Among the documents in the Houdiniana Collection at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts is a thank you letter from Harry Houdini’s brother to Dr. Daniel E. Cohn, who was Houdini’s doctor at the time of the escape artist’s death in Detroit on Oct. 31, 1926. (image from New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Houdiniana Collection)
Did you know there’s a Harry Houdini connection to Vancouver’s Jewish community? My late husband was Theodore (Ted) Cohn, emeritus professor of political science at Simon Fraser University. Ted’s father, Dr. Daniel E. Cohn, was Houdini’s doctor at the time of the escape artist’s death in Detroit on Oct. 31, 1926 (Halloween).
After Ted’s mother, Ethel Schatz, died in 2012, we acquired papers related to Cohn’s care for Houdini. Cohn was just 25 years old, starting his medical practice. He was the substitute doctor for the Statler Hotel at the time of Houdini’s Detroit tour.
Prior to his Detroit performance, on Oct. 22, Houdini had been punched unexpectedly in Montreal by a McGill student, J. Gordon Whitehead. Whitehead was testing Houdini’s ability to withstand abdominal blows. Without advance notice, however, Houdini was unable to prepare his muscles, and his appendix was ruptured. Nevertheless, he and his wife Bess traveled to Detroit, where he performed at the Garrick Theatre on Oct. 24. He collapsed after the show.
Houdini reluctantly went to Grace Hospital after being examined by Dr. Cohn. His surgeon, Dr. Charles S. Kennedy, operated and discovered the now-gangrenous appendix. With no cure in sight, Houdini remained hospitalized. Specialists were consulted, to no avail.
Cohn was able to spend time at Houdini’s bedside, getting to know him and even bringing him “Farmer’s Chop Suey,” a sour cream-raw vegetable dish Houdini requested. The two ate this Jewish specialty together.
A thank you letter to Cohn from Houdini’s brother, Theodore Hardeen, and other original documents are now in the Houdiniana Collection at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. These include Dr. Cohn’s notes related to Houdini’s medical care and death, and insurance and legal letters related to Cohn’s payment. I wanted these valuable items to have a better home than our personal archival-quality folders, and approached the specialty library, where these papers will be available to researchers.
Houdini’s father, Rabbi Mayer Samuel Weiss, moved to Appleton, Wisc., in 1878, to be the first rabbi at Zion Congregation. Houdini, known then as Erich Weiss, was 4 years old. Houdini is buried in Machpelah Cemetery, Queens, N.Y.
Among other things, Hanukkah is about bringing light into the darkness. There is plenty of darkness in the world and a vast range of concerns calling for radiance.
Mainstream media seem to have taken the cue that Hanukkah is the moment to discuss the alarming and rising phenomenon of antisemitism. Time magazine declares: “Amid antisemitism, Hanukkah celebrations carry new weight.” USA Today explained a new tradition: “On Hanukkah, the ninth candle reflects how anyone can fight antisemitism by sharing truth.” Here in Canada, both Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Opposition Leader Pierre Poilievre highlighted antisemitism in their annual Hanukkah messages. Expect to see similar expressions of concern in a few days, as the end-of-2022 reflections on the good and bad of the year just passed and hopes for the fresh new year fill pages and airtime during the slow news days of the winter holidays.
We are not complaining. This issue needs thorough and ongoing coverage. It just seems, somehow, that writing and talking about what is often called the world’s oldest bigotry lacks new insights. Many agree that this is a problem. Few, though, have solutions beyond platitudes.
Finding innovative ways to think and talk about “the world’s oldest” anything is, by definition, a challenge. Some of the greatest scholars in the world have studied the problem, vast networks of activist organizations and Jewish communal agencies devote themselves to defeating it, and still it grows. If we had the definitive explanation or the silver bullet to solve it, you would not be reading it here – we would be sharing our wisdom from the dais of the Nobel Prize ceremony and as the lead story on the world’s media. Undaunted, a few thoughts:
The very phrase “antisemitism” may be problematic. The term was invented in the late 1800s by a proud antisemite to describe his orientation. But while there is a great deal of conscious and visible antisemitism in the world today that rightly raises alarms, there has always been an equally, perhaps more, worrying phenomenon in the form of unconscious bias about Jews that permeates many societies and individuals. This is more insidious and, therefore, more difficult to challenge.
