Ada Glustein’s passion for learning and teaching shines through in her self-published memoir Being Different. (photo from Ada Glustein)
Duke’s father would beat him. Tien, a refugee from Cambodia, had witnessed unimaginable violence. Louise was in and out of foster care because her father had drug addictions and her mom was emotionally unstable.
These are just a few of the countless children Ada Glustein encountered in her time as a teacher. Many of her young charges – she taught kindergarten mostly – faced harsh conditions at home and adult-sized problems. She shares her and their experiences with kindness and compassion in her memoir Being Different: From Friday Night Candles to Compassionate Classroom, which she self-published last year. She dedicates the book to her “parents, grandparents and ancestors whose struggles and strengths brought them to Canada, where at last they found their place to call home.” She also writes, “To my children and grandchildren, whose journeys bring the hope for a future of respect, social justice and belonging for all.”
While Glustein was born and raised in Ottawa, her Jewish Orthodox grandparents and parents came from Russia, from an area that became Ukraine. Part 1 of Being Different – Where I Am From: Stories of Home and Community – is about Glustein’s family and her early years. “Though my parents considered themselves to be modern,” she writes, “to me they seemed to live in a world caught between the old and the new.”
From her perspective, her father believed she asked too many questions and her mother fretted too much over her safety. But they came from a different time and place, more traditional and more dangerous. “My family comes from a place where the grass is greener somewhere else. Any place that is not Eastern Europe, not within the Pale of Settlement. Any place to leave behind the pogroms and the poverty, the losses of children who died in childbirth or wasted away from consumption. I do understand the silence,” she writes.
“But I also understand the richness of life’s difficult experiences and their inevitability. To allow those experiences to touch me, even to hurt me, helps me to live a full human life, to live with the reality of how things are.”
Part 1 of Being Different is about Glustein’s efforts to understand her place and who she is within her family. Part 2 – Where Do I Belong? Lessons at School – takes that exploration of identity and differentness into the broader world, where Glustein has to confront Christmas plays, lecherous older men, peer dynamics and a mix of teachers with different approaches, among other life lessons. In Part 3 – Becoming a Teacher: Finding My Way Home – we see how Glustein translates what she has learned into being an educator. And, honestly, if only every teacher could be like Glustein – not because she is perfect, but because she cares, and is continually learning.
Glustein graduated from Ottawa Teachers’ College, completed her bachelor of education at the University of British Columbia and her master of arts at Simon Fraser University. She taught for many years – in Ottawa, Toronto and Vancouver – and also became a faculty associate and sessional instructor at SFU, where she taught teachers. After she retired, she became a member of two writing groups and has had several of her works published. Being Different won a silver medal for Canada-West Region, non-fiction, in this year’s Independent Publisher Book (“IPPY”) Awards, and deservedly so.
Being Different is charming and heartbreakingly honest, written in short, crisp chapters, giving it a sense of immediacy. It is a call for all of us to be more patient with one another, to keep an open mind and to understand the impact our actions have on other people, especially children. In her openness about her own imperfections and missteps, Glustein is also asking us to be kind to ourselves. A more accepting and inclusive world begins with us, after all.
Being Different will be engaging to any reader – it will foster many a childhood memory – but should be a must-read for anyone interested in becoming an educator. It is available on Amazon.
Yesterday, I shared my to-do list with a friend via email. She responded with “Ahh! I’m tired just reading this!” What I didn’t mention is that I had to do all this plus other chores, thrown in, which I had either forgotten to write down or were such household habits that I didn’t list them. For many caregivers who work and manage households, this sounds familiar. It’s the list that is the first step. Write it down. Name the obligation. Then release yourself from trying to remember it all. Finally, cross it off the list later.
This isn’t a new phenomenon. Studies have shown how much of this organizational and emotional labour falls to women. For example, a recent National Public Radio piece from the United States covered research by economists, which showed that women (mothers) were almost always contacted by schools first, no matter which parent was designated as the “first contact” on the emergency form. The social media chatter that followed remarked on how female medical residents or surgeons, working hours away from their children’s schools, were still called first even though the primary caretaker was the father. In the study itself, one economist described the mental load of planning ahead for “if the school called” and how women’s workload could be managed in such situations. She noted that, even though her husband was the vice-president of the Parent Teacher Association, the school always called her first.
