For hundreds of years, the basic rules for making a valid will have been the same: the person making the will has to sign it in the company of witnesses, and the witnesses have to sign, too. How can that requirement stand when we’re supposed to stay apart? Is it OK to sign and witness a will with everyone two metres apart from one another and wearing masks and even gloves?
Signing with COVID-19 precautions like distancing and wearing safety gear is legally valid, but not always practical. You’re passing around a paper document, and possibly sharing a pen. As we move into the winter months, it becomes less likely that you’ll all gather outside to sign. Signing indoors, despite social distancing and personal protection equipment, is still considered a greater risk than staying home.
Many of us have become far more familiar with videoconferencing technologies this year than we ever expected to be. How many of us had a Zoom seder or a Skype Rosh Hashanah dinner? Why can’t we update a centuries-old practice for the 21st century, especially given the COVID-19 crisis? We can.
The British Columbia government, as part of the emergency measures brought in this year, made changes to the rules for executing wills to accommodate pandemic precautions, and has also made those changes permanent. The Wills, Estates and Succession Act, which governs how we make wills, was amended to include two new sections on something called “electronic presence.”
The basic rules are still the same – the will has to be signed by the person making the will and by two witnesses, all witnessing one another more or less simultaneously, but they can sign separate paper copies – to be put together and treated as one original document – as long as they are in each others’ “electronic presence.” In other words, it should be the “witnessing a will” version of that Zoom seder.
Like everything with a will, there are technical details and you should always get professional guidance, but it is reassuring that you can remain safe, while attending to your critical planning needs.
Jeremy Costinis a business and estates lawyer practising in Vancouver. He sits on the board of directors and the governance committee of the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre, and is a frequent guest instructor at the Law Society of British Columbia.
(Disclaimer: This article should not be construed as legal advice. Only your lawyer can give you proper advice specific to your needs.)
It will take about two weeks to verify and count the mail-in ballots from Saturday’s B.C. provincial election. The province saw a 7,200% increase in voting by mail this year, a result of the pandemic and educational efforts to make people aware of what was perhaps the safest option for casting a ballot.
There is no doubt about the overall outcome. The New Democratic Party, under returning Premier John Horgan, won a majority government handily. The NDP increased its vote share in every part of the province and the opposition Liberals, under Andrew Wilkinson, who resigned in the aftermath, had its worst showing in almost three decades. The mail-in ballots will determine the outcome in a small number of close races, but it will not alter the big picture.
Some are complaining that two weeks is a long time for the elections branch to complete the process. However, we do not know the level of complexity involved in validating and counting the vast number of mailed votes. But it seems reasonable to take time to ensure such important work is done properly, rather than quickly.
What we should not lose sight of, regardless of what party we supported, is the small miracle of the election itself. Many or most of our ancestors came from places where free and fair elections followed by a peaceful and orderly transition of power were unfulfilled dreams. Startlingly, in what had been viewed globally as the bedrock model of democracy itself – the United States – we are bracing for one of the most uncertain moments in political history next Tuesday. Polls show that the incumbent president is headed for defeat. But polls were deeply wrong about this candidate four years ago. More importantly, there are concerns about his willingness to leave office if defeated – and even about potential intimidation of voters at the polls and violence in the aftermath of the election.
As Canadians, we should feel fortunate and grateful. As earthlings, we should wish and work for a world where all people are as free as we are to choose those who govern us and to do so with confidence, knowing that we will be physically safe and our elected officials will respect our choices.
Premier John Horgan sent Selina Robinson a message: “A mensch is a good thing, right?”
Robinson, the NDP government’s minister of municipal affairs and housing, is seeking reelection in the riding of Coquitlam-Maillardville. She sees herself as the Jewish maven around the cabinet table.
“I said yes, who called you a mensch?” Robinson recalled. “He just wanted to double-check.”
As she and other New Democrats campaign toward the Oct. 24 provincial election, Robinson and fellow cabinet member George Heyman spoke with the Jewish Independent. (In this issue, we also speak with Jewish candidates and spokespeople for other parties.)
As minister of housing, Robinson takes pride in the development of a major initiative called Homes for B.C.: A 30-Point Plan for Housing Affordability in British Columbia. Her ministry engaged with housing groups, renters, developers, economists, local government officials, planners and other thinkers. Then they convened people in a “World Café,” an engagement exercise in which people from different perspectives sit at a table and must come to agreed-upon recommendations on a topic.
