Jesse Waldman was inspired by his great-grandmother Adele Waldman to reimagine the Yiddish song “Papirosen.” (photo from Jesse Waldman)
Several weeks ago, I was offered a commission by the Shadbolt Centre for the Arts to do a musical piece for their Covid Chronicles series. A Jewish musician living in Vancouver, I made a video of the classic Yiddish tune “Papirosen.” It has special significance, and it’s something I want to share with others.
As far back as I can remember, my family has been into taking photos, videos and recordings – I have at least three huge albums and a bunch of VHS tapes from birthdays, bar mitzvahs, etc. As well, there was a piano in my grandparents’ living room and music was always part of our lives. Before my grandmother passed away, she gave me a cassette that had been made on a reel-to-reel tape machine in Toronto in 1958. It included my mom at 2-and-a-half-years-old singing nursery rhymes, interviews with other family members, and my great-grandmother, Adele Waldman, singing traditional Yiddish folk songs.
Adele was my grandfather’s mother and she died before I was born. The quality and soul of her voice is absolutely stunning – some of the most moving singing I’ve ever heard, both haunting and soothing at the same time. I could listen to the recordings a million times and still be amazed by the off-the-cuff performances she did in the kitchen of my grandparents’ house.
I recently went through my storage closet and found a binder of sheet music that used to live in my grandparents’ piano bench. It was mostly big band and jazz tunes, but also a handful of Yiddish songs, including “Papirosen,” which was one the songs Adele sang on those tapes. As I put the sheet music on my music stand and began to study it, I was transported back to Eastern Europe in the 1920s.
Written by Herman Yablokoff in that decade, this song has the most dark yet beautiful melody, and I absolutely adore it. I looked up the lyrics (translated into English) and was struck again by the powerful storytelling about a young boy selling cigarettes, or papirosen, on the streets, offering an introspective look at his inner world.
For the Shadbolt-commissioned piece, I combined Adele’s recorded performance of “Papirosen” and a reimagined rendition of the song that I performed on guitar. After trying a few different things, I landed on the idea of sharing the first segment of her performance (her rendition is five minutes long) followed by a one-take performance by myself. The video can be found at youtube.com/watch?v=RWAVr2W0vvo.
One of my twins is always looking for something new to learn online. For awhile, he was fascinated by a Massachusetts service dog project, where Great Danes are trained to provide support to those with balance and mobility impediments. He found this amazing service dog program through the website explore.org. It has live cams of animals all over the world. While we’re not traveling anywhere, my kid is bird watching, seeing service dogs, polar bears, and more. When we least expect it, he rushes up with his iPad and demands that I admire a nesting owl, or that his biologist dad identify an animal he’s never seen before.
This kind of intellectual curiosity is something I’m excited to see. Open-ended questioning about the world and how it works is a special kind of Jewish exploration. This intensity and enthusiasm is how we delve into studying Torah and Talmud, or how we engage with the world in general.
Passover is an obvious time to think about questions and how we approach and answer them. Our families have been telling the Exodus and “Once we were slaves and now we are free” story for thousands of years! Still, our questioning can’t just stick to the Four Questions and be done. Sometimes, even with good intentions, we get hung up on the rote narrative of the seder. We know we have to get through it. We start at the beginning and head to the end. It’s a yearly ritual routine, punctuated by matzah, lots of other foods, wine, and, in normal times, family and guests.
When we were first married, I once attended a smaller seder with some of my husband’s family. I was excited and nervous to engage over the Haggadah’s ideas – but it didn’t turn out as I expected. The family was committed to getting through the ritual traditionally and to the food part. They looked uncomfortable when I tried to talk about ideas or ask questions. In retrospect, I realized I knocked them off their game. There was a seder routine – and I wasn’t following theirs.
My other twin is also learning. He’s not into the animal live cams. Instead, he comes up with questions about school projects. He brainstorms and makes suggestions, even when they’re not welcome. The remote learning teacher suggested he limit his research on one social studies project to their “class time” online rather than do more research later.
Of course, the minute he logs off, I help him look up his questions and learn – whenever he wants. His teacher maybe wants to slow down the group learning, or avoid making more social studies lesson plans, but feeding intense curiosity with knowledge helps enthusiastic learners blossom. In my experience, putting somebody off when they want to learn more feels negative and does the opposite.
For many people, the pandemic has knocked them off their game. Losing regular routines may have felt negative. As people anticipate getting vaccinated, they talk more about which things they miss the most and long to do when things return to “normal.” For another view, I recently read a CBC news article that quoted David Eagleman, a neuroscientist.
Eagleman suggested that, in fact, the pandemic might be good for people’s brains, because the huge lifestyle changes we’ve experienced have forced us off our “path of least resistance.” We’ve been forced to be more flexible and innovate. This can be positive for our brain health. In some cases, forcing our brains to adapt may result in positive growth and changes in our work or home lives.
In a Jewish context though, when we consider our ritual routines, we must balance the comfort of what’s familiar with the opportunity to learn. Questioning and continuing to grow intellectually are valuable, particularly during Passover.
In the talmudic tractate of Pesachim, on page 105a, there’s a discussion about when to say certain blessings such as the Kiddush. Should we interrupt a meal in the middle to do Kiddush? Rav Hamnuna the Elder says, “You don’t need to do this, because Shabbat establishes itself.” In other words, our holidays, like Shabbat or Pesach, will happen whether we are ready or not. We must automatically rise to the obligations associated with them. So, yes, we do a lot of things by rote and habit.
Even so, the next page, Pesachim 106, teaches that there are times where leaders must do things extemporaneously, or work to learn more to figure out what to do. A good leader both continues with the routines and remains able to ask questions, be flexible and learn.
