Last year, I requested two books from Simon & Schuster Canada. Both contained strong female protagonists and stories that sounded compelling. While it took the pandemic slowdown before I had time to read them, I enjoyed both and would recommend them, albeit one with a caveat.
Let’s start with the debut novel, the one I breezed through even though I found the premise tenuous. I wanted to know how Samantha M. Bailey’s thriller Woman on the Edge ended, even as I cursed aloud at the two main characters – Nicole Markham, founder and head of a widely successful athletic wear company, and Morgan Kincaid, a woman who has rebuilt her life after her husband was caught swindling people and then killed himself.
For reasons not revealed initially, Nicole hands her baby to Morgan at a subway stop, then jumps to her death, though video of the incident makes it seem like Morgan may have taken the baby then pushed Nicole onto the tracks. Alternating between Morgan’s attempt to clear her name and how Nicole came to give her baby to Morgan, the read is thrilling, even as it is too obviously contrived. At any point in time, a question or revelation from Nicole or Morgan could have shed light on their respective situations and cleared up critical matters. Yet, both women – unrealistically – keep their suspicions to themselves. The silences are necessary for the plot to work, so I chose to go where I was being led and relish the craziness of it all.
While there is no overt Jewish content in Woman on the Edge, Toronto-based writer and editor Bailey is Jewish. In her first novel, she shows a talent for creating dramatic tension, if not overall story structure. Despite its weaknesses, I found this novel a good escape read.
An absolute pleasure to read, and just as page-turning, is veteran author Alice Hoffman’s latest novel, The World That We Knew, set during the Holocaust. In it, there is magic. It is tangible – the golem Ava, created by Ettie, the precocious daughter of a respected rabbi, to protect Lea – and more abstract, in the loyalty of Ava to Lea and the beautiful friendship that develops between Ava and a blue heron along their journey.
After her husband is murdered and her daughter Lea is almost raped, Hanni knows she must get Lea to Paris, but she herself cannot leave Berlin. So, she turns to the rabbi for help, but making a golem is risky business and he won’t do it. Ettie, though, plans to escape with her younger sister, and Hanni’s payment will help her do that. Ettie has observed her father at work, and is able to bring Ava into being. As Ava becomes more seemingly human, however, and forms a bond with the blue heron, the main tension of the novel arises – will her appreciation for her own life and its possibilities outweigh her responsibility to Lea?
Many other tensions and relationships mingle with history, which is sometimes pedantically told but always interesting. The World That We Knew is a well-woven and moving story that offers an understanding not only of the past but of the emotions that motivate us and the connections we make with one another.
Vancouver writer Aren X. Tulchinsky at the Aug. 16 unveiling in Toronto of Project Bookmark Canada’s plaque honouring his novel, The Five Books of Moses Lapinsky. (photo by Lisa Sakulensky)
The Canadian Literary Trail has a new bookmark – one honouring The Five Books of Moses Lapinsky by Vancouver writer Aren X. Tulchinsky. The 25th such plaque to be erected by Project Bookmark Canada across the country, the unveiling took place Aug. 16 in Dominico Field at Barton Avenue and Christie Street in Toronto. Tulchinsky took part in the ceremony.
“Last October, I received a phone call from Laurie Murphy, executive director of Project Bookmark Canada, letting me know my historical novel The Five Books of Moses Lapinsky was nominated for a bookmark,” Tulchinsky told the Independent. They chose to unveil the plaque on Aug. 16 because it is the day on which the 1933 riot in Christie Pits took place.
Surprised and thrilled to hear that Project Bookmark Canada and the City of Toronto would be erecting the plaque in honour of his book, Tulchinsky said, “I was particularly struck by the timing, when, right now, we are all being called upon to make sure that dark chapters of our history do not repeat themselves.”
He explained, “My novel is about a fictional Jewish Russian immigrant family, living in the Kensington Market neighbourhood in the 1930s and ’40s. The main character, Sonny Lapinsky, is a Jewish boxer. He is 9-years-old … when the riot in Christie Pits occurs and, on that night, he discovers he has boxing talent and goes on to become a professional boxer. That same night, tragedy strikes the Lapinsky family.
“Many Canadians are not familiar with the 1933 riot, which involved 15,000 people and is the largest race riot ever to occur in Canada. A group of British- and German-Canadian young men, members of the Swastika Club, set off the riot when they unfurled a huge, black and white swastika flag in Christie Pits during a packed amateur league baseball game on a hot August night. The Project Bookmark plaque in Christie Pits will bring greater awareness to this piece of Canadian history and, of course, to my novel.”
