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.
Images and symbolism mean a great deal in politics. This was presumably on the mind of Conservative Member of Parliament Mark Adler last week, when he hounded an aide to Prime Minister Stephen Harper to let him into the cordoned-off area adjacent to Jerusalem’s Western Wall, where Harper was to be photographed having a quiet moment of reflection against Judaism’s holiest site.
Adler, who later claimed he was making a joke, asked Harper’s handler to let him get a photo with the prime minister at the Wall, saying, “This, it’s the reelection. This is the million-dollar shot.”
Assuming that not everything Adler said was in jest, he was not speaking about the Conservative party’s reelection as government, but his own reelection in a swing riding with a large Jewish population (Toronto York Centre). The incident was particularly harmful – joke or no joke – because it seemed to confirm what many critics have posited about the prime minister’s visit.
Harper and his supporters maintain emphatically that the prime minister and his government’s stalwart allegiance to Israel is based on principle. Adler’s outburst appeared to be evidence that the most cynical political calculations were at play, at least for some members of the tour. Regardless, it is probably safe to say that, after nearly eight years of Harper’s prime ministership, any Jewish Canadian who is going to be influenced to vote Conservative based on Harper’s foreign policy has already been won over.
Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s words early this week also sent people into a tizzy. Netanyahu appeared to moot the idea that, when a two-state resolution is realized, the Jews living in the West Bank should have the option of becoming citizens of the new Palestinian state.
Netanyahu’s intention, perhaps, was to draw global attention to the hypocrisy of accepted wisdom that Israel should be a multicultural society that respects minorities and that Israel should negotiate a “right of return” for Palestinians, while a “free” Palestine should be free of Jews. Realistically, of course, the idea of Jewish residents opting to remain in a new Palestinian state holds the potential for both comedy and tragedy. Not for nothing have Jews almost to a number fled every Arab-majority state in the region. Most settlers would not look fondly at their options under Palestinian rule. In fact, if Netanyahu’s trial balloon was meant to get a reaction from the world community, the sharpest response was from closer to home. His own cabinet minister, Naftali Bennett, responded with a single word: “Never.”
In any negotiation, wise participants put forward proposals that the other side is certain to reject, sometimes in an effort at appearing to compromise, sometimes to expose the other side’s pretense. Netanyahu’s latest gambit appears to be along these lines. But the Palestinians have demonstrated no willingness to entertain the idea of giving Jewish people citizenship in their new country. And the world community, for whom the words may have been expressed in the first place, will likely be unswayed.
However, Netanyahu’s own right flank appears to view his comments as the abandonment of the Jews of the West Bank. In the aftermath of the resulting backlash, one can almost imagine him taking a cue from Adler, who, after the incident at the Wall, confronted the reporters who conveyed the incident to voters back home: “You guys don’t get a joke, huh? It’s all said tongue-in-cheek. Tongue-in-cheek, guys, come on.”
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 wscc[email protected].
Deborah Ross-Grayman is an artist, writer and Sugihara survivor descendant committee member of the Wallenberg-Sugihara Civil Courage Society.
Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts, centre left, with the delegation in front of the Knesset Menorah. (photo from CIJA-PR)Last April, when Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts announced she planned to turn one square mile in her city centre into a leading centre for medical technology, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, Pacific Region, immediately started paying this leader attention.
“When we heard of her intention to create an Innovation Boulevard, we knew the mayor needed to tap into Israel’s spirit of ingenuity,” said Darren Mackoff, CIJA-PR director. Mackoff and his team helped organize Watts’ six-day trade mission to the Holy Land in December, a delegation that included individuals from the health-technology business sector and representatives from Simon Fraser University, the University of British Columbia and Kwantlen Polytechnic University – all of them key stakeholders in Surrey’s Innovation Boulevard.
In January, just a month after her return home, Watts signed a deal with Israel Brain Technologies, the first international deal of its kind secured since she and Innovation Boulevard co-chair, SFU neuroscientist and professor Ryan D’Arcy, announced the boulevard last year. Israel Brain Technologies, created by Israeli president and Nobel Peace Prize winner Shimon Peres, is a neuro-technology consortium. It unites Israel’s academics, neuroscientists and industry leaders under a single umbrella of brain research and innovation.
The IBT deal will give the City of Surrey access to some of Israel’s top thinkers and the development of innovative, life-saving medical advances, said Mackoff, but it will also give IBT the opportunity to engage in exchanges and partner on specific projects with their counterparts in Western Canada. “The outcomes of these joint ventures will undoubtedly serve the people of both Israel and B.C. well in the future,” he noted. In a press release, Watts said, “Israel and Surrey have common health-care challenges and share the goal of setting a new standard in medical care and innovation. By combining our remarkable pool of talents and expertise, I know that Surrey and Israel will together create groundbreaking and life-changing advancements in health care.”
