The Schara Tzedeck Shoah Survivors Tribute Wall was created for the congregation by John Nutter. The sculpture, which includes the names of 230 survivors, was dedicated May 3. (photo from John Nutter)
Congregation Schara Tzedeck has a new art installation in its main sanctuary. The Schara Tzedeck Shoah Survivors Tribute Wall – a Tree of Life rendered in sandblasted glass – includes the names of 230 survivors. It was dedicated May 3.
Full of shared memories and friendship, the pre-Shabbat dedication ceremony featured several speakers: the synagogue’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Andrew Rosenblatt; its executive president, Howard Kallner; younger family members of the survivors; Ed Lewin, co-chair of the project with Hodie Kahn; and the man who started the entire project, Dr. Robert Krell, a child survivor.
“We wanted to honour the Holocaust survivors who found their way to Canada, before and after the war, and wound up as members of this shul,” Lewin told the Independent. “Most of them came here in 1948. Their names are all there, on the wall. My parents’ and grandparents’ names are among them.”
Explaining how the project started, Lewin said, “We had this empty space, and Krell suggested a tribute to Holocaust survivors. It was several years ago. It took us awhile to find the talented glass artist, John Nutter, who transformed our ideas into a sculpture.”
The synagogue is publishing a commemorative book about the installation, as well. While the Tribute Wall features survivors’ names only, the book also contains photographs of the survivors; there are family and group photo pages. Together, the book and the wall serve as a memorial to those who not only survived the Shoah but contributed greatly to Schara Tzedeck and to the development of Greater Vancouver and the province over the past seven decades.
One page of the book is dedicated to Nutter, who has created numerous art installations for churches and synagogues, mostly in New York. His works decorate many institutions in the United States and Canada: hotels, museums, hospitals. He collaborated with local artist Bill Reid on a glass sculpture at the Vancouver International Airport. A few years ago, Glass Magazine named Nutter one of the top three architectural glass artists in the country.
About how he came to design the Tribute Wall, Nutter said, “A few years ago, I did a small glass sculpture for the Louis Brier Home, a collaboration with a wonderful artist and friend, Diana Zoe Coop. Camille Wenner, Diana’s daughter, works for Schara Tzedeck. I’ve known Camille since she was a young child. She contacted me about this project and, of course, I said, yes.”
He explained his work process. “They knew exactly what they wanted – a Tree of Life, made like a Vancouver cherry tree in bloom. Usually, I start with a small draft, show it to my clients, make changes until they’re satisfied, before I transfer the design to glass. But the people from Schara Tzedeck were very nice. They approved my first draft of the design.”
The first step in making the sculpture was creating a life-size drawing out of the small-scale draft. “I hire a company for that,” said Nutter, “give them my small drawing, and they blow it up to the size I want.”
Once he has the full-size paper draft, he starts working on the glass. For this sculpture, he used nine separate glass panels. The three bottom panels are roots. “The words ‘Schara Tzedeck’ are carved among the roots, to symbolize the Jews who had set their roots with the congregation,” Nutter explained.
The middle panel is the trunk, and the five panels around it are carved with leaves and flowers. “I sandblasted each petal of each flower individually,” Nutter said. “It gives more depth to the sculpture.”
The work is made of 15-millimetre laminated glass; two layers joined together. The carving is on the back, and the names of the survivors are written on the front, in black, which adds to the visual depth.
Nutter has been working with architectural glass for decades. “I started as an architecture student at the University of Manitoba,” he recalled. “A couple years into my studies, I took a summer job with a stained glass company. I loved it so much, I left my schooling and stayed with the company for several years, before I founded my own company. I never finished my architectural degree, but I taught stained glass making at the same faculty years later.”
He loves architecture, and most of his works are large-scale glass. “Sometimes,” he said, “my background in architecture helps me to win the contracts. I often build small-scale models of my proposed installations when I bid for a job. I like the details and hardware used in the models. I learned that during my years of architectural studies.”
Frequently, Nutter’s sculptures and windows tell a story, like the one he created for Schara Tzedeck. “In the past, when artists made glass installations in churches and other religious institutions, it was always to tell a story, as most of the population were illiterate,” he said. “Now, people can read, so the art became more decorative, but it still tells a story.”
The fear, bloodshed and massive loss of life in the cause of freedom are illustrated through remarkable – and convincing – dramatic reenactments in D-Day in 14 Stories. (photo from YAP Films and the History Channel)
The horrors and heroism of D-Day took place 75 years ago June 6. A remarkable new documentary, with distinct Canadian and Jewish connections, will air on the History Channel June 1. D-Day in 14 Stories includes firsthand recollections from Allied and German soldiers and French civilians – many of them kids or teenagers at the time of the conflict.
The massive battle of the Second World War saw more than 150,000 Canadian, American, British and other Allied soldiers storm the beaches of France, marking the turning point of Nazi – and Allied – fortunes.
D-Day in 14 Stories is a social history of D-Day, a joint production of YAP Films and the History Channel. The events on that long-ago day in 1944 are illuminated by eyewitness accounts from some of the few remaining veterans of that historic battle.
On D-Day alone, 359 Canadian soldiers were killed. More than 5,000 Canadian soldiers died during the succeeding weeks of fighting in Normandy. The fear, bloodshed and massive loss of life in the cause of freedom are illustrated through remarkable – and convincing – dramatic reenactments, visual effects and historical footage, including a trove of colour film taken by a soldier using an early Bell and Howell handheld movie camera.
Many soldiers on both sides were just following orders but, as Morton Waitzman recounts in the documentary, some Jewish soldiers felt a particular motivation.
“Being of the Jewish faith myself, and so many of my comrades, we knew we had to get over there as soon as possible to do whatever we could to stop this terrible curse,” he said. As a communications specialist, he connected American and British forces with members of the French Underground to help coordinate the battle.
The Germans were anticipating an attack, but had no idea when, where or how large a force the Allies would assemble. The documentary follows a wall of soldiers parachuting through a cascade of tracers. In all, 13,000 Americans dropped inland by air to support the amphibious landing and undermine the German response.
