Artist Anna Marszalkowska stands in front of “Levi,” which is part of her Tribes series, which is on exhibit at the Zack Gallery until May 4. (photo from Anna Marszalkowska)
The challenge of visually depicting the tribes of Israel has attracted many famous artists over the centuries. For example, on the 25th anniversary of the state of Israel, Salvador Dali, inspired by descriptions in the Torah, created a series of watercolours, “The Twelve Tribes of Israel.” Before that, in 1962, Marc Chagall made his famous stained-glass windows, “The Twelve Tribes,” for a synagogue in Jerusalem. Anna Marszalkowska, a local Vancouver artist of Polish origins, fits easily into this august company. Her solo show, The Tribes, opened at the Zack Gallery on March 29.
Marszalkowska grew up in Poland, but studied graphic design and worked as a graphic designer in London, England. “Diversity is what made my design path exciting,” she said in an interview with the Independent. “I started my career as a freelance web and graphic designer and then moved to video design and editing, as well as motion graphics and animation.”
Five years ago, she and her husband moved to Canada, but they lived and worked in the eastern part of the country. They relocated to Vancouver two years ago.
“We came here during the pandemic,” she said. “We wanted to try something different. For an outdoor person like myself, this is a great place. The nature is beautiful, and everyone is very friendly.”
She also changed the direction of her professional life. “I work with artists in the movie industry, but not as an artist myself,” she said. “I understand artists because of my past as a graphic designer, but I wanted less time at the computer screen. I wanted to free my creativity for more personal projects, which was hard to do while working as a graphic designer. Then, my creativity was fully engaged in my professional activity, but, on the other hand, I was limited by clients’ requirements. After a full day of work … I was often tired, I wanted to relax. Now, my creativity is freed. I have more time for my artistic experiments. I started abstract painting and I love it. Just me and a painting – it calms me.”
But even while working full time as a graphic designer, she still found energy to search for her individual style and themes. One of them was her Tribes series. “In 2010, I completed a print production course, and this series was the result.”
The series consists of 12 large digital prints, each one corresponding to one of the tribes of Israel. Although Marszalkowska’s version is an entirely modern take, it involves ancient symbolism, which originated in the Hebrew Bible. The artist conducted deep research for this project, and the end results are simultaneously stunningly simple and visually compelling.
“I had a blog before and, when I put the images online, many people expressed their interest. They wanted to buy one or several or all of the images.”
For the artist, this body of work has meaning beyond its commercial success. “It was a personal journey. I was searching for my Jewish ancestry. My grandmother grew up in a town in Poland where most citizens were Jewish before the war. She might have been part Jewish herself, but after the Holocaust, I had no one to ask.”
Instead, she studied the Bible and tried to interpret the narratives within a cultural context. “The symbols of the tribes are by no means fixed,” she explained. “Every artist could have their own interpretation, as the biblical texts describe the sons of Jacob allegorically.”
In her interpretation, the traditional symbols are given a contemporary, stylized appearance. “I explored the relationship between geometric shapes and lines,” she said. “I used repetition and symmetry to keep balance in each individual design and all 12 together.”
She also leaned towards a minimalistic approach, where a symbol of the tribe is centred on a one-colour background, with no other embellishments to attract a viewer’s attention. “In the original design, I had an ornamental frame around each image, but I got rid of them. I think less is more,” she said. “COVID made me realize that my focus should be the meaning, not the decorations.”
In most images, the background colour palette reflects that of the tribe, except for Benjamin, the youngest. “His symbol is a wolf,” Marszalkowska said. “He represents all colours of all tribes. To reflect that, I placed a ‘rainbow’ above the wolf. I think it is his spirit or maybe his song, Or his breath. It would depend on your own interpretation.”
In some of the designs, she incorporated photography for texture. “I used Adobe Illustrator to combine my photographs with my digital illustrations,” she said. For Simeon, her symbol is a tower, and she put her photos of bricks to good use in her pictorial tower construction. For Zebulun, whose symbol is a ship, she employed photos of water. “Issachar’s symbol is a donkey with a burden,” she said. “I used my photos of wood for the donkey’s load.”
When different sources offered different visual symbolisms for a tribe, the artist’s scholarly touch led her towards her own esthetic. For example, in the case of Levi, some documents don’t count him as a tribe and don’t offer any symbols for him. Historically, the Tribe of Levi wasn’t given any land, but its men served as religious leaders and teachers. Maszalkowska decided that Levi’s description as God’s Chosen Tribe warranted its own image: a breastplate of a high priest. The breastplate is embedded with 12 gemstones, each inscribed with the name of one of the tribes in Hebrew.
“Overall, the series is an invitation for everyone to embark on their own journey, to reflect on their own purpose and fulfilment,” said Maszalkowska. “Ultimately, I hope that my art will connect with the viewers and inspire them.”
Tribes runs until May 4.
Olga Livshin is a Vancouver freelance writer. She can be reached at [email protected].
Residents of Prince George might be forgiven for thinking there is more than one person named Eli Klasner in their midst. Among his many concurrent pursuits, the Toronto native is directing the Community Arts Council of Prince George, leading a fundraising initiative for Ukrainian refugees and serving on the board of the Jewish Museum and Archives of British Columbia.
Living in Prince George is the fulfilment of a lifelong dream for Klasner. Since childhood, he had entertained the notion of living on the Canadian frontier or the Far North. When he was younger, he also made a commitment to himself that, by the time he celebrated his 40th birthday, he would do whatever it was that excited him.
As events unfolded, he was able to do just that after running businesses in Toronto and Vancouver. In 2017, while Klasner was working for a nonprofit, the possibility of moving to Prince George presented itself.
“I was just charmed by the roughness and climate adversity and, significantly, by the opportunities I saw both as a participant in arts and culture but also to identify that there are Jewish people here and in this area,” Klasner told the Independent.
The friendliness and accessibility of locals reaffirmed his desire to stay. “Soon after I was here, I visited City Hall and asked who is the mayor? ‘Well, that’s his office there. If you want to say hello, just go on in and introduce yourself.’ I like that. Coming from Toronto, you don’t just walk in and put your feet up on the mayor’s table. I thought that was very appealing,” Klasner recalled.
His executive director position with the arts council quickly transformed into a full-time schedule as he came to realize that the city could use support with its arts facilities. Klasner’s role in Prince George’s artistic rejuvenation includes working on a new creative hub, a new performing arts centre and, in March, the gala opening of a retired heritage church that was turned into a concert hall.
“Taking the executive director job here helped solidify that I need to settle down and find a place to live permanently. At that point in my life, I thought a lovely arts council with a lovely little gallery and gift shop would be a lot of fun,” said Klasner, who during his youth studied music in various European capitals.
For two years of his stay in Prince George, Klasner lived in a cabin in the woods, along with two hound dogs and two cats. “I moved a little off the grid,” he said. “That, for me, was the boyhood dream of living in the woods, chopping wood, growing a garden in the summer and being close to wildlife and nature. It was an amazing experience.”
Then came 2020. Klasner contracted the coronavirus at the outset of the pandemic. “COVID is an interesting part of the journey of being up here in this odd, unusual place,” he said. “It was certainly a challenge, but, also, when you live through something like that, you really come to appreciate life when you have good health, and the bounty that comes with good health.”
