Major studies like one from the Pew Centre last year suggest that fewer Jewish people are participating in Jewish-specific activities. This would seem like a difficulty for groups like American Jewish World Service, a humanitarian and emergency relief agency with a global mission but a distinctly Jewish vision.
On the contrary, according to Ruth Messinger, the agency’s president and chief executive officer, who will speak at the first annual Limmud Vancouver event Feb. 9.
Messinger said that the same studies indicate that Jews recognize it as a Jewish trait to pursue justice and to lead an ethical life. “What we want them to do is have a Jewish portal through which to do their work,” she said in a telephone interview from New York. Identifying “Jewish ways” of doing something, she said, can mean simply “that they can get some text basis for what they’re doing, they can do it as Jews in Jewish organizations.
“We like the fact that we can attract them to take their idealism and their energies and put them into a Jewish box and do the work with a Jewish organization. We think it strengthens their Judaism as well as their motivations towards the world,” she said.
While the projects AJWS takes on change realities of life for people in Africa, Central America and elsewhere, they can also influence opinions about Jews and Judaism.
“Much of the work that we do is in areas where there are very few Jews,” said Messinger. “Some of it takes place in areas where there are no Jews – and some of it takes place in areas where people have never heard about Jews, although I know that American Jews find that really hard to believe.”
Every place AJWS works, Messinger said, people become acquainted with Jews as people who respect their dignity, who are committed to social justice and to advancing human rights. “I can’t imagine a better way for the American Jewish community to be seen in this fairly troubled and divided 21st century,” she said.
Messinger recounted a story in which a farmer in Ghana told an AJWS volunteer – an American Jewish college student ending her stint in that country – that he had decided over the summer that he was a Jew. “And the college student, I’m happy to say, had the wisdom to say, ‘Oh, that’s absolutely wonderful, but can you tell me what you mean by that?’ The man said, ‘Yes, like you, I am somebody who wants to leave the world better than I found it.’”
AJWS does both grant-making to small, locally based groups around the world, as well as advocacy that aims to shape U.S. policy toward the developing world. But Messinger is emphatic that the visions of change come from the local community.
Messinger said government agencies and some large international foundations tend to sit in Washington, New York or Geneva and formulate answers to the lack of clean water in Central America or the lack of girls’ education in India.
“We are quite different,” she explained. “We help our grassroots organizations by letting them set the agenda of how they are going to do the work to change attitudes toward child marriage or to improve crop yields.… It is a Jewish value – again, it may exist in other faiths – but it is a Jewish value to believe that everyone is equally made in God’s image. If you actually believe that, then you should stop imagining that the solutions to the water problems in Kenya are going to come from world water experts. Some of them are going to come from the 450,000 Kenyans who depend on the water level in the lake being high enough for them to farm and herd and fish. So, for us, the notion of listening to the people on the ground actually comes from a value basis.”
How does an organization like AJWS operate in places where oppression of women, LGBT people or others is antithetical to the values of equality and human rights the organization champions?
“We do, of course, choose who we’re going to fund and we’re not going to fund,” she said. But finding groups that share AJWS’s vision is increasingly easy.
“There are women all over the world who are trying to figure out how to change their status, how to become more independent, how to be able to protect their daughter’s right to stay in school,” she said. “There are LGBT groups risking huge dangers in their communities to form an organization and to try to get some recognition. We find those groups – it’s not hard is what I’m trying to tell you – that are themselves challenging an entrenched cultural norm that doesn’t make sense to them and that doesn’t work in their experience. The people who want a different vision for their lives are already trying to make change in their own community.”
The benefits for local organizations partnering with AJWS are not only the funding and volunteer support they receive.
“Some of our organizations – on issues of violence against women and hate crimes against LGBT populations – some of our organizations find themselves often in significant danger,” she said. “We’re there when they get into trouble.… But I need to convey that these are people who would do this work anyway.”
Before heading AJWS, Messinger was a leading political figure in New York City, becoming the first woman nominated for mayor by the Democratic party. She is one of the more prominent presenters at the first-ever Limmud event in Vancouver. Limmud, the Hebrew word for learning, is a global phenomenon taking place in dozens of locations worldwide. The Vancouver event, which sold out in advance, features more than 40 separate presentations (three were featured in last week’s Jewish Independent), including such diverse topics as whether God has gender; reactions in the Talmud to the destruction of the Temple; and whether Dinah, Jacob’s only recorded daughter, should be considered the fifth matriarch. Participants will also have the opportunity to sing along in Yiddish, discuss and smell the 26 natural ingredients mentioned in the Torah, hear the tapestry of Jewish prayer with African melodies and the rhythms of Uganda’s Abayudaya Jews, and more. Full details at limmudvancouver.ca.