Project Bookmark Canada was founded by writer Miranda Hill in 2007, with the first plaque being unveiled in 2009 – for Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion, at the Bloor Street Viaduct in Toronto. There are bookmarks from British Columbia to Newfoundland. Vancouverites have easy access to Bookmark No. 12, which commemorates Wayson Coy’s The Jade Peony, at the southeast corner of Pender Street and Gore Avenue in Chinatown.
“Visitors are encouraged to read their way across Canada, online and in person,” said Project Bookmark board of directors president Hughena Matheson in the press release about Tulchinsky’s honour. “A launching place for conversation, collaboration and learning, the bookmarks provide a unique reading experience and a deeper understanding of the country and its people.”
“I think Project Bookmark Canada is an important organization,” said Tulchinsky. “Their goal is to get people to read Canadian books. It is vital to celebrate our unique Canadian history and, sadly, our country is constantly in the shadow of the U.S., with American books filling our bookshelves. With the loss of small independent bookstores across the country who used to promote Canadian authors, and with people buying books online from huge American corporations, many excellent Canadian books go unnoticed. As a Canadian and as a writer, I applaud the work Project Bookmark Canada is doing to bring Canadian stories to the forefront.”
At the Aug. 16 unveiling, Tulchinsky read the excerpt of his novel – published under the name Karen X. Tulchinsky – that appears on the plaque. “It is the moment when, in 1933, the Swastika Club unfurled a huge swastika flag at the ninth inning of an amateur league baseball game in the park. All summer, the Swastika Club had been bullying Jews on the beaches of Toronto. On this day, they upped the ante and brought their antisemitism to the west side of town, which was mostly Jewish and Italian immigrants. After a summer of being kicked off the beaches, young Jewish men fought back. And, interestingly, the Italian men in the park joined the Jews in fighting against the Swastika Club and their allies, in what became the largest race riot ever to occur on Canadian soil.”
“Our past president, Don Oravec, spoke at the unveiling and said the novel was on his radar as a potential bookmark,” Project Bookmark’s Murphy told the Independent of how The Five Books of Moses Lapinsky was selected. “When Daniel Gelfant made an official submission to us to consider the book and its variety of Toronto settings as potential bookmarks, the wheels were set in motion. The board’s national bookmark advisory committee reviewed the proposal and approved it for development. Councilor Joe Cressy made a motion to the City of Toronto to provide funding in support of a bookmark for the Christie Pits ball field, on the anniversary of the riots in 1933. It was approved, and subsequently developed. Additional funds were raised by individual donors attending a bookmark fundraiser on Aug. 15, complete with a boxing demonstration by the author and the Toronto Newsgirls Boxing Club at Jazz Bistro.”
When he first started writing the novel, Tulchinsky, who was born in Toronto, said it “was loosely based on stories my grandfather had told me about his escape from Russia before the Second World War and his early days in Toronto, where his first home in Canada was in the Kensington Market area.
“When I started researching the Jewish community in 1930s Toronto, I discovered the riot that pitted young Jewish men and their Italian allies against the Swastika Club and their gentile allies…. As a Canadian Jew, I knew immediately that I would tell my story against this backdrop, an important piece of our history that had not yet been told in fiction. So, I created a fictional family, with four sons, all of whom get involved in the riot in different ways. On the night of the riots, one of the brothers is permanently injured in a way that shatters the family, especially the main character, Sonny, whose guilt over what happened to his brother causes a rift between him and his father, that sends the family into turmoil.
“The Five Books of Moses Lapinsky, which takes place … when Hitler first came to power in Germany, and continues through the Second World War years, is about antisemitism in Canada,” he said. “It’s about how hatred only leads to more hatred and violence. At the risk of sounding like the Vancouverite I am, I believe the only cure for hate is love. Sadly, history tends to repeat itself and, today, in 2019, we are seeing a rise in hate crimes in Europe, the U.S. and here in Canada against Jews, Muslims, South American migrants and the LGBTQ community. We are witnessing the president of the United States taking children away from their asylum-seeking parents and imprisoning them in what can only be called concentration camps. The themes in my novel, sadly, are just as relevant today as ever. I hope people see the parallels in the fascism that swept the world in the 1930s with what is happening today. I just keep hoping that humans will find a better way forward that does not repeat the mistakes of our past.”
And Tulchinsky continues to examine that past.
“I am currently working on a new novel, set in 1930s Berlin, in which I follow fictional characters (Jewish and non-Jewish) as Hitler first comes to power. In the story,” he said, “we watch as the Jewish characters are systematically stripped of their civil rights, then their livelihoods and, eventually, their lives. For my research, I have read hundreds of books on the Holocaust and the rise of the Nazis in the 1930s and I can tell you there are many policies the Trump administration is pursuing in the U.S. that are taken directly from Hitler’s playbook. In the current climate, with antisemitism, racism and homophobia on the rise, I feel particularly driven to finish and publish this new novel.”
