Dr. Paige Axelrood and Ivan Sayers were among the 25 British Columbians honoured with a 2020 BC Achievement Community Award. (photos from BC Achievement Foundation)
On April 27, Premier John Horgan and Anne Giardini, chair of the BC Achievement Foundation, named this year’s recipients of the BC Achievement Community Award. Among those honoured were Jewish community members Dr. Paige Axelrood and Ivan Sayers. “These days more than ever, our communities are made stronger by British Columbians who go above and beyond,” said Horgan. “Thanks go to all of the BC Achievement 2020 Community Award recipients for helping build a better province for everyone.”
“It is an honour to celebrate the excellence and dedication of these 25 outstanding British Columbians,” added Giardini. “On behalf of all of us at the BC Achievement Foundation, I thank each of them for strengthening their communities and inspiring others to community action.”
As the founder of the Scientist in Residence Program, Axelrood developed and built an educational program to support teachers and help students discover their inner scientist. Elementary students across the Vancouver School District have experienced real science and discovered the natural world through the Scientist in Residence Program. Axelrood’s vision to partner teachers with scientists to facilitate hands-on, inquiry-based lessons has helped change the delivery of science education.
Sayers is the honorary curator of the BC Society for Museum of Original Costume and curator emeritus, Museum of Vancouver. Specializing in the study of women’s, men’s and children’s fashions from 1700 to the present, Sayers has produced historical fashion shows and museum exhibitions all over western North America. A lecturer and mentor, his fashion shows have supported countless nonprofits over the years.
The BC Achievement Foundation is an independent foundation established in 2003, whose mission is to honour excellence and inspire achievement. This year’s selection committee members were Mayor Lee Brain of Prince Rupert, Mayor Michelle Staples of Duncan, and past recipients Lolly Bennett, Aart Schuurman Hess and Andy Yu.
The recipients of the 2020 Community Award will be recognized in a formal presentation ceremony in Victoria, in the presence of Janet Austin, lieutenant governor of British Columbia. Each recipient receives a certificate and a medallion designed by BC artist Robert Davidson. For more information on the award and its recipients, past and present, visit bcachievement.com.
A human jawbone found in the Misliya Cave on Mount Carmel near Haifa. (photo by Israel Hershkowitz, Tel Aviv University via Ashernet)
A human jawbone and other fossils found in the Misliya Cave on Mount Carmel near Haifa indicate that human migration from Africa occurred during the Ice Age, approximately 200,000 years ago, which is contrary to the popular theory that the freezing conditions and dryness of the Ice Age periods deterred human migration between continents.
These recent findings were published in the Journal of Human Evolution by Dr. Lior Weissbrod of the Israel Antiquities Authority and Prof. Mina Weinstein-Evron of the Zinman Institute of Archeology at the University of Haifa, and they build on work previously published by Weinstein-Evron and Prof. Israel Hershkowitz of Tel Aviv University in Science.
In addition to the jawbone, Weissbrod said, “The fossils now being investigated were identified as belonging to 13 different species of rodents and small insect eaters, some of which now live in high and cold regions, in the Zagros Mountains of northwestern Iran and in the Caucasus Mountains.”
This means that, “in Israel, cold conditions prevailed that allowed such animals to survive. Finding the human jawbone in the same layer where the rodent lived, suggests that these early humans survived under these conditions,” changing existing perceptions on human evolution.
Avram Finkelstein will be participating in the Queer Arts Festival, which takes place July 16-26. (photo by Alina Oswald)
A lot of it feels familiar, said New York-based artist and activist Avram Finkelstein about the current situation in the United States. The same American institutions that failed during the HIV-AIDS crisis are failing to effectively deal with the pandemic. And, when he was a teenager in the 1960s, cities were also being burned in America.
“It’s sad to think that we will be having the same struggles,” he told the Jewish Independent in a phone interview last week. “But, also, as you get older, you realize that progress is not a pendulum swing from left to right, it’s actually a spiral going forward and things do move to the right and they move to the left, but [there is] incremental change. So, part of me feels like we’re seeing the dying gasp of a world that I hope we’re leaving behind, and I see a world in the future that I want to live in. So that’s kind of helping me through this.”
Finkelstein was scheduled to come to Vancouver next month to participate in the Queer Arts Festival.
A founding member of the Silence=Death and Gran Fury collectives, as well as the political group ACT UP, he is the author of After Silence: A History of AIDS Through its Images (University of California Press, 2017). His artwork is part of the permanent collections of MoMA, the Smithsonian, and the Victoria and Albert Museum, to name but a few places, and his work has been shown around the world. He was set to unveil one of his new works in Vancouver. As it is, with the restrictions required to minimize the spread of COVID-19, he will be helping open the festival remotely, as part of a panel discussion chaired by curator Jonny Sopotiuk, which will also provide viewers with a tour of the festival’s art exhibition.