Left to right, Henry Ross-Grayman, Thomas Gradin and Mayor Gregor Robertson. (photo by Wendy Fouks)
There was a full house at the Norman and Annette Rothstein Theatre for the community’s marking of Wallenberg Day on Jan 19. Sponsored for the first time by the newly formed Wallenberg-Sugihara Civil Courage Society, the annual event was the natural outgrowth of the placement of a plaque in Queen Elizabeth Park in 1986. It was revived at the 20th anniversary in 2006 as a cooperative effort between the then honorary Swedish consul, Anders Neumuller, and the Vancouver Second Generation Group.
Each year, the event pays tribute to courageous and heroic actions inspired by the Swedish diplomat, Raoul Wallenberg, and the Japanese diplomat, Chiune Sugihara. Both men, at grave risk to themselves, their families and their future, chose to follow their own personal moral code and save the lives of large numbers of Jews during the Second World War.
Mayor of Vancouver Gregor Robertson read a proclamation naming the day “Raoul Wallenberg Day in the City of Vancouver.” He said, “There are always heroes in our midst and elevating their place in society and celebrating and having discussion … is absolutely critical in a civil society.”
This year, the heroism of Englishman Sir Nicholas Winton was highlighted in the movie Nicky’s Family. This emotionally powerful film told the story of how Winton saved the lives of more than 600 Czech children just prior to the outbreak of the Second World War. The film documents how his actions have inspired young people to engage in direct acts of tikkun olam.
British Consul Rupert Potter honored Winton, saying, “I have never introduced a film to quite so full a house as this, which, I think, is testament to the content and the importance of the subject and what the film represents….”
There was an especially moving moment when members of the audience who owed their lives to the heroic actions of people such as Wallenberg, Sugihara and Winton were asked to stand. This action made the impact of these men clearly visible, showing that one person can make a profound difference in the world.
Naomi Taussig, the cantor of Temple Sholom Synagogue, spoke about the miracle of how her father and uncle were saved by Winton. She said, “Where would I be but for the actions of a single man who chose to do something when he could have done nothing at all? I feel a responsibility to live proudly as a Jew, honoring my grandparents, Emil and Irma. I try to live kindly, with compassion and intention. Nicholas himself says we must live ethically, and do whatever we can – no matter how small. We must take action rather than believe we are too insignificant to make a difference.”
I, too, owe my life to the actions of a diplomat. Against the orders of his government, Sugihara gave out visas to Jews, allowing them to escape certain death and travel to Japan. My mother was a recipient of such a visa. Had she not received it, I would not be here today. Last year, I traveled to Japan and had the honor of meeting with Sugihara’s granddaughter to express my deepest gratitude for the actions of her grandfather. It was a heartfelt meeting that I will remember for the rest of my days.
We need these stories to remind us of the inherent good that lives within people. We need to educate, to pay tribute, to remember and, finally, to inspire people today, as well as future generations, to act with courage and live their values in a way that contributes to the healing of the world.
The Wallenberg-Sugihara Civil Courage Society is passionate about wanting to leave a legacy encouraging others to engage in behaviors inspired by Wallenberg, Sugihara and people like Winton. We are looking for people who, at significant personal risk, have helped improve or save the lives of others by going against unjust norms or conventions. Over the coming year, the names of suggested individuals who meet the criteria (including being associated with British Columbia, even if their actions may have taken place outside of the province) will be reviewed. Next year, at the annual Wallenberg Day event, we hope to present an award for civil courage to acknowledge heroic acts in today’s world. For more information, contact the society at [email protected].
Deborah Ross-Grayman is an artist, writer and Sugihara survivor descendant committee member of the Wallenberg-Sugihara Civil Courage Society.
Yiddish erotic poetry. It’s not a phrase that trips off the tongue, perhaps because Celia Dropkin may have been its only practitioner. There were Yiddish poets and writers in Eastern Europe and America who addressed risqué topics, but few, if any, in ways as explicit as Dropkin.
Faith Jones, a Vancouverite who teaches library science and who was previously a Yiddish bibliographer in the New York Public Library’s Jewish division, will discuss Dropkin and the craft of translating Yiddish erotic poetry at the first-ever Limmud Vancouver Feb. 9, one of 42 presentations on a hugely diverse array of topics over a full day. With two other scholars, Jones translates Dropkin’s work into English.