In economic terms, women then self-select for lower paying, more flexible work simply to manage these challenges, resulting in lower income and fewer opportunities for career growth. Societal obligations placed mostly on women create a lifelong effect on earning power and household income.
This morning, as I bake bread, make chicken broth in two slow cookers, write this article and air out the house with fans because of an unexpected drop in temperatures due to a rainstorm, I time everything to fit into the hours between when I drop kids off at 9 a.m. and pick them up at noon for their half day of camp. This is, of course, not a specifically Jewish problem, but aspects of it are in our house.
We have twin 12-year-olds, with both kids doing b’nai mitzvah lessons at the same time. These kids come with different challenges. Like all learners, they may need different supports to master chanting trope. Amid the meltdown tears last night, it became clear that what was necessary was for each kid to have 15 minutes to practise separately every day with me. As the crying continued – and I include myself in the crying – my partner tried to help.
This is when you might wonder why all this falls to me, and you’d be right to ask. My partner told us that the year before his bar mitzvah involved a lot of crying. He was so overwhelmed that he quit playing drums at school, because he couldn’t manage both things. His mother had been given no Jewish education. She couldn’t read Hebrew and didn’t know the prayers. His father worked late every day, coming home at 11 p.m. My twins’ dad was truly on his own, with a cassette tape. He never learned the trope and struggled with short-term memory issues. Mastering his bar mitzvah portion took him a long time. As an adult, he never gained some of these prayer skills. A demanding job means now is not the time for him to catch up. The obligation’s all mine.
We’ve now been married for 25 years and I just learned last night about this tough path my husband took towards bar mitzvah. By comparison, I had supportive parents with some Jewish literacy, plus we attended services regularly. I was self-directed as a learner. Mastering everything for my bat mitzvah was interesting and challenging but not a struggle. I continued learning through university and graduate school and beyond, as I continue to study Talmud when I can. We chose a bilingual Hebrew/English elementary school for our kids partially because it would make bar mitzvah study easier for them.
Few people see what my lists of work and household obligations look like. I tell even fewer people about fitting in 20 minutes of Daf Yomi, a page of Talmud every day. When I mention the Talmud study, I’ve been asked why I bother. The minutiae of discussions of Jewish law that rabbis conducted so long ago is of no interest to most. Sometimes, if the person wants to know why, I explain that I learn things about Jewish tradition, history and daily life from these debates.
I also admit to myself that I find some reassurance in these pages. Although the specifics might have been different, life’s minutiae is pretty much the same. The rabbis struggled over multiple daily tasks, relationships and household concerns in many of the ways I do. They sweated the details, even if they didn’t do them all personally.
If everything works out, in June 2024, my kids will step up to the bimah (pulpit) and become bar mitzvah boys, which is a huge lifecycle event. Between now and then, practising with them will be another part of my to-do list. Good study habits mean you do a little every day until, suddenly, you learn something new. Just like my lists, nothing is insurmountable if you name it, take it step by step, and cross it off the list when the task is complete.
Like many women, I get bogged down by the minutiae. I wish I could share more of the household labour and emotional load. Even men who try to assume more of these tasks have to struggle against the societal expectations our culture wields. Step by step, we make change in our lives, our lists and our expectations for one another. It’s not a sprint. You can’t cram the night before to pass this exam. Life is a series of chores, moments, obligations and, well, joys.
Early this morning, I leashed up the dog while I sang the first Haftorah blessing aloud. I try to put the melody into the twins’ heads while donning my shoes and raincoat as I head out. Each step makes a difference to hopefully hit one very big milestone ahead.
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.
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.