While one Allied soldier says, “Anybody who says they weren’t afraid is not telling the truth,” a German soldier recounts, tellingly: “We had no fear. We were convinced that we would win.”
Until D-Day, the British Air Force had strafed the Normandy coast, but returned to their island redoubt. French residents of the area were familiar with the routine: take shelter when the alarms go off and come back out when they ring again.
Bernard Marie was a 5-year-old child in Normandy at the time.
“The big difference is that, on June 6th, the siren never came back,” he said.
In all, 7,000 vessels embarked from Britain to the French coast. The Allies had no illusions about the cost of the operation. Casualties were anticipated to reach 25 to 30%.
Emotionally powerful dramatizations follow 16- and 17-year-olds as they face the life-and-death moment for themselves and the free world.
“Some never got off the boat,” recalled one soldier. “They were shot, bodies laid all over, boats turned upside down, real chaos. We still kept going forward.… Soldiers.”
One survivor remembers that, despite the explosions all around him, his sole consideration when coming ashore at Normandy was that his socks were soaked through.
The average soldier was carrying 35 kilograms on his back and, for those whose vessels did not manage to make it close to shore, jumping off the ship, in many cases, led to almost instantaneous drowning.
If they survived the initial landing, the soldiers had to confront the German enemy firing down from above at Allied soldiers who were effectively sitting ducks. A German soldier recalls: “We merely had to point that machine gun and it was like cutting wheat with a scythe. For the odd miss, we had a thousand hits.”
The film admirably makes the effort to capture the particular experiences of African-American and First Nations soldiers.
Waitzman, the Jewish American soldier, went on to fight in Europe and participated in the liberation of concentration camps.
“We became eyewitnesses to the Holocaust by what we saw,” he says in the film. “We were very compelled to tell the details to young people. We had to talk, to fight this as much as possible.”
Another veteran of the battle reflects on the loss of life, but ponders the alternative: “God knows what would’ve happened if we hadn’t done it.”
Vancouver composer Itamar Erez will have a world première of his work at the Sound of Dragon Ensemble (Vancouver) and Melody of China (San Francisco) concert May 30, 7 p.m., at the Western Front. Erez will be playing guitar with Sound of Dragon, as well. His composition, Migrant Voices, was inspired by Italo Calvino’s book Invisible Cities, which Erez read when he was younger. It is an imagined set of conversations between Marco Polo and the emperor of the 13th-century Mongolian empire, Kublai Khan. Each chapter of the book is a prose poem, describing an imaginary city that Marco Polo “discovered” in his travels. “I remember being deeply inspired by it as a young person,” said Erez. “In a similar way, perhaps, the music of Migrant Voices is a kind of a ‘discovered’ folk song, from an imaginary city, country or culture. Based on a 9/8 and 7/8 time signature, it definitely has elements taken from certain Balkan/Greek music, Turkish or Armenian. Not sure, to tell you the truth, exactly why and how – it just came to me one day as if a voice whispered it in my ear.”
The May 30 concert – in celebration of Asian Heritage Month – is the first collaboration of two professional music ensembles with Chinese roots from across the border between Canada and the United States. For tickets and more information, visit soundofdragon.com.
The new show at Zack Gallery, #SeasonsAtZack features Instagram artists. A fundraiser for the gallery, the exhibit is extremely eclectic.
“The theme of the show is based on the theme of Festival Ha’Rikud, ‘Seasons of Israel,’” said Daniel Wajsman, marketing coordinator at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver. “Every year, the gallery has a group show to coincide with the festival and the artists submit their paintings to the gallery. This year, we thought: why don’t we do social media instead? These days, everyone has a camera…. We all take pictures with our phones and share them with friends and family. This is one step further. Why can’t we share our photos with everyone? That’s what Instagram does – it is a site where we share our images with the world. That’s what we aimed for in this show at the Zack. We wanted to change the concept of what art is.”
The gallery started with the idea that only artists who have an Instagram account would be featured in the exhibit, but later opened the submission process to everyone, said Wajsman. All of the images from the show will be on the JCC’s Instagram page and prints will be available for purchase in different sizes and formats.
About a third of the photos in the exhibit come from a select group of people: staff members of several Jewish organizations, who went to Israel in April for a professional seminar. The organizations participating in the seminar were the JCC, Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver, Jewish Family Services, Louis Brier Home and Hospital, Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre and Nava Creative Kosher Cuisine.
“We work closely together, but we don’t all know each other,” said Wajsman. “Some of us are Jewish, and some are not. The seminar had a double goal: to teach us about Israel and Jewish history and to connect us with each other.”
Regular visitors to the Zack Gallery will be familiar with many of the photographers in the exhibit. Some of the photos are by artists who have exhibited previously at the gallery – like Lauren Morris, Michael Abelman and others – and submitted photographs of their paintings for the show.
Another set of participants includes local masters of photography, such as Jocelyne Hallé, Judy Angel and Ivor Levin. Each one has more than one of their images on display.
Halle’s “Sunflowers” photo was taken recently. The bright sunny heads of the large flowers contrast sharply with the heavy stormy clouds overhead, and the juxtaposition evokes strong emotions. “It wasn’t Photoshopped at all,” said Hallé. “It’s just the way I took it.”
In contrast, Angel’s airy images glow and shimmer with transparent sunlight. They are so light, they seem translucent, able to fly off the wall like magical butterflies.
Beside them, Levin’s photos look like drawings, their colour schemes and compositions inspired by the rains and umbrellas of the autumn season in Vancouver.
New artists also have a strong presence in this show. For them, having their names under their art on the gallery walls is a fascinating experience. One of this crowd is Linda Lando, the Zack Gallery director. “I’m not an artist,” she said. “I’ve never displayed anything before.”
One of her photos, the colourful “Ein Gedi Night,” was taken on her trip to Israel, as a member of the seminar. “We visited Kibbutz Ein Gedi late at night,” she said. “It is a beautiful floral oasis in the desert. They have amazing flowers, and this blooming tree was near the entrance.”
