More than 100 people were at the Museum of Vancouver on Sept. 9 for a New Israel Fund of Canada-hosted panel discussion, The Backstory: Behind What You Know About Israel. Moderated by Temple Sholom’s Rabbi Dan Moskovitz, the evening featured Ronit Heyd, executive director of Shatil, an Israeli nonprofit supported by NIF, and Canadian journalist and editor Jonathan Kay of The Walrus.
The night before their Vancouver talk, Kay and Heyd spoke to a large crowd in Toronto, where they were joined by Haaretz editor-in-chief and journalist Aluf Benn. In Vancouver, the two were introduced by NIFC board president Joan Garson and executive director Orit Sarfaty. They covered a range of issues, including the rise of women in the Knesset, how North Americans talk about Israel, the problem of racism in Israeli society, the lasting impacts of 2011’s social justice protests and the influence of feminism and the Women of the Wall.
Starting with a bit of good news, Moskovitz asked Heyd to talk about the fact that, at 31 members, the current Israeli Knesset has more women MKs than any prior government. “It’s not just in the Knesset,” said Heyd, “more women than ever ran in the last municipal elections.” Women are also trying to participate more equally in local religious councils, a task not for the faint-hearted, she said, due to the “very strong political power in the Knesset [and the Israeli establishment] that is still being held by the ultra-Orthodox parties. The ultra-Orthodox do not have – I want to add, yet – do not have women in the parties.”
The impact of the rise of women in politics extends beyond the makeup of parliament, Heyd said. “It is important to note that when a woman enters a very masculine environment, it changes” in several ways, including shifting the agenda. It is changed by raising, for example, the notion of transparency, “of the need to have a more just distribution of resources, of having a more open governance … and we see that especially with the religious councils.”
Though the pace of change is slow, she said, “This is not happening just out of the blue; they needed training. One of the things that Shatil does is work with a group of women who want to be elected to the religious councils – they want to have their voice heard. They need support, they need to know how to build alliances, how to read a budget.”
Kay added that, while there are certain parallels, the situation in Canada is very different, and bringing women into Israeli politics is a “much more urgent project.” Unlike in Israel, he said, “in Canada, there is no significant mainstream constituency that believes that women cannot occupy the public sphere. It’s a fringe, not mainstream, view. In Israel, you have these people who ideologically don’t believe that women should have a role in public life.”
However, though women in Israel are participating at unprecedented levels in government, their voices are still not equally heard in the male-dominated policy landscape. Of the main issues in the Knesset, Heyd said, “The first one is security. The second one is security. The third one is also security. And women are not brought into that conversation.” The impact of women will be more fully realized, she said, once they have influence in policies around pay equality, security and the economy.
Moskovitz asked each panelist to comment on the polarization of the conversation about Israel and how the divisiveness impacts the Canadian and Israeli Jewish communities.
Part of what creates the tense atmosphere is that “Zionism itself in its most potent form has become a form of religion,” Kay said. “What do religions provide? They provide a theory of evil, they provide a theory of good, they provide a tribal identity, they provide a liturgy … many of the fundamental elements of a religion are provided by the most militant aspects of Zionism as they are projected in the Diaspora.
“By the way,” he continued, “I consider myself a Zionist. I’ve written columns in support of Israel, I’ve raised the flag in time of war. However, I know when I see people’s opinions on geopolitics become so strong that they take on the character of religious beliefs. And you see this with the Iran nuclear deal. It is not only, ‘I don’t like Clause 7, but I do like Clause 8.’ The dialogue is, ‘It’s 1938, are you with Churchill or are you with Chamberlain?’ … the imagery of Hitler, the imagery of black, white, good, evil. And, again, I know there’s this well-intentioned idea among many liberal Jews, ‘Well, if only we had the right press release, or the right argument and we could frame things in the right way.’… To a certain extent, that’s not happening because the people on the other side of the debate have chosen another faith.”
The speakers agreed that the polarization of the debate in the Diaspora impacts Israeli society; it matters. “There is a direct line that goes from the conversation that is being held here in North America and what’s happening in Israel,” said Heyd.
Can Jews in North America find a way to talk about Israel, asked Moskovitz?
“Email is the destruction of dialogue,” Kay said. “Stop sending each other articles! Take 30 seconds and actually put your own thoughts in your own words. You don’t have to send it to 50 people…. Don’t call me an imperialist if you think I’m right wing. Don’t call me a useful idiot if you think I’m left wing…. Don’t fall back on those tropes…. In the ’90s, you actually had to find someone to argue with! Now, you can actually do it from your desk, and I think that has raised the temperature because it has created tribalism. It’s one thing to lose an argument with one person, it’s another thing to lose an argument with 50 people on a reply-all email chain. It sounds silly, but the medium is the message.”
Another issue that has made news is the problem of racism. While there are few parallels between the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States and the protests of Ethiopian Israelis earlier this year, both countries still need to find a way to better integrate and respect racial diversity. The issue is especially acute when it comes to integrating Arab-Israelis into Israeli society.
Kay said he believes that Canada has done an excellent job of assimilating various groups, with some exceptions, but it helps that many immigrants come to Canada from urban centres, and are well educated. “Regardless of their skin color, they’re capitalists…. That’s the main thing,” he said.
On the question of what changes Israel has undergone since the 2011 summer economic protests, Heyd said there is still no economic relief for average Israelis, who are increasingly burdened by the cost of living, but Israelis have received more coverage for childcare, and the centralization of the market is back on the political agenda.
Overall, whether it’s the ways in which Israel is meeting its challenges or struggling to balance security with social justice, what is apparent, Heyd said, is that there is “a mini flourishing of civil society … people in the periphery are becoming involved, not just Tel Aviv, the big cities,” and that is cause of cautious optimism.
NIFC hosts Anat Hoffman, executive director of the Israel Religious Action Centre, on Nov. 17 at Temple Sholom.
Basya Layeis a former editor of the Jewish Independent.
Most of us love a good mystery. Add intergenerational secrets to the mix and you’ve just upped the grip quotient. Add to that a medical procedure that’s the stuff of nightmares and horror movies, and you’ve got a potential hit. Janet Sternburg’s memoir White Matter (Hawthorne Books, 2014) takes this recipe and adds a layer of truth.
Born and raised in Boston, surrounded by members of her mother’s large Russian-Jewish family, Sternburg knew from an early age that her uncle and one of her aunts had undergone lobotomies, the form of neurosurgery that severs the “white matter” of the frontal lobe from the rest of the brain in the attempt to alleviate emotional and mental distress. Though the procedure went out of vogue years ago, it’s clearly a surgery that still has the power to fascinate. Just last week, People magazine featured the story of Rosemary Kennedy, who, more than 70 years ago, was subjected to a lobotomy in a decision apparently made by her father in the hopes that it would make her “less moody” and “docile.” The decision to have the young Rosemary undergo a lobotomy is referred to in the article as the Kennedy dynasty’s “darkest secret.” In a family famous for its “dark secrets,” that’s saying something, and it gives some idea of what the decision to lobotomize two out of six siblings must have meant to the Sternburg family legacy.
Sternburg has written an engrossing tale about unraveling her family’s secrets, how she came to be a writer and what it is about the intersection between the personal and the medical that fascinates her most. The memoir lays bare a trove of family lore against a backdrop of shifting attitudes toward mental health and the dislocations of assimilation and generational trauma, as well as the changing roles of women. Sternburg has woven into her family chronicle the history of lobotomies and the contributions of notable figures in the world of neurobiology and psychiatry, some of whom came into close contact with her family. As a filmmaker and poet as well as a prose writer, she also references depictions of mental illness in the film and literary worlds, offering her writing additional depth and cultural relevance.
While the decision to lobotomize two family members would today be unthinkable, we still face complex decisions about how to help family members struggling with mental illness in the face of stigma, and fears of inheritance. Sternburg’s family’s decisions to lobotomize are described as desperate attempts to keep the family together, particularly after her easily enraged grandfather abandons the family and her distraught grandmother quickly becomes overwhelmed. With the siblings left to care for their fractured family, decisions are made that have far-reaching – and disturbing – consequences.
The book hasn’t received a lot of pick up, even though it was chosen as an “indie” book to read by Publishers Weekly, but it does deserve a readership. This story has resonance in an age in which the debate around the origins of mental health and the efficacy of various treatments – drugs versus talk therapy, for example – are as ongoing and fierce as they ever were.
Aside from the ghoulishness of the lobotomies themselves, what I found most disturbing about Sternburg’s story is the lack of family intimacy. Her mother’s family was competitive and easily offended, and their early home was full of rage. They seemed to have little knowledge of how to take care of each other’s needs or emotions, yet they were “so entwined that to turn one’s attention elsewhere was tantamount to betrayal.” The family’s desire to reduce conflict and alleviate their siblings’ emotional and mental distress is understandable, even if it was misguided.
As much as Sternburg’s family mystery held my interest, it hasn’t had the staying power of The Seven Good Years (Granta Books, 2015), a new memoir by Israeli writer Etgar Keret. This collection of biographical essays begins with the birth of Keret’s son Lev (during a terrorist attack) and ends with the death of his father, from cancer, seven years later. Known for his collections of short fiction, this is Keret’s first piece of non-fiction, and I hope it’s nowhere near his last.
Keret navigates these seven years (referencing the seven “fat” years of grain harvest in Joseph’s biblical dream) with his sharp insight, humor and compassion. The 36 essays are tight – spare and direct – and Keret creates a deep sense of intimacy with readers. He seems acutely aware of this effect: he has declined to publish this collection in Israel, or in Hebrew, calling it “too personal” for his home turf.
The son of Holocaust survivors, Keret also has had to cope with intergenerational trauma, but it seems to have had a salutary effect on his inner life. In one essay, he’s unafraid to pretend to have a foot amputated just so he doesn’t have to hurt a stranger’s (a telemarketer’s!) feelings. He is acutely aware of other people’s perceptions, and his honesty is compelling, moving, electric and laugh-out-loud hilarious. Throughout, his attention is turned towards reducing the emotional friction around him and he recognizes the effect that living in Israel’s high-tension environment has on himself, his family and even on his interactions with strangers. He describes apprehensions about his newborn son’s future, relates intense discussions with his wife – the check and balance against his anxieties – and conspires with friends, siblings and others to make sense of his world. Through all of this, he worries about whether or not Lev will do his compulsory army service, about Iran getting the bomb, perceived and real moments of antisemitism, his relationship with the Holocaust, and when the next war might break out.