It’s too early for me to conclude whether our freeform research online this year has helped my twins become lifelong learners. (I hope so!) I don’t know if observing animals via live cam will result in a career like field biologist or even a hobby like bird-watching. Whatever they choose, creating a routine-based learning environment that encourages and cultivates questioning, improvisational thinking and flexibility may go a long way towards helping them succeed later on.
It’s true, as Rav Hamnuna the Elder explains, that holidays happen whether or not we’re ready for them. As Rabbi Sari Laufer explains on My Jewish Learning’s explanation of Pesachim 105, “Kiddush doesn’t make Shabbat begin, we make Kiddush because Shabbat has begun.” Yet, once our holidays begin, it’s our obligation to engage with them, to learn and to question.
“Due to the pandemic” is a phrase we’ve heard too often, usually in relation to cancelations or programs offered exclusively online. Perhaps we might add a positive “due to the pandemic” twist. We’re forced to be more flexible thinkers in our ritual routines, too. We can question why we always did them this way. In the end, we might be all the better for that brain jostling and chance for intellectual inquiry.
My family and I wish you a wonderful, thoughtful, questioning Passover, full of joy this year, however different it may be from your usual routines. Chag sameach.
Joanne Seiffhas written regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. Check her out on Instagram @yrnspinner or at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.
Chicken soup with matzah balls is a staple of the Ashkenazi Passover seder; for meat-eaters, at least. (photo from onceuponachef.com)
My father used to start the seder with a joke. One I remember was: Abe goes to see his boss and says: “We’re doing some heavy house-cleaning at home tomorrow for Pesach. My wife says she needs me to move all the heavy furniture, clean the stove and even clean out the garage.” “We’re short-handed Abe,” the boss replies, “I just can’t give you the day off.” “Thanks boss,” says Abe. “I knew I could count on you!”
Passover was both an exciting and an embarrassing time for me. Both my parents were born in Australia in the late 19th century, when Jews were quite a rarity there. The influx of Jews from Europe to Australia only began after the Second World War, when those lucky enough to survive the Holocaust reached our shores. Back then, I was the only Jewish child in my school, so I had no Jewish friends and, apart from some family members, neither did my parents. Of necessity, we were quite assimilated, as there were few facilities available for Jews in those far-off days.
Still, we adhered to some traditions, and one was the seder. As a child aged 7, it was exciting for lots of reasons, but I had no one to share it with except my two brothers and two sisters, all much older than I was. Our family of seven would sit around the table with Great-Aunt Frances and Uncle Dave, and some of our non-Jewish neighbours, who looked forward to being invited to join us in this, to them, odd ceremony every year. One of them was Penelope, who had a daily radio show and, the next day, she would relate to her listeners all the details that she understood and that seemed to fascinate her.
The table would be set with a white tablecloth and all the traditional seder trappings, with a big decanter of raisin wine my mother had made. I was wearing my “best” dress, which I loved. Like most people during those Depression years, we had very little money, so most of my clothes were hand-me-downs from my sisters. But this one had been bought especially for me and I loved it – pink velvet, with puff sleeves and a lace collar. It broke my heart when I outgrew it.
My father, of course, sat at the head of the table, a big pillow on his chair for reclining. Dad was a man of enormous contrasts, something of a genius. He knew Hebrew, Latin and Greek and thought no one could call themselves educated without an acquaintance of these classical languages. But he was also very modest, rarely let it be known that he was a scholar, and had a fund of off-colour stories that always made me blush and resulted in my being very prudish well into adulthood.
He would conduct the service from the Haggadah in Hebrew, giving explanations in English all the way through. He said that the Wise Son who asked questions at the seder was so intelligent that no one had the faintest idea what he was talking about. The Wicked Son had to be excluded from the table, so he went back to work and got paid double-time for working on Pesach. When the Simple Son asks, “What is this?” you just tell him, “It’s dinner.” And, as for the one who does not know how to ask, you go and wake him up and say, “Next year, remember to come to the table.”
When it came to the Four Questions, Dad had transliterated the “Ma Nishtana” for me in big English letters and the guests all thought I was very clever to be reciting something in Hebrew when I was only 7. I did nothing to disillusion them. I loved the singing and so did our guests, who, after some coaching from Dad, sang along with us heartily, with mostly mispronounced words. I remember we always sang one song in English, “Chad Gadya”: “Only one kid, which my father bought for two zuzim….”
A good meal followed, although my mother – a great cook of Australian dishes – didn’t do too well with Pesach recipes, as her own mother had died when she was my age, so she didn’t have the benefit of learning from her mom. But she tried valiantly. The chicken soup was good, apart from the matzah balls, which were as tough as bullets; and her gefilte fish I won’t attempt to describe. Our guests probably thought we were meant to suffer, and this was just another punishment like having to eat matzot for a week.
Just as I couldn’t share my friends’ Christmas and Easter festivities, I didn’t even tell them about our seder. But now I realize how special it was. When I close my eyes, my family are with me again. Maybe that seder was the last time we were all together in person, as my two brothers soon went overseas with the Royal Australian Air Force. The younger one, shot down over Rommel’s lines in Tobruk, never returned. Over the intervening eight-plus decades, the losses have multiplied. There is only one beloved sister left, and she is in Australia.
I would love my parents to be able to see my family at a seder in Israel. We are more than 50 people now, including all the grandchildren and great-grandchildren. I am sure we observe it more authentically today, but there is something special I have lost that can never be replicated – the family I once had, who gave a little girl love, safety and security.
When I think about our seder table back then, it’s not just about the matzot, shankbone, roasted egg, bitter herbs and charoset. I see the family I have loved and lost, and hear the jokes and the songs and the laughter. I have come a long way since then, both spiritually and physically, but the seeds were planted back then, at the seder table with my family, who will never be forgotten.
