An oil painting by Germany-based artist Gennady Karabinskiy.
Vancouver’s Furniture & Art Concierge, owned by Elliot Nitkin, has received the sole right to bring the work of Germany-based artist Gennady Karabinskiy to Canada.
Karabinskiy, a Russian Jew, uses diverse techniques to express his artistic ideas: oil on canvas painting, tempera, pastel, ink on paper and lithography. In his work, Karabinskiy follows the artistic tradition of Eastern European Jewry, carrying on the work of Jewish painters such as Marc Chagall, Amedeo Modigliani and Anatoli Kaplan.
Since 1989, he has participated in more than 200 solo and group exhibitions, including ones in Norway, Germany, Holland and the United States, and he has been featured in numerous newspaper and magazine articles. His works are exhibited in museums in many countries, and are part of private collections around the world.
A scene from Mary Magdalene in Conversation with Lilian Broca, produced by Adelina Suvagau. Lilian Broca works as Mary Magdalene, portrayed by Adriana Villi, stands to her side. (image from marymagdaleneresurrected.com)
The Canadian Ethnic Media Association (CEMA) recently announced the winners of its 44th Annual Awards for Journalistic Excellence. CEMA asked Canada’s ethnic media to enter their best work, and they did. An independent panel of multilingual media experts screened all submissions and the winners present a national showcase of Canada’s best ethnocultural journalism from Vancouver to Halifax.
There were various categories of work for which the winners were recognized. In the documentary category, Adelina Suvagau of Vancouver was awarded for her work as producer of Mary Magdalene in Conversation with Lilian Broca.
Vancouver mosaics artist Lilian Broca, “in spiritual alliance with the biblical figure Mary Magdalene weaves a wondrous, animated and engaging tale recounting her long and arduous creative journey,” notes the film’s website, marymagdaleneresurrected.com. The director notes that the film is a cinéma vérité dialogue between Broca and the artist’s subject, Mary Magdalene: “In the director’s concept for this documentary film, Mary Magdalene travels from her ancient time to the present in order to meet with the artist in her Vancouver studio. The spiritual connection and personal bond between them, apparent in all mosaics in the series, is based on Lilian Broca’s personal journal and her research on Mary Magdalene’s varied representations over the centuries in art and in biblical literature.”(For more on Broca’s Mary Magdalene Resurrected series, see jewishindependent.ca/brocas-latest-mosaics.)
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On Nov. 16, the Canada Council for the Arts revealed the 2022 winners of the Governor General’s Literary Awards (GGBooks). Among the 14 best books published in Canada between Aug. 1, 2021, and July 31, 2022, were Pure Colour by Sheila Heti (Penguin Random House Canada) in the English-language fiction category and, in the translation (from French to English) category History of the Jews in Quebec, the translation by Judith Weisz Woodsworth (University of Ottawa Press) of Histoire des Juifs du Québec by Pierre Anctil.
“We are living in a turbulent social climate, marked by struggles against inequalities,” said Simon Brault, director and chief executive officer, Canada Council for the Arts, in the press release. “We are confronted daily with many complex phenomena that are more worrisome than ever, including misogyny, gender-based violence, colonialism, racism, the search for identity, and mental health. These are but some of the contemporary themes that are explored by these brilliant GGBooks winners. Once again, I invite you to celebrate the immense talent of these authors and to take a look at these invigorating works that challenge, redefine and question moral and social norms.”
The GGBooks winners were selected by peer assessment committees that followed a rigorous process to choose them from among the 70 finalists in seven categories, in both English and French. Each writer, translator or illustrator whose book is selected as winner receives a $25,000 prize. Publishers receive $3,000 to promote the winning book; finalists receive $1,000 each.
Vancouverite Jack Scher is a student at Tel Aviv University’s Porter School of Environmental Studies. (photo from Masa Canada)
Born in the United Kingdom, Jack Scher grew up in the south of France from the age of 6 till he was 13, far away from any Jewish community. Now, he is surrounded by community – and living like a local, while studying in Israel with Masa Israel Journey.
After moving to Vancouver, Scher attended St. George’s and received an athletic scholarship to play rugby. Following high school, he followed a traditional British path by taking a gap year, and went on to play rugby in New Zealand. While there, he went on a Canadian delegation Birthright trip to Israel.
“That was the first time I saw with my own eyes the soldiers and Yad Vashem, and it was also the first time where 30 other Jews from Canada surrounded me,” he recalled. “To meet young Jews from Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto; it was unbelievable.”
It was then that he knew he wanted to return to Israel and live there.
Last year, when he was in his final stretch of a bachelor of arts at the University of British Columbia, Scher shortlisted top schools for master’s programs in England, Canada and the United States. Then, his father, a board member at Congregation Schara Tzedeck, read about Masa opportunities in a synagogue eblast.
Upon hearing about Masa Israel Journey – a joint initiative of the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency that aims to cultivate Jewish connectedness through long-term, immersive programs in Israel – the rugby player registered to study abroad at Tel Aviv University.