Watts’ CIJA-led educational mission included 25 business meetings at Israeli universities, hospitals and centres of innovation, political briefings, tours of Israel’s most significant historic and contemporary sites, as well as a visit to Israel’s northern border with Syria, on the Golan Heights.
“In addition to gaining a strong understanding and appreciation for Israel and the challenges the Jewish state faces in the region, it was extremely important that Mayor Watts left Israel with tangible collaborative partnerships between the city, trip delegates and their counterparts in Israel,” Mackoff said.
The blizzard-like conditions in Jerusalem on the mayor’s day of arrival meant CIJA had to do some on-the-ground improvising and move the team to Tel Aviv at the last minute.
Mackoff traveled alongside the mayor and said she was tremendously moved and inspired by this visit. “The Jewish and pro-Israel community in Western Canada has a firm friend in Mayor Watts,” he reflected. “She saw firsthand what Israel is truly about – a country that has overcome tremendous obstacles to create a thriving democracy which is leading the world in scientific advancements.”
Due to personal circumstances, the mayor was unavailable for comment.
Lauren Kramer, an award-winning writer and editor, lives in Richmond, B.C. To read her work online, visit laurenkramer.net.
MK Pnina Tamano-Shata speaks to the audience at a convention held Jan. 1 concerning the fate of approximately 7,000 individuals in Ethiopia who are still waiting to be granted aliyah. (photo by Uri Perednik)
Last August, 450 new olim made the five-hour flight from northwest Ethiopia to their new home: Israel. According to those on hand to meet the new immigrants when they landed at Ben-Gurion Airport, the passenger roster for that hot August day constituted the last remaining members of Ethiopia’s ancient Jewish community, known as the Falashmura, or Beta Israel.
“The last group of the Jewish community of Ethiopia just stepped down from their plane,” said Eliezer Zandberg, as Israel’s newest immigrants joined weeping and elated relatives in the airport. Zandberg is the chairman of Keren Hayesod, or United Israel Appeal, which helped coordinate the aliyah of the Beta Israel. “This is the excitement, this is the whole story – returning to their homeland.”
While news agencies reporting on this aliyah assumed that the final leg of Operation Dove’s Wings last August carried Ethiopia’s last Jews, many aid groups remain adamant that the aliyah is not yet over. In the past five months, relief agencies, family members, advocates and rabbis from Israel and abroad have been calling on the Israeli government to return to Ethiopia and process the family members that have been left behind in two Jewish communities, Addis Ababa and Gondar. Both communities are located in northwest Ethiopia, and have been central receiving points for Ethiopian Jews hoping to make aliyah. According to several aid organizations that have recently been in Gondar, there are as many as 7,000 Jewish descendants that should have qualified for aliyah – many of whom are direct relatives of newly accepted olim in Israel.
On Jan. 1, 2014, while the rest of the world celebrated a new year, advocates for those remaining 7,000 got down to work. In Israel, members of the advocacy group Struggle for the Aliyah of Ethiopian Jewry (SAEJ) hosted a convention on the grounds of Ben-Gurion University in Be’ersheva. Some 200 members of Israel’s Beta Israel community, new immigrants and three members of the Knesset were there to discuss what has been termed a continuing humanitarian issue. A second convention was held a two days later in Tel Aviv, hosted by the relief organization South Wing to Zion, which was founded by Ethiopian human rights activist, Dr. Avraham Negusie. The mandate of both conventions was to highlight the needs of Ethiopian Jewish family members still waiting for aliyah approval.
According to Uri Perednik, who helped found SAEJ and helped organize the convention in Be’ersheva, MKs Pnina Tamano-Shata, Hilik (Yehiel) Bar and Shimon Solomon were briefed on the status of the remaining applicants in Ethiopia, and the events that have occurred since the August airlift. After members of the Ethiopian community in Israel staged a protest in front of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s office on Aug. 28, the Knesset absorption committee agreed to look into reopening the aliyah for outstanding family members, Perednik said in an interview from his home in Israel. However, he added, there has been little resolved by the government, and members of Israel’s Beta Israel community are becoming increasingly frustrated.
Since the convention, all three MKs have called for the aliyah to be reopened, according to a statement released by SAEJ. Tamano-Shata has offered to forward a petition to the minister of interior, Gideon Sa’ar, while Bar and Solomon have vowed to pressure the government to admit the remaining family members.
