Hagit Yaso, the 2011 Kochav Nolad winner, will sing in Vancouver on May 5 at the Chan Centre in celebration of Israel’s 66th birthday. (photo from hagityaso.co.il)
One July night in 2011, on a crowded Haifa beach, the 21-year-old singer Hagit Yaso became that year’s winner of Kochav Nolad (A Star is Born), Israel’s version of American Idol. The outsider had triumphed. “It was the most exciting and most life-changing experience I’ve ever had,” she told the Independent by telephone from her home in Sderot.
Yaso is a fully qualified outsider. She is working-class, the child of Ethiopian refugees and a resident of the missile-and-mortar target town of Sderot. Only one kilometre from the Gaza Strip, Sderot is the target of frequent rocket assaults. A small town of only 20,000 people, everyone, she said, knows everyone. “It’s a small town. You get to know the people,” she said. “And I got a lot of support when I was on Kochav Nolad.
Now 24, Yaso has toured the world and released her first CD, a self-titled CD that is available at cdbaby.com and at amazon.com. Vancouver audiences will get a chance to see her May 5 when she headlines the community Yom Ha’atzmaut celebration at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts at the University of British Columbia. The event’s main presenter, the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver, can take some pride in Yaso’s success. A scholarship from the Canadian Federations provided her voice lessons at Sderot’s Music Centre and the Vancouver Federation itself has taken a special interest in helping Sderot’s Ethiopian community. Federation also provides assistance to Sderot’s trauma victims.
The three months she spent on the television competition were grueling, Yaso said. ‘“The competition is very long, very confusing, with a lot of pressure and media.” She always believed she would win, though.
Her friend, the American filmmaker Laura Bialis, who lives in Tel Aviv, noted by phone that Yaso’s determination is one secret to her success. “You know, it was like everything she set out to do, she did,” Bialis said. “She wanted to get into the army band, she got into the army band. She wanted to get on Kochav Nolad, she got on Kochav Nolad. She wanted to win Kochav Nolad, she won.”
The two met when Bialis was shooting a documentary about music in Sderot. That film, Sderot: Rock in the Red Zone, is now in its final editing stage.
Yaso’s success is a point of pride for Sderot. Her win is also significant to Israelis of Ethiopian heritage. Vancouver resident Ronit Reda-Yona, an Ethiopian Israeli, said Yaso’s 2011 win “was an exciting moment for the Israeli society and especially for the Ethiopian community. Everyone in Israel who is Ethiopian feels like me: this is a good model for young people.”
Not only is Yaso well known in Israel but, in a short time, she has become an international success. She has performed at Jewish events in Paris, London, Canadian cities, American cities and Ethiopia. After Vancouver, she will tour Brazil.
“What is really amazing is that her career has taken off internationally in a really interesting way,” said Bialis. “She’s got this amazing voice, she’s gorgeous, she’s gracious, she’s sweet, and she has an amazing story.”
Thankful for parents’ courageous journey
Yaso’s parents, Yeshayahu and Tova, grew up and got married in rural Ethiopia. “They got married by shiddach,” said Yaso, who explained that the marriage was arranged and the two did not meet until their wedding day. In the early 1990s, the couple was forced to leave home. “Because they were Jewish, they suffered a lot and they had to run away from there and the option was to come to Israel,” Yaso explained.
Tremendous hardship stood between them and that destination. “They walked 400 kilometres by foot,” she said with some pride and awe in her voice. “It took them two and a half months to walk because it’s through the desert. They had to walk only at night and hide during the day because they were not supposed to leave [Ethiopia], and they were afraid…. They had to hide during the day because they were afraid of being caught.”
Yaso’s parents finally crossed the border into Sudan and were airlifted to Israel.
“They had nothing when they came here,” she said. Her parents built a life and a family of five children, in the small town where they still live. That home remains her home, too.
The Vancouver performance will include four songs she performed on Kochav Nolad. Yaso will sing in English, Hebrew, Moroccan Arabic and Amharic, the language of Ethiopia. The four-piece band that accompanies her is a group with whom she served in Israel’s army band. All three backup singers are from her hometown, including her sister, Shlomit.
Both of Yaso’s sisters performed with the town’s youth music ensemble. Many of Sderot’s young people dream of music careers. The ubiquitous bomb shelters sometimes double as rehearsal spaces. Perhaps this love of music helps soften a hard life that includes regular bombardment. When the air raid warning sounds you have 15 seconds to find shelter. Drills are constant, so life itself is always uncertain.
“It’s a city that suffers a lot from what’s going on in the south, from bombing and stuff,” said Yaso. “It’s not easy to live there. I manage by being optimistic, smiling and, when it gets harder, I sing.”
In addition to Yaso, performances at the community celebration of Israel’s 66th birthday at the Chan Centre will include the JCC Festival Ha’Rikud Dancers and a musical tribute written by Jonathan Berkowitz and Heather Glassman Berkowitz.
Michael Groberman is a Vancouver freelance writer.
Jamie James as the Emcee, centre, with the ensemble of Cabaret. (photo by Kristian Guilfoyle)
Many know the title song from the musical Cabaret. You can hum it. “Life is a cabaret,” it tells us, but it is not a celebration of life. Rather, for those who know the play or have seen the film, it is a desperate plea for delusion. Sally Bowles denies the obvious, that Berlin is changing under Nazi influence. Weimar Germany is dying, but she refuses to see it. What will happen to her, we can only guess.
The new stage production by Pipedream Theatre Project, a community musical theatre company, is an opportunity to see John Kander’s and Fred Ebb’s (Chicago, Kiss of the Spider Woman) first Broadway hit, back in 1966. The stage version is quite different from the film, which is interesting in itself. Many songs and plot elements were cut or altered for the 1972 film starring Liza Minnelli.
The main story follows Cliff (Victor Hunter), a young American would-be writer who comes to Berlin to experience life and write a novel. He meets the British Sally Bowles (Rebecca Friesen), a performer at the notorious Kit Kat Club, and an affair ensues. She is pregnant. What will they do? A subplot involves the middle-aged Jewish shopkeeper, Herr Schultz (David Wallace), who falls in love with his landlady. Though he’s the victim of humiliations by Nazi supporters, he refuses to believe life will ever get too difficult for the Jews. After all, he tells friends, he too is a German. We can only anticipate his future with fear.
In a sense, though, the story is secondary to the cabaret performances that fill and frame the drama. The Emcee (Jamie James), played in the film by Joel Grey, welcomes us with the well-known “Wilkomen.” Here he establishes his relationship with the audience: we are part of the audience of the licentious Kit Kat Club. The Emcee’s performances throughout the play will draw our attention away from the main story just as the characters’ love of illusion keeps them from seeing reality. The use of cabaret performances, interspersed with dramatic scenes, is the show’s greatest strength.
But the audience sees everything because we know what the characters cannot: the future. We are entranced by the cabaret performances, including the songs, “Two Ladies,” “Don’t Tell Mama” and “Mein Herr.” In fact, the women’s chorus, the Kit Kat Girls, is the strongest musical element of this production. Their group performances are alive, their combined voices loud, clear and melodic. As an audience, we also know how life will turn out for these naïve characters: the homosexuals especially. Weimar freedom will be countered with a brutal backlash.
The good men’s chorus performs the frightening song “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” well. The singers provide the appropriate tone shift mid-song that changes an upbeat ode to a bright future into an angry group anthem that dreams of cruelty and destruction.
The show’s best voice belongs to Stephanie Liatopoulosas, as the prostitute Fraulein Kost, when she leads the reprise of “Tomorrow Belongs to Me.”
