A still from Max Shoham’s animated film Sophie and Jacob.
The Future of Film Showcase, an annual short film festival and professional development conference dedicated to fostering the future of emerging Canadian filmmakers, features 11 shorts from Canada’s most promising new voices aged 40 and younger. This year’s slate includes Toronto Jewish community member Max Shoham’s animated film Sophie and Jacob, based on the true story of his great-grandparents, who find love while fleeing Nazi-occupied Romania in 1939. Shoham is a graduate of Etobicoke School of the Arts, where he majored in film, and is currently at Concordia University studying film animation.
The Future of Film Showcase takes place July 9 to 22, with films available to stream for free on the CBC Gem streaming service.
I was crying in front of the computer screen during a funeral service livestream. Again. It wasn’t my first of this pandemic. Even if the person didn’t ostensibly die of COVID, he’d been ill alone, unable to see family for long stretches because of it. And, because of COVID, I couldn’t be at the funerals in person, which were all in the United States. In normal times, I’d be rushing across the continent to be at these services with my family.
The person being eulogized, Rabbi Laszlo Berkowits, was a family friend, and was close to my parents. I called him “uncle” as a kid. He and his family were always part of our family’s holiday celebrations and gatherings. I played with his kids at his house. Their phone number was my elementary school’s emergency contact for me.
Rabbi Berkowits (Uncle Larry) was my family’s rabbi. He was also a Holocaust survivor. For a person who spent his teenage years in concentration camps, including Auschwitz, my Uncle Larry’s positivity, joy and ability to find the good in others were amazing. He had an incredible, long career, supporting and inspiring others to make positive change.
At the funeral, his family and friends (including my pediatrician) talked about how my Uncle Larry felt so grateful for the kindness of others, including the kindness of strangers. Without that help, he wouldn’t have survived the Second World War. Without the assistance and loving kindness of strangers – in Sweden, the United States and beyond – he wouldn’t have regained his health, gone on to serve in the U.S. military or received a full scholarship to become a rabbi. He wouldn’t have had the opportunities that truly enabled him to make such a difference in so many others’ lives.
The article was about how I try to carry around snacks (granola bars) for my kids, just in case they need one, but that, sometimes, the best option for me is to offer that extra snack to someone else on the street, who is hungry, instead.
The thing is, since the pandemic started, like many Manitobans, we haven’t been out and about nearly as often. I don’t carry around snacks now because my kids are remote schooling. We’re working and learning at home, trying, like most of us, to reduce the number of people who might get sick or die from COVID. On a daily basis, I am not physically handing out those granola bars to anybody other than my kids.
A week ago, I got the most amazing email from a single mom friend who is a grocery store cashier in a city more than 200 kilometres away. She works very hard to keep her family afloat. She’d been waiting until her break to write me: “A man came through with 25 boxes of granola bars. No judgment – they were on sale! Then, he tells me he read an article about someone and their child or children who handed a person a granola bar and it stuck with him. So, now he has granola bars in his car and always hands them out to panhandlers and people who need them when he can.”
I could imagine her hearing this at the grocery store, her jaw dropping in surprise. She told the man that we were good friends and that she would tell me about this. The man said to pass along that, she wrote, “he has been doing this since the week he read your article and to thank you! Simple acts of kindness are what is keeping him going these days.”
When I read her email, I cried. It had been “one of those pandemic days” – where the news, the work and learning struggles at home, had all felt so hard. We’re all tired of worrying, so concerned about our loved ones. In fact, I’d been feeling badly that I couldn’t do more for others, write more, donate more, while juggling things on the stay-at-home front.
Another email from my friend arrived. She’d mentioned this man’s purchase to one of the grocery store owners. He’d said, if she sees this man again, the store would give him a discount on these purchases. Then he printed out the story to pass along, too.