Dvora Waysmanis a Jerusalem-based author. She has written 14 books, including The Pomegranate Pendant, which was made into a movie, and her latest novella, Searching for Sarah. She can be contacted at [email protected] or through her blog dvorawaysman.com.
The Vancouver Jewish Film Festival is set to go online March 4, and all the many offerings will be available until March 14. There are plenty of gems for viewers of varying tastes and ages, including a few Israeli films that seem to be nostalgic paeans to American comedies or kids’ movies of the 1960s and 1970s. But we start with romance.
The film Love in Suspenders opens with a wild car ride through Tel Aviv, as we are introduced to main character Tammy (Nitza Shaul) who drives like … well, an Israeli. When she backs into pedestrian Benno (Yehuda Barkan), this adorable slice-of-life gets rolling.
Her son Michael, a lawyer, warns that one more infraction will lead to the loss of her driver’s licence. Making nice with her victim (while continuing to argue it was his own carelessness that led to the mishap), Tammy begins what evolves into an innocent and unintentional courtship with Benno.
The luxurious seniors facility where Tammy lives is a hotbed of sexual tension – with lectures on the wonders of Viagra, a supporting character in the film that really should have received its own credit.
Tammy venerates her late husband Yoni in ways that probably exceed what would be considered normal grieving. Hanging on to her glorious past – Tammy and Yoni were a musical duo that toured Israel and abroad – versus facing an exciting but unnerving new romance is the conflict that drives her character.
Benno’s character is driven by all sorts of unnerving situations. Benno’s got his own problems with the next generation, but both he and Tammy handle their affairs like adults, despite being treated like children by their kids.
Michael’s horror at both his mother’s rekindled sex life and the uncertain provenance of the unkempt and possibly homeless Benno threatens to undermine the trajectory of their affection.
Kids aren’t the only interfering forces. The extravagant dining hall and luxurious hallways of the seniors home are brimming with prying eyes and wagging tongues. The roosters in the facility are put out that Tammy has scored a love interest from the outside, despite all their strutting and preening. The women in the building always seem to be nearby when Tammy’s male caller is coming or going from her apartment.
The title Love in Suspenders is a play on the phrase “Tuesdays in suspenders,” a program in which Israeli seniors get weekly discounts at venues like the cinema. The movie is an absolutely charming vignette of finding love at a later age and dealing with the impacts of a fresh future on a cherished past. It is a respectful treatment of older characters and their romantic explorations, which are topics too often treated shabbily by Hollywood and other depictions.
Not one of us will be able to avoid death. Yet, despite its inevitability, few of us prepare for dying and most of us put the thought of it to the back of our minds, even as we mourn those who have died.
The hour-long documentary Dying Doesn’t Feel Like What I’m Doing is almost a must-see for anyone struggling with the reality of mortality. It is a caring portrait of Rachel Cowan’s 18-month journey from a cancer diagnosis (a brain tumour) to her passing. Along the way, we learn about how remarkable this human’s life was and how her impacts continue. However, while Cowan was successful by almost any measure, it is not only her accomplishments that are noteworthy, but her struggles and her finding of strength in love and gratitude at her most vulnerable, when she had every right to be bitter and selfish.
Cowan was a civil and women’s rights activist of some acclaim. She was married to Paul Cowan, a journalist for the The Village Voice, and theirs was a partnership that extended into work at times; she took incredible photographs for his stories, capturing on film the best and worst of humanity in a tumultuous era. The couple lived and fought for their beliefs and really did make the world a better place.
Paul died from leukemia in 1988, at 48 years old. Rachel had converted to Judaism earlier in their relationship, after his parents died in a horrific apartment fire. The tragedy spurred Paul to explore his Jewish roots and her to search for God and meaning, which led her to Judaism. She was studying to become a rabbi during the period that Paul was ill and she was ordained soon after his death. At that point, still deep in grief, she thought, “Now, what?” How possibly could she counsel others when she herself was so ungrounded. She decided, “Choose life.”
She not only chose life for herself, but for others. While working at the Nathan Cummings Foundation, she established the Jewish Healing Centre, after seeing how little Jewish community support Paul had had in palliative care. She also established other initiatives and wrote a book on wise aging. As the documentary begins, we see Rachel leading a meditation group, continuing her life’s work. The film’s title comes from a comment Rachel makes about nine months after her diagnosis: “I’m living my life. Dying doesn’t feel like what I’m doing.”
With a harrowing opening scene, A Starry Sky Above the Roman Ghetto begins an historical back and forth between the terrible past and the present. The intertwined timeframes and eventual plot twists remind the viewer that the past is not really past.
Roman high schooler Sofia (Bianca Panconi) finds a Second World War-era letter and photograph hidden in the lining of a flea market suitcase. Her curiosity piqued, she begins a quest to uncover the story behind the mystery, which forms the narrative of the film.
Bringing the artifacts to her schoolmates, who enthusiastically join in the sleuthing, Sofia and pals then recruit students from the neighbouring Jewish high school to join in the mystery-solving.
There is charm in the cross-cultural friendships and some minimal tension when the teens meet obstruction from their parents and teachers. But the film is generally simplistic, too often cutesy and frequently hammy.
Before they have even tracked down the basics of the historical mystery, the students decide to turn their quest into a play. The movie itself has the feel of a high school production, and the fresh-faced, upbeat teen spirit seems incongruous with the Holocaust narrative at the heart of both the theatre production and the film. Impediments are too easily overcome. Archival research eurekas far too effortlessly and speedily fall into place. (The way the characters manhandle historical documents would make an archivist recoil.) An ostensible Montague/Capulet hurdle to a pair of star-crossed lovers is resolved in the most facile manner imaginable. The ending is unbelievably tidy – unbelievable being the operative term.