Critics have called Keret’s writing self-deprecating, but I don’t connect with that reading of his work. I see his expressions of uncertainty and self-doubt as the building block of his empathy, the foundation of his profoundly funny and humane observations about his fellow human beings. As a bulwark against the intensity of existence, Keret seeks moments of “meditative disengagement from the world,” whether those moments are captured alone while flying from one writers festival to another, in being a first-time parent or in dreaming of a better world in which even the Iranian regime turns towards love.
What makes Keret’s writing comforting is the importance he places on familial honesty, on sharing intimate space even with strangers, and on finding the good. It’s writing that makes me feel more alive.
Basya Layeis a former editor of the Jewish Independent.
Dr. Adele Diamond, left, with Dr. Rania Okby at a Canadian Associates of Ben-Gurion University-hosted event at the University of British Columbia, in which Okby discussed some of the health challenges facing the Bedouin in Israel. (photo by Cynthia Ramsay)
Next week, Adele Diamond, professor of developmental cognitive neuroscience at the University of British Columbia, will be presented with an honorary doctorate from Ben-Gurion University. The professor spoke with the Jewish Independent at her lab on the UBC campus.
Born in New York City, Diamond’s academic career took root at Harvard, where she studied anthropology, sociology and psychology, but was not yet interested in the brain. After she decided to retire her first thesis idea, she was inspired to take a closer look at brain development in babies.
“My first year in graduate school, my advisor [Jerome] Kagan was jumping up and down about all the changes you see in babies’ behavior in the first year of life. No matter where they are in the world, whether they’re in kibbutzim, in nuclear families, they’re in Africa, they’re in Asia, it doesn’t matter. You see the same cognitive changes at basically the same time during the first year. He said, ‘It can’t all be learning and experience, their experiences are too different. There has to be a maturational component [in the brain].’ He was so excited about this, you couldn’t help but be excited,” she said.
Today, Diamond’s lab seeks to understand how children’s minds and brains develop. Specifically, she studies an area called the prefrontal cortex (PFC) and the cognitive abilities that depend on it, known as executive functions (EFs).
In a 2011 paper, Diamond describes the critical role of EFs. “To be successful takes creativity, flexibility, self-control and discipline. Central to all those are executive functions,” including cognitive flexibility (thinking outside the box, perspective taking), working memory (mentally relating different ideas and facts to one another) and inhibitory control. Other EFs that depend on these three building blocks include mental reasoning, creative problem solving, planning and execution.
EFs can be lacking in children who have behavioral, neurological and developmental disorders and are compromised in kids diagnosed with attention deficit disorders and autisms. The PFC is also influenced by environmental factors, compromising EF in kids experiencing poverty and other disadvantages and stressors. Fortunately, there are interventions that have been found to be successful, especially when implemented in early childhood.
“Traditional activities that have been part of all cultures throughout time (e.g., dance, music-making, play and sports) address all these aspects of a person – they challenge our EFs (requiring focus, concentration and working memory), make us happy and proud, provide a sense of belonging and help our bodies develop,” the lab’s website explains. Importantly, Diamond’s lab has “documented marked advances in executive functions due to an early childhood school curriculum (Tools of the Mind) that requires no specialists or expensive equipment, just regular teachers in regular classrooms. The children who spent more time in social pretend play outperformed their peers who received more direct academic instruction.”
She explained in a 2007 paper, “Brain-based doesn’t mean immutable or unchangeable. EFs depend on the brain, yet exercising and challenging EFs improves them, much as physical exercise hones our physical fitness. Yet, transfer is never wide; to get diverse benefits, diverse skills must be directly trained and practised.”
There is a deep connection between mental health and EF and it’s not just depression and anxiety that have a negative impact – sadness and loneliness also correlate with compromised EFs. “Prefrontal cortex and executive functions are kind of the canary in the coal mine. So, if anything isn’t right in your life, it’s going to hit prefrontal executive functions first and most,” she said. “So, if you’re sad, if you’re lonely, if you’re troubled, if you’re not physically fit, if you’re not getting enough sleep, if you don’t feel socially supported, if you feel ostracized, any of those things, it’s going to impair executive functions. A lot of people notice that when they’re feeling stressed or down for whatever reason they can’t think as clearly or exercise as good self-control – and that’s not just your perception, it’s really true … the phenomenological experience is credible.
“There are a lot of technical reasons why that’s true for prefrontal in the neurochemistry. That’s one of the reasons I argue that we have to care about the whole child. We can’t say school is just about the cognitive, because if the child is sad, if the child is stressed, if the child is lonely, the child’s not physically fit, the child isn’t going to be able to do as well academically as the child would otherwise be able to do. The child can’t show the academic potential he actually has.”
“If you step in right away when the kids disagree then they don’t have the chance to work it out among themselves…. I think a lot of kids don’t have that now. Parents are too afraid. There isn’t any place to play and I think those are important learning experiences.”
The trend towards structured play can be problematic for a child’s developing brain. “The helicopter mom, who needs to structure it all for the kids, doesn’t give them any chance to have some autonomy, have some say, use some creativity and work out disagreements,” Diamond said. “If you step in right away when the kids disagree then they don’t have the chance to work it out among themselves…. I think a lot of kids don’t have that now. Parents are too afraid. There isn’t any place to play and I think those are important learning experiences.”
Another useful tool in developing mental discipline can be memorization. In the West, we have largely decided that memorization is not a worthwhile, but there are cultures where rote memorization is still highly valued.
“In East Asia, they have too much extreme of memorization and too little creativity,” Diamond said. “The child’s goal is to learn from the masters, not question them, not try to come up with new things. First, get to know what the sages have to teach us. In some ways, I think the Orthodox Jewish education is like that. Each generation that is further from Mount Sinai knows less, and so we really want to try to absorb all that the older generations have to teach us before we think about surpassing them.
“But I think a mix is the right way…. I used to be on the bandwagon of memorization is just stupid; I hated it when I was in school. You can just look up these things, why do you have to memorize it? Then I was in Dharamsala, I gave a talk to the Dalai Lama, and we were talking afterwards. I asked him, I said, ‘I’ve told you about Tools of the Mind. What is a Buddhist way to train the minds of young children?’ The Dalai Lama said, ‘We don’t try, we wait until they get older.’ But his translator, [Thupten] Jinpa said, ‘We have them memorize. We’ll take something long and each day they have to memorize a little more. It’s a mental discipline that we’re teaching them.’ I think it’s a way of disciplining the mind, training the mind. I think there’s a real place for it, in that case.”
In fact, memorization can afford more cognitive and creative freedom. “What you want to do as you keep getting older is not have to pay attention to the fine details and be able to chunk things, so that you can deal with more and more the bigger picture and relating things,” said Diamond. “The more things are memorized, the more you can chunk it. You don’t have to go through the words of the poem, you just say the name of the poem and now you have all of it. Now you have a lot more information at your disposal to be able to play with and work with….”
Most of all, it’s important to grasp the (misunderstood) role of joy in nurturing developing minds and healthy children, she suggested.
“First, we often think that joy is the opposite of serious. If we’re walking down the school corridor and the kids are having a great time in the classroom, there’s lots of noise, we think they must be on recess, they couldn’t possibly be doing a lesson because there’s too much happy noise coming out of there. That’s, I think, a bad misconception. You can be learning and doing serious stuff and still have a great time. And you don’t have to be miserable to learn important stuff.”
Attachment is another key to healthy development. “I think Jewish families are pretty good about having secure attachment,” she said. “Sometimes they get a little enmeshed later, but I think that Jewish families really let the child know that the child is loved and cared for, they’re there for the child.”
She added, “Of course, a kid who is not securely attached is going to be more fearful, it’s going to be harder for other people to get close to him, for him to get close to other people. A kid who is securely attached thinks the world is a good place, he’s safe, he can trust other people, he can trust the world. There’s a lot more reason to feel relaxed and joyful.”
“The analogy I use is who learns a route better: the driver or the passenger? Everybody knows the driver does and we all know why, because the driver has to use the information and the passenger is just passively sitting there…. If you say, well, why should kids be actively involved in learning as opposed to just be passive recipients, everybody can understand that point and then we get to the more virtuous things.”
An influence in Diamond’s work is Abraham Joshua Heschel’s emphasis on doing. In Judaism, action, not belief, is key. “There are two things. One is, when we’re not talking about virtuous things, we learn better when we’re actively involved. The analogy I use is who learns a route better: the driver or the passenger? Everybody knows the driver does and we all know why, because the driver has to use the information and the passenger is just passively sitting there…. If you say, well, why should kids be actively involved in learning as opposed to just be passive recipients, everybody can understand that point and then we get to the more virtuous things.
“The Dalai Lama has said, if you want others to be happy, practise compassion. If you want to be happy, practise compassion. Now, the first part makes sense to everybody. The second part doesn’t always make sense.” It will never make sense intellectually, she continued, “the only way it makes sense is for you to do something nice for somebody else and see the wonderful smile you get in reaction, and then you understand. Or somebody says how meaningful that was to them or how important it was and then you see what you get back. But there’s no way to understand that without experiencing it.
“So, you tell the cynical kid, ‘I want you to just do it for awhile.’ What Heschel said is that the musician might be playing for the money but if he’s thinking about the money when he’s playing the concert he’s not gonna play a good concert. While he’s doing it, he’s got to be heart and soul in the music. So, if the child wants to see what it’s like to do nice things for people, during those few times when he’s doing nice things, he’s got to be heart and soul, not cynically doing it, but doing it genuinely. I think, in short order, the child can see that he gets something back from it. You don’t have to do it for years and years before you can see the wisdom of what mom and dad wanted. You can see it pretty quickly.”