“I have a large mural that was going to be in the exhibition and now it’s going to be in a virtual space,” said Finkelstein. “I’m very excited about this piece and the fact that Jonny chose it – it’s the first time I’ve shown it…. I had a commission to do a work for the Shed, which is a new art space in New York, and, while I was waiting for the weaving tests of the final pieces – it’s a very large jacquard weaving – I decided to start drawing from the same source material as the cartoon for the weaving. I hadn’t drawn since recovering from a stroke; I had a stroke about two years ago…. I then realized that my hand isn’t my own, my body is no longer my own.”
The source material, he explained, “is a portrait of a gender-non-conforming friend who later transitioned. The work was all about corporeality as an abstraction and the ways in which we’re allowed to look at certain things, and what is public and what is private about gender and sexuality. And then, all of sudden, I realized, I’m actually talking about my own body in these drawings because my own body is not my own body anymore. I realized that I had made this sharp pivot from an abstract, theoretical idea of corporeality to this kind of war or dance, or I don’t know how to describe the physical process of having to use your entire body to hold a pencil.”
Despite the health, political and other challenges Finkelstein has faced, he remains hopeful.
“We’re trained to think that, if we don’t have hope, then the only thing that’s left is despair, but the truth is, hope isn’t so much the point – it’s the horizon that hope is sitting on and, so long as you can see a horizon, I think that, to me, is the same thing,” he said.
“I’m Jewish, as you know, and I think that Jews have a very different relationship to memory and to witnessing. If your people have been chased all over the globe for centuries, you take a long view. You sleep with one eye open, but you take a long view, and I think, therein, I’m eternally hopeful.”
In an interview in 2018, Finkelstein predicted that the situation in the United States would worsen before it improved.
“Which is another thing about being Jewish – you learn that there is no such thing as paranoia because it’s all real,” he said. “So, one could have seen, as plain as the nose on one’s face, where America was heading. And, in actual fact, what happened with Trump’s election was, we’ve joined the international march of global totalitarianism…. And, it’s not about to get really bad, it’s really, really bad. It’s really bad and I think that, here again, you can’t be Jewish and not think – not think your entire life, actually – in some way being prepared for, OK, what are the risks I’m willing to take if this happens? How far would I be willing to fight for other people if that happens. The shadow of Nazi Germany never escaped your consciousness.”
So how does Finkelstein conquer the fear?
“I guess I’ve replaced it with anxiety,” he said, laughing. But, he added, “I don’t know why I’m not fearful. I think that I was just raised – a day doesn’t go by that I’m not reminded of another lesson or another incident or another part of Jewish-American social history in the 20th century that my family was directly there for. I almost feel like I’m the Zelig of the left. All the stories you would tell my mother or my father, they’d be like, ‘Oh, yeah, we were there. We were there at the Robeson riots. Oh, yeah, we were there when they closed The Cradle Will Rock and everyone walked down the street’ – exactly the way it was in the last scene in Tim Robbins’ movie. When I saw it, it seemed too preposterous, I called my mother, said, ‘Could that have happened?’ And she started singing the song that Emily Watson sings in the film.
“So, I think I have such a sense of self that one could interpret it as fearlessness, but I think that it would be more accurate to say I was not given an alternative role model. I was raised to feel the suffering of others and, if other people are suffering, there’s no night’s sleep for me. So, there’s really no option – you’re either closing your eyes to something terrible or you’re doing everything you can to try and make it less terrible. And I think that that’s the Jewish condition.”
He described Jews as being like queer people. “We are everywhere,” he said. “We’re in every culture, we’re in every race, we’re in every gender, we’re in every country. We have every type of ethnic community that we surround ourselves with. An Ethiopian Jew is different from an Ashkenazi Jew, but we’re still all Jews.”
Though raised by atheists, he said, “I don’t think you’ll find anyone more Jewish than I am or than my family, but Jews are prismatic. We are many things. Consequently, I feel like I can’t speak on behalf of other Jews, I can only speak on behalf of myself.
“Likewise, I’ve always had people of colour in my family; I just always have. And, I learned very early on back in the ’60s, when the civil rights movement was fragmented between King and Stokely Carmichael and the Panthers, and everyone was choosing sides, I think that’s another example of what I’m talking about – there are many ways in which to be black. And so, I don’t feel like what I have to say about this current moment is anywhere near as important, essential, vital, critical … [as] a person of colour – what a person of colour has to say about this moment is much more important.”