From a Jewish cultural perspective, one of Klasner’s recent projects has been the performance of Different Trains, a piece written for string quartet, with pre-recorded tape, by American Jewish composer Steve Reich that revolves around the Second World War and the Shoah. After being approached last year by the Prince George Symphony Orchestra, Klasner was able to arrange to have the work performed to mark Holocaust Remembrance Day this past January.
“I found it to be a remarkable process of respect and inclusion and terrifically ambitious for a small-town symphony to want to take on such a challenging and groundbreaking piece of music,” Klasner said.
Afterwards, several members of the local Jewish community were invited on stage to say a few words. The crowd, according to Klasner, was very moved by the event. “People got to sit, ask questions and talk about Holocaust and persecution. I found it a unique thing to happen in a place like Prince George. Where else is something like this done in Canada that does not have a significant Jewish population?”
Prince George, like other parts of northern British Columbia, Klasner noted, used to have a thriving Jewish community, starting with the immigrants who arrived in the 1880s. Many of the first local businesses were started by Jews, and the first Jewish female elected to public office in Canada was in Prince George, when Hanna Director became chair of the city’s school district.
From the Second World War to the 1970s, the community dwindled. The Sefer Torah that was in Prince George was sent down to Vancouver and is in storage.
However, there has been a resurgence in Jewish life, Klasner said. “What we started to do is hold community events around holidays and festivals, wanting to expose the young generation to the culture and history of Jewish celebrations and milestones, holidays and festivals. We are quite open to people who might want to come but who are not Jewish to see a Hannukah celebration and what kind of foods we eat around Rosh Hashanah, etc. There has been a lot interest in the community.”
The Jewish Museum and Archives, Klasner said, helped him understand some of the history and heritage of the Jewish community in the area. This, in turn, helped Klasner get other members of the community involved to share stories about what life in Prince George was like at one time or another. For example, there were photos of a seder in Prince George just after the war, when so many Jews wanted to be involved that a community hall had to be used.
“When there was an opening on the board of the Jewish Museum and Archives, I thought it was an opportunity to help them have province-wide representation, rather than just the Lower Mainland, the Island and the Okanagan,” he said.
Jewish values were integral in Klasner’s recent efforts to assist Ukrainian refugees in his community. When a new endowment fund was created to help the newcomers, he reached out to the organizers to help propel their fundraising.
“I was overwhelmed at the possibilities of life when people open up their hearts to strangers in their land and by the idea of opening up one’s heart and mind and wallet to people in the community – and what a Jewish attribute as well. Our families were once accepted here as refugees,” he said. “Our life on earth depends on the fact that Canada accepted refugees.”
From June 9 to 11, Prince George will host another of Klasner’s ventures, the B.C. Gourmet Arts Festival. Now in its second year, the event features scores of local artisans and presents culinary delights of the region and country.
“I love life and the opportunity to be busy and creative and help people and get involved,” Klasner said. “Life is awesome.”
Sam Margolishas written for the Globe and Mail, the National Post, UPI and MSNBC.
“I like to dabble in things, I like to learn about things, and I think that’s where Peretz really shines,” says Maggie Karpilovski, executive director of the Peretz Centre for Secular Jewish Culture. (photo from Peretz Centre)
At 78, the Peretz Centre for Secular Jewish Culture may be an old dog among community organizations. But it is enthusiastically trying new tricks. The institution has undertaken a strategic planning process to reconsider everything they do, and to make sure they are responding to what their community wants and needs. Not least among the changes is a new face at the helm.
Maggie Karpilovski has been executive director of the Peretz Centre since last June and brings a breadth of experience in the not-for-profit sector and academia.
At a time of significant change for the organization, Karpilovski is applying skills garnered as a senior manager at United Way of the Lower Mainland and as national director of community impact and investment for United Way Centraide Canada. Previously, after completing a master’s degree, she worked at the Surrey school board developing and overseeing programs for vulnerable children.
Born in Kyiv, Ukraine, Karpilovski moved with her family at a young age to Holon, Israel, where she received her elementary and secondary education. After her army service, she came to Vancouver to study cognitive science at Simon Fraser University.
Throughout her career, Karpilovski has merged research and practice.
“I really believe that practice has to be informed by research and research can’t be good research unless it’s grounded in practice,” she said.
The senior roles locally and nationally with United Way were fulfilling but Karpilovski got restless.
“Sitting in that kind of role – very, very high level, which was really interesting and very fulfilling, but we were talking about how to raise capacity for smaller organizations on the ground – I was saying, instead of teaching people how to do it, I wanted to get my hands dirty and do it myself,” she said. “I wanted to be closer to the impact.”
The planning process into which Karpilovski arrived resulted in the creation of several unique pillars within the centre. Notable among these is the creation of a distinct Yiddish Institute at the Peretz Centre, which is headed by Donna Becker, Karpilovski’s predecessor as executive director. Other pillars include art and culture, Jewish secular humanism, and Beit H’Am, which focuses on Israeli culture in Hebrew.
The Peretz is home to Western Canada’s most significant library of books in and about Yiddish. It hosts classes in Jewish culture, language learning, holiday celebrations and commemorations, a folk choir, and other offerings.
Karpilovski said the centre is committed to innovation while maintaining the roots of the organization, which originated in 1945 as the Peretz Schule. It is part of a network of schools, cultural centres, libraries and organizations honouring the legacy of Isaac Leib (I.L.) Peretz, one of the leading writers and thinkers of the Haskalah, the Jewish enlightenment.
Vancouver’s Peretz Centre was founded by a diverse group of Labour Zionists, socialists, communists and others who shared a goal of establishing a school to provide children with a nonpolitical, secular Jewish and progressive education. The shule’s first principal was Ben Chud who, in 1945, had just returned from the war and was active in the United Jewish People’s Order. He and his wife, Galya, were stalwarts of the centre, as is their daughter Gyda Chud, who currently sits on the board.
“We really try to balance the history as well as modernity and recognizing that, [for] people in 2023 in Vancouver, their connection to Judaism can be complex and interesting and multifaceted and we really try to meet people where they are at, to satisfy their curiosity and make sure we’re both providing a space of comfort and familiarity, as well as a space of stretch and of deeper interest and insight,” said Karpilovski.
Given that a majority of Jews in Metro Vancouver now live outside the city proper, the Peretz Centre, which is located on Ash Street near Cambie and 45th, is developing outreach programs and partnerships to reach those audiences. They have also removed their membership model, which may have acted as a barrier to access for some. The doors are open to all, she said.
They are partnering with like-minded organizations, including Camp Miriam and JQT Vancouver, the Jewish LGBTQ+ organization, offering space and learning to be supportive allies.
“What we really don’t want is to replicate efforts,” said Karpilovski. “We really want to find our niche and make sure that we are creating offerings that are unique and that complement and add to that broad constellation of things that are happening. We really see our space in Yiddishkeit as one that is not really offered anywhere else.”
One of the centre’s most unique offerings is its P’nei Mitzvah program, a two-year track for bar/bat mitzvah-aged young people to delve into Jewish history and culture, ancient and modern, but from a non-religious perspective. In addition to the overarching lessons, participants focus down into an area of particular interest for a major research project, which they then present at the graduation celebration.