“It was from that that we picked the best ideas and so it really came from all sides of the housing sector rather than pitting them against each other,” she said, acknowledging that she had to convince some to buy into the process because bureaucracy is not always amenable to novel approaches.
She cited two particular areas that she wants to “kvell about.” BC Housing, the agency that develops, manages and administers a range of subsidized housing in the province, is building housing on First Nations land.
“The feds, I don’t think, are building a lot of Indigenous housing and they’re supposed to,” she said. “No other province has stepped up to do that.… You’re a British Columbian and you need housing … if it’s land on reserve, it’s land on reserve – we’ll build housing.”
By providing housing in First Nations communities, it also helps people remain at home, rather than moving to the city, where housing is even more expensive and possibly precarious, she said.
“I’m very proud of that,” Robinson said.
The other point of pride is, Robinson admitted, “a geeky piece of legislation.” When she stepped into the role as the government’s lead on housing availability and affordability, she recognized that there is no data on what kind of housing exists and what’s needed.
“Local governments are responsible for land-use planning and deciding what kind of housing goes where – this is going to be multifamily, this is going to be single-family – but, if you were to ask them, how much do you have, how much more multifamily do you need, they couldn’t tell you, because nobody was collecting the data.”
She brought forward legislation that mandated local governments to do a housing needs assessment every five years to identify whether more housing options are needed for different age groups and types of families.
She also cited the government’s development of social housing, through the allocation of $7 billion over 10 years to build 39,000 units. So far, 25,000 units are either open, in construction or going through the municipal development process.
“My biggest worry is that the Liberals [if they are elected] will cancel all of those that are still in the development stage because they did that in 2001 when they formed government,” she said. “We’re so far behind the eight ball because they did that. I’m not saying it would have fixed everything, but, if there were another 5,000 units of housing out there, it wouldn’t be as bad as it is because there would be another 5,000 units.”
Every Friday, Robinson lights Shabbat candles and then shares a reflection on social media about her week.
“Lighting the Shabbat candles just grounds me in my identity,” she said. “I make myself take 10 minutes on a Friday at sundown to stop and to clear my head and to remind myself why I do the work. It’s not for the pay. It’s not for any of that; it’s not worth it. It’s who I am, what are my values and what’s important to me? What did I hear this week that reminds me of why this work is important?”
Robinson admitted she’s being partisan in saying that she believes NDP values are Jewish values.
“From my perspective, taking care of the world – whether it’s the environment, the people and all that’s within it – is our collective responsibility,” she said, adding with a laugh: “I think all Jews are New Democrats who just don’t know it yet.”
* * *
George Heyman, minister of environment and climate change strategy, is seeking reelection in the riding of Vancouver-Fairview. He is a son of Holocaust refugees, who escaped the Nazis with the help of Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese diplomat in Lithuania who illegally issued visas to about 6,000 Jews, many of whose descendants now live in Vancouver.
In 2019, Heyman took a family trip to Poland, which broadened his awareness of his family’s history and where he met family members he never knew he had. The Independent will run that story in an upcoming issue.
Speaking of his record in government, Heyman expressed pride in bringing in CleanBC, which he calls “a very detailed, independently modeled set of measures to get us to our 2030 target and beyond.”
He also said the government “completely revamped the province’s Environmental Assessment Act, incorporating the principles of the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.”
Collaborating with the First Nations Leadership Council, the government adapted the legislation to bring in affected local communities at the beginning of a project, before a proponent spends millions of dollars then has to go back to the drawing board due to local concerns.
“We’ve been investing in clean technology, we’ve approved transit plans that were stalled for years that the mayors of Metro Vancouver thought were critically important,” Heyman added. “We’re going to see the Broadway [SkyTrain] line commence to relieve the tremendous congestion on the Broadway corridor, both on buses and on the roads. And we’ll be working on ultimately being able to work with UBC and the city and the federal government to extend that to UBC.”
The government, he said, updated the Residential Tenancy Act to address tenants who were being threatened with eviction for suspect renovations and that saw people getting notices of rent increases as high as 40% because of loopholes in the act.
“We closed those loopholes, we held rent increases to the cost of living unless there is a legitimate demonstrated need to do renovation and repair and it’s fair to receive some compensation rent to pay for that,” he said.