Mourad Bouayad, left, and Hillel Kogan in We Love Arabs, which is at the Dance Centre April 13-15. (photo by Eli Katz)
“I don’t have answers so I can only ask questions,” Israeli choreographer Hillel Kogan told the Jewish Independent. “If this is changing people’s political views, I doubt it, but at least what I’m trying to do is to put the questions on the table and make people, audiences, and myself see that art is not a separate sphere, that art is part of politics and social and cultural systems … and this is what I’m trying to expose in my pieces.”
The JI interviewed Kogan in advance of the Vancouver run of We Love Arabs, which is being presented at the Scotiabank Dance Centre by the Dance Centre and Théâtre la Seizième April 13-15. There will be both English- and French-language performances of this work, which also has Hebrew and Spanish versions. Kogan will dance the duet here with Mourad Bouayad.
We Love Arabs premièred at the 2013 Intimadance Festival in Tel Aviv. The brief outline for the piece, which Kogan has on his website, begins: “I address the audience, my name is Hillel Kogan. Some say that I do political art. I want to show you today how dance has the power to promote coexistence between Arabs and Jews in Israel. I invited an Arab dancer here….” The video teaser offers a glimpse of Kogan’s physicality, humour, tenderness, intelligence.
Born in Tel Aviv, Kogan has performed with and created for companies and choreographers around the world. At Batsheva Dance Company, he is director of educational programs. He is pursuing a master’s degree in cultural studies.
We Love Arabs garnered awards, and it has traveled to more than a dozen countries. The Vancouver show was postponed twice, said Mirna Zagar, executive director of the Dance Centre. First due to a scheduling conflict and then due to COVID. “However, I believe the work is just as relevant now as it was when we started,” she said. “It is an exceptional work that continues to engage audiences internationally.”
The Dance Centre often partners with other arts organizations, as a means of pooling resources and amplifying opportunities to show international artists. “This collaboration is along these lines,” she said. “I have known Esther Duquette, the now-outgoing artistic director at Théâtre la Seizième, for some years and the nature of this piece – multilingual and straddling theatre as well as dance – made it a perfect opportunity for our organizations to work together.”
The April 14 performance and talkback will be in French; the other two shows and the April 15 talkback in English. Kogan speaks six languages: Hebrew and Russian because his parents were born in the Soviet Union and he was born in Israel; he studied English in school; he learned French from working two years in Switzerland, and Portuguese and Spanish from working in Portugal for seven years. He doesn’t speak Arabic.
“This is interesting,” he said, “because this piece, We Love Arabs, is an autocritical peace that asks exactly this. Why am I facing the languages and cultures of the West and not the languages of my neighbours and of my co-citizens in Israel? Why don’t I read the books of Arabic writers? Why doesn’t Arab culture interest me, and why do I identify myself as ‘Western,’ which is a bit strange?”
It is both a geographic question, he said, living as he does in Israel, and a social, historical, cultural and political question. “And the piece deals with this question: who decides what the general culture is, and why I am – and why the Israeli art field, at least as I see it, is – so orientalist, which means looking at the Orient, at the Arab as inferior and wanting to impose on it the Western culture.”
The different versions of We Love Arabs resulted from Kogan’s wanting to perform the piece abroad, in the language the audience speaks. “I think it brings more this idea of relevance to the space,” he explained. “If I did the piece in Hebrew with subtitles, it would be more like a piece from Israel … and be framed as something local and in my perspective. The universality of the piece is one of the ideas – I want people to identify with it and, by choosing their own language, I feel there is more chance to make them sense that they are part of it as well.”
Kogan had no idea of how much impact We Love Arabs would have. “It was created for a small niche festival in Israel,” he said, and “for a specific audience who is already convinced in the political opinions that I hold. So, I didn’t imagine it ‘big.’… As I performed the piece out of Israel, I understood that the question of Jews and Arabs in Israel is just a microcosm of a more universal question: of the situation of power between minority and majority, and the way we see ‘the other’ – who is the master of the culture in any nation?”