Robert Johnson, also part of the seminar and a longtime JCC employee, has a couple of his photos in the show. One of them is particularly memorable: a photo of a camel with a sad expression, lying under a tree. The title of the photograph is “This is Not a Camel.”
“He talked to me,” Johnson said with a smile. “People were riding him all day, and he didn’t want to be a riding camel anymore.”
The variety of the images in the show is mind-blowing: from Israeli landscapes to mud bathers on the shore of the Dead Sea to abstract composition. #SeasonsAtZack continues until June 9.
Olga Livshin is a Vancouver freelance writer. She can be reached at [email protected].
Magic & Remembering opens at Scotiabank Dance Centre on June 1, which is B.C. Access Awareness Day. (photo from All Bodies Dance Project)
The themes in this show range from home and belonging to our collective connection to self, city and architecture,” All Bodies Dance Project co-founder and facilitator Naomi Brand said about Magic & Remembering, a program of dances and films, featuring dancers with and without disabilities, that runs June 1-3 at Scotiabank Dance Centre.
“A lot of ABDP’s choreography highlights the relationship between different bodies moving in different ways,” said Brand, who is a member of the Jewish community. “We try and make work where our differences as dancers are celebrated and exploited for their choreographic potential. We’re always looking for new territory that challenges notions of the ‘typical’ dancer and the typical ways of making dance.”
A similar motivation sparked the idea for this show.
“Magic & Remembering was born out of the desires from artists in our company to lead their own choreographic processes, as well as an idea to explore new territory in dance filmmaking,” said Brand.
The program comprises three dances and three films. Most of the works are new for this production and created by longtime members of All Bodies Dance Project.
“ABDP works in a very organic way as a collective of artists who work through collaboration and improvisation to devise new choreography,” explained Brand. “Each of the pieces came about in a different way through a different creative process. My role has been to act as an ‘outside eye’ to support the choreographers, offer feedback and suggestions; sort of an editor to help clarify the pieces.”
Two of the three filmmakers are local, she said. Martin Borden – who is also a visual artist, woodcarver and educator, and has been documenting ABDP’s work for many years – collaborated with dancers/choreographers Rianne Svelnis and Harmanie Taylor on Sanctuary.
Gemma Crowe worked with Carolina Bergonzoni on Ho.Me. “Gemma is a dancer who has been working in video for a number of years,” said Brand. “As a dancer, she brings a keen understanding of how the camera moves almost as a partner in the dance.”
The third film is called Inclinations and it was created, said Brand, “by our friends and colleagues Danielle Peers (Edmonton) and Alice Sheppard (based in New York) and features a cast of four manual wheelchair users, including Harmanie Taylor from All Bodies Dance Project.”
Quoting from Sheppard’s website, Brand described the piece as one that “contrasts the playful connections when disability esthetics, disability community and a gorgeous ramp meet the institutional histories and discordant inclinations that can lurk just below the surface.”
“We are excited to include this beautiful film in our production,” said Brand, “as a way to connect and support disabled dance artists in our network from outside of Vancouver.”
The press material for the production notes that the films are “of dance works reimagined for the camera.” As to what that means, Brand explained that Sanctuary and Ho.Me were originally created as dances performed live: the former for the 2018 Vines Art Festival and the latter for last year’s Dancing on the Edge Festival.
“We’ve taken those dances,” she said, “and ‘reimagined’ them through the lens of the camera by using the same movement material, but reconfiguring it into a new piece. The camera allows for an intimacy and detailed insight into the dances that opens up whole new possibilities. For example, Carolina Bergonzoni’s Ho.Me, which consists of three personal solos, was shot in the dancers’ own apartments. We get to see these unique bodies and their movements in their private spaces, surrounded by objects of meaning to them.
“Sanctuary is shot in a busy urban location. The duet is accompanied by a soundscore created from the sounds of a typical Vancouver afternoon. Video allows us to take viewers into new worlds and to see the dancers and the dances in new ways.”
As for the dances in Magic & Remembering, Brand said they “use the dancers’ differences in unexpected and evocative ways. For example, Harmanie Taylor and Peggy Leung’s duet, Inflect, was born out of the simple choreographic question, what would happen if both seated and standing dancer used wheels? Peggy dances on a wooden wheelie board that facilitates all kinds of interesting and surprising ways of relating to Harmanie, who is a manual wheelchair user.
“Romham Gallacher’s trio, Re/integrate, delves into some deep and personal territory by exploring the process of bringing trauma-shattered pieces of oneself back together. The piece makes use of some intricate contact duet material between Adam Warren and Peggy Leung. Adam is a wheelchair user but dances the pieces without his chair.
“Cheyenne Seary’s Clove Hitch is a quintet based on themes of identity, individuality and belonging in a group,” she said. “The piece is set to music by Juno-nominated indigenous artist Cris Derksen.”
All Bodies Dance Project has many collaborators and partnerships that make its work possible, said Brand. “For this production,” she said, “we have partnered with the Roundhouse Community Art Centre and the Gathering Place, where we do most of our rehearsals, and are grateful to have received grant funding from the City of Vancouver.”
Magic & Remembering opens on B.C. Access Awareness Day, which is “a comprehensive campaign to raise awareness about disability, accessibility and inclusion,” said Brand.
In line with ABDP’s efforts to remove barriers, “all of the performances are scent-reduced with sliding scale ticket pricing – no one is turned away for lack of funds,” she said. “Our two performances on Monday, June 3, include ASL interpretation.”
Illusionist Vitaly Beckman can seemingly change a driver’s licence photo. To witness the feat in person, check out his June 5 show at the River Rock Casino. (photo by Galina Sumaneeva)
“I rarely have a chance to perform in my own town, so it’s a privilege and I am really looking forward to it,” illusionist Vitaly Beckman told the Jewish Independent about his June 5 show, Vitaly: An Evening of Wonders, at the River Rock Casino, which is a fundraiser for Richmond’s Beth Tikvah Synagogue.
Beckman is constantly performing on the road. “My favourite trip was to Puerto Montt, in Chile – I got to perform in a beautiful theatre situated right over a lake and witness some breathtaking views,” he said. “Other recent highlights include doing an off-Broadway run last summer. I was performing eight shows a week for 16 weeks straight. It was surreal to see my own face appear on the Times Square buildings, and was a dream come true.”