Like Robinson, Heyman cited the construction of affordable housing, as well as supportive housing, to get homeless people off the street and provide them with services they need. He said the government has created 20,000 childcare spaces in the province “with significant fee reductions for families as we work our way toward a $10-a-day program.” Increased staffing in schools, mandated by a Supreme Court decision during the previous regime, is also an accomplishment, he said, as well as adding more investments in new schools for seismic upgrades, fire safety and heating and ventilation systems.
On the opioid crisis, Heyman acknowledged a surge in deaths since the beginning of the pandemic. “While there is much more to do, we managed to flatten the level of deaths up until COVID hit,” he said.
Also parallel to the pandemic was a realization of “the terrible state of many of our long-term-care homes.”
“We saw that deteriorate under the previous government,” he said. “With COVID, we saw the results of that. We saw people dying because workers were having to go to two or three different care homes, increasing the risk of infection, simply to cobble together a living. We took measures to allow our healthcare workers to work in one institution without suffering the loss of pay and we’re also investing in more beds and more equipment for long-term-care homes.”
New Democrats have been governing in a minority situation with the support of the Green party since 2017. Horgan called the snap election on Sept. 21, facing criticism for breaking fixed election date legislation and going to the polls during a state of emergency.
Rachael Segal is media spokesperson for the BC Liberals. (photo from BC Liberals)
Facing a campaign unlike any other, with shaking hands and kissing babies prohibited by social distancing protocols, all parties needed to reimagine how they would reach voters. Rachael Segal, media spokesperson for the BC Liberals, had to figure out how to get her party’s message to British Columbians.
“We can’t have a media bus, so, as the person responsible for media relations, how I connect with media now is very different than how I would do it in a normal campaign,” she said. “I’d be on the bus, I’d be with the leader.”
Instead, the leader is often driving himself to the modest-sized events that typify the 2020 campaign. Instead of facing a phalanx of TV cameras and radio mics, party leader
Andrew Wilkinson speaks to a pooled camera, with his message then shared among the media consortium. It’s an experience all parties are dealing with. But the leaders, as well as candidates in 87 ridings across the province, still have to communicate their positions.
“Obviously, Andrew still needs to get out there and get his message out there,” said Segal. “We’re making announcements daily, just like we would on a campaign normally, they’re just different.”
Wilkinson, a medical doctor as well as a lawyer, is particularly sensitive to the health risks and safety of his team, Segal said.
Segal, who grew up in Kerrisdale, is the official campaign spokesperson for the party during the election and is second-in-command at party headquarters when in non-campaign mode. As senior director of the party, her role is a loosely defined collection of responsibilities that she describes as “basically whatever hole is there, I try and fix it.”
One of her primary responsibilities is stakeholder relations, which means meeting with particular community groups and connecting them with the leader and other members of the legislature.
“Andrew and I have done Shabbat dinners, we’ve done Rosh Hashanah meals, we’ve done tons of Jewish community events,” Segal said by way of example. She also hosts the party’s podcast and started a young professional women’s group “to try to engage the 30-to-50-year-old women demographic, which is the largest swing demographic in British Columbia.”
Segal came to the role in April 2019. She already had a long resumé in education, politics and media.
She attended Vancouver Talmud Torah elementary and Magee high school and received her undergraduate degree at the University of Victoria, where she was the first president of the Jewish student organization when Hillel House opened there. She served as national president of the Canadian Federation of Jewish Students before graduating from UVic in 2005. She then went to the University of Leicester, in the United Kingdom, for a law degree, followed by a master of laws from Osgoode Hall, in Toronto.
She worked on Parliament Hill for Conservative MPs David Sweet and Scott Reid, as well as Senator Linda Frum, and was a senior policy advisor overseeing corrections and the parole board for then-minister of public safety Steven Blaney.
While studying in Toronto, Segal worked full time as an on-air legal and policy correspondent for Sun News, until that network shut down. She worked in criminal law and then civil litigation for a time but found it not her speed and returned to media, joining Toronto’s Bell Media radio station News Talk 1010. She returned to Vancouver in 2018 and covered as maternity leave replacement for the B.C. regional director of the Canadian Jewish Political Affairs Committee. She joined the BC Liberal party staff three days after that position ended.
“This election is really about who British Columbians can trust to lead them through economic recovery,” said Segal. “When we think about the ballot question, that’s really what British Columbians are voting on. Who do they trust to lead them through the next stage of this pandemic from an economic perspective? We have an incredible team who are all very experienced. We have former ministers, we have doctors, we have lawyers, we have just a really diverse and interesting team of very smart people.”