Continuity and fidelity to peoplehood and identity are core themes, but even these are handled poorly. For example, a Jewish boy gives Sofia a convincing explanation for why he must date and marry only a Jewish girl, but the next day he apologizes, apparently deciding that maybe continuity isn’t as sacred as a little amorousness after all.
The resolution to the larger mystery falls very close to home for Sofia, whose own life is altered by her discovery. This outcome provides some justification for the girl’s otherwise inexplicably dogged devotion to unraveling the mystery. But the whole thing has more of a Scooby-Doo vibe than the solemn drama the film probably set out to create.
There is some eye candy in the form of Roman architecture, including parts of the city’s Jewish quarter, but it is perhaps a thwarted COVID-era wanderlust to blame for finding fault that the film is not more of a visual celebration of the eternal city.
There is some decent acting and there are enjoyable components to A Starry Sky Above the Roman Ghetto, but it is hard to sustain the premise of an historical mystery when every twist and turn is foreseeable long before the ostensibly bright students clue in.
Fans of Airplane, Naked Gun and Austin Powers will settle right in with the ridiculous Israeli comedy Mossad. Upending the perception of the Israeli intelligence agency as one of the world’s greatest, the film centres on what must be Mossad’s most moronic agent.
The action begins with the kidnapping of the world’s foremost tech magnate, Jack Saterberg, while he visits Israel. (One doesn’t have to stretch the imagination much to conjure a mashup of Twitter’s Jack Dorsey and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg). It falls to Mossad operative Guy Moran (Tsahi Halevi) to team up with CIA agent Linda Harris (Efrat Dor) to confront the bad guys.
When Mossad hit Israeli theatres in 2019, it saw a box office-smashing open. It is an all-ages bit of entertainment, with slapstick buffoonery and sight gags – and not really a lot more. There is certainly plenty of violence, but it is exclusively of the cartoonish variety.
In addition to sight gags, smartass dialogue drives what there is of a direction to the story. “I’m a Mossad agent. Here’s my card,” Moran says. “It’s blank,” replies the recipient. “I’m a secret agent,” he says. Nyuk nyuk nyuk.
The kidnappers threaten to stop all cellphone service worldwide. When they offer a two-minute taste of the threat, global mayhem and violence ensue, underscoring the urgency of preventing the calamity. Suffice to say the only real tension in the 90 or so minutes comes from bracing for the next corny gag.
All the predictable scenarios are packed in – like a countdown clock to doomsday and other tenets of the genre – but in the most outlandish forms. Romance also figures, with Israeli-Israeli, Israeli-American and human-machine flirting adding spice and disorientation befitting a script that seems to view no joke as too absurd if there’s a chance of a laugh.
For a harmless multigenerational movie night, Mossad will deliver a few side-splitters and a lot of snickers.
Sky Raiders is pure family fun. In Hebrew with English subtitles, the audience needs to be old enough to read, but not even that well, as the action is pretty easy to follow. For the parents who may have watched The Love Bug when they were a kid, there will be a comforting sense of familiarity with Sky Raiders, though the historic plane that gets rebuilt in this movie isn’t anthropomorphized and the love story in this case is between the teens.
Yotam (Amir Tessler) is the new kid at school and has trouble fitting in. When he spots Noa (Hila Natanzon) playing soccer with a group of boys, and holding her own, he is smitten. He joins the game but soon requires medical attention for an asthma attack, having left his inhaler at home, despite his over-protective mother’s multiple reminders for him to take it with him; his father, a pilot, died a few years earlier in a plane crash. Noa has her own parental problems – her father, also a pilot, has dismissed her as, basically, “just a girl” – and her older brother bullies her.
The two teens share both the love of all things planes and flying, as well as parents who actively try to dissuade them from these loves. They find their father figure in the grumpy old man dubbed “Mad Morris” by the local kids, who, surprise, is a really nice guy, just sad and lonely.
When Yotam and Noa discover a Messerschmitt that had been left to rot in a plane cemetery, the two – with Morris’s help – set to restore it. And, not only to restore it so that it can sit in a museum, but so that it can actually be flown in the upcoming annual Yom Ha’atzmaut airshow.
With some cheesy CGI, young love conquering all, bullies put in their place, the ostracized taking front-stage, and happy parent-child reconciliations, Sky Raiders is Disney-esque and charming. Cue the music to swell, as the credits begin.
Recently, one of my twins convinced me we needed to look at an online mindfulness app. It featured ocean beaches, a sunset, a waterfall, a forest, a rainstorm …. you get the picture. The notion was that one could stare at each image, take deep cleansing breaths and feel restored. Except, with the twins crowding my iPad screen, within moments we had hopped from one view to the next. The app kicked us out, as we had “seen” all its tranquil views. What was supposed to be meditative became a crazed, erratic two-minute virtual tour of all the outdoors, at once. Oops. That didn’t work out right.
There’s a lot of discussion online and in the media about how the pandemic has caused mental health issues because people are lonely, restless and bored, and many have a hard time with restrictions and lockdown. This may well be true for many people.
For those of us with kids, it feels more like a Ferris wheel/merry-go-round mash-up, where both rides have the music playing, it’s all set on a fast speed and there’s NO. WAY. TO. GET. OFF. We’re crazy busy staying home. We chose remote schooling for safety. This gives no breaks from parenting, and no way to get all the work done. My house is a mess. The housework and cooking? – seriously out of control.
My parents, living alone in Virginia, have an opposite experience. Due to their age and health, they, too, are staying home to stay safe, with lots of time, not enough socializing in person, feeling adrift without their usual travel plans and volunteer activities.