Every show is unique, he said. And, in every show, “there are things that do not go according to plan, and I have to adjust and improvise. Especially when I invite audience members up on stage, you never know what to expect. It’s part of the fun and makes it more interesting and memorable.”
This is one of the reasons Beth Tikvah asked Beckman to perform.
“The synagogue wanted to try something unique and different from the usual,” board member Allan Seltzer told the Independent. “We wanted to be able to invite congregants, Jewish community members and the general public of all ages to an exciting ‘evening of wonders.’”
Magician Stephen Kaplan will also perform on June 5.
Noting both performers’ “great stage presence and showmanship,” Seltzer said, “Vitaly emigrated from the former Soviet Union as a boy and has been wowing audiences with his world-class show for over 15 years. Vitaly has appeared on television around the world and recently fooled Penn and Teller on their WB televised show.”
Beckman told the Independent he is always coming up with new illusions, but that he needs to section off parts of the year to actually work on them. “I find that I need no distractions in order to create new material, as the creative process requires an absolute focus and to think of nothing else,” he said. “Oftentimes, I take the summers off to do that, and sometimes find small breaks in between shows.”
As for Kaplan, Seltzer said he “has been performing and entertaining audiences across B.C. for over 25 years. His unique brand of illusions and comedy make him the ideal opening act for Vitaly.
“Both artists are Jewish and are proud to be assisting Beth Tikvah for this special evening,” he said.
Also participating in the evening’s entertainment will be emcee and fellow community member Howard Blank, who, said Seltzer, “is known throughout B.C. for his vast philanthropic work on stage at over 50 galas and events annually … [and] has been bestowed with the Sovereign’s Medal for Volunteers by the governor general in Ottawa. Howard celebrates his Jewish Vancouver roots by donating his time to numerous Jewish events, including the JCC Sports Dinner, Chabad, Talmud Torah and our Evening of Wonders.”
Funds raised from the River Rock show will be put toward Beth Tikvah programs and services, which include a preschool, religious school, social and educational youth programs, adult education, Jewish holiday programming, conversion classes, Israel programming, interfaith panels and lifecycle events, said Seltzer. He added about the youth activities that “many of our participants are Jewish children and youth who are in public schools, and their only exposure to Judaism and the Jewish community is through our youth and religious school program.”
VIP ticketholders will get a chance to meet Beckman after the show and sponsors will be recognized in the evening’s program, said Seltzer.
As for what the audience can expect, Beckman said, “They will witness art coming to life – photos will come to life, drawings come out of a page and even their face will disappear on their own driver’s licences. If they like, the photo on their ID will be replaced by another face, whoever’s they choose. It has never been done before by anyone else. There is also a new piece, dedicated to Salvador Dali, whose work also inspired some of the visuals in the show.”
For tickets to Vitaly: An Evening of Wonders, visit ticketmaster.ca or call Beth Tikvah at 604-271-6262.
Prof. Yehudit Silverman’s The Hidden Face of Suicide is helping people talk about a topic still surrounded by stigma. (photo from yehuditsilverman.com)
Concordia University professor Yehudit Silverman’s award-winning documentary The Hidden Face of Suicide focuses on the world of survivors – those who have lost loved ones to suicide – and reveals their remarkable stories.
Wanting to learn the story behind the silence in her own family, Silverman offered suicide survivors a creative way to express themselves – using masks. In the documentary, she highlights the danger of secrets and the cost of silence.
Produced and directed by Silverman, The Hidden Face of Suicide features the Montreal group Family Survivors of Suicide. It has screened at Cinema du Parc in Montreal, Curzon Theatre in London, England, on PBS television in the United States, and at various international festivals and theatres. It was also shown at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, as part of the Seeds of Hope project, and is being used in diverse locations in Montreal as an education tool around the issue of suicide.
At Concordia, Silverman leads a graduate program that trains therapists in three different programs – art, drama and music therapies – with the goal of soon adding dance therapy.
The Hidden Face of Suicide, which was released in 2010, came out of a five-year research project about suicide.
“I was interested in the stigma that surrounds it and the fact that it’s not talked about or mentioned,” Silverman told the Independent. “I did a lot of reading about it. Then, I found the Montreal group Family Survivors of Suicide and I met the woman who was the facilitator, named Caroline, and then she invited me to the group.
“I started attending the group and hearing the stories. They all lost family to suicide. I listened and, after I got to know them … I was there for about six months and I wrote down some of the themes that came up, kind of field research – identifying common themes … and a lot of it was having to hide, having people turn away, having to wear a mask.
“And so, out of that, I asked if they would be part of a film. Then, we started working on the film and part of it was them creating masks, since that had come up for them. So, they created masks, wore them and worked with them. And that became a very powerful tool and also a metaphor for those who are left behind.”
Doing this research also spurred Silverman to ask her parents about her uncle’s suicide for the first time. She did so on camera. “I was intrigued with the fact that I had never known about this,” she said. “And, why was that … why was there shame and stigma?”
As well, during high school, Silverman knew fellow students who had taken their own lives – and these suicides, too, were never talked about. She felt compelled to learn more about why that was and to create a film to help break the silence.
While the release of the film and its being so well received was a high point, Silverman also noted an article she wrote reflecting on the whole process – called “Choosing to Enter the Darkness – A Researcher’s Reflection on Working with Suicide Survivors: A Collage of Words and Images” – which was published in Qualitative Research and Psychology.
“I wanted the audience to hear the experience of survivors – what it’s like to be left behind – and to also break the stigma and shame around it. And, it has. People in the audience often stand up and share their own stories for the first time,” she said. “I had a woman in one of my screenings and she said, ‘I’m 84. When I was 24, my mother took her own life and I’ve never talked about it until now. I was too ashamed.’ So, for 60 years she held that in.
“So, that was the goal. I feel like it has been helpful in terms of … breaking the silence. It’s also been used a lot to encourage discussion for people to talk about it, and it’s in universities, libraries and all the suicide organizations.”