Director April Green has chosen to make her emcee clearly heterosexual and more goofy than sinister. The style does not work for this character. The Emcee at the Kit Kat Club needs to be somehow creepy and transgressive in order to represent the kind of “decadent” behavior the Nazis wanted to destroy, so this characterization is too light for the role. The Kit Kat Girls’ dancing could have come from Guys and Dolls or West Side Story. It just isn’t very dirty.
One song that was problematic in the play’s first production back in the ’60s is problematic here. “If You Could See Her” is performed by the Emcee and a person dressed as a gorilla. This production has no gorilla costume, just a hairy man wearing a dress and some black makeup. The joke is that “if you could see her through my eyes” you would also love her. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But the final line of the song, almost whispered, goes: “If you could see her through my eyes, she wouldn’t look Jewish at all.” The point of this lyric is to disgust the audience with the Emcee’s antisemitism. During the musical’s first production, many audience members believed the whole song antisemitic and called for its cut. The word “Jewish” was removed from the original production and replaced with “meeskite,” or ugly. Subsequent productions have occasionally used the word “Jewish” instead. In the case of this production, the problematic word “Jewish” does not work. Because the Emcee is played as fresh and friendly, and the other performer is not in a gorilla costume, the song’s intention disappears. Rather than suggesting Jews are animals, and hoping the audience cringes, this version suggests Jews look like ugly women.
I suspect the production could not get a gorilla suit and figured the audience would know the character was an animal by the blackened face (not blackface, I hasten to add), and the fact that she likes eating a banana. The choice fails the taste test. This production should have used the word “meeskite,” as in the film and in many productions. In the absence of a gorilla costume, the song should have been cut entirely.
Pipedreams is now 10 years old and is dedicated to presenting infrequently produced musicals and providing opportunities to young musical talent. Last year’s production, Assassins, was nominated for an Ovations Award, a Vancouver version of the Tony Awards for musical theatre. Previous productions have included Nine (2010) and little-known works like Elegies: A Song Cycle (2011) and Adding Machine (2011). Cabaret is at Performance Works on Granville Island until April 19. Tickets vancouvertix.com.
Richard Newman and Pippa Mackie in The Grandkid. (photo by David Cooper)
Former community member John Lazarus is a very interesting man. Dubbed by the media as one of Canada’s best-known playwrights,” his fertile mind has spawned the likes of Babel Rap, The Late Blumer and his award-winning Village of Idiots, which evolved from a play through a CBC Radio mini-series to a National Film Board animated short. His latest work, The Grandkid, the intergenerational story of Julius Rothstein and his granddaughter, Abby, opened at Richmond’s Gateway Theatre this week.
Montreal-born Lazarus graduated from the National Theatre School of Canada in 1969. The call of the West lured him to Vancouver, where he worked for 30 years as an actor, director, critic, broadcaster, playwright, screenwriter and teacher – including a stint at Studio 58, one of Canada’s leading theatre schools. For the past 14 years, he has been an associate professor of drama at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont. Now, his newest creation brings him back to the West Coast.
The two-character play tells the story of an aging film professor, Rothstein, grieving over the recent loss of his wife, when his 19-year-old freshman granddaughter decides to move in with him to attend university. This leads to an intriguing social experiment and a new twist on BFF (best friends forever), as Julius and Abby become roommates and grapple with the timeless issues of youth and aging.
In a telephone interview with the Independent, Lazarus talked about his inspiration for the show. “I had friends where that living arrangement came up, their daughter moved in with Grandpa, and I listened with interest to their conversations about what was going on in the relationship. I was intrigued by the concepts of old age and youth and the stereotypes surrounding these two groups. I look around and see both people my age and young adults behaving very differently than depicted in the media and I wanted to write something to show how we can transcend the age differences and get along as a family.”
Developing strong characters is always essential, but especially so in a “two-hander,” as they have to hold the attention of the audience for the entire show. Lazarus believes that he has created two very likeable ones: “Julius is a hip old guy, easy-going, artistic, who is generally happy, but we see him when he is saddened after the death of his wife. He is an observant Jew and a liberal thinker, except when it comes to Israel, who he staunchly supports. He is tired of his career and he hopes that, with his granddaughter coming to live with him, she will inject a ray of sunshine into his life – and she does.” As to Abby, said Lazarus, “She is very idealistic, smart and wants to make a difference in the world. While the two love each other very much, they do clash over generational-gap kind of things.”
“My father, an insurance salesman, was a great storyteller and had a great sense of humor and irony. I remember thinking after listening to one of his stories, what a wonderful thing to do – to make people laugh.”
Lazarus often uses Jewish themes and characters in his repertoire. “I was brought up in a Jewish home and, while not observant, I feel culturally Jewish,” he explained. “My father, an insurance salesman, was a great storyteller and had a great sense of humor and irony. I remember thinking after listening to one of his stories, what a wonderful thing to do – to make people laugh. While I started off as an actor, writing became my passion. Although I don’t think of myself as strictly a writer of comedies, even in my serious plays humor sneaks in. To me, that is the Jewish essence of it, putting humor into every situation.”
Family and friends often provide ideas for his work and the needed conflict for the narrative. “When I was writing The Grandkid, I asked my wife what I could put into the story that would drive Julius crazy. She told me to give Abby a Palestinian boyfriend. I did not want to go there because I thought some might label the story racist so, instead, I gave her an Israeli boyfriend who has views on Israel that are diametrically opposed to those of Julius – that leads to some interesting dialogue.”
Some have suggested that the play is autobiographical. Lazarus laughed, “Definitely not. Yes, there are similarities between Julius and himself. Both of us are Ontario university professors, he film, me drama, but we differ in our views of politics and religion. I think, if we could sit down and have coffee together, we would have a very heated, but respectful, conversation.”
When asked why people should see the play, Lazarus reflected, “It makes you feel good about family and relationships. I guess you could call it a love story of sorts. It highlights the best parts of being young and being old, and how different generations can learn from one another. It will appeal to all age groups. Also, you could not ask for a better cast – Richard Newman, who I first worked with in the seventies, and Pippa Mackie, who I met in 2013 and encouraged to audition for the play because I thought she would be perfect for the part – and a terrific director, Natasha Nadir. It is good for a few laughs and you don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy it.”
In anticipation of being at the theatre on opening night, as the interview took place before the play opened, Lazarus said, “It is a culmination of a dream, to come to Vancouver and say, ‘Hello, here I am, I am back and here is my new play. I hope you enjoy it.’”
The Grandkid runs at the Gateway until April 26. For more information, visit gatewaytheatre.com or call the box office at 604-270-1812.
Tova Kornfeld is a Vancouver freelance writer and lawyer.
Russel Crowe is Noah in Darren Aronofsky’s latest film. (photo from Paramount Pictures)
An earnest amalgam of free-association Bible story, dire disaster movie and family melodrama, Noah is a more thoughtful and provocative movie than one has any right to expect. Sure, it’s ludicrous and ponderous at times and embellished with gratuitous special effects, but it also succeeds in prodding the viewer to reflect on his or her behavior toward others and relationship to God.
Darren Aronofsky, a Brooklyn Jew by birth and upbringing, has concocted a sporadically inspired film with enough fodder for a month of sermons. It’s a compelling saga up until the great flood, when key plot elements collide with enough force and absurdity to sink an ark. Metaphorically speaking, that is. After all, the species (plural) must go on.
In terms of contemporary resonance and relevance, the film’s depiction of religious absolutism pushed to the point of tyrannical self-righteousness – in the name of God, of course – neatly undercuts the inclination by zealots of any faith to claim Noah as gospel.