This Passover, in addition to the traditional secular seder, a popular event that generally attracts more than 100 people, they are holding a family-friendly “un-seder” or “seder balagan.”
“We really turn the seder on its head and focus on activities, engagement, things like that,” she said. “Not something that is necessarily going to be offered at your traditional synagogue.”
An unexpected boon for the Peretz came from the redevelopment of the Oakridge shopping complex, which has turned a huge swath of the neighbourhood into traffic, construction and parking mayhem. The Oakridge branch of the Vancouver Public Library has taken up temporary quarters on the first floor of the Peretz Centre, which has provided the welcome influx of funds that enabled the centre’s strategic planning process. It also brought fresh walk-in traffic from locals, many of whom had no idea there was a Jewish space on the street and who are getting their first introduction to the centre.
“It takes a lot for an 80-year-old organization to turn itself into a learning organization and a curious organization and a brave organization,” Karpilovski said. “We might misstep, [but] we’re going to be brave and try something different. We’re going to listen to our community and not assume that we know everything. It’s a little scary, but it’s a lot exciting because there’s a lot of interesting spaces and interesting innovations that are happening.”
The time of change and exploration at the organization suits Karpilovski fine, she added.
“My own journey with Judaism has been complex and interesting and is incomplete,” she said. “I like to dabble in things, I like to learn about things, and I think that’s where Peretz really shines. There is no judgment. People are really welcome to come, experience, try things for size.”
Arash Khakpour and Alexis Fletcher première All my being is a dark verse (working title) Nov. 9-10 at the Rothstein Theatre. (photo by Peter Smida)
This year’s Chutzpah! Festival, which takes place Nov. 3-24, highlights Persian culture. The decision to feature Persian artists and stories – which was made well before the protests that erupted in Iran after the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in the custody of the country’s morality police last month – seems even more important and relevant now.
“When the festival was offered the opportunity to support the creation of a new dance work by Alexis Fletcher in collaboration with Arash Khakpour, two Vancouver artists I admire and enjoy working with, I began to explore the resonances between Persian artists and stories of both Jewish and Muslim background,” Jessica Gutteridge, Chutzpah! artistic managing director, told the Independent. “These communities are culturally rich and have been intertwined for a very long time, while at the same time in lesser and greater political tension over the course of history. The festival’s mandate includes exploring what Jewish culture has in common with non-Jewish communities, and bringing artists of different backgrounds into conversation, so I thought it would be interesting to pull on this thread and bring Jewish and non-Jewish artists and culture into a themed programming thread.”
The two main programs of the thread are the Nov. 9-10 world première of Fletcher and Khakpour’s All my being is a dark verse (working title), which was developed through an artistic residency at the Norman and Annette Rothstein Theatre, and the Nov. 23 concert by Israeli singer, songwriter and actress Liraz Charhi.
Two digitally streamed programs round out the offerings. On Nov. 14, Jacqueline Saper, author of From Miniskirt to Hijab: A Girl in Revolutionary Iran, will speak and answer questions about Jewish life in Iran pre- and post-Revolution. And, on Nov. 21, Israeli chef Ayelet Latovich will present “a menu drawn from the Persian Jewish heritage of her mother’s family, which includes her grandmother, Kohrshid Hoshmand, a well-known and beloved figure in the Iranian community in Tel Aviv.”
“The festival has always provided public outreach opportunities, ranging from master classes to workshops to public conversations with artists,” said Gutteridge about these events. In addition to the Persian-themed outreach, Chutzpah! is partnering with rice & beans theatre’s DBLSPK program to offer a public workshop of Tamara Micner’s new Yiddish panto-in-progress, Yankl & Der Beanstalk.
“We have a broad array of workshops to choose from as well,” Gutteridge continued. “David Buchbinder, Mark Rubin and Michael Ward-Bergeman will lead a creative workshop focused on making intercultural connections. Edith Tankus will bring clowning techniques for self-expression in a workshop tailored to parents and caregivers. Liz Glazer will lead a workshop on how to tap into your funny side and create comedy for the stage. And Maya Ciarrocchi will lead a series of workshops sharing the practice of Yizkor books as a means of remembering and mourning the lost people and places of our lives, that will lead into the final performance of the Site: Yizkor project.”
Life, love, longing, death
All my being is a dark verse is inspired by the poems of Forugh Farrokhzad (1934-1967), whose poetry was controversial enough in its expression of personal freedom to have been banned for almost a decade after the establishment of the Islamic republic in 1979. The project combines Farrokhzad’s poetry, the work of local artist Nargess Jalali Delia and the dance choreographed and performed by Fletcher and Khakpour. The shows will include a program of Persian storytelling curated by the Flame.
“I discovered Forugh’s poetry through Nargess, when I was helping her prepare for a visual art exhibit in 2020,” said Fletcher. “Nargess had a painting that captivated me, which I learned was inspired by Forugh’s beautiful poem, ‘Inaugurating the Garden.’ When I read the poem for the first time, I was moved to tears and felt so much of my own life inside Forugh’s words. From there, I started to research the work of this poet and felt viscerally connected to her work. When I began dreaming of creating a response through movement, I approached Arash – an artist I greatly admire and have always wanted to work with. We decided to create and perform together, and to bring together a mix of Persian and non-Persian artists to complete our team, including costume design, original music composition, lighting design, and translation work between Farsi and English.
“Both Arash and Nargess have welcomed me into their culture, language and their very personal connection with Forugh in the most generous of ways,” said Fletcher.
“I am excited to connect with an artist who comes from a completely different movement background from my own, and yet who shares so many of the same interests and curiosities about the place that dance holds in the world, what it can offer and how it can bring people together in unique ways,” said Khakpour.
“Growing up in Iran,” he continued, “I was reading Forugh’s poems at the young age of 11, even though I knew I wasn’t supposed to because her open-minded and dark-natured poems were not seen as ‘appropriate,’ and this experience had a profound effect on me. Forugh’s words were a revelation to read, something that someone wrote so many years ago and yet which seemed to speak directly to my fears and desires as if the words were both coming from me, and as if they were meant only for me.
“After moving to Canada at the age of 15,” he said, “I lost that connection to Forugh’s poetry, but now I am at a place that I feel the need to reconnect to her work again and integrate my love for her work, the knowledge and the sentiment it awakens in my dance practice.”
Currently, the pair are working with four of Farrokhzad’s poems: “The Wall,” “Reborn,” “Inaugurating the Garden” and “Window.”
“Forugh’s work is full of life, love and longing, yet full of death,” explained Khakpour. “I know from growing up in Iran that many people around me talked about her work as a forbidden reality, too forward, or too much – and the ways in which we should be talking, and the ways in which we should not be talking, as men and women. Forugh defied all of these binaries and all of this drew me to her magical poetry and body of work.
“As I was growing up, I have felt that similar feeling of defying the norms about myself, in terms of pursuing a dance career at all, as a man, which has many stigmas attached to it in my culture. I feel the same now as an artist at times.
“Forugh awakens the courage in us to be courageous,” he added. “This has always drawn me to Forugh’s work; her rigorous, rebellious nature has inspired many generations of artists since her death. Her writing, although being specific, is also timeless, transcends across cultures, and is full of humanity and love that goes beyond borders and ideologies. She longed for a world that could address and heal humanity’s pain.