Scher’s life story is a unique one. However, his Masa Israel Journey experience is similar to that of thousands: taking the risk of a new opportunity and growing both personally and professionally while connecting to Jewish identity and Israel.
In the short time that Scher has been in Israel, he has connected to a community and already feels like he belongs. “I’m not just studying,” he said. ‘Through Masa, I get to attend social events and see Israel in a real way. I am living here like a local.
“The Porter School is where I have my environmental studies [classes], and the building is a world-class building in terms of sustainability…. It is the first building that is LEED certified in Israel,” he continued. “The entrance to the building is facing west, the wind comes off the sea and goes through the building. The shape is cool, the air comes in where the building is wider, and then the air spins and goes up. The building thins as it goes up, which means that the building does not require air conditioning or light[ing] because of the windows. All the pipes are facing the sun and get heated that way, and that is how the building receives heat as well. There is a rooftop garden and patio.”
The message Scher wants to impart to his peers is this: take the risk, inquire about your options, including Masa, which offers a range of programs lasting from a few months to a year – volunteering, studying, career development and teaching.
Follow @masacanada for a weekly dose of what life is like on the ground in Israel for Canadians.
Imagine being in a meeting where everyone is asked to set “reach” goals for the next season. How about those self-help gurus who invite you to visualize your ultimate success? Perhaps there’s a social media post where you’re invited to dream, with reels of beautiful drivers in fancy cars, enormous luxury estates and vacations in exotic locales.
I was once part of an online writing group that emphasized setting goals. This included how many words you’d write a day, where you’d sell your work and how much you would earn. They repeated a refrain: “Writing is a positive addiction.” I retained a healthy cynicism about it all, but the thing I actually fell for was an exercise where you drew the cover of the book you were creating.
I drew the cover of the novel manuscript I was writing. Now, I’m happy to say that, since then, I’ve published books (all non-fiction) and articles with reputable publishers. I once won a fiction short story contest. I’m an actual writer and get paid for my work. I’m proud of this achievement! It’s also a real milestone for many who start out as grade school scribblers.
But, despite many attempts, I never sold that novel manuscript. Those who read it said it was good – but it remains unpublished. That book cover I posted above my desk for motivation makes me feel embarrassed. Who did I think I was? It’s hard for me to let go of my goals and cut myself a break. I held myself accountable.
This feeling of shame grew when I had a family because, as anyone with kids knows, it’s hard to make solid promises when dependents are in the picture. Even with family, spousal and childcare support, things can happen. The pandemic reminded us all that we have much less control over our lives than we thought. Sick kids happen. My children’s needs will always come before my work. There are no guarantees that you’ll always meet that deadline or reach the goals you set.
All this came to mind as I studied the Babylonian Talmud tractate Nedarim (Vows) and got to daf (page) 9. Nedarim is all about how to understand a vow, which, in Judaism, is taken very seriously. The rabbis explore definitions of how a vow works. Even though I’d never been taught these texts directly before, I have always hesitated to promise things that perhaps I can’t deliver. Just as we should not “swear” to things, we shouldn’t even promise anything if we think something might come up.
In Nedarim 9b, there’s a question about making a vow when it comes to bringing an offering. This itself could be strange, as the rabbis in the Gemara are reflecting on a time they never experienced. Very few of these rabbis were alive before the destruction of the Temple. They’re still concerned with the protocol of bringing an offering there, just in case the Temple is rebuilt. The real lesson is in how it’s theoretically done, even if no one’s ever making a physical offering again.
A person shouldn’t make a vow to bring an offering, the Gemara says, because “perhaps he will encounter a stumbling block” that would violate the prohibition against delaying. That delay would interfere with fulfilling the vow. Further, it’s a bad idea to designate a specific animal for the offering in advance because, again, something might happen to it. For instance, say it is a sheep, but it’s shorn by someone by accident. Perhaps someone works with a consecrated animal in some way when he shouldn’t. This is a misuse of a consecrated animal, and it’s prohibited. The animal can no longer be used as an offering.
Then, a story is told about Hillel the Elder. No one ever misused his offering. Why? He would bring it to the Temple courtyard unconsecrated. Only after he arrived, would he consecrate it. Then he’d place his hand on its head and slaughter it. There was no opportunity for misuse.
Upon reading this, I better understood my hesitancy in terms of big goals. The generations of parents who said to their children “We’ll see” rather than promising things? This made good sense. The rabbis understood the concern that sometimes even sure things fall through.
Some traditionally religious Jews say “bli neder,” or “without a vow,” when committing to something. It means – I’ll try to the best of my abilities, but I’m not making a serious vow. I’ve never used this, but it has such power. Yes, we all want to reach milestones and accomplish huge things. Absolutely! However, it can be heartbreaking when we don’t quite get there, even if we have valid reasons for why we didn’t.
It can be anti-climactic to be like Hillel the Elder. After all, there was no announcement, anticipation or build up for him around his vows. It was very low key.
