Congregation Emanu-El Synagogue (photo from Bema Productions)
Bema Productions, directed by Zelda Dean, is bringing the play Peace Talks to the Victoria Fringe Festival, Aug. 25-Sept. 4. Performances will take place at Congregation Emanu-El Synagogue’s Black Box Theatre, 1461 Blanshard St., pictured above.
Written and performed by Izzy Salant and Ryan Dunn, this run will be a world première of the work that saw a virtual staged reading in early 2021. Since that time, the playwrights continued to develop their play and raise the necessary funds to meet their goal of touring the show to university and college campuses in both Canada and the United States.
Peace Talks addresses the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Noam watches helplessly as his best friend Andrew dies in an explosion right in front of him in a hookah bar in Israel. Noam believes he was responsible. After the catastrophe, Andrew’s bereaved American brother James sets out on a revenge plot against Israel and against Noam, as he also believes Noam is responsible for Andrew’s death. He puts his plan into action, actively sabotaging Israeli advocacy and promoting anti-Zionism to anyone who will listen, ultimately attempting to attain his true goal: to kill Noam.
James and Noam find themselves in a bitter internal and external struggle with Israel, Zionism, death, human rights, and Andrew’s memory. As they clash, they both discover some harsh realities of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and that it is a world that isn’t as clear-cut as they thought.
Nicholas Guerriero, left, Lorene Cammiade and Rudy Smith rehearse a scene from Bema Productions’ staging of Men Overboard, which will be at Emanu-El Synagogue’s Black Box Theatre May 5-15. Guerriero plays Jay Silver, a Buddhist monk and the youngest son of Zaida Ernie, Cammiade portrays Eva Fuzesi, the bar mitzvah tutor from Hungary, and Smith plays Doug Silver, Ernie’s middle son and a psychotherapist. (photo from Bema Productions)
Next month, Victoria’s Bema Productions mounts the first full production of Men Overboard.
Winner of the Long Beach Playhouse New Play Contest and a finalist for the Woodward-Newman New Play Award, Men Overboard was written by Rich Orloff. After well-received readings and workshops in New York, Philadelphia, Long Beach and Dayton, the play comes to Victoria, where the première will be directed by Kevin McKendrick.
The play focuses on a bar mitzvah for a boy, Abraham, who doubts he’s ready to become a man. The event brings together Abraham’s politician father and the father’s two brothers, a therapist and a Buddhist monk. Add their fading but forceful father and Abraham’s bar mitzvah tutor, a woman who loves Abraham and possibly one of his uncles, and it’s easy to see that Abraham is torn between obedience and defiance of his father. Tensions grow, affecting everyone in the family, until anger becomes abuse and it becomes clear that the family’s status quo is no longer an option. Men Overboard asks “What makes a man?” as it explores the responsibility each of us has to protect the souls of those we love.
The Bema production stars Lorene Cammiade, Nicholas Guerriero, Asa O’Connor-Jaeckel, Evan Roberts, Alf Small and Rudy Smith. It is produced by Alan Segal and takes place May 5-15 at Congregation Emanu-El Synagogue’s Black Box Theatre, 1461 Blanshard St. For tickets ($25) and showtimes, visit eventbrite.ca/e/295008758137.
University of Victoria’s Prof. Dan Russek spoke about Jewish writers in Argentina and Mexico, as well as Jorge Luis Borges’ Jewish-related writings. (photo from Dan Russek)
Dan Russek spoke on 20th-century Latin American writers, both Jewish and those who have been influenced by Jewish themes, at a Jan. 10 Zoom event organized by Congregation Emanu-El in Victoria.
Entitled The Golem Dances the Tango, the talk began with discussion of four Jewish authors – Alberto Gerchunoff and Ana Maria Shua of Argentina and Margo Glantz and Myriam Moscona of Mexico – before examining Argentine Jorge Luis Borges’ Jewish-related writings.
Gerchunoff (1883-1950) painted an idealized version of Jewish life in the Argentine countryside in his writings, with religious Jews as peasant farmers in a new land, explained Russek, an associate professor in the University of Victoria’s department of Hispanic and Italian studies.