Gabriella Goliger’s Eva Salomon’s War is an intriguing novel. (photo by Ben Welland))
Award-winning Canadian author Gabriella Goliger has written Eva Salomon’s War (Bedazzled Ink Publishing, 2018), an intriguing novel set between the rise of the German Nazi state and the founding of the state of Israel – two complex historical phenomena whose aftershocks we are still experiencing. But, for Eva Salomon, those huge events are mainly engines moving her own story forward from timid German-Jewish adolescent to courageous Israeli young woman. The novel takes us through many intricacies of the competing historical strands that form the background of Eva’s life. Readers familiar with various bits and pieces of the history can connect the dots through her eyes.
Written as a first-person bildungsroman, the book opens as the Nazis close in on the Jews, who are wondering which of the many possible responses to embrace. Should they stay and resist? Stay, pray and keep their heads down? Should they emigrate, and, if so, where? Should they join the movement to build a Zionist workers’ state in Palestine? So many choices, so many unknowns, and so much peril attached to each decision.
Eva’s beloved older sister, Liesel, immigrates to a socialist kibbutz in the Galilee. Sixteen-year-old Eva and her embittered, widowed father migrate to Tel Aviv. We know what happens to the relatives who feel too old to make the trip.
The character of Eva is loosely based on Goliger’s own aunt. Letters between Eva and Liesel give us many illustrative details of Jewish life in Palestine in those years. In Breslau, they had enjoyed middle-class lives. In Palestine, they quickly have to learn working-class skills and they have to adapt to their shabby new realities among people with no time for pity or introspection.
Kibbutz life is physically harsh but relieved by the high level of ideological commitment between the comrades: “I sleep in a tent and the food is plain, but I never have to think about where my next meal is coming from. Everything is communal and allotted to me, down to my shoes and socks.” Eva flees the misery of life in her father’s tiny flat and finds a place to live with Malka, a Hungarian Jewish seamstress who helps her accommodate to her reduced circumstances.
Malka transforms Eva from a ragged miserable waif to a well-dressed young woman who can make her way in the vibrant, uncertain Jewish Palestinian world. Eva learns the meaning of “ein breirah” – no choice – a theme resonating not only throughout the novel but throughout the decades to the present day as one formative part of Israeli Jewish culture.
Eva finds work as an ozerit (cleaning lady) and starts putting together a life of sorts. She finds a music shop that affords her a bit of pleasure – “my refuge, my paradise” – phonograph records feeding her delight in classical music and her longing for romance. Fittingly, it is where she meets Constable Duncan Rees of His Majesty’s Palestine Police. Their romance encapsulates many conflicting layers of identity, culture, desire and belonging.
Throughout the novel, most of the characters are rent by doubts and competing loyalties. Only the fanatics of all stripes know certainty. The portrayal of Eva’s unbending Orthodox father, seemingly bereft of feeling for his wayward daughter, I found puzzling. We never see anything through his eyes, never understand his inner realities.
Eva is at war with her father, with all rigid religious and political belief systems, with her situation of loving the wrong person, and with her own competing claims of duty. Her personal war intersects with the fighting in Europe, the fighting between Arabs and Jews, the infighting between the various Zionist factions and, crucially, with the growing resistance to the British presence in Palestine.
Eva is a Jewish refugee. Duncan is charged with upholding British laws controlling Jewish immigrants. Despite the growing cultural-personal-political tensions, Eva enjoys their romance. She experiences pleasure and the delights of physical intimacy, which she keeps secret as much as possible. “The more he was my secret, the tighter, I felt, was our bond.” Their emotional intimacy is harder to sustain. One feels it can’t last and I wondered throughout how Goliger was going to handle it (no spoiler here).
The British White Paper on Palestine brings it all to a head. Tensions explode into violence all over the land, from many different directions, aimed at “traitors” to all the intersecting causes. For each faction, “we” are highly individuated and the others are an undifferentiated “they.” Eva, essentially an apolitical person, is helplessly caught up in the sectarian brutality.
One can’t help but read the novel through the prism of the tragic unfolding of events since 1948. Goliger vividly illustrates the human urgencies propelling Arabs and Jews in all directions, and the emotional realities behind all the ideologies.
Near the end, I was reminded of Anne Frank’s “In spite of everything, I still believe people are good at heart.” Eva reflects, “I believe a better world is dawning because … because ein breirah. I must.”
Deborah Yaffe lives in Victoria, where she formerly taught in the women’s studies department of the University of Victoria. An active secular Jewish feminist since reading Elana Dykewomon and Irena Klepfisz in the 1980s, she is grateful for the many Israeli individuals and organizations working against Jewish persecution of Arab Israelis and Palestinians.