Finkelstein was one of the minds behind the now-iconic Silence=Death poster, which has been adapted over the years by many people. A variation of it could be seen in at least one of the recent protests. The original iteration encourages viewers to use their power and, for example, vote. In general, working towards solutions is an important part of Finkelstein’s activism.
“I think critiques are easier,” he said. “I think also we mistake public spaces, we mistake the commons, as a declarative space. I tend to think of it as an interrogative space. I think that, even in late-stage capitalism, when someone is trying to get you to put your money in a bank or go buy a soft drink, there’s something Socratic about the gesture of trying to get you to do something … you’re responding to it, you’re engaged in it, and that’s the interrogative part that I think is easy to overlook. And I think that’s where the answers are.
“I think that the way that the Silence=Death poster is structured is it’s really like a bear trap. We worked on it for nine months – the colour has certain codes and signifiers, and the triangle has another set of codes and we changed the colour of the triangle from the [concentration] camps and inverted it to obfuscate some of the questions about victimhood. And the subtext has two lines of text, one that’s declarative and one that’s interrogative, and the point size forces you into a performative interaction.”
This poster and other work with which Finkelstein has been involved include aspects that “people are very afraid to experience,” he said, “which is fallibility, mess-making and tension. And I find all of those things as generative, as kindness, support, community. They’re differently generative and … hearing so many people who are trying to figure out how to find their way in, as white people, into the conversations that are happening in America right now, is the same struggle as a young queer person trying to find their way into the AIDS crisis. I mentor a lot of young queer artists and activists and the first thing they say, their immediate impulse is, I have no right to this story, I wasn’t here, I didn’t live through it. To which my response is, immediately, you have every right to the story – it’s your story, it’s the story of the world…. Race is a white person’s problem. People of colour are paying the price for it, but the problem, the genesis of the problem, is whiteness. And we have to figure out how to talk about it…. But I think now is the time for listening.”
He said, “We have to know what our responsibilities are and this goes back to Judaism – our responsibilities as witnesses. You can’t let your discomfort change the importance of this moment or overshadow the importance of this moment.”
One of the things Finkelstein does is teach social engagement via flash collectives. “I think we’re never put into a position where people mentor our personhood,” he said. “We have people mentor us as computer programmers or healthcare providers or tax accountants or artists or writers, but … there’s something primeval which is missing in the way we’re acculturated, and the flash collective is almost shamanistic in that regard; it taps into this primal thing that is quite astonishing when you let it out.”
Understanding that he will not live forever, he said “the Silence=Death poster casts a very mighty shadow and it makes it very difficult for people to figure out how to make new work, if that’s what they think it has to be…. It became obvious to me that I could be talking about Silence=Death until the day I drop, but, one day, I am going to drop and I want other people to start making those new works and I thought this would be a way to get people to make new work.”
He described the collectives, which teach political agency, as being “like a stew of the top 10 hits of grassroots organizing in a condensed workshop that’s tailored to the individuals in the room.”
He said, “I believe that I don’t necessarily have to change the world because I know that there could be a teenager in 2050 who sees something that someone I worked with did that made them think of something else that I never would have thought of. That is the point of the work, not the how do I fix it before I’m gone, which is the dilemma of Larry Kramer [who passed away last month]. He really thought, and I think it’s really male, but it’s very men of a certain generation also – he really thought that he could fix the AIDS crisis, and it didn’t happen.”
Unfortunately, space doesn’t allow for most of what Finkelstein shared with the Independent about Kramer, who he described as “a complicated person.”
Kramer was a rhetorician, said Finkelstein. “And I’m a propagandist. We’re both rhetoricians in a way, but what was the dividing line that made Larry incapable of understanding the work that I did?… I felt like I understood his process better than he understood mine. And I started to think, well, here’s the difference between a person who articulates their rage with words and a person who articulates their rage with every tool in the toolbox…. Not to make myself sound superior, but I realized that I think of rage as sculptural; he thought of rage as rhetorical. I think of rhetoric as sculptural, I think of it as casting a shadow and activating social spaces. And I think that he was a Jewish gay man of a different generation and a lot of his rage was tied into his personal struggles. And I did not have those. I had other personal struggles, but I did not have them.”
As part of the Queer Arts Festival, Finkelstein will lead a flash collective on the question, “What does queer public space mean in a 21st-century pandemic?” He hopes the resulting work will be shown in a public space.
For more information about the festival, visit queerartsfestival.com. The next issue of the JI will feature an interview with QAF artistic director and Jewish community member SD Holman.