Our extended family is far away and cannot help us in Winnipeg. We can’t support them in person either, so we’ve had a long stretch of time, including holidays, on our own. Chanukah won’t be different. My parents are sending fun toys in the mail, ordered online, to keep the kids busy during the hours and hours ahead indoors this winter, which we will appreciate, whenever they arrive.
We’ve also been planning way in advance. When you celebrate Passover, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, etc., on your own as a nuclear family, it takes more thought to make it special. Giving ourselves time to prepare has meant we have had some amazing meals and meaningful home-based observances, without going farther than our back deck sukkah.
My husband and I prepared for Chanukah by worrying if we had enough candles or if we had to shop for them – were Chanukah candles considered essential by the Manitoba government? To our relief, unless the kids insist on lighting all the chanukiyot at once, we’re fine. We’ve got plenty left over from last year, no need to go out and buy more. This, and internet ordering for kids, has been the extent of our preparations.
My twins, however, started the Chanukah countdown much earlier than usual. On a quiet Sunday afternoon, I discovered they were making paper chains and complicated construction paper cut-outs of dreidels, jugs of oil, a menorah, and more. The cut-outs were carefully hung up on our living room’s French doors – approximately 17 days before the first candles would be lit. Anticipation makes a holiday special.
However, the gift I love the absolute best these days won’t come on Chanukah. It’s Shabbat, which happens every week. It’s an opportunity to just sit on the couch. We stream services and I cook ahead so there’s nothing to do on Saturday. We sometimes magically find take-out appearing on the table Saturday night, when the leftovers don’t seem appealing. We’re not shomer Shabbat, and I’ve been known to disappear for a cozy chair and some knitting or to spend time with my sewing machine to deepen my relaxation, but Jewish traditional practice was really onto something with Shabbat.
Since having twins – they are now 9 years old – I’ve had people ask what would help, if I could have absolutely anything. I’d say: going to a quiet place in the country, alone, with a big bed with clean white sheets, lots of good food prepared, and time to just sleep, eat, read and hang out by myself. In reality, I felt that leaving my household for any length of time might result in worse chaos when I returned. My husband is well-intended, but an absentminded professor. He often forgets to feed the kids snack or the dog dinner if I don’t remind him over and over.
However, Shabbat at our house has become that oasis, where I get the chance to just be. It’s not the sunset, waterfall, rainfall, forest walk, ocean waves vision that the mindfulness app thinks we need. Not at all. It’s nothing idyllic – or tidy – but it’s a time to step away from social media, the chores, the craziness, and just be. Nowadays, I don’t have to get everyone dressed up for Shabbat services. I can’t invite guests or stress about getting a fancy meal made. I have many fewer work deadlines. And while, yes, there are some negatives in that, there’s a whole lot of positives, too.
We’re facing so many things that aren’t like anything we’ve experienced before. The unexpected can be scary. It can also be an amazing opportunity to let go, embrace and learn something different. Shabbat has long been my favourite holiday, but it took a pandemic for me to settle even more fully into one day a week of rest.
Turns out I don’t need to gaze at a mindfulness app to unwind. I’ll stick with making a huge Shabbat dinner, sleeping (late!) until 8 a.m., and participating in services from the couch, surrounded by the kids’ Lego and Playmobil congregation.
This year might be a chance to discover new gifts within this very challenging experience. Mine might be the best thing I could imagine – doing nothing at all.
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.
Many Jewish Independent readers will be familiar with the name Mira Sucharov. Whenever the paper ran her op-eds, at least one passionate letter to the editor could be expected. Agree with her or not on the topic of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, she makes you think. And her latest book, Borders and Belonging: A Memoir, offers insight into how her mind works and how she has come to form her continually evolving ideas on the controversial subject.
But it’s not all politics and there’s no academic speak, though Sucharov is well-trained and has much experience in these areas – she is a professor in Carleton University’s department of political science and is University Chair of Teaching Innovations; she has developed courses for the university and has won teaching awards; she has multiple writing and editing credits. Borders and Belonging explores Sucharov’s political views and their development, but gives more time to childhood experiences, both happy and anxiety-ridden, including being a child of divorce, past romantic crushes, tales from Jewish summer camp, insights gained from living on a kibbutz, and more. It is an at-times cringeworthingly open coming-of-age story.
“I gave my dad and my mom parts to read, and I checked the scene about my daughter with her, as I did want at least their tacit blessing that this memoir wasn’t going to cause pain,” said Sucharov when the Independent asked about her candidness. “As for other family members, I basically let the chips fall where they may. I did make an effort to generally not try to ‘score points’ regarding other family members, for the most part. There’s a maxim in writing creative non-fiction (memoir), one that my writing mentor emphasized to me as well: write from scars, not wounds. Not only did I not try to actively make my family and friends appear in a bad light, I tried, most of the time anyway, to spotlight my own foibles and vulnerabilities. I think it makes for a more interesting read anyway. No one wants to read a memoir written by a narrator who is defensive and who is unaware of her own flaws.”
And Sucharov reveals many of her perceived flaws. She has dealt with high levels of anxiety her whole life, it seems, and, in many an instance, her stomach flips or lurches from feelings of rejection, excitement over a boy, worry over being among kids she doesn’t know, pleasure at being in beautiful surroundings, or tension at being confronted by someone who disagrees with her.
In addition to the sometimes-brutal self-assessment, readers will also be struck by Sucharov’s memory. The details – books read, games played, reimagined conversations, etc. – are noteworthy. And Sucharov did take notes, she said. She kept a journal for a couple of summers when she was a camp counselor and when she was in Israel in the early 1990s. But, she said, “I remember a lot. For some childhood scenes, I juxtaposed memories of objects I knew I owned (specific toys, games, clothing and books) with particular events I recall occurring. So, for example, when ‘Leah’ sleeps over, I don’t recall if I read Roald Dahl on that particular night, but I do know that I read lots of Roald Dahl at that point in my life, so I inserted it as a period detail.
