NCJW members unload boxes of toys headed for Israel as part of the Ship a Box to Israel program launched by NCJW Tikvah branch, Vancouver Harbor, 1947. (photo from JMABC L.11998)
Much of the work of Jewish women in Vancouver has occurred, both historically and still today, behind the scenes. The Jewish Museum and Archives of British Columbia is trying to change that with its online exhibit, More Than Just Mrs. Accessible at morethanjustmrs.wordpress.com, the exhibit discusses the history of the National Council of Jewish Women, Hadassah-WIZO (CHW) and Na’amat, the three predominant Jewish women’s organizations mid-century. It includes audio clips from local women who worked for these organizations and focuses exclusively on the work of the B.C. chapters.
“We’re trying to raise awareness of the Jewish community in B.C. and its history,” said Michael Schwartz, coordinator of development and public programs at JMABC, located in the Peretz Centre for Secular Jewish Culture in Vancouver. “When it came to these chapters of the organizations, I knew a few of the stories but wanted to fill in the gaps and learn more. I thought we should look at the organizations in greater detail, at the differences in their philosophies and the influential women who worked for them.”
The website has an introduction and then individual sections on each of NCJW, Hadassah and Na’amat, each one containing letters, certificates and other historical material relevant to the work the organizations performed. There are a total of six audio clips online but those who want to hear entire interviews may visit the Jewish museum offices to listen to them.
The exhibit offers a fascinating glimpse into Jewish life in Vancouver in the 1940s and ’50s: its fashions, the organizations’ priorities and their fundraising strategies. These women were professional volunteers, individuals who were not content to be “just Mrs.,” and insisted on devoting their time and talents to improving and meeting the needs of their local communities and communities in Israel and elsewhere. The name for the exhibit was drawn from an interview with one of the volunteers some 20 to 30 years ago, wherein she mentioned the phrase, “More than just Mrs.,” adding that, for her, doing this volunteer work was an opportunity to step out of her husband’s shadow.
NCJW supported an orphanage in Holland, for example, sending regular shipments of food and clothing to the aid of the 220 destitute war orphans being cared for in Bergstichting. The exhibit includes a letter from the orphanage dated April 1947, describing the difficult conditions at the orphanage. “The physical condition of our pupils being still rather week [sic], we had to fight with a scarlatina [scarlet fever] epidemic during five months,” wrote the director. “Sixty of our people were taken with this illness. But fortunately, your valuable gifts reached us just in those distressful months.”
The online exhibit was launched in September 2013 and some 2,500 people have visited the site since it was launched. Schwartz estimates it takes 60 to 90 minutes to read the material, which was produced by Annika Friedman last summer with the aid of Young Canada Works, a granting program subsidized by the federal government. Schwartz said another online exhibit is being produced this summer under the same program. Called Oakridge: The Final Frontier, it will chart the rise and decline of the Jewish community in the neighborhood. Elana Wenner, a master’s candidate in Jewish studies at Concordia University, will be interviewing community members and gathering photographs, videos and other relevant materials for the new exhibit. To contribute and for more information, Wenner can be reached at [email protected].
Lauren Kramer, an award-winning writer and editor, lives in Richmond, B.C. To read her work online, visit laurenkramer.net.
Jared Miller has been appointed by the Victoria Symphony as its new composer-in-residence (photo from Jared Miller)
Jared Miller has always loved music. “When I was around 3 years old, I would beg my parents every single day to watch the movie Fantasia because I loved the music in it so much,” he told the Independent in an interview from his home in New York, where he has been studying for his doctoral degree at the Juilliard School. “I also loved the animation, but got quite scared whenever the sorcerer appeared on screen. I would hide under a special blanket with holes in it. The blanket would protect me from what seemed like an evil sorcerer, but the holes in it still allowed me to enjoy my favorite movie and music, unscathed.”
Miller still loves music and, today, he is among its creators. Recently, the Victoria Symphony announced his appointment as its new composer-in-residence. According to Miller, the primary function of a composer-in-residence is to compose original pieces of music for the organization that employs him – in his case, the Victoria Symphony – and be a musical emissary to the local community. He is uniquely suited to both aspects of his new appointment.
On the composition front, one of his piano compositions, “Souvenirs d’Europe,” debuted at Carnegie Hall in 2011 and won the 2012 ASCAP Morton Gould Award. It was also used as the required piece for the 2013 Knigge Piano Competition. His orchestral works have been performed by several North America orchestras. And his efforts to promote classical music started before he was in his teens. He has been playing and talking about music at every possible venue, from nursing homes to elementary schools.
“I began playing in care homes when I was about 9 years old, and my grandparents were staying at Louis Brier in Vancouver,” he said. “Initially, I would just play the piano there, while we were visiting my grandparents, to occupy my time. Eventually, I drew a bit of a crowd and got sincere enjoyment out of it. This stopped in 2005, when my grandmother passed away. Then I began playing in care homes again in 2008, when I got a job as an Artsway Ambassador with B.C. Health Arts Society. I tried to keep it interesting by playing a variety of music – from Mozart to my own compositions to 1920s and ’30s pop music.”
