The Jewish Seniors Alliance fall symposium on Oct. 28 was about aging across cultures. (photo from JSA)
The Jewish Seniors Alliance fall symposium, Aging Across Cultures, took place on Oct. 28. The program dealt with inclusivity while Jews everywhere were trying to cope with the horrors of what hatred can do. Still newly mourning the victims of the shooting at the Tree Of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, attending the symposium seemed strange, but it had healing properties.
The afternoon program was a time of unity and solidarity with other cultures. Attendees learned that loving and caring for seniors in our community and for our family elders is a universal value and touches all hearts in much the same way, as well as presenting similar challenges.
In welcoming the crowd, Ken Levitt, president of Jewish Seniors Alliance, turned the subject of the Pittsburgh shooting over to Rabbi Philip Bregman, who was the event chairperson. Bregman served as senior rabbi at Temple Sholom from 1980 to 2013. He is a founding member of Jewish Christian Dialogue (since 1995) and he now functions as Jewish chaplain for the University of British Columbia and is involved with Hillel BC.
Bregman spoke about the brutal murder of people at prayer. He highlighted the many calls he has received expressing sympathy and condolences. He recalled standing outside a mosque in Vancouver after the shootings at a Quebec City mosque in 2017, where six Muslim worshippers were murdered and 19 others wounded. Among the condolences he received after the murders in Pittsburgh was a message of sympathy from the imam in Quebec.
Bregman emphasized the difference between the word “killing,” which he categorized as meaning accidental, and the word “murder,” which is intentional.
“Where do we go from here?” he asked. “We bury our dead, we mourn and we meet as a community,” he said. “We must never allow hatred to win.”
The audience stood for a moment of silence in commemoration of the 11 murdered and those injured, including several police officers.
The afternoon’s program featured a panel consisting of three accomplished women of diverse ethnic origins.
• Zarghoona Wakil is the manager of the Settlement and Integration program at MOSAIC, a nonprofit organization that helps newcomers to Canada. She also supervises MOSAIC Seniors Club, which provides services to seniors of different cultural backgrounds.
• Sinder Kaur is the executive director of health services at SUCCESS, providing a continuum of quality, culturally appropriate care services to seniors with different needs. She has worked in different leadership roles with a passion to help seniors age in place.
• Deanna Lewis, known as Kalkalath, her ancestral name, was recently elected to the Squamish Nation Council, focusing on elders and their care. Kalkalath is a former teacher, working to preserve her Skwxwu7mesh culture, spirituality and language. Raised with the teachings of her grandfather, she knows the importance of knowing who you are and where you come from.
When Bregman introduced the three panelists, he asked them to share a little about themselves and to address the issue of how their various cultures celebrate seniors.
Wakil shared that she is originally from Afghanistan, then lived in Russia. She came to Vancouver 12 years ago and is now studying at Simon Fraser University for a master’s degree in public health. Kaur is Punjabi-born, lived for 20 years in Hong Kong and moved here 17 years ago. Kalkalath’s Squamish Nation family was removed from Khatsahlano (Kitsilano) in the early 1900s and her main efforts are to teach both adults and children the Squamish language.
Despite differing cultures and traditions, Wakil and Kaur both emphasized that it is seniors who hold history in their hands and only upon opening up their hearts are they able to tie generations together and build upon that knowledge for the future generations.
It was difficult to hear that Kalkalath had to learn about her heritage from others, as her history was erased and harshly taken from her elders. It was she who sought to learn about that past and is now feeling connected again, through the learning of her own language and the ways of her people from her grandfather.
A common thread between all the panelists was that grandparents and grandchildren have a special link that allows them to relax and truly enjoy one another while parents are occupied with the comfort and needs of both these family groups.
All three speakers provided vivid descriptions of the issues and areas of concern regarding elders in their cultures. JSA thanked them for their willingness to share personal stories and stories from their communities. The similarities between cultures superseded any differences.
Claudine Malto, director of community programs at Mount Pleasant Neighbourhood House, then spoke about the house’s new initiative: multicultural circles, where seniors share stories, food, textiles, cooking classes, dance and exercise. She noted that people generally like to sit in “pockets,” which creates a divide. The motivation for this project is to answer the question, “How can we best coexist?”
Larry Shapiro, JSA board member and second vice-president, wound up the afternoon with one of the best vocal advertisements for the Jewish Seniors Alliance that we have ever heard.
Attending the symposium made the sun come out, even on a rainy, tear-filled day.
Binny Goldmanis an honorary life board member of Jewish Seniors Alliance.
In the fifth and final articles of a series on sexual harassment and violence, the Jewish Independent speaks with Montreal writer April Ford.
As the late Maya Angelou wrote in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
Montreal-born fiction writer and essayist April Ford, who has been working as associate publisher for Southern Fried Karma, a literary press in Atlanta, Ga., since December 2017, knows this all too well.
“I’m honoured to stand alongside any woman who’s been mistreated, whether or not there’s a hashtag appended to her experience,” said Ford, a bold, heart-on-her-sleeve survivor of abuse. “The #MeToo movement, like any grassroots quest for equality, is one of unleashed compassion, controversy and confrontation … and, right now, it’s a mess. Sometimes, it seems more interested in the public shaming du jour of a celebrity sexual predator than in collective healing, and that frustrates me.”
Ford said she is not a believer in public shaming. “Black Mirror brilliantly depicts this nastiness in White Bear, season 2, episode 2,” she said.
“I’m even skeptical about how much the #MeToo movement can help women who’ve been abused, but who don’t have Twitter accounts, blogs or access to other popular venues for the dissemination of dark secrets to the masses … in exchange for emoticons and the chance to go viral,” she added.
In terms of some of the stories that have come out of the movement and how they have affected her, Ford said, “The story I’ve followed most closely is that of Concordia University in Montreal, where I completed the undergraduate creative writing program in 2007. Throughout the course of my degree, I spent a lot of time on campus as an aspiring but uncertain writer, and I sought mentorship from a handful of professors. I was consistently treated very, very well – there were no strings, pressures or consequences attached to the help and encouragement I received. That said, thanks to rumours, I knew to stay away from certain individuals within that concentrated world.