Silverman contends that using art to broach such taboo topics allows people to confront issues without feeling overwhelmed. This approach fits with her therapy practice in general, as she uses art as a gateway for patients to share emotions they likely would not share otherwise.
“Talking can often just go around and around in circles, where nothing new is actually being discovered,” she explained. “I’m not saying that always happens. But, I think that using art as another tool can be incredibly powerful.”
Silverman has received positive feedback about the film, including from people who said they were feeling suicidal and that the film helped, as it talked about suicide openly and showed the pain of those left behind.
“I think it can be used to initiate a discussion in a safe way,” said Silverman. “It would be great if someone would use it to create an educational kit…. For me, the emphasis is that, if suicide is still surrounded by shame and stigma, it’s harmful for those who are suicidal. If they feel like people are so ashamed that they can’t even mention it, then how can they reach out for help? So, that’s my message. It feels very sad to me that I made the film in 2010 and I still feel like there’s a lot of stigma around suicide.”
On the other hand, Silverman said she thinks some things are slowly getting better; for example, that clergy are discussing the topic more with their congregations.
“Some rabbis, priests and ministers now mention the word ‘suicide,’” she said. “I’ve been to a few funerals where it’s mentioned very sensitively, but honestly, with, of course, the family’s permission. I think that’s helpful for everyone there, because everyone knows.
“I feel like schools are trying to deal with it in a better way, too. We recently had a suicide at Concordia. I was called in to help with the response. And so, I feel like there is a real desire now to be more honest about it and to try and find the best way, because college kids are very susceptible.”
According to Silverman, suicide is the biggest killer of adolescents and people in their early 20s in Canada, though different cultures and populations experience different rates. The elderly are also vulnerable, due mainly to loneliness.
“With the Inuit population, First Nations, there’s a really high incidence of suicide,” added Silverman. “I’ve gone out north and it’s really sad. They’re also doing some wonderful grassroots stuff to address that.”
For Prof. Michelle Pannor Silver, author of Retirement and Its Discontents, an individual should be the one to decide when they start to work less. (photo from sociology.utoronto.ca)
Not long ago, it was a given that, when you reached the age of 65 or so, you would retire. But, that is no longer the case.
Michelle Pannor Silver, an assistant professor in the University of Toronto’s sociology department and its Interdisciplinary Centre for Health and Society, explores some of the reasons for this, as well as the difference between planning for retirement and the experience of it, in Retirement and Its Discontents: Why We Won’t Stop Working, Even If We Can (Columbia University Press, 2018).
Pannor Silver’s interest in the topic started when she was tasked with helping wind down her father’s office.
“My real initial motivation for studying retirement at all, and really for the book, was my dad’s experience,” Pannor Silver told the Independent. “I wrote about this in the book, that, when I was in my 20s, my dad developed dementia. It became really clear that he was not able to continue seeing his patients. And he was quite active in Jewish Big Brothers. That was something that was a big part of his work as a social worker. That’s the way he identified, as a social worker. He was a psychotherapist.”
This experience led Pannor Silver to the U.S. Health and Retirement Study, and she spent many hours and years examining people’s retirement trajectories. In her dissertation, she focused on, among other things, the relationship between the type of work people did and several different health measures, before and after they retired.
“After spending a lot of time looking at data points, I became really interested in talking to real people about what their retirement was like and, really, to discuss what retirement meant,” she said. In quantitative analysis, you make certain assumptions, she explained, “like how this person works this many hours and, therefore, they are fully employed, versus this person who works that many hours and then stopped … and, so, I’m going to code that one as retired.”
To verify or refute such assumptions, Pannor Silver interviewed people.
“I started really basic – just asking people what it means to them to be retired,” she said. “That helped me realize that, boy, this is a loaded term. It seems so simple, so straightforward, and the media gives us these clues about what it’s supposed to mean – you’ll see these commercials with these people who are retired, but are running on the beach, so retirement must mean running on the beach holding hands. Or, there are other ones that are about saving for retirement, so it must mean that it’s something you do when you stop working.”
A focus of Retirement and Its Discontents is ageism, and what it means to be told by society that it is time for you to stop doing the thing you have probably spent most of your adult life doing. The people she features found that life without work wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.
“The people I interviewed, many talked about being pushed into retirement – being told it was time to make room for the next generation,” she said. “Some of them did it of their own volition. They weren’t really forced into it, but they assumed it was time for them to move over. They looked at how old their fathers had been when they retired, and decided that a certain age was going to be their benchmark. It’s really about the fathers who they looked at, and some of them saw their fathers retiring and dying the next year, or very shortly thereafter. And they thought they’d better retire then, too, so they could live a little before the end comes for them.”
The idea of when to retire is influenced by media messaging. Some of Pannor Silver’s Canadian study participants talked about “freedom 55,” the advertisements for it and how that has always been in their mind as the magic number at which to retire.
Pannor Silver’s study included international participants. And, while the magic age may differ, “the thing they shared – whether they were forced by existential pressures or because of their own internal ideas about when they ought to retire – first of all, they ended up living longer than their parents. All the [financial planning] models people generally have are wrong,” she said, “and that has, of course, implications for the public pension systems that are out of whack, too.
“But, my book really speaks to the experience of people facing the norms on a sort of anachronistic or out-of-date understanding of what retirement is and are disappointed by their experiences because of that – because of the expectations … that it should happen at this certain time and should be a certain way that would lighten and free them. Yet, they felt kind of burdened with life without work.”
Pannor Silver hopes that readers of her book will discard the idea that retirement should be associated with a chronological age. She would like to see them open themselves up to the idea that there are many different ways people can experience retirement.
“I think that, for many people, retirement is a bad word they don’t even want to use,” said Pannor Silver. “My point is to share the experiences of varied, different types of people who, for various reasons, retired in traditional ways … and had to find their own way around it … to sort of rewrite and create their own retirement experiences.