In his best-known work, The Jewish Gauchos of the Pampas, a series of vignettes, “Gerchunoff was keen to find parallels between peasant life in Argentina and the Bible, and explore the interaction between Jews and the local residents,” Russek said. In one story, El Episodio de Myriam, a Jewish girl from a pious family elopes with a non-Jewish boy, causing uproar in the community.
Shua represents a more modern writer, less attached to traditions, said Russek. In her 1994 novel The Book of Memories, an anonymous narrator tells the story of the Rimetka family. “Gossip reigns supreme in this fictionalized account of a family. One feels as though we are witnessing a family dinner, perhaps a seder,” Russek explained. The narrator presents different and sometimes contradictory accounts, he said, creating a “series of foibles and misadventures with no end.”
Mexico’s Glantz incorporates much of her family story into her most-recognized book, The Genealogies, published in 1981. The daughter of immigrants from Ukraine, her father, Jacobo Glantz, was a promoter of Jewish intellectual life in Mexico, and once penned a poem about Christopher Columbus in Yiddish.
The Genealogies “is a form of literature as transcription and personal document,” Russek said. “It is a family story centred on her parents and her own coming of age. In Glantz, we see an adoption of Jewish culture but not of Jewish faith nor a strong sense of belonging.”
Moscona, a poet, journalist and translator, was the most contemporary writer of the four. Born in Mexico City to Ladino-speaking Bulgarian immigrants, her autobiographic novel Tela de sevoya explores her quest to find her cultural and linguistic heritage.
Russek then discussed Borges, a Judeophile who had several Jewish friends, from his time studying in Geneva, as well as literary mentors, such as Baruch Spinoza and Franz Kafka. Borges credited his English Protestant grandmother for providing a passion for Israel through a love of the Bible, and recognized Judaism as a pillar of Western Civilization.
In 1934, early in his literary life, Borges wrote an article called “I, A Jew,” which was a defence against an attack from a fascist magazine accusing him of hiding his Jewishness. In it, Borges says he would not mind at all being Jewish.
Borges lauded Israel in his poetry. In his 1969 collection In Praise of Darkness, he views Israel as a place that transcends Jewish history and the stereotypes associated with Jews. Two of the poems were written after the Six Day War and herald Israeli heroism on the battlefield.
In “Israel, 1969,” Borges writes, “You shall forget your parents’ tongue and learn the tongue of Paradise. / You shall be an Israeli. / You shall be a soldier. / You shall build the homeland with swamps, you shall erect it in deserts.”
Jewish characters and themes appear in “The Secret Miracle” and “The Death and the Compass.” And Borges had an abiding interest in kabbalah, which is documented in his essays and lectures. About his story El Aleph, Borges wrote: “In the kabbalah, that letter [aleph] signifies the En Soph, the pure and unlimited godhead; it has also been said that its shape is that of a man pointing to the sky and the earth, to indicate that the lower world is the map and mirror of the higher.”
Russek concluded with Borges’ poem “The Golem,” from the 1964 book El otro, el mismo. “Despite the logical structure of the poem, the theme deals with magic, myth and religion. The main philosophical/theological subject is the relationship between the creator and its creatures,” Russek said.
Russek is the author of Textual Exposures: Photography in 20th-Century Latin American Narrative Fiction and the upcoming Exercises in Urban Mysticism, a book of illustrated poetic prose. He coordinates Victoria’s annual Latin American and Spanish Film Week at Cinecinta.
Sam Margolishas written for the Globe and Mail, the National Post, UPI and MSNBC.
Rabbi Matt Ponak is the new education director and assistant rabbi at Congregation Emanu-El. (photo from AJNews)
Going as far back as his days with Northwest Canada Region of B’nai Brith Youth Organization, Matt Ponak has had a passion for the spiritual aspects of Judaism, and now he is bringing that passion to Victoria.
Having impressed the congregation as an interim rabbi during Rabbi Harry Brechner’s sabbatical, Congregation Emanu-El announced in mid-May that Ponak would be joining them on a full-time basis as education director and assistant rabbi. Officially, his position began last month, following his graduation – with a master’s degree in Jewish studies – and his June 7 ordination from Hebrew College in Newton, Mass.