Dropkin (1887-1956) came to New York from Belarus in 1912, and immersed herself in the Bohemian life that was thriving there. It was at this time, as well, that she shifted from writing in Russian and began a career as a noted Yiddish poet and writer. This switch in vernacular appears to have been for practical reasons, not cultural or political ones, Jones explained.
“She wrote in Russian because she was educated in the gymnasium, in the Russian education system, and her literary influences were largely Russian,” said Jones. “To her – she came from a very poor family – being able to go to gymnasium was really quite an accomplishment and the Russian language was itself a status symbol. Her ability to use it artistically was something that she would have been very proud of.”
Once in New York, though, her audience would have been overwhelmingly Yiddish-speaking, and so it was probably a practical decision to switch. “I don’t think Yiddish to her was the beginning and end of being Jewish,” said Jones.
While nobody appears to have become rich writing poetry in Yiddish, Dropkin was comparatively a “commercial” success in terms of being widely read. She made some cash, particularly during the Depression, writing relatively mainstream short stories. Nevertheless, said Jones, “Her poetry was her real art, but you could not make a living on Yiddish poetry.”
Why, though, was this traditionally educated woman so apparently ahead of her time on sexual matters?
“She was educated in this different way – she was educated in a Russian way, not in a Jewish way,” Jones noted. “She also had a fair bit of freedom.” Dropkin’s father died when Celia was a child, and her mother was not particularly religious. The household appears to have been fairly open-minded and attuned to modernity. Her writing was different as well, Jones speculates, because she was a woman and also because she did not have the traditional Hebrew education that male poets of her time did.
“She was kind of freed because of being a woman,” said Jones. “She didn’t have a classical Hebrew education and so she was able to make up a different way of being a writer and wasn’t as constrained by expectations that, if you are a Jewish writer, your writing would be laced with references to the Bible and things like that.”
There were other poets writing about sexual matters, but in a much more veiled manner. A female Orthodox poet, for example, expressed her sensual ideas through depictions of hair, which would have resonance from an Orthodox female perspective. Dropkin was not so subtle.
“Dropkin had a poem, for example, in which it certainly seems to me that what she is describing is sadomasochistic sex. I don’t think she’s at all attempting to cover that up,” Jones said. “Other poets would just refer to the bed and some longing and maybe there is a stroke.”
Dropkin was published in the Yiddish journals of the day, despite the sometimes-scandalous nature of her work. “A scandal is always good for circulation,” Jones laughed. “So they were happy to have it. They were Bohemians, so they were going to publish that sort of thing.” There was a sense, among male critics and other poets, Jones said, that Dropkin’s work might bring disrepute to the Jews – even though, because it was written in Yiddish, only Jews could have read it. But criticism of Dropkin from other Jews, mostly male, was probably due to more straightforward reactions.
“It was shocking, a woman speaking about her physical body, her desires, her lust,” Jones said. “That was too much for them.”
Dropkin’s art, it seems, imitated her life. “She was really, really a Bohemian,” Jones said. “She really lived that life pretty fully, notwithstanding being married, which did not appear to have been any kind of difficulty. So, for example, I was able to meet with [Dropkin’s now deceased oldest son] many times and interview him, and I asked at one point, ‘Was your father at all upset by your mother’s sort of freewheeling life, having lovers, having a social life that was sort of separate from his?’ He said, ‘No it didn’t really bother him,’ and I had the impression that, you know, it went both ways.”
Jones warns attendees at next month’s Limmud conference that her session will not be appropriate for those who blanch at strong language and sexual imagery. But while the topic is erotic poetry and the craft of translating it, Jones said she has a broader ambition in presenting the topic.
“I would like people to think about re-envisioning our forbearers as people who were more like us. We need to really explore the people in our past and, as a historian, this is what I hope for most: that people will explore the past, understanding that these people were not like us, but in other ways were very much like us.”
About the same time that Dropkin was writing steamy poems in New York, the klezmer scene was heating up Montreal. Emily Lam, an independent researcher dedicated to the history of Jewish music in Montreal, will present on the subject at the Limmud conference – and some of her findings will surprise.
One of the first things to understand about klezmer music is that those who traditionally played it didn’t call it klezmer, Lam said. The word klezmer simply means musician. So when musicians were performing a tune, they called it by the kind of tune it was – a freylech, a doyna, a hora. For present-day practitioners of the traditional Jewish tunes, however, as for the rest of us, klezmer is a handy shorthand.