In looking at the question, Kogan asks: “Who is invited to participate in creating a national identity, what is Israeli or what is Arab Israeli? It is not very different than the question of, I don’t know, for example, in Canada: who is invited, what is Canadian? Is it French? Is it American? Is it English? I don’t know the minority situation in Canada, but I know there is a history with Native Canadians. So, are they also invited to take part in culture? How much are they participating in mainstream dance, literature, music? How do we define what is high art and what is popular art? What is folk and folklore? And what is universal art?”
Initially dancing the duet with Kogan was Adi Boutrous, an Israeli Arab dancer who is also a choreographer and so not always available. Bouayad, who is French, danced in Israel in the Batsheva junior company. “This is how we met, so I invited him to perform with me,” said Kogan. “And, of course, it’s very different for an Israeli Arab to play the role of an Israeli Arab than for a French half-Arab person, because to be an Arab in France is different than to be an Arab in Israel.”
Not wanting to speak for Bouayad, Kogan noted that, while Bouayad may define “himself first as French, and his relationship with his Arab origins are just an extra part of his being,” for Israeli Arabs, he said, “I’m not sure that they are first Israeli and then Arab because of their own perception of themselves – but also the way the majority looks at them, the state looks at them, society looks at them, Jewish society looks at them.
“We often make the mistake even in the language, and we forget to say that Arabs are Israeli as well. We say Israelis and Arabs – even when we refer to Arabs who are citizens of Israel and who hold an Israeli passport, we call them Arabs, and we call ourselves, the Jews, Israelis…. We are both Israeli and the difference between us in definition is our religion. In a country like France, where it’s a republic and religion has at least formally not such an important role in the definition of citizenship and of nationality, then, of course, the change of cast is also changing the relationship.”
Kogan has no illusions that art can change the world. Elected politicians “are the ones who should change the world,” he said. For him, art is there to reflect, to inspire. “Art, for me, is a place for the imagination, for the possibility of not necessarily escaping reality, but giving an alternative to reality…. If art can feed the imagination and then, as an outcome of this feeding of imagination, can change the reality, OK, that’s great. But I think that … when artists try to change the world by their art – in history, at least as far as I see, it ends in political propaganda and just serves the hands of politicians.”
As many funny moments as there are in We Love Arabs, they have a profound purpose.
“I have anger towards some of the cultural systems, and the questions that I’m asking are involved with hard emotions. I feel that humour allows me to take some distance from the aggression and from being so emotionally involved,” said Kogan. “It allows me to laugh about myself as well. It allows me to invite people to laugh about a question without making it not serious. The laughing, I feel, is a tool to invite people to enter a conversation, to agree to criticize, to agree to ask questions … to see the bias, to be aware of the stereotypes, to be aware of the prejudgments that we have…. The laughter is just a means in order to speak about something very serious.”
“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.”
There are as many ways of celebrating Passover and the Pesach seder as there are Jews, and then some. Over the years, I have collected articles on different customs from around the world. Here are just some of the traditions surrounding food and the seder that I found unique.
Haroset may contain walnuts, hazelnuts, almonds, pomegranates, apples, sweet wine and black pepper. The seder meal begins with arak-like liqueur, hard-boiled eggs, fruit, cucumbers, fried fish, cold omelette, lettuce and potato pancakes. The main course is meat soup with vegetables then fruit and nuts. The seder in Afghanistan was conducted with people sitting on carpets.
Sedarim were communal in small towns, conducted according to Orthodox customs. Chickens and meat were killed according to kashrut, and live carp swam in the bathtub until it was time to make the gefilte fish.
Passover candy called pasla was made of minced prunes, boiled in honey with nuts dropped in. When it began to harden, it was rolled up, so there would be nuts on the inside and outside, and sliced.
The oldest member held the seder for the entire family, with all the food home-made except for the matzah, which was imported.
Haroset is made with raisins and dates or figs mixed with wine and chopped walnuts. Raisins were also used to make wine. For the meal, there would be fish with lemon sauce, meat casserole and matzah, as well as meat-and-leek patties.