“I think Alexis and I are drawn to Forugh and her work for these unapologetic tendencies and yet her humble nature of being, writing and expressing on the page. We strive for the same things in dance and choreography and long for a world that can address and heal its pain.”
“We both see dance as poetry in motion; a universal way of channeling poetry into the body and sharing that with the audience,” said Fletcher. “We believe this universality, along with the multidisciplinary and cross-cultural nature of this project, is a fertile ground that can draw new audiences to dance and connect different audiences to each other.”
Fletcher quoted from Rosanna Warren’s The Art of Translation: “The psychic health of an individual resides in the capacity to recognize and welcome the ‘Other.’” She explained that she and Khakpour “will use the act of translation as a practice of empathy; a way for artists and audiences to come together and lift the multiple veils of language, culture and ways of being that can obscure ‘the other,’ revealing the universality of our shared human experience, with language, visual art, dance and live performance as ways of ‘lifting the veil.’
“Expanding on the above,” she said, “we are curious about how we can use the practice of duet, including our partnership as performers, as a vehicle of exploration of ‘self’ and ‘other,’ and how this project can be a platform for this resonant conversation. This sparks our interest because, to execute duet skilfully and on an emotional level, one must delve into the other’s perspective more deeply…. We have the unique privilege of sharing this type of intimacy and connection with others as dancers because our bodies, especially in duet, are our physical and literal instruments: we must literally soften and yield our bodies and minds to give or receive the weight of another. We must take time to look into each other’s eyes and allow the other’s body to enter our private, personal space, learning what the impulses, dynamics, instincts and thought processes of that other person are. We must give each other patience and care for the relationship and choreography to work. We must acknowledge different subjective opinions and points of view. We feel that duet is a direct practice platform through which to investigate the myriad ways one can be in an empathic relationship with another.”
A dream come true
“Music in my life is the most important thing,” Charhi told the Independent. “When I started to create, to sing and to songwrite in Farsi, I knew that I had a message to be a little voice for the Iranian muted women. I knew that would be a continuation to the women from my family who are muted themselves. It wasn’t a question that I would do that. It’s not about me – I deeply feel I’m the pipe to tell a story.”
On Oct. 7, Charhi releases her third album in Farsi. Called Roya – a vision, a fantasy, a dream – she recorded it with Iranian musicians in Istanbul. “It was an extremely emotional journey I cannot even express with words,” she said, “but we made a wonderful album with wonderful meaning and we all share the same dreams together.”
Charhi collaborated secretly with several Iranian artists – singers, writers, instrumentalists – on her second album in Farsi. Secrecy was necessary because of the political situation.
“Recording my album Zan (woman in Farsi) and collaborating with Iranian musicians was a dream come true,” she said. “I felt that I can give and be artistically freed, especially because I felt that we needed to meet and to create together. [That] we love each other with no boundaries is a fact we wanted to spread to the world. There are bridges we can build despite this crazy situation and we have the power to make a change.”
Charhi chose the name Zan for that album, she said, “because it’s all about women’s freedom I sing about. Struggling and, on the other hand, rejoicing, singing and dancing, making little by little resolution, which is very, very relevant to what’s going on today in Iran.”
Charhi’s first Iranian album was Naz, which, she said means “coquettish manners.” It has been described as a “rebellious soundtrack.”
“It’s about being a good Iranian woman, using all her charm and politeness to get what she wants from her man and still stay determined,” she explained.
Charhi’s parents emigrated to Israel in the 1970s, before the Islamic Revolution, and Israel is where Charhi was born, in Ramla, in 1978.
“My music is built out of layers of my heritage, Israeli and Iranian,” she said, “and so I knew always I wanted to use traditional Iranian instruments and to mix them with my psychedelic music that I love so much [from] the Iranian ’70s.”
She also has released two albums in Hebrew, one self-titled, the other Rak Lecha Mutar(Only You’re Allowed).
As an actress, Charhi garnered a nomination for best actress from the Israeli Film Academy for her role in the 2004 Israeli film Turn Left at the End of the World. She has acted in theatre, television and film, including playing the love interest of Phillip Seymour Hoffman in the movie A Late Quartet (2012), the role of Frida Kahlo in a production by the national theatre of Israel (2017) and an Israeli Mossad agent in the Israeli TV series Tehran (2020).
Ande Axelrod has developed a partnership with artisans in the village of Sosote, Ecuador, as her source for tagua beads. (photo from Zack Gallery)
The current show at the Zack Gallery, Affordable, opened on Nov. 17. It delivers on its name’s promise. Every item on display is less than $250 and thus in the realm of affordability for many people, not just art connoisseurs.
“That’s what I wanted for the Zack Gallery from the beginning,” said gallery director Hope Forstenzer. “I wanted to deepen the involvement of the JCC community in the gallery, wanted the art within people’s reach.”
Accordingly, this show looks more like a holiday craft fair than a high art exhibition.
“I don’t believe in the separation of art versus craft,” said Forstenzer. “For me, craft is another word for art, but art that is functional and affordable, designed for enhancing your life and your home rather than a wall of a museum. I hope we can make such a show an annual event.”
To achieve the artisan market feel, Forstenzer invited 10 artists in different media to participate. “They are all local B.C. artists,” she said. “Some Jewish, some not. I wanted to cater to different tastes, to represent different artistic fields. I wanted the show to be fun.”
The atmosphere of the show is jazzy and welcoming. The giclée prints of well-known Vancouver artist Linda Frimer glow with greens and blues. The glass and jewelry twinkle. The ceramics by Hitomi McKenzie stand proud and bright. Mariana Frochtengarten’s colourful shawls in Shibori patterns add a touch of elegance.
Frochtengarten teaches textile art at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver. “This is a great opportunity for me to show the community my personal work,” she said. “My work is based on the principles of Shibori – a Japanese manual tie-dye technique. I combine the ancient Japanese tradition with a contemporary approach.”
She works with natural fibres, mostly cotton and linen, and has been working as a textile artist for more than 25 years. “My way into textile art was a bit accidental,” she told the Independent. “I was born in Brazil. When I was in high school, I took a batik class for a hobby, but I fell in love with it.”
After graduating from high school, she studied at Fine Arts and Education University in Brazil and later completed her master’s in fine arts (textiles) at Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, in Halifax. “For 17 years, I worked with batik,” she said. “I had a business in Brazil and sold my works in stores, galleries, shows and fairs. I also experimented with some Shibori. I slowly moved on to my own form and interpretation of Japanese Shibori after moving to Canada in 2006. I love the elements of surprise involved in the process of Shibori and I am fascinated by the idea of creating different designs by blocking areas of the fabric before dyeing it.”
Another artist who works with an unusual material and technique is Ande Axelrod. Her company, Treats Designs, produces whimsical and sophisticated tagua jewelry: necklaces, earrings, pendants, and bracelets. Axelrod is very enthusiastic about her artistic creations. “Tagua is known as ‘vegetable ivory,’” she explained. “The tagua palms are native to the rainforests of Ecuador and other South American countries. The nuts grow and harden inside their seedpods. Some tagua nuts can grow up to six centimetres. Once the seedpods are ripe, they’re picked, and the seeds are dried in the sun, peeled and polished.”