The tablet found by Imri Elya. (photo by IAA via Ashernet)
Imri Elya was on an outing with his parents at Tel Jemmeh archeological site near Kibbutz Re’im when he picked up the square clay object. His parents contacted the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) and they handed over the item to the authority’s National Treasures Department.
According to archeologists Saar Ganor, Itamar Weissbein and Oren Shmueli of the IAA, the artifact was imprinted in a carved pattern, and the artist’s fingerprints even survived on the back. The tablet depicts the scene of a man leading a captive. According to the researchers, “The artist who created this tablet appeared to have been influenced by similar representations known in Ancient Near East art. The way in which the captive is bound has been seen previously in reliefs and artifacts found in Egypt and northern Sinai.”
They date the artifact to the Late Bronze Age (between the 12th and 15th centuries BCE) and believe that the scene depicted symbolically describes the power struggles between the city of Yurza – with which Tel Jemmeh is identified – and one of the cities close to the Tel, possibly Gaza, Ashkelon or Lachish, or the struggle of a nomadic population residing in the Negev. The researchers believe that the scene is taken from descriptions of victory parades; hence, the tablet should be identified as a story depicting the ruler’s power over his enemies. This opens a visual window to understanding the struggle for dominance in the south of the country during the Canaanite period.
The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the lives of everyone in our local Jewish community, as it has impacted people around the world. Daily events like school, work, visiting with friends and family, as well as grocery shopping and other errands, have been transformed by public health recommendations.
The Jewish Museum and Archives of British Columbia has a responsibility to collect and document history as it happens – and needs your help to document this historic time. What are the important aspects of this moment that our community should recall years from now?
Each of us is experiencing this crisis in our own unique way, and the Jewish Museum and Archives wants to gather as many of those experiences as possible. Not sure what to say? The museum can help with that. The JMABC has recruited the assistance of Carly Belzberg, a specialist in guided autobiography, who will be helping community members put their experience into words.
The museum would like to know how daily routines around your house, including work, school and fitness have changed; how you’re staying in touch with family and friends; and what Jewish traditions look like for your family this year. For example, how did you celebrate Passover? How are you keeping Shabbat?
If you are interested in sharing your experiences, or simply would like to learn more about this project, contact JMABC archivist Alysa Routtenberg at [email protected].
National Hebrew Book Week has taken place every year in June. Its fate for this year, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, is unclear. (photo from gojerusalem.com)
In Israel, you know Shavuot is approaching when you see the grocery stores setting up displays of pasta and spaghetti sauce. The pandemic shouldn’t change that.
Israelis are obsessed with the thought of eating non-meat meals on Shavuot. I suspect that at the heart of this obsession is the feeling that, even today, many people still consider eating a non-meat meal equivalent to eating less than a full meal. Hence, the worry that there really will be a satisfying meal to appropriately celebrate the holiday.
While there are many lovely explanations about why we eat dairy on Shavuot, they seem to be secondary to some practical considerations. As Rabbi Prof. David Golinkin points out, in the late spring, young calves, lambs and kids are weaned. Thus, historically at this time in Europe, there was an abundance of milk. Bear in mind that refrigeration is a fairly new process and that, prior to refrigeration, farmers needed to move fast with perishable milk. They made cheese and butter, which, likewise, needed to be consumed relatively fast. This dairy excess may have motivated some Jews to eat dairy on Shavuot. (See the article “Why do Jews Eat Milk and Dairy Products on Shavuot?” on the Schechter Institutes’ website, schechter.edu.)
But, eating a non-meat meal on Shavuot is not restricted to the customs of European Jewry. As Jewish food expert Claudia Roden notes in The Book of Jewish Food: An Odyssey from Samarkand to New York, Sephardi Jews in Syria made cheese pies called sambousak bi jibn, Tunisian Jews had a special dairy couscous recipe and, in places like Turkey and the Balkans, Jews prepared a milk pudding called sutlage for Shavuot. (If you don’t want to eat animal-based foods, you don’t need to feel left out. The United Kingdom’s Jewish Vegetarian Society helps you enjoy a variety of traditional, but vegan, cheesecake recipes.)
So from where did all this dairy focus originate? One appealing explanation reminds us of what was supposed to have happened on Shavuot, namely that the Jewish people received the Torah. In Gematria, the Hebrew word for milk (chalav) adds up to 40, the number of days on which Moses stayed on Mount Sinai in order to receive the Torah.
Significantly, studying the Torah and other Jewish texts on Shavuot eve has become a major trend in Israel, as well as in the Diaspora. The big Israeli cities offer any number of options for participating in a tikkun leil Shavuot. These free learning sessions welcome the participation of all of Israeli society, from the religious to the secular, and everyone in between. Those living in smaller towns and on kibbutzim and moshavim likewise hold study sessions on the night of the holiday.