During those performances, he spoke to his audience about each piece, inviting their participation. At about the same time, while he was a music student at the University of British Columbia, he widened his activities to encompass groups of schoolchildren.
“I began in 2007 as a post-secondary-music-student ambassador for the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra’s Connects program. For this program, I got to visit a bunch of different elementary schools in the Lower Mainland and teach them about classical music in a manner to which they could relate. One of the modules I taught focused on how music could tell a story. Since then, I have worked with Vancouver Opera in the schools, as well, and with New York’s Opportunity Music Project, which provides underprivileged children in the New York City area with free music instruments, lessons and performance opportunities.”
“I feel incredibly privileged to have been exposed to classical music and to be able to pursue it as a career. It has made my life extraordinary and, in doing musical outreach, I can share this feeling with other people who may not necessarily have access to classical music otherwise.”
For a busy young composer, he invests a great deal of time in outreach programs and he feels strongly in their mission. There are many reasons he participates in these programs. “For one, it’s fun. It allows me to find creative ways to introduce audiences to classical music, which is very satisfying for me,” he said. “I feel incredibly privileged to have been exposed to classical music and to be able to pursue it as a career. It has made my life extraordinary and, in doing musical outreach, I can share this feeling with other people who may not necessarily have access to classical music otherwise.”
He sees his work with the community as a way of introducing the future generation to his beloved art form, and to push back against school budget cuts. Furthermore, by doing the outreach, especially in schools, he might also plant the seeds for classical music’s future audience. Because no matter how much the music profession has evolved throughout the ages, one aspect has remained consistent, he said: “… a composer’s need to self-promote. From Handel, to Beethoven, to Aaron Copland, composers have always had to be rather active about looking out for their own careers. These days, with the plethora of social media outlets, it is easier than ever to do this, albeit more time-consuming.”
Despite his packed schedule, he also finds time for some musically unrelated fun. “I love food,” he admitted. “New York, where I’ve been based for the past four years, is definitely the place to be in this regard (although I do miss Vancouver’s sushi). I love cooking and trying new restaurants. To counter this abundance of calories, I also love running. It’s a great way to see the city and to escape the everyday pace of life.”
After settling in Victoria, with his schooling finally out of the way, he might also try a new hobby or two. “I’m interested in attempting to paint and maybe learn some kind of martial art. Who knows? The sky is the limit.”
Bonnie Nish also started Summer Dreams. (photo by Robin Susanto)
“I have a passion for writing poetry,” said Bonnie Nish, a local poet and an executive director of Pandora’s Collective. “But I also want to build a community of writers. Writing is an isolated occupation. Building a community around it brings us together. When I’m with people, working on a Pandora’s event or the Summer Dreams festival, I get as much as I give.”
Nish refused to define herself by one word or profession. “I’m many things,” she said. Nish has a bachelor’s degree in English, a master’s in art education and is completing her PhD in expressive arts therapy.
“Expressive arts therapy uses all of the arts – from writing to visual arts to music – to unlock people’s creativity and help with conflict resolution,” she explained. “It engages the part of our brains we don’t usually use. I’m in the process of setting up a practice and I’m also trying to organize a series of workshops.” Among her clients are individuals (children and adults), corporations trying to build their teams and couples in need of counseling.
Helping people achieve their potential through arts is her ultimate goal in life. “I always wanted to be a writer and a teacher,” she said. Both her wishes came true. She has been a poetry workshop instructor since 1996, first in California and later here, in Vancouver, sharing her knowledge and enthusiasm for poetry with adults and teens.
Since 2006, she also has worked for the Vancouver School Board as an education assistant for elementary school children with disabilities: Down syndrome and autism. “I’m drawn to children who need extra help,” she said. “And I like working one on one. It allows me to build a relationship.”
Her other work stems from the same sources: her need to give, to mentor, to unite writers. “When I came to Vancouver in 2002, I joined a writers’ group. Later, I set up my own group. My kids were still young, so we met weekly in my house and had a writing session on a ‘prompt,’ a different prompt every week. We wrote around my kitchen table.”
It wasn’t enough. Nish and her poetic cohorts wanted to take their poetry to the wider world, so they founded Pandora’s Collective, a nonprofit organization that promotes poetry and literature in Vancouver.
“What began over 10 years ago as a small writing group sitting around my kitchen table every week has evolved into a whole gamut of weekly, monthly and yearly events and readings, which reaches hundreds of people,” she said. “We feature poetry contests for all ages, with entries coming from as far away as Italy and Egypt. We award a scholarship each summer to enable a teen to attend the Vancouver Public Library’s Summer Book Camp. With Pandora’s Collective, I have facilitated workshops in alcohol and drug rehabilitation centres, at Covenant House, the Gathering Place and throughout the Lower Mainland in schools.”
“I’ll strive as long as we’re doing this to keep Pandora’s an inclusive place for all writers, where they can find community, where their words are taken seriously and they’re able to continue to find their voice.”
Pandora’s provides a safe space for all writers to be heard. “This has personal importance to me,” said Nish. “I understand the need to be heard. I’ll strive as long as we’re doing this to keep Pandora’s an inclusive place for all writers, where they can find community, where their words are taken seriously and they’re able to continue to find their voice.”