“Also, I started the program when I was 23 and, I think, being a few years older than the typical undergraduate student buffered me against harassment. Or maybe the negative experiences in my life outside of the program had trained me how to get through a situation as cleanly as possible, without giving anything away that wasn’t part of the experience I had signed on for, or having it taken from me without my consent.”
Regarding some of the high-profile people who have been outed as abusers via the #MeToo movement, Ford said, “I certainly have an opinion about how to cope with the abusive actions of people, whether family members, friends, mentors, celebrities or demi-gods. First, you have to be clear on your definition of abuse … and consistent. If you’re going to accuse one person of abusing you, then you can’t switch to a sliding scale when some actor or comedian you love is proven guilty of the same offence. And, no, I don’t believe you can separate the teacher, leader or artist from the abuser. That’s like saying you can separate all the white fur from the cream fur in a cat the colour of sand. It’s ridiculous.”
Ford was adopted as a child and only discovered after marrying a Jewish man (they have since divorced) – that her birth family may have Jewish roots.
When she was 15 years old, her adoptive parents, who had been fighting for years, decided to call it quits. Her mother left their home. Not long after, Ford lost her virginity to Bruce, a 34-year-old man. Up until then, she said, she “had hardly kissed a boy.”
Bruce instructed her to start taking birth control, “which I did,” said Ford, “as soon as I found a clinic that would dispense the pill to me for free and without questions like, ‘Where are your parents?’
“While my parents were dealing with the failure of their marriage, I was dealing with the euphoria and confusion that come with being a 15-year-old girl with no adult in her life to anchor her to a safe place. My mother, in trying to move forward from the damage my father’s abuse had caused her, was unable to be a mother to me. My father, in trying to hold his world together with rage, essentially fast-tracked me into the hands of a man who … [abused] me. I did my best to keep quiet – to hide the fact that this man I had rebelliously told everyone that I loved more than life itself was raping me every weekend.
“A lot of people in my life at the time could sense there was more to the story,” she said. “But, instead of getting involved or simply buying me a hot chocolate and asking how I was doing, they stopped being my friends.”
At that time, the mothers of Ford’s former friends insulted her with terms like “slut” and “whore” and said she had no business being anywhere near their daughters, sons and husbands. Ford went from being a decent student at a private Catholic high school for girls, a horse-lover and aspiring Olympic rider, to being what she referred to as “someone to be ashamed of, an afterthought.”
Ford can still vividly recall the whispers that, to her ears, were like screams of “all-knowing” grownups predicting that she was – at that young age – already done for; that she would end up pregnant, hooked on drugs and collecting welfare.
“None of that happened,” said Ford. “Not even close. Over the years, I’ve occasionally reconnected with people from that period. And, after they express exaggerated delight to see how well I’ve done for myself, they’d defensively stammer things like, ‘You seemed so mature and into your own thing … we just figured that’s how it was…. You said you were happy. Anyway, look at you now. Everything happens for a reason, right?’ No, it doesn’t.
“I’m sure some survivors can relate to my next statement: Bruce didn’t abuse me all the time. Not every time we had sex was rape, and there were times when he tried to initiate and I refused, and my wish was granted.” But there were several instances, as well as other types of abuse, that are too graphic to describe here.
Ford finds the whole concept of “moving on” troubling.
“It’s not a tidy process and it takes time,” said Ford. “It takes a lifetime. For me, moving on involved a lot of self-injurious behaviour in my late teens through to my 20s, and a lot of self-hate that I eventually learned to disguise as wit.
“My ‘disguise’ actually helped me push forward, to appear exponentially more confident than I was, so that I could create opportunities for myself. I’ve found there’s an expectation of real-life survivors of abuse to tell our tales demurely, to dab our eyes and conclude with, ‘But that was then, and I am stronger for it.’”
One message Ford has for other survivors is to not assume that people, including family and friends, will protect the deeply personal stories and truths you tell them. She advised that survivors tell their stories to the authorities and to people in positions to protect them, physically and legally. Most importantly, Ford stressed that survivors take charge of their emotional safety.
“In the years immediately following my break up with Bruce, I felt constantly in need of confessing my unworthiness to anyone who didn’t know the story, from new acquaintances to college professors to bartenders,” said Ford. “Thankfully, there haven’t been many cases where someone I’d confided in judged me unfairly. Mostly, people are compassionate and kind. But then, just last year, a pair of colleagues at the university where I had taught for eight years ‘profiled’ me, let’s call it … because they disagreed with a choice I’d made in my private life. They accused me of victimhood, based on what I’d shared with them in our friendships. We are no longer friends.”
As a self-described atheist, when in need of support, Ford prefers systems she can interact with directly, such as “proper nutrition, regular exercise and sleep hours, close friends and cuddly animals, work and pastimes that light joyful fires in her belly, and the occasional double shot of rum with a splash of Coke on the side. These things I can trust to always be available to me, and I am free to adjust and readjust their proportions to fit my always in-flux needs.
“What has not worked for me, in terms of healing, is writing about my experiences for the sole purpose of healing. I am a fiction writer to the bone. Sure, I graft details from my life onto the stories I write. But, actually, I use fiction to explore other people’s nightmares, so that I can take a break from my own. I need one kind of noise in my head to cancel out the survivor noise, if that makes sense.”
While Ford hopes that sharing her story here will do some good in the world, she would rather not impose her story on anyone. Further, she feels strongly that no one who has been abused is obligated to become a spokesperson for others.
“Sometimes,” she said, “the abuse a person experiences is so extreme that she needs the rest of her life just to learn how to step outside of her house without fear.”
Repetition is good for us. (I may have said this before!) If you exercise, you’re in touch with “reps” or, if you walk your dog, you’ve been down this block with someone sniffing at the end of the leash before. If you’re rolling your eyes in boredom as you stand in a line, way too much of life seems to be about waiting patiently and repetition.
Jewish tradition has lots of “rinse and repeat” kinds of moments in it. If you read the Torah portion regularly, phrases like, “And Moses said,” pop out frequently. If you’re already preparing meals or family gatherings for upcoming holidays, you may reflect on how often you’ve done this before. It would be wrong to ignore the feeling of drudgery that sometimes accompanies all this. There are definitely times, as I try to figure out how to fit in all the prep, when I wonder if it’s so meaningful to do it again. And again.
