A harsh critique early in her career didn’t stop Victoria-based Jessica Ruth Freedman from doing what she loves – painting – and becoming a successful artist.
“I was born in Montreal, and then my brother and I were whisked away to Kibbutz Ein Dor in the Galilee,” Freedman told the Independent. “After a few years there, we returned to reside in Calgary. I attended what was then called the Calgary Hebrew School-Talmud Torah. I was filled with the love for Jewish lifecycle events, food, and being part of a community. Apart from a fabulous school experience, one episode of failing an art assignment in kindergarten stands out. We were told to pick a rock and paint it like a ladybug. Creatively, I painted it black on red, rather than red on black, so that the white dots would stand out better. I sadly was singled out as an art failure in front of the whole class!
“Fast forward a few years, a career as a contemporary dancer, yoga teacher and accountant, [then] I returned to my love of painting,” said Freedman, who has a bachelor of arts, with a major in dance and a minor in fine arts, from Simon Fraser University. “At this time, I had moved to Victoria to chase the warmer weather and, after a few holidays in nearby Hawaii, I was hooked on representing the juxtaposition of botanicals versus the urban in my artwork.”
Freedman is one of the artists participating in Art Vancouver, which has been postponed from its scheduled dates, April 16-19, because of COVID-19.
“These days, the traditional way of selling art through a gallery is changing,” she said. “Many galleries are shutting their doors due to increasing rents and a growing online marketplace. Art fairs give individual artists an opportunity to connect directly with new collectors. I also love the communal spirit of the artists working and showing together. There is a lot of sharing of process and information that goes on at these types of events. Since I live on the West Coast, Art Vancouver is the best art fair to participate in, and Vancouverites are a knowledgeable art bunch.”
She said she likes to create fresh work for each art fair. “I consider carefully the city, people, environment and sizes of artwork,” she said. “At this Art Vancouver, I will be debuting some non-traditional materials in my paintings, all while keeping the abstract botanical theme. My aim is to always create work that uplifts and inspires, and I attempt to do this through colour, theme and design.”
Freedman works in acrylic, ink and mixed media. She has exhibited internationally and her work is in private and public collections around the world. On her website, she notes, “My journey through life can only be described as an artistic DIY.” She says she “was always the child who wanted to be left alone to explore and discover” and yet that it is her “path in life to share my art to celebrate connection, serenity and humour and to share this journey together.”
“Many artists will agree that one needs to look inward to find the source of creation,” Freedman explained of her need for both solitude and community. “Even realist painters rely on an internal compass based on technique and free expression. As a Jewish person, I honour the spirit of creation within me, and I also pay tribute to the concept of tikkun olam, the repair of the world. I feel fortunate to explore the creative side of myself for a living, but I also feel it’s necessary to do good work in the world. This might mean volunteering for Jewish events, donating my paintings to charity auctions, or just being a positive person with a solution-focused outlook.”
For Jewish community members who come to see her work at Art Vancouver, the dates for which will be released in the near future, Freedman said, “Surprisingly, a fair amount of Hebrew – my first language – appears in my paintings. If readers come visit my booth, I’ll look forward to pointing it out!”
Though she paints the natural world, Freedman noted a certain irony – she is not very good at caring for actual plants. “I am lucky that I can send my husband out to purchase plants – I paint them and he cares for them,” she said. “I am mostly fascinated by the riot of colour, of chaos, that Hashem has let loose in the natural world. The process of growth and decay, while natural, is obviously hard on us humans but is a natural part of life. I am also very interested in urban design that incorporates the natural world in ways that increase sustainability, beauty, communication and wonder.”
Aviva Klompas recently published the book Speaking for Israel: A Speechwriter Battles Anti-Israel Opinions at the United Nations. (photo from Aviva Klompas)
Aviva Klompas came close to writing a declaration of war. In early 2013, after an Israeli post was fired upon by Syria – one of a number of attacks – Klompas was tasked with penning a condemnation that would be submitted to the United Nations.
Still relatively new as director of speechwriting for Israel’s Permanent Mission to the UN in New York City, she recalled the criticism she received: “Be more direct. Be more assertive about things,” she was told. “I thought to myself, ‘channel outrage.’ I tried to do so. I wrote this very stern letter, and I took it to the ambassador to review.”
Klompas, who spoke with the Independent recently, said she then learned the art of diplomacy, and how words might set off an international firestorm.
“To be clear,” Ambassador Ron Prosor, then Israel’s permanent representative to the UN, told her, “you don’t have any authority to declare war.” And it was off to a rewrite.
Thankfully, there weren’t any other close calls, but there are many other fascinating stories – many of which Klompas has brought to light in Speaking for Israel: A Speechwriter Battles Anti-Israel Opinions at the United Nations (Skyhorse, 2019). The book is a candid examination of how the Israeli delegation – and Israel as a whole – is perceived and treated in the international body.
During Klompas’s time at the UN, several major events occurred, including but not limited to the Iran deal, countless anti-Israel resolutions, Palestinians’ bid to join the International Criminal Court, the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers, and 50 days of war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. She wrote the book, she said, to show the tireless work of those who advocate for the Jewish state and who rarely get their due.