Ponak grew up in Calgary, where he attended Jewish day school at Calgary Jewish Academy, and was a member of Beth Tzedec and Temple B’nai Tikvah congregations. Through high school, he was an active member of B’nai Brith Youth Organization and attended Camp BB Riback as a staff member. His ties to Vancouver Island are also strong.
“I grew up in Calgary and spent many summers on the Island growing up,” he said. “My mother is from Port Alberni and I have many relatives in the area.”
Although his spiritual education led him to American schools and life, Ponak said he is looking forward to planting roots back in Canada, and making Victoria his new home. “I’m so excited about this because I get to return to Canada and to live in an incredible city with a community of warm, embracing, open-minded and dedicated people,” he said.
Before rabbinical school, Ponak earned a master’s in contemplative religions at Naropa University, a Buddhist-inspired institution in Boulder, Colo. He earned an undergraduate multidisciplinary degree with a minor in religious studies from the University of Calgary, and also has a certificate in spiritual entrepreneurship through the Glean Network, in association with Columbia University.
During rabbinical school, Ponak interned with the Asiyah Jewish Community in Somerville, Mass.; the Common Street Spiritual Centre in Natick, Mass.; Temple Emanuel in Andover, Mass.; and the One River Foundation with author Rabbi Rami Shapiro. He also served as a curator of the Spiritual Paths Institute, working on an interspiritual website for people of all backgrounds who want to explore their inner lives more deeply. He is one of the founders of Or Chadash, the men’s group at Hebrew College.
Ponak’s capstone project, “Torah for the New Age,” focused on translating and commenting on Jewish mystical texts relevant to contemporary spiritual seekers of all backgrounds. With supervision from Hebrew College rector Rabbi Arthur Green, Ponak translated and commented on 42 mystical texts and used digital design layouts to make them look like Talmud pages. “It was an absolute pleasure working with Rabbi Green,” said Ponak. “He is one of the leading voices for Jewish mystical theology, commentary and translations in our era.”
Ponak is a talented banjo player. He specializes in leading niggunim, wordless melodies from the Jewish mystical tradition. During his first year of rabbinical school, he released a banjo niggun album entitled Bridges of Song. He is also a practitioner of qigong and focusing, using movement and body-centred contemplation to guide people through inner constrictions and into the emerging stages of their journey.
“I am a teacher, musician and lover of life,” said Ponak. “I help spiritual seekers follow the call of their soul. I am passionate about bringing forth ancient Jewish wisdom to meet the needs of today.”
Founded in 1921, Hebrew College is committed to Jewish scholarship in a pluralistic, trans-denominational academic environment, while Congregation Emanu-El is an egalitarian Conservative Jewish synagogue. At 157 years old, Emanu-El is Canada’s oldest synagogue in continuous use, and has been designated a national historic site.
Daniel Moseris editor of AJNews, where a longer version of this article was originally published. For more Alberta Jewish news, visit albertajewishnews.com.
No one was injured and police are ruling out antisemitic motivations after an intruder caused a standoff in Victoria’s Emanu-El synagogue.
Victoria police were called to the historic Blanshard Street synagogue shortly after 8:30 a.m. on Dec. 9 after a report of an unwanted man inside the building.
“Upon arrival of officers, they attempted to speak with the man, which was not successful,” according to a police statement. “Out of an abundance of caution, the Greater Victoria Emergency Response Team was activated along with crisis negotiators.”
The standoff lasted nearly four hours.
“Shortly before 12:30 p.m., the man, who was suffering a mental health crisis, was apprehended and transported to hospital with non-life threatening injuries,” according to police.
Rabbi Harry Brechner, spiritual leader of Congregation Emanu-El, which is Canada’s oldest synagogue in continuous operation, issued a statement later in the day.
