“If there is one thing we learn during difficult times, it’s that community plays a crucial role, fostering unity, resilience and offering emotional support,” writes Dana Camil Hewitt, director of the annual Cherie Smith JCC Jewish Book Festival, in her introduction to this year’s event, which will once again bring community members together to share stories and conversations – and in a difficult time.
The festival opens Feb. 10 with playwright, journalist and author Michael Posner in conversation with Alan Twigg, founder and editor for 33 years of BC BookWorld, about Posner’s three-volume biography of musician, composer and poet Leonard Cohen. The opening night includes a live musical performance with Harriet Frost and Martin Gotfrit, which illustrates perfectly how the influence of books extends beyond the printed page.
The world around us and how it shapes who we are, and vice versa, is front and centre in the Feb. 11 festival event Essays as Life Stories, featuring Vancouver’s Yosef Wosk and Hamilton’s Gary Barwin.
Traveling beyond the world
In his new book, Naked in a Pyramid: Travels & Observations, scholar, rabbi and philanthropist Yosef Wosk brings readers along on his extraordinary journeys throughout the world. But this is no Rick Steves guidebook. There are no hotel recommendations or Top 10 must-see lists. Far from it. Rather than inspiring wanderlust, in fact, some of Wosk’s adventures will make the reader happy to be home in an easy chair experiencing vicariously rather than accompanying him on these not-always-alluring quests.
Wosk acknowledges that travel for him is not about R&R but always about adventure, challenging himself to discover not only the world but his place in it. Travel, for him, is “more of an intuitive imperative, a pilgrimage to the ends of the earth so that I might know both the planet and myself better.”
To these ends (literally), Wosk has traveled to both the north and the south poles. His reflections on being – within a little more than a year of each other – at the figurative top and bottom of the planet, lead to fascinating metaphysical contemplations. He is also provoked to contest mundane assumptions when he sees, at the South Pole, an upside-down globe. Why, he realizes he has never contemplated, should north be on top?
Wosk does not just see stuff, or even experience it, like an ordinary traveler, but finds himself transported beyond even the remote locales he visits to some supernatural planes. Near the North Pole, for example, he alarms travel-mates by laying down, albeit densely insulated, on the frozen Arctic ground “like some marooned sapien seal.” Becoming one with the planet’s most northerly extremity, he recalls, “I was seized by this unanticipated epiphany of transcendent unity.”
The intensity with which he lives the places he encounters makes for a fascinating read and those of us who lack his depth of connection with the ethereal may feel pangs of jealousy, if not inferiority, at failing to experience as profoundly.
He visits Venice, the birthplace of Marco Polo – well, one of the reputed birthplaces – and finds resolve from the “Master of Travelers, the one who dared.” But Venice, as magnificent as it is, seems to be among the least remarkable of Wosk’s destinations.
“I have explored caves and caverns in Israel, Thailand and deep within the Rock of Gibraltar where Neanderthals lived for over 100,000 years, and also entered the coastal caves along the cerulean Na Pali coast in Kauai,” he writes. “Gazing into the luminous waters of the Blue Grotto in Capri, one of the most enchanting islands on the planet, one senses its womb of wonders.”
Claustrophobia is a recurring theme (for the reader, if less so the writer), with reminiscences of crawling on his back into a sarcophagus, descending into the bowels of a Soviet-era nuclear-powered Arctic icebreaker, or meditating (naked) in the subterranean hollows of the pyramid that gives the book its title.
The book is deeply personal, including revealing insights into his deepest thoughts, as well as the sorts of travel nightmares to which anyone can relate, such as being stuck together with a sulky travel companion who he had considered a potential love interest, but who turns out to be the roommate from hell. He seems to recognize that his well-intentioned psychoanalyzing of her behaviour may not have been the remedy he had hoped.
His sense of being an outsider is not merely social but otherworldly.
“I have always felt like a fool, somewhat awkward in an unfamiliar world – as if I have just awakened from a distant dream and been planted, like Adam, in a strange Garden of Gaia. I spent most of my life as an unrepentant pilgrim, exploring often exotic and embarrassing sensations of mind, body and soul.”
He openly admits that some of these sensations are enhanced by herbal or chemical assistance.
“On a beach off the road from Pafos to Limassol, in southern Cyprus, a friend and I took LSD at the fabled birthplace of Aphrodite,” he writes. “The beach was gravel and the waters rough but as the long, foaming waters born of the massive surf around the Rock reached the shore, one could easily imagine the earth being impregnated by the semen-bubbled surf and picture the goddess of love emerging from the sea.”
The book is about travel, but Wosk also covers voyages more broadly defined, such as the process of moving through life itself, including the reflection that a great rabbi imparted to him.
“One of my teachers, Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, used to tell us that you don’t have to wait until you’re dead to die; that one can be involved in a succession of deaths and rebirths, that there is non-mortal death and resurrection while still alive,” writes Wosk.
In a harrowing experience while illicitly climbing the Egyptian pyramid of the title, he seems to have exactly this sort of non-mortal death, which may well have been entirely mortal had things turned any further awry.
Wosk has rubbed shoulders (or, more accurately, minds) with greats like Buckminster Fuller, Marshall McLuhan and Joseph Campbell. He worked at the right hand of Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel as his teaching assistant and calls the late humanitarian author “one of the most influential mentors in my life.”