The idea of all-night studying originates with the kabbalists. The earliest members of this group apparently studied with Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, the author of the Zohar, who lived in the second-century CE. It was this scholar (also known by his initials, as Rashbi) who stated: “G-d forbid that the Torah shall ever be forgotten!” (See the Babylonian Talmud Tractate Shabbat 138b.) By the Middle Ages, the kabbalistic all-night Shavuot study had really picked up steam in places such as Safed.
Some claim the reason for studying during the night is found in the midrash stating that it was a way to correct for the Children of Israel’s mistake of oversleeping on the morning they were meant to receive the Torah. Others claim, however, that the Hebrew word tikkun should not be translated as correction, but rather as adorning or decorating the bride. The bride in this instance is the people of Israel and the groom is either G-d and/or the Torah.
According to a late 17th-century Libyan tradition, Shavuot symbolizes the wedding day between the people of Israel and the Torah. According to this tradition, the Torah is the bride, which explains the title of the Libyan Shavuot text entitled Tikkun Kallah. Accordingly, those who read this tikkun are likened to bridal attendants.
The importance of studying on Shavuot is bolstered by the fact that Israel’s Hebrew Book Week (or, in some places, Book Month) begins right after Shavuot. I do not believe this occurrence is coincidental, but rather links us to the idea that we are still the People of the Book and a people of books.
The Israeli book fair has been running for many years. This year, 2020, would mark the 59th annual celebration of Hebrew Book Week and the fair’s age is all the more impressive when you recall how shaky was the Israeli state’s start as an independent entity. Recent years’ events have included Israeli authors appearing in coffee houses, story hours and plays for children, guided walks in Israel’s National Library, the more traditional book signings and, of course, the possibility of thumbing through thousands of Hebrew books.
In brief, our spring holiday offers opportunities for both spiritual and physical nourishment.
Deborah Rubin Fields is 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.
The paper cut “Jerusalem Mizrah” by Yehudit Shadur (1928-2011). (photo from shadurarts.com)
Papercuts are created by taking a folded sheet of paper and drawing a design on one side. The folded sheet is then fastened to a wooden board and the design is cut out with a sharp knife. When the paper is unfolded, a symmetrical work of art appears.
Papercutting dates back to the fourth-century CE in China. It appeared in Western Asia by about the eighth century; in Europe by the 13th century and in Turkey, Switzerland and Germany by the 16th century. Papercutting has been a common Jewish folk art since the Middle Ages and, by the 17th century, it was popular for Shavuot.
Shevuoslekh (little Shavuots) and roysele (rosettes or flowers) were used to decorate windows on Shavuot. They were made of white paper, usually, and frequently displayed the phrase, “Chag haShavuot hazeh” – “this holiday of Shavuot.”
According to an article by Sara Horowitz in the recently defunct Canadian Jewish News a couple of years ago, “for Ashkenazi Jews, there was a particular link between papercutting and Shavuot, which stems from an old practice of decorating homes and synagogues with flowers, branches, boughs and trees. In shtetl culture, cut flowers were a luxury – pricey and perishable. And Jewish culture was deeply literate, so paper, especially used paper – was always around and available for artistic repurposing. Some sources cite the objection of 18th-scholar Vilna Gaon to the Shavuot greening as another reason for the development of a Shavuot papercutting tradition. Because church décor involved cut flowers and pagan practices involved trees, the Vilna Gaon viewed such customs as inherently non-Jewish.”
An acquaintance of mine from many years ago, Yehudit Shadur (1928-2011), and her husband, Joseph, wrote a history of the last three centuries of Jewish papercutting, called Traditional Jewish Papercuts: An Inner World of Art and Symbol. The book won a 1994 National Jewish Book Council Award.
Yehudit Shadur was considered to be the one who pioneered the contemporary revival of the Jewish papercutting tradition. Her works are represented in major museum collections. She also had museum exhibits in Israel, England and the United States.
Shadur’s website offers many quotes from the artist, including one from a 1996 exhibit catalogue, in which she states, “What at first seemed a simple craft proved to be an artistic medium of endless possibilities and variations – not only in the arrangement of time-honoured Jewish symbols imbued with deep and often complex significance, but also in the challenges of colour, composition and texture. Eventually, the subject matter of my papercuts went beyond traditional forms and content to express my personal vision as a contemporary artist….”
Some typical symbols in Shadur’s Jewish papercuts – and in those of others – are menorot, crowns (keter Torah, the crown of Torah), columns representing the Temple in Jerusalem, plants or trees (the Tree of Life, the Torah), and grapevines, lions and gazelles (all representing the people of Israel).