I felt so grateful to this anonymous stranger who was carrying around all these granola bars to feed others, and continuing this kindness when I couldn’t. I wanted to thank him, but I also respect just how many anonymous givers might be out there. It takes all of us to beat this pandemic. Next year, I hope to host my amazing essential worker friend and her kids for a big celebratory Chanukah dinner again.
I’m so heartened to hear that the kindness my Uncle Larry encouraged in others is continuing to be passed along. I carry with me his constant reminders to be an upstanding person who does the right thing, who helps others, shines a light for others, even if he himself isn’t here anymore.
My Uncle Larry would say, “Be the best. Be a blessing.” He’d add something like, “We never know how long we’ll be here on earth. It’s our job to do good for others whenever we can – right now.”
At his funeral, another longtime family friend, Sam Simon, spoke, reminding us: “Be that stranger whose kindness is a blessing to someone so that they, too, can become a blessing to the world.” I am sure the biggest blessing of all would be if more people took that to heart.
Joanne Seiff has 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.
As public opinion surveys continue to tell us that vast numbers of people know little or nothing about the Holocaust, it was encouraging that Max Eisen’s memoir, By Chance Alone, became CBC Radio’s Canada Reads 2019 choice, bringing this wrenching narrative to many more eyes and ears.
Born in Czechoslovakia in 1929, Eisen enjoyed a childhood filled with shenanigans and idyllic summer excursions to his maternal family’s farm – until the Nazi invasion of his country, in 1938.
“At 9, I didn’t fully understand what was taking place, but I noticed the rising tensions in my hometown,” he writes.
Eisen’s father’s friends assembled at their home to listen to a major address by the Führer on a crystal radio. “All of us understood basic German,” he writes. Hitler’s words, “Wir werden die Juden ausradieren” – “We are going to eradicate all the Jews of Europe” – clarified for the young Eisen the import of the moment.
While traumas befell the family from then on, it was in the night after the first seder in 1944 that the worst of the family’s catastrophe began to unfold.
At 2 a.m., after the family had settled into bed after what Eisen calls their “last supper,” a neighbour arrived at their property urgently insisting that the family hide in the forest because he had overheard gendarmes saying that they would gather all the Jews in the vicinity the next day. Because it was Passover and the Sabbath, Eisen’s grandfather declared that the family would not travel. At 6 a.m., gendarmes forced their way into the home, gave the family five minutes to pack a bundle and be ready to depart their home.
The complicity of bystanders before, during and after the Holocaust permeates the book.
“On both sides of the road, the townspeople jeered and cursed at us as we passed. Many were looking out the windows of the Jewish homes they now occupied.… Many townsfolk who bought goods on credit from Jews like my grandfather were happy they wouldn’t have to pay the money back. Our deportation was an economic windfall for them.”
In the chaos of arrival at Auschwitz, Eisen had no idea of the seriousness of the separation of himself, his father and uncle from the rest of their family. The three would be the only ones to survive the first selection.
The everyday “indignities and deprivations” they had experienced before quickly turned to horrors. The forced labour he endured, long shifts of excruciatingly exhausting work on starvation rations, was fatal to those less strong.
His father and uncle were moved to another barracks and, after selection one day, Eisen could not find them.
“I ran to a fenced off holding area where the SS kept the selected prisoners until they were ready to transport them to Birkenau to be gassed.… My father reached out across the wire and blessed me with a classic Jewish prayer…. The same prayer my father once uttered to bless his children every Friday evening before the Sabbath meal. Then he said, ‘If you survive, you must tell the world what happened here. Now go.’”
At one point, when Eisen let down his guard and relaxed for a moment, an SS guard delivered a blow with the butt of his gun on the back of Eisen’s head. The nearly fatal attack put Eisen in the camp’s infirmary, which proved one of the chances that led to the book’s title. A surgeon, a Polish political prisoner, assigned Eisen the job of cleaning and running the operating theatre. Although the responsibilities he was forced to undertake and the things he witnessed were appalling, the comparative comfort of the job may have saved his life.