Two recent experiences reminded me that we get something out of this repetition thing.
The first was one of those ubiquitous parenting articles that mention the value of self-care and meditation. Sometimes it’s easier to dismiss such suggestions. Yes, I’ve thought, but who will watch the kids, make dinner and earn the money while we’re doing all this trendy stuff?
However, I happened to hear a tidbit at services recently about Rosh Chodesh. Bill Weissman was leading a Sunday minyan at the start of the month of Elul. He reminded everyone about the association of women with the beginning of the month, mentioning that, aside from tending small babies, women were supposed to have a day off. In some Jewish communities, women don’t do certain kinds of work on the holiday, perhaps avoiding laundry or other tedious jobs. In fact, Jewish tradition teaches us that we need breaks. Scheduled activities, like a learning group, a meditation circle or even a standing coffee date, enable us to take better care of ourselves, whether it’s scheduled for Rosh Chodesh or every Tuesday.
The second experience that brought this all together occurred on the same weekend but the day before. One of my twins was feeling sick and was on antibiotics, so he stayed home with Daddy. I took the other twin on a Shabbat date. We went to family services together. Usually, while this kid dances and participates, he doesn’t read or engage with every prayer. My other twin sings along to everything, but makes up his own words. That’s fine. I figure they both enjoy themselves and get something out of being there. (For me, attending services is all part of that repetitive self-care thing, but it’s hard to get the most out of it with twins along for the ride.)
To my surprise, this Shabbat, a switch flipped in my kid’s 7-year-old brain. He sang and davened every prayer. He engaged completely. He wanted to be involved and responded to everything at the service – he even heard something interesting during the announcements. During the month of Elul, we blow the shofar during morning minyan.
Later, when I said how proud I was to hear him sing and say all the prayers, I asked what had happened. He explained that he likes to be quiet until he knows something perfectly. He decided he knew things well enough, so now he can say them all. It was as if buzzers were going off in my “educator” brain. Bing! This kid is an introvert. This is how introverts often process and learn new material. It’s about quiet introspection and repetition.
The next morning, I still had one sick twin and one healthy one. The healthy introvert announced that he wanted to attend that morning’s minyan. He cheerfully got through the hour-long service on Rosh Chodesh. He joked with many of the minyan regulars, participated, and he heard the shofar. It was a meaningful experience for him. I am still feeling celebratory about it many days later!
How did we get to this point? It wasn’t a one-time experience. I didn’t create a high-pressure event where I brought my children to one service, asked them to tell me if they enjoyed it and expected them to make a decision about their religious observance as a result. When we learn at school or while doing a sport, there are a lot of drills involved. It can be boring or reflective, but maybe it doesn’t matter.
We need to keep repeating things – Jewish content, CPR training, swimming lessons, whatever – until it sticks. You can’t give yourself a chance to make or eat a good holiday meal or have a meaningful religious experience if you haven’t practised. Recipes, prayers, exercise and meditation, among other things, don’t generally come out right the first time. Is it sometimes boring to do one’s exercise, cooking or other life tasks? Oh, you bet. However, nobody ever said that taking care of yourself, your household, relationships and work would be easy.
Some things aren’t fascinating. Even so, all that repetition can be good for us. Repetition teaches life skills. Learning the discipline needed to stick to something and practise it? That’s well worth taking time to learn. Repetition offers our bodies and minds a lot of healthy habits. Jewish communities and activities offer these skills. Just keep going. (It’s about showing up.)
Joanne Seiffwrites regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. See more about her at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.
This photograph by Ziv Koren is from My Jerusalem: The Eternal City, a collection of reflections on the city by notable Israeli and Diaspora (mainly American) Jews edited by Ilan Greenfield and published by Gefen Publishing House last year.
I read a lovely quotation recently: “I met a hundred people going to Delhi. And every one of them was my brother.” I often feel that way in Israel. In the 40 years I have lived here, I have met saints and sinners, business tycoons and homemakers, and many, many others. But, by the very fact of them pulling up their roots, leaving behind their birthplaces and culture, here they become ordinary people leading extraordinary lives. I once had a friend, sadly passed on, who used to say that he stood on the corner and watched all the poems walk by.
Israel makes demands on us. We don’t just drift along acquiring more and more material possessions – a bigger home, a more luxurious car, a wardrobe of designer clothing. No matter how rich or poor we may be, when our children turn 18, they are expected to serve their country, either in the Israel Defence Forces or national service (Sherut Leumi). Almost everyone I know is a mother, father, grandparent, sister, brother, wife or daughter of a soldier, and there is always the fear for their safety, or of terrorist attacks that can occur anywhere, changing lives forever. And the six-day work week doesn’t leave much time for leisure, or keeping up with friends and family scattered around the country. Yet there is a resilience here. On the whole, we are optimists. It is almost a cliché that, if you live in Israel and don’t believe in miracles, then you are not a realist. We live on miracles and expect them – the Entebbe rescue and the Six Day War victory are just two examples.
Stand on the corner of any Jerusalem street and, in the space of 10 minutes, you can hear several languages. There might be a monk in a long habit; a soldier whose face is etched in weariness; a teenager with earrings and tattoos; tourists with cameras slung around their necks; a housewife trundling a shopping cart; a Charedi Jew with peyot; and everywhere people talking on their mobile phones. A gregarious lot contributing to the rich mosaic of our society. Each one unique.
They may be strangers, but Israelis won’t hesitate to speak to you … on a bus, waiting in a queue, sitting at your doctor’s office. They may ask you where you bought your shoes, where you work, how much you earn, and why haven’t you dressed your child warmly enough. One big family. It’s not just idle curiosity – they are really interested.
This is what’s so endearing about living in Israel. We all express our identity differently, in the way we dress and the words we speak, but, in the end, it’s a similar identity. We are bonded by birth, by choice or by belief and it creates a link – invisible perhaps but, when needed, we will help each other. It’s an unspoken commitment. How lucky we are!
Dvora Waysmanis a Jerusalem-based author. She has written 14 books, including The Pomegranate Pendant, which was made into a movie, and her latest novella, Searching for Sarah. She can be contacted at [email protected] or through her blog dvorawaysman.com.