I remembered something similar that happened long ago, when I was an undergraduate. Friends doing science degrees would plan big parties after their last exams, bar-hopping and celebrating when the semester ended. I often had only one or two exams. Mostly, I wrote many final papers in my dorm room. With stacks of books everywhere, I’d write alone at my computer each morning. Then, I’d print the paper, walk across campus and put it in a professor’s mailbox. That was it. When the last paper was finished, boom, end of my semester. No big announcement or party followed. I packed up by myself and traveled home.
Sometimes Jewish texts can be hard to connect to, because the issues seem old, irrelevant or don’t include me as a woman. This time, though, I was right there with the rabbis’ stumbling blocks and the low-key anti-climax of Hillel the Elder. I wish that everyone could hit those big reach goals and fulfil their aspirations – but perhaps we might not voice them as promises ahead of time. According to the rabbis, that quieter approach is entirely OK, too.
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. Check her out on Instagram @yrnspinner or at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.
Two years ago, I was 58 years old, weighed 200 pounds and was in a wheelchair because of chronic ankle pain when my doctor told me I had diabetes. Six months later, I was 20 pounds lighter and my blood glucose level had lowered so much that I was considered pre-diabetic. This meant that diabetes was no longer harming my body.
One of the first things I did was to cut out refined sugar, honey and junk food from my diet. This was not easy, as I grew up with a mother whose idea of making you feel better was to give you food like waffles with maple syrup and Sephardi delicacies like zangoola – deep fried pastry filled with treacle – on Hanukkah. But, with the help of a dietician, I lowered the amount of carbohydrates and sugar that I ate. She said that I could have artificial sweetener in my tea, so I decided to do that.
I noticed that food tasted better when my overall diet had very little sugar added. I also made sure to have a lot of vegetables with my meals. I treated myself to a simple spinach omelette with feta cheese and tomatoes almost every week.
I ate strawberries, blueberries and cantaloupe instead of high fructose fruits like watermelon. But I made sure to cheat a bit, too, at least once a week, with a few squares of fruit-and-nut dark chocolate. Whenever I went kayaking and got a good workout for an hour-and-a-half, I rewarded myself with a small chocolate ice cream.
If I can’t see it I won’t eat it! My husband eats ice cream and I asked him to put it at the very back of the freezer so I can’t see it. He also has a special cubbyhole where he puts his snacks that are high in carbs.
I spent some time on the Diabetes Canada website and found a chart there that tells you what food to eat some of the time, what food to eat most of the time and what foods to avoid altogether, which was very helpful.
Going to restaurants is still possible. When I order salads, I always ask the server to leave the dressing on the side, since dressings are sometimes high in sugar. I also found out that all sit-down restaurants have a nutrition guide, which will tell you how many carbohydrates or sugars are in their foods.
The second thing I did was find a diabetes clinic that had a case manager and an endocrinologist that I could see for free. I can’t say how important it was to find a specialist who knew so much about the disease and was so optimistic that I could lower my blood glucose level. He gave me a blood glucose monitor for free for two weeks and, during this time, I found out which foods spiked my levels and which foods didn’t. Everyone is different.
It took about six weeks but after trying three different drugs I was finally given one I could tolerate and that I could get on special authority so I didn’t have to pay for it. My pharmacist insists that it was the drug that lowered my blood sugar level from 6.8 to 6.2 in six months. I think other factors helped, too.
I found that exercising for even 15 minutes a day made a difference in my weight. There are unlimited exercises on the internet that you can do while sitting. And if you Google “exercises for seniors,” you will find many examples.
I started swimming twice a week. Swimming increases blood flow and tones almost all of the muscles in your body. Also, I figured that during the two hours I was getting ready to swim, then swimming, then going into the whirlpool and sauna – if that didn’t take the pounds off, at least I wasn’t eating for that amount of time!
I tried five different indoor swimming pools in Vancouver and they all had lifts that take you out of your wheelchair and into the pool. It’s different at outdoor pools though. It’s best to call ahead and see if they have the equipment that’s required.
I found social media helpful, as well, especially Facebook, since there are a few different pages for people who have diabetes. It was helpful to know that I was not alone – while also being cautious, since there were people who really wanted to make money off of my condition.
Now I am 60 years old and I can walk again. I am hoping to lose more weight so that I will be able to walk pain-free. I’m still getting medical treatments and I am hopeful that I will slowly but surely get rid of my diabetic belly. Here’s to hoping!
Cassandra Freeman is a freelance writer living in Vancouver.
Being old! That is so different from feeling old. Being old is what I think of other people, or what others may think of me. Feeling old is so much more personal. Feeling old is something that has crept up on me so much more recently.
I have noticed being old for a long time, as the ranks of my contemporaries has been thinning out. But now, I am noticing how the distances I want to cover, have to cover, seem so much further away. I am much slower in my reach, slower to pick up things, slower to get up and go. When did I develop that tremor that I never noticed before? Why do I not recall the name, the word, that I used to instantly recall? What’s happening? I must be getting old. It makes me feel old.