“For them, it was very surprising and, hopefully, others take some comfort in recognizing it’s a really challenging transition, a really important time of life. There’s so much attention paid to the early stages in life – finishing high school, getting into university or that initial career transition, and career mobility and trajectory, but very little attention is paid to later career transitioning. And that was my goal – to be able to say, ‘Here’s a set of people’s experiences.’ And, people tell me that these experiences have really resonated with them…. We can’t just assume that, because an employee is reaching a certain age, it means he or she should be passed up for promotion, cast aside or ignored. It ought to be up to the individual to say, ‘I have other things I want to do,’ or whatever the reason is – to make the decision on their own, that, now, they choose to make a transition to working less.”
While Pannor Silver’s target market is people approaching retirement, she is hoping that the book will also influence the employers, managers and others who are deciding – on the basis of incorrect assumptions or ignorance – to overlook certain parts of their workforce.
“I have Olympic athletes who I interviewed for the book, homemakers, doctors and CEOs … it’s a varied group of individuals,” said Pannor Silver. “But, their experiences are all people who were incredibly dedicated to their work. Their work was their life’s work, and the point is to contribute to an ongoing discussion about what retirement is now … what we can assume about it and what we should not assume.”
Pannor Silver’s next book will examine the importance of physical movement in the later stages of life.
Dr. James A. Levine studies the health benefits of adding more movement to our lives. (photo from James Levine)
We are sitting too much – both at work and in our off hours. And all this sitting is doing us damage. But it’s not only about our health. It’s about how much we could be getting done, both professionally and personally.
When people read health-related articles or listen to health news, they “mentally categorize this information as health information. I think that is a mistake,” said Dr. James A. Levine, president of Fondation Ipsen, which, under the auspices of the philanthropy network Fondation de France, tries to promote scientific knowledge. “This isn’t about health. In the workplace, it’s about productivity: data suggests productivity – widgets produced per hour – improves by about 10 to 15%. In school, academic performance improves by about 10%, compared to kids who don’t engage in these activities and trials. Thinking about this as a health issue underserves the reader. Really, it’s about having a vital, exuberant, productive, happy life.”
While Levine – author of the 2014 book Get Up! Why Your Chair is Killing You and What You Can Do About It (St. Martin’s Press) – is a proponent of movement, he said sitting occasionally is not a bad thing. What is contributing to ill health, he said, is our culture of rolling out of bed, getting into our cars, sitting at an office desk and then driving back home to sit some more. Many of us shop online, order in meals, watch TV, play video games, check texts, email, use social media and go to sleep. Many of us are spending well over half the day, every day, seated.
“I think approximately 28 different chronic diseases and conditions are associated with excess sitting,” Levine told the Independent. “They range from excess body weight and obesity to metabolic conditions, such as diabetes, high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease, to certain types of cancer, such as breast cancer … to mental health issues, such as low mood and depression, to mechanical problems in the body, such as back and joint pain, and all the way through to quite interesting and quite subtle conditions, such as impaired productivity, lower innovativeness, and so forth.”
There is no simple solution. “It’s easy to conjecture that a few simple tricks can solve problems like this,” said Levine. “But, if you think about it logically, if it’s taken society 50 years to get us down onto our bottoms, there can’t just be a few simple tricks to get us up. The modern workplace is actually designed to keep people seated, because it was felt, incorrectly at the time, in the ’50s and ’60s, that, if you kept a person at their desk, they’d be more productive. But, in fact, that’s been proven to not be the case.”
For some, like Levine, getting movement back into our lives means getting a walking desk. For others, it may involve having meetings with colleagues while we walk.
“Our brain neuros are continuously changing through neuroplasticity,” said Levine. “So, in other words, you can take a person with the brain structure of sedentary and convert them, through intervention, into a person who moves more. The reason this occurs is through neuroplastic factors that change the brain’s structure and biochemistry in response to, in this case, intervention.”
The younger a person is, the more neuroplastic their brain is and, hence, more adaptable, he said. The opportunity for an intervention to have the greatest impact is in childhood. As we age, it is harder for us to change.
“We did studies in primary schoolchildren which were fascinating,” said Levine. “We gave them five-minute motion stimuli or games during their lesson and we found that there was a disproportionate response in the children. In other words, if you give children a little nudge, they’ll move a great deal. You just have to give them permission to move. We found that, in slightly older children, ages 11-14, if you give them the same lesson, the children will double their daily activity. If, at the highest level, you alter the structure of the classroom, whereby movement is permitted … children will double their daily physical activity merely by changing their environment.”
For children, he said, the freedom to move will result in a 50% increase in activity; for adults, it will result in a 25 to 30% increase.
A first step to getting on a healthier track includes reading up on the topic, alerting your mind to the need to activate your body. When it comes to action steps, Levine advised people to start small and build on that.
“Look for two activities a day that you did seated, but that you can also do walking – things like weekly meetings with your manager, walk and talk,” he said. “Every lunch time, I won’t sit for half an hour. I’ll eat and sit for a quarter of an hour and walk for the other 15 minutes. I do it every single day. Every week, I’ve watched my kid go play hockey in the arena. Yeah, I’ll be there in the beginning, but I’m going to do a half an hour walk. We’re not talking about adding exercise. We’re talking about transferring sedentary time into moving time.
“My meetings are walk and talk. When I go out with my kids, we always walk and talk. When I go for an evening out with my wife, we walk to the opera or movie, or before dinner. If your evening out is too far to walk from home to, find a place to park your car that is walking distance to the venue. Park there and walk. While standing desks are good, moving while standing is even better. If not possible, consider placing your phone away from you, so you’ll need to get up to answer it and walk around your desk while you talk.
“Then, commit to your plan,” he said. “Yes, you’ve found five opportunities during the week to get up and move. You’ve built environmental cues to remind you to do it – on the fridge, the desk – and check it off on a weekly basis when you’ve met your goal.
“The last and final step might surprise you, because it may seem counter-intuitive, but it’s equally important to the other steps – get a good night’s sleep.”