I remember Noah as a mild-mannered super-carpenter and reluctant zoologist in my Hebrew school classes of yore, but you don’t cast Russell Crowe to play a guy grappling with internal and existential dilemmas. His Noah is a decisive survivalist who doesn’t hesitate to kill to protect his family or to fulfil God’s plan.
Aronofsky’s Noah can only infer and deduce that plan from the occasional wondrous sign or disturbing dream, aided by his sage, Merlin-esque grandfather, Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins). Aronofsky and co-writer Ari Handel resist the temptation – and the arrogance – of having God speak directly to Noah.
We have no doubt, though, that Noah is the last true believer in the Creator, as the Lord is referred to throughout the picture. Indeed, he has a real talent for channeling God’s merciless fury. In this regard, Noah is reminiscent of Moses, who was up to the task of meting out vengeance – or justice, in the vernacular of the film – when the time came.
That association aside, Aronofsky’s most Jewish picture remains his mystical black-and-white debut, Pi, in which Handel has a cameo as a kabbalah scholar. It is much more difficult to discern a Jewish sensibility in Noah than it was (to summon another biblical adaptation) to detect Mel Gibson’s deep-seated antisemitism in The Passion of the Christ.
The most jarring element in Noah from a Jewish perspective is the presence of angels, called “Watchers” and manifested as angry, hulking, walking, talking rock piles. Punished by God for trying to intervene on behalf of Adam and Eve, the Watchers decide to help Noah – and, by extension, serve their Creator – build the ark and then repel the hordes who desperately attempt to board when the hard rain starts a-fallin’.
At a crucial moment, the Watchers are redeemed for their sacrifice and return to the heavens like Roman candles. Polls report that a majority of Americans believe in angels, so for some viewers this sequence will mark the emotional high point of the movie.
Amid the concessions to visual effects-driven miracles, Noah manages to convey the nasty, brutish world of the Bible. At the same time, it demolishes Noah’s cloak of absolute good to demonstrate that no person is devoid of flaws and fallibility.
The film does not, alas, evoke the strength and power of the Bible’s matriarchs, for its female characters – Noah’s wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly) and a young girl (Emma Watson) saved and raised by the family who grows up to be Shem’s love interest – are given little to do in the second half except cry, shriek and sob.
The biggest obstacle to a visual rendering of Noah’s mythic saga, though, is that we know how the reboot of civilization turned out. We’re living it. So the optimistic rainbow at the end of Noah has all the credibility and gravitas of a Hallmark commercial.
Whether we see the modern world as the inevitable manifestation of human nature in all its glories and depravities or as a technologically supercharged Sodom, Noah makes us ponder the fate of the world as a function of our interdependence as well as our individual morality. Should we fear God’s anger and another flood, or (as the movie hints) is a self-inflicted die-off from environmental destruction just as likely? Either way, Noah represents a powerful admonition to humankind.
What’s intriguing about a repeat apocalypse is that it would be a communication from a God who’s been silent for centuries. The power of Noah, one could say, is to remind us that every cloud has a silver lining.
Michael Fox is a writer and film critic living in San Francisco.
Gary Shteyngart is widely regarded as one of the most entertaining storytellers in contemporary literature. The highly enjoyable memoir Little Failure (Random House, 2014), his fourth book after three well-received novels, is his story as a Jewish immigrant from Russia trying to make sense of his place in the new world.
Celebrity memoirs are often intended to settle accounts or redeem reputations. Shteyngart uses his memoir to share the important moments of his life, from his birth in Leningrad through his difficulties as an immigrant to the publication of his first novel, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, which won the Stephen Crane Award for first fiction and the National Jewish Book Award for fiction.
In Little Failure, he writes with humor and introspection about the family’s struggles – the poverty, the hesitation in abandoning ways of the old country and the missteps in trying to fit in. As he moves through a Hebrew parochial school and on to Oberlin College, he delves into the frustrations and absurdities of immigrant life.
Tales of violence at home and unrelenting bullying in the schoolyard are followed by comical accounts of teenaged drinking, pot-smoking and attempts to connect with women. Several incidents will be familiar to those who have read his novels. He often uses events from his own life in his writing.
The memoir jumps back and forth from his recollection of events in his life to his thoughts as he writes the book. Throughout, Shteyngart keeps coming back to his relationship with his parents, and especially his father.
While writing the memoir, his father apparently told him that he read on the Russian Internet that Shteyngart and his novels would soon be forgotten. His mother identified the blogger who made the comment.
“Do you want me to be forgotten, Father?” Shteyngart thought to himself. His parents have not read his latest book but they know the name of the blogger who says he will be soon forgotten, Shteyngart moans.
His father persisted. Shteyngart was 30th on a list of New York writers. “David Remmick (editor of The New Yorker) was eight positions ahead of you,” his father said. His mother tried to calm the waters. Many writers aren’t acknowledged until after their death, she said in an attempt that did not make Shteyngart feel any better.
A few days later, his parents were kvelling over a book review in France. The French Internet described his book as one of the best of the year.
He appreciates the humor in the situation. “After each teardown, after each discussion of Internet rankings and blogs, after each barrage of insults presented as jokes, my father finishes with, ‘You should call me more.’”
What should he make of these exchanges? “Down and up. Up and down. I am forgotten. I am remembered. I am number thirty. I am beloved in France. What is this? This is parenting.”
Beyond biography, Little Failure offers a rare glimpse into an international phenomenon. The emigration of Jews from Russia has been a cause célèbre for many Jewish communities over the past four decades. Shteyngart’s memoir offers the perspective of Russian immigrants, facing numerous difficulties on the way out of the country and in starting life over in a foreign land.
His family left Russia near the end of a decade that saw 250,000 Jews coming to the West. Israel “begged” them to move to the Holy Land, he writes, but his father “courageously” resisted. A Jewish immigrant aid group helped them establish a home in New York. Shteyngart was sent to Solomon Schechter School in Queens. He does not write about those who helped the family.
The memoir also omits something I would have liked to find out. Shteyngart does not write about authors who have influenced his work or what he reads. However, he does pinpoint those events in his life that helped shape the making of the writer Gary Shteyngart.
To some extent, he was born a storyteller. He writes that he has never been stuck for words. “My mind is running at insomniac speed,” he says in the memoir. “The words are falling in like soldiers at reveille. Put me in front of a keyboard and I will fill up a screen.”
He was introduced to the art of storytelling at an early age. With debilitating asthma from birth, much of his early years in Leningrad was spent in “a fort of pillows and duvets and comforters,” fighting suffocation. He became “a pathological reader.” He recalls at age 5 reading The Wonderful Adventures of Nils, a dense 160-page volume by Selma Lagerlif, the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in literature.
Around the same time, his father was making up comic stories, dubbed “The Planet of the Yids,” about a Hebraic corner of the galaxy besieged by gentile spacemen who attacked with torpedoes filled with salted raw pig fat. Famous Jewish dissident Natan Sharansky ran the planet. Whenever the KGB was on the verge of gaining the upper hand, a fearless leader called Igor (Shteyngart’s name before he changed it to Gary) saved the Yids.
Shteyngart remembers inventing his first story at the age of 5. His grandmother, Galya, who once worked as a journalist and editor at a Leningrad newspaper, suggested he write his own novel. She offered him slices of cheese for every page he wrote, a sandwich with bread, butter and cheese for each chapter.
He put together a surrealistic tale of political adventurism and betrayal involving Lenin, Finland and a wild goose. The novel, Lenin and His Magical Goose, probably cost a hundred pieces of cheese and at least a dozen sandwiches, he estimates.