It is worth noting that antisemitism is often most prevalent where no or few Jews exist, making it easier to project onto a largely imaginary enemy the fears and hatreds carried by the individual or the society. Similarly, we see a projection of Jewishness onto any unpopular phenomenon, an example being the “Great Replacement” theory, a paranoid fantasy in which whatever the perpetrator despises (in this case immigration) is cast as a problem with Jewish roots.
Both of these phenomena touch on what we suspect is the nut of antisemitism: it is a problem that affects Jews but it is not a problem of Jews. That is, if Jews did not exist, the antisemites would have to invent them – which is, in essence, precisely what they have done with the caricatured “Jew” that is demonized by antisemites.
This understanding, of course, does nothing to resolve the problem. And, again, a problem known as “the world’s oldest hatred” is not going to be solved in one generation with one easy antidote. It is encouraging, though, to see the range of responses to the problem, from more in-depth coverage in mainstream media to the statements of top leaders in Canada, as well as in the United States, where a major presidential effort against antisemitism is being led by Doug Emhoff, the second gentleman of the United States, who recently led a roundtable of leading thinkers, and in a host of other undertakings worldwide.
As is said in a different context, the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem. As a society, we have a consensus that antisemitism is a growing problem. As we approach 2023, we hope those thoughts will turn to even more action in confronting this confounding blight.
During a Dec. 4 Zoom lecture organized by Kolot Mayim Reform Temple in Victoria, historian Elissa Bemporad offered a nuanced look at the Jewish experience in Ukraine, as well as perspective on the Russian invasion of Ukraine
“It was a history marked significantly more by coexistence between Jews and non-Jews than it was by violence,” said Bemporad, a professor at Queens College and CUNY Graduate Centre in New York City. “I am saying this not only in response to the genocidal war that Russia has launched in Ukraine, justifying it by manipulating the past and demonizing Ukrainians as quintessentially violent. We should resist the view of the Jewish experience in the region, as tragic as it might have been, as if it was doomed from the very beginning and enveloped in perpetual violence.”
The current war, she underscored, has brought about the worst refugee crisis in Europe since the Second World War, with cities destroyed and civilian populations terrorized. “The aim of this war seems to be putting an end to Ukrainian sovereignty and identity,” she said. “As a historian, one of the most painful moments was reading about how the Russian occupiers were seizing and destroying books. As Jewish historians, we know all too well what happens when a society destroys books.”
Showing images of the destruction of Jewish buildings in Ukraine, such as a synagogue in Mariupol and the Hillel building in Kharkhiv, Bemporad spoke to the irony of one of Russia’s stated goals of the conflict: to rid the country of Nazis. Most of the Jews in these bombed-out cities have left, she said, and there is uncertainty as to whether they will return; many have either fled to Israel or settled in the West.
Bemporad discussed the pre-Second World War period, when 1.5 million Jews lived in what is today Ukraine, the largest community being in Kyiv, where 226,000 Jews resided, or one-third of the city’s population. Addressing the anti-Jewish violence in the region, she spoke about – among other uprisings, dating back to the 17th century – the Russian Civil War (1918-21) and the resulting atrocities committed against the Jewish population by both military units and the civilian population. Many of the pogroms took place in Ukraine and tens of thousands of Jews were killed.
“Jews were thought of as interlopers in the national body and imagined as forces connected to Bolshevism that would tear apart the nation’s fabric,” Bemporad said. “The fact that Trotsky was the leader of the Red Army did not play in favour of the Jews.”
But Bemporad highlighted a history of coexistence as well, stories in which some Ukrainians heroically stepped in to save the life of Jews, notably the writer Rakhel Feygenberg, who, along with her infant son, was hidden by non-Jews during a 1919 pogrom.