With Pandora’s flying high, Nish turned her focus to another project: she started the annual Summer Dreams literary festival in 2004.
“I noticed that lots of people did lots of events in Vancouver,” she said. “I thought it was a good idea to bring them all together, to give them more exposure … to showcase to the public what we do on an ongoing basis.”
By 2013, its 10th year, the festival had grown into a multi-day event, comprised of 27 literary groups with more than 100 performers. Unfortunately, for 2014, the festival is taking a hiatus, as its founder and heart, Nish, has a health problem. In 2012, she suffered a severe concussion; in 2013, a second one. “My short-term memory was affected,” she said. “I couldn’t read, couldn’t write, couldn’t find words.”
While gradually getting better, Nish has found a way to turn her pain into an opportunity for other writers. She is undertaking the publication of an anthology of stories – essays, poems or memoirs – about concussion and its effects. She already has submissions from more than two dozen writers. Publication is scheduled for 2015.
“Some days, when I am tired, I wonder why I continue. The answer, when I really take the time to think about it, is very clear. It is because of this great community … of which I have become a part. I am so thankful for this.”
“I’m doing all of this because it is my passion,” she says on her website. “… It is the people who email me to say that they feel connected because of my e-newsletter. It is the girl who stopped me on the street to tell me that she had done our workshop in a drug rehab and was still straight and still writing. It is all the volunteers who come out year after year to keep the festival running. It is the poets, established and beginners…. They are what keep this whole thing alive. Some days, when I am tired, I wonder why I continue. The answer, when I really take the time to think about it, is very clear. It is because of this great community … of which I have become a part. I am so thankful for this.”
The sanctuary of Kelowna’s Beth Shalom Synagogue, which was founded in 1990. (photo from OJCA)
Kelowna boasts a small but tight-knit Jewish community, with its synagogue, Beth Shalom, located in the Okanagan Jewish Community Centre (OJCC). Although it’s estimated that more than 1,000 Jews live in this region and the surrounding area, only about 60 families are actively involved in communal life, which offers some unique benefits – and challenges.
“We’re not affiliated with anyone, so we cover the entire Jewish spectrum of Jewish identities and religious views, and we all respect each other’s differences,” said David Spevakow, president of the Okanagan Jewish Community Association.
Spevakow and his wife moved to Kelowna in 2002 and have been very active in the community, which offers Sunday Hebrew school classes, holiday celebrations, a community Passover seder and more.
“It helps that it’s a smaller community,” he said. “When we see each other, everyone knows each other. We’re all friends and family.”
To help attract and keep rabbinic leadership in smaller Jewish communities, there is a new pilot project, called Bridging Mountains, between Beth Tzedec in Calgary and the OJCC, on either side of the Rockies. It offers the OJC community rabbinic leadership, consultation and guidance on religious practices and questions. As part of the project, Beth Tzedec’s Rabbi Shaul Osadchey serves as a mentor to the community, answering questions and visiting the region.
“The rabbi gives us a feeling like we have leadership in a spiritual and rabbinical aspect,” said Spevakow.
A small community
Being part of the close-knit community afforded Jeremy Finkleman, who was born and grew up in Kelowna, with an opportunity to really develop his own Judaism without the outside pressures of strict religious infrastructure.
“I really found who I am as a Jew growing up in that community,” said Finkleman, 31, who now works as a transportation planner in Vancouver. “I was able to forge a Jewish identity for myself completely independent of what people were telling me Jews are supposed to behave like or think like. It really gives you an opportunity to take charge of your own Judaism and take leadership roles, whereas in other communities, you’d sit more on the sidelines.”
Since the community has no Jewish day school, Finkleman’s father taught him Hebrew and Judaic studies for more than 12 years.
“I can’t think of a better way of learning. It’s a lasting bonding experience,” he said. “Just like the commandment says, you should teach it to your sons – he took that very literally. We’d get together twice a week for two hours in the evening and we learned everything from Hebrew language to Jewish history to ritual practice to politics.”
With no Jewish day school, Kelowna Jews like Finkleman were exposed to a variety of different cultures, and were taught from an early age to respect others’ religions and differences.
“Everyone kind of shares in each other’s cultures there. Being part of such a small community, I would go with my best friend to Christmas Eve mass every year and then I would go over for Christmas dinner,” said Finkleman. “It was a cultural sharing experience, and he would come to OJC for the annual Chanukah party. Everybody shares in each other’s experiences and it was all very positive and open-minded.”
Challenges to face
A “tourist hub,” Kelowna’s population almost doubles in the summer, as out-of-towners come to visit the area’s sandy beaches, taste its fresh fruit, tour the wineries and play the golf courses. The city, however, faces many challenges similar to those faced by other small Jewish communities. Although Finkleman noted he probably wouldn’t be as observant as he is today had he not grown up in Kelowna, he said life for an observant Jew is not easy there.
“If you want to have any type of regular observance of things, even regular Shabbat services, there just isn’t the interest to have services once a week,” he said. He noted there isn’t much Jewish infrastructure in Kelowna and so, for example, you can’t purchase kosher meat there either.
“If you were an observant Jew who wanted to live an observant Jewish lifestyle, it is challenging in Kelowna,” he said.