“It’s what they call it because everybody calls it that these days,” said Lam, who has interviewed as many Montreal musicians from the early part of the 20th century as she has been able to track down. Among these artists, mostly now in their 80s and 90s, the “true” klezmorim were those from Eastern Europe and the musicians who learned directly from those masters. What we call klezmer, according to Lam, is a music that represents “homeland and folk … synonymous with a particular place and time that was physically left behind, yet … instantly accessible through the music’s soundscapes, which connected the Jewish immigrant to their shtetl and the Yiddishkeit of their ancestral past.”
As klezmer has seen a dramatic revival in recent decades, Lam said her interviewees are pleased that the music is being performed and heard again, but they invariably say something is missing.
“Everybody is very happy that more people know about this kind of music, more people know about the history of it,” Lam said. “My interview subjects are happy that they still get to hear it if they choose to. They can go to concerts, they can go to festivals and events. They’re really happy about that. However, they feel that when they hear it, something about it isn’t the same. They always express that there is a lack of a certain feeling, a feeling within the music that they can’t hear, that they did hear with other musicians – their predecessors, their mentors. So when they hear things from the so-called revival, while they enjoy it, something about it is lacking and they always express … there’s just this feeling that’s missing.”
The progression of klezmer involved the original immigrants teaching it to their children, with a predictable downturn as the decades passed. “New immigrants want to carry on those traditions because that’s what they know,” Lam said. “There was a tradition that you learn this music and how to play it from your father and your uncles, relatives. The people that I interviewed were the children of the true klezmorim [the immigrants who brought the music from Eastern Europe]. They carried out the tradition but, obviously, as times change, people’s interests, especially children of new immigrants, what they wanted, how they see their lives, was different from Eastern Europe.”
Second-generation Canadians might have wanted the traditional tunes at their weddings, perhaps because their parents wanted it, but they also wanted more contemporary, popular music.
“As time progressed, there were less traditional tunes and more contemporary tunes,” said Lam. “It’s part of being an immigrant and having children in a new country. You try to instil these traditions. They’re going to choose their own path.”
But traditions can morph in unexpected ways. Weddings and bar mitzvahs may be a showcase for klezmer, but making a living in early- to mid-20th century Montreal as a musician meant being ready to take any gig that came along. Fortunately, klezmer can be a heavily improvisational musical form, similar to the vibrant jazz scene that was emerging in Montreal.
“If you were a klezmer, you were a versatile musician,” Lam said. “So [for] lots of Jewish musicians, especially going into the ’30s and onward, there’s lots of crossing over with jazz music in Montreal.”
Lam started her research during her undergraduate studies at the University of Ottawa, mentored by Prof. Rebecca Margolis, who specializes in Yiddish culture in Canada, among other topics. Lam, who grew up in Peterborough, Ont., is the daughter of immigrants who fled Vietnam during the war there. She does not directly attribute her interest in this subject to her family’s experience, but she sees a parallel. “I certainly can understand this sort of looking for something that reminds you of your homeland,” Lam said.
Many people can name the most famous Jewish baseball players – precisely because there have been so few of them. Despite this, there are striking parallels between the practice of Judaism and the practice of baseball, according to Vancouver rabbi and University of British Columbia faculty member Hillel Goelman, who will present at the Limmud conference.
“I’m not going to just talk about Sandy Koufax and Hank Greenberg,” he said. “That’s not what the discussion is about. The discussion is that there are aspects of Jewish spiritual understandings, about deeper meanings of Judaism and some of the deeper meanings of baseball and that we can learn about one from the other.”
There is a teaching in Jewish spirituality that views everything as being at an intersection of time and space and a journey of the soul, said Goelman. “Our whole history is about a journey through space, whether it’s Abraham to Egypt, or the Jewish people coming out of Egypt, or making aliyah to the Land of Israel,” he said. “In Jewish spirituality, in kabbalah, we believe that there are different realms of reality and that each of those can correspond to another level of reality that you can get higher and higher and higher until you end up at the highest, which is getting back home, and home is in the wholeness and the holiness of the home space.”
Baseball is also about an individual’s odyssey, he said. “Baseball is really about the individual, where it’s the individual who scores the points, scores the runs. The ball doesn’t have to go into a hoop or a net or anything like that. It’s the individual who goes through a journey through space,” he said.
There’s also an intergenerational aspect, he added, in that Judaism is passed down from parents to children. The love of baseball is also conveyed transgenerationally. In addition, Judaism and baseball both have “two aspects of gaining knowledge,” Goelman said. One aspect focuses on the legalistic proscriptions – “what you’re commanded to do, commanded not to do, the appropriate behaviors” – the other is a very rich mythological lore.