As the Nazi regime was on its last legs, “the SS ceased distributing rations and the water system was shut down,” Eisen writes. “I woke up to the smell of cooking meat.… Several inmates sat around a small stove and watched as a pot boiled. I could not imagine how they had acquired meat, but when I crawled to the latrine where the cadavers were stacked, I noticed that some of the bodies were missing pieces from their buttocks.”
On May 6, 1945, the camp was liberated, but the term lacks much meaning in the context. Everything and everyone Eisen knew was destroyed. When the Americans provided food, a stampede of starving people led to deaths by trampling. Those who got food suffered ruptured stomachs and many died on the spot.
After overcoming a nearly fatal bout of pleurisy, Eisen faced yet more incarceration. After the communist takeover of Czechoslovakia, his plan to find freedom abroad was dashed. Because he came from the eastern, Hungarian-speaking part of the country, he tried to obtain phony Hungarian ID and join a mass of Hungarian refugees passing through to the West. Discovered, he was imprisoned for a year.
When finally released, Eisen was given 24 hours to get out of his native country. Eventually, he made his way to Canada where, since the 1980s, he has educated school kids and others about the Holocaust.
“It is in this way,” he writes, “that I have fulfilled my final promise to my father: telling the story of our collective suffering so it will never be forgotten.”
Finding Fukue follows Jessica Stuart’s journey to Japan to find her childhood friend.
To what lengths would you go to find a childhood friend whose letters stopped coming decades ago? When online searches proved fruitless, Vancouver-born, Toronto-based musician Jessica Stuart headed back to Japan, and her journey is recorded in the CBC Short Docs film Finding Fukue, which was produced with Real Stories. Since posted to YouTube last November, the charming and moving documentary has been viewed more than 3.6 million times to date.
“When I was 9 years old, my parents got English teaching jobs and moved us all to Japan for a year,” shares Stuart as the film starts. Among the images we see are clips of home movies from that year, 1988. “I was a blond kid, and that made me of interest to all the Japanese people because they had never really seen a blond-hair person before,” she says. “They would point at me or my sister, touch my hair, talk at me; I didn’t understand anything yet. The day after we arrived, I went to school for the first time and then that was crazy. I didn’t feel that anyone was interested in getting to know me, except for one person, and her name was Fukue, and we became best of friends.”
The Stuarts – Wendy, Ron and daughters Fiona and Jessica – settled in Saku, then a small rural village with no foreigners. Now, however, Stuart has to start looking for her friend Fukue in a city of 100,000 people. She visits the elementary school they attended and gets a yearbook, where she gets Fukue’s father’s name and an address from the year 2000, but this leads her to a new development, where she and her translator (for the more complex encounters) meet some women who remember her family but can’t help with finding Fukue.
At Saku City Hall, a press contingent meets Stuart and she gets the word out on television and in print. Finally, a clerk at City Hall manages to find a phone number for Fukue’s sister, who connects the two friends. The reunions – first by phone and then in person – are quite emotional. The two fall into a familiar comfort and get reacquainted. They have kept in touch since.
Jewish Family Services Innovators Lunch committee, left to right: Sherri Wise, Tamar Bakonyi, Candice Thal and Shannon Ezekiel. (photo from JFS)
On May 14, Jewish Family Services held its 15th annual Innovators Lunch at the Hyatt Regency downtown. The sold-out event was hosted by CBC broadcaster Gloria Macarenko and featured keynote speaker Lane Merrifield of CBC’s Dragons’ Den. Attended by 620 donors, partners, sponsors and volunteers, it raised an unprecedented $380,000 towards programs and services designed to improve quality of life for 2,000 Lower Mainland residents.
This year’s theme at JFS is “community.” At the luncheon, Richard Fruchter, the agency’s chief executive officer, spoke of JFS’s mission to provide life’s necessities: “food, shelter, accessibility and emotional stability.”