The synagogue, founded in 1990, does have a Torah and does hold services, although not regularly. It was built by families in the community who spent a lot of time and money to acquire the land and build the structure, including Finkleman’s parents. He said his parents held many community events at their house before the synagogue was built and that his father has been involved in leading services at the synagogue for many years.
“We’re very, very proud of it,” said Finkleman. “There was a lot of energy around the building of the synagogue and leading up to it, and immediately following it. After a number of years, however, it started to wane and people started to come and go.”
As the city expands, thanks, in part, to developments at the airport and the new University of British Columbia campus, the city’s demographics have shifted as well, with younger families moving into the region, attracted to the opportunities and searching for a more affordable life than Vancouver can provide. As more professionals and young families move into the region, Spevakow said he is hopeful the community will expand and develop.
“We’re committed to building a growing and evolving Jewish community while enriching Jewish life by providing opportunities for social, cultural and educational development. We’ve got the same problems other small communities have, but I’m optimistic about the direction we’re going in.”
Vicky Tobianah is a freelance writer and editor based in Toronto. Connect with her on Twitter, @vicktob, or at [email protected].
The entrance to the newly established Jewish section of Cedar Valley Gardens Cemetery. (photo from OJKMS)
On July 9, in beautiful sunshine, a little bit of history for the Jewish community in central Vancouver Island was made when the new Jewish cemetery in Cedar, near Nanaimo, was consecrated in a ceremony attended by many members of the local Jewish and non-Jewish communities, who participated in the service by walking around the perimeter of the new burial ground, which is a completely segregated part of the Cedar Valley Gardens cemetery.
The new cemetery, which will provide a beit olam for Jews in the area, meets all halachic standards. It took over a year to become a reality, spearheaded by local residents Yvette and David Freeman of Qualicum Beach.
The Cedar cemetery location was first viewed by Elaine Berkman, z”l, of Nanaimo some years ago who, when her time came, wanted to be buried near her home and family. In a prophetic turn of events, she was the first person to be laid to rest in the new cemetery. Her funeral was held immediately after the consecration ceremony, which was brought forward as a result of her death.
Until a few years ago, burial on Vancouver
Island for those Jews who did not want to be buried off the Island was at the Congregation Emanu-El Cemetery in Victoria. Then, a few Victoria residents got together and arranged for an alternative Jewish section in the Hatley Gardens Cemetery near Royal Roads University. That still left community members living further up Island having to use Victoria for Jewish burial, with the attendant journey over the Malahat, often treacherous during the winter, and making for long journeys for spouses and other family members wishing to visit the graves of loved-ones.
Two years ago, the Freemans started to look for a suitable location for a small Jewish cemetery and, after one or two unsuccessful attempts, finally found Cedar Valley Gardens, where the management were happy to cooperate in finding a solution to the requirements for a truly halachic cemetery within the bounds of its grounds.
Once the basic understanding was agreed between Cedar Valley Gardens’ owners and the Freemans, Oceanside Jewish Kvarot Memorial Society was formed and incorporated by David Freeman, who is a lawyer, and binding agreements (including perpetual care and maintenance of the grounds) were finalized with Arbor Memorials (the owners of Cedar Valley Gardens), Sands Funeral Chapel and the new memorial society for a completely segregated section for a Jewish cemetery.
The only obstacle was money since, quite reasonably, the cemetery would not agree to start the various steps required to bring about the necessary changes until expenses were paid. Unfortunately, the North American reluctance to acknowledge that we all have a finite time on this earth and to deal with the practicalities of pre-planned end-of-life decisions meant that there was little or no interest in joining in financially. So, the Freemans decided that they had to front-end the project and to personally guarantee the funds to purchase the grave plots.
With the help of the property manager, the new section began to take shape with all the necessary requirements for a Jewish cemetery. With the project in its final stages, the society still only had the two directors, and the Freemans were pleased to have another member of the local community, Richard Steinberg, join the society’s board. Since Berkman’s funeral, there have been a number of enquiries from local residents after seeing the cemetery grounds.
The Jewish cemetery is operated under the direction of the Oceanside Jewish Kvarot Memorial Society, to which any enquiries can be made to [email protected].
The 2014 Davidson School group on Vision and Voices, the 10-day trip that precedes Kesher Hadash. The goal of this day in January was to explore the connection to the land and visit Ben-Gurion’s Desert Home in Sde Boker. The conversation there focused on David Ben-Gurion’s vision for Israel in general and for the desert in particular, as he wanted to make the desert bloom. (photo from Davidson School)
Growing up attending Jewish day school in Vancouver from nursery until Grade 12 gave Elana Wenner a strong connection to Judaism and Israel, but not a full understanding of the realities and complexities of Israeli society. With the goal of one day becoming a teacher in Jewish day schools in Canada, and eventually Israel, Wenner wanted a more comprehensive education – and went about getting one.
“I wanted to learn for myself and to be able to teach a more nuanced version of what’s going on in Israel,” said Wenner, 26.