His first attempt at writing a story in English came when he was 10, three years after arriving in New York. He was a misfit at school, constantly bullied and ridiculed by his classmates. He considered himself to be one of the most hated boys at Hebrew school.
The 59-page novella, The Chalenge (sic), was an imaginative space adventure involving a blond kid who does not look Jewish, a best friend and a girl caught in the middle between the two boys.
“I write because there is nothing as joyful as writing, even when the writing is twisted and full of hate, the self-hate that makes writing not only possible but necessary,” he says in the memoir.
Shteyngart hated himself and the people around him. He was not strong enough to stand up to those who hit him, and he struck back with rage in the imaginary world he created. He discovered the power of laughter from a teacher who was ridiculed during a show-and-tell session in the classroom. He thought the teacher would burst out in tears when kids made fun of her. Instead, she just laughed and continued what she was doing. It was a revelation to him. “She has laughed at herself and emerged unscathed!”
The teacher asked him to bring The Chalenge to school and read a few pages to the class. Excited, he stood at the front of the class and read as fast as he could. “Slowly,” she said. “Read slowly, Gary. Let us enjoy the words.”
Her response startled him. “I breathe that in. Ms. S wants to enjoy the words.”
His classmates listened closely as he read the story aloud over the following five weeks. Reading his story changed how the children interacted with him. They were eager to hear the next instalment. He was not yet one of them on the playground but the terms of engagement had changed. He was no longer a Russian outcast.
Responding to their enthusiasm, he felt the pressure to write something new every day, lest he fall out of favor. It’s a responsibility that has haunted him for the rest of his life, he writes.
“God bless these kids for giving me a chance,” Shteyngart says. “May their G-d bless them every one.”
While still at Solomon Schechter School in Queens, he also wrote a satire of the Torah, called The Gnorah. He described the book as a hatchet job directed at his parochial school religious experience: rote memorization of ancient texts, aggressive shouting of blessings and an ornery rabbi who was the principal. Foreshadowing his writing style over the following decades, he mixed comic references to popular culture figures with the lives of characters in his story. Exodus became Sexodus, Moses was renamed Mishugana and the burning bush was turned into a burning television.
The Gnorah in 1984 marked the beginning of his true assimilation into American English, he writes. It would take almost two more decades before he started to receive awards for his writing.
The Russian Debutante’s Handbook was published in 2002. His second published novel, Absurdistan, was chosen as one of the 10 best books of 2006 by The New York Times Book Review and Time magazine. And, Super Sad True Love Story won the 2011 Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for comic literature – the Jewish Independent interviewed Shteyngart when that book came out, prior to his participation in the Cherie Smith JCCGV Jewish Book Festival (see “Satirist launches series,” Nov. 12, 2010, jewishindependent.ca). Shteyngart’s work has been translated into 28 languages.
Media consultant Robert Matas, a former Globe and Mail journalist, still reads books. Little Failure is available at the Isaac Waldman Jewish Public Library. To reserve this book, or any other, call 604-257-5181 or email [email protected]. To view the catalogue, visit jccgv.com and click on Isaac Waldman Library.
Reading From the Dream, Carol Rose’s most recent collection of poetry, led me to my bookshelf, where her first collection, Behind the Blue Gate, was safely stored. This shelf is home to books that have particularly impressed me, and which I may want to read again, as well as those that have been written by friends. Rose’s falls into both groups, and From the Dream will soon be joining its older sister.
In looking back at Behind the Blue Gate (Beach Holme Publishing, 1997), I not only enjoyed it on its own merit, but enjoyed comparing its themes and style with From the Dream (Albion-Andalus Inc., 2013). While both collections were obviously written by the same intelligent and caring person, the effects of time and experience were evident, and there is a difference in tone: the latter seems more accepting of the way of the world. My first thought was that, perhaps having grandchildren – which Rose now does aplenty – required a person to be more optimistic.
“I am not sure if it is about being a grandparent, or about living longer and suffering the losses and demise that come with age while, at the same time, learning to treasure what we have at this very moment (including partners, children, grandchildren and friends). From the Dream seems to investigate these ideas, even the humorous poems,” said Rose in an email interview, giving as an example the poem “singin like he used to,” about attending a Bob Dylan concert as an older person, which “has us reluctantly ‘aging before our very eyes,’ while still being able to laugh at the life we are blessed to continue living.”
She agreed that the poems in From the Dream are less confrontational or cynical than those in Behind the Blue Gate. “Particularly,” she noted, “when it comes to poems about women in the Bible or women in Judaism.”
Rose was quite involved in the Jewish feminist movement (from the early 1970s) and, she said, “I think that my writing was driven by a desire to create a new myth or a new narrative, or perhaps a more inclusive midrash.
“Just as there were women who were lobbying for political change, or women who were trying to create new rituals – and I was part of that effort, as well – there were also many women who were trying to create woman-centred interpretations of biblical teachings. We realized that women had only heard about biblical matriarchs (or even about Lilith) through the teachings of their rabbis or preachers. I wondered (along with many others, in various faith communities) what would happen if women began telling these same stories – but from their own point of view. To that end, I wrote some midrashic poems, including some that can be found in ‘The Crones’ section of Behind the Blue Gate.
“In those years, I was not only reading and studying the material, I was teaching and running workshops on women and spirituality, so it was very ‘alive’ in my thinking. I am not teaching that material as much, now, and there are certainly wonderful contemporary midrashic materials (by and about women) that have appeared in the last 15-20 years, so I no longer feel that same urgency.
“What I feel most drawn to, these days,” she said, “are women’s rituals, women’s dreams, women’s experience of the Holy, the angelic, and women’s encounters with Mystery – in nature, and in the lives of their family and friends. From the Dream, especially the section called ‘Shivering in the Silence,’ explores some of these ideas.”
From the Dream includes work from the mid-1990s through to recent years. When asked about the process for deciding what was to be included, Rose said, “As you know, it can take many years for a collection of poems to become a book. In the selection, many individual poems are left behind. As the new work began to emerge, I noticed that several of the earlier poems were still very much alive. From the Dream plucked them up and wove them into its theme of memory and loss. My friend, poet Di Brandt, once said that we are ‘always writing the same poem.’ I don’t know that I agree with her entirely, but I do believe that we strive to write ourselves out of pain and uncertainty, and that some of the earlier poems seemed to help me understand what it was that I was still wrestling with.”
The idea of “wrestling” in this context brings to mind Jacob’s struggle with God, and many of the poems in both From the Dream and Behind the Blue Gate are inspired by Jewish texts and beliefs, in which Rose is steeped. But her work is by no means parochial, and reflects a broad understanding of and empathy for humanity, beyond the religious, geographic, relational and other boundaries by which we separate ourselves from each other.
Born in New York City, Rose has lived in various places, and currently divides her time between Winnipeg, St. Louis and Jerusalem. Among her academic credentials are a bachelor’s in religious studies from the University of Manitoba and a master’s in theology from the University of Winnipeg, as well as graduate work in cross-cultural and international education. For several years, she has taught imagery and, according to her bio, “she also uses imagery work in a private counseling practice she shares with her husband, Dr. Neal Rose,” who also happens to be a rabbi.
“In terms of spirituality,” she told the Independent, “I suppose I would say that my frame is Jewish mysticism, that I believe that the world was created out of the word (or words); that we are part of ongoing revelation, believing that we can receive or grasp truth (sometimes with the help of a presence, a friend, an angel or a loved one); that we are loved and capable of loving; that the dead live on, that their presence (in our memory or awareness) urges us to live justly; that the created world is a gift, that we take only what we need and that we respect the cycles of time, celebrate the Sabbath, eat permitted food with awareness, offer thanksgiving, extend our hands and hearts to others. I think both books convey these sentiments.”