If you’re looking for an activity to do with your children, PJ Library (pjlibrary.org) offers the book The Art Lesson: A Shavuot Story written by Allison and Wayne Marks and illustrated by Annie Wilkinson, in which “Grandma Jacobs teaches Shoshana how to make traditional papercuts,” and readers also learn to make a papercut. For anyone interested, there are various websites that have papercutting tutorials for kids and adults alike.
Sybil Kaplan is a journalist, lecturer, book reviewer and food writer in Jerusalem. She created and leads the weekly English-language Shuk Walks in Machane Yehuda, she has compiled and edited nine kosher cookbooks, and is the author of Witness to History: Ten Years as a Woman Journalist in Israel.
Gilad Seliktar, left, and Rolf Kamp in Amsterdam. They are drawing the last hiding place of Nico and Rolf Kamp in Achterveld, which was liberated in April 1945 by Canadian troops. (photo from UVic)
A University of Victoria professor is orchestrating an international project that links Holocaust survivors with professional illustrators to create a series of graphic novels, thereby bringing the stories of the Shoah to new generations.
Charlotte Schallié, a Holocaust historian and the current chair of UVic’s department of Germanic and Slavic studies, is leading the initiative, which connects four survivors living in the Netherlands, Israel and Canada with accomplished graphic novelists from three continents.
The project, called Narrative Art and Visual Storytelling in Holocaust and Human Rights Education, is supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. Its aim is to teach about racism, antisemitism, human rights and social justice while shedding more light on one of the darkest times in human history.
UVic is partnering with several organizations in the project, including the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg, the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam and the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre.
Many historians of the genre have argued that the rise of graphic novels as a serious medium of expression is largely due to the commercial success of Art Spiegelman’s Maus in 1986. Maus, the first graphic novel to win a Pulitzer Prize, depicts recollections of Spiegelman’s father, a Shoah survivor, with Jews portrayed as mice, Germans as cats and Poles as pigs.
Schallié told the Independent that the idea for the project came from observing the interest her 13-year-old son has in graphic novels and the appeal Maus has had among her students, who have continually selected it as one of the most poignant and memorable materials in her classes.
“Though a graphic novel, Maus could hardly be accused of treating the events of the Holocaust frivolously,” she said from her office on the campus of the University of Victoria.
As most survivors are now octogenarians and nonagenarians, the passage of time creates an ever more compelling need to tell their stories as soon as possible.
“Given the advanced age of survivors, the project takes on an immediate urgency,” said Schallié. “And what makes their participation especially meaningful is that each of them continues to be a social justice activist well into their 80s and 90s. They are role models for the integration of learning about the Shoah and broader questions of human rights protection.”
The visual nature of a graphic novel allows it to bring in elements or depict scenes that are not possible with an exclusively written work, according to Schallié. A person may describe an event in writing but leave out aspects of a scene that might add more to the sense of what it was like to be there at the time.
One of the survivors participating in the project, David Schaffer, 89, lives in Vancouver. He is paired with American-Israeli comic artist Miriam Libicki, who is also based in the city. The two met in person in early January so that Libicki could learn the story of how he survived the Holocaust as a child in Romania.
In 1941, Schaffer was forcibly sent with his family to Transnistria, on the border of present-day Moldova and Ukraine, by cattle car. There, they suffered starvation and were subjected to intolerable and inhumane living conditions.
“The most important thing is to share the story with the general population so they realize what happened and to avoid it happening again. It’s very simple. History has a habit of repeating itself,” said Schaffer.
Libicki, who was the Vancouver Public Library’s Writer in Residence in 2017, is the creator of jobnik!, a series of graphic comics about a summer she spent in the Israeli military. An Emily Carr University of Art + Design graduate, she also published a collection of essays on what is means to be Jewish, Toward a Hot Jew. (See jewishindependent.ca/drawing-on-identity-judaism.)
“The more stories, the better. The wiser we can be as people, the more informed we can be as citizens and the more empathy we can have for each other,” Libicki said. “Graphic novels are not just a document in the archives; they’re something people will be drawn to reading.”
The other illustrators are Barbara Yelin, a graphic artist living in Germany, and Gilad Seliktar, who is based in Israel. Yelin is the recipient of a number of prizes for her work, including the Max & Moritz Prize for best German-language comic artist in 2016. Seliktar has illustrated dozens of books – from publications for children to adult graphic novels – and his drawings frequently appear in leading Israeli newspapers and magazines.
Brothers Nico and Rolf Kamp in Amsterdam and Emmie Arbel in Kiryat Tiv’on, Israel, are the other three survivors who are providing their accounts of the Holocaust.