To do so, she participated in Kesher Hadash from January to May 2014. The immersive, semester-long program is offered by the Jewish Theological Seminary’s William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education in Israel, although you do not need to be a student of the Davidson School’s master program to participate. Kesher Hadash strives to give the cohort of Canadian and American students a deeper understanding of Israeli politics and society, a chance to go beyond the picture students are taught in Jewish day school education.
“We had regular history classes teaching … history not just from the Israeli perspective but from other perspectives, from all sides of the political spectrum,” said Wenner. “We took classes at the [Ma’aleh School of Television, Film and the Arts] where we watched movies made by religious filmmakers expressing political views through film.”
“The goal is to explore the Israel-Diaspora relationship, to look at the educational vision of Israel and how we are going to teach Israel: what are we going to do, what are different ways to teach [about] Israel, what is the Israel we want to expose our students to?” explained Ofra Backenroth, dean of the Davidson School. “We believe you can’t be a Jewish educator if you don’t understand Israel and all its complexities.”
The program’s name articulates the two core aspects of the program: kesher, meaning connection, shows the goal of creating a deep connection with Israel, and hadash, which means new, expressing the desire to re-imagine the contours of the Israel-Diaspora relationship and suggesting new approaches to contemporary Jewish education.
The program’s name articulates the two core aspects of the program: kesher, meaning connection, shows the goal of creating a deep connection with Israel, and hadash, which means new, expressing the desire to re-imagine the contours of the Israel-Diaspora relationship and suggesting new approaches to contemporary Jewish education.
The program, said Backenroth, is life-transforming, as the students interact with different segments of the Israeli population: secular and religious, Israeli Jews and Arabs, Palestinians and others.
“We learned the nuances between lots of different aspects of Israeli society that are often not brought up in day school, that go beyond just the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but also the conflict between religious and secular Jews and the differences between Arab Israeli citizens and Palestinians,” said Wenner.
One of their weekly classes was made up of nine North American Jews, nine Israeli Jews and nine Israeli Arabs, where they discussed tough questions about Israel’s existence, history and politics.
“We often got into big disagreements and really had to experience for ourselves what it’s like to be faced with someone who has an opposite opinion and learn how to be respectful of their opinion,” said Wenner.
The journey for students is not easy, she noted. On the school’s website, however, many say that it opened their eyes to the realities of the difficulties and benefits of Israeli life.
“We need to be able to understand that there are not just Jews living in Israel but other people living there and it’s their country, too.”
“It was really difficult,” acknowledged Wenner, “but it wasn’t supposed to be easy. We need to be able to understand that there are not just Jews living in Israel but other people living there and it’s their country, too. During one program, we went on a guided tour of Bethlehem and met Palestinian families and talked to them about what goes on a daily basis. For a lot of people, it was a very challenging experience because it’s so contrary to what we’re used to hearing and knowing about the conflict.”
Wenner, who is currently pursuing of master’s of arts in Jewish studies at Concordia University in Montreal – and who is doing an internship this summer at the Jewish Museum and Archives of British Columbia – hopes to take the knowledge she learned during this program and apply it as a Jewish educator in the future.
“A lot of people don’t want to teach about any of the difficult or bad things going on in Israel because they think then we won’t love Israel. I was raised believing you should love Israel like you love a baby – you want to give it everything and, no matter what, love it anyways.
“But we want to love Israel like we love a teenager, where you help it grow and change and try to show it the right way,” she continued. “And that, to me, is the role of educators in North America. That’s the kind of love we should be teaching.”
Vicky Tobianahis a freelance writer and editor based in Toronto. Connect with her on Twitter, @vicktob, or at [email protected].
A ziplining selfie: Dangling over river gorges in Clayoquot Plateau Provincial Park. (photo by Baila Lazarus)
The mission: to explore British Columbia from as many geographical perspectives as possible. The means: a 10-day road trip on Vancouver Island. The locations: whatever would take us off the city or country roads. The result: eight ways to see the province like you’ve never seen it before.
From the air
1. Nothing says “new perspectives” like sleeping in a ball suspended from three trees about 15 feet in the air. Making Lonely Planet’s 2014 list of top 10 extraordinary places to stay, the Free Spirit Spheres near Horne Lake, about 45 minutes north of Nanaimo, are just that. Designer Tom Chudleigh has built three round wooden “rooms” about 10 feet in diameter, so guests can feel like they’re sleeping in a tree, but with all the amenities of a hotel room. A perfect “glamping” scenario, the rooms have electricity and are outfitted with dishes, a small fridge and a few appliances, and the site has showers, a full kitchen and even a sauna. Prices start at $155 per night. freespiritspheres.com.
2. Search ziplines on Vancouver Island and you’re bound to come up with three: WildPlay, south of Nanaimo; Adrenaline, west of Victoria on the way to Sooke; and West Coast Wild, 45 minutes east of Ucluelet. We chose the latter due to its number of lines (six) and lack of suspension bridges (a request by my co-traveler). The $99 cost was a great deal for two hours of stunning scenery, a guided nature walk and exhilarating zipping. Even for non-risk-takers, this is a great adventure. Sit and hang on for a smooth ride or test your mettle by hanging upside down and striking a pose. wcwild.com.