She explained imagery work as “similar to what we have come to know as ‘visualization,’ though my teacher (psychologist and wise woman Colette Aboulker-Muscat) preferred to call it ‘imagery’ because she believed that we can access information through any of our senses.
“When the mind is brought to stillness, through a brief breathing exercise and a directed intention (know as kavanah), we can gain a deeper connection to intuition and/or inspirational thinking. Clearly, as a writer, quieting the mind and sitting in stillness is a useful technique. But imagery work is much more complex; it is a system based on liturgical, biblical and mystical teachings that can help us contact our innermost thoughts and feelings. Using this technique can offer us healing, increased creativity and a sense of wholeness. I generally teach this method in small groups, on retreats, or as a spiritual director, with individuals of all faiths.”
In addition to being a teacher and a multiple-award-winning writer whose poetry and essays have been published in several journals and anthologies, Rose is also an editor. She knows well the power and weakness of words, and even deals with them explicitly in her work, such as in the poem “etching images,” which forms part of the “Shivering in the Silence,” section of From the Dream.
“Ah, the limitations of language,” she acknowledged. “Yes, this is a constant tug of war! How to express what one sees, senses, feels or understands? How, especially, in those moments of enormous insight, or of injustice and deep suffering, or of great love and amazing beauty? (Is it any wonder that some midrashim describe Moses as a ‘stutterer’ or a man ‘slow of speech’?) How can words capture numinous experiences? And yet, for the poet this becomes the challenge.
“Certainly, the closer we come to describing what we think, feel, understand or experience, the better we are able to communicate with others – the closer we come to the medieval notion of what it means to be human: m’daber, the one who speaks.”
There are some very talented writers who contribute to the Jewish Independent, so it’s not surprising that many of them have been published elsewhere. Here are brief reviews of six books that feature contributions from, or are authored by, freelancers who have written for the JI at some point.
Living Legacies: A Collection of Writing by Contemporary Canadian Jewish Women, Volume 3 (PK Press, 2011), edited by Liz Pearl, comprises essays from more than 35 women, including at least two who have contributed to the JI – Shoshana Litman (Victoria) and Ricki Segal (Winnipeg) – as well as three other British Columbians: Shelley Halpern Evans, Dale Adams Segal and Helen Waldstein Wilkes. In this most recent volume, Pearl has once again collected from women across the country stories that create connections, both spiritual and human.
In writing about her family and the role that food plays in their expression of love, for example, Evans touches upon rituals that are important to secular and religious Jewish life; the way in which a recipe passed down from a grandmother or the care that a parent or a spouse puts into making a meal brings family and friends closer. Litman’s Shabbat dinner at a friend’s home in Brooklyn offers her “[h]ints of heaven,” and also reconnects her to a woman she knew from Vancouver – these “divine encounters” not only make Litman “feel encouraged and uplifted,” but also, she writes, “The thin veil that separates me from others disappears, like overcast skies swept clean by spring winds to reveal the warm sunlight that is always there.”
In writing about how she’s been composing prayers all her life, despite her non-religious upbringing, Dale Adams Segal notes that she has “paddl[ed] down many rivers of growing up: of being married and divorced and married again, of birthing children and witnessing the birth of a granddaughter, of finding those whom I would love and losing those whom I have loved…. I share with you that this practice of writing prayer has restored me to life again and again….” And Ricki Segal pays tribute to her mother, who at the time of writing was suffering from dementia, in sharing some of what she has learned from her mother about love, attentiveness, tenacity, forgiveness and other important facets of life.
Wilkes’ essay is about her personal journey, from being made to feel ashamed about being Jewish by antisemitic classmates when she was a child to “com[ing] home” when she heard the Barchu: “I began to weep,” she writes. “Something deep inside me had been touched, and I knew that I had indeed come home.” She now sees Jewishness as a bridge that helps her “see aging as a purposeful process. Hopefully, the passing years will be accompanied by a growing measure of wisdom. If this means that I can be a role model to my children and grandchildren, then I will be blessed indeed.”
Role models would describe all of the contributors to this and previous volumes of Living Legacies – and this fact offers reassurance that there are many more women (men and children) who would also fit that bill.
Canada’s Jews: In Time, Space and Spirit, edited by Concordia University’s Prof. Ira Robinson, was published by Academic Studies Press in 2013. It is part of the Jews in Space and Time series which, according to ASP’s website, “brings together some of the best scholars in their respective fields to explore the histories of Jewish communities in different geographical areas and historical eras, deepening our understanding of Jews and the relationships that they forged within their host countries.”
Canada’s Jews is special for several reasons, including its dedication to two men who for a part of their lives called Vancouver home and contributed to several local institutions, including the JI’s forerunner, the Jewish Western Bulletin: David Rome (1910-1996) and Abraham Arnold (1922-2011). These men, as Robinson notes, also “broke new ground in the field of Canadian Jewish studies.”
For Canada’s Jews, Robinson has amassed almost everyone who is currently attempting to continue Rome’s and Arnold’s legacy. Local contributors are Jewish Historical Society of British Columbia historian emeritus Cyril Leonoff, who co-wrote the chapter on Vancouver with me; University of British Columbia Prof. Alex Hart, who contributed an extensive essay on Jews in English literature; and UBC Prof. Richard Menkis, who wrote two chapters, a revised version of a previous article on Reform Judaism in Canada, and a comprehensive look at Conservative Judaism, as well as Reconstructionism and Renewal.
In the preface, Robinson notes that Canada’s Jews “will be of interest to scholars, students and readers of Canadian and Jewish studies,” however, the essays are, on the whole, very accessible and most people will find something to engage them.
The book has three parts: the first spans the history of Canadian Jews from the mid-1700s to after the Second World War; the second looks at contemporary Canada, beginning with a couple of chapters on general demographics and politics, followed by chapters on Jewish communities across the country; and the third comprises chapters on Judaism, Yiddish, literature and art, with the volume’s concluding chapter being a detailed inventory of the state of Jewish studies in Canada and recommendations for how the field might expand.
Canada’s Jews is full of factoids that can be gleaned on a quick reading. For example, “While almost all Canadian Jews in 1945 were Ashkenazi, today close to 20% have Sephardi roots” (Franklin Bialystock); Regina’s Jewish population in 2001 was 720, “about the same as it had been since 1951” (Debby Shoctor); and 2005 calculations show the average household size for the Jewish community as a whole in Greater Montreal to be 3.46, compared to that of the Satmar/Belz/Skver, 5.69; Lubavitch, 5.45; and Tosh, 6.37 (William Shaffir).
Because of how data are collected and the fact that such essay collections take a long time to put together, hunters for current statistics will be frustrated, as many of the survey and census figures are almost 10 or more years old. As well, the chapters on specific cities’ communities are quite brief in some cases and, while they provide a general overview and raise some issues for future research most – including the chapter I co-wrote – do not delve into any analysis, for example, of issues such as the effects of immigration on communal participation and/or fundraising. Perhaps the situation in small communities is similar – limited availability of information and little previous analytical work on which to build.
These small criticisms aside, the volume will contribute much to readers’ knowledge of Jews in Canada, and there are several in-depth analyses in the collection, including a couple of chapters that provide fascinating reading for anyone interested in the evolution of the mainstream Jewish community’s structure on a national level.