Jews of Egyptian-descent wrap the matzot in a sack-like package, which is passed to each member of the seder. While each member holds the sack in turn, the other attendees ask him in Arabic: “Where are you coming from?” to which he replies, “From Egypt.” “What are you carrying?” they ask. “Matzot.” “Where are you going?” “Jerusalem.”
Everyone made their own matzah consisting of wheat or legume flour, water and salt, baked in very thin slices and eaten almost immediately to eliminate the possibility of leavening. They also interpreted the Hebrew word hametz, to rise or leaven, to mean kept or not fresh, so they would only eat fresh produce, fresh milk and freshly slaughtered meat.
Since the Ethiopian Jewish community – believed to be either descendants of the Israelite tribe of Dan or progeny of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba – practised a pre-talmudic form of Judaism, the Ethiopian seder was a less-structured affair with an informal, festival air, more like a springtime celebration. Events were focused on those in the Torah – the slaughtering of the paschal lamb, the Ten Plagues and Exodus itself. Since arriving in Israel, many families recount their own exodus from Ethiopia as part of the seder.
Men wore kittels for the seder. Sauerkraut was part of the meal along with kloesse, a dish made of soaked matzah, eggs and fried onions, made into a big ball and cooked in boiling water. This was eaten in place of potatoes, topped with brisket gravy.
Popular seder dishes include roast leg of lamb strongly flavoured with garlic; lamb pie with the animal’s heart, liver, lungs, kidney and intestines inside; and lamb stew with artichokes, served with an egg and lemon sauce.
The seder meal consisted of spinach baked with eggs, fried matzah with leeks and eggs, and a pudding made of matzah, meat and eggs. The seder plate was passed around the table, and each guest held it for a minute above their heads.
The youngest member of the family conducts the seder. When the plagues are mentioned, a pinch of salt is added to the wine. During the song “Dayenu,” long-stemmed onions are put together in a bunch and one person “whips” the person next to them and then passes on the bunch of onions, to be similarly used by all the guests, until the onions make their way around the table. Often family members act out the Exodus, sometimes in costumes.
Squares of matzah, soaked in capon broth, browned in goose fat and baked in alternating layers with cooked greens or poultry giblets was a seder favourite. Other unusual Italian dishes are rib chops from lambs, ground chicken or ground beef meatballs.
In Venice, the squares were cooked in a pan with legumes such as peas, fava beans or lentils. Venice was famous for unleavened cakes in the shape of snakes, unleavened cakes stuffed with marzipan and doughnuts rolled in sugar and cinnamon.
Passover pasta in broth, boiled meat with goose salami, salad and a marzipan or matzah meal dessert and quince preserves were part of the Urbino seder.
Boiled chestnuts were used in haroset in northern Italy. Tuscan Jews made matzah and egg cakes. Ferrara Jews made matzah fritters with egg, honey, cinnamon, candied citron, pine nuts and raisins. Jews in Rome made lemon sorbet, almond cookies and wet matzah, squeezed dry and fried in olive oil then served with pine nuts, raisins and heated honey.
The table is adorned with long-stemmed green onions. During the chorus of “Dayenu,” everyone picks up their onion and “whips” the wrist of someone adjacent to them. This is meant to represent the sounds of whips of the slave masters in Egypt.
No dairy products are used during Passover, tea is drunk instead of coffee and the seder meal is hot and spicy.
Matzah is handmade, placed in ovens and allowed to cook for only five minutes. Tagine with lamb and almonds, prunes, saffron, cinnamon, ginger and honey is a Passover mainstay, as are truffles.
The seder plate was held over each person’s head while the others at the table recited in Arabic, “Just as G-d took us out of Egypt and split the sea for us, so may he save us today.”
Based in kabbalah, Jewish mysticism, they divided the soft doughy matzah they eat into the shapes of the Hebrew letters daled and vav; daled stands for doorposts of Israel that G-d watched over and vav is a symbol for G-d’s name.
