Traditions can disappear within a blink of an eye. But keeping certain practices alive is what helps us remember where we came from and shapes how we live and be Jewish today.
I was excited and curious to read volume 1 of The New Spice Box: Canadian Jewish Writing, edited by Ruth Panofsky, and published by New Jewish Press. I wanted to see how various writers used their family’s history in stories and poems to express their views.
The book is divided into three sections: voice, place and practice. Oppression and triumph are recurring themes throughout, and the stories exhibit strength and are endearing. Panofsky has brilliantly chosen selections that represent what it means to be Canadian in a Jewish context – overcoming difference while maintaining tradition.
The Spice Box: An Anthology of Jewish Canadian Writing was first published in 1981 by Lester and Orpen Dennys; it was edited by Gerri Sinclair and Morris Wolfe. The original book featured many authors, and brought Jewish stories to the forefront in Canada, including translations from original Yiddish texts.
For this new edition, Panofsky researched extensively writings from 1980 to the present. Material that did not make it into the original book was re-evaluated. Pieces relevant to the lives of Jews today were picked out and the contributors include authors from the first edition, such as Matt Cohen and Seymour Wayne. Current pieces were added, and they complement the other writings tremendously. This contemporary collection is intended to provoke new ideologies of culture and what Jewishness means in Canada. To do so, some of the stories refer back to a time before Jews arrived in Canada, while others relate modern-day situations. Readers can see how traditions and circumstances have changed over the years.
The collected pieces within The New Spice Box present how the writers see themselves today and how moving to Canada shaped who they are. In some stories, Canada is depicted as a haven, but also as an intimidating place for new arrivals. Moving to a new location during the war would have been difficult and somewhat terrifying, and these stories show just how much tenacity these immigrants had to begin again. Their families are what kept them going; making sure the next generations would play a role in telling their histories and keeping age-old traditions current.
One story, in particular, demonstrates how daunting moving to another country is. In “My Mother’s Luck” by Helen Weinzweig, a daughter is talking. Initially, it is written in the first person, but the narrative changes into the second person as the story continues. Esther begins, telling her story, but the mother’s perspective takes over. Lily is preparing her daughter, Esther, for her journey to Germany from the United States. Esther is very reluctant to go, even though she agreed beforehand to do so, in the pursuit of a higher education. Esther is scared about the impending changes and is nervous about fitting into a new country, as well as living with her estranged father.
Lily reassures her daughter that this is what she needs to accomplish, even though she herself is skeptical about the value of a higher education, believing that people who are more educated do not necessarily get decent paying jobs in their chosen profession. This attitude is most likely based on Lily’s terrible experiences with men. For example, Esther’s father abandoned them shortly after she was born, preferring to be around his university friends. But, even if mother and daughter fight throughout, Lily’s love for Esther shines through, and Lily assures her daughter that, if everything does not go smoothly, she has a ticket to come back home.
Meanwhile, “Pesach en Provence” by Gina Roitman highlights a duty to safeguard Jewish holiday customs. The narrator describes why making a Passover meal is particularly significant. While in Alpes-Maritimes, taking a break from her life in Montreal, she is planning a seder for a friend. Most of her family was killed in the Holocaust and, besides her brother, only distant relatives remain. In planning the seder, overwhelming memories of her mother at Passover return. Because of these recollections, the narrator adds dishes to the menu other than those she initially planned. By the end of the story, she comes to understand why the meal was so prominent in her family and why Passover is something powerful to celebrate. She realizes her mother’s importance in keeping the tradition alive, and comes to appreciate both her mother and her culture more.
Chloe Heuchert is a fifth-year history and political science student at Trinity Western University.