The upcoming honor from BGU has grown out of a mutual appreciation. “I have lectured at most Israeli universities, but one of my favorites is Ben-Gurion, I think I’ve been there more than others…. I met the president [Rivka Carmi] last time I was there and she wanted me to come back and teach the course again.” They formed a personal relationship, as well, Diamond said, and then, recently, Carmi nominated her for the award.
Basya Layeis the former editor of the Jewish Independent.
A crowd of 100 people – mostly women – filled Temple Sholom’s sanctuary on Feb. 23 to hear Dr. Hannah Kehat, a prominent feminist religious activist in Israel.
Kehat’s Kolech, founded in 1998, was the first Orthodox Jewish feminist organization in Israel. The group’s aim is to create awareness around gender equality and women’s rights in the religious and public spheres, and advancing women’s engagement with Jewish and civic life in Israel.
In her address, which was moderated by Rabbi Dan Moskovitz, Kehat underscored that Israeli women, religious and secular, face different challenges than women in North America.
One major difference, said Kehat, is the lack of separation between religion and state in Israel. All marriages, divorces, conversions and burials go through the rabbinate; their ultimate authority means you cannot have a non-regulated lifecycle event, no matter your level of religiosity. Women may have equality under the Declaration of Independence, she said, but this equality is aspirational in reality. The aim of religious Jewish feminists is to reframe women’s rights for the Orthodox community, but also to integrate the daily concerns of secular women into their fight for representation and legal-halachic equality.
The obstacles to full equality for Israeli women start with being seen and heard in public. In the last several years, women and girls have been systematically erased from advertisements, billboards, books, pamphlets and textbooks, and they have been subjected to segregated seating on buses, enforced modesty codes, street harassment and violence. Meanwhile, there are still people – women and men – who assume feminism and religion to be mutually exclusive.
“We’re tired of apologizing,” said Kehat. “We want to stay religious. Don’t ask us why are you still religious if you are a feminist, and don’t ask me why are you a feminist if you are religious. It was acceptable until maybe the last 20 years that it doesn’t work together, either you’re a feminist or you are Orthodox….
“We say in Israel, ‘gam v’gam.’ It’s very complicated. We know it’s very complicated. It’s hard to hold the both together. It’s very painful because you have all the time to fight and you have a lot of battles in the family, in the synagogue, in the community, but we don’t want to give up any part of our identity…. We knew in the beginning [of the movement] that it’s not halacha that is against feminism…. It’s social power. It’s political….
“We started from the place that we know Torah. We’re all lecturers, rebbetzins, we know Torah; we know the truth that it’s not the problem, that we can have an equal society, even if we’re religious.”
Kehat said that, today, Israeli women are raising their voices and claiming their space, and Israeli courts have been supporting legal challenges to the status quo. Recently, the Supreme Court ruled that it is illegal to harass women on buses or on the street, and those abuses have almost all but stopped, she said. Legal challenges have proved successful and are one major strategy to create institutional change, she added.
Kehat described growing up the daughter of a rabbi in the Jerusalem Charedi enclave of Meah Shearim, a world she consciously left as a young woman so that she could advance her education and follow her own path. She became modern Orthodox, got a PhD in Jewish philosophy from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, married a rabbi and had six children. She is a lecturer, an academic, a writer, an activist and a Torah scholar. And, while she started her movement from within the modern Orthodox world, she sees more and more Charedi women taking up the feminist mantle – progress that cannot come soon enough.
“Charedi women, I can use the example of myself. To grow up as a Charedi girl, I think it’s the lowest level in Israel. You’re silent, you don’t have any voice. You come to the world just to serve the man since you are very, very young. You can see it in Jerusalem, B’nai Brak, like me, girls, 6, 7, carrying their brothers and the babies and doing all the [house]work. Really, the aim, the mission of [a woman’s] life is to serve the man … the father, the husband. So, Charedi women are still really very depressed. They have a lot of pressure in their lives.
“When I started Kolech … I got a phone call from the minister of health…. He said, ‘I heard about you, the leader of the Orthodox feminist movement. Finally, I have an address to address my problem.’” He told her the alarming statistic that the death rate for Charedi women with breast cancer was 30 percent higher than for other Israeli women. Today, that statistic is even worse, Kehat said, and may be closer to 50 percent higher. The minister continued, “‘Do you know that the expectancy of life of Charedi women is the lowest, the worst in the country?’ It’s unbelievable,” Kehat said. “They did research in B’nai Brak. The Charedi men are in the second level of life expectancy, and the women are [at the bottom]…. Even though Kolech is not a Charedi group, [we] try to raise the consciousness of Charedi women to take responsibility for their health and educate them about resources.”
The main obstacle to women’s equality is the conflation of religion and politics with the rabbinate.
“In Israel, we have another problem – that the rabbinate is a political institution, part of the government. This is really unbelievable and it’s really an historical mistake. The rabbinate became such a political powerful part of government and it’s worse than the government because we are not choosing the rabbis, only the politicians choose the rabbis and we don’t have any influence over who is going to be the rabbi…. Everyone knows that the rabbinate and the chief rabbis are not really the ideal people that we’d like to be our religious leaders, they’re political rabbis, we know that. So, it’s not so hard for us to go out and say, ‘Something is wrong over there, something is corrupt and we have to change it.’”
The visibility of women’s rights activism is growing. “The feminist issues are on the agenda for the religious community all the time. Every seminar, every yeshiva, we have a lot of yeshivot for women … synagogues are much more open to egalitarian ideas. I think there are more than 20 synagogues that are egalitarian…. The last two years, there is a big change. Something is going on in the Charedi community. It’s very exciting.”
One of the bright spots is the number of women joining Facebook groups dedicated to women’s activism. There are groups like “Feminists under the wig” and the group wryly named “I’m also a religious feminist and I don’t have any sense of humor,” both of which have growing membership and provide an online space to share experiences, gain empowerment and strategize.
Kehat was brought to Vancouver by New Israel Fund Canada. NIF in Israel supports at least 800 nonprofit, government-certified organizations with priorities to “strengthen and safeguard civil and human rights, bridge social and economic gaps and foster tolerance and religious pluralism for all its citizens.”
NIFC’s national outreach associate, Atarah Derrick, spoke at the top of the program. “Thirty years ago, NIFC was established in Canada to address Canadians’ desire to address the needs of Israelis in a way that no other charity was doing,” she said. “Every year, Israelis have told us what it is that they need to create the kind of world that they’d want to live in, a place where all Israeli residents are equal, where they have the freedom and the voice to improve their status … regardless of race, gender or ethnicity.”
She added, “I work with New Israel Fund of Canada, with NIF, because I am passionate about making Israel an even better place than it already is and, in my work with New Israel Fund, I get to see firsthand the kind of change that we are able to make when we get together.”
Basya Laye is the former editor of the Jewish Independent.
Left to right, Boni Putera, Titi Juwariyah and Bambang “Ho” Mulyono are the charismatic musicians at the heart of Daniel Ziv’s (inset) documentary Jalanan. (photo from jalananmovie.com)
Daniel Ziv’s first feature-length documentary, the multiple-award-winning Jalanan (Streetside), tells the uplifting, engaging story of three musicians who are part of a bustling street scene in Jakarta: Boni Putera, Bambang “Ho” Mulyono and Titi Juwariyah. Instead of playing on street corners, these captivating and charismatic buskers board city buses, transforming ordinary commutes into musical, spiritual and political journeys through Indonesia’s capital, a mega city of 10 million.
Ziv, who was raised in Vancouver, spoke with the Independent by email after the Vancouver International Film Festival, where Jalanan had its North American première. An author and political commentator, Ziv has lived in Indonesia since 1999.
JI: How did you get started with filmmaking and how did you come to this project in particular?
DZ:Jalanan is my first film, and I never intended to be a filmmaker. Rather, the amazing story of these Jakarta street buskers, and how I felt that story, could illuminate so much about Indonesia as a society, and even globalization, sort of appeared in front of me and kept lingering there until I felt it needed to be told. Since the tale naturally contained so much music and energy and movement across this gritty urban space, I felt that film would be the right medium. So, I spent awhile getting to know the tools, and then learned through trial and error. Although filmmaking skills would have come in handy, I still believe that having a good story and good access are what really make a strong documentary. No degree of technical wizardry can replace those things.
JI: How were Boni, Ho and Titi chosen as the protagonists? Were there security concerns?
DZ: I knew that for the film to work, to really grab the attention and win the hearts of viewers, I needed strong lead characters – people with charm and charisma and agency, people with something to say about life. When I met Boni, Ho and Titi, I knew in each case that they would stand out as colorful individuals that viewers would be happy to spend two hours with in a theatre, or a few days with on the street, or even five years, as I did. They weren’t the archetypical victims that poor people are so often made out to be in social documentaries. They took control of their own fate, and they were fun to be with. And, of course, I looked for buskers with some musical talent and, more importantly, who composed their own songs and lyrics, which in turn reflected their condition. This added a whole other narrative device to the film that wouldn’t be there if it was just people talking into a camera.
In terms of safety, there actually weren’t really any issues. People assume since Jakarta is an enormous, chaotic, unruly, corrupt city, that it’s also somehow dangerous, but it’s not…. I spent five years shooting the film, totally exposed in some of the poorest parts of the city, carrying perhaps $10,000 worth of camera and sound equipment on me, yet I was never once harassed or mugged or even pickpocketed. I think if you’re at ease with your environment, the environment accepts you, but, of course, it helped that I’m fluent in Indonesian and that people knew I was with Boni, Ho and Titi. It provided me with a kind of street cred and belonging. I wasn’t some tourist leering in.
JI: What attracted you to Indonesia?
DZ: I didn’t plan any of this. I discovered Indonesia as a young backpacker in the early ’90s and was captivated by the country and its people, and then just kept going back. I did an MA in Southeast Asian studies and began a PhD in Indonesian politics, which is what moved me to Jakarta in 1999 for a year of field research. Then, I just got drawn into the dynamic changes that were happening to Indonesia at that time and into some irresistible job opportunities ranging from journalism and humanitarian aid work to book writing and filmmaking. And I got to work with the most amazing people, many of whom were the next generation of Indonesian artists and politicians and media personalities and social entrepreneurs. All of this has added up to a pretty fascinating career and life, but I also feel it’s been the result of deliberate choices: I didn’t opt for a safe, conventional path; I didn’t care about pedigree or official titles or big salaries. I only chose jobs that were truly meaningful.