About the post-First World War era, she noted the ambivalentattitude the Soviet state had toward antisemitism. “While the state condemned antisemitism on paper, it was often eager to ignore antisemitism or to weaponize it in its best interest,” she said. “With regard to the pogroms, the Soviets shifted between acknowledging and downplaying the anti-Jewish violence. They were ambiguous in their treatment of the Jews, and they were the ambiguous in their treatment of the perpetrators, creating a state-controlled memory. However, when the discussion of the pogroms was perceived as at odds with the regime’s interests and priorities of building socialism based on the brotherhood of peoples, then the memory of anti-Jewish violence was silenced and the Soviets preferred not to investigate and punish the perpetrators.”
In other examples, she said the Soviets would use antisemitism among Ukrainians as a means to demonstrate they were prone to nationalism. And both Ukraine and Russia have provided recent examples of reviving the memories of and glorifying national heroes who were responsible for carrying out pogroms.
In a final slide, Bemporad displayed the results of a Pew Research Centre survey on antisemitism in Europe. Despite Russia’s attempts to portray Ukraine as a hotbed of antisemitism, more Russians had an unfavourable opinion of Jews than Ukrainians. And, in Bemporad’s view, Ukraine, despite its corruption, has become the most democratic of the post-Soviet states, excluding the Baltic countries. Further, as has often been mentioned in referring to the present situation of Jews in Ukraine, the country elected a Jewish president, Volodymyr Zelensky, with more than 73% of the vote.
“Siding with Ukraine today does not entail dismissing or forgetting the dark pages of anti-Jewish violence in the region,” Bemporad said. “It is rather a reminder that we can start turning those pages and writing new ones in the book of the Jews of Ukraine.”
Bemporad, a two-time winner of the National Jewish Book Award, is the author of Becoming Soviet Jews: The Bolshevik Experiment in Minsk and Legacy of Blood: Jews, Pogroms and Ritual Murder in the Lands of the Soviets. She is the co-editor of two volumes: Women and Genocide: Survivors, Victims, Perpetrators and Pogroms: A Documentary History.
The next speaker in Kolot Mayim’s Building Bridges series will be Sari Shernofsky, a retired community chaplain from the Calgary Jewish community, on Stories from the Narrow Bridge: Meeting People in Their Time of Need. She will speak on Jan. 8, 11 a.m. Visit kolotmayimreformtemple.com.
Sam Margolishas written for the Globe and Mail, the National Post, UPI and MSNBC.
This past summer at Camp Hatikvah, the 13-year-old campers were asked to re-create a camp photo from the 1960s. (photo from Camp Hatikvah)
If any Camp Hatikvah alumni stepped onto the property for the first time since the early 2000s, they would be in awe. With the exception of the chadar (dining hall), every single building on site has been rebuilt over the years thanks to the generosity of the community. The facilities are safe, modern and thoughtfully planned to ensure the best program possible can be delivered to the close to 700 participants Hatikvah hosts each summer.
However, even more impressive than what has changed at Camp Hatikvah over the years, is what hasn’t.
“Our site has certainly improved a lot over time and the new facilities have led to exciting program
opportunities for our campers but, with great pride, our program remains deeply steeped in the same traditions that existed when the camp was founded some 75 years ago,” shared executive director Liza Rozen-Delman.
Rozen-Delman went on to say that, whilealumni from any previous era who visited the camp may not recognize the buildings, they would feel immediately at home.
“Everything would be familiar to them. The mifkad (flag raising/lowering) ceremony is performed verbatim to how it was done in the ’40s. We still start every meal by singing ‘Anachnu od lo achalnu shum davar …’ followed by the blessings. The Kochot campers still try to sneak past shmira (night watch) after bedtime and final banquet is still the most special night of the summer,” she said with a smile.
It’s hard not to smile with her, as you can see the passion for Jewish camping all over her face as she speaks about the generations of children who have been impacted by Hatikvah.