B.C. Culture Days has announced a province-wide invitation to B.C. artists to apply to its annual Ambassador & Awards Program. Up to eight selected applicants from across British Columbia will receive $1,000 each to act as a Culture Days spokesperson and to present an activity during the Culture Days weekend (Sept. 28-30, 2018). Culture Days is a national celebration of arts, culture and heritage welcoming the public behind the scenes to discover their own creativity through free, hands-on activities for the whole family.
The B.C. Culture Days Ambassador program first began in 2013 with only one ambassador selected each year but, with the support of funders and sponsors, has since grown to allow for up to eight ambassadors, plus awards to help support their activities. Over the past five years, many ambassadors have had a profound impact on their arts and cultural community. “I believe that [Culture Days] instilled a sense of pride and created a unique framework for me to continue my mentorship with the youth in my community, continuing to build future leaders for tomorrow,” said Roxanne Charles, one of the 2017 ambassadors from Semiahmoo First Nation.
To be eligible for the ambassador program, an applicant must be: an individual artist (amateur or professional) residing in British Columbia; active in their arts, culture or heritage community; present and available to act as a spokesperson in their community during the months of May-September 2018; and prepared to register an activity to present during the Culture Days weekend.
Ambassadors are involved with reaching out to community members, such as individual artists, arts organizations, cultural organizations, heritage organizations and businesses, encouraging them to offer activities during the Culture Days weekend. They encourage public participation and discussion about Culture Days through in-person interviews with community members, blog posts and social media, including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram. They may also be asked to help activate a local pop-up event or partner event leading up to the Culture Days weekend.
In collaboration with local community organizers and B.C. Culture Days staff, the ambassador may be asked to present an activity at a community planning session or participate in TV, radio and newspaper interviews on behalf of B.C. Culture Days, so experience with public speaking and engaging audiences is an asset.
Interested applicants can visit bc.culturedays.ca to complete the online application form. Submissions will be juried by members of the B.C. Culture Days steering committee and finalists will be called for an interview. The deadline to apply is March 21.
Alexandra Gerson, centre, says a few words at a Jewish talent show put on by Radio VERA last year. (photo from Radio VERA)
“I have a dream: I want to bring together Russian-speaking and English-speaking Jews in Canada, to unite them into one seamless whole. All I do, my Radio VERA included, is serving that goal,” said Alexandra Gerson, a co-owner of VERA.
This year, VERA celebrates its 10th anniversary. Timed to coincide with that milestone, the radio station is helping bring the concert Le Chaim to Richmond’s Gateway Theatre on Feb. 3.
“VERA is an acronym of the words Vancouver Jewish Russian Association, in Russian,” Gerson explained. She said VERA’s roots lie in her previous radio program, Russian Voice, a pre-taped one-hour weekly show in Russian, which launched in 2001 with the financial support of David Stevens. The program had mostly Jewish content, but it didn’t last long. From its inception, Gerson said she received multiple antisemitic threats and her car was vandalized. Home-grown Russian extremists were not happy with a Jewish program called Russian Voice, she said, and they kept harassing her. Concerned for her young daughter’s safety, with the police urging caution, Gerson eventually closed the program, but she didn’t give up her love for radio. “You can listen to the radio anywhere, in your car, in your home or office, working or resting,” she mused.
Her radio work brought her into the midst of the Zionist movement in Canada. “I’ve lived in Canada for 24 years,” she said. “My father was a Zionist, and Jewish ideas are dear to me. I’ve always liked being a Jew. I work for the Jews of Canada. I’m an official representative of the World Zionist Organization in Canada, and my Radio VERA is an integral part of my work. It promotes Jewish ideas and is a pro-Israel station. I come to the studio every morning, turn on the microphone, and say, ‘Hello, Jews!’ And feel proud.”
Gerson’s pride in her Jewishness pushed her towards attending seminars and workshops on Jewish leadership. During one of them, in 2003, she met Dmitry Shiglik, an American businessman and a dynamic figure in the Russian-Jewish world. He became a steady backer of her then-new endeavor, Radio VERA, which broadcasted its first show in 2008.
“VERA broadcasts live five days a week, Monday to Friday, 8 a.m. to 10 a.m.,” Gerson said. “It’s the most expensive time, when everyone is in their cars, heading for work. We exist because of our generous donors: Yosef Wosk, Alex Kivritsky of the HiFi Centre and, of course, Dmitry Shiglik, my co-owner.”
She stressed that VERA is not, and hasn’t been for a long time, a Russian radio broadcast. “It stopped being ethnic years ago. We do interviews about what is of interest to everyone. For example, North Korea is on people’s mind these days, so we did an interview with the editor of the Russian newspaper in Seoul.”
Every morning, listeners of VERA can expect relevant and time-sensitive interviews in two languages: Russian and English. “We do interviews in whatever language our guest prefers,” said Gerson. “Our hosts switch languages fluidly, as the situation demands. We’re the only radio station in Canada, maybe in the world, with such an approach. It’s not as easy as it sounds. Russian- and English-speaking people often have different mentalities, born in different cultures, so we have to use different techniques of conducting interviews.”
VERA, which is part of Fairchild Radio 96.1 FM, has interviewed most Canadian politicians, top people from the Russian and Israeli governments, international performing artists and athletes, writers and musicians. They usually conduct two interviews each show.
“At first, our listeners were almost exclusively local Russian pensioners, listening for the language,” said Gerson. “As we continued our bilingual policy, a middle-aged group joined in for content in both languages. Then we added overseas and non-Russian speakers, who regularly tune in to our programs. In a way, they know us better in the U.S.A. than in Canada. We have listeners in Israel, Russia and Europe. There are two ways to access our programs: live on the radio during the broadcast or online through our website, where we keep the archives of all the programs we’ve done in 10 years. Our site has up to 15,000 visitors a day.”
Despite the large amount of traffic and the work needed to produce a two-hour program five days a week, VERA has only three employees. “Pavel Manugevich and Denis Manzar are both my co-hosts, and Alex Kivritsky is our CEO,” Gerson said. Manugevich “has been with VERA since the beginning; he is a professional journalist. Denis Manzar has been co-hosting VERA programs for two years; outside the studio, he is a lawyer and a documentary filmmaker.”