“There is a mythology in Judaism, there is a mythology in baseball, that goes beyond the literal meaning of what’s happening,” he said. “Judaism gives us some very powerful metaphors and images and practices, which really resonate very deeply with us in terms of what is the Sabbath and why is that important and what are the High Holidays and why are they important, what is a bar mitzvah and why is that important, why is a wedding ceremony important. There is a lot of symbol and symbolism and mythology. And in baseball, as well, there’s a lot of symbol and symbolism and mythology. I think that’s why many of us find it so riveting.”
The recent news of New York Yankee Alex Rodriguez’s use of performance-enhancing drugs offers a vignette into another aspect of mythology.
“Here’s another giant among us who has fallen, who has succumbed to whatever kind of temptation it was, of ego, of achievement, of seeing himself above and beyond the rules,” Goelman said. “And this is sort of the karmic consequences of someone who exceeds the boundaries and doesn’t really understand the beauty and the mythology of the game.”
LimmudVan ’14 is the first annual Limmud event here. The phenomenon, which began in London, has spread to dozens of cities worldwide. The Vancouver conference, which sold out weeks in advance, will feature more than 40 separate presentations on a huge array of topics. See next week’s issue for more on Limmud. Full details at limmudvancouver.ca.
Imagine not being able to hear. The silence. The isolation. Now imagine the sounds of kids singing, playing, asking questions at story time – even though they are deaf or hard of hearing. These and other happy sounds filled the halls and classrooms of the Children’s Hearing and Speech Centre of British Columbia when the Jewish Independent recently toured the centre, which just celebrated its 50th year.
Founded in 1963 as the Vancouver Oral Centre for Deaf Children by a group of parents with educator Hilda Gregory, CHSC’s mission statement describes the facility as “a family-focused clinical and educational centre that teaches deaf and hard-of-hearing children to listen and talk, giving them the skills and confidence they need to achieve their fullest potential.”
According to the centre’s website, “Gregory was one of a handful of deaf educators who believed that even children with profound hearing losses, wearing hearing aids, had enough residual hearing that they could learn to listen and talk. The model of small classes and individual sessions … is the one we still use today.”
When the centre was started by Gregory, explained Janet Weil, executive director/principal of the CHSC, “There were no services for children under the age of 5. Hilda opened the first preschool for deaf children in Western Canada. What she did wasn’t radical. There were programs throughout the world teaching deaf children how to speak. What she did do was create a place where deaf children, with the very best amplification (hearing aids) available and focused educational strategies, could learn to listen and talk. Parents were key, and so parent education was a requirement. Parents were very involved. They knew [it was] something special, and they did everything they could to support the well-being and sustainability of the centre.
“Things have changed,” she said about developments over the last 50 years. “Children with profound hearing losses weren’t being identified as DHH [deaf or hard of hearing] until they were sometimes 3 or 4 years old; and, with a more moderate loss, until they were in school and it was obvious they were missing things.” Technological changes since the centre was started, however, “include newborn screening, which identifies a hearing loss at birth, [and has been] mandated in B.C. for all newborns as of 2009. There is a small window of learning when the child is very young. Neural plasticity means a child can access auditory information with prescriptive hearing aids and cochlear implants. The first three years are critical to get information to the brain that can be processed with relative ease. It makes all the difference for typical language and speech development – [it] impacts everything, especially reading.”
Weil’s uncle, born in the early part of the 20th century, was deaf. There was “no access to amplification, but my grandmother worked diligently with him to learn to talk,” said Weil. “He went to Stanford, graduated with a degree in English literature and became an editor of college textbooks. [He] never learned to sign, was a lip-reader and talker; very active in the San Francisco Jewish community. My mother was also a teacher of the deaf, so it’s really the family business.”
About how she landed in Vancouver, Weil said, “I was recruited to the centre in 2010. I had been a teacher of the deaf in the SF [San Francisco] Bay area for many years, a consultant to schools for the deaf in the U.S., and was the early childhood education director at the Brotherhood Way JCC in San Francisco for six years.”
The Children’s Hearing and Speech Centre of British Columbia offers programs that are not offered anywhere else in Western Canada, she said. “We see children from birth through Grade 12,” she said about what makes CHSC unique. She explained that its “various programs address individual needs,” and the goal “is to integrate the children into the mainstream of school and society with learning readiness skills and confidence.”