“There is no doubt in the [Ethiopian Jewry’s] Judaism because their family is here in Israel,” said Bar. He expects an appeals committee will review the outstanding cases. “The committee will begin to check these cases, examine the paperwork, understand that [there] was a serious mistake here and finish this terrible saga.”
Perednik noted that records maintained by the Jewish community in Addis Ababa indicate that 415 community members have already died waiting for their aliyah papers to be approved. Since the Jewish community in Gondar is much larger than in Addis Ababa, he said, “the number of deceased [in Gondar] may be twice as big.”
“The Israeli government encouraged these families to leave their homes and villages in order to realize their dream of returning to the Holy Land,” wrote Perednik in his Times of Israel blog, referring to Israel’s initial efforts to rescue persecuted Ethiopian Jews in the 1980s. The Beta Israel of today “are members of active Jewish communities whose religious lives revolve around their synagogues, who maintain laws of family purity with their mikvahs, and who attend classes on Judaism, and are nonetheless alienated by the establishment.”
Some aid groups charge that the poverty and unemployment in Ethiopian Jewish communities are directly related to their nebulous immigrant status. “The situation is worse than most [for] most Ethiopians” in their cities, Perednik explained. He said the government’s encouragement for them to seek aliyah meant that they were forced to sell their property and quit their jobs in order to come to the cities in which they now live.
“About 80 percent of the people in these communities have family in Israel. I know many cases here in which there could be almost an entire family [living] in Israel – the mother, the father, brothers and sisters, and one sister or one brother is left behind. Or you could have all the children here [in Israel] and the parents left behind. Many of these people in Israel, brothers and sisters, are in the army and grew up in Israel, feel Israeli and Jewish.”
At the heart of the issue concerning the families’ immigrant status is the question of their Jewish ethnicity. In 2003, the government mandated that all future Beta Israel immigrants must be able to show matrilineal ancestry. Prior to that date, Beta Israel immigrants who could show either matrilineal or patrilineal heritage were eligible.
The problem with the change in the ruling, said Hila Bram, co-founder of the London-based relief organization Meketa, is that traditional Ethiopian Jewish communities still follow the patrilineal Jewish ancestry, and have done so for thousands of years. Patrilineal heritage is believed to have been common in early biblical times, and many of the cultural traditions of ancient Ethiopian Judaism are distinct from those followed by Ashkenazi, Sephardi and Mizrahi Jewish communities.
“The Jewish state has turned around and said we take you by the religion of your mother, whereas Western Judaism until the second century and Judaism in Ethiopia until now, take you [as Jewish] by your father,” Bram explained in an interview from her residence in England. “And that has really added to the confusion and to the problematic nature of all of this for Ethiopian Jews. By their society, you are the religion of your father, who is the head of the household.”
According to both Perednik and Bram, the cessation of Jewish Agency services on Aug. 28 meant the closure of all religious and educational services in Gondar, as well. Perednik said the remaining community members were devastated by the closure of the synagogue, given that it is used daily. Since the closure, the Ethiopian Jewish organizations Hatikvah and South Wing to Zion have stepped forward to raise the rental costs to keep the synagogue open. The Torah, which had been removed by the Jewish Agency, was later returned with Negusie’s assistance. The Jewish school has not been reopened. Students have been transferred to public schools, where there is no provision for Jewish education.
Since the Jan. 1 convention, effort has been stepped up by Beta Israel community members to convince the Israeli government to review the situation in Ethiopia. In December, an appeals committee visited Gondar to assess the situation, but the trip was delayed by snowfall in Israel, and Bram said that the team had only one day to assess the situation. The report is not due to be released for another month or two.
SAEJ released a statement last week calling on the government to increase the immediate powers of the appeals committee and to accept those applicants who meet the following criteria: “They are descendants of Ethiopian Jews from [either] their mother or their father; they left their villages and have been waiting for years in Addis Ababa and Gondar; [they were] listed earlier with the Ministry of Interior; they live as Jews; and they have close relations in Israel: parents, children, brothers, sisters.”
The committee also made a formal appeal that the government change the terminology it uses concerning community members in Ethiopia. “[The] committee is protesting the government[’s] use of the derogatory name Falashmura.” The ancient name was ascribed to the community by non-Jews hundreds of years ago, and implies in polite context one who is a “stranger.” The community has elected the name Beta Israel, meaning “Children of Israel,” for members of the Ethiopian Jewish community in Israel who were granted aliyah earlier, and Zara Israel (Descendants of Israel) for those who are descendants of the original community and are awaiting aliyah.