Given significant turnover – seven cabinet ministers have opted not to seek reelection – Segal questioned who would be on the frontbenches of a reelected NDP government.
“The question is, what does an NDP cabinet look like in the next government and do they have the bench strength to be the best party to lead this province economically?” she said.
Segal takes seriously her position as one of the few Jewish individuals on the campaign team.
“It’s a real privilege to be able to represent the community within this political sphere and it’s something I take very not lightly,” she said.
Of her job on the campaign and her slightly less hectic role the rest of the time, she added: “My job is pretty different, wild, fun. Every day is a new adventure. It’s pretty great. And we have such an incredible team, so they make it all even better.”
While B.C. residents have been given the go-ahead for local travel, there are still safety restrictions in place, so plan accordingly. (photo by Colin Keigher/en.wikipedia)
What a year so far. For many of us, a driving tour of the Fraser Valley or a trip to a Gulf Island would seem exotic compared to the last months of confinement at home. Which is good, because, while many restrictions are still in place to limit the spread of coronavirus, or COVID-19, provincial parks are now open for day and overnight use and residents have been given the go-ahead for local travel. The B.C. government is expected to further expand travel options this month, when it launches Phase 3 of its province-wide Restart Plan.
For now, health experts are urging the public to pick vacation destinations that are close to home. There are limitations to cross-border travel, including to Alberta, and travelers might need to self-isolate for 14 days upon returning to the province. As well, people are strongly urged at this time not to travel outside of the country, even if it is a day trip to the United States.
When planning your vacation, be aware that some of the businesses that closed when the economic shutdown was announced may not reopen this summer. Also, B.C. destinations outside of Metro Vancouver won’t have kosher restaurants nearby, so those who rely on kosher restaurants when traveling will want to factor that into their planning. Many travelers who keep kosher get around this problem by stocking ahead and preparing meals in the hotel room, campsite or RV.
Travel restrictions may be easing, but social distancing – staying at least two metres or 6.5 feet apart from others – is still in force and probably will remain a standard for the rest of the summer. A limit of 50 people per gathering is required and travelers are being encouraged to continue to “stay within their bubble” of close family or friends at this time.
Automobile and RV travel provide the greatest opportunities for maintaining a social distance. Air and rail travel have additional restrictions attached – passengers not only are expected to maintain the appropriate distance, but to carry a mask for each person on board, and you may be expected to wear it for the duration of the trip.
Cruise ships are not expected to be back in service until Oct. 31, but B.C. Ferries are running limited sailings and at 50% capacity, so book ahead when possible and arrive early.
Air travel in particular comes with an added risk of exposure, since airplanes aren’t generally designed to accommodate social distancing. However, all public carriers have implemented additional cleaning procedures to reduce the risk of passengers’ exposure to the virus.
There are a number of steps that travelers can take to reduce their risks of getting COVID-19 and to make this year’s vacation all the more comfortable.
Determine your risk before you go. Seniors and individuals with underlying health issues have a higher risk of complications if exposed to COVID-19. If you, your traveling companions or the people you regularly live with would be considered high risk, consult your doctor first, or consider staying home this summer.
Don’t leave home without reservations in place. Pre-plan your trip and find out ahead of time what destinations are open and which aren’t.s
If you plan to stay in a hotel or motel, pick accommodations that can allow for proper social distancing. Popular destinations and attractions that are known to be crowded or sold out during the summer months may be a better choice for next year.
If you’re camping or staying in an RV, choose parks that have the spacing to allow for social distancing. Don’t be afraid to call the park and ask about its amenities, including the distance between campsites. Some parks are already staggering their reservations to allow for more spacing. B.C. Parks, which began opening its campgrounds last week, announced that it will open campsites with social distancing in mind. That means, as well, that reservations are highly recommended.
Plan your meals and stock up. This will reduce your dependence on stores and restaurants, which may be crowded this summer, especially in smaller towns or at roadside stops.
Bring cleaning supplies. We’ve spent months sanitizing and polishing our own counter tops to stay COVID-19-free. Don’t forget to carry on the practice while you are traveling.
Carry a generous amount of patience with you. It’s been a tough spring for everyone and summer is finally upon us. Be kind and enjoy your trip!