“It always feels like it is an uphill battle by the nature of the bias at the UN,” she said. “There are people who show up every single day and never say, ‘Why are we doing this? We should leave the UN.’ I’ve never had a single colleague make that suggestion. They came to work and did the job. I think, it’s a little bit my story, but it’s really our story.”
Klompas was director of speechwriting from 2013 to 2015.
“It’s very few people that make the headlines – the ambassador, maybe the deputy ambassador, maybe the foreign minister – but what about everyone else that is doing it day in and day out?” she asked.
About her work, the Toronto native said it advanced Israel’s policies and informed public opinion. Being successful at it, she said, required overcoming some challenges. For one, there was a culture clash.
“Certainly, Israelis are much more direct in their feedback, which is for better or for worse. At first, it is startling, but then you get to understand that it’s not personal,” she said.
Learning how to write in someone else’s voice was difficult, too. Prosor has “a very distinct style,” she said, describing him as “extremely articulate, funny, charming and intelligent. To be able to write for somebody like that takes time.”
In addition, Prosor took a different approach to diplomacy, when “so many speeches can be dry and not entirely lively,” said Klompas. “He’d be all too happy to break out into song in the middle of a speech, whether it be a song about African nations, which got him a standing ovation from some of the African nations in the General Assembly, [or] he would sing John Lennon’s ‘Imagine.’ In a speech about women, he sang Aretha Franklin’s ‘Respect.’”
Klompas gave him the nickname “the Singing Diplomat.”
“Ambassador Prosor felt it was very important to be heard and, to be heard, you have to be different,” she explained. “He knew he had to capture attention to get people to listen.”
In the beginning, she would have to write up to 20 drafts of a speech before she got a sense of the ambassador’s voice and style. Sometimes, there wasn’t much time to tweak.
“It’s pretty stressful,” she said. “You can get a phone call any time of day or night, weekend, and be told the Security Council is convening a special session, come down to the office, we have to get writing. You could have a couple of days’ notice or a couple of hours’ notice. And emergency sessions tend to get a lot of publicity.”
Klompas, who is now associate vice-president of Israel and global Jewish citizenship at Combined Jewish Philanthropies in Boston, said there were poignant takeaways from her job as a speechwriter.
“You can’t be easily deterred by situations that seem unfair or unreasonable. You need a courage of conviction to deflect the constant attacks and brush aside the fact that systems and processes aren’t as simple as one might hope,” she said. “I’d say that my experience gave me a greater sense of what happens behind the scenes in international diplomacy, and the ways in which Israel is working to find equality in the family of nations.”
Dave Gordonis a Toronto-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in more than 100 publications around the world.
Much of artist Seth Book’s work has been influenced by his maternal grandfather, who was a Holocaust survivor, including “A Series I Don’t Want to Continue” – “One work to symbolize each character tattooed on his arm, and each million Jewish people that were massacred,” explained Book. (photo from Seth Book)
“My art began as solely for the enjoyment of creating work that was esthetically pleasing, but it has since changed to serve a didactic purpose and to provide awareness to social issues and histories that are important to me and my family,” Seth Book told the Independent. “A significant part of my work is to keep the legacy of my grandfather, survivors, and Jewish history alive.”
Book is a member of the third generation. “My mother’s father was a Holocaust survivor, originally from Romania. He went through a few camps, Auschwitz being one of them. Since seventh grade, I have completed a significant amount of research on his story, directly with him while he was alive, as well as after his passing, and, like many other survivors, he had an unbelievable journey,” explained Book, whose work will be on display at Art Vancouver April 16-19, in the unlikely event that the spread of COVID-19 is under control by then and the fair is allowed to take place.
“His presence in my early life has been extremely impactful on the way I live and see the world,” said Book of his grandfather, “and this is what has influenced my art. I truly believe that, in school, work and life in general, I have gotten my tenacity, conscientiousness and resilience from my zaide. As I learned more about his life and what he fought so hard to build for my family, he became a strong source of motivation and drive to succeed in my life. I still uncover bits and pieces about his life after the Holocaust.”
While his art for the past few years has been primarily concerned with his grandfather, the Holocaust, survivors in general, and present-day antisemitism, Book said the past year has been “transformational.”
“My connection to my grandfather allowed me to begin my work at this starting point relative to my own history,” he said, “but it has since expanded to include broader focuses, such as the current generation living on the legacies of survivors, as well as generational trauma and current events affecting the global Jewish community.”
Book, who works at a branding agency doing graphic design and writing copy for clients, is set to finish his bachelor of fine arts degree at the University of British Columbia. His coursework has allowed him to learn about and use many different mediums, he said, “including drawing, digital media, photography, painting and metalwork.”
Born in Vancouver, Book has lived in the Dunbar area his entire life. He attended Vancouver Talmud Torah from preschool to Grade 7, and then went to St. George’s School for his secondary education. He continued his involvement in the Jewish community via Temple Sholom, he said, “where I participated in the confirmation class in 10th grade and then taught at the Sunday school in 11th and 12th grade. I was also lucky enough to travel to Israel with my family on the Temple Sholom trip after my bar mitzvah.”
He was well-versed in diverse media long before his university years.
“Growing up, I was always interested in creativity: building structures, doing crafts, colouring, and especially playing with LEGO,” he said. “I recall being hilariously picky with colours and colouring inside the lines when drawing with other kids as early as preschool; I always find it funny to this day how much it bothered me as a toddler to see other toddlers using odd colour combinations or messy drawing.