If Wosk sometimes seems a figure remote from the ordinary human, he yanks himself back down to earth in numerous segments, such as explaining how he overcame his intimidation at applying for Harvard’s divinity school. He eventually conquers his resistance and completes the graduate school application in the mechanic’s anteroom while his car is being serviced nearby. Even by the standards of a vegetarian, which he is, Wosk’s culinary tastes are decidedly and literally down to earth. (Favourite food? The potato.)
He refers modestly to his extensive philanthropy, which includes the Beit Wosk Community Centre, in Ashkelon, Israel, and the Dena Wosk School of Performing Arts at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver (named for his late mother), but elides hundreds of other contributions over the years.
He pays tribute to his late father Morris (“MJ”) and late uncle Ben, who arrived as children in this country. The brothers did odd jobs before starting a business collecting and repairing used pots and pans, which they shined up and sold around town using a horse and buggy. From this, they graduated to a storefront and later a furniture chain. Eventually, the brothers reshaped the city’s skyline with some of Vancouver’s most recognizable high-rise residential towers. To say the family came a long way from rural Ukraine is an understatement. MJ Wosk is estimated to have donated $50 million to a variety of causes.
It is difficult to sum up this book as this or that genre. While one section is an extended poem, much of the rest reads as prose poetry. Moreover, it is travel journal, philosophy treatise, theological tract and memoir of a person who curates and collects not just fascinating objects (which he does) but ideas, experiences and memories. Perhaps the book could be best described as an exhibition, a retrospective of a just a few of the intangible treasures Wosk has amassed in a lifetime that seems more unique than every life, by definition, is.
As fellow thinker John Ralston Saul said of this book, “He brings us a life intensely lived.” To appreciate how intensely, one really needs to immerse oneself in these pages.
– Pat Johnson
Exploring language’s many facets
Gary Barwin’s Imagining Imagining is reflective, sentimental, intellectual and absurd. His facility with the English language is remarkable and he is more well-read than most of us, but there are various levels of understanding of any text, and everyone will take away something of value from this imaginative and mind-expanding collection of essays.
The multiple-award-winning author of some 30 books, including the bestselling Yiddish for Pirates, Barwin is also a musician, composer and artist. He draws upon all his varied skills and interests in his imaginings. He begins with reflections on the Hebrew alphabet, where the Book of Genesis says the world began: “the earth was without form and void until God gave shape or reality to it, all with words. With the letters that form the Hebrew alphabet.” He talks of the letters’ sounds and shapes, even illustrates the letter shin with an extra arm on the left that looks like it is topped with a crown, the image of which appears on the tefillin box that Orthodox Jews place on their forehead for morning prayers. According to a kabbalist text, there is a letter missing from the Hebrew alphabet and some think this four-armed shin might be it. “So, the thinking goes, we might already know what it looks like. But we don’t know what new sound it might make, this new sound that might heal the universe.”
While lauding language and its potential as a cause for hope, Barwin warns that language can also lull and trick us. “We must always look very carefully at language. At its beauty, its mystery. Its power to make us think and feel things. Its power to make and remake the world,” he writes.
If it’s not obvious already, Barwin is a big thinker. And he has a big vocabulary. Imagining Imagining might be a book to read as an ebook, for easy access to a dictionary. For the most part, however, his skill as a writer means that we get the gist if not the whole idea, that our curiosity is piqued and we continue to revel in our own thoughts long after we finish reading an essay.
Those who have read Barwin’s novels will know that he has a great sense of humour, and there are many smiling, even laugh-aloud, moments in these essays. One essay is entirely devoted to humour, and it’s fascinating – and funny. In it, he shares his favourite poem, “Modern Poem,” written by Martin Laba: “one, two, / three, four, / five, you idiot.”
“I like it because we can empathize with the feeling of having read something, perhaps a modern poem, something that is so hard to understand, that appears to be saying something willfully inaccessible or that appears so entirely pointless that it seems to be deliberately trying to make you feel like an idiot,” writes Barwin. “I like the poem because of the nice twist, the surprise at the end, the shock of recognition. Oh yes, I know poems like this. And I know that feeling.”
There are many shocks of recognition in Imagining Imagining, as there are shocks of non-recognition. Barwin is a smart, accomplished person and his views on things – from Hebrew letters, to insomnia, to ampersands, to his grandfather’s moustache, and more – will have you thinking about yours in new ways. For example, that chapter on humour stresses the immense value in laughter, not the least of which is that it “gives us an alternative to despair,” it allows us “the ability to frame our experience.”
“Through humour, we are able to stand outside what’s happening and look at it philosophically. Through humour, we find a way to engage, to think about what is happening and still have agency,” writes Barwin.
Engagement, community, the interconnectedness of all things. Barwin challenges readers to think outside the box, to reconsider what is a box, whether a box can ever truly exist. Speaking “mostly but not entirely metaphorically,” Barwin asks about the need for (cell) walls, “don’t things morph into one another, if only eventually? The same is true of concepts and abstractions. One person’s manbun is another’s mantra. Is it true that someone’s pain is my pain and it is only the self and society which create reasons to keep them at a distance? I want my thinking and feeling to reflect the fundamental unipanrhizomatubiquity between/of things.”
After reading Imagining Imagining, you should have a notion of what “unipanrhizomatubiquity” means, even though Prof. Google doesn’t. That feeling of getting it, not getting it, is an unsettling sensation perhaps, but it’s one that propels questions, discovery. That makes what seems impossible potentially possible. That makes reading – and so many other things – exciting and worthwhile.
– Cynthia Ramsay
For the Cherie Smith JCC Jewish Book Festival, guide visit jccgv.com/jewish-book-festival.