“It’s a place like no other,” Rozen-Delman said. “It is where thousands of kids had the chance to experience a fully Jewish environment for the first time in their lives. It’s beautiful and I am grateful to be able to be a part of it.”
Joanna Wasel, board president, couldn’t agree more. She said Jewish camp is one of the most impactful ways to help children form a strong and proud Jewish identity. It works, she said, “specifically because the learning at camp is informal. It doesn’t come from lectures but from immersive Jewish experiences that are shared amongst a community of peers. It’s powerful and effective. Quite frankly, it’s brilliant.”
During these complicated times, when youth are experiencing mental health issues at an unprecedented rate, Hatikvah’s focus on tradition is also helping campers go back to a simpler time. “We are a technology-free zone,” noted Rozen-Delman, who went on to say that camp offers children a much-needed respite from social media. “Being unplugged is freeing,” she said. “It’s one of the greatest gifts we can give the children of today.”
Rozen-Delman spoke about the joy she feels when kids engage in the type of back-to-basics fun that the camp environment can provide. She recalled a program the 13-year-old campers did this past summer, where they were given an historical camp photo from the early 1960s and asked to re-create it.
“It’s not always easy to get a 13-year-old excited about a program, so I was unsure what the reaction would be,” she said. “But these kids reveled in the opportunity to do something creative and different. They went to their cabins, got dressed up and had the most amazing time giggling with each other as they performed their task. It was so pure. And I loved the photos they took, as it connected them with the past and reminded them that they are a part of a community of people who have been touched by this special camp.”
Gloria Levi’s recently published creative memoir The Hotelkeeper’s Daughter is a tribute to her family. And not just the family from whom she comes – the people who inhabit the main part of this story – but also the family she has made herself, the family members in the book with whom she shares her memories and those outside of it, who will read the story.
The memoir is “creative” because memory, almost by definition, is unreliable, and, with this book, the 90-plus-year-old Levi is going back to her childhood. The character Gilda, her avatar of sorts, is trying to make sense of her past:
“They are all gone … Jerry, Macey, Sadie … and Ida and Leo … Bubbie … I, Gilda, at the age of 90, am the only one left of my family of origin. I am the Omega generation, the last letter of the Greek alphabet. I remember so vividly the sweetness of family togetherness, extended family visits, our tight-knit community. How I loved them and felt loved by them: their vitality, their enduring values, their struggles, losses and successes, their remarkable resilience. They are a deep part of me. They are the heroes of a bygone era.”
Speaking to her son and great-grandson, Gilda takes us to Powell Street, in Brooklyn, N.Y., 1938. She is 7 years old. She vividly describes her community, the neighbourhood of Brownsville. Her parents, grandmother and three siblings live downstairs in a duplex shared with her uncle and aunt and their family, who live upstairs. Money is sparse.
“During their usual pinochle card game one Saturday evening in March,” writes Levi, “my father turned to his cousin, Big Eliezer, and said, ‘Eli, I really need to make a change. I don’t want to go on like this. I know I can do better than my chicken store. What do you think, if you, Sammy and I were to rent a summer hotel? My brother Benny runs a hotel with partners. He’s doing just fine. You know, with your catering experience, Eli, and the younger energy and determination of Sammy and me, I think we could make a go of it. What do you think?’ Sammy nodded in agreement. Uncle Shimon closed his hand of cards and stared.”
And the rest, as they say, is history – and the meat of this memoir. Life isn’t easy as the daughter of hotelkeepers. Gilda had been happy on Powell Street, had many friends and her favourite activities. She was very close to her grandmother, who didn’t initially go with the family, and her parents were absorbed in the business. Gilda was lonely and often felt invisible. She has a challenging relationship with her mother, Ida.
Through Gilda’s story, we see how families like hers – an Eastern European Jewish family who immigrated to the United States – struggled and succeeded in their new homeland, through the Great Depression and the Second World War. We also see how Gilda grows into herself and begins to find her own way. The memoir ends in 1948, as Gilda starts university.