“A mentally ill person brushed past a Gan Shalom (daycare) parent and managed to enter the building not due to any fault of the daycare parent,” Brechner wrote. “Another daycare parent quickly called emergency 911 and the police were dispatched. The police were remarkably responsive, communicative and efficient. Our daycare children were never in a dangerous situation and, for most of the incident, they were not aware that anything unusual was happening.
“This mentally ill man held himself up in the balcony of the sanctuary; we were not successful at talking him down and out of the building. The police provided a transit bus for the daycare to transport the children to the other Gan Shalom daycare and the children felt like they were going on a field trip. It took the police a bit of force to subdue and retain the intruder and we are left with some broken windows and a mess to clean up. I am super-thankful to Victoria’s finest for their professionalism in containing this situation and ensuring that everyone was safe,” said Brechner. “This incident had nothing to do with antisemitism and could have occurred in any downtown building. The incident is a difficult and powerful reminder of the intensity and difficulties associated with our current mental health crisis.”
The rabbi concluded: “I want to also state that the Gan Shalom staff and Gan Shalom parents who stayed by to ensure that the children were safe were remarkable and very calm. We are very safe, our protocols were tested and proved efficient.”
Bema Productions presents the Canadian première of the comedy O My God at Congregation Emanu-El Synagogue in Victoria, Jan. 16-26. In O My God by Israeli playwright Anat Gov, God walks into a therapist’s office suffering from depression. The therapist asks, “How long have you felt this way?” God says, “Two thousand, five hundred years. Give or take.” “You’ve been depressed for 2,000 years and only now you’ve come to therapy? What were you waiting for?” asks the therapist. And God says, “I thought time would heal.”
Gov, who died of cancer at 58, was born in 1953, and was a graduate of Thelma Yellin High School of the Arts. She was briefly a student in Tel Aviv University’s theatre department – she dropped out to become a successful playwright and television writer. She also married and was a mother of three and grandmother of two.
The Bema Productions staging of O My God is directed by Zelda Dean and performed by Christine Upright (the therapist), Rosemary Jeffery (God) and Jesse Wilson, who is on the autism spectrum himself, plays the autistic son of the therapist.
With the speed of a street-corner caricaturist yet the precision of someone who seemingly misses nothing, Ben Levinson has for decades been capturing the cityscapes of the many places to which he has traveled with his wife, Carla. No pencil, no erasing. Just a black ink pen and a small sketchbook.
“My architectural career taught me to sketch quickly and furiously, and I am able to see details that most would not see,” Levinson told the Independent in an interview earlier this fall.
During these adventures, Levinson has sketched everything of architectural interest to him: churches, cathedrals, mosques, pyramids and, of course, synagogues, while Carla would station herself at a café.
By the time she was done with her coffee and croissant, Ben would have a complete rendering to show her. During the infrequent occasions she would finish first, incomplete drawings would be filled out when they reached their hotel.
The alacrity, accuracy and artistry of the sketches were at times the envy of those whom they encountered on their travels.
“We met artists whose wives and partners waited all too patiently and were ready to move on, whereas Ben was long done,” Carla said.
After looking through Ben’s sketchbooks one day, Carla suggested he do a show devoted to synagogues. Carla, who ran Victoria’s Gallery 1248, helped curate the selection of sketches that appeared at the Wings of Peace Gallery at Victoria’s Congregation Emanu-El from Sept. 4 through Yom Kippur. Now those sketches have been compiled into a book which is tentatively titled In Search of Identity: The Story of the Wandering Jew.
The book’s 49 sketches transport the viewer throughout the old and the new worlds. Many of the sketches are connected by the common experience of Jews moving on because of antisemitic treatment, despite centuries of coexistence in a community.
The figurative journey, which includes interiors and exteriors and is really the result of several holidays the Levinsons took over the span of two decades, sets off in Toledo, Spain, home to one of the few remaining synagogues left after the Spanish Inquisition scattered Jews throughout Europe and the Americas. Levinson’s exhibit and book spend a lot of time in Sephardi lands: a 14th-century Moorish-style synagogue in Cordoba; a tiny shul in Tomar, Portugal, the only pre-Renaissance temple in the country; larger houses of worship in Morocco, home to the largest Jewish population in the Arab world; and, finally, to the Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam, completed in 1675.