JI: What were the challenges (rewards) of working on this project?
DZ: I guess the thing that is both the most challenging and rewarding is the intense experience of dreaming something up out of nothing, having the chutzpah and persistence to think you can create something that comes from inside you that wasn’t there before, and that it can actually find an audience and resonate with others…. [W]hen you make a film like this, that contains so much of your own experience and sensibility and sweat and tears, it’s really scary to wrap it up and then just watch the lights dim in a packed theatre and wonder if it will even work, if your vision and story will connect with people from a totally different culture and experience. And, when it does, it’s truly exhilarating.
JI: The response to the film has been positive. What’s that been like?
DZ: Of course, it’s immensely gratifying. My greatest fear after all the hard years of work was that it would just go nowhere … but the opposite has happened, and the film’s political and social impact in Indonesia in particular has been incredible. Jalanan captured the imagination of the public and the media, and contributed to concrete policy changes at the highest level of government, which is something none of us dreamed of.
Boni, Ho and Titi are now mini-celebrities in Indonesia, so, of course, it’s been amazing for three marginalized individuals to be publicly acknowledged in that way and to become role models within their community.
JI: Boni, Titi and Ho have multiple challenges, but they seem to be living satisfying lives. Are there lessons for those of us who, by many accounts, have more privilege or opportunity?
DZ: Certainly. But I’ve always been averse to simplistic, clichéd responses like “If poor people aren’t complaining, who are we to be discontent with our lives?” I mean, of course it’s important to recognize that we have privileged lives, but I think anyone’s pain or challenges are independently valid and very real. Having money and comfort doesn’t immunize us from pain, and being dirt poor doesn’t deny them immense joy. This is why it was so important for me to not let Jalanan become an exercise in finger waving or audience guilt. In fact, what I think many viewers respond to most is not how different they are than Boni, Ho and Titi, but how much of ourselves we see in them, and them in us. I think poverty needs to be de-fetishized and dealt with at face value, and poor people need to be seen as our friends and equals, rather than as objects to be analyzed or pitied. I know they prefer it that way.
JI: Are you still in touch with Boni, Ho and Titi?
DZ: We are close friends, and in almost daily contact. They are doing well, and enjoying a whole slew of new opportunities opening up to them as a result of the exposure from the film, but … they are still members of Jakarta’s marginalized poor, they are vulnerable and face multiple challenges. This is why I’ve started up a fundraising campaign that aims to buy each of them a small, humble house in a simple Jakarta neighborhood, something that will put a roof over their heads for life (details at jalananmovie.com/housingfund).
JI: I read an article in which you said that the buskers “were really just the lens through which we could manage a far bigger, more complex view of the country today.” Can you expand on that? Why do you think it took an expat to make an Indonesian film that had such global appeal?
DZ: That’s a great question. My interest from the start was in trying to understand, and hopefully shedding light on, Indonesia. I don’t think there’d have been anything inherently fascinating or important in a film that merely focuses on street busking, so my agenda was to probe deeper and treat my protagonists as a kind of microcosm for the country at this really fascinating juncture in time.
I’m not convinced an Indonesian couldn’t have made this film and, strangely, quite a few reviewers in Jakarta remarked that Jalanan feels “like a totally Indonesian film” rather than a documentary shot by a foreigner…. But this is probably because I created the space for Boni, Ho and Titi to tell their own very Indonesian story in their own voices and perspectives, and left space for my very talented Indonesian editor, Ernest Hariyanto, to lend his local sensibility to the cut. My goal was to open a window on to Indonesia, not to interpret it in my own image.
JI: Were you raised in a Jewish environment and, if yes, did it affect your choice of profession or other aspects of your life/filmmaking?
DZ: It’s probably fair to say my choice of profession was despite my Vancouver Jewish environment, not because of it. I grew up surrounded by a community of lawyers and doctors and academics and business folks, and most of my childhood friends didn’t stray far from that. I was lucky to have parents who secretly admired the creative and adventurous tendencies my sisters and I harbored.
One of my sisters became a ceramic artist and urban heritage expert; my other sister is a professional chef and musician. Our parents never pushed us toward establishment careers. They taught us a love for travel and culture, and that it was more important to lead an interesting life than a safe one. They probably got more than they bargained for in my case, and lament the fact that I live halfway across the world, but I doubt they’d be any happier if I were a senior partner at a downtown law firm. And, I dare say, they seemed pretty proud when the lights came on at the end of our screening … at VIFF.
Basya Layeis a Vancouver freelance writer and former editor of the Jewish Independent.
(Haber, Hayes and Korsch photos by Lorne Greenberg)
Louis Brier Jewish Aged Foundation’s Eight Over Eighty celebration honors eight individuals/couples who have shown exemplary leadership and vision in the community. Last week, the Independent profiled honorees Dr. Marvin and Rita Weintraub, Rita Akselrod, Dr. Jimmy White and Chaim Kornfeld. This week, the JI features honorees Serge Haber, Dr. Arthur and Arlene Hayes, Stan and Seda Korsch, and Samuel and Frances Belzberg.
SERGE HABER Zeal and vision
Serge Haber was born in Romania in 1928. After the war, he spent two years in Cuba, arriving in Montreal in 1949, where he worked in the garment business. Amid growing Quebec nationalism, Serge moved his family to Vancouver in 1978 and bought Kaplan’s delicatessen.
It wasn’t hard to move West, Serge told the JI. And, he said, “It turned out that it was the best move I made because my trade took a terrible nosedive two years later; I would not have been able to remain in business. I got out just in time by sheer luck.”
Telling his wife was another matter. “I came home and my wife almost killed me. ‘What do you know about the restaurant business?’ So, I told her, I said, ‘If I survived for so many years in the textile business with the sharpest Jewish people in the trade, I will in the business of restaurants, and I will do well,’ and I did.” He sold Kaplan’s in 1993.
Serge has been involved in synagogue life since arriving in Montreal, where he helped found a Conservative congregation in Laval and held leadership positions in United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. In Vancouver, he joined Beth Israel. “It’s not just that I find a cause – I have to love that cause … [and] feel that it’s needed for the community, for the development of my life … and, once I got involved, I embraced it totally, in the sense that I ate, slept and drank the organization that I was working for.”
For 20-plus years, Serge has been leading services at Louis Brier, where he served on the board for 17 years. Serge has also been on the board of Jewish National Fund, Vancouver.
“When I was young, I got involved with B’nai B’rith Hillel Foundation and I became the president … I created an environment in which things can grow and develop from that point on…. It was not a question of being president or anything else. I felt that we can do something good for the community … my intent was to help out as much as I can.”
In “retirement,” Serge co-founded and is president of the Jewish Seniors Alliance of Greater Vancouver. About community work, he said, it “is a question of ideals and what you want to accomplish in life and how do you want to be regarded in the community in which you live.”
He pointed to his parents as role models. His father, in particular worked very hard, said Serge, “so I had a model to look at and I felt that every community embraced me and gave me whatever I needed, nurturing a common sense of family and community, so I should give back whatever I can, and that’s what I did.”
Serge is particularly concerned with the availability of seniors services and programming. He believes that “the need of the Jewish seniors in Greater Vancouver will be tenfold greater than what it is today because … the Jewish seniors community will at least double what it is today.” The time to prepare is now, he said, adding that he would like to see the building of a Jewish seniors centre here like they have in Montreal, Winnipeg and other cities, “a community centre specifically related to seniors.”
About being part of Eight Over Eighty, he said he is “overwhelmed” by the tribute because it was unexpected, and he felt good about his work regardless. “I’m not a person who works for the honoring, that is far removed from my mind … but I think it’s good in the sense that there are many people in the community that are doing phenomenal work and sometimes the community bypasses them and takes it for granted that they are supposed to volunteer and do all kinds of things without being recognized.”
DR. ARTHUR AND ARLENE HAYES Selflessness, Yiddishkeit, devotion
Art Hayes grew up in rural Alberta. “A few miles away was another small town – Rumsey – and it is in this general area where a group of Jewish farmers, mainly from Russia, settled,” he said. “They built a synagogue, which was in use during Jewish holidays. At one time, they were even able to employ a Jewish teacher.”
He spoke fondly of his childhood, and highlighted the special role his grandparents played. They lived close to the one-room school that was eventually built, “and this was our stopping point on the way home. Here, we were treated with love and kindness, and lavished with special treats.
“After we left the farm, my father was involved in business in small mining towns in Alberta where we were usually the only Jews. I envied the Jewish life my cousins had in Calgary and enjoyed it with them whenever I was able to visit. Fortunately, my grandparents now lived eight miles away and I would spend my weekends with them. I learned about Judaism from my kind zaida, whom I loved dearly. Their love and attention to me was so complete that seemingly I was the centre of their universe.
“I was inspired by both my parents and grandparents – their selflessness, their Yiddishkeit and devotion to family and their love gave me my outlook on life.”
Arriving in Vancouver in 1947 after graduating in dentistry from the University of Alberta, Art pursued specialty training in orthodontics at Columbia University in New York. “When I returned two years later,” he recalled, “I found a community that functioned almost entirely with volunteers. There was respect for those who accepted the responsibility to take on the work and high regard if not reverence for the pioneers of the community.”
Art highlighted two projects undertaken when he was president of Beth Israel. “The first was to raise the funds pay off the $50,000 for our share of one-third ownership with synagogues in Seattle and Portland of Camp Solomon Schechter.” The second was providing their assistant rabbi – who came when their rabbi was on sabbatical – with a residence. “We bought a house in excess off $100,000, which we paid for by fundraising over the next year. This same house was recently sold by Beth Israel for more than $2 million and became the largest single contribution to the fund for the reconstruction of the synagogue.”
