There is a world of difference, needless to say, between the murder of a congregant in a California synagogue and the publication of an overtly antisemitic cartoon. But, while the incidents are incomparable in magnitude, they both implore us to action.
Lori Gilbert Kaye was killed Saturday morning during Shabbat services on the last day of Passover at Chabad of Poway, north of San Diego. Eight-year-old Noya Dahan was hospitalized with shrapnel wounds, as was her uncle, 32-year-old Almog Peretz, who was shot in the leg. Peretz was visiting family for the holiday from his home in Sderot, Israel, a city adjacent to Gaza that is under constant threat of bombardment and attack.
In the instant terror struck, heroism abounded. Kaye reportedly died intervening to protect the rabbi from the shooter. Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, although shot in both hands, immediately teamed with Peretz, who was also wounded, to shepherd the children in the synagogue to safety. Army veteran Oscar Stewart chased the assailant out of the synagogue and Jonathan Morales, an off-duty border patrol agent, shot at the getaway car as the perpetrator fled.
The alleged perpetrator had posted on social media that he was willing to give up his life for the cause of white supremacy. He blamed “international Jewry” for a litany of perceived “crimes” and said that Jews “deserve nothing but hell. I will send them there.”
This shooting is the latest in a terrible string of attacks on religious institutions and the people within them, including the Easter attack that killed more than 300 in Sri Lanka and the mass murder of Muslims in a mosque in New Zealand, among many other attacks on people and institutions worldwide that do not make the front pages. While such incidents in the United States are partly a result of that society’s dysfunctional relationship with guns, the propensity to murder people in places of worship – like the endless stream of mass killings in schools – represents a particular manifestation of evil.
Six months to the day before the Poway attack, 11 people were murdered in the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Given that horrific number, it is understandable that human nature would react to the latest news with an unconscious sense of relief that the death toll in California was not higher. But this reaction, however natural, must be resisted. The invasion of a religious sanctuary represents an assault on the most basic human instincts for goodness and stands apart from other crimes in its deliberateness and in the calculated impact it will have on the victimized community’s sense of security and belonging. Such attacks – no matter how frequently they seem to come – must never be responded to routinely. Each attack is cause for a fresh sense of revulsion.
While the situations are clearly not analogous, there was another episode recently that demands vigilance. The New York Times international edition last week ran a cartoon of Donald Trump as a blind man with dark glasses and a black kippah, being led by an elongated dachshund with the head of Binyamin Netanyahu wearing a Star of David around his neck. The cartoon exists as part of a long history of motifs that portray Jews manipulating guileless, gullible non-Jews to serve Jews’ devious ends. The New York Times apologized and blamed a lack of oversight.
If the editors of Der Stürmer were still among us, they could justifiably claim plagiarism, as numerous comparative memes on social media have indicated. Such images are extremely common on the internet, where there is no oversight. When they make their way into print in one of the English-speaking world’s most august media outlets, this is a new challenge.
Commentators have observed that the dachshund is a breed that rarely, if ever, serves as a seeing-eye dog. The choice by the cartoonist to use that breed was clearly deliberate. For at least a century, since the First World War, cartoonists have used a dachshund to represent Germany. In this way, the artist was adding insult to injury by equating Israel with the perpetrator of the gravest attack on Jews in human history.
The point of addressing the violent attack in San Diego together with a grievous but far less tangible affront in the pages of the New York Times is to make the case that vigilance should not be let down by the routinization of either violence or terrible imagery. These incidents seem to fly at us with such regularity that it is understandable that we as individuals and a community would have limited resources to respond to each case with the gravity it deserves. The memes and lies may become routinized, but our responses to them must never fall short.
Jewish tradition says that it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness. The heroes of the Poway tragedy have done that. While we cannot predict how each of us would respond in such a crisis, we can promote small acts of light within our circles of influence, by advocating for understanding and peace and by supporting organizations that do good work. More immediately, we can take the advice of Rabbi Goldstein and do good in the world whenever and wherever possible. In a world with evil and intolerance, acts of goodness and understanding are their own type of heroism.
A project of the Canada-Ukraine Foundation, the national educational tour about the Holodomor began in 2015 and has reached about 30,000 Canadian high school students so far. (photo by Pat Johnson)
What constitutes a genocide? How many Ukrainians were murdered by Josef Stalin’s human-created famine in the 1930s? Would you stand up in a situation where lives were at risk – even if it meant you might become targeted?
These were some of the questions confronted by Grade 12 students of King David High School last week. A national educational tour about the Holodomor – the mass murder of Ukrainians by the Soviet regime – pulled into Vancouver, opening the eyes of young people to this chapter of history.
Beginning in 1932, the Soviet government under Stalin began a calculated, systematic famine in Ukraine, seizing all food sources, cutting off escapes for people fleeing starvation and implementing summary execution for the crime of stealing the smallest piece of sustenance. Farming was collectivized, creating catastrophic conditions. Political and intellectual elites were murdered.
Some details, including the number of Ukrainians killed, remain cloaked in uncertainty because, from the start, the Holodomor was deliberately hidden from the outside world through a comprehensive system of censorship and misinformation, as well as the complicity of media and other countries. Estimates of the number of dead range from seven million to 14 million.
Holodomor is a portmanteau made up of holod, starvation, and mor, death, meaning “death by starvation.”
The Holodomor National Awareness Tour consists of a bus-sized repurposed former recreational vehicle. Rather than a static exhibition through which participants walk, the vehicle has been retrofitted with a 30-foot screen down one interior wall and 30 theatre-style seats down the other, with interactive tablets that invite students to study and discuss in small groups before reconvening to share what they’ve learned with the larger group. A project of the Canada-Ukraine Foundation, the tour began in 2015 and has reached about 30,000 Canadian high school students so far.