Poignant reminders of the once-thriving Jewish communities of Eastern Europe follow. Levinson leads the viewer through Berlin, Prague and Budapest, along with artistic reconstructions of the Terezin sleeping barracks and an ancient dig in Vienna.
The voyage shifts to France, Italy and Scandinavia, with the majestic Marais synagogue in Paris, the synagogue at the Museum of Jewish Life in Trieste and the Gothenburg Synagogue, the scene of a firebomb attack in 2017.
Levinson also presents active scenes of a crowd forming outside a Venice synagogue on a sunny Shabbat morning, passersby in front of an Antwerp temple and a sea of bicycles by the Great Synagogue of Copenhagen.
The visual trip wraps up with drawings from Mexico City and the Byzantine-style building of Libertad Synagogue in Buenos Aires.
Born in Medicine Hat, Alta., in 1942, Levinson graduated from the University of Manitoba’s architectural program. In 1966, he moved to Victoria and worked for various firms before starting his 30-year private practice as president of Benjamin Bryce Levinson Architects in 1980. In addition to leading his practice, he continued sketching and showing his work at various venues, including the Architectural Institute of British Columbia and the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver.
Levinson was instrumental in restoring Congregation Emanu-El in the early 1980s. When he arrived in town, he felt an initial disappointment upon seeing the synagogue with “its pink stucco, balcony balustrade pickets, missing fence and hidden dome ceiling.” He helped the synagogue’s leadership in obtaining grants and helped steer the building and fundraising committees to get the money necessary to revitalize the region’s most historic Jewish building.
Small Town Architect, the name of his first book, documents his 40-year career in architectural design and recounts his travels and artistic endeavours. His work can be found throughout Victoria and in numerous communities throughout the province; in elementary schools, municipal halls, grocery stores and restaurants, among other buildings.
Sam Margolis has written for the Globe and Mail, the National Post, UPI and MSNBC.
David Biltek and Susan Wilkes are part of the cast of Bema Productions’ presentation of We Are the Levinsons, by Wendy Kout. (photo from Bema Productions)
Bema Productions’ 2019 Mainstage presentation is the Canadian première of We Are the Levinsons, by Wendy Kout, an award-winning writer/producer of theatre, film, television and prose. Zelda Dean directs the Victoria production, which opened May 9 at Congregation Emanu-El’s Black Box Theatre.
The story details the phenomenon of the “sandwich generation” – adults caring for both children and aging parents – through the lens of one family’s momentous year. Rosie, a daughter with mother issues, surprises her parents with a trip home. And life surprises Rosie. Sanity, survival and humour are tested and love is deepened in this three-generation family, and chosen family, comedy.
We Are the Levinsons will be performed May 12, 3 p.m.; May 14-16, 7:30 p.m.; May 19, 3 p.m.; and May 23, 7:30 p.m., at Congregation Emanu-El, in Victoria. Tickets are $23 from Ticket Rocket, ticketrocket.co or 1050 Meares St.
Barbara Pelman speaks at the opening of the exhibit Encounters, which is at Congregation Emanu-El in Victoria this summer. (photo by Frances Aknai)
On June 3, the exhibit Encounters opened at Congregation Emanu-El in Victoria. It is the culmination of the most recent Calling All Artists exchange, a project that has been going on for more than a decade.
“Bible has to be interpreted to be relevant,” said Barbara Pelman, coordinator of Calling All Artists since its inception. “All Renaissance art is Bible interpretation. That’s what we do with this project.”
In 2004, Pelman was the head of the adult education committee at the synagogue.
“Rabbi Harry [Brechner] came up with the idea to gather a bunch of artists and writers for a few study sessions to teach them a particular theme and its rabbinic interpretation,” she recalled. “I thought it was a wonderful idea. The sessions were conducted once a month for five months. Afterwards, the artists would offer their own interpretations of the theme, and the synagogue would have an exhibit of their works.”
While the congregation also produced colourful chapbooks – mini catalogues of the exhibitions – in previous years, they did not do so this year.