Through her work on VERA, Gerson personifies a cosmopolitan blend of Jewish, Russian and Canadian. In 2014, she was named Russian-American Person of the Year in the media category. According to its website, the honour is presented by Universal Awards Management and the World Forum of Russian-Speaking Jewry, with support from the American Council for World Jewry. Gerson – the only Canadian to have received the honour – shared her award with American-Russian journalist Victor Topaller, who is also Jewish.
But Gerson isn’t resting on her accomplishments. She is always looking for ways to bring the Jews of Canada together, no matter their points of origin. As an example, three years ago, VERA started a new multi-faceted platform that goes beyond the radio.
“We have our annual sports day,” Gerson explained. “We organize the annual festival of Jewish children’s art and various Jewish holidays. Every year, we take 40 of our listeners on a trip to Israel, and we frequently promote concerts of Jewish performers.” It is in the latter regard that VERA is sponsoring the upcoming gala concert Le Chaim, which is the brainchild of Mikhail Gluz, artistic director of the Solomon Mikhoels Cultural Centre in Moscow.
“I’ve known Mikhail Gluz for several years,” said Gerson. “We first met in Moscow and, afterwards, regularly exchanged emails and swapped ideas. He told me about his new project, Le Chaim, a traveling show of Russian-Jewish performers from Russia, Israel and North America. He wanted to tour Le Chaim across Canada and the U.S., performing in any major city that would offer a venue, to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the state of Israel. It is the first such project in Canada organized by Russian Jews in celebration of Yom Ha’atzmaut.”
In addition to celebrating Israel’s Independence Day, the concert, which will also feature a documentary and historical footage, commemorates the 20th anniversary of the International Solomon Mikhoels Festival of Arts and is dedicated to International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
“When I heard about Le Chaim, I wanted to bring it to Vancouver, to coincide with the 10th birthday of Radio VERA,” said Gerson. “Mikhail was not eager at first. He said it wasn’t a commercially viable suggestion, the Vancouver Jewish community being much smaller than the other cities on their itinerary. But Yosef Wosk supported the idea and donated the money to make it possible.”
One of the performers in Le Chaim, Jewish jazz singer Alla Reed, has visited Vancouver before. “I loved it,” she said on the telephone from Russia. “Other cities have clean air or beautiful nature or thriving culture or receptive audience, but Vancouver has it all together. And it also has wonderful people, like Sasha [Gerson] and her Radio VERA. I look forward to meeting my friends and singing in Vancouver again.”
For more information on VERA, visit veracanada.fm. Tickets for Le Chaim on Feb. 3, 7 p.m., can be purchased via VERA or from Gateway Theatre at 604-270-1812 or gatewaytheatre.com.
Olga Livshinis a Vancouver freelance writer. She can be reached at [email protected].
On Dec. 7, Temple Sholom Sisterhood hosted a discussion on the relationship, history and relevance of today’s kosher practices. The panel aimed to “explore, broaden and in some cases challenge the term kashrut” and “explore integrating values such as ethics, community and spirituality as it relates to food.”
The panelists were Rabbi Lindsey bat Joseph, executive director of the Centre for Jewish Excellence; Michael Schwartz, director of community engagement at the Jewish Museum and Archives of British Columbia; and Noam Dolgin, a Jewish environmental educator and “sustainable realtor.”
As participants ate baked organic apples – sourced locally and made with gluten-free oats – Dolgin began at the beginning, discussing the Garden of Eden and asking the audience to name the first mitzvah (commandment) given to human beings alone. Although many people think it was “be fruitful and multiply,” that commandment was given to animals as well. The first human commandment, Dolgin said, was to “work and protect” the garden. After leaving the hunter-gatherer society of the garden, we became farmers able to produce surplus food and wealth, he explained, and so came the laws around our relationship to the land and to other people, which aimed to promote justice towards the earth and to each other.
Dolgin gave an overview of the development of Jewish law in relation to land, animals and people, touching on such core rabbinic laws as ba’al tashchit (do not waste) and ba’al tzarei chayyim (do not be cruel to animals). Dolgin said, although there are biblical laws protecting the land, there has been a shift in recent years from an emphasis on immediate human concerns – “don’t pollute upwind,” for example – to deeper ecological concerns, such as “don’t pollute at all.”
Schwartz spoke about how Jewish culinary traditions go beyond the legalities of kashrut. He focused on the home as the locus of cultural preservation, and noted the museum’s recent initiative to collect and share Jewish cultural stories around food. As part of this project, he said, one Jewish woman talked of her memories of food from Second World War-era Bangalore, India; another spoke of her Mizrahi Jewish family who had lived in China for years and were more comfortable in Vancouver’s Chinatown than in other parts of the city, including Jewish institutions.
Schwartz also discussed efforts to bring Jewish ethics to bear on food, describing the community’s creation of a food bank, and of other food-justice-related organizations.
“The alert among you will notice that I have made it this far into my talk without mentioning the word kosher,” he said. “That is not an accident. The reason for this is that I wanted to demonstrate that there are many ways that food can preserve our identity and inform our morals.”
Rounding out the discussion, bat Joseph explored the architecture of kosher law and the way it was built out of biblical law. She explained how kosher laws are traditionally considered to be transrational, or beyond human understanding. She said, despite our not understanding the details, the Torah suggests two primary purposes of kashrut: to make us distinct from the nations around us and to promote a holy lifestyle, to encourage mindfulness and “a sense of priestliness in the most mundane things.” She debunked the commonly held idea that kosher laws may have had a connection to health.
A wide-ranging question-and-answer period included humourous stories of trying to live kosher, different family traditions, and the struggle to balance inclusivity both among Jews and between Jews and non-Jews while observing kashrut.
Matthew Gindin is a freelance journalist, writer and lecturer. He writes regularly for the Forward and All That Is Interesting, and has been published in Religion Dispatches, Situate Magazine, Tikkun and elsewhere. He can be found on Medium and Twitter.
The black dial phone in the Jerusalem residence of former prime minister Levi Eshkol. (photo by Sharon Altshul)
Around Rosh Hashanah, some of us do this back-and-forth dance, reflecting on things past while looking ahead. As I live in Israel, I am going “to dance” to what I believe is the most pervasive part of our daily existence – our (some would say obsessive) phone use.