The books will be available digitally in 2022. A hard copy version of each book is planned, as well. When finished, the graphic novels will be accompanied by teachers guides and instructional material designed for schools in Canada, Germany, Israel, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the United States.
UVic hopes to match a larger number of survivors with professional illustrators in the future. To learn more, contact Schallié at [email protected]. You can also visit the project’s website at holocaustgraphicnovels.org.
Sam Margolishas written for the Globe and Mail, the National Post, UPI and MSNBC.
A few weeks ago, my husband got an email out of the blue from a distant relative in Israel. This Israeli was working on some family genealogy. He was stunned to discover that he had many U.S. relatives he never knew about. Together, my husband and this distant relative took on a big extended family project, even as COVID-19 shut down borders and isolated us in our homes.
Suddenly, my husband in Winnipeg and his dad, aunts, uncles and cousins in New Jersey were emailing, sending photos and stories to one another. They tried to iron out all the stories they’d heard and fit the puzzle pieces together. My husband’s paternal grandparents (z”l) were from Mezritch, Poland. They spent the Second World War on the run. They were in a Siberian Gulag work camp. Then, they lived in a shantytown near Tashkent, Uzbekistan. After the war, they stayed in a series of displaced persons camps in Germany before U.S. relatives found them. They arrived in the United States, with their three children, in 1950.
Discovering what may have happened to each relative 75 years ago, and documenting it, has taken on an urgency for both my husband and this “new” Israeli relative. In part, it’s because his oldest aunt, who was 9 when she came to the United States, remembered it all and discussed it with her mother in detail, over and over, as those who’ve gone through huge upheaval sometimes do. For my husband’s aunt, this childhood experience defines much of her worldview. Now, though, her mother, my husband’s grandmother, has died. His aunt is still alive, but unwell. She’s unable to recount the stories or identify the people in photos anymore. The family is racing to record as much of their family history as they can before even more of the pieces are lost forever.
In the midst of this nightly family email exchange, I read a book called Gateway to the Moon by Mary Morris. This novel makes connections between the Sephardi Jews who fled Spain after the Inquisition, the crypto-Jews of New Mexico and the history behind the family connections and modern-day Jewish practice. The author explained that the idea for the book came to her when she met someone long ago. This New Mexican seemed convinced that his family had been Jewish. Indeed, now we know through DNA analysis that many Spanish-speaking people throughout the world have Sephardi Jewish roots.
Gateway to the Moon was graphic, full of historically correct violence, and direct. It took me a long time to get through. It was powerful, but also hard to grasp the scope of the suffering faced during the Inquisition. This religious violence chased Jewish families for hundreds of years through Spain, Portugal, Mexico and beyond.
Morris does a good job of connecting people throughout history in her narrative. This was particularly powerful when a character tastes a lamb dish in Morocco, on vacation, and is instantly transported to her grandmother’s table in New Mexico. Even as their identity was hidden or forgotten, familiar recipes remained. Just the taste of that lamb stew connected the character to the family’s lost past and their Sephardi Jewish identity.
The ramifications of these huge experiences – violence, trauma, colonization, wars, genocides, terrorist attacks and pandemics – will shape us and future generations. We, as Jews, and as people, are forever shaped by these things. We’re about to celebrate Passover. It recounts a huge event in our people’s story – slavery, freedom and migration. This experience shapes us, though it happened (if it happened) long ago. As we say at the seder, Avadim hayinu: Once we were slaves in Egypt, and now we are free. We’re commanded to remember this as though we personally left Egypt.
As I write this, we’re suffering a pandemic, another huge, worldwide and scary experience. My husband and I are Gen Xers. We’ve been shaped by the Holocaust experiences of our families and friends. We were raised hearing their stories and traumas, and it was part of who they, and we, are.
Now, I pray that we, and all our families, and everyone in our community, live to think about what the ramifications of this next event will be. It will impact us all.
My family and I wish you everything good – a chag sameach, zissen Pesach – a happy holiday. Most importantly, may you enjoy it in good health.
Joanne Seiff has written 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. Check her out on Instagram @yrnspinner or at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.
Damascus Gate today and, below it, the Aelia Capitolina arch leading to the Roman Plaza. (photo by Deborah Rubin Fields)
Revenge is sweet. Apparently, while the Roman Emperor Hadrian did not spike enemy heads on palisades, after three years of battle, he did construct an arch celebrating the suppression of the Bar Kochba revolt. This archway was quite detailed, as it marked the northern border of his Jew-less Roman colony (Jews were only allowed in on Tisha b’Av to mourn the temples they had lost) and the Aelia Capitolina, a colony built on the Jerusalem the Romans had destroyed.