Over the course of the project, the artists have studied a variety of subjects. The first exchange was based on the topic of Paradise, and the exhibit was held in 2005. In subsequent years, themes have included dreams and prophecies; creation; the Book of Ruth; death and afterlife; and reinventing rituals.
“We missed a few years since the beginning,” said Pelman. “Once, we thought that maybe we are finished with the project and won’t do it anymore, but everyone involved said, ‘No! No! We should continue.’ Another year, holidays interfered.”
This year’s theme examines divine-human interactions.
“What happens in these encounters? What does one look like and how is it reported and remembered? What are some examples in biblical and rabbinical tales? How do we understand divinity and how does that understanding affect our worldview? These are some of the questions the artists of different genres have been exploring,” Pelman explained.
She said that not all participating artists are members of the congregation, or even Jewish. “The project is open to the community,” she said. “This year, 30 people signed up for the project; 17 artists remained to the end to exhibit their works. Five of them are not Jewish, but all of them are interested in learning.”
Studying with the rabbi is a mandatory part of Calling All Artists, Pelman said. “This entire project is about learning from those who know more than we do. The point is not to exhibit but to learn. That’s why the art is not vetted.”
Participating artists represent a wide variety of media and genres, as well as skill levels. Some participants are professionals; others do art as a hobby. The exhibits feature photographs and paintings, fibre art and pottery, sculpture and poetry. Every piece is accompanied by an explanation of the work by the artist.
Pelman is a poet, so her involvement in every year’s project has been a poem. For her, divinity is not an all-knowing old guy somewhere above. “It’s the biggest and best part of you, of us all,” she said. “How do we find it? How does it inform our muse?” This is what she contemplates in her poem for this year’s explorative journey.
Pelman worked as an English teacher for many years. She taught high school, college and university classes, and she has been writing poetry for a long time. “I have three poetry books published,” she said. “The last two by Ronsdale Press, a Vancouver publisher.”
Another frequent participant in the project, artist and writer Isa Milman, said, “I participated in the first Calling All Artists, The Paradise Project, in 2005. It was a spectacular experience. The combination of Rabbi Harry Brechner’s teaching, the group of artists who gathered and learned from each other, wrestling with text that most of us were unfamiliar with, was truly energizing. The process involved five sessions spread over a few months, to learn from Harry’s teachings and engage with one another, as we entered a spiritual quest for meaning. Then we went off to put our learning into practice and create our responses.”
Milman has taken part in a number of Calling All Artists projects. “I’ve written poems as well as created paintings for these projects,” she said. “Learning with Rabbi Harry is an inspiration. He’s a gifted teacher and a wonderful spiritual guide. My Jewish education was extremely Orthodox and doctrinaire and I rebelled against it. Learning Torah with Rabbi Harry is so different. It’s an invitation to engage and converse, which I so welcome.”
Olga Livshinis a Vancouver freelance writer. She can be reached at [email protected].
Congregation Emanu-El’s chuppah is on display throughout the summer. (photo by Janna Ginsberg Bleviss)
Congregation Emanu-El in Victoria is celebrating its 155th year. It is marking the occasion, in part, with the art exhibit Encounters, as well as by displaying a quilted chuppah that was created by a group of women in the community for the congregation’s 150th birthday.
The creation of the quilt was spearheaded by Janna Ginsberg Bleviss, who talked with the Independent about this unusual project.
“Five years ago, when Congregation Emanu-El was celebrating its 150th anniversary, I was active with a couple of projects,” she said, “and I was looking for a specific art project. Rabbi Harry Brechner suggested a new chuppah.”
The original chuppah of Emanu-El has a long history. According to Ginsberg Bleviss, it dated from 1864. Made in England from Chinese silk with gold embroidery, it was donated to the synagogue by the Hebrew Ladies of Victoria. Throughout the intervening century and a half, it had been used repeatedly. Of course, by 2013, it was showing its age. “It was frayed and tired looking,” said Ginsberg Bleviss.