As 90-year-old Gilda looks back at this foundational decade of her life, relating her story to her son Daniel and great-grandson Lenny, she ultimately reflects not only on what has passed, but what is yet to come.
“To the Lennys of today and the Idas of yesterday, I want to affirm their vision, their energy, and their inspiring dedication to build a fairer, more just and loving society.”
When Toronto poet Simon Constam emailed me with a request to read his debut collection of poetry, Brought Down, he described it as “notable because it addresses people’s daily experience of God and the Jewish religious tradition.” He noted, “it is provocative and well-written as can be attested to by the reviews of it thus far.” Indeed, the reviews I’ve read have been highly complimentary – and justifiably so.
I am neither religious nor a poetry buff, yet I found Constam’s poems engaging. I liked his challenging and questioning manner. At 70+ years old, he has wisdom gained from life experience that includes approximately a decade in which he followed Orthodox Jewish observance. His knowledge of Judaism infuses his writing and I had to look up a few names and concepts, even though there is a glossary at the end of this 61-page volume.
What I greatly appreciated about these poems is the theme that runs through most, if not all, of them: the title idea of “brought down,” as it refers to what we inherit from our ancestors, whether we’re talking about traditions, rituals, genes, coping mechanisms, etc. The lens through which Constam explores these ideas is his Jewishness. In “Yerushalmi,” for example, he writes:
“Today I seem to have the face of a man I briefly stared at, on a bus on Rehov King David in the fall of 1969. / I wear the same clothes, dark jacket, dark shirt, rough tan trousers, dust-scuffed brown boots. / The mirror shows me, grizzled, unkempt, stocky, stoic, almost seventy. / My face is the face my grandfather wore. / My parents, aunts, and uncles swore the resemblance is uncanny. My history is clear. / I was one of Titus’s captives marched through Rome in chains. I collected all my things in a sack to flee from Ferdinand and Isabella along the Jew-choked roads. I missed my fate in Kielce and Bialystock. I hid in the forests by Kishinev.” It ultimately concludes: “I am the inheritor of a furious history that only in this place can I never deny or forget.”
In his struggles with God, Constam contemplates what it means to be Jewish, what it means to be human. While this all sounds quite serious, and it is, there is humour in this collection and, ultimately, it is hopeful. As much as he takes God to task, Constam is calling on all of us to question ourselves, and to accept our responsibility for the state of the world.
A Visit to Moscow is a beautifully illustrated and haunting graphic novel. In a brief 72 pages, it relates the story of an American rabbi who, on a 1965 trip to the Soviet Union, sneaks away from his delegation in Moscow to visit the brother of a friend – Bela hadn’t heard from Meyer for more than 10 years and was worried.
A Visit to Moscow (West Margin Press, 2022) is an adaptation by Anna Olswanger of a story told to her by Rabbi Rafael Grossman. It is illustrated by Yevgenia Nayberg, who captures in her palette, in the angles of her images, in her use of light and shadow, scratches and blurs, the claustrophobic fear that existed in that era in the USSR.
“Although the events of A Visit to Moscow are set before my time, the overall spirit of the Soviet Union feels very similar to what it was throughout my childhood when I lived there. I didn’t have to make a big leap to connect to the time period,” writes Nayberg in a section at the end of the book, where we get to see some of her preliminary sketches.
Olswanger knew Grossman, having collaborated with him on writing projects since the early 1980s. “One of our ﬁrst projects,” she writes, “was a Holocaust novel with a character based on his cousin, a leader of the Jewish resistance in the Bialystok ghetto. As we planned out the storyline, Rabbi Grossman told me about an incident during a trip he made in 1965 to the Soviet Union, where he met a young boy whose parents were Holocaust survivors. The boy had never been outside the room he was born in.
“We never finished the novel, and then, in 2018, Rabbi Grossman died.”
Years later, Grossman’s daughter sent Olswanger a box of writings that Olswanger and the rabbi had worked on. It inspired Olswanger to revisit the story. But she didn’t have the whole story, so, on the suggestion of her editor, wrote A Visit to Moscow as historical fiction.