The Holodomor was not an endeavour to kill an enemy, but an effort to restructure society, a form of social engineering at its most extreme. In September 1932, Stalin wrote to one of his lieutenants that Ukraine was restive. The Soviets perceived Ukrainians as being profoundly religious, individualistic, believers in private property and attached to their plots of land, making them unsuitable for building communism. Addressing these perceived flaws would require, according to Soviet leaders, an action so extreme that a word had not yet been invented to describe the intent.
The entire agricultural sector was upended by collectivization and resisters were murdered or sent to gulags, Soviet concentration camps. At first, remaining supplies of food sustained the Ukrainian people, but those reserves were soon depleted, while the Soviets extracted ever-increasing quotas of grain and Soviet wheat exports to the West grew. As the Holodomor proceeded, NKVD secret police were sent to search for and confiscate any remaining food sources. While those caught stealing or concealing food were executed, for millions more, fate was less sudden.
“Most of the victims died slowly, at home,” according to the narrator of one of the interactive films viewed by students. “Special NKVD units raided people’s homes to collect the dead bodies. They received 200 grams of bread for every dead body they delivered.”
Students examined the forces that allowed the Soviet Union to hide the reality from the world. For the Soviets’ part, there was censorship and the threat of retaliation for those who shared the truth. But their crimes were abetted by Western figures, including New York Times correspondent Walter Durante, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting from the USSR, even as he misrepresented the Holodomor. In one article, titled “Hungry, not starving,” Durante wrote that there is no actual starvation or death from starvation, though he acknowledged there was widespread mortality from diseases due to malnutrition.
Leading journalism figures from the time are brought to life through reenactments. British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge, reporting for the Manchester Guardian, reflected on being raised in a socialist household and how he was enthusiastic about traveling to the Soviet Union to report on the utopia being created there. When he saw the reality, he evaded Soviet censors by sending his dispatches home via the British embassy’s consular pouch.
One of the heroic figures of the story is Gareth Jones, a Welsh journalist who risked his life to bring the truth from Ukraine. He convened a press conference in Berlin, on March 29, 1933. But the timing was terrible. The Soviets were about to launch a show trial against six U.K. citizens, accusing them of espionage in what would become known as the Metro-Vickers Affair.
In order to remain in the USSR and report on what promised to be a trial of global importance, journalists had to stay on good terms with the authorities.
“It would have been professional suicide to make an issue of the famine then,” one reenactor remarked. “So, none of us supported Jones.”
Lauren Shore is a student in King David’s Holocaust and Genocide Studies 12 course. The class, created by teacher Anna-Mae Wiesenthal, is delivered during lunch hour and, while students receive credit, they take the course in addition to their full complement of other classes. A province-wide genocide studies elective course is part of the new B.C. curriculum and will be offered next year at schools that opt-in.
Shore, with a partner, did a project on the Holodomor.
“Since there is a lot of debate on whether it’s a genocide or not, and how it was planned, we decided to focus on that,” she said. “We were focusing on the different steps of genocide [and] people were debating whether it was a genocide or not, since it wasn’t necessarily planned as exactly as other genocides were. As we looked into it, we found that it was planned just as much as the other genocides, just in other, more subtle ways.”
Solly Khalifa, also in Grade 12, was impressed with the interactivity of the Holodomor tour.
“I was astonished at how innovative it is,” he said. “They really get everybody participating and it’s very interesting and an easy way to participate also.”
Classmate Noah McNamara saw parallels between the Holodomor and the Holocaust.
“All genocides are kind of similar, in that it’s a governing body that takes advantage of their power to push a goal,” he said. “In the Holocaust, [it was] the Aryan race that they wanted to push. In this case, it was communism that they wanted to push. I think it’s important for us now to be aware of aggressive governments and governments that are trying to radically push things, because that’s definitely a precursor to genocide.”
Ava Katz, who worked with Shore on their Holodomor project this year, noted that studies of the Holocaust enforce the dictum “never again.”
“But I feel like sometimes that’s overlooked with other genocides,” she said. “Not a lot of people will say that. But when you really study other genocides in-depth and see how severe they are, it’s important that we never let any of them happen again.”
The cross-country tour operates with a shoestring staff. Alexi Marchel leads students though the experience. Kevin Viaene drives the bus and supports the program.
The World in a Grain: The Story of Sand and How It Transformed Civilization by Vince Beiser is a finalist for the 2019 PEN/E.O. Wilson Prize for Literary Science Writing. The award is given to a “book that exemplifies literary excellence on the subject of the physical or biological sciences and communicates complex scientific concepts to a lay audience.”
At the core of PEN America is the ideal of freedom of speech, “recognizing the power of the word to transform the world.” For his entire career, Beiser has been trying to change the world with his writing and, with The World in a Grain, he educates readers about the phenomenal importance of sand in making thousands of things, from concrete to glass to fibre-optic cables, and how dependent on it we are. So valuable is sand that people steal it and even kill for it, and our unbridled use of it, in concrete in particular, might just kill the planet.
To bring these harsh realities to light, Beiser adeptly and engagingly – sometimes with humour – mixes empirical evidence, scientific explanations, interviews with people directly connected to or affected by sand mining, profiles of relevant historical figures and his own commentary, as well as some factoids, which he calls “Interludes.” He comes to the not-surprising-but-disheartening conclusion that there’s only one solution: “human beings have to start using less sand. For that matter, we have to start using less of everything.”
Beiser dedicates the book to his wife, Kaile, and their children, Adara and Isaiah. While they live in Los Angeles, he grew up here. The Jewish Independent interviewed him about his upbringing, his career and, of course, his book.
JI: Could you tell me where you were born, how you ended up in Vancouver, and how your parents’ involvement in social causes influenced your choice of profession?