“Same with the Archie comic being read in the cabin while I inadvertently undress in front of a boy, causing me great embarrassment. I don’t know for certain whether we were reading Archie comics on that particular day, but I do know that we read Archie comics during that time in our life. Adding these details is a way of setting scene and drawing the reader into a world, rather than writing, ‘we used to read Archie comics.’ I treasured my toys, books and games. I’m still trying to forgive my mom for selling my remote-controlled R2-D2 robot toy at a garage sale for five bucks one summer, while I was away at camp.”
By way of another example, Sucharov said, “As for the separation scene that takes place before I’ve even turned 4: my own memory is that my parents asked me to pick toys to place in one house and in another. Recently, though, my dad gave me a different account: he said that he and my mom took me into their bed, placed me between them and broke the news. I do not recall this. So, instead, I used the memory that I did have, even if it had been partly of my own creation. In that case, it may not have been totally accurate, but it succeeds at capturing the emotional dynamics of the event – me having to cope with my parents’ separation, which was traumatic.”
Other aspects, such as exactly which scary Disney movie she watched at her dad’s, were verified with one of her “all-time favourite tools: IMDb!” And some instances she recounts are composites of multiple moments.
Sucharov has no regrets about laying so much out there publicly. “I’m a firm believer in modeling vulnerability,” she said.
“In writing and in teaching, it creates a crucial connection between writer or professor/instructor and reader or student,” she added. “By introducing our backstage selves, it can help others better learn how to soar. It is an ethic of generosity.”
Izhiman’s – the car is decorated with the company’s logo, based on advertising from that era showing a turban-wearing waiter – à la Cairo’s legendary El Fishawy coffee house in the Khan al-Khalili – serving, of course, coffee. (photo from Izhiman’s)
When the Izhiman family opened its coffee roasting and grinding business in 1921 on Suq Khan a-Zeit (Beit Habad Street), 100 metres inside the Old City’s Damascus Gate, Sir Herbert Samuel had recently arrived as Great Britain’s first high commissioner for Palestine, and Egyptian chanteuse Umm Kulthum was just beginning her illustrious career. Over the last century, the Middle East has changed beyond recognition but Izhiman’s flavourful qahwa – blended from high-quality Arabica beans – has remained a staple for Jerusalem’s coffee aficionados. And, at NIS 48 ($19 Cdn) per kilogram, the cardamom-flavoured finely ground secret mix – which includes Brazilian, Colombian, Guatemalan, Costa Rican and Tanzanian beans – is a bargain.
From that first roaster and grinding shop in the Old City, Izhiman’s has grown to a chain of six stores, with a presence in Jerusalem, Ramallah and Bethlehem. Besides its signature blend of Arab/Turkish coffee, the Izhiman family-operated chain sells tea, nuts, spices, condiments, chocolate and henna from Thailand, Turkey, Egypt and elsewhere. Many of the imports are cheaper than their Israeli counterparts.
“I manage three stores,” said Mazen Izhiman, 63, who started working at the Old City branch in 1976. “My son Mahmoud is the operations manager.”
Mazen points to the various historic photos decorating his shop. One shows an antique car bearing Mandate Palestine licence plate 5111. The vehicle is decorated with the company’s logo, based on advertising from that era showing a turban-wearing waiter – à la Cairo’s legendary El Fishawy coffee house in the Khan al-Khalili – serving, of course, coffee.
Interviewed at the company’s office in Atarot Industrial Park, not far from the now-decommissioned Qalandia Airport, Mahmoud (Mamu) Izhiman, 32, explains the roaster was moved there from Abu Dis in 2014 because of transportation problems in reaching the West Bank suburb. Originally, the roaster was located on Suq Khan a-Zeit, across from the shop that his father manages today. A century ago, the beans were ground by hand, he noted. A few grams of coffee wrapped in a cone made from newspaper were sold in single-serving portions.
While the Izhiman family came to Jerusalem from the Hijaz eight centuries ago, during the time of Saladin to fight the Crusaders, the details of the founding of the business have been lost, said Mahmoud, who studied political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem before deciding that the coffee business was more satisfying to him than the Israeli-Palestinian quagmire.
Even the given name of the company’s founder a century ago is in dispute, he said. The family business began splitting apart in 1948, when one brother fled to Amman, Jordan, where he opened a coffee roaster of the same name. Another split occurred in 1994, and a further one in 2008, which resulted in a 2014 lawsuit in the Jerusalem District Court for copyright infringement. Notwithstanding the favourable ruling, family members continue to operate unauthorized Izhiman’s branches across the West Bank and Dubai. Indeed, the website izhiman.com is used by the unlicensed stores, said Mahmoud.
Joining the family business, Mahmoud apprenticed at a 2013 course in Izmir, Turkey, offered by the Specialty Coffee Association of America, and then earned a coffee science certificate from Nouva Simonelli in Ancona, Italy.
“I was the first one in the Middle East to study with the SCAA,” he said.
That expertise led him to experiment roasting different blends, seeking a taste that he calls “balanced and aromatic” with “no acidic bitter aftertaste.” The exact blend is “top secret,” he said.
Having relocated the roaster from Abu Dis, Mahmoud bought an $80,000 machine capable of roasting a 120-kilogram batch of coffee beans in 20 minutes. In 2018, he upgraded to a $110,000, fully automated, 240-kilogram-capacity, Turkish-manufactured roaster with a built-in fire extinguisher. To preserve trade secrets, Mahmoud asked me not to take photos of the roasting machine, which he custom designed. The plant also boasts a high-tech, Chinese-made grinding and filling machine that injects nitrogen into each package before it is sealed to prevent oxidation. Mahmoud’s brother, Abdullah, is the production manager at the Atarot facility.