Art also co-founded Shaarey Tefilah and has been involved with the Louis Brier, Canadian Friends of Hebrew University locally, Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre, the Jewish Historical Society of British Columbia, Richmond Country Club, Jewish Federation/United Jewish Appeal, among others, and day school education. Noting the many attempts to open a Jewish high school, Art thanked Gordon and Leslie Diamond for their contribution to King David High School, “an outstanding institution,” and shared that some of the remaining assets of Shaarey Tefilah were used to establish an endowment fund for KDHS with Federation “to assist students who are financially unable to pay full tuition. In this way, Shaarey Tefilah will continue to be an influence to further Judaism in this community.”
Leadership “evolves during participation in the work of the community to the best of one’s ability,” Art said. “Anything that is achieved in the community is the result of the efforts of many people working together in harmony. Leadership is historically inherent in Judaism, which emphasizes the need to create a tolerant Jewish society with a very deep concern for all its members, the old and young, the rich and poor, the sick and well.”
“I grew up in a wonderful Jewish community in Regina, Sask. I was very fortunate, indeed,” Arlene Hayes said of her early years. “I had an idyllic childhood filled with a good elementary and secondary education system, a rabbi, a shul and an active Young Judaea movement, which played a huge part in my life. We even had a Young Judaean summer camp for six years in a row. My wonderful parents saw to it that I attended every one. Who could ask for anything more?
“I attended the University of Saskatchewan for three years in Saskatoon, met my husband-to-be on a summer visit to Vancouver, was married six weeks later and, as the saying goes, the rest is history.”
In Vancouver, Arlene worked as a lab technician while Art got established.
Art said of Arlene’s commitment to the community, “At the time, we were just starting out and, with three young children and a household to manage without help, Arlene was on her own many nights of the week. There was never a complaint from her, only encouragement and interest in the work being done. It was Arlene alone that it made it possible for me to participate and she is equally if not more responsible for whatever was accomplished.”
“I think is important to recognize people who have been community leaders for two reasons,” said Arlene. “One, it is the right thing to do. Secondly, one hopes these deeds will motivate others to ‘step up to the plate.’ I hope that, going forward, succeeding generations will learn from the examples of their predecessors. People of Art’s generation, and the preceding generation, have been true ‘chalutzim.’ They have given unstintingly of their time – after a full day’s work – to build their community. They believed in the teachings of Judaism: be generous, be kind, help the disenfranchised, share, build Israel, reinforce Jewish life in our own community.”
Of her hopes for the community, she said, “If successive generations follow in the footsteps of their predecessors, the community will continue to flourish.”
STANFORD AND SEDA KORSCH From the ground up
While Stan Korsch was born and raised in Vancouver, Seda was born in Winnipeg and raised in Calgary before coming to Vancouver. Stan met Seda at a Beth Israel youth dance and they married in 1948, a week before the synagogue opened at Oak and 27th.
After moving around a bit, they settled back in Vancouver and into the family business, which was real estate. Stan was inducted as a fellow of the Real Estate Institute of Canada in 1958 and, today, is its oldest continuous member.
Seda’s involvement with Hadassah is longstanding and she has held many roles within the organization, including being a founding member and president of Shalom chapter, assisting with the bazaar’s silent auction, and serving as vice-president, card-chair and men’s youth aliyah chair on the council. Her kitchen was the annual headquarters for the baking of kiffles for the bazaar. She was also a member of the Beth Israel Sisterhood.
“I started a chapter of Hadassah in 1947 and we did a lot of money raising,” said Seda, later sharing, “On our first trip to Israel, we toured all the Hadassah projects and I realized that we just had to keep on doing this because there was such need. It was very gratifying to see some of the accomplishments we had done in Israel through our money raising. Hadassah was my main forte.”
Stan’s Jewish community involvement began before the Second World War. Over the years, he has held leadership positions with Young Judaea, Beth Israel Synagogue, the Menorah Society student group at the University of British Columbia, B’nai B’rith Lion’s Gate Lodge, Jewish Community Fund and Council (Federation’s predecessor), Canadian Zionist Federation, Lion’s Gate Building Society, Louis Brier Home and Weinberg Residence. He still is an active member of his synagogue, especially in its daily morning minyan. For his work with the Lion’s Gate Lodge, in 1999, he was awarded a Tikkun Olam Award for exceptional service to the community.
“I had three major influences in my life,” Stan said. “They were all something to do with being Jewish. Israel has always been in my heart, and right from my high school days, before Israel was there. We wanted to provide a homeland for the Jewish people…. We were good at what we did. We had the youth group, which was active and, by that, I mean we also communicated with other Jewish young people in other Canadian cities.
“My goal was always to keep Israel in mind, and the other one was housing. Because I was realtor, I realized there was a need – not cooperative housing – but for housing for those who are financially in need. I’ve always been a part of that in the community here; that’s why I was on the oversight committee and it took a lot of our time and effort those big projects,” including Haro Park, which took some 10 years to come to fruition.
“It was the only time in Canada that three levels of government were able to work together,” Stan said. “It was very difficult because each time the government changed, you had to start again with the new government. It was a miracle that we managed to build Haro Park. And we built some others. That was one of the main parts of my activities. The other one, of course, is the synagogue…. My parents were part of the group that formed the charter members. Right from day one I was involved…. I was there the day they opened, their first installation, back in the old Jewish community centre days, and then we moved onto 27th and Oak and now, today, we are now just completing a new facility on 27th and Oak. It’s quite gratifying.”
Stan said he’s seen many changes in the community over the years, and he is optimistic about its future. Seda is also positive: “I feel that the young people are taking over, which is great,” she said. “I know my daughter is quite active in Hadassah. I’m happy to see that, and it’s time the old people step back and enjoy it!”
Both are honored to be one of the Eight Over Eighty. However, said Stan, “We don’t do these things for kavod. We can see the need and we are not just talk. We see the need and we get out there and do it.
“Seda and I believe that when one joins a society, one should be active in it, and that’s the way we’ve lived our life.”
SAMUEL AND FRANCES BELZBERG Combining business with philanthropy
International businessman and philanthropist Sam Belzberg was awarded the Order of Canada, as well as an honorary doctorate from Simon Fraser University in 1989. He received the Governor General of Canada Award in 1992 and, in 2002, was promoted to Officer of the Order of Canada. In 2009, he was awarded the Order of British Columbia for his extraordinary philanthropy and community leadership.
Investing leadership, time and resources, Sam helped found the Simon Wiesenthal Centre in Los Angeles in 1977 with a donation of $500,000. He is also the founder of both the Canadian and American Dystonia Medical Research Foundations.
As an Action Canada co-founder and co-chair of the board, Sam is called “one of British Columbia’s most forward-thinking philanthropists” who “specializes in ambitious and innovative solutions to pressing issues, focusing his prodigious efforts on causes that appeal to his deep caring for humanity.” In addition to his many other accomplishments, Sam led and inspired SFU’s first fundraising campaign, which raised $68 million. His company, Gibralt Capital, today owns and manages real estate and capital investments.
Frances Belzberg was raised in Los Angeles. Also involved with Action Canada, Fran is noted for her early involvement with racial issues as well as her early commitment to the state of Israel.
Frances and Sam married in 1950 and settled in Edmonton, where Fran was involved with several charities and became active in amateur theatre. The family moved to Vancouver in 1968 and Frances sat on the boards of Vancouver Art Gallery, Vancouver Playhouse and Vancouver Children’s Hospital. She was awarded the Order of Canada in 1995.
Dr. Neil Pollock instructs a team of surgeons in Rwanda on carrying out his technique of circumcision. (photo from Dr. Neil Pollock)
Dr. Neil Pollock specializes in circumcision, from newborn to adult, and adult vasectomy. As a leading expert in circumcision, he has traveled around the world to train physicians and, this summer, he will head to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, to teach a team of doctors in medical newborn and infant circumcision.
“After carrying out 50,000 infant circumcisions and traveling recently to Turkey, China and Africa to exchange ideas, I have evolved my technique to make it applicable to infants, children, teenagers and adults,” Pollock told the Independent in a recent interview. “I have developed a technique to do circumcision in this older age group under local anesthetic without using sutures and using, instead, a cyanocrylate skin glue that closes the wound. Being able to do the procedure under local anesthetic and with skin glue instead of a general anesthetic in hospital provides for a much simpler, easier, quicker, safer and improved cosmetic outcome for patients.”
This method, he said, is unique. “I’m unaware of this approach being used anywhere in [Canada] except in my clinics. The older age group is currently requesting circumcision for reasons like reduction in disease transmission, preference of their partners and improved hygiene.”
In 2008, Dr. David Patrick was the head of the B.C. Centre for Disease Control. Pollock said he was asked by his colleague “to teach my surgical techniques for circumcision in Rwanda, where they were using scissors and stitches, without anesthetic, and their surgeons desperately required training in an alternative quick, safe and painless infant circumcision technique that would be accepted by their population. In coordination with their surgeons, I planned with my team a five-day surgical training mission that year and flew to Rwanda. I have been in contact with these surgeons by email since my trip and they have informed me that they are using my technique effectively and safely throughout the country now.
“The impact of our humanitarian effort became known in the international medical community, which led to Dr. Jeffrey Klausner, professor at [the University of California, Los Angeles] Medical School, contacting me recently and asking me to essentially replicate the work I did in Rwanda, but this time in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, where they are being overwhelmed by the number of patients requiring treatment for AIDS and would receive huge benefit from introducing a preventative strategy to reduce AIDS transmission, such as infant circumcision, which will reduce the risk of their circumcised infants later contracting AIDS when they hit sexual age, by over 60 percent. Its impact and effectiveness has been referenced metaphorically to be like a vaccine.” Circumcision, he added, “works to reduce AIDS by removing the portal of entry of the virus, which is the foreskin.”
Klausner, a professor of medicine in the division of infectious diseases and the program in global health at UCLA, is an advocate in the use of medical male circumcision for the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases and HIV. He volunteers with GHESKIO, an organization run out of the Centre for Global Health at Weill Cornell Medical College in partnership with the Haitian government. Operating primarily in Port-au-Prince, their work is supported by Haiti’s first lady and has a mission to combat HIV and improve conditions of maternal and child health. GHESKIO will host Pollock’s training in Port-au-Prince.