“What we know about the brain and sensory learning underscores our commitment to a team approach that includes occupational therapy; weekly sessions for identified children to address processing, balance, motor skills, learning differences. On-site audiology services make sure children have ongoing access to sound.”
The centre has a “cognitively based curriculum that fosters critical thinking and independence,” she added. As well, it recognizes that many of the deaf or hard-of-hearing children at the centre – more than 40 percent, she said – have additional learning needs. “What we know about the brain and sensory learning underscores our commitment to a team approach that includes occupational therapy; weekly sessions for identified children to address processing, balance, motor skills, learning differences. On-site audiology services make sure children have ongoing access to sound.”
Weil sent the Independent a document she had written about CHSC’s work with sensory integration. About the children who have additional learning needs, she wrote, “In addition to having a hearing loss, they also have vestibular dysfunction. The vestibular system, which sits insides the cochlea or inner ear, can be compromised when there is a hearing loss. The vestibular system influences nearly everything we do. That is why it is often referred to as ‘sensory motor integration.’
“For deaf and hard-of-hearing children, it impacts auditory language processing so that children have difficulty discriminating likenesses and differences in what they hear, as well as an inability to comprehend what is being said in a noisy environment, follow directions and express themselves with ease.
“Occupational therapists work with children to strengthen their vestibular systems, which improves their ability to play and learn,” she wrote.
In addition to occupational therapy, CHSC offers “speech and language therapy, parent education and support, before- and after-school care, music education and summer camp,” according to its website. First Words is CHSC’s program for children from birth to age 3; preschool and “language acceleration programs provide group and one-to-one sessions addressing each child’s specific learning needs. Small, individually focused, on-site classes begin at age 3 and continue, if recommended, through the primary grades.”
To help with children’s transition out of the centre, into public school or post-Grade 12, Weil explained that there are social groups for the kids, there are workshops for the high school to post-secondary jump, and the centre provides itinerant teaching services to children in independent schools. Some graduates participate in fundraising activities, she added.
One of CHSC’s itinerant students is Rina Pinsky, 15, who is in Grade 10 at King David High School. The youngest of four children, Pinksy told the Independent that she was diagnosed when she was 2 years old. “The type of hearing I have is called bilateral profound hearing loss, which means I am completely deaf in both ears,” she said. “On my left ear, I have a cochlear implant and I use an FM system at school, which helps me hear teachers better.”
She started going to the Children’s Hearing and Speech Centre when she was 3 years old, and left after Grade 1. “Since then,” she said, “I’ve had a hearing resource teacher from there. I still go back to the school to visit or volunteer for events.”
“I went to CHSC to learn how to talk, listen, and how to interact with other people. Now, with all of that support, I am doing well in school and I’m able to be independent. I read from the Torah at my bat mitzvah in 2011, I am part of United Synagogue Youth (USY) and I have been to two Jewish summer camps (Camp Solomon Schechter, 2007-2012, and Camp Miriam, 2012-present). All of this would never have happened if it weren’t for the staff at CHSC.”
About how the CHSC has impacted her life, Pinsky said, “I went to CHSC to learn how to talk, listen, and how to interact with other people. Now, with all of that support, I am doing well in school and I’m able to be independent. I read from the Torah at my bat mitzvah in 2011, I am part of United Synagogue Youth (USY) and I have been to two Jewish summer camps (Camp Solomon Schechter, 2007-2012, and Camp Miriam, 2012-present). All of this would never have happened if it weren’t for the staff at CHSC. I see Tricia [Eckels] twice a week at my school. We work on homework, editing papers, talking about my cochlear implant and FM system. Sometimes, we talk about current events.”
When asked to share something about her interests and/or extracurricular activities, Pinsky told the Independent, “I love to cook and bake, which makes me want to go to culinary school after high school. Once a week, I do hip-hop at the Jewish Community Centre [of Greater Vancouver]. Traveling is one of my favorite things to do.”
Pinsky is one of the hundreds of students that CHSC has taught since it opened. Among Weil’s “blue sky” plans for the centre is reaching out to more children, with more training programs for new teachers and satellite programs (classes outside of Metro Vancouver). This would be in conjunction, of course, with maintaining the services currently being offered. The third annual Family Concert, for example, will raise funds to support CHSC’s audiology program. “We do not receive government funding for this critical service,” explained Weil, “so we must fundraise to be able to provide this vital service that ensures our children are always able to hear.”
The family event has grown from one to two performances, both of which this year will feature children’s entertainer Jennifer Gasoi, a two-time Juno nominee whose Throw a Penny in the Wishing Well was nominated for a 2014 Grammy for best children’s album. (For interested readers, the Grammy ceremony takes place this Sunday, Jan. 26, 8 p.m., and will be televised.)