The congregation needed a new chuppah, but was unsure how to approach the making of a new one. “Rabbi Harry directed me to Colleen Golumbia, a gifted quilter and fabric artist,” recalled Ginsberg Bleviss. “I had seen her work at the shul’s Calling All Artists displays and I thought that a fabric project would be suitable for the chuppah, as I already knew many textile artists. Colleen agreed to work with me, to coordinate putting the pieces together and make it look like a chuppah. She was absolutely the right person to be involved.”
Golumbia decided the chuppah would feature a central panel surrounded by 12 squares. “Colleen designed the gorgeous centre piece, resembling the stained glass window in the sanctuary ceiling, with colours of gold, red, white and blue,” said Ginsberg Bleviss.
Meanwhile, Ginsberg Bleviss put out a call and found 12 women interested in creating the surrounding panels. In the end, 14 women worked on the project.
“These women ranged in ages, the oldest [then] being 86. They came from Victoria, [elsewhere on] Vancouver Island and even as far away as Washington, D.C. Some were professional artists, some were experienced sewers or quilters or knitters, some worked in fabric from time to time and some took it on as a challenge. They were all pleased to participate in this project. Although not all were synagogue members, all were connected in some way to Congregation Emanu-El.”
Golumbia gave snatches of fabric to everyone in the colours of her portrayal of the stained glass window, thus linking the whole composition by colour; other than that, every participating woman had full creative freedom. Ginsberg Bleviss recalled: “I was frustrated at first because I kept asking Colleen: ‘Don’t you want to give them some directions?’ She didn’t.”
The artists got together a few times anyway, to share and learn from one another. Since they didn’t all live in Victoria, they mostly communicated through emails circulated by Ginsberg Bleviss.
“When the squares came in, the diversity and similarities were quite amazing. Many used the Magen David in various forms. There were images of Judaism, nature, light and colour. Some of the squares were abstract. Only one had words on it – the last piece that came in was from Washington, D.C. It said, ‘I am my beloved and my beloved is mine,’ which is often said at weddings. Done by Nancy Micklewright, it was a stunning gold stencil on a white background…. Phyllis Serota, known for her early fish paintings, painted fish coming into a Magen David centre. Annette Wigod, our oldest contributor, sewed Shabbat candles and used an antique doily as the tablecloth. Enid Elliot created a West Coast theme of oceans, mountains and sky. Arlene Ackerman, another experienced quilter, created pomegranates.”
The other participants included Narcis Kellow, Isa Milman, Jackie Saunders Ritchie, Natalie Beher, Charlotte Sutker, Gail Steinberg, Janis Diner Brinley and Barbara Horowitz.
“It was truly a communal effort, vibrant and colourful, meticulously sewn together,” Ginsberg Bleviss said. “Some squares were hand-stitched, some machine-stitched, some reflected quilting traditions, and some used appliqué. It was extremely varied. Colleen put all the pieces together and did the quilting lines. Several months later, in March 2013, we handed it to the synagogue as a donation from all the women…. It was too beautiful not to let others see it. We decided to place it in the sanctuary, where it has been ever since. Its first proper use came that same summer for the wedding of one of the artists and her partner.”
The old chuppah now resides at Royal B.C. Museum, although it was brought out for the 150th historical exhibit at Emanu-El.
Five years have passed since the new chuppah’s creation, and Ginsberg Bleviss thought it was time to display it to a wider audience.
“It was hanging in the sanctuary, with no explanation,” she said. “It kind of looked like a wall-hanging. I wanted to acknowledge the shul’s 155th anniversary this year and felt that there was still something to be learned about the chuppah and the process that went on in 2013. I wanted to move the chuppah to a more visible spot and give it some attention.”
Besides, everyone was getting older, she added. The oldest participant, Annette Wigod, is now 91. Ginsberg Bleviss wanted to give each woman a chance to talk about their pieces and what inspired them.
The new exhibit consists of the chuppah, the creators’ photographs and a story of each square.
“It is modern and beautiful, something that we could all be proud of,” said Ginsberg Bleviss. “I hope it might last as long as the original chuppah.”
Olga Livshinis a Vancouver freelance writer. She can be reached at [email protected].