The Vancouver Art Gallery’s Art Rental and Sales space is not yet a well-known feature, but the nonprofit program has been quietly promoting emerging and mid-career Canadian artists on the gallery’s main floor. According to the website, “Whether you are you staging a home for sale, have an empty wall in your board room or love contemporary art but can’t decide what to purchase, you’ll find what you’re looking for in the Vancouver Art Gallery’s Art Rental and Sales Showroom. With more than 1,000 works by 200 Canadian artists, Art Rental and Sales has the largest selection of copyright-cleared, original art for rent in British Columbia…. All the artwork in the rental program is consigned by the artists, who receive the majority of the fees collected. The remaining proceeds are donated to the Vancouver Art Gallery.”
Darcy Mann is the next artist to have a feature exhibit in the space. Her charcoal drawings of British Columbia forests have been so successful with both the rental and sales part of the program that VAG offered to feature her work for three months.
Mann hasn’t always focused on forest drawings. She started her artistic life with figurative compositions. In an interview with the Independent, she talked about her life and the evolution of her themes.
“I always liked art. When I turned 10, I got a birthday gift from my mother – a pencil and some drawing paper. It was the best birthday gift of my childhood, the only one I remember,” she said.
After high school, she continued her art education in British Columbia and Nova Scotia, and later received an MFA in Texas. In 1987, in the course of her graduate studies, she had to spend a term abroad and she chose Israel, an experience that made a huge impression on the young artist. She and her husband, who is also a professional artist, then went to New York, where they lived for 14 years. “That’s where we really understood what art was,” she said. “But, of course, we couldn’t make a living as artists. We both had daytime jobs. I worked for an advertising agency. We kept practising our art and participated in several group shows. There is a wonderful place there for Jewish artists – Synagogue for the Arts.”
When their firstborn son was three, they returned to Vancouver, but Mann didn’t return to work. With the support of her husband and his family, she became a stay-at-home mom and a full-time artist. “Many artists experience financial challenges. We are willing to sacrifice material things, to live simply, for the sake of our art and our kids,” she said.
“I stopped painting and began drawing when my son was born – [I] didn’t want the chemicals in the paints to interfere with nursing the baby,” she said. “I also switched to forest scenes from figurative. You need to do much less talking when you paint forest. I don’t like talking and I don’t like discussing my art or explaining anything.”
Even when her son was older and she resumed painting with oils, she concentrated on the large forest landscapes. But she never gave up on drawing.
“Paintings and drawings are both satisfying in different ways,” she explained. “They complement each other. Painting is fluid. You can move paint around, remove some, add some, use different brushes, layers. A painting can change. It is chaos. While drawings stick to order, drawings are solid. When you use pressed charcoal, it’s there, on paper. You can’t erase it. But I need both. When I paint, I miss drawing. When I work on a drawing, I need to paint.”
Mann paints in her Marpole studio. “I paint and draw from photographs. I love going out with my camera during summer and fall, when it’s warm outside. Especially fall – it’s when I take the most interesting pictures. Not in winter though – too cold.”
After printing her photos, she starts the next phase of the process – assembling collages. Once she has the photographs, “… to get an image I want, I have to separate the background from the foreground” of each image. “I go through dozens of pictures. It’s like solving a puzzle, selecting which pieces fit where. I cut the pieces and glue or tape them together. I do it all by hand – I don’t trust computers. The whole thing is like taking a ball of mixed-up necklaces and untangling them, before creating a new image.”
Mann’s paintings and drawings are straightforward on the surface, but the underlying mystery shimmers in most of her compositions, a hint of a story, a token of a concept, as if the artist didn’t really abandon the figurative but just concealed it behind a bush or in the midst of this thicket.
“For me, esthetics is the most important,” she said. “The best of my works happen when I allow myself to lose conscious control, when my hand and my intuition take over. The idea is still there, but not controlled by me.” That’s why she often listens to audio books when she is at her easel. “With an audio book engaging my thoughts, it’s easier to let the intuition fly.”
Several years ago, she answered the VAG Art Rental and Sales call for artists and sent them some of her forest drawings, thus beginning a long association. Mann is the featured artist at the VAG Art Rental and Sales Showroom from Feb. 3 to May 2. Her artist talk, on March 4, 7 p.m., is free and open to the public.
Olga Livshin is a Vancouver freelance writer. She can be reached at [email protected].
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.
Left to right: Laureen Harper looks on as her husband receives a ceremonial souvenir key from the Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein in the Knesset’s Chagall Room. (photo by Ashernet)
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu welcomed Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his wife, Laureen, to Israel earlier this week, acclaiming him as “a great friend of the Jewish state.” During his official four-day visit to Israel, Harper addressed the Knesset and also held a meeting with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. This was Harper’s first visit to Israel.