“This interest in art was then supplemented by Colette Leisen’s art class all throughout VTT – it was probably my favourite in elementary school. This carried on into various art classes in high school, including drawing, animation, graphic design, ceramics and painting.”
Book said it is hard to define his artistic style because he has always been interested in finding new mediums and approaches. But he has less need for such definition since he began university. Since then, he said, “I have been able to let go of that and continue exploring what interests me rather than being labeled as a ‘painter’ or a ‘photographer.’ I always find that different mediums have such an incredibly unique ability to succeed in accomplishing a piece better than others. In other words, certain mediums are more effective than others in conveying certain ideas or concepts for varying projects. That being said, I try to use the best option I can for each work, trying not to limit myself in expertise. I can always try and learn! I did not work with metal until late 2019, and have already created two works using it, and I am very satisfied with how they turned out.”
Book, who has a background in business management in addition to his art training, said he first heard about Art Vancouver through a summer internship program he took part in a couple years ago, and has kept in close contact with the team there since. “I have loved working with the organizers and enjoyed attending the event every year,” he said. “I quite like the efforts they make to advance the art scene in my hometown and can’t wait to be a part of it as an artist this time.”
Hopefully, he will get that chance, but, even if Art Vancouver is canceled or postponed because of COVID-19, Book is an emerging artist whose works will available at other venues at other times.
He was able to tell the Independent about two pieces he was planning on bringing to the art fair. While he had not firmly decided on all the pieces yet, he said, “I selected the works from my portfolio which I have found to be the most striking, the works that I have received most compliments about, as well as the works which I feel represent my wide practice the best when shown together.”
One of those creations is called “A Series I Don’t Want to Continue,” which comprises six digitally rendered vinyl decals adhered to six two-foot-by-three-foot melamine sheets.
“A series opens an idea and simultaneously closes it,” reads the work’s description. “The values in between the first and last work tell a story or convey some sort of meaning through the relationships formed with the works in between.”
It continues, “A series of works in any media all relate to one another through consecutive nature. Labeling a group of entities as part of a series can bind them together, locking them out from further creation or reproduction. This is where the concept of my work integrates itself reflexively within the format of a series work. Through this work, I explore the contained value of past events, and particularly the Holocaust, in relation to my grandfather’s story.
“When he passed away, the evaluation of his extreme tenacity and hard work to establish our family and provide futures for generations to come was recognized more than ever. ‘Never again,’ the words that often cross our mind, could not be stronger upon recounting the horrors he endured. Never again, but also never forget. These events happened. They must be taught and preserved, but they are contained, and must never grow…. One work to symbolize each character tattooed on his arm, and each million Jewish people that were massacred. There will not be a seventh work in this series.”
The other piece that Book wanted to bring for sure to Art Vancouver is called “Untitled Crowd (The Stars, The Blues, The Ashes).” The 22-inch-by-30-inch ink-on-paper work is also related to the Holocaust. The description reads, in part, that the Nazis’ attention to detail was “dual-edged.”
“On one hand,” it notes, “they kept extremely particular and accurate data records of the prisoners murdered. Ironically, on the other hand, the attention to human detail was nonexistent. When Jewish people were funneled through various camps, they were stripped of their belongings and identities. They were nothing but a number.”
In “Untitled Crowd,” Book writes, “I attempt to discuss this specific lack of attention and elimination of one’s person. Each work is a recreation of real people who either survived or perished during the Holocaust. In order to illustrate the lack of respect and attention given to these unfortunately abused people, I spent a specifically short time on depicting them in the piece. Each face was dedicated about six minutes, to correspond with the six million lives lost. The faces are all overlapping with one another to represent not only the crowds of people who were murdered and their brutal living conditions, but also the morphing of individuals into a mess of numbers and bodies rather than human beings.”
The piece’s three parts carry added symbolism. “The first work is done with shades of mustard yellow to signify the yellow stars Jewish people were forced to use as identification, and the shades are more distinct in overlapping to show not all identity had yet been lost,” writes Book. “The second work is completed with shades of blues to represent the blue-striped pyjamas prisoners wore, and the difference in tone decreases to create a more homogenized look as they lost identity. The final work uses the greyscale to convey the ashes of those perished, and the gaining age of survivors around the world.”
Courtney Hazlett in Malta, one of the many places she has visited to record her Netflix program Restaurants on the Edge. (photo from marblemedia and OutEast Entertainment)
For producer Courtney Hazlett, traveling around the world for her new Netflix series, Restaurants on the Edge, has been an unforgettable, rewarding experience.
The premise of the show is to take struggling restaurants that have incredible locations with breathtaking views but ordinary or subpar food, and turn them around. A team of experts – chef Dennis Prescott, designer Karin Bohn and restaurateur Nick Liberato – come in and transform the establishments into magical eateries. The show is co-produced by marblemedia and OutEast Entertainment, which is a company run by Hazlett and her husband, Steven Marrs.
“We go around the world with a team of experts and, in a positive way, find restaurants that aren’t living up to the beauty of their location and help change that,” said Hazlett, who is also the show’s creator. “We change the décor, menu and business model. We want to add menu items that speak to that destination.”