3. One of the best values of the trip was a floatplane tour from Victoria Harbor with Harbour Air Seaplanes. The $100 30-minute tour takes off from in front of the Empress Hotel and flies over the Capital District, passing over the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Saanich, offering a glimpse of Butchart Gardens from the air. harbourair.com.
From the water
4. Tofino and Ucluelet – indeed, much of coastal British Columbia – are known for their whale-watching excursions. For an alternate option, try a bear-watching trip instead. These boats ply the inlets and shorelines, giving passengers a more varied view of the topography and making it easy to spot and follow wildlife. (Unlike trying to anticipate in which square metre of ocean a whale might breach.) On a tour with Jamie’s Whale Watching, we spotted a mother and two cubs and were able to watch them forage for food right by the water’s edge for about 45 minutes, giving everyone the opportunity to get a good look – and good shots. jamies.com.
5. It’s not often you can get a view of the shoreline from a kilometre out without standing on a boat or floating platform of some kind, but at low tide near Tigh-Na-Mara in Parksville, it’s a mud-walker’s dream. Meander through ankle-deep puddles or stick to the muddy flats, examine tracks left by crabs or other marine life and lose yourself in the vastness. Turn around, and the buildings on the shoreline look like miniatures.
6. Don a helmet with headlamp, some sturdy shoes and gloves and you’re ready for caving in Horne Lake Provincial Park. About an hour from Nanaimo, these tours – offered through the park – give a glimpse into the world of beautiful crystal and rock formations, and geological history. Tours range from a Family Cavern 1.5-hour tour for $26 to a High Adventure four-hour tour for $125. Note this is not a walk in the park. There is very rough terrain and the caves are very cold. hornelake.com.
From high above
7. If you’re interested in getting a bird’s-eye view, but still want to be standing on terra firma, two locations near Victoria offer outstanding vistas. Driving up the Island Highway about 30 minutes from Victoria, take the turnoff to Whittaker Road and keep right to go up Ebedora Lane. At the top – where the Aerie and Prancing Horse are located – you’ll have stunning views of Saanich Inlet.
8. Across the inlet, stand in the shadow of history as you make your way up Observatory Hill. Built in 1918, the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory was, for a short period, the largest functioning observatory in the world. The road winds up the hill, offering lookouts with views to most of Saanich.
Baila Lazarusis a freelance writer, painter and photographer. Her work can be seen at orchiddesigns.net.
Unidentified group of young men, B’nai B’rith, Vancouver, 1950. (photo from JWB fonds; JMABC L.12155)
If you know someone in this photo, please help the JI fill the gaps of its predecessor’s (the Jewish Western Bulletin’s) collection at the Jewish Museum and Archives of B.C. by contacting [email protected].
The art of Jesse Rubin, above, and Suzy Birstein will be among the work displayed at the summer exhibit of the Sculptors’ Society. (photo courtesy of Jesse Rubin)
From larger than life to the minute details of life, the artwork that will be on display at the 38th annual summer exhibit of the Sculptors’ Society of British Columbia will engage viewers with multiple aspects of life – and a lot of remarkable art.
The exhibition, which opens July 31 at VanDusen Botanical Garden, features more than 15 artists, including Jewish community members Suzy Birstein and Jesse Rubin. Looking at the difference in style and material of these two artists alone gives an idea of what diverse interest the exhibit will hold. And, as noted in the promotional material, “In some cases, this exhibition is one of the few chances you will have to see [sculptors’] work here in their home province.”
Birstein says in her artist statement for the exhibit, “As a child, I studied dance, Hollywood musicals, film noire and Rembrandt. As an adult, I’ve been seduced by the sensuality, spontaneity and intellectual activity of working with clay and color, and the essence of romance.
“I see my imagery as a marriage of my childhood and adult influences. The figure dominates my work as I endeavor to create archetypal icons … overlaid with the spirit of song and dance. I long to merge the power of Nefertiti with the spirit of Carmen Miranda.”
The magnitude of Birstein’s scope is evident in her colorful, playful sculptures that engender a larger-than-life feeling, even if they are “regular” size. Meanwhile,
Rubin operates at the other end of the spectrum, making detailed miniatures that, while also fun, are highly realistic. A self-taught artist who began sculpting 19 years ago, Rubin writes in his statement, “I try to express the inner emotion of each piece, and hopefully the viewer will get a feel for what the person or creature might actually be like.”
Nefertiti meets Miranda
While Birstein’s name will be familiar to many JI readers, the last interview the paper carried with her was in 2008 (though she wrote about her Mia Muse workshops in 2013). Since then, Birstein told the Independent, she has created the Tap to the Muse exhibition of life-size Muses, a film that features her dancing and her sculptures, as well as “Motion Pitchers” for the Academy Awards’ ‘Everyone Wins at the Oscars’ gift bags.
“During the summer of 2008, film again serendipitously influenced my life,” she said. “I saw Mama Mia, and it took me back to my early 20s, living in Greece. After crying my way through the film with nostalgia for Greece, I was determined to go to that island.”
The island was Skopelos and, as it happens, Birstein had been forwarded website information for an art centre there. “I wrote to the two American women who founded the centre and the Mia Muse biannual workshops were created. I have been there three times since 2009 and can’t wait to return August/September 2015!” she said.