Jan Lee’s articles and blog posts have been published in B’nai B’rith Magazine, Voices of Conservative and Masorti Judaism, Times of Israel, as well as a number of business, environmental and travel publications. Her blog can be found at multiculturaljew.polestarpassages.com.
British Columbians, like others in much of the world, are stepping gingerly into what may be a post-pandemic period – or an “inter-pandemic” phase, if the predicted second wave bears out. Our daily briefings from Dr. Bonnie Henry, the provincial health officer, and Health Minister Adrian Dix are cautiously optimistic, tempered with the reality that some people, given an inch, will take a mile. Confusion around, or contempt for, changing social distancing guidelines has meant numerous instances of inappropriate gatherings.
All in all, though, British Columbians have so far experienced among the lowest proportions of COVID-related illnesses and deaths than almost any jurisdiction in the developed world. Each death is a tragedy, yet we should be grateful for those who have recovered and the fact that so many of us have remained healthy so far. Thanks should go to all those who have helped others make it through, including first responders, healthcare professionals and also those irreplaceable workers we used to take for granted: retail and service employees and others who have allowed most of us to live through this with comparatively minimal disruptions.
In our Jewish community, so many individuals and institutions have done so much, from delivering challah to providing emergency financial and other supports for those affected by the economic impacts of the pandemic.
Canadians, in general, seem to be making it through this time as well as can be expected. Polls indicate that Canadians are overwhelmingly supportive of the actions our governments have taken during the coronavirus pandemic. How the federal and provincial governments manage the continuing economic repercussions and the potential resurgence of infections in coming months will determine long-term consequences both for us and for their popularity.
In signs that things are returning to something akin to pre-pandemic normal, Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel’s once-and-still-prime minister, is complaining about a “left-wing coup” and asserting that “the entire right” is on trial. In fact, it is not an entire wing of the Israeli political spectrum that is on trial, but Netanyahu himself, for bribery, breach of trust and fraud. He is accused of exchanging favours to friends and allies in return for hundreds of thousands of dollars in trinkets like cigars and champagne, and favourable coverage in media. Whatever strategy his team has for inside the courtroom, his PR strategy is pure deflection: blame the media, the court system, political opponents. He’s fighting two trials: the one in the justice system and the one in the court of public opinion. Netanyahu has managed to save his political hide thus far, through three successive elections and a year of coalition-building and horse trading. Predicting what might happen next is a popular but fruitless pastime.
More signs that things are not so different came from U.S. President Donald Trump on the weekend. As the death toll in the United States approached 100,000, Trump took time off from golfing to deliver Twitter rants, including retweets calling Hillary Clinton a “skank” and smearing other female Democrats for their appearance. Trump also insinuated that MSNBC TV host Joe Scarborough is a murderer.
Sitting (mostly) comfortably in our homes watching such things from afar, it’s no wonder Canadians are feeling good about the way our various governments – federal and provincial, of all political stripes – are behaving these days.
כבר למעלה מחודשיים שאנו נמצאים בסגר שלא היה כמותו מעולם. המראות מוונקובר ומשאר רחבי קנדה דומים למה שאנו רואים בעולם: רחובות ריקים, תורים ליד חנויות האוכל, הרבה שקט מסביב והטלוויזיות פועלות בבתים בהיקף שלא היה כדומתו מאז באו לעולם.
אני למזלי עובד מהבית מזה כשלוש שנים כך שלא הרגשתי שינוי משמעותי בגיזרה הזו, אם כי היקפי העבודה ירדו ובשלב זה קשה לאמוד את הנזקים הכספיים אצלנו בחברה. בתום יום העבודה במקום לקפוץ למכון הכושר בבניין ולרכב על אופניים ארבעים דקות, ולגמוע כאחד עשר עד שניים עשר קילומטרים, אני יוצא לצעוד ברחובות של ונקובר. אם אצעד בטיילת שליד הים אראה רבים רבים כמוני שהולכים להם, רצים, רוכבים על אופניים או סתם יושבים על הדשא ותופסים שמש. אם אחפש מקומות ריקים יותר אז אלך ברחובות העיר, מהדאון טאון החוצה דרך שלושת הגשרים שמחברים אותו עם החלק המערבי או המזרחי של ונקובר. אבל זה לא כל כך נעים נעים לצעוד היום ברחובות הכמעט ריקים של ונקובר. ההרגשה כבדה מה גם שמרבית חלונות הראווה של החנויות מכוסים בלוחות עץ כדי שלא יפרצו פנימה. ההומלסים נראים במספרים גדולים יותר וחלקם השתכנו להם בפתחי החנויות הסגורות. בערב רחובות העיר כל כך שקטים וריקים. נראה כאילו עוצר מלחמתי הוכרז על ידי השלטונות.