I have always reveled in the richness of my memories – memories of things that so many around me have not the least idea about. My past has become an irrelevancy. I have had to comfort myself with the private knowledge that the present all of us so take for granted is based on what I and my contemporaries had built so solidly in the past. If we were to dare recount our triumphs, we would be written off as old bores.
I find I now have a reluctance to add new articles to my closet. What I have there are the things I put on like old companions, which wrap me in comfort. The odds and ends I have accumulated are the precious reminders of my days of derring-do, when I traveled to the heart of darkness without a thought to the dangers that were present on every side. Those days we knew we were immortal.
Like the just desserts for the conquering hero, I earned my reward, albeit at the age of 71. Correcting the errors and omissions of a callow youth, lacking the courage of my convictions, throwing caution to the winds, I gained the love and companionship of my true love after an interregnum of more than 50 years. Thereafter, I had to learn how to appreciate the needs of others as the road to ultimately meeting my own. It took the reasoning and wisdom of advancing age, and altered priorities, to gain the knowledge that enabled me to reengineer the person that I was.
Each day, we launch our enterprise to meet the challenges of life. If the objective is to fill the pantry or the fridge, we count it a victory if we return home without having forgotten any of the items on the grocery list we carried in our minds. If we meet up with others to share a community activity, we count ourselves brilliant if we remember the names of our comrades. We have taken to the practice of notation to ensure we do not miss birthdays and anniversaries of even our closest kin. If all else fails, we resort to internet searches to compensate for any breaches we may come across in the things we surely know by heart. It is always a joint product as we seek to light the fires of memory in each other.
We are engaged in the habit of doing puzzles. I hate puzzles, but they are one of the medicines I faithfully take to counter the breaches in my armour that have accumulated over time. We exercise. Ditto to my personal appreciation of the activity. We socialize. I am most happy at home with a book or an exciting mystery or bang-up violence on my TV.
I do like to be surrounded by younger folk. That gives me a charge. The spontaneity of children is just marvelous to behold. And they are so beautiful to behold. I am sure having them in one’s life keeps one young, even if they sometimes tire you out. It is a good tired!
Generally, I happily do all those things the doctors tell us are good for our health. But no serious food exclusions. I am sure I will expire consuming one of those things we have been warned is bound to bring us to the edge of existence. I bear these admonitions in mind but am an inveterate cheater. Even if the time comes sooner, we have had a good run and I will go out smiling. (Don’t tell my wife, because she absolutely won’t hear of my going off without her.)
Some of us may miss the cut and thrust of being out in the world, struggling with the demons we all have to face, but it is a relief, in the end, to no longer worry about what might be happening behind our backs. We gaze out at the world more or less secure.
Being old without feeling old is the secret, isn’t it?
Max Roytenberg is a Vancouver-based poet, writer and blogger. His book Hero in My Own Eyes: Tripping a Life Fantastic is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.
Suzy Birstein amid her work, some of which visitors to her studio will see during the East Side Culture Crawl. (photo by Britt Kwasney)
“I am most looking forward to healthily connecting with fellow artists and art lovers in real time, real space. Art is always more powerful in person,” artist Suzy Birstein told the Jewish Independent about the East Side Culture Crawl Visual Arts, Design & Craft Festival, which returns to its traditional format Nov. 17-20. Some 400+ artists will open their studios to the public.
“The sense of community, commitment, excitement, inspiration, appreciation – all that brought me to Parker Street [Studios] and East Side Culture Crawl originally is happening again,” she said. “It feels like a renaissance.”
“After the two-year pandemic rollercoaster ride, I am thrilled we are back to a ‘new normal,’” said Esther Rausenberg, artistic and executive director of the Crawl, as well as a participating artist. “I do say ‘new normal,’ as we don’t have a crystal ball and I can’t really speculate how this year’s Crawl will play out. Personally, I am excited to get out and see all of the new and amazing art that has been created and to catch up with the artists. It’s also a real pleasure for me to meet members of the public as they share their enthusiasm for the event, the art and the connections they will be making with the artists.”
Birstein (clay, painting, sculpture) and Rausenberg (photography, Georgia Art Studios) are only two of many Jewish community members who will open their creative space to the public over the four days of the festival, which also features gallery displays, and artist demonstrations and talks. Other community members include, from Parker Street Studios, Shevy Levy (painting), Olga Campbell (clay, mixed media, new media), Mia Weinberg (painting) and penny eisenberg (drawing, painting); from Eastside Atelier, Lauren Morris (mixed media, painting), Ideet Sharon (assemblage, mixed media, painting), Stacy Lederman (mixed media, painting) and Karly Leipsic (mixed media); and, from the Arc, Lynna Goldhar Smith (installation, painting). Overall, festival-goers can explore about 68 buildings and studios in the Eastside Arts District, the area bounded by Columbia Street, 1st Avenue, Victoria Drive and the waterfront.
