, many of whom were from the Chinese community, weren’t welcome in the NPA. This brought a sharp rebuke from Sim.
“Guess what, I’m Chinese,” he said. “Here’s the real issue. When you [say] inflammatory statements like that to win a political agenda, you create divisions in our communities. People don’t like that. You put a wedge. That is a problem and you’ve got to knock it off.”
Sim went on to accuse politicians of stoking already existing embers of intolerance around foreign purchasers of Vancouver real estate.
“For political expediency, what politicians are doing is pointing at groups and blaming groups for problems,” he said. “We have a lot of issues with affordability and there are a lot of things that affect affordability and housing. I’m not saying foreign purchases do not affect housing. But, when we point to it and we blame a group, that starts a slippery slope. That’s what’s dividing our city, our province and our country. I call on everyone here to knock it off, because there are a lot of things that affect affordability – permitting delays, interest rates, the economy – but to point to something for political expediency because it wins votes is dividing people and it’s hurtful.”
The meeting took place in a SUCCESS building in Chinatown, close to the Downtown Eastside. Candidates agreed that more needs to be done to confront the seemingly intractable challenges facing that area of the city.
Young said she had visited a seniors home in Chinatown earlier in the day and was told residents are afraid to go outside.
“They can no longer walk outside of their building,” she said. “That should not happen in our beautiful city. There was a time I remember coming down here to Chinatown when it was vibrant, when it was safe, when you didn’t feel like you couldn’t be on the wrong side of the street here.… This city has gotten dirtier and grittier…. There are needles everywhere, there is defecation everywhere. We are one of the top 10 cities in the world and yet, currently, it’s embarrassing to have your friends come visit.”
She promised to be “John Horgan’s worst enemy,” referring to the B.C. premier, in demanding provincial help to address the issues in the area.
Stewart touted his connections with former NDP member of Parliament Libby Davies, who previously represented the area in Ottawa.
“Last week, I was very proud to stand with Libby Davies in the Downtown Eastside and announce that, as mayor, I would immediately strike an emergency task force to deal with the opioid epidemic and homelessness,” Stewart said. “We cannot have the number of deaths that are happening and the number of overdoses. We can’t have the impacts on the people that are suffering through illness and addiction problems.”
Another perennial issue candidates addressed was transportation and congestion.
“Vancouverites spend 88 hours of your life every year sitting in congestion,” said Young. “That’s like a two-week holiday.”
Sim promised an independent review of congestion in the city.
“The number of cars has not increased in the city in the last 20 years but congestion has,” he said. He blamed a range of factors, including bike lanes, left-hand turns, people running yellow lights and getting stopped by police, pedestrians crossing after the indicator says “don’t walk,” and roads that are closed for construction longer than necessary.
Chen said getting people to switch from cars to transit requires improving the system.
“If you use negative reinforcement, you’re not going to get people to switch,” he said. “It’s not reliable, it’s not convenient, it’s not cheaper, it’s not faster. You [improve] those four items and suddenly people may just switch.”
The would-be mayors mooted the availability of culturally appropriate services, such as seniors care, community security for institutions like synagogues and the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver, and unisex washrooms.
During the debate, Stewart repeatedly emphasized that he, Bremner and Young were the only ones with elective experience, a tack that may be motivated by the few polls on the race, which have indicated that Stewart’s toughest opponent is Sim.