During his speech to the Knesset, Harper spoke out strongly in defence of Israel. “People who would never say they hate and blame the Jews for their own failings or the problems of the world, instead declare their hatred of Israel and blame the only Jewish state for the problems of the Middle East,” he said. “This is twisted logic and outright malice. Some civil-society leaders today call for a boycott of Israel – most disgracefully of all, some openly call Israel an apartheid state. Think about that. Think about the twisted logic and outright malice behind that. A state, based on freedom, democracy and the rule of law, that was founded so Jews can flourish as Jews and seek shelter from the shadow of the worst racist experiment in history,” he said.
“But what else can we call criticism that selectively condemns only the Jewish state and effectively denies its right to defend itself while systematically ignoring – or excusing – the violence and oppression all around it? This is the face of the new antisemitism. It targets the Jewish people by targeting Israel and attempts to make the old bigotry acceptable for a new generation.”
He continued, “Canada will defend Israel’s right to exist, because Jewish people deserve their own homeland after generations of persecution. Jewish people deserve to live safely and peacefully in that homeland. And, just as Canada supports Israel’s right to self-defence, Canada supports a just and secure future for the Palestinian people.” Earlier that day, Harper announced a $66 million aid package for the Palestinians.
Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper stood in Israel’s Knesset Monday and delivered a speech that was, predictably, a summation of his government’s unconditional defence of Israel’s right to exist in peace.
While Harper received thunderous applause, his speech was significantly disrupted by a couple of members of the Knesset. At home, while Harper’s position is deeply pleasing to Zionists, it has been condemned as a betrayal of Canada’s traditional “honest broker” role, our middle-of-the-road approach to this issue and many others.
There is no doubt that Harper’s government has moved the country’s foreign policy in a pro-Israel direction, but seeing this as an abandonment of a balanced approach requires selective hindsight. Was Canada’s position “balanced” when we maintained our “go along to get along” approach that saw us vote in support of endless rounds of anti-Israel resolutions, year after year, at the UN? No.
Since the formation of Israel, the Liberal party has governed Canada for some 20 more years than have the Conservatives, including Harper’s seven-plus years as prime minister. Looking at the three main parties, from left to right, it’s the NDP, Liberals and Conservatives. The Liberals are in the middle. It should not be surprising that the party’s position on any topic should, on average, be closer to the middle, or more “balanced” than a position taken on the same topic by the NDP or Conservatives.
In other words, our vaunted Canadian neutrality is a figment of the ideological imagination. It is a chicken-and-egg scenario to determine whether Canadians’ overall middle-of-the-roadness caused so many Liberal federal governments or whether our middle-of-the-roadness is the product of many years of Liberal governments. The question of identity is a complex one, but Canadians are perceived as polite, apologetic, and meek rather than aggressive. This is a perception that, most likely, has allowed us to act as peacemakers in the international arena where others have failed. (It also helps, no doubt, that Canada has never been strong enough militarily on its own to pose a threat to any government with which it may be working to resolve a conflict.)
On many fronts, Harper and his Conservative government have thrown into question what it has meant to be Canadian thus far, from social policy to arts funding to foreign affairs. But, as Canadian voters have given him a majority government, he and his party are obviously not the only ones interested in reshaping the Canadian identity and changing its role in the world.
Harper’s political opponents – and those activists who tend to side against Israel – insist that Canada is losing face internationally, that our long-husbanded reputation for not making waves is hurting us on the global stage. Keeping in mind that Canada remains a small power whose influence, such as it is, has always come through the world’s respect for our principled stands, not because we have the biggest army or the largest population, this may be true as regards our role as a peacemaker. However, the jury is still out on how it will affect our international standing to be a country that speaks out strongly and unequivocally in support of our friends.
The argument that “true” friends are unafraid to criticize and, therefore, Canada is not being a true friend of Israel in its supposedly unquestioning support (we are not privy to what happens behind closed doors) holds some sway, but, at this point, there is no shortage of people letting Israel know what it is ostensibly doing wrong. The international discourse is so lopsided and biased against Israel that, despite any disagreements with Harper we as Canadian Jews might have on any number of his domestic or foreign policies, it is hard not to be proud – both as Canadians and as Jews – that he is so publicly and steadfastly supportive of Israel, rather being a bit player in the European and American chorus of ambiguity.
Harper’s seemingly uncharacteristic Canadian lack of balance on this matter of international affairs appeals to us. Whether or not his lonely voice is having any impact – positive or negative – in re-balancing a wildly unbalanced discourse doesn’t even matter. It just feels good to hear it.