Raised in Winnipeg, Pollock explained that he decided to become a doctor “because I had a strong interest in sciences, medicine and surgery from a young age.” Early in his career, he decided to create a special focus on circumcision and vasectomy, and built a highly focused practice and a well-tested – and respected – technique.
“My interest in developing a safe, quick and painless approach to circumcision for the medical community in B.C. arose initially from some of the rabbis approaching me approximately 20 years ago and encouraging me to become a mohel in Vancouver,” Pollock said.
The benefits of newborn and infant circumcision are many, but the rates of the procedure vary from region to region, and remain contentious to those opposed to what’s seen as elective (non-consenting) surgeries for babies.
Pollock noted, “The most important change recently in how the medical community has come to view circumcision is expressed in the … consensus statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics released in late 2012 declaring that ‘the medical benefits of infant circumcision outweigh the risks.’ This is the strongest statement of support ever issued by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
“The benefits of circumcision are multiple; they include reduction in the risk of urinary tract infection, which can lead to kidney infection and renal failure, reduced risk of cancer of the penis, cancer of the cervix in partners, reduced risk of balanitis (which is infection of the foreskin), and other foreskin-related problems, like phimosis.” As well, circumcised males also experience a “reduction of multiple sexually transmitted diseases, like HPV, herpes and AIDS transmission. The latter is exponentially more important in places like Haiti and Africa, where a large number of the population has AIDS in comparison to other regions of the world where AIDS is less common.” Possible risks include “bleeding and infection,” he added, “but, in experienced hands, risks are extremely low.”
Rwanda and Haiti share a history of national trauma, which has led in both countries to poor health outcomes. In 1994, at least 800,000 Rwandans were massacred by their countrymen in a genocide. In 2010, Haiti, already the victim of more than two centuries of extreme poverty, dictatorships and U.S.-led military interventions, experienced a 7.0 earthquake that resulted in the deaths of more than 100,000, and displaced 1.5 million of the tiny country’s 10 million people. Since then, Haitians have been hit by serious outbreaks of preventable disease, including cholera, tuberculosis and AIDS. According to the United Nations, life expectancy is 61 years for men and 64 for women.
The health challenges that Haitians are very similar to those experienced in Africa, and the training is seen as critical in addressing those obstacles. “Like there was in Rwanda, there is a need to train surgeons in Haiti to carry out a quick, safe and painless infant circumcision technique,” Pollock explained. “In regards to what accounts to gaps in circumcision rates, there may be a deficiency in trained surgeons to carry out the surgery in an acceptable manner, along with variations in social and cultural norms that influence the choice to have circumcision.”
The ultimate intention of the training, Pollock said, is “to set up a national program accepted by the population, to introduce infant circumcision safely and effectively, and have it evolve to become a widespread practice throughout the country, thereby reducing the transmission of multiple diseases, including AIDS.”
Pollock’s visit to Haiti will involve intensive training. “My goal is to carry out a similar plan to what we executed in Rwanda. I worked with physicians there weeks ahead to set up a surgical schedule of 20-to-30 infants per day, over four-to-five days of operating. After working with doctors on models that I brought to demonstrate the technique and do the primary teaching, they moved to assist me with the surgeries and eventually carry them out under my supervision on the infants booked for circumcision.”
The training in Haiti, part of a nongovernmental public health initiative, will be partially supported by charitable donations. “The commitment from my end for Haiti will include a week away from my practice and the commitment to help raise the $25,000 for the mission to take place. The plan is to raise $25,000 from the Vancouver community in the next seven days or so as to be able to launch the teaching mission in Haiti by the end of the summer. During the week in Haiti, I will train two physicians, who will then train other physicians once our team leaves. I will maintain follow-up with these physicians to help them manage any issues that should arise.” The goal is to create a sustainable public health campaign and donated funds not only will go towards covering the costs for the week, but also for “the next 500 infants once we leave.”
Readers who would like to donate to the effort “will support an initiative, which will undoubtedly over the years save thousands and thousands of lives,” Pollock said. “It’s intended that Haiti will become a training centre for circumcision in the Caribbean. It is likely that my technique, once taught in Haiti, will soon be shared with multiple countries throughout the Caribbean, multiplying its effect to save lives throughout the entire region. So, I’m asking readers and members of the community to reach deep and consider making a financial donation to help us raise $25,000 in the next [several] days to allow this mission to proceed.”
To make a donation, contact Dr. Neil Pollock at 604-644-5775 or [email protected]. “We will make it very easy for people to donate, and make arrangements for their cheques (made payable to the Vancouver Foundation) to be picked up by our team,” he said. Donations can also be mailed to 4943 Connaught Dr., Vancouver, B.C., V6M 3E8.
Morgan Carrier and Shira Laye are LACAR. (photo from Morgan Carrier)
Nearly a decade ago, Shira Laye set out to explore the world of jewelry design. In 2013, she and her partner Morgan Carrier established LACAR – a combination of their surnames – a line of beautiful, wearable art, with influences ranging from “the dark side of Victorian mourning jewelry, to the architectural shapes of art deco and the great jewelry eras of the past.” I am the proud owner of several LACAR pieces.
Growing up in a large family, each child has to intentionally carve out her individuality. In our household of five siblings, this was no less true. From a young age, Shira, one of my younger sisters, had a particular talent for assembling stylish and unique outfits, with a remarkable flair for accessories. It was her childhood love of ancient artifacts and art, however, that originally sparked her love of jewelry.
Shira’s first brushes with the ancient world happened on a 1993 family trip to the Holy Land. “My first big trip as a kid to a faraway destination was our family trip to Israel, where I spent time in museums looking at ancient artifacts and pieces of jewelry from a long time ago, imagining that I was somewhere where someone might have worn that,” she recalled in chat over a coffee and sandwich at a café on Main Street. In fact, while I was spending much of my summer in a decidedly less artistic environment, in a microbiology lab at the Technion, most of the rest of the family was heading out to explore the ruins of Katzrin and the Old City, the springs at Ein Gedi or the collection at the Israel Museum.
In Israel, Shira got her first inklings of what she might like to be when she grew up. “I spent a lot of time illustrating what I saw and I decided that I wanted to become an archeologist. Not because I wanted to discover an ancient civilization, but rather I was sure I would unearth a treasure. A couple of years later, as a teenager, I went on another trip to Israel and spent the day on a dig with our older cousin, which was fun but a little bit disappointing. I decided I didn’t want to be an archeologist anymore – we didn’t find anything remotely shiny, it was just a hot day in the sun. I realized the only way to find treasure was by buying it at the store or learning to make it myself. And so, my fascination with ancient art and artifacts and jewelry of all kinds remained.”
After studying art history, Shira signed up “on a whim” for a course in jewelry making at Vancouver Community College. “I made just a simple silver band and a hammered cuff that I gave away as a gift,” she recalled. “And then I didn’t do anything for a little while, until I met a friend that had a home studio and traded me in exchange for doing some simple tasks like filing and sanding. She showed me some techniques … I really liked it, so I signed up for a program in New York, at Studio Jewelers in Midtown.”
At the time, I was living in Manhattan and Shira joined me there to study jewelry design and experience what the city has to offer. “It was a really great time,” she said. “I was equally as inspired by being in New York, living there, as I was by the techniques I was learning in school…. I ended up extending my stay to apprentice with a jeweler, a pretty unique guy, a little bit out there. It was a lot of running around. I knew where to buy pearls in one area in the jewelry district or where to get this from that person. It wasn’t as much technique as I would’ve liked. After I came home, I continued to learn more technique, as I still do to this day.”
Shira established her own line soon after and began taking on custom work, “which was a way to learn to expand my techniques,” she said. “And just by necessity, I would take on a project and I’d be like, OK, I get to learn how to do this! It was a great way to learn. And then, as time went on, Morgan was spending more and more time with me in the studio, and I’d show him how to do different finishing techniques or he’d help throughout the whole process of making a piece. He’s really natural with anything that’s hands-on and design oriented and, in no time at all, he was contributing to the design process as well. So, it just made sense to team up officially since that’s what we were doing unofficially.” The two came out with their first collection, Oculus, in 2013.
Of their work together and his background, Morgan shared, “I’m a handy guy with a background in the arts and construction. I studied theatre at UBC and then went on to a brief film career after studying documentary film studies in Paris for two years. I am always building or sculpting something, so it wasn’t a stretch in skills for me to pitch in. Shira would bribe me into date nights at the studio and we would listen to an episode of This American Life while slowly depleting a glass of red wine. It was romantic, but it also involved a lot of sanding, filing and polishing between sips of wine and, before I knew it, we were collaborating on designs. In our case, life partners make great business partners. This is my third or fourth career in life, and I’m loving it. It combines all the skills I’ve been mastering in other jobs over the past 20 years.”
Morgan said they both love “creating objects of beauty that appear simple but require problem solving in making them. We love that the possibilities are endless.”
It’s the shared love for objects of beauty that is key to making a successful collaboration, Shira said. “Every piece is a collaboration because even if it starts out as one person’s idea, it kind of morphs as we discuss it together, the idea comes to fruition. It ends up having little bits of both of us. We’re really lucky because we definitely have our own ideas, but we really share a similar esthetic. Our design processes are a little different but we really work well together; we’re good team. One of us might have an idea for a motif and then bring it to the other person. It may change slightly or be applied to a different piece or shape.”
LACAR make their home at Main and Broadway, a new studio space they share with fellow jeweler Anita Sikma. “I’ve spent years building up a studio and the repertoire of tools that I have on hand,” Shira said. “Now, I have a nice new bench that Morgan built for me since the move. I have on it all kinds of hand tools, files, hammers, measuring tools, steel blocks, a Fordham, safety goggles, and then we also have a lot of big tools.”
The move means that LACAR can expand their repertoire, Shira said. “We work in silver and bronze primarily for our collections, but our work is available in gold on a make-to-order basis. We can work in any metal – platinum, white gold – anything. We’d love to experiment with other mediums in the future. Now that we have a big studio space, we’ve got big plans.”