The main part of the book is incredibly moving. The tension as the rabbi makes his way to Meyer’s last known address is palpable in both text and images; the KGB are an ever-looming threat. When he arrives, it takes the rabbi time to gain Meyer’s trust and for Meyer to let the rabbi into his flat, where he meets Meyer’s wife and their son, Zev, who has never left their home. The rabbi promises to get them all to Israel.
This core of the novel is well-written, easily understood and powerful. Unfortunately, this mid-section is bookended by ambiguous scenes. At the beginning, Zev hovers from heaven over his dead body, which is laying somewhere in a mountain range. In the throes of dying, he remembers the story of the rabbi’s visit, which leads into the main story, after which we see young Zev on a plane, remembering the ride and Israel’s beauty. In the midst of this, he wonders, “And later – was it years later? Was he a young man?” In the next panel, a fire burns in the aforementioned mountain range and the text reads: “He remembers a sudden flash. A burst of black smoke. Burning metal.”
I first thought that he and his parents had been killed in a plane crash on the way to Israel, so close to freedom but never reaching it. After madly flipping pages back and forth in the book, trying to figure out what I’d missed, I found what I was looking for in the About the Contributors section: “For over 25 years, Rabbi Grossman visited Zev and his family in Israel. He saw them together for the last time in 1992, the year Zev died at the age of 37, a husband and father, while on reserve duty with his army unit in Lebanon.”
A tragic ending either way, but at least Zev got out of his room and got to live more fully for those 25 years. “Every time I visited Zev in Israel,” wrote Grossman, “he was smiling.”
A Visit to Moscow could have benefited from a few more pages, to make the transition of Zev’s journey from the Soviet Union to Israel more understandable, and to include some aspects of his life in Israel, even if they were fictional. Olswanger and Nayberg have created something special, but it feels incomplete.
While the flood in Noah’s time, and his building of the ark, may be one of the more famous biblical weather incidents, along with the wind that battered the ship in which the prophet Jonah was hiding, they certainly are not the only ones (Metropolitan Museum of Art: Adele S. Colgate bequest, 1962)
It seems that everybody talks about the weather. Has it always been the case? While it’s admittedly impossible to prove whether it has, weather was certainly talked about in ancient times. The Hebrew Bible, or Tanakh, contains many weather references.
Right off the bat, in Genesis 2:6, we find mention of mist. In this context, G-d has spent the week creating the world. On the seventh day, He fashions the first man: “but there went up a mist from the earth, and watered the whole face of the ground. Then the Lord G-d formed man of the dust of the ground….”
Five chapters later, we get to the flood story. We read about heavy, sustained rain and catastrophic flooding – “and I will cause it to rain upon the earth forty days and forty nights; and every living substance that I have made will I blot out from off the face of the earth. And the waters prevailed, and increased greatly upon the earth; and the ark went upon the face of the waters. And He blotted out every living substance which was upon the face of the ground … and Noah only was left, and they that were with him in the ark.” (Genesis 7:18,23)
Rain, however, functions as both a positive and a negative force. In Leviticus 26:4, G-d states that He will bring the rain at the proper time, enabling the trees and the land to be harvested: “I will give your rains in their season, and the land shall yield her produce, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit.”
When the flood in Noah’s time ends, G-d promises to refrain from ever again bringing such a destructive deluge. He does this symbolically with the rainbow: “I have set My bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between Me and the earth. And it shall come to pass, when I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the cloud and the waters shall no more become a flood to destroy all flesh.” (Genesis 9:13-15)
The same duality that applies to rain also applies to wind. It is a positive force, as seen in parting the Red Sea, allowing the Hebrews to safely depart from Egypt (Exodus 14:21-22). But, it is also a punishing power that drowns the Egyptian soldiers who are in pursuit.