The creamy white substance of the nuts is incredibly hard, similar to elephant ivory, hence the name. According to Wikipedia, a mature tagua palm can produce up to 20 pounds of vegetable ivory a year.
“Tagua nuts have been used as a substitute for ivory since the early 20th century,” Axelrod said. “The local masters carve the nuts into a variety of beads and buttons and dye them using bright natural colours.”
She is thrilled to use tagua nuts as the base for her jewelry. “I worked as a graphic designer for more than 25 years. In 2011, a friend and I took some jewelry making classes and I explored a variety of media and techniques. The next year, I discovered tagua while traveling in South America. I was dazzled by the colours, and I loved how light and comfortable the pieces were. You could wear a bigger statement necklace or a pair of earrings and not have a sore neck or headache at the end of the day.”
The sustainability and eco-friendliness of tagua sealed the deal for her. “I wanted to save elephants and I was truly inspired by the vast creative potential of this versatile natural material. It also provides an economic incentive for the local communities to protect the rainforests,” she said.
Since then, Axelrod has developed a partnership with artisans in the village of Sosote, Ecuador, as her source for tagua beads. “Before COVID, I’d made annual visits to Ecuador each February. It gave me the opportunity to work with tagua throughout the process, from seed to bead. Of course, like everyone else, I’ve had to improvise these past two years. Zoom, WhatsApp, FedEx and Western Union have enabled me to stay in touch with my South American partners and get tagua here for me to create my jewelry.”
While Shibori scarves and tagua jewelry may more easily be thought of as unique artwork in the Vancouver context than photography perhaps, Michael Shevloff proves that he is an unquestionable master of the camera, producing his own singular creations. His images, both in colour and in black and white, are statements of his love for British Columbia: its forests, its mountains, its waterways, its streets.
“I do predominantly nature photography,” he said. “However, I also shoot street photography, portraits, and many other genres, both digital and film.”
For this show, Shevloff offers framed and matted photos and photo coasters. “In the past, I also produced books of my photos, collages, cushions and more. I even put one of my images on my phone cover. The choices are many, and there are online firms, as well as local places, that specialize in putting images on almost any surface.”
He has been taking photographs since he was a teenager. “That was a long time ago,” he joked. “I have albums filled with photographs from places I have worked and traveled throughout the years.”
For Shevloff, photography has always been a hobby, while he worked in information technology. It remains a hobby in his retirement, although he obviously has more time now to immerse in his artistic endeavours.
“I have taken classes with professional photographers to hone my craft. And I belong to two photo clubs in Vancouver,” he said. “Vancouver PhotoClub is a well-organized group with monthly meetings and outings. I enjoy being a part of that club because they have assignments, which gives me a challenge and focus each month. They also organize exhibits, which gives me an opportunity to show my work.”
He belongs to the West End Photographic Society, as well. “That one is dedicated to film work and darkroom processing,” he explained. “They also organize exhibits. I enjoy the challenge of working with film and working with prints.”
The 10 artists of this show incorporate different art forms, different artistic philosophies, different ethnic roots and different price ranges. But one fact unites them all – every piece of art in the gallery for the next month is affordable.
The exhibit continues until Dec. 31.
Olga Livshinis a Vancouver freelance writer. She can be reached at [email protected].
I’ve been thinking about Caillou, a TV show for toddlers and preschoolers. It’s been on television since 1997. Caillou is a little bald French-Canadian kid. He’s broadcast in both French and English, and offers gentle lessons to kids everywhere. My twins watched a lot of Caillou.
The episode I’ve been remembering offers something basic that we should all know. The summary: Caillou’s doing art at preschool with glitter. When he finishes, he doesn’t clean up or wash his hands. The rest of the episode shows off exactly where the glitter ends up, from light switches to friends’ bodies to snack and the table and chairs. That’s why it’s so important to wash your hands after playing with glitter.
The glitter message sticks with kids. It’s also a remarkably easy way to explain germ theory – useful during a pandemic. Glitter, like germs, gets everywhere.
As an early glitter fan, I found this lesson powerful. As a kid, I had several surgeries for birth defects by the time I was 5. I was in the hospital a lot. During one recovery period, I was brought to a big sunny room in the pediatrics ward to do arts and crafts, including glitter, which I loved. My mother still jokes about this more than 40 years later – remembering the day the surgeon came to check my incisions. My mom likely hovered, anxious, as he checked my abdomen and sides. He looked up and grinned when she asked how things were healing. He said things were coming along nicely and were “very colourful!”
What does this have to do with Judaism? I’ve been studying Tractate Pesachim as part of my pursuit of Daf Yomi (a page of Talmud a day). Pesachim’s topic is Passover. In Pesachim 15, the issue is how to burn all the chametz (leavened bread) that we get rid of right before the holiday. It’s considered “impure.”
Impurity here is often defined as something “in the wrong place at the wrong time.” There are many reasons why something is considered impure. The questions the rabbis are weighing are interesting. They wonder, “Is it OK to burn two different kinds of impure things together?” They imagine the Temple priests having to get rid of all this and finish cleaning by the start of the holiday.
The other impure things brought up – and this rabbinic impurity topic is complex – are pigul and nottar, two categories of sacrificial meats that have gone wrong. Jane Shapiro, in introducing this issue on the My Jewish Learning website, explains that pigul is something sacrificed “with improper thought.” That is, something sacrificed in error; that is, the priest thought it was to be burnt or eaten at the wrong time. Nottar was an offering made at the right time and not eaten – basically, leftovers, which are then considered impure. There’s common sense in this. Sometimes we cook things incorrectly (pigul) or, lacking refrigeration, we might just have to get rid of leftovers (nottar) to avoid food poisoning. In these cases, the impurity’s a mess-up. It’s not an unclean animal, another source of impurity, but, rather, a human mistake that leads to the disposing of something.
As the rabbis sort through what can be burned together, they examine how one kind of impurity causes a first-degree impurity, which, if it touches something else, becomes a second or a third degree of impurity. Something in this discussion reminded me of glitter and, then, germ theory.
Even the most careful person can be surprised by a sneeze, or get too close to someone when they are supposed to be social distancing. In fact, keeping oneself safe from invisible germs, like the coronavirus, can be difficult. Even healthcare workers, swathed in protective equipment, can slip up. In a sense, this rabbinic concept of impurity is a lot like catching germs. If we accidently mix items or people inappropriately, we pass along impurity, or germs.
If we visualize germs like Caillou’s glitter or my preschooler hospital craft project, we better understand how tricky a time we’re in. We’re still facing a long haul.
Yes, we hear a vaccine is on its way, but we don’t yet know how long it will take for enough Canadians to be vaccinated. We don’t know how effective the vaccine will be, or if enough people will be willing to take it. Meanwhile, COVID-19 is spreading just like that glitter. It’s everywhere that we are, and it’s scary. There’s every chance that we might encounter the virus through an inadvertent slip up (like the rabbinic impurity of pigul or nottar) but, since it’s germs and not glitter, we won’t know until later. We must act as if we are impure because the virus isn’t visible.
The most poignant part of this whole complicated impurity narrative is that the rabbis just can’t figure it all out. They say more than once that we’ll just have to wait for the prophet Elijah to return to give us the right answers. Reading it, you can imagine their shoulders shrugging as they struggle with what they don’t know and can’t figure out.