How much java does Izhiman’s sell? Mahmoud hesitates before answering: “Enough to call us a major coffee factory. We have a presence in every supermarket and grocery in East Jerusalem.”
But Izhiman’s success isn’t limited to providing a caffeine fix for the Arab half of the city. In December, the company opened its first outlet in Jewish Jerusalem. Mahmoud calls the four-square-metre kiosk at the First Station a “pilot.” It sells “macchiato, lokum [pistachio, hazelnut, rose and pomegranate-flavoured Turkish delight], everything,” he enthused. “If you’re afraid to come to the Old City, I’m coming to you.”
As well, Izhiman’s sister company, Coffee Zone, will soon be launching a line of espresso capsules, he added.
Delicious coffee is one of the flavours of co-existence, Mahmoud believes.
With peace on the horizon, foodies may want to visit the Izhiman’s booth at the Gulfood 2021 expo taking place Feb. 21-25 at the Dubai World Trade Centre. Inshallah.
After the election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, many Jews were quick to celebrate that Harris’s husband Doug Emhoff is Jewish. Indeed, it is a win given the sharp rise in antisemitic expression and white supremacy we’ve seen in the United States, and which is bleeding over into Canada.
Jews often celebrate when someone like us makes it into a position of some influence. This time, it isn’t any particular achievement of Emhoff’s but, rather, his proximity to someone powerful.
Harris represents so many firsts: the first woman, the first person of South Asian and of Black heritage, and the first person married to a Jew to reach the vice-presidency. Her family is a positive representation of the dream of the United States, where anyone can become anything and where, crucially, diversity is a strength.
In open and free democracies, intermarriage is inevitable. If we are to live and work alongside each other, we will fall in love with each other. This isn’t a bad thing. Given how many people seem to hate Jews, it is nice that some people actually love us. I realize intermarriage is a perceived threat to Judaism; fears of assimilation are very real. And yet, Emhoff is proudly Jewish. His identity is not threatened by the multiple identities of his partner – they celebrate the many elements of who they are and where they come from.
Since the election, there have been many pieces published about how nice it is to see one’s intermarried family represented in the White House. Jewish communities have spent the past several decades trying to stop intermarriage. These efforts have failed and have even driven some Jews and their loved ones away from Judaism.
If we care about Jews and Judaism, including challenging the multiple threats we face, this kind of infighting really needs to stop. It’s time we embrace our pluralistic and diverse families, celebrate all those who wish to be and do Jewish, and recognize that there is so much in Judaism that is beautiful and meaningful, joys that can be experienced by all who are part of the wide web of Jewish families.
Rabbi Denise Handlarskilives in Toronto. She is the author of The A-Z of Intermarriage, published by New Jewish Press, and the leader of the online community Secular Synagogue.
My husband saw the pair of decoder rings in a catalogue, long before our twins were old enough for them. Still, he ordered them and put them away. At the time, it amused me. How could he predict the future? Would our kids want these someday?
Fast forward to one October 2020 pandemic weekend. I’m not sure how he knew it was the right time. Before I knew it, two 9-year-olds were whizzing around the house, holding onto rings much too large for their fingers, and sending each other secret messages in code.
When they returned to school that Monday, they continued with the crazy codes, trying to teach their classmates about it. Unfortunately, this fun was short-lived. About a week later, we got an email from the school. It said that remote learning “may” be offered, and that we could sign up if we “might” be interested.
The situation was worsening in Manitoba, so we clicked through late on a Saturday night. This seemed wise, if we indeed understood the confusing letter correctly, that this remote learning might be happening. In any case, if some people signed up for the remote learning, it would allow more room in our older, smaller school building for others to social distance. Well, surprise! We were contacted on Monday morning and, by that Wednesday, our kids were at home again, learning with us. In the long run, this is the right choice – Judaism teaches us to value life above all else.
Both my husband and I are already working from home. At the beginning of my career, I used to teach school. Although I’ve never taught Grade 4 before, we’re muddling through. The remote learning we’re offered doesn’t continue the Hebrew curriculum we had before. It started with a single Hebrew packet, but, when it looked like we were nearing the end and I asked the school if it had more to share, I got a stern “no” in response. Remote learning offers only the basics, even if we can see via Instagram that, in class, the kids’ schoolmates are still doing fun projects without us.
It’s hard on children to feel left out. However, since there’s already been a COVID virus exposure at the school, we made the safe choice for us. My kids are lonely for their friends. My husband, a biology professor, thinks that schools should shut down now, until the infection rate lessens and the health system isn’t so overburdened.
Yet, here we are, with an everyday virtual, multi-age “school lesson” that lasts an hour. We do the reading, writing, math and science on our own. We also do something Jewish. One night, it was a discussion about Mezritch, which was a centre of Chassidism. Another day we talked about tefillin. On a third day, we learned about Sigd, the Ethiopian Jewish holiday celebrated 50 days after Yom Kippur, which is now a national holiday in Israel. The kids keep up their Hebrew as best we can, with my support and by using a free language program online.
Today, we hit the very last page of the Hebrew packet sent home by the school a couple weeks ago. There were moans about how hard it was and further cries when they realized there was no more of the “packet Hebrew.” For me, the last page left a special, coded gift.
This page taught about how each letter of the aleph bet, the Hebrew alphabet, also signified a number. Aleph is one, for instance. The numerical values of the letters of chai, the word for life, add up to 18.