With each trip to Skopelos comes “European art adventure – Turkey, France and Spain – with new artistic influences,” said Birstein. “After France, I fell in love with painting – spent two years teaching myself to paint with oils, creating portraits of my Muses.
“After Spain in 2013, I was inspired by Velázquez’s ‘Las Meninas’ painting. Although not in Madrid to experience the original, the influence of ‘Las Meninas’ was all over Spain – at the Museu Picasso in Barcelona, in tourist art, contemporary art. My new sculptures are inspired by ‘Las Meninas’ but, as with all my art, there is never any one influence.
“India is the other place and culture that greatly fascinates me,” she added. “I am planning to create art during an artist residency in India and to explore the giant terracotta horses of Tamil Nadu. I have just begun a series of sculptures and paintings fusing these elements together.”
When asked about her desire to merge Nefertiti and Miranda, Birstein explained, “All my work is interplay of ancient and contemporary world cultures,” adding that she is “particularly fascinated with the concept of goddesses and cultural icons from Ancient Egypt to contemporary film.
Carmen Miranda, wild, elaborate, ornate, fun, song ’n’ dance and with the hint of tragedy from personal life. The notion of transcending tragedy with absolute abandon to the joy of creativity, collaboration, performance and costume” is what draws her to both Nefertiti and Miranda.
“For me,” said Birstein, “life as art is one – my work, person, home, garden, teaching. I am mentored by art spirits and, through this, mentor my students.”
Birstein’s recent work includes 15 sculptures that will be given out as awards by the B.C. Tap Dance Society. “I have always loved tap and been inspired by Hollywood musicals – Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly,” she explained. “I went to the Tap Dance Festival 12 years ago created by VTDS and was hooked!”
She has been dancing with Vancouver Tap Dance Society ever since and is now part of Heart and Soul, their adult company.
“VTDS creates an amazing tap festival annually, on Labor Day Weekend, and this year they are having a silent auction on Aug. 28, giving 15 awards – five to tap artists, five to volunteers, five to patrons. They wanted to present meaningful/personalized awards from someone within their community and thought of me, especially because I also did this for the Academy Awards in 2008. I am creating very funky, colorful ceramic shoes.”
For Mia Muse 2015, Birstein will “have the opportunity to teach children in Skopelos at their film festival, SIFFY, followed by the Mia Muse ceramics workshop for adults. It is fabulous,” she said, to be able to “combine film/travel/art with mentoring children and adults.”
Molding his own reality
Born in Montreal, Rubin was five years old when he moved with his family to Vancouver in 1974. Here, they “opened the first bakery to sell bagels in Vancouver, the Bagel King, and, later, the Montreal Bagel Factory in Kitsilano.”
In an interview with the Independent, Rubin shared a bit about his journey to becoming an artist.
“As a kid, I enjoyed drawing, but, by the age of 13, I began playing the guitar. Music has always been a huge passion,” he said.
“I began sculpting on a whim when I was 26. I bought a pound of clay and made some whimsical cartoonish characters like goofy frogs. After a few months of getting used to working with clay in that manner, I began to sculpt parts of the human body as realistically as I could. The learning curve was fun, painful and, at times, slow. It took a few years to get the fundamentals down and, in retrospect, I could have benefited from some proper instruction. Years later, when I wanted to learn how to make silicone molds in order to reproduce my work, I turned to instructional DVDs for help.
“As far as the scale I work in,” he continued, “my father was a jeweler, so maybe it’s in the genes. I do know that I’m attracted to small-scale realistic sculpture. I like the idea of condensing all that visual information into a small space.”
Many different influences and approaches combine to form Rubin’s final creations. “First, I sculpt my piece out of Sculpey,” he explained. “It stays malleable until you bake it in the oven. (My wife does a little blessing before I bake each piece because it’s so fragile and, once it’s in the oven, it can twist, crack and, occasionally, develop small surface bubbles.) So, once I have my baked Sculpey model, I then use it to make a silicone mold. When I have the silicone mold, I reproduce the sculpture in resin. From there, I go on to the painting.”
Rubin’s art can be seen at deviantart.com, which is a communal website for artists: search for jesserubin. Birstein’s website is suzybirstein.com. For more information about the Sculptors’ Society or the exhibit, visit ssbc.ca or email [email protected]. The exhibit opens July 31, 5:30-7:30 p.m., and runs Aug. 1-4, 9 a.m.-9 p.m., at VanDusen. (Garden admission or membership is required.)
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin speaks to the Vancouver audience via webcast. (photo by Cynthia Ramsay)
Empowerment. Scholarship. Connection. Each of these words was used more than once to describe the Rebbe – Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, z”l – and his impact during the July 9 community commemoration of the 20th year since his passing.
At Chabad Lubavitch at Oak and 41st, the six B.C. Chabad Houses hosted a night of learning, with workshops and dinner, followed by a speech, via webcast, from Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel, and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone in Israel, and the video The Rebbe: Marching Orders.