The audience was shown a video presentation created by Michael Millman, which revealed the wide-ranging benefits of JFS’s work. A single mother spoke candidly and with feeling about her struggles. “Before I reached out to JFS, I struggled with everything. We lived on almost nothing,” she said. JFS staff provided housing, food and food vouchers, as well as trauma counseling. JFS partner agency Tikva Housing provided the family with a townhouse in a new development. “It’s a beautiful place, right on the Fraser River … a lovely home for us to have for many years,” she said, adding, “JFS has given us a life. A way to be happy. It’s just been a huge blessing for us.”
A senior with disabilities spoke about how a spinal cord injury felled him at the age of 36. JFS has helped him remain independent with its Better at Home program. In the video, Cindy MacMillan, director of senior services at JFS, explained that a grant from the United Way made it possible for the senior to remain at home. Now he has a housekeeper come in to look after his home, and also enjoys companionship with weekly visits from a JFS volunteer. “It’s working out, I look forward to them!” he said.
“It’s helped him realize that people in his community care about him,” said MacMillan. “It’s really Jewish values in action, in the broader community. Those values of caring and healing happen every time we make a match with a volunteer.”
JFS board member Jody Dales gave a passionate speech about her own family’s struggles. Dales saw her grandmother turn away help when she was struggling with poverty. Having survived the Holocaust, her grandmother still felt that others needed the help more than she did, Dales explained. As a result, Dales said she applauds anyone who comes forward to seek support. Rather than being a sign of weakness, she said, “Only the courageous are able to say, ‘Help me.’” She acknowledged that people tend to experience “a sense of shame in asking for help. But nothing is certain. It could be any of us at any time.”
Dales also explained how big a difference can be made by even a small donation and told the audience, “Let your empathy guide your decisions.”
Merrifield, co-creator of Club Penguin, an online community for kids, spoke about building community in the business world. Designed to be a safe, collaborative environment for play and learning, Club Penguin is founded on an ethos of mutual reliance and philanthropy. Eventually sold to Disney for $350 million, Disney recruited Merrifield to lead the project, ensuring that Club Penguin maintained the integrity of its original goal, “inspiring change in the world.”
Merrifield urged people to work towards social entrepreneurship, where human concerns guide business decisions. Rather than focusing on capital investment, he advised the audience to “invest in people because that’s what keeps us healthy. Revenue is not what you chase for its own sake,” he said. “It is the by-product of creating a great product with a great team.”
Right from the beginning, the business plan for Club Penguin was based on philanthropy. A portion of subscriptions went to families that live on less than $51 per day, he said. But “there was no fanfare,” said Merrifield. “We didn’t want this to look like a gimmick.” In the first year, the company gave away hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Merrifield spoke of the need to galvanize the community of kids, teaching them to invest in their community with a “coins for change” program. This virtual fundraiser even allowed children to “ring bells” to attract the attention of other subscribers. Over one billion digital coins were donated annually, for a range of humanitarian causes. Self-organizing kids formed virtual marches, becoming activists in their own right; held candlelit vigils and themed parties.
Merrifield brings the same spirit of social responsibility to his work on Dragons’ Den. He and his fellow panelists (“dragons”) hear pitches by entrepreneurs who are looking for investment and choose which ones to support. Merrifield said he looks for companies that “use recycled materials, hire disabled applicants, plant trees, and make an effort to reduce waste in their packaging and lower their fuel costs.” So far, he has not been disappointed. “Most companies have pretty good answers and that gives me hope,” he said.
On the subject of giving back, Merrifield encouraged people to consider donations – such as those to JFS – not as losses to oneself, but as “investments in the future, to individuals who continue to pay it forward.”
He also asked the audience to engage everyone they could to further the cause of fearless generosity. “Use your collective strength and influence to create change for good,” he said.
He advised, “Pool your talents and leave this world far better than it was when we came into it.”
Shula Klinger is an author and journalist living in North Vancouver. Find out more at shulaklinger.com.