In the days prior to Israel’s becoming a “start-up nation,” telephone service was in pretty sad shape. For many years, most Israelis did not have phones in their homes. So, in the evening, you would wash up, dress up and go outside to use a public telephone. To make your call, you would load your pockets with asimonim, round, grooved, metal tokens. If you were calling someone outside your area code, you would hope that the weight of all the necessary asimonim would not tear your pockets.
Talking on payphones was fraught with problems. For starters, how would the person at the other end know you wanted to chat? Answer: the call had to be carefully arranged in advance, with both sides knowing the time, location and telephone numbers of the public telephones that were to be used.
It was an event requiring lots of patience. You had to stand in line with your neighbours, who also wanted to use the phone. You had to ignore the pressure from those behind you, telling you to hurry up and let someone else have a turn. Loud “discussions” occasionally broke out. People claimed they had a dahuf (urgent) call to make or receive. (In Israel, the term dahuf is thrown around a lot.) Thus, the beginning of the Israeli telecommunication era is essentially a study in how people function in groups.
Moreover, Israeli payphones seemed to have a mind of their own. You would be talking when, suddenly, in one big gulp, the telephone cruelly swallowed all your tokens. No amount of whacking the sides of the phone box or banging the receiver in its cradle would return the tokens. You were simply finished for the night. Talking on a payphone was such a tricky business, people would resort to sending postcards, as it was an easier way to relay a message.
By and large, Israeli households did not have telephones until the 1960s – as late as 1964, 55,800 Israeli homes were waiting for phones. If someone had acquired a telephone before the sixties, the person was either suspected of, or envied for, his or her protectzia, the fact that s/he “knew” somebody.
After a long wait – possibly for years – the phone company gave a household a black stationary phone with a short cord. Meaning that, to talk, you had to stay in one place. If you were lucky, nobody’s line would cross yours. If it did, you were stuck listening to their private affairs. People didn’t hang up right away because they didn’t know how long it would take to reconnect with friends. And, while on the subject of talking on the phone, to counter the high cost of doing so, employers with chatty employees or families with talkative children (or adult family members) went to the extreme of putting a lock on their dial phone.
After the implementation of the black telephones, changes came faster. Although the colour choice remained limited, Israelis could choose something other than a phone. They could also order a long phone cord or a press-button phone. Likewise, people could have phones in more than one room. Some advances have gone smoother than others. For example, fax installation and transmission continues to gravely challenge Bezek (the Israeli telephone company, established in 1984) and Bezek users.
In the international sphere, things also changed, albeit unevenly. In the late 1950s, Israel got hooked up to five continents. To place or receive an overseas call, you had to go to the central post office. You sat in a special glassed-in wooden booth while a special operator made the connection.
After a period of time, there were telecartim, or insertable phone cards for public phones. These cards became quite popular and many Israelis became phone card collectors and traders. I remember attending a telecart exhibit in Tel Aviv.
What feels like light years later, Israelis started equipping themselves with cellphones and, not long after that, with ear sets. Suddenly, it seemed that many people were experiencing severe mental health problems. In public, flaying arms and shouting at invisible people became rampant. I remember the first time I spotted a person exhibiting this behaviour. Only when he drew near did I see a thin black wire around his jaw and ear. I sighed, “another cellphone casualty.”
Israelis are apparently now making up for lost time by being glued to their mobile phones. They converse everywhere (on dates, in toilets, on trains and buses) about everything.
Some of the usage issues are (pretty close to being) unique to Israel. If you were under the impression that kashrut (kosher) is a food-related concept, think again. In Israel, as well as in a few Western countries, there are kosher cellphones. While they are not edible, they have been a boon to Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community. According to Cellular Israel, “a kosher phone is any phone that is approved and certified by vaad harabonim” (the rabbinic committee for matters of communications).
A kosher phone can only make and receive voice calls. Text messaging and emails will not work on a kosher phone. Moreover, for health, security, public services, water and electricity personnel, there is even a kosher phone designed to avoid breaking the laws of Shabbat. Technically, this mobile device may be dialed without connecting. There is even a kosher de-smarted (meaning that it has no web-browsing capability) smartphone.
Not all the changes appear to be positive. While more studies need to be done, Israeli researchers are beginning to think there is a real downside to cellphone use – it might even interfere with the biblical injunction to “be fruitful and multiply.”
As reported in Reproductive BioMedicine Online, there appears to be an association between higher rates of abnormal semen concentration and talking on cellphones for an hour or more a day, and talking on the devices as they are being charged. Among men who reported holding their phones within 50 centimetres of their groin, a higher rate of abnormal sperm concentration was found. Semen concentration was abnormal among 47% of those who stored their phone in their pants pockets, while it was abnormal in only 11% of the general male population. In brief, Israeli men might need to curb their cellphone use.
There might be another advantage to having an alternative to cellphones. Several years ago, when there was a wave of terrorism, having old-fashioned payphones around turned out to be beneficial. When an attack occurred, Jerusalemites whipped out their cellphones “to report in” with their families. With so many people simultaneously calling, the system crashed. It was the city’s remaining public phones that allowed people to reassure worried loved ones.
Admittedly, many of the above changes likewise happened elsewhere in the Western world; the telecommunication revolution has been a global revolution, after all. But, for many in Israel, each change or step of the way was met with a kind of curiosity or wonder that may have been singular to Israel. Today, that innocence has disappeared. For better or for worse, I’m not sure.
Deborah Rubin Fieldsis an Israel-based features writer. She is also the author of Take a Peek Inside: A Child’s Guide to Radiology Exams, published in English, Hebrew and Arabic.
Michael Schwartz, director of community engagement at the Jewish Museum and Archives of British Columbia, speaks to guests at a Chosen Food Supper Club gathering. (photo from JMABC)
This spring, the Jewish Museum and Archives of British Columbia began airing the podcast The Kitchen Stories. The series, which is focused on Jewish food, is the brainchild of Michael Schwartz, the museum’s director of community engagement.
“A podcast is not so different from a museum exhibit,” said Schwartz in an interview with the Independent. “It is a way to present a story…. It doesn’t have a visual component but, unlike a museum exhibit, people can take a podcast with them, listen to it whenever they have the time.”