Timeless Leadership: An Evening of Inspiration offered two sets of workshops from which attendees could choose. The first set comprised Turning Lubavitch Outward by Rabbi Yitzchok Wineberg of Chabad Lubavitch BC; The Rebbe’s Melodies by Rabbi Falik Schtroks of the Centre for Judaism in White Rock; and Stories of the Rebbe by Rabbi Yechiel Baitelman of Chabad of Richmond. The second set was The Wisdom of the Lubavitcher Rebbe by Rabbi Binyomin Bitton of Chabad of Downtown, and The Rebbe’s Advice by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld of Camp Gan Israel; Rabbi Meir Kaplan of Chabad of Vancouver Island, was unable to attend.
Among the handouts was a timeline of Schneerson’s life prior to his becoming the Rebbe. Born in Ukraine in 1902, Schneerson was considered a child prodigy and, by the time he was in his teens, he was exchanging letters with respected scholars. He married Chaya Mushka, the daughter of the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, in Poland in 1928. He then went to the University of Berlin, followed by the ESTL engineering school and the Sorbonne in Paris, while also giving Torah classes and the like. When the Nazis conquered Paris, the Rebbe and his wife managed to escape, by ship from Lisbon to New York. At his father-in-law’s behest, Schneerson became a director of multiple Lubavitch organizations and began to publish his thoughts on Chassidic tracts and write responsa. In 1951, a year after his father-in-law died, Schneerson became the Rebbe.
Wineberg, who gave a brief overview of Chabad’s history, called Schneerson “a Rebbe for our times.” A more critical problem in our age – the last 65, and especially the last 30-35, years – than assimilation, said Wineberg, has been low self-esteem. In this context, he highlighted the Rebbe’s belief that, “There is no such thing as a small Jew.” The Rebbe took what was an insular, study-focused organization and, while keeping the foundation of Torah and study, broadened its vision to include all Jews, said Wineberg, noting that the Rebbe connected with every single person he encountered. The Rebbe, he said, was the inspiration behind Chabad heading to campuses, to welcoming Jews to dinner, to prayer, to don tefillin.
Bitton provided some statistics on the Rebbe’s outreach and his scholarly contributions: he spoke on 31,393 occasions, for example, and 11,700 of his letters have been published so far; there are tens of thousands of pages of his writings. The Rebbe’s unique approach to learning, explained Bitton, is that he connected talmudic understanding with its kabbalistic translation. When the Rebbe analyzed an idea, said Bitton, he peeled its exterior layers away and got to the pure essence of the idea, the quintessential idea that was at the root of the discussion. For the Rebbe, he said, kol haTorah inyan echad, the entire Torah is one “topic.”
In telling the stories of his encounters with the Rebbe, Riskin echoed some of the sentiments shared by the local Chabad rabbis in their presentations. He compared the Rebbe to Moses, in that, as Moses is still alive in a sense because his teachings continue to be studied, the same is true of the Rebbe. “Certainly for me,” said Riskin, “because not only did he change my life, but he gave me fundamental messages by which I live my life, and which informed my world of education … and my world of the rabbinate.”
Riskin shared how he became the founding rabbi of Lincoln Square Synagogue in the mid-1960s. Having attended Yeshivah University on scholarships, he wanted to repay the institution and agreed to do some speaking engagements after receiving his ordination, one of which was at “a kind of Rosh Hashanah-Yom Kippur synagogue” that didn’t have its own building and was in what was then a poor neighborhood. They had a rabbi and were relatively satisfied but not completely, so they approached YU and, after Riskin came for one Motzei Shabbat, they wanted to hire him. When deciding whether or not to accept the pulpit, Riskin was conflicted and received conflicting advice. So, he asked for a meeting with the Rebbe, who told him to listen to his own rebbe (Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik, z”l), adding that, “In every battle, there are people who have to get dressed like the enemy and go into the enemy territory … and you will not only win the battle, you will win the war.”
When Riskin argued that his future congregants have no background and that he would have nothing with which to work, the Rebbe said, “You can never say about a Jew that he has no background. Every Jew has a kingly background; every Jew is, after all, a descendant of Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov, of Sarah, Rivka, Rachel and Leah…. I left the Rebbe’s presence awestruck, and with a very profound sense of empowerment.”
Another encounter with the Rebbe took place after Riskin had spent time working with an eccentric, wealthy man who, when he met Riskin was non-observant and married to a non-Jew. After that initial meeting, Riskin accepted the man as a single member of the shul (i.e. without his wife) but later found himself doubting that decision. When he asked the Rebbe about it, the Rebbe never told Riskin whether he’d made the right decision, but rather said, “No one is able to truly evaluate the profound value of the Jewish soul.” This meant, said Riskin, that “every Jew has an affinity to Torah and you can never give up on any Jew no matter how far away he may have went. And that, too, has become a very important part of my teaching.”
When Riskin was making aliyah, he could not meet with the Rebbe directly – because of the Rebbe’s ill health following a heart attack – but he received his blessing through Soloveitchik at a farbrengen (Chassidic gathering) they were all attending. To the blessing, the Rebbe added that, in Efrat, Riskin “must produce shluchim, emissaries, who are modern on the outside and Chabad on the inside.” Riskin credits the Rebbe for his having been able to establish Ohr Torah Stone, which has, among other programs, hundreds of shluchim.