My kids struggled with this page for entirely different reasons. But, if we can learn to write the numbers in Arabic numerals (also called the Hindu-Arabic system), we can learn the Hebrew ones. We’ll learn to spell out the number names in Hebrew. Like magic, I’d been given a gift, a secret decoder system to share. We just have to learn all the symbols together!
I won’t lie. I wish my kids’ class had all gone “remote” together, so they could see their classmates for an hour a day. I wish the pandemic hadn’t happened. I wish I’d gone to bed earlier over the weekend, instead of staying up late, reading the huge obituary section – but wait, that’s not right.
My biggest wish that puts all these little ones to shame? I want to honour every life that’s in those obits, every life that has been lost. There’s so much suffering, death and loss right now, and we’re all working our way through it.
I also want to honour the diverse positive ways we’ve innovated and managed during a scary, singular experience. Studying a textual tradition like ours, that’s thousands of years old, means we have deep resources. We can hear about deaths and the first obituaries in the Torah portions this time of year. We imagine similar chaotic experiences like Noah’s ark in the flood, or the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. There are plenty of opportunities to think through our rich history during remote or home school.
On the plus side? It also means that I have a Hebrew lesson plan for tomorrow and beyond. We have access to an ancient, special Hebrew numerical code, called Gematria, and a mom teacher who now gets to figure out how to use that, along with those fancy decoder rings, for good – for the twins to learn math, puzzles, Hebrew and more … in Grade 4.
Joanne Seiffhas written regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. Check her out on Instagram @yrnspinner or at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.
George Heyman, ninth from the right, with family members in Poland last year. (photo from George Heyman)
Like scores of other British Columbians, George Heyman owes his life to Chiune Sugihara.
Heyman, who was reelected Saturday as MLA for Vancouver-Fairview, was born after the Second World War. But his parents escaped Poland via Japan thanks to the assistance of Sugihara, who was the vice-consul for the Japanese Empire in Kaunas, Lithuania. At risk to his career and probably his life, Sugihara betrayed orders of the Imperial Japanese government and issued transit visas that are credited with saving the lives of at least 6,000 European Jews.
Heyman, who was minister of environment and climate change strategy in the last government, was sketchy on some of this family history. So, at the urging of a distant cousin who is “a ferocious researcher,” Heyman, his sister and other family members from around the world convened in Poland last year.
“[The cousin] found others as well and he started communicating with us and sending us snapshots of things that he’d found in archives and going back a couple of hundred years,” Heyman said of the cousin, who is a retired professor in Denmark. “He found information about the village that our ancestors had once lived before they migrated to Warsaw.”
The diverse group of family members spent about 10 days together in the summer of 2019.
“We met in Warsaw, we had an initial family dinner of 20 people, three generations,” he recalled. “Everybody said a little bit about what it meant to them to be back, as well as where their lives had taken them.”
The cousin had prepared a family tree and presented each guest with a scroll outlining their genealogy. They then traveled as a group to Praszka, the village where the family had originated but left for Warsaw, probably in the late 1700s or early 1800s.
Both of his parents, Stefan Heyman and Marta Eliasberg Heyman, were born in Warsaw and they were family friends with the noted pedagogue and child advocate Dr. Janusz Korczak.
“My grandmother had been a volunteer working with him and my grandfather, who was a doctor, had also worked with him,” said Heyman. “We visited the site of the orphanage, which is now a commemorative museum. We went to the Jewish cemetery in Warsaw.… I was so pleased to see that so much had been done to rehabilitate much of the cemetery. People had been working on it since the end of the Second World War, but work continues. We wandered, we found gravestones of relatives and people we thought might be relatives. We talked to people we met there.”
They also visited the remnants of the Warsaw Ghetto, where Heyman’s maternal grandmother had been confined but from which she was rescued before the ghetto was liquidated, in 1943.
His maternal grandfather had died before the war and his grandmother, Stella Bernstein Eliasberg, had remained behind when Heyman’s parents fled. She was incarcerated in the ghetto, but was rescued in a scenario of which Heyman knows only the barest details. The ghetto wall abutted the side of a church and someone – friends of his grandparents, he thinks – brought clothing as a disguise and smuggled her out through the church and into hiding for the rest of the war. Heyman does not know whether there was any communication during this time between his mother and his grandmother. But, shortly after the war, Heyman’s parents were able to bring his grandmother to Vancouver, where she lived with them and played an important role in his life, until she passed away just before Heyman’s bar mitzvah.
Nothing is known of the fate of Heyman’s paternal grandparents.
“I often wonder what it must have been like for my father,” he said. “It’s hard enough when we remember a loved one who has died and we know the circumstances of their death. It’s horrific, as it has been for so many, many, many people … they are left only to imagine what their loved ones went through in their final days and hours. That was my father.”
The trip refashioned Heyman’s conception of his family.
“I always thought of my family as being very small,” he said. “In fairness, I didn’t know that some of these people even existed…. It gives me a sense of continuity and history.”
The trip also helped emphasize for him the lessons of the past for the politics of the present.
“We see right-wing violence, we see the beginnings of fascism appearing in many countries,” he said. “We don’t have to look far to see what happens if we take things for granted.”
He brings that experience back into his current work.
“That’s one of the reasons that our government, after 16 years of its elimination, reinstated the B.C. Human Rights Commission,” he said, “because it’s not enough to just deal with racist behaviour, hate behaviour, after it happens, we need a commission that will be responsible for educating people and recommending programs to raise people in an atmosphere of tolerance and love, not suspicion and hate. So that is also a very significant and often unnoticed achievement of our government, and we did it very early.”
He reflected: “The trip was meeting a family that I never knew I had and having more of a sense of being grounded in my family history, as well as the terrible recent history of what happened to our and so many other families, just dispersed, another diaspora all over the world.”