בפועל המלחמה היא מול אויב שאיננו רואים או שומעים אותו והוא עושה בנו שמות. אויב אכזרי מאין כמוה שגרם למותם של למעלה משלוש מאות אלף איש בעולם וגרם ליותר מארבעה וחצי מיליוני אנשים לחלות. מגפה של ממש.
ונקובר כמו ערים אחרות הפכה למשהו אחר, סיפמפטי פחות, נעים פחות, שקט הרבה יותר. אנו מתעוררים כל בוקר למציאות שלא הכרנו וכל הימים נראים דומים. לא פעם שאלתי את בת הזוג שלי האם היום זה יום שלישי והיא ענתה בפסקנות: “היום דווקא זהו יום רביעי”. בפעם אחרת חשבתי שמדובר ביום חמישי אך בפועל זה היה כבר יום שישי. החדשות הן אותן חדשות, הרעות הן אותן רעות והחיים כמעט עצרו מלכת.
לאור החדשות הטובות יותר שמספר המתים והחולים יורד בהתמדה במחוז בריטיש קולומביה שלנו, הממשלה המקומית הודיעה כי אנו מתחילים לפתוח את המשק לאט לאט. הממשלה קבעה תוכנית בת ארבעה שלבים כאשר בעצם השלב הראשון הוא השלב בו אנו מצאים כיום, כיוון שהמשק עבר לשעת חירום וכן מספר מגזרים המשיכו לפעול. כמו למשל תחבורה ציבורית, בניית ותיקון תשתיות, בניית ותיקון בניינים, חנויות מזון ועוד. השלב הרביעי והאחרון בתוכנית הוא פתיחה מלאה של המשק וזה יקרה שימצא החיסון היקר מפז לחיידק הקורונה הנוראי הזה. לכן אנו עוברים בימים הקרובים שלב השני בתוכנית הממשלתית. כבר בימים האחרונים ראיתי התעוררות ברחבי העיר. יותר אנשים ברחובות, בפרקים ובטיילות. יותר חנויות פתוחות. ההמשך יבוא.
לסיום שיר חדש שכתבתי לאחרונה:
אם אין מים נשתה חלב של פרה אדומה
אם אין חשמל נקושש עצים חומים ונעשה מדורה חמה
אם אין גז נעטוף את הבית בנילונים לבנים ארוכים ונרגיש כמו בחממה
אם לא נוכל לקרוא נתחיל לכתוב שירים ארוכים וסיפורים קצרים
אם לא נוכל לשמוע מוזיקה נתחיל להקיש במקלות רחבים על מחבתות וסירים גדולים
אם לא נוכל לצפות בטלוויזיה נעמוד במרכז החדר ונתחיל לנאום ארוכות על מה שקרה ועל עתיד המבריאים הרבים והחולים המעטים.
Left to right: Debby Altow, NCJW Vancouver past president; Cate Stoller, NCJW Vancouver president; Shelley Rivkin, vice-president, Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver; Kasari Govender, B.C. human rights commissioner; Ezra Shanken, Jewish Federation executive director; and Etti Goldman, Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs. (photo by Rochelle Garfinkel)
Newly installed B.C. Commissioner of Human Rights Kasari Govender spoke to members and guests of the National Council of Jewish Women of Canada on Nov. 21 at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver. Govender discussed a wide range of topics, including the connections her office will be making with similar bodies across Canada, her focus on the systemic issues affecting human rights in our province, and her welcoming of ideas for implementing forward-thinking and creative approaches to human rights issues. Govender’s presentation echoed the values and focus of NCJWC Vancouver section, which has a long tradition of innovation and creativity in the sphere of social action. For more information about upcoming events and programs, visit ncjwvancouver.org.
This year’s Jewish Independent Rosh Hashanah cover photo features a bumble bee on a heartleaf oxeye daisy flower – it was taken in Saanich, B.C., by David Fraser. Many native bumble bees are in decline, a concerning trend given the role they play in pollination of plants, including many food crops. Pesticides, habitat loss and introduced bee parasites and diseases are thought to play a role in this decline.