VB: I’m from a venerable Vancouver family, though I wasn’t born there. My grandfather’s family – the Landos – came over from England around the turn of the 20th century, first to Prince Rupert and then to Vancouver, where they worked in the fur business, of all things. My mother [Roberta] and her siblings were all born and raised in Vancouver – mostly in the same house where she still lives! My brothers and I were all born in the U.S. (myself in New York City), where my father [Morton] was working. We moved to Vancouver when I was 10, and I grew up there until I took off to college in California. I come back just about every summer.
My parents were always very engaged with the world, and the idea of trying to make it a better place – my father as a mental health researcher, and my mother mainly through her work with all kinds of arts and cultural organizations. We did a lot of traveling as well, which really opened my eyes to just how lucky we were and how much less so are so many other people. Meanwhile, I also had an uncle, Vancouver native Barry Lando, who was a highly decorated producer at 60 Minutes, so I grew up watching his shows and hearing about his adventures all over the world. I never consciously thought that I wanted to have a job like that, but it certainly made an impression.
JI: What role does Jewish culture and/or Judaism play in your life and work?
VB: I’m proud to be a Jew, and that heritage has definitely had an impact on my professional life. Knowing our long and brutal history of oppression helped sharpen my desire to work for social justice, to do what I can to help right, or at least bring attention to, wrongs wherever I find them. I started my career in Jerusalem, covering the First Intifada as a freelancer for both Israeli and Palestinian publications. Later, I wound up working for an Israeli magazine, TheJerusalem Report, first in Eastern Europe covering the wars in the former Yugoslavia, and later as their New York correspondent. I’ve probably written more about Jews and Jewish issues than anything else except sand!
JI: What took you from Vancouver and how did you establish yourself in Los Angeles?
VB: I went to college at the University of California at Berkeley – I really wanted to get to the States, which I thought was a much more exciting place than then-sleepy little Vancouver. From there, I spent years traveling and working all over the world, first as a hitchhiking backpacker, and later as a freelance journalist (there’s often not a lot of difference between the two lifestyles). I spent several years in the Middle East and then Eastern Europe, then came back to the U.S., where I bounced around from New York to San Francisco to Las Vegas (that’s right, I lived in Las Vegas). I was living in San Francisco when I met a delightful young woman living in L.A. I was doing a lot of work in L.A. at the time, writing for the L.A. Times Magazine and other places, so had an excuse to visit her often and, well, 17 years later we’re married, with two kids and a mortgage and the whole package.
JI: In an interview you did with David Simon, you talk about journalism, fiction and film, and Simon comments that no one reads anymore. What are your thoughts on that, on the state of journalism and your decision to write a book?
VB: These are dark days for the business of journalism, of course, with local newspapers dying off en masse and money drying up for those that are left, thanks to the internet. Most of my career has been spent writing for magazines, and a terrifying number of the ones that I’ve written for over the years have disappeared or been reduced to emaciated shadows of their former selves – The Village Voice, Spin, Rolling Stone, US News & World Report, and on and depressingly on.
But, contrary to what everyone expected with the advent of the internet and the Twitterization of discourse, people do still read, at length and in numbers. There are plenty of long, deep articles published online that attract hordes of eyeballs – the trick no one has cracked yet is figuring out how to make money off of them. Oddly, the book industry is still doing relatively well; most people still seem to prefer physical, paper books to reading something of that length on a screen. So, moving from magazines into book writing is not only something I’ve always wanted to do – it’s also a tactical move aimed at keeping me solvent. I’m branching into movies and TV for the same reason. If you’re going to survive as a freelance journalist in the 21st century, you’ve got to tell your stories and get paid every which way you can.
JI: Can you describe how the topic of sand first came to you, why it piqued your interest and about the path to the book’s publication?
VB: I’m a full-time freelancer, so I’m always hustling for stories, which involves trawling through a lot of obscure publications. One day in early 2015, I stumbled across a story on a little environmental website from which I learned two things. One, sand is the most-consumed natural resource on earth after air and water; that alone made me sit up and take notice. Two, that there is so much demand for the stuff that we are inflicting tremendous environmental damage all over the world to get it, stripping bare riverbeds and beaches and, in some places, people are even being murdered over sand. Like most people, I had never even thought about sand as a commodity, let alone one so important people might be killed over it.
I thought this all sounded crazy but, with a little research, I found it was true. The violence, I discovered, is by far the worst in India. So, I convinced Wired magazine to send me to India, where I reported a feature on the murderous ‘sand mafias’ that bedevil that country. The piece came out in spring of 2015 and got a great response from readers. I knew by then there was much, much more to the story – a book’s worth, I figured. That summer, I spent a few days alone on a tiny property we own on Gabriola Island pounding out a book proposal. My agent in New York sold it almost right away to the folks at Penguin Random House, and I was off to the races.
JI: How would you describe your level of optimism about the future?
VB: Really depends on the day, or hour. But I’ve got kids growing up in this world, so I don’t have much choice but to hope for the best!
My family recently traveled to northern
Virginia for a bar mitzvah. We did it in a long weekend. We left Thursday
afternoon and returned on Tuesday. It was the farthest we’ve ever gone in a
weekend with kids. Afterward, I felt bleary and fuzzy around the edges.
However, wandering through three airports in each direction and attending five
or six big family events and meals exposes you to things you might not have
My nephew became a bar mitzvah at my childhood
congregation. Each weekend, they print a bulletin or program with information
about services and upcoming activities. When services ended, my husband tucked
his program into his tallis bag as a memento. I also took one for safekeeping,
but I saw it as primary source material. Proof that, indeed, all these
activities could happen at a healthy congregation.