While podcasts have evolved on and from the internet, Schwartz considers the format a renaissance of a much older type of media – the radio talk show. “Like radio, a podcast is an audio presentation, but on a different technological level. In the past couple of years, there have been some creative and innovative podcasts, and we’re trying to add to their number.”
The idea of a food-related podcast came to him after he experimented with a couple of other topics. “My role at the museum is to make people, both Jews and non-Jews, more aware of our museum. I tried several different themes – architecture, photography – but food seems to be universal. Everyone is interested in food, especially in Vancouver. We are a foodie city, so it seemed appropriate to ride that momentum, to let people tell their stories about food. That’s what a museum does: it lets people tell their stories. Ideally, the museum staff should be invisible.”
The Kitchen Stories concept, as well as the museum’s Chosen Food Supper Club – a dinner series where people meet each other, learn about and enjoy the food being served – crystallized for Schwartz simultaneously. “We started the podcasts a bit earlier, in March, and the supper club in April…. Lots of storytelling happens during the club meetings,” he explained. “Like the podcasts, each club meeting has a theme. Sometimes, it is geographical: food from different parts of the globe. Sometimes, thematic, like holiday food.”
A similar variety of themes characterizes the podcasts. To date, shows have examined food links to family dynamics and worldwide migrations, climate and gender roles, cultural customs and regional culinary quirks.
“We brainstormed the possible themes as we listened to other podcasts, read books on culinary history. We tried to pinpoint what is missing and use those points as our guidelines. One of the underlying themes in our podcasts is the tension between traditional and modern. How people adapt to the local food sources when they move, how the familiar recipes change with times and places. How those recipes diverge when members of one family move to different countries, or continents, and the usual ingredients become unavailable.”
Schwartz believes that the museum has to be open to the stories of all Jews, regardless of their religiosity, affiliation or geographic roots. “The museum’s role is not to provide answers but to discuss a question, to open a forum for conversation. In The Kitchen Stories, food is a medium of telling stories. We explore healthy food choices and how they change with generations: what our grandmothers thought healthy and what we think healthy could be different. We talk about kosher food and organic food. And, of course, when people talk about food, everyone has an opinion.”
The topics are approached often from an historical perspective. “Food is a way to keep history alive,” Schwartz said. “When a kid asks his parents or grandparents why do you cook this way, stories emerge. We wanted to showcase those stories. Food is also a way towards peace and harmony. When we share food with friends, we talk and try to understand each other. Food is a means of communication.”
Schwartz doesn’t create the podcasts alone. Co-producer April Thompson has been working for the museum for the past year.
“I do research on the theme we select, I conduct the interviews,” Thompson said. “Sometimes we interview people in their homes or their businesses. Other times, they come here to the museum; we use a quiet room for the interviews. The museum has had an oral history program for decades, so we use the existing museum equipment for recording. Then I do the editing, choose the music. After I’m done, Michael listens to my material. He records the narration, inserts special terminology sometimes, or we move the pieces around to structure the story better.”
“April is very important to the series,” said Schwartz. “She is not Jewish, and that fact has given her an interesting angle on the project. She brings necessary curiosity to some things those of us within the Jewish community take for granted.”
“Yes,” Thompson agreed. “I’m like a child. I ask: why do you do this, because I don’t know. I want to know. I’m now working on a podcast about [dealing with] grief through food, about the Jewish shivah custom. It’s different from many other cultures.”
In the very talented ensemble of The Road Forward by Marie Clements are Michelle St. John, left, and Jennifer Kreisberg. (photos from National Film Board of Canada)
This year’s DOXA Documentary Film Festival features several films with Jewish community connections. They explore a wide range of topics: First Nations activism, Fort McMurray and the oil sands, real-life mermaids, bigotry against larger people, and being a freelance journalist in the Middle East. They will make you question your assumptions, ponder the various ways in which humans find connection, and introduce you to ideas, people and places you probably didn’t know existed.
Opening the festival, which runs May 4-14, is The Road Forward. In the very talented ensemble of this musical documentary by Marie Clements are Michelle St. John and Jennifer Kreisberg. As many of us do, St. John and Kreisberg have multiple cultural heritages that form their identity; in their instances, First Nations and Jewish are among them. In addition to performing, Kreisberg also composed and/or arranged many of the songs; the main composer is Wayne Lavallee.
The Road Forward began as a 10-minute performance piece commissioned for the Aboriginal Pavilion at the 2010 Olympics, and premièred as a full-length theatre show at the 2015 PuSh Festival. The documentary has mostly traditional components – interviews, archival footage, news clips – but these are broken up by a number of songs, which add energy and emotion to the film.
The documentary uses as its starting point the Native Brotherhood and Sisterhood, which were established in the 1930s, when First Nations people were not permitted to meet and organize. The groups’ “official organ,” the Native Voice, was the first indigenous-run newspaper in Canada.
“The idea was to honour B.C.’s history, so I started researching and reading online and came across the archives of the Native Brotherhood and Sisterhood, the oldest Native organization in the country. Their parent organization, the Native Fishing Association, is located in West Vancouver, close to me,” explains Clements in the press material.
The Road Forward touches on many issues along its journey to current-day First Nation activists, who carry on in their ancestors’ paths. Though their goals are varied – some fight for particular legal or policy changes, others for restitution and reconciliation, yet others for their own voice and place in the world – they are all seeking justice, equality, understanding.
The songs highlight the immense struggles. As but two examples, “1965” is about the decades upon decades that First Nations have been denied the basic rights that most other Canadians have long enjoyed, and “My Girl” is a heartbreaking tribute to the aboriginal women who have been murdered along British Columbia’s Highway 16, the “Highway of Tears.” The Indian Constitution Express, a movement organized by George Manuel in 1980-81 to protest the lack of aboriginal rights in then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau’s plans to patriate the Canadian Constitution, receives somewhat more attention than other activist achievements, and the song “If You Really Believe,” based on a speech by Manuel, is quite powerful.
The May 4 gala screening of The Road Forward is the official launch of Aabiziingwashi (#WideAwake), National Film Board of Canada’s Indigenous Cinema on Tour. For the length of 2017, NFB is offering films from its 250-plus collection to all Canadians via [email protected]. The film also runs on May 10 and Clements will participate in a Q&A following both screenings.