Hazlett, who lives in Los Angeles, came up with the idea for the program while eating outdoors at a restaurant in Venice, Calif.
“We often go to places where the better the view, the worse the food,” she told the Independent. “That was the seed. I thought, we can go around the world, find restaurants that aren’t living up to the beauty of their location and help change that. My initial impression was, because of the spectacular view, restaurant owners felt they didn’t have to go all out with the food. But that wasn’t the case. It’s not that they aren’t trying, it’s just that a lot of restaurant owners are in over their head.”
In helping decide what changes needed to be made in each restaurant, Hazlett said they first went to social media to see what people were saying about the establishment. They looked at reviews on Tripadvisor and Yelp and read the comments patrons made.
“What I was most passionate about was the storytelling aspect,” she said. “We went out and met people who lived there. In some ways, the story of community shows up on the plate.”
Since it’s being aired on Netflix, it must be a global show, Hazlett explained. “We had to show as many corners of the earth as we could. It’s a lot of globetrotting.”
In Season One, released on Netflix in Canada last week, on March 14, the team traveled to Malta, Hong Kong, Tobermory (located in Ontario four hours north of Toronto), Costa Rica, Austria and St. Lucia.
Hazlett said Tobermory looked like the Caribbean, with gorgeous blue and green water, underground caves, cliffs and ancient forests. Tobermory is almost completely surrounded by water, with Lake Huron on one side and Georgian Bay on the other. The team chose to make over a seasonal restaurant called Coconut Joe’s.
“The owner was a sweet guy who was struggling with the business,” she said. “He loves to travel and wanted to make a restaurant inspired from his travels. That main inspiration was palm trees, and he wanted to have menu items reflecting any place you would find a palm tree. He had about 30 items on the menu – from Thai to Caribbean food, all over the place. The décor was tiki but not in a good way. The restaurant owner’s busy season is only eight weeks of the year because it’s so far north. Since we filmed the episode in the busy season, he had to shut it down one and a half of those weeks in June.”
The designer’s goal was to transform Coconut Joe’s from tacky tiki to chic tiki. The chef’s goal was to celebrate local food as well. At the end of the restoration, the owner was grateful and thrilled with the results.
Season Two, also released on March 14 in Canada, brought the team to seven more destinations, including wine country in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley. There, they chose to transform the Outboard Waterfront Pub.
“The owners of the restaurant are such an integral part of the story we tell and, in this case, we were thrilled to include a father-daughter team, Campbell and Anne Stewart,” Hazlett said. “Campbell is hoping to retire sooner rather than later and leave the restaurant in Anne’s hands, and Anne, when we filmed, had an infant. So they’ve got a lot on their plate.”
Hazlett said she has always loved food and cooking. Born and raised in Pittsburgh, she earned a degree from Tulane University and a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University. She went on to work at People magazine and OK! magazine, then was a correspondent for MSNBC, covering pop culture for MSNBC, as well as Today, Morning Joe and more, before running entertainment teams for NBC News Digital.
“Around 2012, I started producing,” said Hazlett, who moved from New York City to Los Angeles. “Then I started to develop content and, in 2014, created the production company OutEast Entertainment. ABC just ordered a medical drama pilot from us called Triage; it’s directed by Jon Chu, who directed the upcoming film In the Heights.”
Although Hazlett is Jewish and raises her children Jewish, she was born Christian.
“What happened is my mom never knew her father and, later in life, found out he was Jewish, and it unlocked something in me,” she explained. “Growing up, I always gravitated towards Judaism. My husband of eight years [Marrs] was a lapsed Catholic and we both converted. For us, as we started to lean into the Jewish traditions, it became such a centring force for our family. Over time, we started to keep Shabbat and celebrate Jewish holidays. We wanted our kids to grow up Jewish – they go to religious school and we are super-active in our temple. Converting became an easy choice for both of us and it made a lot of sense.”
In keeping with her Jewishness, Hazlett would love to find a location and restaurant in Israel. “Next season, I would love to film in Israel and other Jewish places,” she said.
Hazlett admitted it was a lot to ask an owner to close down his or her restaurant while her crew did renovations, especially if the restaurateur had a cash flow problem. “But, on the flip side, being on Netflix is great advertising for them,” she said, adding that they don’t compensate the restaurants, but they do pay for the cost of the makeovers. “In fact, I received notes from the restaurant in Malta that he has had more than 2,000 people reach out to him because of the show. That’s a lot of new customers!”
Alice Burdick Schweiger is a New York City-based freelance writer who has written for many national magazines, including Good Housekeeping, Family Circle, Woman’s Day and The Grand Magazine. She specializes in writing about Broadway, entertainment, travel and health, and covers Broadway for the Jewish News. She is co-author of the 2004 book Secrets of the Sexually Satisfied Woman, with Jennifer Berman and Laura Berman.
Wendy Bross Stuart leads singers Lisa Milton, Kat Palmer and David Urist in the JSA program With a Song in My Heart, which takes place March 29 at the Peretz Centre. (photo from Wendy Bross Stuart)
This year’s Jewish Seniors Alliance of Greater Vancouver Spring Forum features a concert with music director and pianist Wendy Bross Stuart and singers Lisa Milton, Kat Palmer and David Urist. The program, called With a Song in My Heart, takes place March 29 at the Peretz Centre for Secular Jewish Culture.