Scientists and doctors everywhere are also figuring things out as they go. They have to learn to live with the mystery. We don’t know everything – about the pandemic, how it works, when it will end and about those germs that spread like glitter.
For most, 2020 has been a rocky year. As we turn towards the secular year 2021, it’s important to remember that a vaccine might not be an instant fix. We face the future much as the rabbis faced some of these difficult questions about impurity long ago, and the researchers do today. We don’t know all the answers. We must do our best, square our shoulders, and keep on keeping on.
Yet, every week, as we end Shabbat, we sing about Eliyahu (Elijah) and we welcome him to every Passover and every bris. It’s in yearning for Elijah that we find the faith to keep trying.
Wishing you a happy and healthy 2021! I hope your home celebrations are great – and without glitter!
Joanne Seiffhas written regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. Check her out on Instagram @yrnspinner or at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.
A participant in Yehudit Silverman’s The Story Within process shows off their self-made mask. (photo from Yehudit Silverman)
This past spring, Prof. Yehudit Silverman’s new book came out. In The Story Within: Myth and Fairy Tale in Therapy, the Concordia University professor emerita walks people through a step-by-step process to healing.
“When a person embarks on this journey, they feel called to a story, but they don’t know why,” said Silverman. “And it’s the sense of the unknown that’s really important…. Sometimes, in conventional therapy, we just go around in circles and might not necessarily get to the deeper layers that are inaccessible to us. But, through the arts and through the use of a character from a myth or fairy tale, gradually we can access those areas in ourselves.”
In Silverman’s approach, clients start by choosing their own story after going through a couple of exercises. “That process of choosing the story is therapeutic and healing in itself, because it’s part of the person’s sense of their own sense of knowing their own strengths and their own intuition, which is really important,” she explained. “Also, it’s important to stay with one character in a story for a long time, allowing the depth work to be done … recognizing what the character’s quest is, which is so important in myth and fairy tale, which is why I think they are still so relevant.
“The protagonist is on a quest and has to face obstacles and challenges,” she continued. “That can be so helpful when people are facing their own challenges and obstacles, so they don’t feel so alone. Also, they get to work with fiction, which is very safe, providing a certain amount of distance.”
People choose their stories for different reasons.
“Someone might be really drawn to a character that is having to do an impossible task, like in Rumpelstiltskin, where the girl has to make straw into gold,” said Silverman. “A lot of people think they are facing an impossible task, so they might then choose that story.
“Sometimes, it’s just the title of the story. I worked with an adolescent who was homeless and, sadly, addicted to drugs. When I worked with her, she chose the story of the handless maiden, which led to, sadly, to the revelation of her having been abused as a child. It was just the title that drew her.”
Once people choose a character, they start to build a mask. Then, they build the environment for the character and go through the steps that are described in Silverman’s book. The process is usually done within the context of a group, so that it is witnessed, which, according to Silverman, aids significantly in healing.
“They work with other people so that, at some point, they actually direct someone else in their mask and in their costume,” she said. “They get to look at what their character looks like to an outsider. And then, they have people embodying the obstacle and the helper, so they actually embody going through the quest and the challenges of the character.”
Silverman once worked with an anorexic teen who chose the character of Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz. “For her, the tornado was her eating disorder that took her to the Wonderful Land of Oz … which was, for her, magical. It was the ‘Land of Starvation’ and the good witch, Glenda, was actually evil for her, because she was trying to get her to go back to Kansas…. I realized that, for her, everyone in the hospital was evil, was going against what she felt was her sense of reality and her sense of what was magical and important, which was her starvation.
“And so, little by little, she worked with it and she embodied the tornado,” said Silverman. “She was actually swirling around and started crying, and realized how destructive it was. It was the first time she had had that realization – she didn’t have it when people were just talking to her.”
The teen connected and embodied the “chaotic energy of the tornado,” said Silverman. “She began to realize it was destructive and, then, she very slowly started healing. But, for her, having that story was essential.”
Although COVID-19 has made holding in-person group sessions impossible for Silverman, it has opened the door to including people from all over the world in the online groups she leads.
The Story Within outlines Silverman’s process step-by-step, taking readers through each one, and it can be useful for both therapists looking to implement the technique, as well as anyone wanting to understand why they do what they do.
“If you’re going through something that is severe or you are in crisis, you should definitely see a therapist,” said Silverman. “And, if you’re going to use the book, you should only use it in context of therapy. But, for people looking for personal healing and a way to have creative reflection about what their life and quest is, then it is definitely for those people – for seekers, for artists and, also, for therapists, as something to integrate into their process with clients. And that’s something I do a lot of right now – supervising therapists insofar as how to integrate this into their work.”
Silverman said already established groups can use the book, as well, to form a more solid structural foundation perhaps. And, “there are so many people at home right now, and they are really questioning what their life is about,” she added. With the anxiety, she said, “having this structure, where they can go through a creative process … is so life-giving. It really allows us to express what’s going on inside into an outside form.”
One of Shlomit Etzion’s handcrafted quilts. (photo by Nir Falay)
Despite being generally considered the cradle of ancient civilizations and the source of the world’s monotheistic religions, the Middle East region is not known for its quilting. Yet, even in Jerusalem, you will find dedicated quilters.
Quilting is the process of sewing two or more pieces of fabric together to make a thicker padded material. Quilting is done all over the world, from Europe to America, to Southern Asia. While we don’t know its origins, we do know that, for many years, people quilted their clothes. Moreover – despite the Middle East not being recognized for its quilting – the earliest piece of quilted garment comes from the figure of a Pharaoh, dating to around 3400 BC, the period of ancient Egypt’s First Dynasty.
Shlomit Etzion, a Jerusalem resident since birth, said she has always worked with her hands. Her mother encouraged her to do handcrafts and she recalls that she started with embroidery. For a time, Shlomit considered going to a high school where she could pursue that, but decided not to go that route. In the end, she began quilting after she finished her university degree.
What would compel someone to begin quilting? For Shlomit, it was the beauty of traditional quilts. She likes Amish quilts and has even visited Amish quilters. She also likes the quilts of Native Americans. That is not to say, however, that she does art quilt, which employs both modern and traditional quilting techniques to create art objects. An art quilt is an original exploration of a concept or idea rather than the handing down of a pattern. It experiments with textile manipulation, colour, texture and/or a diversity of mixed media. Since this is not the type of work she creates, Shlomit describes herself as a traditionalist who uses traditional patterns as a jumping off point.
(As an aside, there are a number of quilt patterns based on the Hebrew Bible. They include Jacob’s Ladder, the Children of Israel, Joseph’s Coat of Many Colours and the Star of Goshen.)
In the beginning, Shlomit worked using scraps from old clothes and sewing by hand, just as was originally done in the United States. But now she buys her material, because it offers her more choices. She only uses cotton, as she likes the feel of it. When she visits the United States, she always goes to fabric stores to shop for material. However, there are now a few stores in Jerusalem that have a good cloth selection.
Shlomit uses a Bernina quilting machine, but there is a lot of picking of materials, measuring, pinning and cutting to do by hand. To secure her pieced top, the insulating fabric and the backing fabric, she brings her materials to a woman with a long-arm machine. Amazing as this may sound, Shlomit pointed out that nowadays, instead of sewing, some people even glue their pieces together.