“What an idea,” said Weil about the fundraiser, “having a music concert to support children who are deaf and hard of hearing because they can listen and sing and make music. A great way to highlight what is possible…. A great way to reach out to families in the community for a fun day and to let them know something about what we do.” The event at the JCCGV’s Rothstein Theatre will also feature clowns, games, auction items and face painting.
Weil said the suggestion to invite Gasoi came from committee member Marla Groberman.
“Marla worked with Jennifer’s parents, Dr. Ivan and Laurie Gasoi, and it was agreed upon,” said Weil. Given the local connection and the fact that many of the production committee members are involved in the Jewish community, Weil said that the JCCGV “seemed like the perfect place to have the concert.”
The concerts will take place on April 12, at 10:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. Early-bird tickets (until Feb. 28) are $13.50/$16.50, or $50 for a family of four (two adults and two children under 17). For tickets and information, visit childrenshearing.ca.
Collect postal history and you learn not just how mail has traveled in years past, but also how people lived and functioned. Just ask Ed Kroft, a collector and historian of postal history from Israel who was recently awarded the 2013 Leslie Reggel Memorial Award by the Society of Israel Philatelists (SIP) for his outstanding contributions to Israel philately.
Kroft is a Vancouver tax lawyer and ardent collector of postal history who started collecting stamps at the tender age of 10. “My teacher at Associated Hebrew Day Schools in Toronto, Ed Deutsch, would bring his stamp collection to school to show us, and he focused on the stamps of Israel,” he recalled. “We formed a stamp club at school and later, I worked at a stamp store to put myself through university.”
Stamp collecting has changed significantly over the years, as many people have moved from soaking stamps off the paper they were used on, to collecting postal history and learning to understand the postmarks and information on the envelopes that contain those stamps.
“Postal history tells a story about how mail has traveled, which requires you to learn about the area, the population, how to read postmarks and envelopes,” he said. “The beauty of collecting postal history as opposed to collecting stamps is that you’re collecting different pieces of mail and trying to describe the history of the postal services.”
In a room filled with bookshelves containing the vast collection he’s amassed, Kroft has binders containing mail that originated in Israel but was destined for many different corners of the world, from New Zealand and Australia to South Africa, Argentina, the Caribbean islands, Brazil and Chile.
“As a Jew, I care about this because it’s interesting to see where Jews were at that time,” he said. “This collection gives me connections to Jewish culture and identity, Jewish history, geography, events, places, buildings and customs. This is part of our heritage, and we can’t let this history disappear.”
Kroft’s collection of mail from the Holy Land dates from the 1870s to the present day. From one binder, he pulled out an envelope inscribed by Ze’ev Jabotinsky to one of his relatives in 1918, and another written to Jabotinsky by his mother. There’s an envelope written by Captain Joseph Trumpeldor and another by Sir Moses Montefiore. While the letters are often no longer in those envelopes, the envelopes offer evidence about the passage of mail, Kroft explained.
The Society of Israel Philatelists is a nonprofit dedicated to studying and promoting Israel philately, with members all over the world. Kroft joined SIP in the mid-1970s and has been an active member ever since, currently serving as its president.
“My collection of Holy Land philately has helped me make many friends around the world who have common interests,” he said. “It’s taught me a lot about Judaism and brought to life things I learned when I was much younger.”
His collections include the history of Rishon LeZion from settlement through statehood, 1882-1948, a history of prisoners of war in 1948-1949, and the history of the Carmel Wine Co., among others. Each one tells a story through postal history, a story about which Kroft is passionate, eager to learn more about and committed to teaching others. “I’m honored to win the award,” he said. “The people who preceded me were extremely knowledgeable and great collectors.”
For now, he is intent on keeping the future of SIP bright by spreading information about its members and their work, and he is hoping to attract new collectors to its ranks.
Kroft will be speaking on The Relevance and Enjoyment of Philately, the Hobby of Stamp Collecting, to Jews in the 21st Century, on Jan. 30, 7:30 p.m., at Temple Sholom Synagogue.
Lauren Kramer, an award-winning writer and editor, lives in Richmond, B.C. To read her work online, visit laurenkramer.net.
The Wallenberg-Sugihara Civil Courage Society will mark Vancouver Raoul Wallenberg Day on Jan. 19 with the screening of the documentary Nicky’s Family, about Holocaust hero Nicholas Winton.