Each year, the Eric Hoffer Award presents the da Vinci Eye (named after Leonardo da Vinci) to books with superior cover artwork. Cover art is judged on both content and style and, among this year’s winners is Olga Campbell’s Whisper Across Time: My Family’s Story of the Holocaust Told Through Art and Poetry (Jujabi Press). The book is still being considered for category, press and grand prizes.
Whisper Across Time also won the Ippy Award for independent self-published authors. Campbell’s book was selected as one of the 2019 Independent Publisher Book Awards’ Outstanding Books of the Year under the freedom fighter category. Campbell planned on attending the May 28 gala event in New York.
Julia Ivanova’s National Film Board documentary Limit is the Sky saw its Toronto première on May 2 in the retrospective of the largest documentary film festival in North America, Hot Docs. Ivanova is one of only three directors from British Columbia who have received a Focus On retrospective at Hot Docs since 2002 – the others are John Zaritsky and Nettie Wild.
Ivanova, the director, cinematographer and editor of Limit is the Sky is a Russian-Canadian filmmaker. She came to Canada at the age of 30, became a filmmaker in Vancouver and captured Canada from within but with the ability to look at the country from a distance. She has made documentaries for the NFB, CBC, Knowledge Network, played Sundance and won many awards for her films.
The screening of Limit is the Sky, the NFB film about the Fort McMurray boom-bust-fire circle and the winner of the Colin Low Best Canadian Feature Award at DOXA 2017, commemorates the third anniversary since the worst wildfire and the worst natural disaster in Canada’s history devastated the capital of the oil sands. (See jewishindependent.ca/diverse-doxa-festival-offerings.)
The Hot Docs Focus On retrospective of her work includes the world première of her new film, My Dads, My Moms and Me, a film about the joy and turmoil of parenting in the modern family, including same-sex partners, surrogates, adoption and combinations that break the old conventions. The film follows three families, filmed twice, 12 years apart – in 2007 and in 2019.
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More than 250,000 children participated in the Ontario Library Association’s annual Forest of Reading program and have helped choose the best Canadian authors and illustrators. On May 14 and 15, thousands gathered at the annual Festival of Trees, an annual rock concert of reading, hosted at the Harbourfront Centre, where winners of the 2019 Forest of Reading program were announced. Among the books awarded honours was When We Were Shadows by Janet Wees, published by Second Story Press. (For more on Wees and the book, visit jewishindependent.ca/saved-by-dutch-resistance.)
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By Chance Alone: A Remarkable True Story of Courage and Survival at Auschwitz by Max Eisen (HarperCollins) won Canada Reads 2019. The book was championed by TV host and science broadcaster and author Ziya Tong, and was chosen by the five panelists as the book for Canadians to read in 2019. This year’s title fight asked the question: What is the one book to move you?
After four days of debate in front of live audiences, Tong and By Chance Alone survived the final vote to be crowned this year’s winner. The runner-up was Homes by Abu Bakr al Rabeeah and Winnie Yeung (Freehand Books), which was defended by Simple Plan drummer Chuck Comeau. Audiences can catch up on all of the debates on demand on CBC Gem or by downloading the Canada Reads podcast from CBC or iTunes.
“Before 2016, I don’t remember seeing swastikas, but these days I see them often – in the news and on social media. But here’s something even more shocking: one in five Canadian young people have not even heard of the Holocaust. They don’t know what it is, ” said Tong.
This year’s debates took place March 25-28 and were hosted by actor, stand-up comedian and host of CBC Radio’s Laugh Out Loud, Ali Hassan.
Soft-spoken, reserved, thoughtful. Hardly the epitome of a dragon. Yet, Joe Mimran’s definitely a dragon – one of the newest on the panel of investors on Dragons’ Den, CBC’s hit entrepreneur reality show.
The Canadian fashion designer, clothier and entrepreneur is best known for launching the Club Monaco and Joe Fresh brands. He is also a partner in Gibraltar Ventures, investing in early-stage digital businesses.