Apples are one of the main symbolic foods we eat on Rosh Hashanah, as we wish for a sweet year, with the help of some honey. Apples are the fruit of choice for this wish perhaps because Rosh Hashanah coincides with the sixth day of creation, when humans – Adam and Eve – were created and they ate the fruit (apple) of the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden. It could also be that apples symbolize the relationship between God and the Jewish people, as poeticized in the Song of Songs, or that the Zohar (kabbalah) describes paradise as a holy apple orchard.
Regardless of the reason for the fruit selection, apple production is dependent on bees and other pollinators. It would be fitting then for us to wish for more than a sweet, fruitful year, when we are dipping our apple slices into honey. We might consider our role in the decline of not only the bumble bee populations but of the environment at large, and what we can do to reverse it.
Gabriel Paquin-Buki, far right, founded the band Oktopus, which started performing in 2010. (photo by Rémi Hermoso)
Among the Jewish performers at this year’s Mission Folk Music Festival, July 26-28 at Fraser River Heritage Park, are Vancouver’s Jesse Waldman and Montreal’s Gabriel Paquin-Buki. For both musicians, family has been a key inspiration.
Waldman is a guitarist, singer-songwriter, studio producer, sound designer, and film and TV composer. Originally from Thornhill, Ont., just north of Toronto, his bio describes a cassette of his grandmother singing the Yiddish folk song Papirosen to his mother as one of his “most cherished possessions.”
“That recording was from the late ’50s, most likely 1957,” Waldman told the Independent. “My family had one of the first consumer-level tape recorders, they also had one of the first eight-millimetre film cameras, too. They always loved documenting the family, taking time capsule-like snapshots to cherish and enjoy later on in life.
“The recording of that particular song – which is about a young girl selling cigarettes on a street corner – has a beautifully haunting melody. I believe my grandmother learned it from her mother, my great-grandmother. At some point, it was transferred onto a stereo cassette recorder and a few copies were made. The same tape also contains interviews with my mother, a toddler at the time, and other family members, since passed away.”
A guitar he found in his parents’ basement also played a part in the start of his musical career.
“The guitar was an old beat-up nylon-string classical guitar that belonged to my Aunt Sherri,” said Waldman. “Actually, I suspect it belonged to one of her ex-boyfriends. I figured out how to play ‘Smoke on the Water’ on one string and was hooked for life! That was back in 1989.”
Waldman made his way to Vancouver in 1995 “on a whim,” he said. “I wanted to go somewhere where no one knew me and reinvent myself. From the moment I saw the mountains and smelled the ocean, I instantly felt at home. Then, after meeting the people and getting a feel for the laidback vibe of the West Coast, I was sold on Vancouver.”
For Paquin-Buki, whose group Oktopus began performing in 2010, it was his father who introduced him to klezmer.
“My father was born into a Polish Jewish family and has carried klezmer music with him all his life. His transmission to me of this cultural legacy occurred quite naturally. The cassettes he would play in the family car, the klezmer recordings during parties at our home, the live bands at family weddings and those rare times he would play songs on the piano were enough for me to access the roots of this musical tradition,” said Paquin-Buki.
“As it is for many children, I believe it was the rhythm of this music that excited me. The recordings we listened to were mostly of fast songs and, for me, were synonymous with joy. My love for this music today has so many facets! When we listen to klezmer, we can somehow feel the richness of the Jewish people’s millennial history and hear their encounters with musicians from all over the planet and across centuries. Also, major-minor ambivalence in the main klezmer scale (the freygish) embodies the dichotomy between laughter and tears so characteristic of Jewish culture. And it’s always fun music to play.”
Waldman has similar views. “I’ve always enjoyed klezmer music,” he said. “The mile-a-minute dance numbers, the sorrowful ballads and the cheeky vocals. Many klezmer compositions use melodies based on the harmonic minor scale, which includes a minor third and a major seven, which makes it sound particularly haunting and mournful to me. In terms of culture, all of my band mates in my early days were Jewish. I definitely cut my teeth with fellow Jews who know the delights of Shabbos dinner and a good bagel with lox and cream cheese!”
While he enjoys klezmer, Waldman’s music is predominantly folk and blues. “I love the sound, the rawness and heavy emotional weight of those styles,” he explained. “I also love the storytelling aspect of it, specific life experiences, places and relationships. Real folk and blues is unique to each artist but also has a tradition of carrying classic songs through the generations. I also love how blues has a way of transforming deep pain into something beautiful.”