Now 104 years old, Winton lives in England (where he was born). The story of his heroism during the Holocaust starts in 1938, when he was a stockbroker. Receiving a letter from a friend in Prague about the plight of Jews in German-occupied Czechoslovakia, he traveled there to assess the situation for himself. Shocked at what he witnessed, he established an organization to aid children from Jewish families, setting up office in his hotel room in Prague, from which he eventually expanded.
The director of Nicky’s Family, Matej Minac, said in an interview on Czech Radio in 2003: “When he came here to Prague, and wanted to rescue all these children, and he had a plan how to do it, everybody was telling him – you know, it’s absurd. You can never manage it. The British won’t let the children in. The Gestapo won’t let the children out. You don’t have the money, so how do you want to do it? It’s crazy. And Winton said that anything that is reasonable can be achieved.”
After Kristallnacht, in November 1938, the British Parliament approved the entry of refugees younger than 17 into the country, if they had a place to stay and a warranty was paid. Knowing this, Winton left his friends in Prague to manage the gathering of the children there and returned to London, where he started a campaign to find foster homes and the necessary guarantees for as many children as he could.
Winton also organized for the Jewish children to be transported on trains and then on to ferries to England, where the foster families met them. The operation later became known as the Czech Kindertransport. It lasted until the official start of the Second World War on Sept. 1, 1939, by which time 669 of “his children” had arrived in England. He kept records of the names and addresses of the children, their parents and their foster families. Most of the Jewish parents in Prague perished during the Holocaust.
Winton never told anyone of this enterprise. Fifty years after the fact, his wife found a suitcase in the attic with all his wartime documentation. She contacted the BBC, and they sent letters to the addresses of the foster families. Several dozen people responded. Most of them didn’t know the identity of their rescuer. His “children” and their children and grandchildren now number more than 6,000.
A 1988 TV program about the reunion of Winton and dozens of the children he had saved started a snowball of recognition; among the honors, Winton was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II.
In the late 1990s, Minac was searching for a theme for his next film. The Czech director read Pearls of Childhood by Vera Gissin, in which she mentions Winton and his rescue operation.
“I was astonished,” said Minac in the aforementioned radio interview. “That’s exactly what I needed for my story. I wrote a film treatment and I asked one lady, Alice Klimova, whether she could translate it into English. She said: ‘Matej, I think you have a few mistakes in your treatment, especially the scene in the train station, when the children are leaving for Britain.’ I said: ‘How do you know?’ And she said: ‘I know because I was one of those children, of Winton’s children…. I was only four-and-a-half years old. I don’t remember it so well. Why don’t you call Nicky, Nicky Winton?’ And I said: ‘How do you mean Nicky Winton? He’s still alive?’ She said: ‘Yes. He’d be very happy to talk to you, he’s a nice person, and I’m sure he would help.’ Two months later, I visited Nicky. We spent a beautiful afternoon together, and I knew that I can’t do only one film … but I will have to do also a documentary….”
In the end, Minac made three movies about Winton: one feature, All My Loved Ones (1999), the documentary The Power of Good: Nicholas Winton (2002), which won an Emmy Award, and Nicky’s Family (2011), which includes reenactments and never-before-seen archival footage, as well as interviews with Winton and a number of those he rescued.
The Wallenberg-Sugihara Civil Courage Society, which is hosting the Nicky’s Family screening and reception here, incorporated in April 2013, Deborah Ross-Grayman, one of the society’s founding members, told the Independent. “This was the natural outgrowth of the Raoul Wallenberg Day event, which began in 1986 with the placement of a plaque in Queen Elizabeth Park. It was revived on the 20th anniversary in 2006, as a cooperative event sponsored by the honorary Swedish consul, Anders Neumuller, and the Vancouver Second Generation Group…. We formed the society in order to be able to formally present an award for civil courage, and so acknowledge and support such heroic acts today.”
She added that approximately 50 diplomats from different countries risked their lives and careers to save the lives of Jews during the Second World War. “We have shown films highlighting the acts of Wallenberg, Sweden, and Chiune Sugihara, Japan, [whose visa saved Ross-Grayman’s mother’s life] as well as people from Chile, Portugal and Spain. Wallenberg saved approximately 100,000 people and Sugihara saved approximately 6,000. Their names stand as a symbol for all such courageous and heroic acts.”
Nicky’s Family will screen at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver’s Rothstein Theatre on Jan. 19 at 1:30 p.m.
Olga Livshin is a Vancouver freelance writer. She can be reached at [email protected].