“This year’s event has a distinctly celebratory tone,” said Levy. “It is a reunion for Vancouver’s established art community, a chance to reconnect, to have meaningful discussions around art, not just with artists, students and educators, but with those who display art, like galleries and art management, and everyone who is excited to work together again.”
Thinking of the last couple of years, she noted, “What was fascinating about the immediate impact of COVID-19 was the sudden loss of collective connection – both human (face-to-face) and the collective understanding of what the future might bring…. When we were forced to isolate, I appreciated the introduction of art to the digital and virtual world, and how it helped the art world, in many aspects, to find new ways to connect with society. However, now I understand how much I, like so many of my colleagues, urgently need constant interactions with the community – 2022 Crawl is here to fill some gaps.”
Goldhar Smith – a multi-disciplinary artist who has spent more than 30 years in theatre performance with painting very much in the background – is excited about the chance to show her visual art to a lot of different people. “I especially love the opportunity to see their responses to the work and engage in lively conversation when it’s possible,” she said.
Interested in integrating her visual art practice with her performance practice, Goldhar Smith said, “I have been building installations in my studio to that end and so, among my paintings and prints, visitors will see the beginnings of more conceptual ideas in some of the physical objects and paper sculptures in the studio.”
Whether abstract or figurative, Goldhar Smith seeks to express the intangible qualities of human experience in her work. “If I paint a landscape, it is as much an emotional or psychological landscape as a place,” she said. “Yet, at the same time, if I paint an urban crow or a heron, it is more an expression of honouring the urban wildlife, and reminding myself that I am in their domain. I hope that makes sense. Whatever I paint, I am like an improvisational actor, responding to the moment, with one brushstroke informing the next. The meaning emerges after the fact. It is not so much I make my art, as my art makes me.”
For Goldhar Smith, the pandemic was a dramatic reminder “that we need to behave more responsibly, more cohesively, with more compassion and care for each other – with more understanding of our connection to each other – and to view ourselves as part of nature and part of one planet all together. Yet, we are so divided. If there was ever a time for artists to get focused, this would be it.
“Artists, and art, have the privilege and responsibility of their voices,” she continued. “We need to use our voices to contribute to the global change that is necessary. We need to speak up with courage and make brave art.
“We need to be endowed with the respect that what we do is of great importance and we need to be valued, supported and encouraged because artists bring meaning and perspective and also disruption and confrontation with the status quo. We need to see how our art fits, not so much into the art marketplace, but as a central driver of change that can address the pressing needs of our time.”
Levy expressed a similar view.
“So many artists, myself included, produce artwork with an outcome in mind, such as an exhibition or career step,” said Levy. “The challenges of the past few years forced me to take the time to reflect on my own art practice, taking it to the next level by exploring new avenues and fresh approaches. I had to remove and free myself from that outcome. I was able to experiment and create work that connects me better to the meaning of being a better human and better artist, as opposed to a ‘professional artist’ operating within the structures of a commercial art world.”
Birstein also used the pandemic period for self-reflection. “The enforced isolation of the pandemic,” she said, “gave me the gift of time: time to create, experiment, reflect, all day, every day. This is a first in my art practice and I was very productive.”
Birstein created two bodies of work for two solo exhibits in 2021 and 2022.
“Tsipora: A Place to Land was exhibited at the Zack Gallery,” she said. “Tsipora is my Hebrew name, meaning Bird. Pre-COVID, the bird symbolized a freedom of spirit while taking flight. With COVID, it was a time to nest, to find a place to land.
“Frida: When I Have Wings to Fly was exhibited at POMOArts. Frida is a continuation of my art historical portraits, Ladies-Not-Waiting, inspired by Velasquez’ masterpiece ‘Las Meninas.’ This series speaks to Frida Kahlo as a symbol of feminine strength and empowerment: a person who transcended tragedy and transformed it into beauty. My sculptures and paintings invite the viewer to converse in intertwined stories of myself, my mother, Frida and other historic figures that embody resourcefulness, resilience and beauty.
“Materially, both bodies of work involved much experimentation with structural techniques, surfacing with fired and cold materials, addition of repurposed objects.”
For Levy, the last couple of years allowed her to start a new direction with her abstract work. “Slowly, I developed large-scale canvases that were marked by bold and expressive brushstrokes,” she said. “I am excited to share with the public my new collection, A Portrait of a Flower. My work demonstrates the flowers as a source of lines, shapes, negative space, gesture, colour and value, or another source of abstraction.”
The pandemic period also gave Levy the chance to explore more remote art communities. “Pre-COVID,” she said, “I used to share and exhibit my art within my immediate community. In the last two-plus years, I had more time to develop my social media presence and expertise. As an outcome, 2021 was the best year ever of showing and selling my work.”