On the fiction front, readers of chick lit will appreciate Masada Siegel’s first novel, Window Dressings (Cupcake Press, 2012). It begins with the main character, Skye Silver, attempting – and failing – to manouevre her body into a position that her boyfriend Gregg wants her to try from the Palmasutra, a mobile operating system version of the Kamasutra. The trouble in bed is but one of the problems this couple is having in their soon-to-be over three-year relationship. Religion (Skye is Jewish, Gregg is Protestant), lack of communication and insecurity, among other things, lead to the betrayal that sends Skye into singlehood.
Despite a poor body image, sadness over her break-up and very high standards for the outward beauty of possible mates, Skye manages to find many suitors, and much of Window Dressings is about what happens on those dates. She is supported by two besties: Josh, a writer/editor, with whom “mutual attraction had turned into a strong friendship”; and Karen, an international model.
While Skye is getting used to her new status and trying to meet “hot neighbor boy” – both a real character and Skye’s ideal man – she loses her job at Xtremedream advertising. Halfheartedly looking for a new job, she takes on some freelance work, falling back on the journalism degree she got in addition to her master’s in business admin. With relative ease, it seems, she lands a job at the New York Times and, dream job in hand, life gets even better for Skye.
In Lost and Found in Russia by Olga Godim (Eternal Press, 2013), Amanda anxiously awaits news about her daughter, Gloria, who is in the hospital after a car accident. Amanda volunteers to give blood for the needed transfusion and, while the lab work is being done, we find out that Amanda is a linguist. A contract decades earlier had her teaching Russian to a group of Toronto journalists. She fell in love with one of them, Donald, and married him a week before they moved to Russia, where Gloria was born. For Amanda, it was Gloria who “filled the emptiness left after Donald’s death.”
When the blood work reveals that Gloria is not Amanda’s biological daughter, the doctor makes a comment about a possible switch at birth, and Amanda recalls that, 34 years ago, “Two red-headed girls were born on the same day in that decrepit hospital with peeling paint on the walls and one washroom for the entire corridor.” As she sits by Gloria’s bedside, Amanda resolves to find her other daughter: “Of course, Gloria was her daughter, her blood type notwithstanding. She just had another red-haired daughter somewhere in Russia.”
Meanwhile, Sonya is steeling herself to kick out her drunk of a husband, Alexei, as she can no longer afford to support him, herself and their teenage daughter, Ksenya, on what she earns from working two jobs. The Russian family arrived in Canada two years earlier from Israel, where Sonya had been a dancer and a dance instructor, and they now live in Vancouver, where Alexei’s supposed musical genius is as underappreciated as it was in Israel. Sonya not only has to deal with an alcoholic partner and trying to scrape out a living, but with her daughter’s understandable frustrations.
The book follows Amanda’s search for her other daughter; along the way, she also opens herself up to life for the first time since her husband died. It also follows Sonya’s struggles with Ksenya, and their rapprochement. Godim writes authentic dialogue, and captures the intricacies of relationships, mainly that between mother-daughter. Most interesting, however, is the view of Judaism from a Russian perspective, not only how one self-identifies culturally, religiously or otherwise, but the prevalent antisemitism. The fairytale ending is over the top, and there are a few odd scenes that could have been replaced with more development of the main characters, but the writing style and especially the Sonya-Ksenya relationship, make Lost and Found in Russia a good read.
It’s hard to know what to think about Curt Leviant’s Zix Zexy Stories (Texas Tech University Press, 2012). Leviant is an excellent writer, he’s knowledgeable about literature, Yiddish and Judaism, among other topics, and he has what to say. But he has a weakness, or made a poor choice. In pretty much every one of the seven (not zix) stories in this collection, he features a young, blond, big-breasted, non-Jewish, beautiful, dumb woman who admires, lusts after or is married to an older, professorial/rabbinical Jewish man. Perhaps this is an intentional attempt to link the stories – with the trope of the shiksa goddess – but, if so, it doesn’t work. Better the Franz Kafka connection that ties at least four of the stories.
Zeven Ztrange Ztories would have been a better title, in that the collection successfully channels Kafka-esque absurdity, and intelligently considers existential matters. For example, in “From Helena; or, Sanskrit is Sexy Too,” a professor named Keller is introduced to a woman who is the object of many men’s desire, including the married man who introduces Keller to her. At this woman’s house, Keller runs into her professor father, who is doing kabbalistic research that entails cracking open walnuts to see if they’re all “built the same.” The father is dressed in a cloak and cowl. When Keller asks him why, he explains, “… A wise man, I believe it was Thomas Mann – you heard of Thomas Mann, I suppose – said that an esthetic worldview is incapable of solving world problems that cry for solution. Nevertheless, esthetics is crucial. Without esthetics we would be dogs barking at the moon. That’s why I don this unseemly garb. To put myself in the medieval mood. I am doing research.”
Throughout the collection, such thought-provoking passages appear. As well, Leviant is a strong storyteller. In “From Golden Necklace,” about an architect who travels to Italy to see a special collection of art, the tension is palpable when the architect sees the necklace his mother – who, along with his father, was killed in the Holocaust – on the woman escorting him around the palazzo. As another example, ignoring the object of Shmulik Gafni’s supposed affections (a shiksa), Leviant masterfully exhibits the ability of words to both accuse and acquit someone: none of the facts substantiates the rumor that Gafni is an adulterer, yet that very fact fuels it. All of the stories have something to recommend them.
On the inside cover, The Brothers Schlemiel by Mark Binder (Light Publications, 2013) is described as “… a novel of Chelm … being the reasonably complete adventures of Abraham and Adam Schlemiel, identical twins, born in the village of fools and confused from birth.” As most readers know, from Chelm – from dim-wittedness and confusion – comes great wisdom and clarity, along with, of course, much humor.
Binder has created characters with whom we empathize, not just Adam and Abraham, or Abraham and Adam, who can’t even tell themselves apart at times, but their parents, sister and the other villagers. He ably manages some fine balances: writing about silliness without the story becoming stupid, and evoking sentimentality while not becoming saccharine. There are parts of The Brothers Schlemiel that could even be called scary – encounters with Russian soldiers and gun-wielding robbers. As well, through the vehicles of comedy and fantasy, The Brothers Schlemiel touches on many serious topics, from poverty to racism, to ethics in business, to whom people choose to be, and more. At the end of the day, however, The Brothers Schlemiel is just a good story very well told.
Morgan Carrier and Shira Laye are LACAR. (photo from Morgan Carrier)
Nearly a decade ago, Shira Laye set out to explore the world of jewelry design. In 2013, she and her partner Morgan Carrier established LACAR – a combination of their surnames – a line of beautiful, wearable art, with influences ranging from “the dark side of Victorian mourning jewelry, to the architectural shapes of art deco and the great jewelry eras of the past.” I am the proud owner of several LACAR pieces.
Growing up in a large family, each child has to intentionally carve out her individuality. In our household of five siblings, this was no less true. From a young age, Shira, one of my younger sisters, had a particular talent for assembling stylish and unique outfits, with a remarkable flair for accessories. It was her childhood love of ancient artifacts and art, however, that originally sparked her love of jewelry.
Shira’s first brushes with the ancient world happened on a 1993 family trip to the Holy Land. “My first big trip as a kid to a faraway destination was our family trip to Israel, where I spent time in museums looking at ancient artifacts and pieces of jewelry from a long time ago, imagining that I was somewhere where someone might have worn that,” she recalled in chat over a coffee and sandwich at a café on Main Street. In fact, while I was spending much of my summer in a decidedly less artistic environment, in a microbiology lab at the Technion, most of the rest of the family was heading out to explore the ruins of Katzrin and the Old City, the springs at Ein Gedi or the collection at the Israel Museum.