“We are planning a program of Jewish-related songs all pertaining to our love of music,” Bross Stuart told the Independent. “‘With a Song in My Heart’ is a famous song by Rodgers and Hart (Jewish writers) from the 1929 musical Spring is Here. Very true that, by March 29, spring will indeed be here!
“We will include that song in our program as an ensemble piece,” she said. “We will have duets – in Yiddish – ‘Her Nor Du, Sheyn Meydele’ and ‘Vu Ahin Zol Ikh Geyn’; and many solos from Jewish-themed musicals, for example Rags, Milk and Honey, The Rothschilds and a song that was deleted from Fiddler on the Roof!”
Bross Stuart has contributed to more than a dozen seasons of Theatre Under the Stars, as conductor, music director and pianist, and has been music director and pianist for many other theatre companies, including the Arts Club, the Electric Company, Famous Artists, Touchstone Theatre, Presentation House and Snapshots Collective. She has composed numerous choral arrangements and recorded four CDs of Jewish music with soprano Claire Klein Osipov.
Of the ensemble that will join her on March 29, Bross Stuart said, “These three singers are very accomplished. They must have an opportunity to sing what inspires them, but which also fits into the theme of the program.”
She noted that Milton is Klein Osipov’s younger daughter. “She spent many years observing her mother’s performances and rehearsals. She knows all the arrangements I created for Claire – perfectly. When I accompany Lisa, it’s magic,” said Bross Stuart. “I see and hear Claire! What a delight!”
In addition to being an award-winning musician, Bross Stuart is an ethnomusicologist. She has written two books – Gambling Music of the Coast Salish Indians and, with John Enrico, Northern Haida Songs. She and her husband, Ron Stuart, collaborate in the making of documentary films shot in South Africa.
“Ron and I just returned from two-and-a-half months in Cape Town, where we started working on our eighth documentary there,” said Bross Stuart. “This one is called Gugulethu Warriors – Making Things Right! It’s a documentary based on the grassroots efforts of township residents to cope with the social issues of crime, safety, unemployment and community cohesion.”
The Stuarts established Cultural Odyssey Films, notes the website culturalodysseyfilms.com, “to provide a platform for the production and distribution of documentary films about contemporary cultural groups and individuals committed to social change.”
The Stuarts also formed WRS Productions, which has numerous producing credits, including the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre’s annual community commemoration of Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. Bross Stuart said that, while preparing for the JSA Spring Forum, she, Milton, Palmer and Urist are also working on the Yom Hashoah commemoration.
“After that,” she said, “I jump into rehearsals for Theatre Under the Stars’ upcoming production of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast and Perry Ehrlich’s Gotta Sing! Gotta Dance! – year 26!
Bross Stuart is a co-founder of the Gotta Sing! Gotta Dance! musical theatre program, which is held at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver every summer. The deadline for youth to apply to this year’s sessions is April 1.
Not one to rest on her laurels, Bross Stuart recently adapted an indie pop song. “I just completed a new choral arrangement,” she said. “Of one of my daughter Jessica’s new songs. A first for me!” (The original “Simple Little Song” can be heard at jessicastuartmusic.com.)
As to why she is making the time to perform at the JSA forum, Bross Stuart said, “The JSA is run by a group of very talented, diligent, kind and caring individuals. They provide a wonderful service to the community, where we share with one another. It is my pleasure to contribute to this.”
With a Song in My Heart starts at 2 p.m. on March 29. Refreshments will be served and underground parking is available at the Peretz Centre – cars must enter the alley from 49th Avenue, as 45th is closed to traffic. The nominal cost of the event is $5. For more information and to register, call 604-732-1555 or email [email protected].
The deadline to apply for Gotta Sing! Gotta Dance! at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver July 7-30 and Aug. 4-27 is April 1. With participants ages 9 to 19 from various parts of Canada and elsewhere in the world, director and creator of the program Perry Ehrlich will be joined this year by faculty including musical directors Wendy Bross Stuart and Diane Speirs; director Chris McGregor; choreographers Jason Franco, Keri Minty and Meghan Anderssen; acting coach Amanda Testini; and Mariana Munoz, set construction and costume co-ordination. The final production of each session will be Wild Wild West Side Story, featuring an original script and a repertoire from Broadway and movie musicals. Also being offered is the finishing school, for serious musical theatre students attending Gotta Sing! Gotta Dance!, and a boot camp dance program. Scholarships are available.
Seattle-based Iraqis in Pajamas, left to right: Sean Sebastian, Loolwa Khazzoom and Robbie Morsehead. (photo from Iraqis in Pajamas)
How do you take the wisdom of surviving and turn it into beautiful things?” asked Loolwa Khazzoom, front woman for Seattle-based punk rock group Iraqis in Pajamas, during an interview with the Independent recently.
One cannot easily classify Khazzoom, a cancer survivor, in a succinct journalistic fashion. Aside from being a musician, she is a writer, an activist, a polyglot and a journalist. Raised in California to an American mother and an Iraqi father, she was heavily involved in the Jewish feminist movement of the 1990s and the founder of the Jewish Multicultural Project, which provided resources about diversity to Jewish groups.