The 63-year-old, Moroccan-born immigrant has spent nearly his entire life immersed in business, in ventures on his own or with family members, particularly in the clothing industry.
At an early age, he assisted his mother, Esther – who was a couturier in Morocco – in her Toronto-based boutique garment outlet. That business grew, necessitating the purchase of a small factory in Toronto’s garment district in the mid-1970s. Mimran joined to lead operations, manufacturing and finance.
“I was inspired by the design and esthetic world,” he said. “I like designing products, building stores.” He was “inspired by great prints, inspired to want to be entrepreneur.”
That inspiration evolved into Ms. Originals, tailoring suits and pants for women and, soon thereafter, Mimran and brother Saul hired designer Alfred Sung, with a goal to create their own clothing line. The Alfred Sung collection swiftly soared in popularity across the continent.
By the mid-1980s, he launched yet another line, based on the idea that a plain, white, quality cotton shirt was unavailable in the market – and Club Monaco brand was born.
“If you’re not a risk taker and abhor taking risks, entrepreneurship is not for you,” said Mimran.
“There were many people along the way of my career who said, ‘You’re crazy, don’t do this or don’t do that. What do you waste your time for doing that?’ I have stuck to my guns. Sometimes you need to say to naysayers that you have to pursue your dream.”
Unfortunately, the plan didn’t go smoothly at first. The Bay and Eaton’s didn’t want to carry the product.
“We realized that we had all these goods coming in and the only way we could move forward was to open our own stores,” he said.
They rolled the dice on a 5,000-square-foot store in trendy Queen Street West in Toronto, showcasing an array of attire. The day it opened in September 1985 saw their marketing campaign pay off in a major way, with line-ups to get into the store.
“From adversity comes something terrific,” said Mimran. “We realized, as we opened our own stores, we’ll cut out the wholesale margin.”
At the time, such a move was rare. Typically, retail stores bought through a wholesaler, he explained. “But, sometimes, you just have to dive in, make the mistakes, fix it, move forward, make more mistakes, and try different things.”
Mimran dived in, not only opening a flagship Club Monaco store in New York City on Fifth Avenue in 1995, but opening another 120 stores in the next four years. That success caught the eye of Polo Ralph Lauren Corp., who purchased both Club Monaco and Caban (another Mimran line) in 1999.
“A lot of businesspeople, having had lots of problems in the past, will try to dissuade somebody else,” said Mimran. “But your idea might be done in a new way, might resonate in a way that this very experienced person didn’t, couldn’t, anticipate. There’s always an idea that surprises people, and that leads to success.”
Mimran has continued that success, time and again.
Pink Tartan – a women’s line – was yet another Mimran venture, appearing in high-end retail outlets such as Holt Renfrew and Saks Fifth Avenue, as well as in its flagship store in Toronto’s Yorkville.
Mimran’s Joe Fresh Style, a private-label apparel line for Loblaw Companies Ltd., was launched in 2006. The label has since opened free-standing stores – the first Joe Fresh opened on Granville Street in Vancouver in 2010 and, soon thereafter, in New York City. Many others followed.
Mimran said the apparel industry is among the most competitive industries in the world. Because of this fact and his own experiences, he empathizes with the entrepreneurs who come to the Den having had tough breaks.
“No matter how good you are, or what you know, you can still fail in our business,” he said. “It keeps you pretty grounded.”
Today, Mimran sees a future of entrepreneurs that have opportunities that were nonexistent a generation ago.
“There’s more willingness to try by the new generation – millennials – who are asset light, where boundaries and borders are not an issue. They live in a virtual world and have the ability to take on more risk. They look at the world in a dynamic way that leads to entrepreneurship,” he explained. “Particularly in today’s world, where things are so different in terms of how one communicates with the consumer, all the new online fundraising channels that are available, what’s old is new, what’s new is old. It’s the Wild West out there.”
Dave Gordonis a Toronto-based freelance writer whose work can be found in more than 100 publications globally. His is managing editor of landmarkreport.com.