Birstein also pointed to the technological silver lining of COVID. “With the necessity of communicating virtually while globally isolated,” she said, “I see the world of art opening in terms of compassion, imagination, inclusion, respect – all of this so apparent at this year’s Venice Bienale, from which I have just returned.”
In addition to the open studios Nov. 17-20, the East Side Culture Crawl features a multi-venue, salon-style curated exhibition called NEXT, which “explores the after-effects of living through a pandemic as we long for and ponder about what’s next.” There are also several other events. For more information, visit culturecrawl.ca.
A scene from Site: Yizkor as it was performed in Sichów Duży, Poland, this past June. (photo from Chutzpah!)
Site: Yizkor is both an intensely personal work and a powerful, universally meaningful work. It is ever-changing and spans the past, present and future.
“For me, this project is a gesture of healing,” co-creator Maya Ciarrocchi told the Independent. “My goal for audiences and participants is that, through the process of shared commemoration, we may put aside our differences and look towards a reimagined future.”
Part of this year’s Chutzpah! Festival, Site: Yizkor is a collaboration between Canadian multimedia artist Ciarrocchi and American composer Andrew Conklin. It is an evolving “interdisciplinary project [that] explores the physical and emotional manifestation of loss through text, video and music.” It is an installation (of video, prints and drawings) and a performance, and includes workshops “where participants are invited to create their own Yizkor pages as a way to mourn and commemorate lost people and places.”
“Yizkor books are documents written by Holocaust survivors to commemorate the villages they lived in before the Second World War,” explained Ciarrocchi. “They capture the spirit of these places by describing the day-to-day life of their Jewish citizens. They include lists of the Jewish residents, the structure of political systems and where the best shopping could be found. They also include photographs and maps of the villages drawn from memory. They document a time and place that no longer exist but the traces of which are visible in the contemporary landscape.”
In introducing the project to workshop participants, Ciarrocchi said, “I tell them that, while Site: Yizkorexamines displacement through the lens of Yizkor, which is an inherently Jewish framework, the project is not limited to the Jewish experience. Site: Yizkor is centred on creating a space for shared commemoration and the universal experience of loss.”
For the local presentation, Conklin works with a local string quartet for the performance, while Ciarrocchi creates “video projections for the performance that include references to the known and erased histories of Vancouver,” and installs the exhibit in the gallery. She leads the workshops, which include both Jewish and non-Jewish community groups, and participants “are invited to read their text as part of the performances or share them as written documents or drawings as part of the exhibition.”
Site: Yizkor has been presented in New York City and in San Francisco. In June of this year, it was presented in Poland, from where Ciarrocchi’s maternal grandfather immigrated to Canada; Ciarrocchi was born in Winnipeg.
The project began in 2018, when Ciarrocchi was a fellow in the Laboratory for Jewish Culture program in New York City. “At the time,” she said, “I was working on a series of drawings depicting former Polish and Lithuanian wooden synagogues layered with memory maps sourced from Yizkor books. As part of the project, I gave a performance lecture where I read passages from Yizkor books, accompanied by projections of my drawings, maps and photographs from Yizkor books. I concluded the performance by prompting the audience to ‘describe a vanished place of personal importance.’ I collected these texts, and they were incorporated into future performances.”
She met Conklin around when she was in residency at Millay Arts in upstate New York. “He expressed interest in using my drawings of maps as a musical score,” she said. “We then started working on a sound/video project comprising his compositions and my animated maps and drawings.”
In 2019, Ciarrocchi was invited to attend an international meeting of interdisciplinary artists in Poland.
“The group gathered in Sichów Duży, a rural area not far from Staszów, a small town that was once an important centre of Jewish life,” said Ciarrocchi. “The site once belonged to an aristocratic family who lost their lands and titles during the Second World War. The buildings had been restored except for one and, one evening, I projected the video on its surface and played Andrew’s music from speakers inside. It was then I knew that I needed to return to this place and present the work live with musicians inside the structure. In June 2022, after three years, a pandemic and a war, I returned to Sichów with a team of musicians from the U.S., Germany and Poland. We presented Site: Yizkor inside the ruin to an audience comprised of Ukrainian refugees who were being housed on the site. The following week, we presented Site: Yizkor in another ruined manor home outside of Kraków. That iteration included dancers as well as musicians.”
It was an emotional experience.
“Gratitude and relief,” said Ciarrocchi about what she felt afterward. “Gratitude to Andrew and the incredible team of performers we assembled and to the funders who supported the work. Relief after all the planning and delays that we were finally able to bring the work to Poland. It was also exciting to see the project come together so beautifully. In many ways, my first research trip in 2019 was where I felt all the sadness and grief. This year, I was too busy to let myself go into the dark crevasses of my emotions. In 2019, though, I spent most of the three weeks I was there crying. I visited my grandmother’s shtetl, which was incredibly powerful. While sitting on the ground in the old Jewish cemetery there, I released all my grief. Poland is filled with ghosts. One does not help but feel their presence.”
It is in this context that the question asking workshop participants to “describe their dreams of the future” was added to the project.