Prior to a seder meal, a dish of sauerkraut or chard mashed with potatoes and accompanied by cold corned beef was served. For the seder, matzah balls in soup and roast meat or chicken was served. Haroset was nuts, raisins, apples, sweet wine, cinnamon and sugar. A second seder meal was dairy with matzah, butter, cheese, sometimes fish cakes, coffee and cake of ground nuts or mashed potatoes. Matzah pancakes with apple sauce or pareve lemon cream was also served. Tongue with meatballs was part of some people’s Passover meals.
Romaine lettuce was used instead of horseradish. Fish with a Greek-style lemon sauce or cooked with tomato sauce, or with rhubarb and tomatoes, is served at the seder meal.
Seder foods include lamb shanks and rice; haroset made from dried fruits, sweet wine, cinnamon and crushed walnuts; spinach-mint soup; and flourless pistachio cookies.
Lamb stew with leeks, spinach, peas, fennel, carrots, artichokes, turnips, cabbage, celery, potatoes and zucchini are flavoured with cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, salt, pepper, cilantro, dill and mint for Passover.
The entire table is made into one big seder plate, with a border of parsley leaves all along the edges. The matzah resembles pita because they believe that, as long as the dough is continuously kneaded, it will not turn into hametz.
Sybil Kaplanis a Jerusalem-based journalist and author. She has edited/compiled nine kosher cookbooks and is a food writer for North American Jewish publications. She leads walks of the Jewish food market, Machaneh Yehudah, in English.
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).
A still from Amanda Kinsey’s documentary Jews of the Wild West, a series of vignettes that shines a light on a noteworthy and usually overlooked history.
The Wild West, Jews in Germany and a surprisingly vivacious Israeli seniors home feature among the diverse films at the Vancouver Jewish Film Festival this year.
Somehow, we tend not to associate Jews with the legends that have built up around the development of the American West, a serious oversight that is in the crosshairs of filmmaker Amanda Kinsey’s documentary Jews of the Wild West.
The mythology of the Wild West is perhaps as much an invention of Hollywood as of history, so it is notable that the 1903 film The Great Train Robbery, which introduced the genre of the cinematic Western, featured Gilbert “Broncho Billy” Anderson – né Max Aronson.
The myth of the West was no less inspiring to Jews than to other Americans and dreamers from around the world. Perhaps one of the most famous names in the lore was Wyatt Earp. The film introduces us to Josephine Marcus, who fled her family in San Francisco to become an actress and ended up being Earp’s wife. Earp himself is buried along with the Marcus family in a Jewish cemetery.
The gold rush drew Jewish peddlers and merchants to the West Coast in the late 19th century including, most famously, Levi Strauss, who left the Lower East Side and, via Panama, arrived in San Francisco. His brothers sent dry goods from New York and Levi sold them up and down the coast. When Jacob Davis, a tailor, was asked by a woman to construct pants that her husband wouldn’t burst out of, he imagined adding rivets. He took the idea to Strauss and the rest is American clothing history. As one historian notes, it was a Jew who invented “the most American of garments.”
The rapid industrialization in the mining sector is where the Guggenheim family got its start and so, while the name is now most associated with Fifth Avenue, the finest address in New York City, their start was in the gritty West of the 19th century.
We meet Ray Frank, the first woman said to have preached from a bimah. Called the “golden girl rabbi,” she was not ordained, but was apparently a phenomenon that drew crowds to her sermons.
Many people will know that Golda (Mabovitch/Meyerson) Meir spent formative years as an immigrant from Russia in Milwaukee and then Denver. This footnote to her history is often considered curious and interesting, but in this film it integrates the Jewish experience of the 20th century and its roots in the American West with the development of the Jewish state – the opening up of another frontier, one might say.
The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, seeing the poverty in the Lower East Side, actively encouraged migration to the West. The film introduces families who have worked the land for generations, some of whom have maintained their Jewish identity and at least one of whom was raised Methodist. But, it suggests, the thriving Jewish community of Denver owes much to the failed farmers of the West who made their way to the nearest metropolis to salvage their livelihoods.