In her work, Shlomit often uses the nine-patch on point (consisting of nine evenly sized blocks stitched together). However, she has also made stunning quilts using the jelly roll pattern – for which the fabric is pre-cut and you can use a simple sewing method to put it together – and the log cabin pattern. In log cabin quilts, there is a repeated single block pattern of light and dark fabric strips that represent the walls of a log cabin; a centre patch, often of red cloth, represents the hearth or fire. Other geometric shapes such as trapezoids or right-angle triangles might appear in her quilts.
Shlomit likes fall colours the best – oranges, tans, brown shades. Because she is a red head, for a period of time she steered away from greens and blues. As a child, she had been pushed to wear those colours.
Life in general inspires her art, and living in Jerusalem plays a role, she said.
She derives tremendous joy from quilting, she added. She can sit for a whole day doing it. She enjoys not just the sewing, but also the technical work. She probably has 50 to 60 completed quilts at home, she said.
In Israel, unfortunately, people are not very interested in paying the price that quilt handwork commands, so her sales have covered the cost of her supplies, but not the hours she has spent making the quilts.
She prefers to work alone, but, when quilting meetings are held in Jerusalem, she joins the group. The Jerusalem quilting group is not formally active, though. Members seem to get together most regularly when they have an exhibit for which to prepare. While some readers may have seen movies or read books – such as Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace or Whitney Otto’s How to Make an American Quilt – in which people attend quilting bees, working on the same quilt, this does not happen in Jerusalem. Like many groups, the Jerusalem quilters have met less often because of COVID-19 concerns.
Even though they aren’t an active group per se, the Jerusalem quilters have had some lovely exhibits at the International Convention Centre, the Jerusalem Theatre, the YMCA and the Mormon College. (See israelquilt.com/en/quilting-groups for more information.) Shlomit herself has exhibited in the United States and in the United Kingdom.
I suspect this quote about quilts originally targeted the receiver, rather than the giver: “Blankets wrap you in warmth, quilts wrap you in love.” In Shlomit’s case, however, the physical making of the quilt is a form of love.
Deborah Rubin Fields is an Israel-based features writer. She is also the author of Take a Peek Inside: A Child’s Guide to Radiology Exams, published in English, Hebrew and Arabic.
Grounds for Goodness Downtown Eastside: Adventures in Digital Community Art Making, led by Ruth Howard, is part of the Downtown Eastside Heart of the City Festival, which starts Oct. 28. (photo by Adrienne Marcus Raja)
Tikkun olam, the imperative to repair the world in which we live, is a core influence of the project Grounds for Goodness Downtown Eastside: Adventures in Digital Community Art Making. Led by Toronto-based theatre designer and educator Ruth Howard, the residency is part of the Downtown Eastside Heart of the City Festival.
The festival runs Oct. 28 to Nov. 8, and Grounds for Goodness, which “explores why and how people sometimes do good things towards others,” takes place Oct. 30 to Nov. 12. It comprises participant and audience interactive story-sharing, art-making, workshops and an evolving gallery online, as well as Downtown Eastside window displays. The residency is co-produced by Jumblies Theatre and Arts and Vancouver Moving Theatre.
Howard – who has participated in the festival before (jewishindependent.ca/putting-heart-into-city) – is the founder of Jumblies. She said tikkun olam is an underlying motivator in all her work – “and one of this project’s explicit intents is to connect its themes and questions, my Jewish heritage as a second generation Holocaust survivor and my vocation a community-engaged artist.
“Community arts is predicated on the working belief that bringing people together across differences can foster commonality and understanding,” she explained. “And yet, growing up in the 1960s, as the child of a German Jewish refugee (my mother and family escaped to England in 1938) and an experimental psychologist, I was bred on evidence that groups of people tend to do atrocious things towards others, with goodness being individual heroic exceptions. I was told at a young age about [Stanley] Milgram’s electric shock experiments, and understood the link between such cautionary tales and attempts by survivors to explain the Holocaust. My own uncle – Henri Tajfel, both social psychologist and Holocaust survivor – coined the term ‘social identity theory.’
“Therefore, my attention was grabbed a few years ago when I read some books about the saving of Danish and Bulgarian Jewish populations during the Holocaust by citizens of those countries. The Danish story was slightly familiar to me and the Bulgarian one not at all. I have since become quite obsessed by these and other instances (for example, Albania, the Rosenstrasse protests) that run against the grain of my and other people’s common assumptions about human behaviour and ‘nature.’ I felt compelled to tell these stories and learn more about the reasons behind them. I started to investigate the notion of ‘social goodness’ from many angles: history, psychology, anthropology, philosophy, memory, folk tale, legend, theory.”
With the help of independent research and creation grants, Howard “gradually brought the project into the work of Jumblies, inviting and including the responses of diverse community participants and groups. Now, we have a broad and growing repertoire of stories with which to play.
“However,” she stressed, “it’s important to me to uphold the project’s origins in Jewish perspectives and histories, and my own Jewishness: a complicated mix of darkness, hope and urgency to understand how to cultivate grounds for goodness through never forgetting what can happen in its absence.”
The Jumblies team in Toronto includes Howard’s daughter, web designer and choir conductor Shifra Cooper, and composer Martin van de Ven, also a member of the Jewish community.
In addition to being a composer for film, television, theatre and dance, van de Ven is a music facilitator and educator. He is also a clarinetist and has performed with the Flying Bulgar Klezmer Band, Chutzpah Ensemble, and Beyond the Pale. He has been involved in many Jumblies projects – as musical director, composer and/or performer. “Ruth and I have written several choral works together,” he told the Independent.
“To me, Jumblies is the embodiment of a music and art-making philosophy that believes the arts are there for everyone to create and not just for the well-trained elite,” he said. “Composers such as John Cage and Canada’s R. Murray Schafer talk about this in their writing and both were an early influence on my music education. Jumblies allows me to use my own skills and training to combine the efforts of trained and non-trained performers to create art, and specifically music, that serves the purpose of the moment, whether a stand-alone piece or something that supports a story being told. I think this work is important; it democratizes and decommodifies music-making and breaks down barriers to creation for community members who are otherwise shut out of the creative process. The myth that music-making is the sole purview of the highly skilled, and it is only worthwhile if it is commodified into a product to be consumed, is damaging to the whole idea of ‘homo ludens,’ the idea that a fundamental human attribute is the ability to play, invent and create.”
The community choir that Cooper directs embodies this concept of art being for everyone.
“The Gather Round Singers is an intergenerational community choir, made up of 30-plus mixed-ability, multi-aged singers, from across Toronto and beyond,” she said. “We exist within Jumblies Theatre, and so share their dedication to radical inclusivity and benefit from their experience in creating interdisciplinary work.”
Despite the challenges of COVID-19, the choir has been meeting weekly online since April, said Cooper, “to rehearse and perform new choral works designed or adapted for this new context” – that “[c]horal music is among the more challenging forms to adapt to online gathering, as video calling platforms such as Zoom are designed to reduce vocal overlap, and create latency that makes in-sync singing impossible.”