Rolling Stone magazine recently completely retracted a story purporting to delve into an incident of gang-rape on the campus of the University of Virginia. The story was so devoid of basic journalistic processes and fact-checking that it is destined to go down as an object lesson in journalism schools for years to come.
Other incidents, less egregious but still dubious, popped up in the last few days.
Social media was ablaze last week over news that the federal government was preparing to criminalize critics of Israel, specifically by applying Canada’s hate laws against supporters of BDS, the movement to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel.
Advocates of free speech were up in arms – and rightly so. BDS is a movement that seeks the destruction of the state of Israel, in the guise of a one-state solution, and is discriminatory in its targeting of products, people and ideas based on their national origin. It is the contemporary equivalent of book-burning. It is deserving of scorn and contempt. But it is not deserving of legal prohibition in a country that respects free expression.
As it turns out, the very idea that Canada was about to criminalize the BDS movement and its supporters was fabricated almost from full cloth by CBC reporter Neil Macdonald. Macdonald, who has been the subject of years of complaints for anti-Israel bias for his reporting from the Middle East and Washington, had a brief (and somewhat snarky) email exchange with a spokesperson for Canada’s department of public safety.
The exchange began because Public Safety Minister Stephen Blaney, in a speech to the United Nations, promised to take a “zero tolerance” approach to those who boycott Israel. Macdonald demanded clarification of what “zero tolerance” meant.
In the email exchange, the spokesperson cites hate speech legislation, as well as laws around mischief involving religious buildings, and she noted the security infrastructure program that funds communities, such as the Jewish community, to improve security in communal buildings.
The response from the government was probably inadequate and Macdonald should have gotten a comment directly from the minister explaining what he meant by “zero tolerance,” and not used boilerplate from a civil servant (something he himself acknowledged in his exchange). Instead, he went ahead with an inflammatory story that was more conjecture than news, but which had the effect of rousing the reliably tetchy anti-Israel crowds.
This, too, could be an object lesson for future (and current) journalists. As could a story more visible than either of these: the story that Pope Francis declared Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas an “angel of peace.”
The story of the old terrorist being dubbed an “angel of peace” by the head of Roman Catholicism alarmed those of us who have been impressed with Francis’ approach to world affairs. However, the fault did not lie with the pontiff but with the media.
What Francis said was that Abbas could be an angel of peace – if he made peace with Israel. What the Pope said to Abbas – “May you be an angel of peace” – is a far different thing than what was reported. It was a wish, not a declaration. And it is a wish we could not more heartily share.
Journalism struggles today in the changing landscape of media, tighter budgets, fewer staff doing more tasks – we understand all this. But when some of this country’s and the world’s leading voices of reporting get things so wrong, the institution of journalism suffers even more.
In a world where information (and misinformation) has never been so plentiful, what readers really need are the critical tools to discern fact from fiction and half-truths. In a world of 140-character attention spans, though, do we hope for too much?
Alon Nashman as John Hirsch in Hirsch. (photo by Cylla von Tiedemann)
When theatre and its creative engines become the main focus of a theatrical show, the results can be fascinating. An audience is always hungry for a glimpse behind the scenes.
This is exactly the case with Hirsch, which tells the story of the well-known Hungarian-born Canadian director John Hirsch. Premièred at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in 2012, it played in Edinburg and then Winnipeg, and it’s been a smash hit in each location. It’s coming to Vancouver’s Firehall Arts Centre Feb. 25-March 1. Presented as part of the Chutzpah! Festival, it is co-produced by Touchstone Theatre.
Created by Alon Nashman and Paul Thompson, Hirsch is a solo show, directed by Thompson and performed by Nashman. In an interview with the Independent, Nashman described the show’s origins: “This play was built from research, blossomed into improvisation, and then was recorded, refined and ordered,” he said by phone from his home in Toronto. “It retains in performance something of the anarchic energy of improv.”