The documentary is really a series of vignettes and at times the shift from one story to another is confusing but, as a whole, Jews of the Wild West successfully shines a light on a noteworthy and usually overlooked history.
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The festival features two German films that complement each other in interesting ways.
In Masel Tov Cocktail, a short (about 30 minutes) film, high schooler Dima (Alexander Wertmann) welcomes viewers into his life just as he is suspended for a week as a result of punching a classmate in the face during an altercation in the washroom. The “victim,” Tobi (Mateo Wansing Lorrio), had taunted the Jewish Dima, graphically play-acting a victim in a gas chamber, a performance enhanced by the austere, sterile setting of the restroom’s porcelain-tiled walls. So begins an interplay of victim and perpetrator that is just one of several provocative themes weaving through this powerful short.
Dima’s family, it turns out, heralds from the former Soviet Union, like 90% of Jews in today’s Germany. After the fall of the Soviet Union and the reunification of Germany, the German government actively encouraged migration of Jews to revitalize Jewish life in the country. This fact, like other statistics and tidbits, is flashed across the screen.
Juxtapositions pack a punch, including Dima’s switching between a baseball cap and a kippa, perhaps reflecting his complex identities, as well as the schism in the identities of post-Holocaust Jews more broadly in a society that struggles to assimilate the idea of contemporary, living Jews in the context of the blood-soaked soil of their state. A shift from colour to black-and-white also evokes the stark break between the present and the past.
But the present and the past are themselves in conflict as Dima recounts how other Germans react when they learn he is Jewish. Why does he only meet Germans whose grandparents weren’t Nazis, he wonders. Statistic: a survey indicates that 29% of Germans think their ancestors helped Jews during the Holocaust, while the screen text helpfully informs us the number was more like 0.1%.
Dima’s teacher, who can’t utter the word Jew and struggles to get the word Shoah out of her mouth, wants Dima to share his family’s Holocaust story with the class. The film’s implication is that Dima’s family was largely spared the trauma of the Holocaust, but he decides to play along because, “There’s no business like Shoah business.”
Dima’s grandfather is taken in by the AfD, the neo-fascist Alternative for Germany party, convinced that their pro-Israel and anti-Muslim rhetoric means that they are defenders of the Jewish people. In a moment that confounds the AfD campaigner (and causes the viewer to reflect), Dima drags his grandfather away from the campaigner while yelling: “Don’t let foreigners take away your antisemitism.”
The film is kooky, funny and light, while also serious, dark and thoughtful throughout.
That description applies to the similarly named feature film Love and Mazel Tov, which features Anne, a non-Jewish bookstore owner who has Munich’s largest selection of Jewish titles and who herself is more than a little obsessed with all things Jewish – including potential romantic partners.
“Some are into fat. Some are into thin. Anne is into Jews,” a friend explains. This turns out to be more than a romantic or erotic attraction, perhaps a disordered response to national and family histories.
Thinking she has found not only a Jewish boyfriend but a doctor at that, Anna (Verena Altenberger) courts Daniel (Maxim Mehmet), who in typical cinematic fashion lets her believe what she wants to believe until the inevitable mix-up explodes in a farcical emotional explosion – though not before an excruciating family dinner.
Parts of the film exist on a spectrum between cringey and hilarious. The film features (at least) two fake Jews who don this identity for extremely different reasons, inviting reflections on passing, appropriation and the fine line between veneration and fetishization.
Both of these films use humour to excavate deeply troubling concepts of identity and addressing horrors of the past. They approach these challenging themes in truly innovative and entertaining ways.
* * *
Understated comedy is key to the success of Greener Pastures, an Israeli film in which Dov, a retired postal worker, has lost his home after a “pension fiasco” involving the privatization of the postal service.
He is a curmudgeonly old square when it comes to marijuana, which the government has decided should be available to anyone 75 and over, but he sees a moneymaking opportunity. Dov (Shlomo Bar-Aba) enlists a network of seniors to order medicinal cannabis and mail it to him so he can distribute it to his “connection,” who shops it around to younger consumers. This “kosher kush,” guaranteed “Grade A government-approved stuff” sold in tahini bottles, brings Dov into conflict with a two-bit drug kingpin in a wheelchair and, of course, a snooping police officer.