The Gather Round Singers will perform two new pieces for the opening of the DTES Vancouver residency, said Cooper – “one a world première by Martin van de Ven and one a work-in-progress by Arie Verheul van de Ven, both of which were developed this summer especially to be performed on Zoom. These are both part of Jumblies’ larger Grounds for Goodness project, which continues until a final presentation in June 2021, and will include several other new musical and choral pieces … and other composers (including Andrew Balfour, Christina Volpini and Cheldon Paterson).”
“Grounds for Goodness overall is a multi-year project that includes many partners, places and participants,” explained Howard. “It has been taking place through real-live and virtual activities for almost two years. There have been episodes in Nipissing First Nation (near North Bay, Ont.), Montreal, Brampton, the Ottawa Valley, Algoma Region (northern Ontario), and with various Toronto groups.… We have received funds to tour the project, which have now been adapted to allow for ‘virtual touring.’ The Vancouver iteration is the next big chapter in this project.”
For Grounds for Goodness Downtown Eastside, Martin van de Ven said, “we’ll be premièring a work called ‘Besa.’ ‘Besa’ is an Albanian Islamic concept about hospitality and the need to help and protect guests and those in need within and beyond your community.
“In Albania, during the Second World War (and Italian and then Nazi occupation), this meant that almost all Jewish people living and finding refuge in Albania were sheltered and hidden, and Albania ended up with a larger Jewish population at the end of the war than at the beginning. We created a work based on texts found in writings and interviews with Albanians – from the book Besa: Muslims who Saved Jews During WW II by Norman H. Gershman.
“The COVID-19 restrictions prevented us from developing this piece as we normally would,” he continued, “and so I composed a work that could be performed and rehearsed with everyone being online. It involved researching the technology, experimenting with Zoom meetings and audio programs, as well as writing music that allowed for enough flexibility to deal with internet latency. For our Vancouver residency, we will be presenting this work and sharing our experience of creating an artwork to be performed online with members of the Vancouver art community.”
Those Vancouver artists include Savannah Walling, Olivia C. Davies, Beverly Dobrinsky, Khari Wendell McClelland, Renae Morriseau and Rianne Svelnis, as well as 10 DTES-involved participants.
* * *
Van de Ven started music lessons when he was 6 years old – on recorder. “In elementary school,” he said, “my friends and I decided we wanted to form a circus. As the only one in the group with musical training, I was charged with writing the theme for the circus band. I dutifully started writing down half notes and quarter notes on paper and tried to play them on the recorder. The method worked fine but I soon realized I would need some additional training if I wanted it to sound good.
“I ended up with a musical education partially shaped by my father’s interest and taste for very modern classical and jazz music and eventually formal training at university,” he said. “In my late teens, I realized that my interest in science and engineering paled compared to the excitement I felt for a live performance, whether as an audience member or as a performer.”
In university, in addition to his formal training, van de Ven was involved in various jazz programs and, eventually, studied and performed in free improv ensembles. He also did a short stint in Europe, studying early computer music in electronic sound synthesis.
“Klezmer music has a history deeply rooted in East European and Middle Eastern music traditions. As a clarinetist,” he said, “it provided for me a wonderful vehicle to not only deeply emerge myself into a culture other than my own but also perform a lead role playing in a band.”
For her part, Cooper has loved choral singing her whole life. “And I bring this love to my own work,” she said, “while having always believed that bringing together community arts and choral singing requires a flexibility and a softening of our understanding of the boundaries of what ‘choral music’ can be – this is something that I have always been creatively driven by. In these times, I’m learning a lot more about how far this can go.
“Sometimes, turning things on their head can be revealing of new approaches, considerations or perspectives,” she said. “For example, one young woman who has sung with the choir for many years, said to me the other day: ‘In rehearsal, I always sit in the back row, so I only see the backs of people’s heads. I like on Zoom that I can see the faces of everyone I’m singing and performing with.’ Another choir member told me that she feels more confident and motivated to practise when she has her microphone off and is alone in her room following along – this confidence comes through strikingly in the recordings she shared with me for one of our digital projects. In these ways, sometimes, working online has revealed the limitations of our previously established norms for singing in-person. I think often now about how, whenever we can safely be back together, we might incorporate these learnings.
“Which is not to gloss over any of the challenges of meeting online,” stressed Cooper. “I think I can speak for at least the majority of the choir when I say we all immensely miss singing together – in sync, in harmony, in rhythm. And a digital space, even though full of many possibilities, is also full of boundaries and obstacles to folks joining in, especially those experiencing more precarious housing or financial insecurity. Our team worked closely all summer with members of the choir community to bridge this gap, purchasing and delivering internet-enabled devices to choir members and providing remote and in-person (socially distanced) trainings and trouble-shooting.” They did so with funding from several sources, notably the Toronto Foundation.
“Another part of my work has often included event management and digital design and, in the new reality of virtual art-making, these two often come together in interesting ways,” Cooper added. “I’m delighted to be designing a new interactive website for Grounds for Goodness at the DTES Heart of the City Festival, that will act as an online evolving gallery, showcasing new work created through the community workshops and acting as the container and guide for the culminating virtual event.”
Musician Myrna Rabinowitz, left, and Jewish Senior Alliance’s Shanie Levin. (photo from JSA)
The theme of this year’s Jewish Seniors Alliance-Snider Foundation Empowerment Series is “Be inspired!” and the first of four sessions was called Be Inspired through Story and Song.
Held at the Peretz Centre for Secular Jewish Culture on Nov. 29, Gyda Chud, co-president of the JSA, introduced the two presenters, referring to each as “a gift to our community”: storyteller Shanie Levin, who is a member of JSA’s executive board and on the editorial board of JSA’s Senior Line magazine, and singer-songwriter and guitarist Myrna Rabinowitz.
Rabinowitz opened with the Yiddish song “Abi Gezunt” (“As Long as You’re Well”) and the audience echoed enthusiastically the refrain, “As long as you’re well, you can be happy.”
Levin followed with a story by Kadya Molodowsky, the first lady of Yiddish poetry. A House with Seven Windows is about a proud, strong heroine in the mid-19th century who embraced the dream of “normalizing” Jewish life through a return and settlement in the land of Israel.
Other songs by Rabinowitz included the Yiddish translation of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” as well as “Sleep Little Boy,” a Yiddish song that she wrote eight years ago for her first grandson. She ended with the Yiddish rendition of “Sunrise Sunset” from Fiddler on the Roof (Tog Ayn Tog Oys).
Tall Tamara by Abraham Karpinowitz, both sympathetically comic and painfully tragic, was another inspiring story of Vilna’s poor and the unexpected dignity available to one woman through a chance contact with Yiddish literary culture.
Levin also shared Ted Allan’s Lies My Father Told Me, about the relationship between a 6-year-old child and his grandfather that transcends the differences in ages with deep connection. This story was made into a Golden Globe-winning film of the same name.
The last story Levin read – If Not Higher by I.L. Peretz – was about a rabbi who demonstrates that doing good deeds on earth may be a more exalted activity than doing God’s will in heaven.
Chud thanked the performers and urged the audience to attend upcoming JSA events, the next one being the screening of the movie Music of the Heart, starring Meryl Streep, at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver on Jan. 15.
Marilyn Berger, who initiated the Light One Candle project and designed a card to help JSA celebrate Chanukah, encouraged the audience to spread the light and make a special donation to help JSA continue its peer support program, as well as its advocacy work.