As with her stage presence, she transmits a raw, infectious energy in conversation, ever more so as Iraqis in Pajamas started this month by releasing a new single.
“Life brings with it an endless number of challenges. Negative experiences can be turned into art,” Khazzoom reflected.
“I was diagnosed with cancer in 2010,” she said. “I rejected the conventional option of surgery – despite a doctor proclaiming that I would die without it. ‘You can’t think your way out of cancer,’ he said, to which I replied, ‘You don’t know what I can do.’”
After the diagnosis, Khazzoom researched natural approaches to healing, and radically altered her diet – pulling everything out of her cupboards and moving to an all-organic and vegan diet. Through these and subsequent diet and lifestyle changes, she said she was able to stop the growth of the nodules, which remained stable for the next five years. The nodules began shrinking when she returned to music – her lost passion.
Formed in 2015, Iraqis in Pajamas combines ancient Iraqi Jewish prayers with its own original style of punk rock sung in English, Hebrew and Judeo-Arabic. The band’s songs examine a wide number of social issues – domestic violence, racism, mental illness, family caregiving, national exile – and cancer.
The band received a grant to produce the song “Cancer Is My Engine,” which was released March 1. “Cancer Is My Engine” combines an ancient Iraqi Jewish prayer with original punk rock, sung in Hebrew and English – challenging conventional medical approaches to cancer and putting forth the concept of music as medicine.
The song was produced by Bard Rock Studio, an independent Northwest music producer, and funded by the Lloyd Symington Foundation, which supports people living with and healing from cancer.
According to Khazzoom, singing has the ability not only to uplift but to heal. “This shift in consciousness is why, after hearing a particular song, our mood may change abruptly, or we suddenly may feel transported back in time. Singing bypasses our mental process, both awakening and soothing us at the core, without effort. Among other benefits, we are able to access, release and heal from the experience of trauma, without having to recount and risk getting triggered by painful memories,” she said.
Iraqis in Pajamas, which also includes drummer Robbie Morsehead and guitarist Sean Sebastian, got its name from a reputation Iraqi expatriates in the Israeli city of Ramat Gan had for putting on their pajamas when they had arrived home and the work of the day was completed.
The band is currently developing its next project: a debut double album. One CD will be an original a cappella version of 10 Iraqi Jewish prayers, which the band incorporates into its songs, along with a story about each prayer and why they chose it, while the second CD will be the 10 songs with those prayers woven through them. The project is sponsored by Allied Arts Foundation in Seattle and, in February, the band launched a fundraising campaign to develop, produce and promote the album: secure.givelively.org/donate/allied-arts-foundation-seattle/iraqis-in-pajamas.
Khazzoom’s first book, Consequence: Beyond Resisting Rape (2002), is a look at sexual harassment in everyday life. In 2003, she edited The Flying Camel: Essays on Identity by Women of North African and Middle Eastern Jewish Heritage, an anthology of the writings of Mizrahi Jewish women. Her writing has also appeared in the Forward, Tikkun and Lilith, as well as the Jewish Independent and other Jewish publications; she has written several times about Israeli hip-hop for Rolling Stone.
Iraqis in Pajamas hopes to find venues in Vancouver and on Vancouver Island in the coming year. For more information about Khazzoom and the band, and to listen to their music, visit loolwa.com. To purchase their music, go to iraqisinpajamas.bandcamp.com.
Sam Margolishas written for the Globe and Mail, the National Post, UPI and MSNBC.
“We are Family” by Cat L’Hirondelle is now on exhibit at the Zack Gallery, as part of he group show Community Longing and Belonging, which runs to March 29.
The new group show at the Zack Gallery, Community Longing and Belonging, is the second annual exhibit in celebration of Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion Month. Organized by Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver’s inclusion services and its coordinator, Leamore Cohen, the show is a silent auction. Half of the proceeds will go to the artists, and the other half will be divided between inclusion services and the gallery.
The show consists of 50 paintings by different artists. The size and shape of all the paintings are the same – small rectangles – but the contents and media used are vastly different, indicative of the artists’ various styles and training levels. Some are highly professional. Some are figurative; others abstract. But all reflect their creators’ need to belong, to be part of a community. Each painting tells a story.
One of the prevalent themes of the show is flight. Wings appear on several paintings, emphasizing the yearning for the freedom flight entails, but also for the brotherhood of other fliers. The white ornamental wings on Mikaela Zitron’s multimedia piece are bigger than the background board. They take the artist into the sky, into a joyful aerial dance, while Jamie Drie’s feathers, drifting in a sad emptiness, invoke the feeling of disconnection.
The murder of crows in Cat L’Hirondelle’s painting relates yet a different story. “I am a feminist,” said L’Hirondelle. “I was thinking about the importance of being part of a community of like-minded women. My group of longtime women friends is my family, my tribe and, like the crows, I know that they will always be there for me. Since I became disabled, I have felt more and more disassociated with the able-bodied-centric society in general. Just look at the history of people with disabilities in different societies – genocide, forced sterilizations, segregation, isolation, etc. I would love to feel that people with disabilities belong in the world. My piece is trying to impart that sense of longing to be included in general community and how crow communities seem to include everyone: the old, the disabled, the young. I have lived in the crow flight path for many years and have been watching crows’ behaviour; sometimes, I wished people were more like crows.”