Below and to the left of Damascus Gate (built by Suleiman the Magnificent in 16th century CE) are the remains of Hadrian’s Arch of Triumph and his Roman Plaza. Although the site has been explored since 1864 by numerous archeologists, only recently have the Israel Antiquities Authority, the Jerusalem Municipality and the East Jerusalem Development Company (PAMI) cooperated to open to the public the arch that Hadrian ordered built in 135 CE.
The arch seen today was actually part of a three-arched entrance way. Two shorter arches bordered a taller and wider centre one. Only the eastern entrance remains fully intact, along with the bases of what were once elaborate stone pillars. Inside this archway, one still sees the vaulted ceiling and the floor made of large stone slabs.
The thick blocks making up this flooring measure some two metres (6.6 feet) long and 1.2 metres (3.9 feet) wide. To prevent people from slipping on the stones, the Romans striated some of the pavement, which is still in place, albeit worn smooth from use.
None of Hadrian’s building machinery was motorized, of course. Even the Roman tread wheel crane was run on human or animal power. Not one to waste and not one to overlook architectural beauty, Hadrian scavenged the enormous stones of the razed Second Temple and public structures – Herodian stones from the Temple area are distinct in having narrow margins and low, flat, smooth centre bosses. Hadrian used these stones to build two massive guard towers flanking the archway on the right and left.
As the Herodian stones were not attached by mortar, it was probably relatively easy – the average weight of each is said to have been two to five tons – for Hadrian’s gate builders to dismantle the Temple-area stones. These huge limestone pieces still stand, as the remains of the guard towers, neatly stacked at an incredible height of some 11 or 12 metres.
Soldiers throughout history have faced boredom. To counter this, the Roman soldiers in these guard towers played games. One such “board game,” is still scratched into the flooring near the towers.
The gate with its three arches was typical of its period. Just above the remaining arch, one can still decipher the “C” in the Latin inscription bearing the city’s Roman name, Aelia Capitolina. In Jerusalem, a similar example of this kind of gate is the Ecce Homo Arch. It served as an entrance to the eastern forum of Aelia Capitolina. Part of it may be seen today, along the Via Dolorosa.
As further evidence of how well-planned Hadrian’s city was, the gate opened into a plaza, a circular space that was the junction or crossing point of the eastern and western cardines (plural of cardo; literally, heart) or main roads. According to Simon Sebag Montefiore’s book Jerusalem: The Biography, this plaza led to two forums, one close to the destroyed Antonia Fortress and one close to today’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre. There, Hadrian reportedly built a temple to Jupiter.
This gate appears on Jordan’s mosaic Madaba Map. On the sixth-century map – a model of which appears inside the discovered Roman Plaza – one sees an open square with a column just beyond the gate. To prevent anyone from forgetting who was victorious over the Jewish rebels, the column was topped with Hadrian’s figure. On site, there is a model of the column to give current-day visitors an idea of how the column looked. From this column, distances to different parts of the country were measured. Moreover, the column is the source of Damascus Gate’s Arabic name, Bab al-Amud.
To the left of the arch entrance are the large millstone remains from the later Byzantine period. Most likely, an olive oil factory existed there in ancient times.
To the east of the Roman Plaza, there are three other sites worth visiting when such things become possible again, once the COVID-19 pandemic is contained:
Zedekiah’s Cave (also known as Solomon’s Quarry) has visiting hours like those of the Roman Plaza. As the cave has very good acoustics, over the past few years, it has been used to host concerts. The entrance fee is currently 18 shekels. The local telephone is the same as that of the Roman Plaza, 02-6277550. There is partial wheelchair accessibility.
Rockefeller Archeology Museum, on the northern side of the street, recently had a small, but fascinating, exhibit dealing with the 100-year history of Jerusalem Armenian Ceramics. (imj.org.il/en/exhibitions/glimpse-paradise). The museum is free of charge, with hours Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Thursday, and even on Saturdays. There is a short flight of stairs at the entrance, so contact the curator, Fawzi Ibrahim, about visiting in a wheelchair. The local number is 02-628-2251.
The Northern Promenade route of the Old City’s ramparts allows you to visit these areas from “above,” but is not designed for wheelchairs or strollers. Buy tickets at the tourist office just inside Jaffa Gate.
From the Romans onward, rulers have built special arches marking the defeat of their enemies. Hadrian’s Arch might also have served as a reminder to potential rebels not to try again. What does seem clear is Hadrian has left us with a 1,885-year-old reminder of the many changes of hands Jerusalem has undergone.
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.