In Israel, Shira got her first inklings of what she might like to be when she grew up. “I spent a lot of time illustrating what I saw and I decided that I wanted to become an archeologist. Not because I wanted to discover an ancient civilization, but rather I was sure I would unearth a treasure. A couple of years later, as a teenager, I went on another trip to Israel and spent the day on a dig with our older cousin, which was fun but a little bit disappointing. I decided I didn’t want to be an archeologist anymore – we didn’t find anything remotely shiny, it was just a hot day in the sun. I realized the only way to find treasure was by buying it at the store or learning to make it myself. And so, my fascination with ancient art and artifacts and jewelry of all kinds remained.”
After studying art history, Shira signed up “on a whim” for a course in jewelry making at Vancouver Community College. “I made just a simple silver band and a hammered cuff that I gave away as a gift,” she recalled. “And then I didn’t do anything for a little while, until I met a friend that had a home studio and traded me in exchange for doing some simple tasks like filing and sanding. She showed me some techniques … I really liked it, so I signed up for a program in New York, at Studio Jewelers in Midtown.”
At the time, I was living in Manhattan and Shira joined me there to study jewelry design and experience what the city has to offer. “It was a really great time,” she said. “I was equally as inspired by being in New York, living there, as I was by the techniques I was learning in school…. I ended up extending my stay to apprentice with a jeweler, a pretty unique guy, a little bit out there. It was a lot of running around. I knew where to buy pearls in one area in the jewelry district or where to get this from that person. It wasn’t as much technique as I would’ve liked. After I came home, I continued to learn more technique, as I still do to this day.”
Shira established her own line soon after and began taking on custom work, “which was a way to learn to expand my techniques,” she said. “And just by necessity, I would take on a project and I’d be like, OK, I get to learn how to do this! It was a great way to learn. And then, as time went on, Morgan was spending more and more time with me in the studio, and I’d show him how to do different finishing techniques or he’d help throughout the whole process of making a piece. He’s really natural with anything that’s hands-on and design oriented and, in no time at all, he was contributing to the design process as well. So, it just made sense to team up officially since that’s what we were doing unofficially.” The two came out with their first collection, Oculus, in 2013.
Of their work together and his background, Morgan shared, “I’m a handy guy with a background in the arts and construction. I studied theatre at UBC and then went on to a brief film career after studying documentary film studies in Paris for two years. I am always building or sculpting something, so it wasn’t a stretch in skills for me to pitch in. Shira would bribe me into date nights at the studio and we would listen to an episode of This American Life while slowly depleting a glass of red wine. It was romantic, but it also involved a lot of sanding, filing and polishing between sips of wine and, before I knew it, we were collaborating on designs. In our case, life partners make great business partners. This is my third or fourth career in life, and I’m loving it. It combines all the skills I’ve been mastering in other jobs over the past 20 years.”
Morgan said they both love “creating objects of beauty that appear simple but require problem solving in making them. We love that the possibilities are endless.”
It’s the shared love for objects of beauty that is key to making a successful collaboration, Shira said. “Every piece is a collaboration because even if it starts out as one person’s idea, it kind of morphs as we discuss it together, the idea comes to fruition. It ends up having little bits of both of us. We’re really lucky because we definitely have our own ideas, but we really share a similar esthetic. Our design processes are a little different but we really work well together; we’re good team. One of us might have an idea for a motif and then bring it to the other person. It may change slightly or be applied to a different piece or shape.”
LACAR make their home at Main and Broadway, a new studio space they share with fellow jeweler Anita Sikma. “I’ve spent years building up a studio and the repertoire of tools that I have on hand,” Shira said. “Now, I have a nice new bench that Morgan built for me since the move. I have on it all kinds of hand tools, files, hammers, measuring tools, steel blocks, a Fordham, safety goggles, and then we also have a lot of big tools.”
The move means that LACAR can expand their repertoire, Shira said. “We work in silver and bronze primarily for our collections, but our work is available in gold on a make-to-order basis. We can work in any metal – platinum, white gold – anything. We’d love to experiment with other mediums in the future. Now that we have a big studio space, we’ve got big plans.”
Their debut collection “was an expression of the beauty of eroded sanctuary,” the two told me in a follow-up email. “We wanted our pieces to be monumental, worthy of worship, but we wanted them to be light and wearable. So, we came up with the esthetic of the Gothic archway. The arches create a heavy vaulted lacework, drawing inspiration from sacred architectures.”
Soon after it debuted, they started making rings for Morgan to wear. “Until then, our line was mostly geared towards women,” Shira said, “and Morgan felt like he should be wearing more LACAR to promote our brand. Before we knew it, men were taking notice of our small ring collection. We decided to launch a men’s line, one that would have androgynous appeal. The pieces are heavy and solid; we tried to keep it a little more streamlined – lots of clean lines, flat surfaces.”
Though it’s hard to pick favorites, Morgan said he really loves the Obelisk ear cuff. “We wanted to make a cuff that complimented the form of the ear,” he said. “And the Signet ring, which we created as part of our new line, but that we’ve already customized for clients using family crests and other motifs.”
“Nothing passes through the studio door if we are not happy with it,” added Shira. “I really like all of the pieces that we have made. Morgan only wears some of them, but I get to wear them all. I would say that right now I’ve been wearing our gold Helm earrings with black diamonds pretty much every day, which we also have available without the diamonds and in silver and bronze, different price points, as well as the Vault bracelet with black jade inlay. Those pieces I wear every day and the other pieces kind of rotate. I’ve also been wearing our Siamese collar quite a bit. A bit more of a statement piece, but it looks really nice with a dress or even a casual pair of pants – it adds a nice detail.”
Favorites that they don’t get to wear “are some of the custom pieces that we’ve created. These come out of a nice collaborative process with the client’s ideas and our designs and technique. I’ve been really sad to see some of those pieces go! I specifically love working on engagement rings – that’s the favorite for me. Right now, we’re working on a beautiful ring, kind of a deco-inspired piece where the client brought in his girlfriend’s grandmother’s ring, which had a beautiful centre diamond and yellow gold, but he wanted something in white gold and with a different feel. We are using the diamond and creating a whole new piece that better fits her style and her esthetic.
“We do wedding rings, as well, and we’re right now working on a whole bunch of bridesmaids gifts, so that’s exciting…. One of the custom pieces that stands out was another art deco-inspired engagement ring that was inspired by the skyline.”
LACAR has been a mainstay at some of Vancouver’s pop-up shops, including at the Chinatown Experiment earlier this month. “It was with the Dreamlover Collective, which is friends of ours: Andrea Rokosz of Army of Rokosz and Karen La of Broken Promises and Marie Foxall of Wasted Effort…. They’re hosting so many great local vendors and designers, everything from hot sauce to jewelry, ceramic works, stockings. Our studio mate, Anita Sikma, is one of my favorite jewelers in the city … she was part of it, too. It’s great to be part of that, and a lot of fun.”
Aside from more retailers, Shira said they would love to work on a fine collection. “That would be really satisfying. We’re slowly building up, just continuing to work. Sometimes it’s hard to hone in on doing one collection because you’re constantly having so many ideas…. We just want to continue to create new things all the time!
In 2003, the Jewish Independent reviewed Jennifer Gasoi’s debut children’s album, Songs for You, describing it as “intelligent, energetic, philosophical, educational, at times silly and, most importantly, it’s high-quality music.” Since then, Gasoi has garnered numerous awards and nominations for her music. The latest – her second CD, Throw a Penny in the Wishing Well, took home the 2014 Grammy Award for best children’s album.