The second recurring motif in the show is loneliness, the sense of separation. Daniel Malenica’s image is distinctive among such pictures. The woman in the painting stands behind closed garden gates. She gazes at us from the painting, and the naked longing in her eyes is painful to behold. She desperately wants to open that gate and step through, to join us, but she lacks the courage. What if the people inside reject her? So, she just lingers outside, desolate and alone, waiting for an invitation.
Another outstanding piece on the same theme is Estelle Liebenberg’s black and white painting “Solitude Standing.” She told the Independent, “I work primarily as a potter and a metalsmith, but I accepted the challenge to paint something for the exhibition because I’ve had wonderful times working as a substitute art instructor at the JCC. I chose the monochromatic colour palette because, at the moment, I am quite fascinated by shadows, specifically how they change the shape of objects but still remain recognizable.”
Her focus for the piece was the idea of a community in general. “I’ve spent my life dealing with different communities and, I guess, for me, the lines have softened over time,” she said. “We spend so much time in our lives working on belonging, or longing to belong somewhere, to someone or something. It’s an integral part of the beauty, the joy, the frustration and the heartbreak of life. For me, this was longing and belonging as an immigrant, as an introvert, as a mother of grown children, as a single person living in a city.”
She explained the title of her painting: “It is a hat tip to a song by Suzanne Vega. For me, her words truly encapsulate the feeling of longing to belong somewhere: ‘Solitude stands in the doorway / And I’m struck once again by her black silhouette / By her long cool stare and her silence / I suddenly remember each time we’ve met.’”
Different artists explore different aspects of community and belonging, and not all the communities are small or local. For Marcie Levitt-Cooper, the community in her painting is the universe, the earth and stars encompassed by love. Esther Tennenhouse, on the other hand, contemplates the darker side of belonging.
“My piece is a photocopy from a pre-World War Two Jewish encyclopedia, Allgemeine Ensiklopedya,” Tennenhouse explained. “It was labeled in Yiddish and issued in New York in 1940, the year Germany occupied France. On first seeing this old map, I found it very poignant. The map had to fit the 16-by-16 canvas given to all participants. The format left space, and I filled it with the music of two nigguns and lyrics of six Yiddish songs.”
That colourful map with Hebrew lettering, published just before the Nazis unleashed the full horrors of the Holocaust on European Jews, made for a tragic, frightening image, despite its bright and cheery appearance.
While the exhibit includes other figurative paintings, the majority of the pictures are abstract, either simple swirls of paint or complex geometric patterns, like Daniel Wajsman’s piece – two irregular overlapping rectangles.
“I wanted to emphasize that we should bring everyone in, not leave anyone out,” he said.
Community Longing and Belonging runs to March 29.
Olga Livshinis a Vancouver freelance writer. She can be reached at [email protected].
Shepherd Siegel, author of Disruptive Play. (photo by Laura Totten)
Shepherd Siegel is a hardcore idealist. At least, it would seem so, based on his book Disruptive Play: The Trickster in Politics and Culture (Wakdjunkaga Press, 2018).
“What if we didn’t take everything so seriously and capitulate to the competitions of war and business?” he writes. “What if we let our utopian dreams and desires out to play, out of the box? What if we did more than talk about it and constellated our lives around play and art instead of work and commerce?”
While all about play, Siegel’s 358-page analysis is more academic than whimsical. A writer, musician and educator, he earned his doctorate at University of California Berkeley and has more than 30 publications to his credit. Quickly into the book, he admits the inherent difficulties in writing on this topic: “By attempting to put play, an irrational activity, into the rational fictions of words, I fear that naming this magic will dispel it.” And, to some extent, it does, but his prose is clear and engaging; his examples well-explained and well-researched.
Siegel defines three types of play. Original play is what kids up to three years old do; it has no purpose except fun, it is spontaneous and creates a sense of belonging. Cultural play entails games with winners and losers; it involves learning skills through practise, it comprises rules and moral lessons. Disruptive play “disrupts the normal functioning of society”; it is “resistance to contest-based society and a public affirmation of the natural play element that pervades all life.”
Disruptive players – or tricksters – have existed throughout history, in both oral and writing-based cultures. Siegel gives some 25 examples, beginning with the trickster Wakdjunkaga, whose precise origins are unknown, but whose story comes from the Winnebago (or Ho-Chungra) tribe, “which emerged in northwestern Kentucky in roughly 500 BC. From 500 AD and for about a thousand years, they lived in what is now Wisconsin.” He ends with the Yes Men: “Jacques Servin and Igor Vamos are known by many aliases, but they are Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno when they are the Yes Men,” and they operate under the motto, “Lies can expose truth,” using guerilla theatre and other tactics, Siegel writes, to “embarrass and proclaim the sins of those who would wage unjust wars, destroy the environment, or cause the suffering and death of other people.”
Siegel discusses in depth several trickster tales from various parts of the world. He analyzes King Lear’s Fool, Bugs Bunny and The Simpsons in this context, as well as real people, such as Alfred Jarry, Marcel Duchamp, Andy Kaufman, Abbie Hoffman and others, and movements like dadaism in art, the Beat Generation in literature and rock and roll in music. He also offers a couple of models on which a play society could be based: the Fremont Solstice Parade in Seattle and Burning Man in Nevada.