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Limit is the Sky follows a handful of 20-somethings who have moved to Fort McMurray to follow their dreams. A few years before the price of oil plummeted in 2015 and the 2016 wildfire decimated the northern Alberta city, the average family income in “Fort Mac,” was $190,000 a year, according to the film. Working on the oil sands was where the real money lay, but others were drawn to the college or to places that serve the oil workers (and others), such as hairdressing salons and restaurants.
Most striking about the population we meet in Limit is the Sky is their diversity: they not only come from other Canadian provinces and the United States but from much further afield. The seven young dreamers featured include Max, from Lebanon; Mucharata, from the Philippines, who had to leave her 2-year-old son behind initially (for fours years); and KingDeng, a former child soldier from South Sudan, who had to help support his wife and children (in Edmonton) while at school in Fort McMurray.
“I was looking for young people who’d just recently arrived in Fort Mac, full of hopes, dreams and naïveté,” says filmmaker Julia Ivanova in the press material. “I wanted to walk the viewer through their ups and downs in a place where the men seem tough and the women even tougher. I wasn’t looking for tough characters, though: sensitivity and beauty – both inner and physical beauty – were important to me.”
Ivanova, who has Jewish roots, migrated to Canada from Russia many years ago.
“Being an immigrant myself,” she notes, “I could feel what was at stake for these young people and the challenges they face on a very intimate level.”
The main filming ran from fall 2012 to spring 2015. She felt welcomed by the people in the city, though not by the industry. “That was a brick wall I hit over and over again,” she says. “There was no filming of anyone allowed, anywhere, period.”
By the end of the film, most of the millennials featured had left the city, along with many others. “The town felt almost deserted, compared to how I had seen it in 2012 and 2013,” says Ivanova. “So many people were leaving. There was so much anxiety. I went to all the places I loved – and they’d all changed.”
Ivanova’s film shows the hope, the drive, the challenges, the loneliness of her interviewees. The dynamics are much more complex than one might assume of a city that relied on the oil sands for its prosperity. The environment is of crucial importance, obviously, but people matter, too, and this documentary shines a necessary light on that fact.
Limit is the Sky screens May 5.
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Falling into the who-ever-would-have-thought category, Ali Weinstein’s Mermaids introduces viewers to real-life mermaids, of a sort.
Rachel’s underwater job at the Dive Bar in Sacramento, Calif., helps her deal with a family tragedy. Vicki and a group of former Weeki Wachee Resort (in Florida) swimmers recall their mermaid days, including a show for Elvis and a 50th anniversary performance. Being a mermaid helps Cookie, who was abused as a child and has mental health issues, manage life, and she and her soulmate, Eric, who makes her mermaid tails, are married in a mermaid wedding, after being together for some 30 years. Last but not least, Julz, a transgender woman who was bullied as a child and disowned by her father, discovers acceptance and love in a Huntington Beach, Calif., mermaid group.
Weinstein intersperses these stories with brief summaries of long-told mermaid tales, “from the 3,000-year-old Assyrian figure of Atargatis to the Mami Wata water spirits of West Africa.”
It really is a fascinating documentary, showing just how resilient and resourceful the human spirit is.
Mermaids plays twice during DOXA, on May 6 and 13, and Weinstein will be in attendance at both screenings.
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Think of the cartoon villains and the hapless sidekicks. How are they often portrayed? As fat, dumb and/or oversexed? If those weren’t your first thoughts, think again. The documentary Fattitude convincingly shows how widespread bigotry against larger people is – so much so that it can be overlooked, until pointed out. Then, you wonder how you ever missed it.
From the old woman in the candy house that eats Hansel and Gretel, to Star Wars’ Jabba the Hut, to the evil squid in The Little Mermaid, these are just a few of the villains. Then there is the heavyset and dumb Hardy, sidekick to thin, smart Laurel; the stereotypical chubby best friend in so many movies; and the archetypal black nanny, forever cast in the caring, subservient role. Miss Piggy is a more complex character, both strong and confident in herself, but also sex-crazy over Kermit. And, in the entire Star Trek franchise – where have the larger people gone?
From the age of 3, the film notes, we are already programmed with negative stereotypes. When all put together, it’s quite depressing. However, Fattitude is a rather upbeat documentary, as its interviewees are spirited, determined and intelligent enough to effect some change, mainly via social media.
Filmmakers Lindsey Averill and Viridiana Lieberman speak to almost 50 people and, to a person, they provide an interesting perspective, connecting the body images depicted in films, television shows, cartoons, magazines and advertisements with their effects on viewers and on our perceptions of ourselves and others. The film discusses the links between race, socioeconomic status and weight, as well as the reasons why Michelle Obama’s campaign to end childhood obesity was misguided.
Fattitude screens May 9.
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Being a journalist in a war zone seems dangerous and frightening, and it is. But it is also tedious and lonely. At least this is what it seems from watching Santiago Bertolino’s Freelancer on the Front Lines.
Bertolino follows Toronto-born, Beirut-based freelance journalist Jesse Rosenfeld as Rosenfeld hustles to get story ideas and budgets approved, waits in sparse hotel rooms for fixers to connect him with interviewees, and ventures into Egypt during its post-Arab Spring elections, the West Bank during an Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a Syrian refugee camp in Turkey and to Iraq, where they witness the fight against ISIS from the front lines.
Some of the more disturbing images are of the bodies of Palestinians gunned down in a home by undetermined executioners and the corpses of dead ISIS fighters dumped in the back of a truck, as well as tied to its back bumper. In another memorable part, Rosenfeld yells questions to a caged Mohamed Fahmy, when Fahmy and two fellow Al Jazeera journalists were on trial in Cairo. (Fahmy, who holds both Canadian and Egytian citizenship, spent almost two years in jail of a three-year sentence.)
Rosenfeld has strong views and isn’t afraid to share them, though he struggles to make eye contact with the camera when he makes his pronouncements. Some of the best exchanges in the film are between him and Canadian-Israeli journalist Lia Tarachansky, who hold different opinions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Freelancer on the Front Lines screens May 13 at Vancity and will include a post-film discussion.
For tickets and the full DOXA Documentary Film Festival schedule, visit doxafestival.ca.