With the big January win still fresh, Gasoi – the first Canadian to ever receive this Grammy honor – returns to Vancouver next month. Living in Montreal since 2002, she is not only coming back to see family, but to perform two concerts on April 12 to benefit the Children’s Hearing and Speech Centre of British Columbia.
Gasoi, who also won the 2013 Sirius XM Canadian Indie Awards for children’s artist of the year, the Parent Choice Award and the Canadian Book Centre’s selection for best children’s music, and was a semi-finalist in the International Songwriting Competition and a Juno nominee for children’s album of the year, took time to speak with the Jewish Independent before her upcoming visit.
JI: You’ve won other honors and nominations in your career. In what ways, if any, is the Grammy different, and in what ways has it already affected your work/schedule?
JG: The other awards and nominations were wonderful accolades, but winning a Grammy has taken my career into a whole new realm. I’m being asked to speak and represent many different organizations. I’ve had quite a few requests internationally – to play shows (U.S.), to submit my music to radio stations (Australia), to sell my CDs (a theatre company in Oklahoma) and I’ve even had interest to play a show in China. There’s a certain status associated with being a Grammy winner that I’m still getting used to! It’s been quite a challenge keeping up with all the requests and opportunities arising. There’s no question that new doors are opening and my horizons are broadening.
JI: You have consistently put out quality recordings. From where do you find your inspiration? How do you keep the work fresh and interesting for yourself?
JG: I am inspired by life. By people, experiences, nature, music, small moments, unexpected interactions, synchronicities. Sometimes, it’s just a simple two-minute interaction that can inspire a song. Or a memory can be the catalyst. “The Little Things” started off with the image of jelly tots– little candies that I used to love as a child – and it spun into a whole song about all the joyful moments from my childhood. “The Pizza Man” was inspired by a real-life pizza man at a iconic pizzeria in Montreal. Inspiration can hit anytime, anywhere. To keep the creative energy flowing, I see live shows, listen to music, practise yoga and meditation, go for walks on the mountain, take improv comedy classes, watch inspiring videos, dance, and spend time with creative and inspiring people. Children are one of my main sources of inspiration. They continually amaze me. They are so full of life, connected, brilliant, openhearted, pure and so much fun to be with. They remind me of what is really important in life.”
JI: You’ve been very involved in the Jewish communities of both Vancouver and Montreal. In what ways, if at all, has your Jewish heritage/upbringing/communal ties influenced your life/work?
JG: There is something very special about being part of such a close-knit community in both Vancouver and Montreal. It has provided me with a real sense of belonging and groundedness. When I was a child and attended synagogue at Temple Sholom, I was deeply moved by the music played during the services. I love Jewish music. It touches my soul. My Jewish heritage has definitely influenced my songwriting. In my first album, Songs for You, I have a klezmer tune called “The Animal Party,” and, in my latest CD, Throw a Penny in the Wishing Well, the hora features prominently at the end of “The Purple Man.”
I have the privilege of playing music for seniors and patients in several hospitals in Montreal. There is a significant Jewish population, so I often play classic Jewish songs such as “Hinei Ma Tov,” “Heveinu Shalom Aleichem” and “B’shana Ha’ba’a.” I once played Hatikvah during one of my gigs at a Jewish seniors group held in a synagogue, and everyone in the room stood up and sang along. It was so powerful, it brought me to tears.
JI: Are there any projects on which you’re currently working/collaborating?
JG: I have some projects in the works. That’s all I’ll say for now. My priority is to get all my business in order so that I can continue to create music, perform and reach a wider audience.
JI: Is there is anything else you’d like to share?
JG: I am so grateful to be living the life of my dreams. I hope that I can inspire others – big and small – to take chances in their lives, to live from the heart and know that anything is possible.
Jennifer Gasoi will perform twice at the Children’s Hearing and Speech Centre of British Columbia’s annual Family Concert on April 12, at 10:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. The event at the Norman and Annette Rothstein Theatre – which raises funds to support CHSC’s audiology program – will also feature clowns, games, auction items and face painting. Tickets are $15.50 per child and youth under 17, $18.50 per adult 18 and over, and $60 for a family of four (two adults and two children under 17); they are available from childrenshearing.ca.
Baring one’s soul is always difficult. Imagine how it would be to share your angst and pain with a room full of strangers. This is exactly what four brave actors undertake in the world première of This Stays in the Room.
Horseshoes and Hand Grenades Theatre has partnered with PTC and Radix Theatre to bring this innovative mix of text, song, photography, video projections and choreography to the Downtown Eastside’s Gallery Gachet.
The company, as its press material states, “is a provocative and political group who are not content with holding a mirror up to society – they would rather conduct an autopsy on it.” This is the company’s first site-specific production and, by using a gallery venue, the audience is invited into a non-theatre space, removing the main barrier between the audience and the performers. To allow this intersection of theatre and visual art, the production set will remain as an installation during the run of the play for the general public to explore. The gallery is a collectively run space whose mandate is to encourage dialogue and promote social and economic justice.
The setting is intimate, rows of chairs on either side of a corridor with four decorated ones within the audience for the cast. The actors appear, two men, two women, each carrying a basket full of props. They sit among the viewers – you can reach out and touch them – and, one at a time, tell all. Four stories, four people, all very different and yet, in some strange way, hauntingly similar. An intense one hour takes you through the actors’ personal journeys, from trauma to the triumph of acceptance and forgiveness.
Part of the experience is the actors’ self-description as they draw themselves on a blackboard. Something visceral happens watching these four draw images of themselves on the board. They start off with simple stick people and then add layer upon layer of shape, form and color as they pictorially lay out their self-perceptions. The sound of the chalk scratching against the board picks up speed as they reach their finished images.
We meet Allan Morgan, 59 years old, gay, grappling with his sexuality and society’s homophobia, who puts a pink triangle over his face – he tells of his shame as a “chubby little boy” and his first homosexual experience. Then there is 30ish Robert Salvador, alcoholic, full of guilt over cheating on his wife and small daughter: he shares the story about a sex-free summer game he and his pals played in his teens, where falling off the wagon brought the punishment of being pelted with raw eggs. Next up, petite Manami Hara watching her elderly father deteriorate mentally and physically, feeling she abandoned him in his time of need, and, finally, pregnant Alexa Devine, harried mother of two, abused as a child.
Added to the mix are three stories of members of the creative team, whose talking heads are projected onto white lanterns hanging from the ceiling and the blackboards on either side of the audience. The poignancy and emotion of the disclosures are almost overwhelming at times. This is raw, in your face, reality theatre. It resonates with the audience because we have all been there, done that, and understand the feelings so openly expressed by this talented cast. At the end of the show, the faces of all of the audience members are projected onto the walls of the tiny room, each in a little circle – a reminder that we are all one.
With sound design by Noah Drew (whose Tiny Music was part of this year’s Chutzpah! Festival), lighting design by Andreas Kahre, video projection design by Cande Andrade and choreography by Amber Funk Barton, this multi-media mix comes together under the steady hand of director Mindy Parfitt.
This show is not for all: it is not a feel good, laugh-out-loud production but, as Parfitt notes, “It’s really about how we as individuals face the challenges in our lives, how we move forward and find some kind of forgiveness with ourselves and others.”
This Stays in the Room runs to March 30. Due to the adult content and language, it is not suitable for anyone under 18.
Gallery Gachet is located at 88 East Cordova St. Seating is limited. More information can be found at 604-729-5395 and horseshoesandhandgrenades.ca.
Tova Kornfeld is a Vancouver freelance writer and lawyer.