Awhile back, I wrote a column describing a
slate of weekend Jewish events, for every age group, at North American
congregations. As one template, I used Temple Rodef Shalom, in Falls Church,
Va. I’ll never forget some of the feedback I got. The loudest responses were
from older men. One told me I must be making this up. Why would any
congregation cater to special interests (children, teenagers, those with
disabilities, women, Jews of colour, the needy, Jews by choice, and others) the
way these ones did? This man stopped just shy of telling me I was writing fake
I don’t consider myself a journalist. I wasn’t
trained as one. I usually write clearly marked opinion pieces, how-to articles
and features. I don’t go to war zones, report on famine or natural disasters,
but, apparently, that didn’t matter either. In a reply, I linked to two
congregations’ calendars, including ones that had served as my template. The
somewhat virulent response from this man targeted Reform Judaism, liberals and
… no need to go on, you get the picture. No amount of valid information would
likely sway him.
While going through the Winnipeg, Minneapolis
and Washington National airports, I glimpsed newsstand magazine covers. Time
magazine’s Person of the Year was not Trump. No, the 2018 people of the year
were journalists killed or imprisoned for doing their job.
Journalists and, more generally, writers, have
a job that requires them to observe, hear and listen to what’s going on around
them. In a fast-moving world, a well-written piece can help readers absorb
information or perceive a different point of view – ideally to help us
understand a bigger worldview than we can find on our own.
I thought about this “fake news” response while
I read the synagogue bulletin from the bar mitzvah. The congregation’s name,
chosen in the 1960s – Rodef Shalom, Pursuer of Peace, referencing Psalm
34:15 – was carefully selected: “Depart from evil and do good. Seek peace and
pursue it.” And, indeed, the congregation was doing many good activities in
December. They examined issues concerning gun violence, Torah, politics and the
life of the synagogue. On Dec. 25, they had a Mitzvah Day scheduled, working on
creating “care kits” for the homeless, cooking and delivering hot meals and
sandwiches to homeless shelters, and collecting, sorting and distributing
winter clothing for those who needed it.
There are many Jewish angles to being a good
journalist, writer or observer. Jews are People of the Book. We’re also primed,
in the Sh’ma, to “hear these words, to speak them, to write them and to teach
and listen to them.” In our efforts to understand who we are as Jews, we also
must learn to hear, listen and communicate with others. We should know what it
means to be a witness to events, whether we are journalists or not.
If one wants to, you can really shelter
yourself these days into consuming (watching, hearing and reading) just the
“feed” that caters to your sensibilities. That is, you can believe there is a
border wall already being built between the United States and Mexico to keep
out dangerous criminals instead of refugees. You can provide yourself a fake
news narrative that somehow allows you to think that the white person who shot
at synagogue-goers in Pittsburgh, or the one who killed so many in Las Vegas,
is not as threatening as Al Sharpton or American Muslims.
I choose a different approach. In the airport,
we smiled at others – no matter their skin colour or religious beliefs. We
chatted with a young woman who attends Howard University (an historic and
respected African-American institution) and I told her how great the campus was
when I once took a teacher licensing exam there. One of my kids pulled a book
out of a backpack for me to read them while we waited: a Scholastic book on
Viola Desmond (who’s on Canada’s new $10 bill, by the way).
Time said they chose
these journalists “for taking great risks in pursuit of greater truths, for the
imperfect but essential quest for facts, for speaking up and for speaking out.”
Part of being Jewish is taking the time to hear
and listen to what is around us, and to take risks to pursue truth and peace.
We’re known as people who speak out for those who need compassion (Joseph
helped the Jews in Egypt in time of famine) and justice (Moses spoke out
against slavery). In that tradition, we have had modern leaders like Abraham
Joshua Heschel, who spoke out on civil rights.
I take this one step further when I write it
down and it gets sent to you in the newspaper. We’re lucky – as we start 2019,
we have the power to choose to read, listen, learn and treat each other with
love and an open heart and discern what is real. I have an actual printed
bulletin to prove that synagogues can and do provide programming for many
constituencies. I do fear hatred,
lies, violence and fake news, but I don’t spread a blanket of fear where it
doesn’t belong – not on top of people of colour (Jews or non-Jews) or others
with predominantly moderate religious traditions like Islam.
Christians may talk about witnessing but, every
day, Jews recite in the Sh’ma an obligation to hear and to listen, to read and
communicate our values. When we truly pursue peace, we don’t accuse each other
of making up the news. Instead, we make news for doing good things and being
upright and honest with one another.
Let’s lift a glass to tolerance and good
communication, too. Here’s to a loving, peaceful, civil and truthful 2019.
Joanne Seiffhas 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. See more about her at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.
The annual American Jewish Press Association’s Simon Rockower Awards recognize excellence in Jewish journalism. Once again, the Jewish Independent has been honoured with a Rockower for its work, winning first prize in its circulation category for editorial writing.
The JI’s editorial board – Basya Laye, Pat Johnson and Cynthia Ramsay – were recognized for the op-eds “How we memorialize the past,” “Sukkah more than symbolic” and “The year it all changed.” All of these editorials – and other opinion pieces and articles published by the JI can be found at jewishindependent.ca.
“The year it all changed” (June 2, 2017) discusses the turning point that Canada’s 100th birthday represented, when we “came into our own as a country,” and the significance of that year for Israel and Diaspora Jews: “The Six Day War, which began June 5, 1967, literally and figuratively reshaped Israel, the Middle East, Diaspora Jewry and global diplomacy.”
“How we memorialize the past” (Sept. 1, 2017) uses the racist rally in Charlottesville, Va., which “was ignited, ostensibly, by the removal (or threatened removal) of Confederate commemorative statues and plaques,” as a jumping off point to talk about how communities and societies commemorate the people and events of the past, including here in Canada.