The Vancouver Jewish Folk Choir in a performance last fall at the Peretz Centre, led by conductor David Millard, with pianist Danielle Lee. (photo from VJFC)
As they say, nothing comes from nothing and so it is with the Vancouver Jewish Folk Choir of the Peretz Centre for Secular Jewish Culture. Officially, our birth date was 1979 – and that’s what we’re celebrating in the June 9 spring concert unironically called Freylekhe Lider: Yiddish Party Songs – but, when you come right down to it, we were in labour for around 25 years before finally coming into the world.
An early predecessor to the Vancouver Jewish Folk Choir was a group called the UJPO’s Vancouver Jewish Folk Singers. UJPO was the United Jewish People’s Order and it was a decidedly political organization that positioned itself somewhere left of Lenin. Its eight-member choir, though keen on socially progressive issues as well, was somewhat less political and more focused on bringing Yiddish and international music to the Vancouver community. Yiddish singer Claire Osipov, the choir’s founder and director, formed the group in 1956 and kept it going for six years. In that time, the choir performed at Peretz Centre events, as well as reaching out to the community beyond. On two occasions, the choir performed at the CBC studio and was broadcast over CBC Radio.
Everyone familiar with Claire knows she seems to have boundless energy when it comes to her love of music and so, to no one’s surprise, she took on additional musical duties and began a children’s choir at Peretz in 1959. The Peretz Centre had an active children’s education program under principal Leibl Basman and Claire’s choir drew on this group, bringing in children who ranged in age from 7 to 11. Noteworthy in this choir was part-time piano accompanist Gyda Chud, current president of the Peretz Centre.
Time and circumstance brought both those choirs to an end some time in the 1960s and, for a time, the halls of the Peretz Centre were chorally silent.
Then, a Peretz choir formed under the direction of Morrie Backun, an employee of Ward’s music. Little is remembered about this choir because Morrie discontinued the group after just one year. Tammy Jackson sang in this choir and one of her main recollections is not so much the repertoire and performances as the brilliant discount they got on sheet music.
* * *
Searle Friedman arrived on the Vancouver scene 1978. He had been out of the country for a number of years studying music in East Germany. After his studies, he and his family – wife Sylvia and sons Michael, Robert and David – settled in Toronto, where Searle became conductor of the Toronto Jewish Folk Choir.
After a time, the family decided to move to Vancouver and Searle came here on his own initially to pave the way. At first, he taught at an alternative education program (called Relevant High School) that was based at what was then called the Vancouver Peretz Institute but, after a year, he parted company with that organization. Since his Ontario teaching credentials were not immediately transferable to British Columbia, Searle spent much of his time at Peretz and it was there that he had a conversation with Tammy, who suggested that he form a choir to occupy his time.
The beginnings of the Vancouver Jewish Folk Choir were rather humble, comprising just a few members and a Russian pianist named Wolfgang. The roster at that time is only vaguely remembered but it certainly included Tammy (Searle’s niece) and Sylvia (his wife). It likely also included David Friedman (Searle’s son), Goldie Shore, Betty Ewing, Davie Cramer, Carl Lehan and Margie Goldhar. When there were no-shows at rehearsals, the standing joke was that the choir could at least consider the possibility of becoming a barbershop quartet.
In those early years, the choir performed informally at various Peretz Centre festival occasions and cultural gatherings. The repertoire was a potpourri of traditional Jewish folk songs sung in Yiddish, as well as some non-Jewish selections that piqued Searle’s interest – “Roosters Crowing on Sourwood Mountain” and “Martian Love Song,” to name two. Incidentally, Searle could never figure out why the “Roosters” song never sounded quite right, until one day he discovered somebody in the bass section was singing “roosters growing on the side of the mountain.”
But the choir grew rapidly. Searle was not just a brilliant conductor and arranger. He was very much a people person and had a charisma and affability that drew others to him. He had a knack for making his singers believe in themselves. Maurie Jackson, an early recruit, recalls Searle often saying to struggling singers: “If you can talk, you can sing!” In a short time, the choir grew to around 30 members, including me.
I had seen Searle’s choir perform and I thought about joining but my interest was kind of a passing thing. I was determined to do something Jew-ish but my real hope was to join a folk dancing class at the Jewish Community Centre. My job kept me glued to a desk most days. I figured folk dancing would be a good way to get some exercise, lose some weight and meet new people. As fate would have it, the folk dancing class was canceled, so I had to begrudgingly fall back on my second choice – the choir. It was a choice that I stuck with for almost 36 years and a choice that introduced me to Tammy – the remarkable lady I’ve been married to for 31 years and counting.
Tammy’s uncle, Searle, was inordinately pleased to know he had played matchmaker to two of his choir members. As often as Searle gave me pointers on singing, he also asked for updates on the state of my relationship with his niece: “Are you seeing each other after choir?” “Are you engaged yet?” “Do you have a wedding date?”
Rehearsals were a lot of fun. Searle liked to laugh and humour was always a part of our repertoire. I recall one day when Searle was working hard at getting us to blend our voices more closely. He wanted to hear the choir singing as one voice. After puzzling over how to make us understand this, he said, “I want all of you to try really hard to feel each other’s parts!” That did us in for most of the rest of that rehearsal, and even Searle had to take time to get back his concentration.
Searle’s one nemesis in rehearsals was his wife, Sylvia. While the rest of us were in awe of his talents and put Searle on a pedestal, Sylvia felt no such compunction. She freely advised Searle of proper pronunciations of Yiddish words and even was vocal about the pace of various songs when she thought Searle had got it wrong. The expression we often heard from Sylvia was, “In my village….” The expression we often heard from Searle was “Sylvia, who’s running this choir?” For fear of hurting his feelings, no one ever answered that question. Many a rehearsal degenerated into heated debates regarding Yiddish linguistics and the proper treatment of traditional songs.
As well as increasing the size of the choir, Searle wanted to increase our presence in the community and give us a focal point for our efforts. With that in mind, we performed our first annual spring concert in the spring of 1984. Our guest artists were the Shalom Dancers. In addition to the choir fans who attended, the Shalom Dancers brought to the performance their own appreciative followers. The result was a very large and lively audience. The pervasive feeling in the choir was, “We’ve got to do this again!” And so, we have, every spring.