While acknowledging that there are many problems in the world, Siegel foresees a time when society will be able to meet all of its members’ basic needs. When this time comes, he writes, “the greatest remaining problem will be one of establishing and maintaining societies of trust. Play, as we shall see, absolutely requires trust in order to thrive, even to exist.” However, until that time comes, disruptive play – which threatens power brokers and structures – is a dangerous venture.
“Playful adults, artists, the poor, people with disabilities and deviators are all sent to the margins,” writes Siegel. “From the 17th-century development of military tactics and the industrial revolution of the 18th century came a more prescriptive sense of the normal and the suppression of carnival celebrations and urges … thus the binding of the Trickster spirit. The concentration of power, by its very nature, requires divesting this spirit, treating the Trickster as the Fool or court jester. But eventually the Fool makes fools of those who would constrain, punish and repress Trickster spirit.”
Unfortunately, while most of the tricksters Siegel highlights do indeed have their time in the sun and they manage, for awhile, to speak truth to power and get people to question their values and society’s direction, their lasting impact has been minimal, even if they themselves have proven memorable. The potential for building a play society – given Siegel’s convincing argument that capitalism or commercialism and play are antithetical – is a long shot. The models of Fremont and Burning Man are small-scale, time-bound events and do not seem feasible as models for society as a whole, for any length of time.
That said, Siegel’s is an exciting vision. “As (and if) our society achieves economic, environmental and social balance, the search for a meaningful life will take on greater importance and become more complex,” he writes. In this utopia, play, which “has meaning but not purpose … is the perfect antidote for existential crisis in a world of questionable purposes. Only by entering a state that discards purpose – that plays – might our true purpose be discovered.”
Michael Medved’s latest book is God’s Hand on America: Divine Providence in the Modern Era. (photo from Michael Medved)
Most of us would call them close calls or dumb luck – the many things in American history that could have gone terribly wrong, but didn’t. But Michael Medved firmly believes they weren’t merely happy accidents; rather, they were a direct result of God’s guidance.
Medved’s God’s Hand on America: Divine Providence in the Modern Era (Crown Forum) is a chronological sequel to 2016’s American Miracle (Crown Forum), a book that began with the pilgrims in 1620 and ends with Lincoln’s assassination, on April 14, 1865. They share a common theme, he said: “Divine intervention is extraordinarily obvious and important in tracing the course of American history.”
Story after story, Medved builds the case that there are solid “arguments for divine providence in the rise to power, and continued power and prosperity, of the United States.” President Theodore Roosevelt, for example, was shot in the chest but a folded speech in his jacket pocket took the bullet.
In another of many examples, a seemingly lucky moment came during the Battle of Midway, in June 1942. U.S. planes had gotten lost over the Pacific Ocean but, just in time, they suddenly found their way back, to dive bomb Japan’s fleet. History, said Medved, regarded this as a huge blow to the Japanese – at a time when the Americans and British had, up until that point, faced setback after setback, loss after loss, and were struggling to make advances in the Pacific.
“Fate, destiny, providence and the United States is a complicated process. It doesn’t mean America only wins, but it does mean that it’s safe to say that Lincoln, Washington, the Roosevelts, were right; Kennedy and Eisenhower were right; that America has been used as an instrument, or vehicle, for grand purposes by a Higher Power,” noted the Jewish syndicated radio host, whose daily program reaches more than five million listeners, across 300 stations. Medved is also author of 12 other books, including bestsellers The 10 Big Lies About America and Hollywood vs. America.
His thesis isn’t out of the blue, either – since the first landings, ordinary Americans and their leaders have believed that God helped in their nation’s successes, said Medved. For people of faith, it was the most reasonable explanation for the seemingly inexplicable. Their Bible-centred view carried over to an appreciation of Jews, he added, at a time when there were few Jews in the United State, i.e. until the 19th century.
They recognized, he said, “the special place the Jewish people had in America,” especially conscious of the verse in Genesis, which says that anyone who blessed the Jews would be blessed, and anyone who cursed the Jews would be cursed. These beliefs were exhibited in many ways, such as the Hebrew words on the seal at Yale, Urim and Thummim, elements of the ancient high priest’s breastplate, used for obtaining oracles; and the seal of Dartmouth College, which has El Shaddai (God) in Hebrew.
Early colonizers even identified themselves as being “like the Israelites who have crossed a perilous ocean to come to the land that was promised,” said Medved. “That identification of Puritans [goes] all the way back to the founding of New England in the 1630s.… They described themselves as ‘New Testament Hebrews.’ The identification with the Jewish people was very profound.”
While at Princeton, then-future president James Madison’s concentration of study was Hebrew, said Medved. Later in history, Harry Truman formally recognized Israel, minutes after it was declared a country. And then there was Richard Nixon’s military aid to Israel during the 1973 Yom Kippur War – quite unexpected, said Medved, given the recordings that surfaced of Nixon using insulting epithets against Jews. According to Medved, Nixon’s gesture of goodwill, though not mentioned in the book, saved the Jewish state from annihilation.
Dave Gordonis a Toronto-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in more than 100 publications around the world.