Finally, “Sukkah more than symbolic” (Oct. 6, 2017) notes, “For most of us, the sukkah is but a symbol of our wandering in the desert all those years ago, a symbol to remind us to be humble, empathetic, grateful. However, for many living in Metro Vancouver, including members of our own community, homelessness is a reality.” It highlights some of the initiatives undertaken by Tikva Housing Society and the barriers to finding housing. It notes that indigenous people continue to represent the highest proportion of homeless, and that there are tens of thousands of people at risk of becoming homeless. It concludes, “there is a lot of work to be done.”
This year’s awards – honouring articles published in 2017 – were presented at the 37th Annual Simon Rockower Awards banquet, held in conjunction with the AJPA’s 2018 annual conference June 17-19 in Cleveland, Ohio. Second place in the under-15,000 circulation category went to the St. Louis Jewish Light, based in St. Louis, Mo. Winners in the 15,000-plus circulation category were the Forward (New York, N.Y.), taking first place, and the Jewish Standard (Teaneck, N.J.) placing second.
Last week, we published a story about a group of people gathering outside the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver to hold a Yizkor service for Palestinians who died during the March of Return actions at the Gaza-Israel border.
We are not surprised by the reaction from readers, but we are disappointed in some of it. We have been criticized for covering the event. One commenter on Facebook accused us of supporting Hamas.
We are a newspaper. The fact that a group of Jews – it doesn’t matter how many or how few – organized an event like this is newsworthy. We covered it. It is what any newspaper worth the paper it’s printed on would have done. To accuse the Independent of endorsing the event – or Hamas – because we ran a story about it demonstrates a stunning lack of understanding about the basics of journalism. When a newspaper covers a flood, it is not endorsing the river.
At least one critic suggested our approach should have been to publish a raving tirade against those saying Kaddish. Our approach, generally, is to report events in an unbiased fashion and leave the raving tirades to others.
Just one question, really, for those who didn’t like the inclusion of that story in last week’s issue: Would you rather not know what’s happening in your community?
Albert Londres was a Parisian journalist born in 1884. He became an international reporter who chose to chronicle human suffering and expose injustice and cruelty. He denounced inhuman conditions in mental asylums, the ordeals of black workers, conditions in a penal colony. His journalistic philosophy: “our profession is not to give pleasure nor to do harm; it is to twist the pen into the wound.”
Why was I drawn to Londres’ The Wandering Jew Has Arrived (Gefen Publishing House, 2017)? For one, I had spotted it in Israel and it was produced by Gefen, a familiar name in the publishing world. Its founder, Murray Greenfield, his late wife, Hana, and I once visited Terezin together and his son, Ilan Greenfield, published a book about the Buchenwald boys I co-wrote with Judith Hemmendinger back in 2000.
Secondly, I quickly read the introduction by Rav Daniel Epstein. He described Londres as a non-Jewish Parisian reporter with an insatiable curiosity. He wanted to inform his French readers, “nurtured for centuries on a teaching of contempt and antisemitic clichés,” about the world of Jews, a world he also did not understand. So he learned. He observed. He made a brief visit to Poland in 1926 and was exposed to the reality of pogroms and ghettos (his word for shtetls). Who would not want to join him on his journey?
In 1929, he began to familiarize himself with the London Jewish community of Whitechapel. Then he traveled to Poland, Russia and Romania. He described observant and secular Jews, Zionists and anti-Zionists, Torah scholars, yeshivah students. From all that he observed and experienced, Londres concludes “the passion for learning is uniquely Jewish,” and links this passion as “undoubtedly the real mystery of Israel and the secret of its survival.”
He discussed the dangerous circumstances of Jews living among hostile nations in 1929. “The Jew,” he writes, “is guilty of one crime; that of being Jewish.” He elaborates, “A Pole or Russian chases a Jew from a pavement as though the Jew who is passing by, is stealing his air.” Londres travels as well to Palestine to witness and observe a “metamorphosis: the cowering Jew of the ghetto now holds his head high … he finds the wandering Jew in Jerusalem.”
Londres’ translator, Helga Abraham, writes, “Still widely read in France, the book came to my attention when the Hebrew translation was published in 2008 (Nahar Books). Surprisingly, I discovered that no English translation was available. An English translation had been published in 1932 but soon was out of print. I use the word surprisingly because it is hard to read this work without being arrested by its enormous significance – as a unique eyewitness account by a non-Jew of a pivotal period in Jewish history, as a major literary work in itself and as a masterful example of journalism at its best.”
Let me take you through some of his journey. In the opening chapter, “A Bizarre Personage,” he describes meeting in London the Jew who would squire him on his journey – a Polish Galician rabbi on a fundraising mission in London.
Londres wrote, “But I had to begin in London. Why? Because England, 11 years ago, had proclaimed to the Jews the same words that God, sometime before, had proclaimed to Moses on Mount Horeb,” assigning him the land of milk and honey.
This time the proclamation had come from Lord Balfour. Londres records both proclamations adding, “England knew how to defend its interests better than God His: God had given Palestine and Transjordan in one stroke. Lord Balfour kept Transjordan.”
Londres writes of the 1917 Balfour declaration as well as the betrayal of the Jews following the declaration, because, although the San Marino conference legalized the promise, by 1922, 78% of the British Palestine mandate was severed from becoming a potential Jewish area. And, only 10 years later, in 1939, unbeknown to Londres, who died in 1932 in a fire that broke out on the boat returning him from Shanghai, the slaughter of Europe’s Jews began.
It is all forecast by him, as he describes Jewish history to that time and modern Jewish history from the days of Theodor Herzl (1860-1904). Herzl became a journalist in Paris, where he witnessed the Dreyfus Affair. He wrote a book called The Jewish State. He was particularly shocked by hearing the cry, “Death to the Jews” in Paris, particularly in France where, “if the suspicion that rested on an individual (Alfred Dreyfus) was projected onto all, it meant that a Jew, even in this privileged country was not in his own home.”