There is romance and suspense in this madcap caper, but there is also the theme of elder empowerment, along with the laughs.
The Vancouver Jewish Film Festival runs online only March 3-13. For the full festival lineup and tickets, visit vjff.org.
During Chanukah, we celebrate the victory of light over darkness, of the triumph of our values over the hegemonizing ideals and practices of the oppressor.
A crucial part of Jewish tradition is applying the wisdom of the past to the challenges of today. And the world is full of challenges today. One of those closest to home for some of us is the culture and climate at universities. Over the past two decades, we have witnessed growing anti-Israel activity and antisemitism on campus.
Concurrently, a new orthodoxy has emerged, which is viewed by many as an overdue reckoning and by some as ideological overreach. This shift is typified by an intolerance or rejection of ideas that are deemed intolerant or worse. Racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia and ideological extremism have been targeted by growing numbers of students and faculty, which, on its face, is progress. Even so, issues with this evolution include who is doing the judging, as well as where intolerance of intolerance intrudes on academic growth and ideological diversity, which is the lifeblood of the institutions.
A confounding aspect of campus culture today is that, in an ideal world, anti-Jewish sentiments would be included in the panoply of censured ideas. Instead, too often, the people who are denouncing racism are carving out exceptions in this one instance, as many voices have observed. (David Baddiel’s book Jews Don’t Count was reviewed in these pages recently.)
In a curious development, it has recently been announced that a group of academics, activists and entrepreneurs are set to open a whole new university. The University of Austin, to be soft-launched in Texas next year, intends to be a petri dish for unfettered “academic freedom.”
The historian Niall Ferguson, who is one of the proponents of the new school, has written of the problem they intend to address, using some of the reductive shorthand now deployed in this larger “culture war”: “Trigger warnings. Safe spaces. Preferred pronouns. Checked privileges. Microaggressions. Antiracism. All these terms are routinely deployed on campuses throughout the English-speaking world as part of a sustained campaign to impose ideological conformity in the name of diversity. As a result, it often feels as if there is less free speech and free thought in the American university today than in almost any other institution in the U.S.”
The University of Austin appears to be a product of frustration. The state of campus discourse today is problematic in many ways. But there is a larger principle at stake. If there is a problem in the academy at large, is the solution to pack up one’s books and ghettoize into a whole new school? Around the globe, liberal values are under threat by totalitarianism on both extremes of the political spectrum from left to right. The campus environment reflects and is a contributor to the trends in society, how we relate to one another and ourselves, as well as organize our politics and affiliations. We do not have the ability (yet) to decamp to another planet because of rampant illiberalism on this one. Similarly, while we do have the capacity to segregate ourselves into alternative institutions, is that in any way going to improve the broader issue?
Ironically, the purpose of the University of Austin appears to be to create a space for uncomfortable ideas. But isn’t that precisely what they are running away from? As in so many things in life, we have a choice: flee or stay and fight.
Academia is one of the places where we address, however awkwardly and inconclusively, concerns like power, class, race, gender, legacies of colonialism and many, many more. If the voices of intellectual homogeneity on campus are determined to shelter students from disturbing topics, or to instil in them a uniform, facile response, is it the proper reaction to give them what they want?
It is understandable and tempting to abandon the institutions that betray our values or challenge our identities. It is also understandable and tempting to want to have a whole institution that reflects back our values and reinforces our identities. Neither scenario sits well within Judaism’s long tradition of debate and critical thinking. And neither scenario makes for a healthy society.
Our only reasonable response in life – and especially at supposed institutions of higher learning – is to continue engaging in the battle of ideas, however daunting and hopeless the fight might appear.
Chanukah is but one of the Jewish holidays that teach us miracles can happen – but that they don’t happen on their own. We have an active role to play in this world, and should always be looking for ways to bring light into it.