Their debut collection “was an expression of the beauty of eroded sanctuary,” the two told me in a follow-up email. “We wanted our pieces to be monumental, worthy of worship, but we wanted them to be light and wearable. So, we came up with the esthetic of the Gothic archway. The arches create a heavy vaulted lacework, drawing inspiration from sacred architectures.”
Soon after it debuted, they started making rings for Morgan to wear. “Until then, our line was mostly geared towards women,” Shira said, “and Morgan felt like he should be wearing more LACAR to promote our brand. Before we knew it, men were taking notice of our small ring collection. We decided to launch a men’s line, one that would have androgynous appeal. The pieces are heavy and solid; we tried to keep it a little more streamlined – lots of clean lines, flat surfaces.”
Though it’s hard to pick favorites, Morgan said he really loves the Obelisk ear cuff. “We wanted to make a cuff that complimented the form of the ear,” he said. “And the Signet ring, which we created as part of our new line, but that we’ve already customized for clients using family crests and other motifs.”
“Nothing passes through the studio door if we are not happy with it,” added Shira. “I really like all of the pieces that we have made. Morgan only wears some of them, but I get to wear them all. I would say that right now I’ve been wearing our gold Helm earrings with black diamonds pretty much every day, which we also have available without the diamonds and in silver and bronze, different price points, as well as the Vault bracelet with black jade inlay. Those pieces I wear every day and the other pieces kind of rotate. I’ve also been wearing our Siamese collar quite a bit. A bit more of a statement piece, but it looks really nice with a dress or even a casual pair of pants – it adds a nice detail.”
Favorites that they don’t get to wear “are some of the custom pieces that we’ve created. These come out of a nice collaborative process with the client’s ideas and our designs and technique. I’ve been really sad to see some of those pieces go! I specifically love working on engagement rings – that’s the favorite for me. Right now, we’re working on a beautiful ring, kind of a deco-inspired piece where the client brought in his girlfriend’s grandmother’s ring, which had a beautiful centre diamond and yellow gold, but he wanted something in white gold and with a different feel. We are using the diamond and creating a whole new piece that better fits her style and her esthetic.
“We do wedding rings, as well, and we’re right now working on a whole bunch of bridesmaids gifts, so that’s exciting…. One of the custom pieces that stands out was another art deco-inspired engagement ring that was inspired by the skyline.”
LACAR has been a mainstay at some of Vancouver’s pop-up shops, including at the Chinatown Experiment earlier this month. “It was with the Dreamlover Collective, which is friends of ours: Andrea Rokosz of Army of Rokosz and Karen La of Broken Promises and Marie Foxall of Wasted Effort…. They’re hosting so many great local vendors and designers, everything from hot sauce to jewelry, ceramic works, stockings. Our studio mate, Anita Sikma, is one of my favorite jewelers in the city … she was part of it, too. It’s great to be part of that, and a lot of fun.”
Aside from more retailers, Shira said they would love to work on a fine collection. “That would be really satisfying. We’re slowly building up, just continuing to work. Sometimes it’s hard to hone in on doing one collection because you’re constantly having so many ideas…. We just want to continue to create new things all the time!
Back in Vancouver for the third time, Sidra Bell Dance New York presents a double bill of STELLA and garment March 27-29. The performances are co-presented by the Chutzpah! Festival as part of its PLUS series and the Dance Centre. Artistic director Sidra Bell spoke with the Jewish Independent via email about her background, what inspires her, the power of dance theatre and what makes her company unique.
JI: Could you share a bit about your background?
SB: I was born in New York City to mixed heritage and grew up in the northernmost part of Manhattan in a neighborhood called Inwood. My father’s background is Italian, Irish and Bohemian (on my grandmother’s side) and my mom is African-American. Both of my parents were raised in New York City, in the Bronx and Brooklyn respectively. My paternal grandparents came in through Ellis Island.
I identify with my mixed heritage and was always exposed to the various components that make me who I am although we didn’t specifically practise religion in our household. My parents are both pianists and met through music. They went to New York College of Music and went on to direct together, as well as teach. I am the youngest of four siblings who are all involved in the arts…. In some way or another, most of my family and extended family are artists or use art as an entry point into what they are doing now, and we are all largely entrepreneurs….
JI: How and when did you first discover dance? When did you discover choreography?
SB: I participated in preschool in an after-school dance program, Ms. Patti Ann’s Dance, in my kindergarten years. A couple of years later, my mom took me to an audition at the Dance Theatre of Harlem. I resisted mainly because I was extremely shy and very nervous. I started taking classes in ballet there at age 7 and fell in love with the language of dance and its rigor. I was a very serious child and loved delving into the form that was being taught. I excelled very quickly and was asked to join the weekday program on scholarship, which increased my level and the number of classes a week. By 13, I was taking classes with the professional division, particularly in my summers when I could participate in the intensives.
At age 14, I realized I needed to stretch away from just a classical training and that is when I was accepted into the Ailey School, where I spent two-and-a-half years on scholarship. It was during that time, as I became more exposed to modern techniques, that I became interested in generating my own movement vocabulary. I was able to create a few solos for myself that were showcased at Ailey’s student showcases and also at my high school, the Spence School, where they had a dance program. Because both were New York City based, these showcases were taken very seriously and showcased in well-attended venues such as Symphony Space.
From an early age, I knew that I had to be very rigorous in my craft. In college at Yale, I was part of a student dance company called Yaledancers that produced its own shows in the New Haven, Conn., community. I became more active in my choreographic process and there started truly investigating and making work. This was outside of a conservatory environment and it allowed me to work with my own movement invention. My college years were formative exploration years.
JI: Can you describe how a piece comes together, from inspiration to the stage?
SB: I simply start with movement. Movement has been a driving force behind all of my works. There is always a question around why movement is an important means of expression. This question leads to larger subtexts within a work and perhaps characterizations. What is important to me is to challenge my collaborators to investigate movement with various qualities, tones and entry points. This collaborative focus has led to wildly different worlds onstage. The dancers ingest the vocabulary and regurgitate it based on the tasks or objectives at hand. I find that the concept evolves as we dig deeper each day into the vocabulary. There is a lot of trying and playing in the studio. Sometimes we are at ease and just talking, which leads to insights into what the dancers are thinking about in relationship to the world around us. How does movement bring in larger overtones about the world around us? I love form and that is a huge emphasis. Inventing forms is my primary concern. As we continue, the lens and environment come into play, as well as how the dancers are interpreting each relationship. More recently, I have been working more closely with my lighting designer to create limits onstage that inform how the dancers will interact with the arena or environment set up for them.
JI: Is this Vancouver performance part of a larger tour? I see that STELLA is from 2012, but garment is a brand new piece. How did garment come about? How do the two pieces work together, if at all?
SB: This has been a wonderful year of touring for the company. We have already completed residencies and tours in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh … and Atlanta’s Tanz Farm. [Two weeks ago], we world premièred garment as part of the Kelly Strayhorn Theatre’s commissioning series KST Presents. STELLA was created in 2012 and world premièred at NYC’s Baruch Performing Arts Centre. Before arriving at Chutzpah!, we will be showcasing the same program of garment and STELLA in our San Francisco Season at Dance Mission Theatre.
garment is about living in the skin you are in. Like STELLA, it deals with voyeurism and culture, but I think it drives towards the idea that we can rid ourselves of cultural constructs to re-establish or reclaim our personal and unique identities. Both works deal with popular constructs and individualism in an episodic framework. STELLA has a more cultish feeling, where you really see the dancers playing games and you can’t guess who “Stella” actually is until the end. garment sees the dancers reproducing trends and systems, and also working with joyful abandon. I think the two pieces are in conversation with each other and inhabit many different worlds within these general themes.
JI: Critics have called your work powerful, atmospheric, surreal, sensual and ferocious. I would add that your work is also in many ways hyper-modern, with industrial or “futuristic” qualities, from the costumes to the electronic soundscape you work within. It’s also very theatrical. Is there an overarching aspect of contemporary life that you’re exploring through your choreography?
SB: The main thread of my work is the personal questions that I grapple with. I think they are universal questions about our condition in contemporary life. As the world changes more rapidly, I grapple with my individual questions around identity, legacy, the afterlife, politics, community. The list can go on. I think I deal with these questions in my work, and not in a politicized way. The dancers contribute to this probing research and we work with play to reach and deconstruct content around these themes. Personas get developed through movement research and worlds get built from our collective thinking. I like playing this out on stage. There is often no resolution, but I am happy that there are always more questions. There is no one way to view the work and I like that the audience can reach in and find their own personal story. I am always surprised and pleased at the level of analysis an audience can bring to a moment. They bring up aspects I didn’t see and I think that is the beautiful quality that dance has. Its ephemeral and abstract nature can really make you feel. You may not know why you feel a certain way because it is truly coming from a visceral space. I like the fact that dance doesn’t have to deal with realism in such a direct way.
JI: What are the lines between dance and theatre, and what elements of performance bring them together? As well, can you share something about your work on Test and what draws you to work in the medium of film?
SB: I actively aim to eliminate the lines between dance, theatre and visual art. They are mediums that create a mutual, shared experience for the performers and the audience. I use whatever elements help me create those experiences for the viewer. I think this is why I have explored so many different aspects of dance and theatre. I use whatever technique or model that I believe services the work in the moment. I was the lead choreographer on Test (testthefilm.com), which has now been seen and awarded prizes worldwide. The film was shot and created on location in San Francisco. It was an incredible process working with Chris Mason Johnson, who wrote the screenplay and directed. He was a former dancer with Frankfurt Ballet and White Oak Project. I learned so much about the process of film making that I believe has improved my skills as a dance maker. Everything that was created on set was to service the storyline about dancers in the 1980s during the AIDS epidemic. My material was tempered to that era and I found it refreshing to have such a guide. It made me much more clear in the process of creating a choreographic work, which I consider to be a directorial act as well.
JI: How does your academic orientation and background impact your dance work, if at all? Are you currently teaching?