* * *
Searle’s energy and love of music had always made him seem like an unstoppable force of nature. We thought and hoped he would last forever. We were wrong. Due to a childhood bout of rheumatic fever, his robust exterior masked the effects of a damaged heart. When he was still a young man, his doctors basically told him not to take on any long-term magazine subscriptions. They said that, with the damage to his heart valves, he would not survive past the age of 40. Searle’s response was to get married, raise three sons, travel to East Germany to study music, get his Canadian teaching certificate and start a choir. When it came to living his life, Searle was not about to call it a day.
In September 1974, Searle had a heart valve replacement and got on with his life. After he founded the Vancouver Jewish Folk Choir in 1979, he was spending repeated stints in the hospital. Nevertheless, he pushed through his medical setbacks and always came back to us ready to lead the choir without a backward glance.
I had a conversation with Searle that pretty much says it all. I was visiting him in the hospital.
Me: How are you doing, Searle?
Searle: Fantastic! I’ve gotten some very good news from my cardiologist.
Me: (greatly relieved) Wonderful! What did he tell you?
Searle: Well, it turns out he sings in a choir and he’s not happy with it. He’s thinking of joining ours! And he’s a tenor!
Searle returned to us from that hospital stay and all of that seemed behind him. But tragedy struck on Dec. 31, 1990. Searle’s heart just stopped. He was only 64.
Just over a week later, we had our first choir rehearsal without Searle. We stood in a large circle and began our warm-up exercises, led by our accompanist, Susan James. No one’s mind was on what we were doing. After a few minutes, I suggested we stop so I could say a few things about Searle. I can’t remember exactly what I said but I spoke about Searle and how much the choir meant to him, and about keeping it going as a tribute to his memory. The floodgates opened. Every choir member spoke of how much Searle had meant to them personally. When it ended, we got down to the business of carrying on what he had begun. If we doubted ourselves, we only had to look at one of the choir members who stood in that same circle to warm up and sing with the rest of us – Searle’s wife, Sylvia.
* * *
After Searle’s passing, Susan stepped up and became our conductor. She was a more reserved individual than Searle but a skilled conductor and her attention to detail was legendary. Nothing got by her and every note sung that was not to her satisfaction was drilled again and again until we got it right. And, sometimes, when the notes were right, we were still stopped dead in our tracks because the page turns were too loud. We worked harder during rehearsals, and we were better singers for it.
Susan’s tenure was five years. She was a devout Christian and the choir was composed mostly of a bunch of godless secularists. In her farewell letter to the choir, she expressed her sadness at not being able to share her beliefs with the rest of us. She left in 1995, after our annual June concert and our season had ended.
Again, a member from our ranks stepped up and helped us carry on. In fall 1996, David Millard – who for a few years had been a paid professional singer in our tenor section – became our conductor and, much to our good fortune, is still at it today.
Over the years, David has conducted, served as our resident Yiddishist, sung as a soloist, filled in on occasion as our pianist, written choral arrangements for many of our songs and led audience sing-alongs at festival celebrations. As we declared in one of our concert narrations, David is the Swiss Army knife of conductors.
In recent times, he composed an original six-part cantata based on a Yiddish translation of Lewis Carroll’s nonsense poem, “Jabberwocky” – “Yomervokhets,” in Yiddish. David’s interest was piqued when he read a Yiddish translation of “Jabberwocky” by Raphael Finkel. Finkel had apparently found a Yiddish-English dictionary that no one knew existed. In this dictionary, the “Jabberwock” translates as the “Yomervokh” and the “frumious Bandersnatch” is noted as the “froymdikn Bandershnits.” The hero’s blade that went “snicker-snack” as it sliced into the Jabberwock made a different sound held by a Jewish hero – “shnoker-shnik.” Who knew?
Translation issues aside, “Yomervokhets” is a brilliant original composition and an audience favourite. No history of the choir would be complete without it and it is to be featured at the choir’s 40th anniversary concert in June.
* * *
Helping us sound our best over the years have been our piano accompanists. Some choirs sing a cappella (without accompaniment). Some choirs, such as ours, are community choirs that welcome enthusiasts of all abilities. For that reason, many of us welcome the guidance of an accompanist to help keep us on pitch. (Some of the choir still think a cappella is an Italian dish involving meatballs.)
Good accompanists are not easy to come by. They need to work closely in tandem with the conductor, often to the point of reading his or her mind.
Over the years, we have relied on many pianists to keep us in tune. Currently, we are accompanied by Danielle Lee, who joined us at the start of this season. But, Elliott Dainow stands out as our longest-serving accompanist – almost 20 years! Beyond contributing his talents at the piano, Elliott was a choral arranger and his version of “Oseh Shalom” has been performed by the choir many times. Though he grew to be a member of the family, to everything there is a season, and Elliott left us in June of 2017, in order to give more time to the renovation of his home on Hornby Island.
* * *
Over the years, the choir has performed at countless venues, including the Peretz Centre, South Granville Lodge, Louis Brier Home and Hospital, Cityfest Vancouver, Vancouver Public Library, VanDusen Gardens, Cavell Gardens, Orpheum Theatre’s Parade of Choirs, the Vancouver Planetarium, the Israeli Street Festival and Victoria’s Congregation Emanu-El.
Sadly, one of our more recent choir performances was at a memorial service for our beloved Sylvia. Shortly after our June concert in 2016, she became ill and passed away that December. She was our last original choir member still active with the choir. In the program notes of our June 2017 concert, we wrote: “The choir dedicates this concert to the memory of our beloved Sylvia Friedman, who sang with us for all but one of the 38 years of our existence. Sylvia wanted to sing this one last concert before retiring. Her death in December 2016 prevented that, but, in our hearts, she is always right there beside us, singing as beautifully as ever.”
Under David’s able baton – figuratively speaking, since he really just waves his arms and hopes somebody notices – and inspired by the devotion to Jewish music of Searle and Sylvia Friedman, the choir is looking forward to its next 40 years.
For tickets ($18) to Freylekhe Lider June 9, 2 p.m., at the Peretz Centre, visit eventbrite.ca.