Waldman’s debut album, Mansion Full of Ghosts, which was released in 2017, is described as “an exploration of the city’s vast duality, a backdrop of beauty mirrored by a fierce underbelly and a need to keep a light on in the dark.” It includes songs about his neighbourhood, the Downtown Eastside, and, in talking about what drives him to make socially conscious music, he said, “I think mostly my compassion for other people, particularly those less fortunate than myself. I also yearn to connect with people on a deeper level and music and honest lyrics are a good way to achieve that.”
Among the talent featured on that album is his partner, Megan Alford. Currently, the two are working on a recording of her music, Field Guide to Wildflowers, scheduled for an early 2020 release. “My role is producer and guitar player,” said Waldman. “She is an outstanding songwriter with a great voice and poignant and deeply personal lyrics. We’ve been working together for a couple years now and the songs have really come to life.”
As can blues music, klezmer holds space for both happiness and sadness. In addition to being a musician, Paquin-Buki holds a master’s degree in comparative literature. In his first semester, he took two courses that focused on literature from the concentration camps. Le Verfügbar aux enfers (The Lowest-Class Worker Goes to Hell), written by Germaine Tillion, a prisoner at Ravensbrück, particularly caught his attention. “This work has a substantial musical dimension and contains a lot of humour…. I was very keen on exploring this taboo subject of laughter and the Holocaust and especially on trying to understand what its benefits were and what shapes it could subsequently take…. For the time being, there is no direct connection between this topic and Oktopus’s music but, in performance, it allows me to flesh out historical intros between pieces. It also adds a new dimension to these tears that are halfway between laughter and sorrow, since klezmer music – and particularly the clarinet – reproduces vocal inflections that convey laughter and sorrow.
“I would very much like to compose a piece based on one of the works I used in my thesis, ‘La danse de Gengis Cohn.’ I also have a mind to add a work from KZ Muzik, a vast box set recording that traces and publishes many works composed in concentration camps. But, overall, the fact remains that my own academic project on such a profound and terrifying topic has changed my general view of the world and impacts everything I do.”
Paquin-Buki is the driving force behind Oktopus’s mission to perpetuate klezmer. “By striving to perpetuate this musical tradition, I am keeping the culture of my ancestors alive and this is of special significance to me,” he said. “Nevertheless, since klezmer carries universal values, our approach also makes substantial room for the musical traditions of Quebec.”
Indeed, Oktopus combines elements of different cultures.
“The klezmer repertoire is so vast that we cannot possibly cover it all in our lifetimes,” said Paquin-Buki. “But we have also chosen to incorporate classical melodies – we are all classically trained and so we necessarily view klezmer through the lens of classical music, in the way our ears have been trained to hear it – as well as Quebec chansons [folk songs] and, sometimes, songs from other cultures around the world.
“Trying to somehow recreate these songs as they were played decades or even centuries ago is not really in line with our view of tradition, which is not a static concept for us. Tradition is something that evolves and so, in certain respects, we try to imagine what the klezmorim repertoire might have been like if they had settled in Montreal. They would have necessarily incorporated Québécois and Canadian songs and styles. Historically, klezmer absorbs the different cultures it encounters along its way, while staying true to its deep roots, which colour everything it touches. The important thing is to remain connected to those roots.”
One challenge in maintaining that connection for Paquin-Buki has been that his “classical training got in the way in some respects because klezmer is largely an oral tradition.” He couldn’t find any scores for a klezmer ensemble and, he said, “In the environment in which I functioned as a musician, nothing was possible without written-down notes. But, to make a long story short, I finally decided to write out the arrangements myself. They turned out very badly at the beginning, but with help and a lot of work, they evolved into something presentable.
“The group’s configuration,” he said of Oktopus, “is loosely based on what I heard on recordings of the Klezmer Conservatory Band: clarinet, violin, flute, trombone, tuba (now bass trombone), piano and drums. Back in 2009, I was not acquainted with that many musicians, so I recruited a few friends and other promising students from the faculty of music. The group began playing in 2010 – three pieces performed in a chamber music concert at the Université de Montréal. The following year, we were offered our first professional engagements.” Oktopus has two albums – Lever l’encre (2014) and Hapax (2017) – both of which were nominated for Juno and Canadian Folk Music awards.