SB: I guest teach internationally. Teaching is a passion and I truly love the exchange I get to have with dancers from all over the world. My mind expands each time I lead a workshop because of the collaborative nature of working with such diverse communities. My academic background gave me a strong sense of language and articulation. My analytical nature has kept me interested in the research of movement not just its results.
JI: Are there differences in how you approach choreography for your own company versus commissions from other companies?
SB: My process is highly collaborative and I always go into a studio with very little expectation. This has produced very different works in each environment I visit. I like going into a new community on commission and introducing my language, but also learning about what gets that particular company excited about movement. With my company, we have such a history together that each work seems to be a reflection or a response to the last. I have been working with my dancers for some years and there is rich history that they bring to the studio but also a curiosity in moving forward.
JI: Vancouverite Rebecca Margolick is one of your dancers. Is there anything you can tell me about Rebecca’s contributions to SBDNY for her hometown audience?
SB: I met Rebecca when she was 16 years old at Arts Umbrella, where I taught and staged work. She was so wise and left a great impression on me. She brings a beautiful physical quality to the work but is also highly theatrical. When she is on stage she inhabits another aura. I find that fascinating about her. She is very discrete offstage but onstage she is a bold performer. She is a chameleon.
JI: Is there is anything else you would like our readers to know?
SB: This is our third visit to the Chutzpah! Festival as a company and I am so excited to be returning with these two works. I’m also thrilled to be co-presented by Chutzpah! PLUS and the Dance Centre. We love the city and can’t wait to see our Vancouver friends.
Sidra Bell Dance New York presents STELLA and garment March 27-29, 8 p.m., and March 29, 2 p.m., at Scotiabank Dance Centre, 677 Davie St. Tickets, $28/$24/$20, are available at chutzpahfestival.com or ticketstonight.ca.
Jayme Stone calls himself a banjoist, instigator and composer. His repertoire, which includes four albums – The Utmost (2007), Africa to Appalachia (2008), Room of Wonders (2010) and The Other Side of the Air (2013) – bridge myriad genres, including folk and roots music from around the world, jazz and chamber music. His latest endeavor is the Lomax Project, which he brings here for CelticFest Vancouver next weekend.
Music journalists have said that Stone’s music “sounds like nothing else on earth,” is “spirited,” “enchanting,” “adventurous” and “delicate, imaginative and unusual.” To get a true sense of what Stone is capable, however, and what his oeuvre sounds like, it might help to know more about from where he comes than to where he’s going.
More associated in North American ears with the sounds of Appalachia and bluegrass, the banjo also has a significant presence in traditional American folk and roots music, including country, blues and old-time. However, what we know of as the modern banjo has a longer – and more global – story to tell.
“Predecessors of the banjo and the blueprint for making and playing it came over with slaves from West Africa starting in the 1500s,” Stone told the Independent in an email interview. “It was, and continues to be, part of many African-American traditions, and African influence abounds in all forms of American music, including the blues, jazz, rock and roll and the many roots and branches of traditional music. From my perspective, each of these genres tells a unique story of how immigrant culture from the British Isles and Europe combined with African culture in a different way. The history of the banjo tells a similar story.”
Growing up in Toronto, Stone developed a love for music early but didn’t start playing banjo until his teens. “I was born and raised in Toronto but started playing the banjo at 16 when I moved to Vancouver for a spell. My parents had a good record collection growing up and my uncle Ian loved listening to music and played a little piano. We used to listen to old records with rapt attention, and he was the first person to turn me on to poetry, Eastern philosophy and ’60s culture.” Most significantly, perhaps, delving into those records introduced Stone to the inherent possibilities of his chosen instrument.
“I discovered the banjo at precisely the moment I got serious about studying music,” he said. “I had started playing country blues guitar having fallen in love with folks like Elizabeth Cotten, Mississippi John Hurt and Reverend Gary Davis. At that time, you could mail order cassettes of out-of-print recordings from the Smithsonian Folkways catalogue and I reveled in the discovery of these older artists and avidly read liner notes. In a short span, I heard the banjo in many settings, from southern old-time Appalachian music to Mike Seeger to Earl Scruggs to modern pioneers like Tony Trischka ad Béla Fleck.
“Béla came to play at the Orpheum Theatre in Vancouver and it turned my world upside down. I immediately wanted to play the banjo, but I also realized that you could play any kind of music on the instrument. It was thrilling to see both what a varied history the banjo had and how much music had yet to be played on the instrument. I loved the quirky physics of the tuning, its unique timbre and variety of playing styles. I’ve been hooked ever since!”
Stone’s musical lens is global and multidisciplinary in scope, as he explores songwriting and storytelling traditions from around the world. Bringing all the pieces together is a labor of love. “I’ve long been interested in music from around the world and like immersing myself in different approaches to making music,” he said. “I love the interaction and improvisational spirit of jazz; the clarity of melody and grit of folk music; the attention to detail and color in chamber music; the rhythmic variety of music from foreign cultures. It’s often these core elements that attract me, rather than simply the veneer of style, if that makes any sense. In a way, I like to bring different approaches into my own musical culture and sort of curate my own esthetic world, as if it were an art gallery with all different kinds of art hanging on the walls.”
His reputation for innovation, reinvention and collaboration stems from his role as an instigator. “At bottom, I really just love being engaged in listening to and learning about music. Since I sometimes hear things that don’t exist yet or have an inkling to combine things that aren’t obvious, I have to make that music so it exists in the world. Along the way, I’ve performed, made records, produced them for others and taught – it’s really all a natural extension of my passion for music and interest in sharing it with others. It’s often necessary for independent musicians like myself to wear many hats. I started using the word ‘instigator’ because I often kickstart and head up projects and collaborations. I’ve always been an upstart of sorts.”
Indeed, frequent collaboration has been integral to Stone’s career. Each album and project has been a shared effort, as they take listeners from the banjo’s roots in West Africa, to the music of Bach and Debussy, and along the Cinnamon Route through Persia and India and beyond.
“I really love collaborating,” Stone noted. “It includes so many things I enjoy: learning, sharing, creating, friendship and community. I also like working with musicians that have their own voice and sensibility – often people that play their instruments in unique ways. It just makes sense to collaborate because I could never write music that fully allows them express their personalities and idiosyncrasies. By collaborating, I get to draw on people’s uniqueness while also working it into a context that includes my own voice and approach. I have to be very organized, plan ahead and work with people who I trust. I’ve been doing this for a long time, so I’m pretty used to balancing all the elements and rolling with things when they go awry.”
Stone’s Lomax Project is named after Alan Lomax, the famed field collector of American folk and roots music, an ethnomusicological treasure trove, much of which is archived at the Library of Congress’ American Folklife Centre. Lomax is also well known for having produced radio and live concerts, as well as for his academic contributions and political activism, among other roles. It is fitting that Stone would pay homage to the multitalented and versatile Lomax, whose work was cross-genre, global and truly multicultural.
“Alan Lomax was a folklorist who began accompanying his father, John Lomax, on field recording trips through the American South in the early 1930s when portable recording technology first became available,” Stone explained. “They collected folk songs from people on plantations, penitentiaries, front porches, churches and schoolyards in the hopes of capturing traditional, rural, folk songs from people who made music for their own enjoyment rather than for commercial gain. Alan made field-collecting trips all over America and eventually all over the world for 60-plus years and recorded over 50,000 songs, in addition to taking photographs, making films and writing prolifically about traditional music. He was an incredibly strong-minded, dedicated and prolific cultural force.
“The idea of my project is to unearth songs that Alan collected and collaborate with some of my favorite musicians on new arrangements. We’ll recycle, re-imagine and rework these old melodies and lyrics and try to bring new life to the material.”
The artists with whom Stone will perform in Vancouver include multi-instrumentalist Eli West, fiddler Crittany Haas, singer and composer Moira Smiley and double bassist Joe Phillips. Other Lomax Project artists have included Tim O’Brien, Bruce Molsky, Margaret Glaspy, Greg Garrison, Julian Lage, and Pharis and Jason Romero.
Stone’s own cultural background is Jewish. “I am Jewish or, as I prefer to say, Jew-ish. My family on both sides are Jewish, and I grew up going to Hebrew school, synagogue, having a bar mitzvah and all that. It’s not something I kept up with in my adult life, and I looked more to Buddhist and yoga traditions in my late teens. Since having kids, my wife and I have been slowly coming around to incorporating more Jewish traditions back into our lives. We try to do Shabbat dinner every week and get together for some holidays with other like-minded, somewhat-on-the-fence, modern Jewish families and friends. I can’t say being Jewish has influenced my music per se, but it’s of course one of the many things that has shaped who I am.”
Finding the time to unwind might be difficult, but Stone has a rich life outside of music, too. “When I’m not working on music, I’m spending time with my family. I have an almost-four-year-old girl and a 10-week-old boy, so life is full. When I do find time to unwind, I like to practise yoga, do contact improv dance, read and hang out with friends. I love to cook and we usually make a big deal about meals at home.”
After CelticFest, Stone will play a concert at the Bach Music Festival of Canada with his Other Side of the Air collaborators. The concert will feature the quintet “playing a Bach fugue, a Trinidadian calypso, Bulgarian mountain dance and an Appalachian barnburner.”
And next on the list for Stone? “I’ll be recording the Lomax Project over the next year and an album will be out in the spring of 2015. It’ll include Grammy-winning songster Tim O’Brien, Bruce Molsky, Brittany Haas, Margaret Glaspy, Moira Smiley, Eli West, Julian Lage, Greg Garrison, Joe Phillips and others. We’ll be launching a Kickstarter campaign in the spring to fund the recording.”
Jayme Stone brings his Lomax Project to CelticFest Vancouver on March 14, 8 p.m., at the Vogue; March 15, 8 p.m., at Vancouver FanClub; March 16, 2 p.m., at Mahony and Sons Music Stage (Granville at Robson); and March 15, noon-4 p.m., at the Tom Lee Music City Stage (929 Granville St.) for a series of one-hour workshops with Lomax Project artists. For tickets and information, visit celticfestvancouver.com.