“I added this part of the prompt in Poland,” said Ciarrocchi. “I realized that, understandably, so much of the Jewish experience there is about memory and the past. I’m two generations removed from the Holocaust and, while its effects are written into the code of my body, I am also interested in how we create something new from the residue of this loss. This also comes from these past years of the pandemic, when there has been such a huge loss of life. We’ve had to reimagine how we live now and in the future.”
The performance and exhibition of Site: Yizkor in Vancouver is the Canadian première of the work.
For a recent grant proposal, Ciarrocchi wrote about the première, “This event will also be a coming home. Site: Yizkor is rooted in research into the land and architecture of a place in relation to the known and mythological histories of my ancestors who fled Poland and Lithuania before the Second World War. My ancestors emigrated to Canada to form a new life for themselves and their descendants. On the surface, their story is one of success. My great-grandfather was a seminal figure in Winnipeg’s garment industry, and my family still benefits from his accomplishments. This story belies how the effects of trauma and displacement have persisted from their origins in Eastern Europe so many decades ago. Forming cross-cultural connections through Site: Yizkor’s performance and workshop model, first in Poland and now in Canada, irrigates ancient inherited wounds.”
Site: Yizkor is co-presented with the Zack Gallery and in partnership with the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre, with the support of the Jewish Community Foundation. The performance takes place Nov. 19, 8 p.m., at the Rothstein Theatre, and it will livestreamed and available on demand; it will include a facilitated talkback and a reception with the artists. The exhibition and workshops take place Nov. 12-19 in the gallery. For tickets and more information, visit chutzpahfestival.com.
On Remembrance Day, we reflect on the sacrifices made by Canadians who fought to defend freedom. Many of us recall the solemnity of our childhoods standing in a school auditorium, first beginning to understand the meaning behind the poem “In Flanders Fields” and the moment of silence.
Similar ceremonies occur worldwide, including in places where the loss of life in wars has been far greater and more recent than our nation’s experience.
At the same time, it is impossible not to reflect on how some of the messages of tolerance, coexistence and peace seem to have been lost on leaders of various countries – as well as those who vote for them.
Across Europe, the Americas and some other places, extremism is growing. Far-right governments in Italy, Poland and Hungary advance xenophobic and scapegoating policies. While not yet reaching the highest echelons of power, far-right groups in Germany and France are growing in popularity. The defeat of Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s extreme-right and volatile president, is a bright spot, though the leftist Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who beat him only by a hair, demonstrated in his previous term as president that he is also no archetype of impeccable governance.
Enormously alarming were this week’s midterm elections in the United States. More than half of the Republican candidates for Congress and state offices, including crucial officials who oversee election processes, are “election deniers” who claim that the 2020 presidential race was not rightfully won by Joe Biden. The refusal of the former president to acknowledge defeat and accede to the peaceful transition of power, hand-in-hand with the insurrection at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, represent the greatest threat to American democracy since that country’s Civil War. The last two years have shown how fragile this form of governance is and how dependent it is on the goodwill of its participants to abide by the rules and accept the will of the people. The fact that about half of American voters don’t seem the least bit bothered by this reality is the scariest part.
Then, and by no means least, are the results of Israel’s most recent national elections. The good news is that, after five elections in three years, the country will apparently have a stable coalition government. The bad news is that it will include individuals whose political and moral values should be scorned by people who support democracy, pluralism and respect. Itamar Ben-Gvir, leader of the third-largest bloc, was forbidden from serving in the Israel Defence Forces because military leaders deemed him too extreme. Until he decided to get serious about politics, Ben-Gvir had a framed photo in his home of Baruch Goldstein, the extremist who murdered 29 Palestinians in Hebron’s Cave of the Patriarchs in 1994. His policies include annexing the West Bank and forcibly expelling (at least some of) its residents, an idea that is, put mildly, against international law, and would almost certainly lead to a serious regional conflagration.
Israelis must deal with the situation they have created. Diaspora Jews and other supporters of Israel have a tough row to hoe as well.
Jewish organizations worldwide have issued unprecedented statements of concern and condemnation about internal Israeli affairs. There has always been tension, ranging from a low simmer to a full boil, between Israel and the Diaspora over a vast range of issues. Israelis, we must state, are the ones who put their lives, and those of their children, on the line to defend the Jewish state and they alone have the right to determine its direction. This does not mean, however, that the opinions and concerns of overseas family and allies do not matter.
Israel has always lacked dependable overseas allies. In far too many instances, this has been an unfair situation driven by geopolitical issues and, to an extent, bigotry and antisemitism. But Israel is not entirely blameless in its isolation. Decades ago, Golda Meir said, “I prefer to stay alive and be criticized than be sympathized.” Sometimes, Israel needs to make unpopular choices in the interest of its security.