Herzl set out to convince monarchs and leaders to establish a home for the Jews. He visited heads of state, royalty and philanthropists, and reunited Israel as a nation, in Basel, for the First Zionist Congress. In London, 10,000 Jews came to hear him. In Vienna, another 10,000.
His schedule was hectic, his leadership challenged and he succumbed to illness at age 44. Londres notes: “Herzl is dead. His dream lives on!” Londres writes, “Three thousand two hundred forty-seven years after Moses, he succeeded Moses.” And, “He awoke a people that had slumbered for nineteen centuries.”
And so, Londres embarks on his mission to describe “the state of the Jews in the world to the French.” In London, he speaks with immigrant Jews and recognizes that, in countries like Poland and Romania, due to antisemitism, “A Jew over there is always a Jew. He may be a man, but he is neither a Romanian nor a Pole. And if he is a man, he must be prevented from growing.”
Londres places into historical perspective the Lord’s designation of Abraham as the patriarch and assigning to him the land of Canaan around 1920 BCE, and the assignation of the land at the San Remo conference, also in 1920, but CE. At San Remo, the Supreme Allied Council gave England the mandate to establish a “Jewish national home” in Palestine. Londres notes wryly that from 1920 BCE to 1920 CE, “the Arabs have not stopped creating an uproar. They deny that Palestine is the cradle of the Jews.”
Londres describes the development of Jew-hatred; the loathing of Jewish adherence to the laws of the Torah, followed by the birth of Christianity and then dispersion to hostile nations. They were ghettoized, marked with yellow badges, forced to give up Judaism in Spain and blamed for cholera in Germany, whereupon they moved to Poland followed by Chmielnicki, the leader of Ukrainian Cossacks, who “passed through all the ghettos to massacre 300,000 Jews.”
The French Revolution led to greater acceptance of Jews, less so in Vienna. But Londres was familiar with the Jews of the West. He wanted to see those in the East, and journeyed to Prague and followed others to Mukachevo, in Subcarpathian Russia. Jews were driven from their homes in Moravia, Poland and Russia into misery and poverty, all described by Londres, the roving journalist.
Even in Prague, in a more civil society in the heart of Europe, he notes, “Chased, beaten, mocked, unable to leave their concentration camp, accused of witchcraft, sorcery, illnesses, their garments marked with a yellow badge, they walk stooped, pale and thin, beards flowing, down the little alleys of yore, with big strides, heads bent, toward this old synagogue. It was their sole homeland.”
What is the vision that prompts him to use the words “concentration camp” for the Jewish area they cannot leave and the yellow badge to mark them, in the year 1929?
The reader will soon enough discover what Londres began to envision. For he discusses as well the absence of Jewish rights, their lack of political power combined with the ever-increasing torment of pogroms, forced conscription and soul-destroying laws. Londres emphasizes that Jews without a land of their own create a space in which to worship and temporarily escape the travails of their wretched lives. He knows there is no future for these Eastern European Jews who happen to number six million, without including those in Germany, France and the Netherlands.
He describes the pogroms of Kishinev in 1903 and the great pogrom of 1918-1920 in Ukraine and eastern Galicia, where 150,000 Jews were murdered and 300,000 wounded. Londres notes there is no particular reason for pogroms except one: “the fundamental cause of pogroms is loathing of Jews. Then come the pretexts.” In Bessarabia, he meets a chalutz (pioneer) from Palestine urging Jews to leave their misery. Alter Fischer had survived a Cossack pogrom and fled to Palestine. Now a proud Palestinian Jew on a mission, he attempts to inspire the Jews of Kishinev. At one point, he rages, “By dint of waiting for him [the Messiah], they will all end up slaughtered. They are like the inhabitants of Stromboli, waiting for the volcano to erupt.”
In contrast to “the wild Jews of the Marmarosh Mountains, the frightened Jews of Transylvania, of Bessarabia and of Bukovina, the begging, beaten Jews of Lwow” stands Warsaw, which is, in Londres’ words, “the Jewish queen of Europe.” Three hundred and sixty thousand Jews – but living in a country where, “One of the main pillars of Poland’s political program is to ‘crunch the Jews.’ A Jew cannot work for the government, or the army, or a university.”
Londres’ descriptions of the depth and intensity of Jewish life reflect an admiration of the commitment to study and education. But, he worries. His travel companion from Prague, Ben, offers these words, “The Jews of Russia? They know they are enjoying a truce now. Bolshevism has brought them peace. But every regime that follows Bolshevism will bring them war. And they will pay the price. It will be even worse than Petliura’s pogroms. Everyone knows this and it will be ghastly. In Poland? The situation is worse than it’s ever been. In Romania, the antagonism is blatant. In Czechoslovakia, there is neutrality but also neglect. That’s the picture. Who wouldn’t want to get out?” Ben adds, “All of us here are not at home. But we are no more than guests wherever we live.” It is 1929.
Londres travels to Palestine on a vessel, the Sphinx. He exclaims, “Here is the sun! I left Warsaw in the year 5690” (on the Hebrew calendar). “Now I enter year 10” (roughly a decade after the Balfour declaration). Londres exults in the discovery of “Herzl Street! Edmond de Rothschild Boulevard! Max Nordau Street! The synagogue, the main monument in the process of being completed, seems to say it all. It is like a flag, floating over a camp. The sole, unrivaled flag. No crosses in its shadow, no minarets in its radius. Just as when the Temple dominated Jerusalem, before the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Mosque of Omar.”