As do many theatre people, Nashman admires Hirsch, a legendary figure in Canadian theatre. Born in Hungary in 1930, Hirsch was the sole Holocaust survivor of his entire family. In 1947, he arrived in Winnipeg as a refugee. He didn’t speak any English, but that didn’t keep him from pursuing his passion, theatre. Eleven years later, he co-founded the Manitoba Theatre Centre (MTC) with Tom Hendry. Afterwards, according to Thompson’s research, the MTC audience doubled for seven years in a row – an outstanding achievement in the world of theatre. Later, Hirsch directed phenomenally popular shows in Canada and the United States and from 1974 to 1978 was the head of television drama at CBC. He died of AIDS in 1989.
“Hirsch is a fantastic subject for a play,” said Nashman. “He lived more than nine lives and was constantly reinventing himself.”
Nashman said that the main goal of this project is “to convey the scope of his [Hirsch’s] life and the power of his work. And our solution was to refract his life through his productions. So there’s a back-and-forth between real-life segments and recreations of his rehearsals or performances.”
“I think that, for theatre lovers, it provides a rare glance into the mind of a brilliant director. It is also the story of a man who faced great loss as a child and tried to put the pieces of his life back together through theatre.”
Hirsch has received rave reviews as well as public acclaim, and Nashman attributed its success to the hero of his performance. “I think that, for theatre lovers, it provides a rare glance into the mind of a brilliant director. It is also the story of a man who faced great loss as a child and tried to put the pieces of his life back together through theatre. And there is the immigrant experience of someone who championed Canadian culture and creativity more than the people born to it. For all these reasons, it transcends generations and ethnic boundaries to become an Everyman story.”
As co-creator of the show, an author as well as an actor, Nashman said he doesn’t feel compelled to adhere too strictly to the text of the play. He wrote it, so he is free to improvise, to adapt to the pulse of the audience. As a result, every performance feels different, fresh. “The play-script does not convey the crackle of anything-could-happen, which fills the live auditorium,” he said. “In fact, my opening monologue changes each night in slight but significant ways, depending on the mood and people in the house.”
“Yes, I would love to play more Shakespeare and Chekhov. That’s why I am doing Hirsch. I get to embody his productions of Cherry Orchard and The Tempest and King Lear, imitating some of the greatest actors in Canada.”
The show not only forges a link between the stage and the audience but it also streamlines the history of Canadian theatre performance, from Shakespeare to contemporary works. Despite being a modern play, it allows the actor to experience classics the way Hirsch envisioned them. “Yes, I would love to play more Shakespeare and Chekhov,” Nashman said. “That’s why I am doing Hirsch. I get to embody his productions of Cherry Orchard and The Tempest and King Lear, imitating some of the greatest actors in Canada.”
Of course, introducing multiple characters in one show is challenging, but Nashman doesn’t shy from challenges, on stage or off. “Ideally, every project is a scary challenge, and I actually look forward to the moment in rehearsal when I say to myself, ‘this is impossible.’”
Nashman’s creative road is studded with such moments of daring and triumph. In 1999, he founded Theaturtle, a company whose mission it is “to create essential, ecstatic theatre that touches the earth and agitates the soul,” according to Nashman’s website. He serves as the artistic director and is the only constant member of the company, but Theaturtle has instigated many collaborations. One of these produced another Nashman solo show, Kafka and Son. Initially developed more than a decade ago, it toured successfully across Europe and won the Outstanding Performance Award at the Prague Fringe in 2013. Based on his performance in the show, Nashman was selected Toronto’s number one theatre artist of 2008 by NOW Magazine.
Nashman’s love for theatre began in childhood. “My father was a summer camp director and had a flair for showbiz,” he explained. “But my urge for theatre was self-generated and started when I was very young. It was so natural for me to perform that I had trouble considering it as a profession. Even now, when I’m busy, I say: ‘I have a lot of fun to do today.’”
Olga Livshin is a Vancouver freelance writer. She can be reached at [email protected].