There are moments when Israel’s hand has been forced, when its leaders have made choices that are unpopular among outside observers but deemed necessary for national security. This is not one of those moments. Israeli voters have chosen some extremely unsavoury people to represent them. They have sown the wind. It is the responsibility of decent people in Israel and abroad – including Jewish institutions – to advocate for tolerance and human rights in order to moderate the inevitable storm.
On Sundays, we work together as a family to clean the house. We’ve just moved to an historic home that is in the midst of renovations. We aren’t fixing the house to create new modern luxury, but rather so that all the plumbing works and nothing freezes in the wintertime. We’re excited about creating updated versions of what this house might have looked like when it was built in 1913 – with necessary improvements like removing knob and tube wiring and asbestos, as well as insulating and fixing pipes.
A friend was excited about the house’s historic details. She said her husband wouldn’t consider moving to an older home because of ghosts. While I won’t belittle anyone, I’m not particularly worried about ghosts in old houses. Instead, I love knowing that people lived, died, gave birth and had many important, regular and extraordinary life events, both happy and sad, inside these same walls. Imagining past inhabitants who washed their faces at the sink, ate meals in the dining room or celebrated birthdays with loved ones, just as we do, gives me great joy.
Like any house, ours has its creaks and groans. It’s perhaps worse than usual because we’re new here. We haven’t yet effectively bled the radiators. Maybe we don’t always properly close a storm window. This morning I heard sounds, but I suspect there’s a squirrel in the attic. Even this annoying intruder reminds me that our family’s not the first one here. Hopefully, not the last either, although I hope we can get the squirrel to leave first!
When I think about Jewish tradition, it’s a lot like this opportunity to inhabit an old house. Judaism is old, but as each of us “moves in” to our identity or tradition and makes a place for ourselves, both the tradition and the people grow and change. Jewish practice isn’t exactly the same as it was 2,000 years ago, no matter how much some people would like it to be. Similarly, when we’re done fixing up our old house, it will be different, functional for today, and perhaps even better than when we got here. The same, but different, and that’s OK.
I reflected on this when we hit this Jewish month of Heshvan, sometimes called by its older name, likely connected to Akkadian, Marheshvan. In English, this could be translated to “Bitter Heshvan.” As time passed, language changed. With the connections to other ancient languages forgotten, the rabbis called this month “bitter” because, in their understanding, it didn’t contain any big holidays. To some, this might be a relief after the fall High Holidays and, to others, it’s a weird thing to say. Shabbat still happens every week and that’s important, too. There’s even a little-observed Ashkenazi tradition, the Fast of Behav, which I just learned about while writing this column, and it happens during Heshvan.
This learning process is one of those chances where I realized Judaism can grow and change just as we do with our old house. A year ago, I wrote about Heshvan as the time when I would begin to learn to chant Torah – and, yes, while I still have a long way to go, I learned to do that well enough to read Torah twice.
This year, I realized that, actually, Heshvan isn’t mar or bitter due to a lack of holidays because Sigd is on the 29th of Heshvan. As of 2008, Sigd is an official holiday in Israel. It’s a Beta Israel (Ethiopian Jewish) holiday, 50 days after Yom Kippur, and it celebrates the acceptance of Torah. Today, it’s celebrated by fasting, reciting psalms and gathering in Jerusalem to hear the Kessim (priests, like the Kohanim) read the Orit (the Octateuch, or eight biblical books: the five books of the Torah, plus the books of Joshua, Judges and Ruth). Then, when the ritual ends, it’s time to break the fast, dance and celebrate.
I learned this from Wikipedia and other sources online. I haven’t experienced this in Israel or met Jews who celebrate the holiday. However, that doesn’t mean the holiday doesn’t exist! Our tradition has multiple ways to celebrate and observe. For instance, many Jewish organizations take two days off for some holidays, even though only part of the Jewish community observes for two days. Many Jews don’t observe minor fast days, such as the Fast of Behav, which I just heard of today.
How do Heshvan and Sigd relate to living in an old house? Living in old houses has offered me so many ways to learn the social histories of our ancestors. Discovering the plumbing of a bedroom sink, long removed, or a window that was blocked off during a renovation helps me see not only how the original owners of the house used it, but also how subsequent families and businesses chose to reinvent their living spaces. While we can’t understand everything about their lives, we find reminders of the past that can inform us now.
In my house, the contractors recently removed the quarter-sawn oak flooring of a room to deal with the water damage from a long-ago flood. We found a 1925 penny on the subfloor. Perhaps it fell out of the pocket of the house’s first owner, a doctor, as he undressed, or a worker lost it during a renovation. That penny was produced nearly 100 years ago, but 12 years after the house was built. Sometime later, it fell between the boards.
We’re often so immersed in our rituals, as family members, congregants or people in a particular ethnic or national group, that we miss out on other ways to enrich our knowledge and traditions. If we look beyond the easy, and later, interpretation of the word Marheshvan and consider its Akkadian roots, or the diverse holidays that in fact do happen this time of year, we can turn around this bitter message.
Wishing you a happy Heshvan, full of both new learning and old discoveries.
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.