In discussing the defeat of the Ottoman Empire and its 400-year occupation, Londres states simply, “Victory came. England puffed its cheeks and exhaled. The Arab kingdom vanished. Israel took its place.” He writes, “There is no point labouring over historical texts. Whether the settlement of the Jews in Palestine is called a ‘national home’ rather than a ‘Jewish state’ does not alter the fact. And the fact is this: this time, the Jews were arriving not as beggars, but as citizens. They were no longer asking for hospitality – they were taking possession of the land. They would no longer be a tolerated people, but equal.”
Londres’ remarkable work – of a period of time wedged in between two world wars, the latter resulting in the destruction of European Jewry – deserves a wide readership. Londres, the journalist, captures the essence of Jewish life and foreshadows what is to come through his awareness that Jewish survival is not possible and that the wandering Jew is destined to return home.
Dr. Robert Krell is professor emeritus, department of psychiatry, University of British Columbia, distinguished life fellow of the American Psychiatric Association and founding president of the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre.
The Jewish Independent is among the winners of this year’s American Jewish Press Association Rockower Awards for Excellence in Jewish Journalism. The awards were presented at the AJPA annual conference, held in conjunction with the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly in Los Angeles, Nov. 13-15.
About the Independent’s “Let’s talk about Nini …” submission, the AJPA’s Rockower jury commented that it demonstrated “great writing, clear intent and galvanized a call to action in support of Jewish Federation’s decision to host an Israeli singer with controversial political views. Readers took heed.”
The editorial “Much more yet to learn” was about the need for Holocaust education and “Inspired by Standing Rock” connected the story of Chanukah, “of standing for one’s beliefs (and existence) and triumphing in the end,” with that of the protesters in North Dakota, who stood up against the U.S. government’s plans to run an oil pipeline through a cemetery and under a water reservoir near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.
Jewish community member Paul Shore of Whistler won this year’s Whistler Independent Book Awards (WIBA) non-fiction prize for his memoir Uncorked, set within the rampart walls of a village in Provence. Farida Somjee of Vancouver won the WIBA fiction prize for her novel The Beggar’s Dance, set in the streets of coastal Africa.
The winners were announced by WIBA organizers Lynn Duncan and Kilmeny Denny at the Whistler Writers Festival’s improvisational Literary Cabaret at the Maury Young Arts Centre. Two-time winner of the Stephen Leacock Medal for Canadian Humour Terry Fallis said, “It is wonderful to see talented, up-and-coming, independent authors recognized. It is a challenging process to start out on your own and work to have your creativity discovered.”
“In Uncorked, Shore’s use of the game of pétanque as a point of entry to address areas of personal alienation is a great literary and narrative choice,” said J.J. Lee, one of the judges for the non-fiction award, and CBC radio host, author and Governor General’s Literary Award finalist. “This memoir made me laugh; especially Paul’s foil Hubert, who is a star. And its funny and illuminating stories contain a soul that is touching, too!”
[For the Independent’s review of Uncorked, click here.]
Journalist Jesse Brown takes a humourous look at his homeland in The CANADALAND Guide to Canada (Published in America), written with Vicky Mochama and Nick Zarzycki.
Jesse Brown has emerged in the last few years as an important voice in the Canadian media landscape, hosting popular podcasts on media and current affairs. Brown’s CANADALAND, which started as a single weekly podcast about Canadian media hosted by him, has expanded to include a permanent staff producing a full website and a roster of podcasts covering politics, arts, media and current affairs.
A former CBC documentary producer and host, Brown is most known for breaking the Jian Ghomeshi scandal in the Toronto Star with Kevin Donovan in 2014. But it’s Brown’s media startup and podcast roster that will likely make a more lasting mark.
Brown’s pugnacious self-assurance sometimes teeters on the edge of the obnoxious, but his dogged fair-mindedness mostly outweighs small annoyances. More importantly, his content fills a necessary niche: media analysis that lacerates Canada’s haughty self-image, provocative critiques of specific people and organizations, and deep dives into under-covered Canadian stories. The mixture of salaciousness and nerdiness create an alchemy that puts the listener in the thick of critical conversations in Canada.
In addition to the growing news organization, Brown hasn’t lost touch with humour, arguably the way that he gained some of his first public exposure, through elaborate jokes and pranks in his university years. His book The CANADALAND Guide to Canada (Published in America), with Vicky Mochama and Nick Zarzycki, came out this spring. It’s an irreverent rundown of Canadian history, politics and social mores, including a ranking of how f-able Canadian prime ministers are and a cover illustration of Drake tenderly embracing a moose.
Brown can easily pass as a generic Canadian. But he is a Jew – a fact he neither hid nor discussed until recently. In an episode of CANADALAND this spring, Brown highlighted his Jewish identity in a discussion with members of the Jewish ethnic press about being Jewish in public, given attacks on Jewishness from both the left and the right. The CANADALAND website has begun to cover additional Jewish media stories, including the circumstances of the recent resignation of left-leaning columnist Mira Sucharov from the Canadian Jewish News.
The Independent interviewed Brown recently to ask him about his business, Jewish media in general and his new book.
Jewish Independent: CANADALAND started as a podcast where you had a single weekly conversation with someone in the media. You’ve expanded. Is everything going as planned or are you surprised at the success of this project?
Jesse Brown: Wildly surprised. When I launched the crowdfunding campaign a year into the project, I was terrified I wouldn’t get to the first goal: $1,000 a month so I could keep making the show as a part-time job. I threw “$10,000: CANADALAND the news org/podcast network” up as a fantasy reach-goal. I never expected to get it.
JI: CANADALAND the book is on-brand in the sense that it’s an irreverent takedown of fusty Canadian tropes, but it’s essentially a comedy book, which seems outside of your core mission. How did this come about?
JB: If you’re going to stick a pin in Canada’s smug superiority and its convenient mythologies, I can’t think of a better way to do that than in an hilarious book of rude jokes with good cartoons. Anything else would be a grim slog.
JI: For CANADALAND the media startup, about $200,000 comes from subscribers and another amount from sponsorship. Is it self-sustaining?
JB: It’s totally self-sustaining from crowdfunding and sponsorships. It’s not my vanity project, not something I’m ever going to bankroll out of my private bank account.
JI: In a sense, it’s not so different from what the JI does (subscriptions and advertising). The product is available for free (online, at coffee shops), but some people still buy subscriptions to get it mailed to their door. But this and other newspapers continually struggle financially. Do you think your funding model is applicable to ethnic presses?
JB: Similar model, yes. Also similar to NPR, who pioneered the model of flipping “exclusivity.” Instead of paying for content that nobody else can have, people pay for content so that everyone can have it. Ten percent of our readers and listeners make it possible for everyone else. As for tips … podcasts are generally more successful than articles at inspiring support. It’s the intimacy of the medium, the relationship between podcaster and listener. So, you should make a podcast!
JI: Community papers need to balance freedom of speech and the financial reality that the people who pay for the product are usually older and more conservative than the ones who are getting it for free. Subscriptions are lost when something controversial is published, but nothing is gained from the people who appreciate the content but don’t pay for it. Do you feel any pressure not to cross certain lines because of audience or advertisers?
JB: Not really. We only take ad money from people we don’t cover and, as for our patrons, they are of no one political stripe. I’m mindful of what I say for fear of being dumb or wrong. I don’t mind offending people when I believe what I say and, generally speaking, if I lose one patron because they disagree with me, I gain another who likes what I said. Most patrons understand that they are funding an organization with many voices, that does important original journalism in addition to punditry, and that it’s not mandatory that they agree with me in order to support CANADALAND.
As for people not paying for a Jewish newspaper, the problem is that it’s a newspaper. If someone did something like Tablet [an American Jewish online magazine] in Canada and it was really good, people would pay for it.
JI: You don’t think our community is especially thin-skinned?
JB: I think smart Jews, of which there are many, value good debate. I think some older Jews are getting calcified in their opinions, are drifting rightwards as they age, feel like they are under siege, and see themselves as defenders of the tribe, not as people engaged in a good faith conversation.
JI: In the CANADALAND podcast “Being Jewish in Public,” you said that, because attacks on you as a Jew had reached a certain threshold, it wasn’t tenable any longer to be taciturn about your Jewishness in the media, and you wanted to foreground it in a discussion with a few people who explicitly talk about Jewishness all the time. Did something change for you after doing that episode?
JB: Yes, but I’m still working it out. I increasingly feel that the public discourse around all things Jewish has been abandoned by everyone except for those with radical positions: hawkish Zionists on the one side who are increasingly in cahoots with flat-out racists, Islamophobes and even neo-Nazis. And anti-Zionists on the other side, who decry Israel in absolute terms while, in my opinion, offering little in the way of viable solutions to the conflict. So, these two camps scream at each other and the rest of us have left the building.
JI: It sounded on that episode like you thought you were the only person who believes in Israel’s existence but has strong criticisms of the government. Do you really feel so isolated in your views, which are pretty typical for centre- or left-leaning Jews?
JB: I suspect most Jews feel the same, but we keep quiet because we don’t really know what to say. I don’t pretend to know what should happen in the Middle East, but I don’t like the way that extreme views from extreme people are increasingly defining not just the Israel debate, but Jewishness itself.
JI: Ezra Levant, another notable Canadian Jew, is also running a website media startup – The Rebel – which you talk about a fair bit on CANADALAND. Is the sparring between the two of you a symptom of a healthy rivalry?
JB: Ezra is not my rival. Nobody who funds The Rebel would dream of funding CANADALAND. Our business interests are not in conflict. We cover him a lot because our job is to cover the media and The Rebel is a media company (among other things) that is being ignored in large part by the big news organizations. They claim he is beneath their contempt or that they don’t want to feed a troll but, in truth, he is very litigious, he fights dirty, and they can’t afford to hold him to account. So we do it.
JI: How can you afford it?
JB: I dunno, maybe because we have less to lose? I don’t live in fear of a legal challenge from Ezra, and his doxxing and public mobbing tactics don’t scare me. I think he’s building a hate machine, I agree with the courts that he has no regard for the truth, and I consider his harassment and disinformation campaigns quite dangerous. So, I’m not sure what we’re here for, if not to scrutinize him and hold his organization to account.
JI: You just did a show recently about the newspaper bailout proposal suggested by a newspaper industry group. Under the proposal, it sounds like small community papers like us would be eligible but not web-native reporting startups like you. You’re against the proposal. Do you think there’s a way to subsidize news that would be good?
JB: Maybe, but I’m doubtful. I think various approaches would do some good for some people, but the overall effect would be terrible, for reasons explained on the show. But there are other things the government could do that would be very helpful; for example, removing the policies that inhibit charities from doing journalism. Nonprofit donor-based models would be a good choice for the ethnic press. And prohibiting the CBC from selling digital ads, but funding them well to do (mandatory) local news reporting online, which would be available for any publication to run or build on as free wire copy content – this would be a huge boon to small news organizations.
We make the most popular Canadian podcasts. We sell companies ads on them. We turn a small profit and pay our taxes. Meanwhile, the CBC is making podcasts with tax dollars and selling ads to the same companies that we do, and they can undercut us on ad rates because they don’t need the money to survive, as we do. I support a strong public broadcaster, not some weird commercialized but subsidized broadcaster that competes with tiny startups.
Maayan Kreitzmanis a PhD student in conservation biology at the University of British Columbia, who dabbles in editing, podcasting, and knitting. Follow her on Twitter at @maayanster.
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.