In the Book of Jonah, G-d brings a tremendous wind with the intention of smashing apart the ship in which the reluctant prophet Jonah is hiding: “… the Lord hurled a great wind into the sea, and there was a mighty tempest in the sea, so that the ship was like to be broken.” (Jonah 1:4)
While we generally consider a whirlwind to be violent but brief, it has a different meaning in the Tanakh. In Hosea 8:7, it symbolizes ineffectiveness: “they shall reap the whirlwind; it hath no stalk, the bud that shall yield no meal.” Nonetheless, the whirlwind is also a blessing, which carries the prophet Elijah to heaven: “Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven. And Elisha saw him no more.” (2 Kings 2:11-12)
Other storm-related phenomena appear in the books of the Hebrew Bible. Both thunder and lightning, for example, are mentioned in the Book of Job, chapters 36 and 37: “He covereth His hands with the lightning and giveth it a charge that it strike the mark. G-d thundereth marvellously with His voice.” Likewise, the prophet Isaiah warns that G-d plans to bring thunder: “There shall be a visitation from the Lord of hosts with thunder.” (Isaiah, 29:6)
Hail is also written about in a few places. In Ezekiel 13:11 and 13, G-d threatens to bring a hailstorm. Significantly, in the Book of Exodus (9:18,25-26), hail is one of the 10 plagues G-d casts down upon the Egyptian people because of Pharaoh’s intransigence against freeing the Hebrew slaves: “Behold, tomorrow about this time I will cause it to rain a very grievous hail, such as hath not been in Egypt since the day it was founded even until now. And the hail smote throughout all the land of Egypt all that was in the field, both man and beast; and the hail smote every herb of the field and broke every tree of the field. Only in the land of Goshen, where the children of Israel were, was there no hail.”
The Tanakh likewise has references to snow in a few places, though there is practically no mention of snow having fallen – almost always, snow is used metaphorically. Thus, in Exodus 4:6, someone with leprosy has “skin white as snow.” Later, this phrase is repeated in Number 12:10 when Miriam, Moses’ sister, has leprosy.
The lack of precipitation is likewise an issue. Similar to hail, drought is used as a threat or as an actual way of punishing the Hebrews. As the
Hebrews were an agricultural society, a drought meant crop failure: “And if ye will not … hearken unto Me, then I will chastise you seven times more for your sins. I will make your heaven as iron and your earth as brass … your land shall not yield her produce, neither shall the trees of the land yield their fruit.” (Leviticus 26:18-20)
Meteorology has certainly advanced since ancient times, of course. Back then, there were no radar, satellites, radiosondes, supercomputers or advanced multidisciplinary weather graphs to interpret or predict the weather. In the Tanakh, the chief forecaster, G-d, is also the creator of these weather situations. As such, He has a considerable edge over everyone and everything.
Deborah Rubin Fields is an Israel-based features writer. She is also the author of Take a Peek Inside: A Child’s Guide to Radiology Exams, published in English, Hebrew and Arabic.
Left to right, Katherine Matlashewski (as Shayna Schneider), Advah Soudack (as Margaret Grant) and Amitai Marmorstein (as Jankl Schneider) in Courage Now, playing at the Firehall Arts Centre until Dec. 4. (photo by Youn Park)
One does not often get a chance to see a world première of a play in Vancouver. After writing my preview article on Courage Now in the last edition of the Independent, I was looking forward with great anticipation to seeing the final product. I was not disappointed.
It is a difficult story to tell but it is done with such sensitivity and style that I highly recommend seeing it. As a child of a Holocaust survivor, any story of courage and heroism arising out of that era resonates with me – this one in particular had me in tears.
From the moment you walk into the intimate Firehall Arts Centre theatre, you know you are about to see something special. The set is austere – a desk, a bench, a lattice-like trellis, an empty wall-mounted picture frame – with a pagoda-style roof and an archway backlit with vibrant colours. (Kudos to set designer Kimira Reddy and lighting designer Itai Erdal.)
To summarize the backstory, Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese consul in Kaunas, Lithuania, in 1940, against the instructions of his government, issued more than 2,300 handwritten visas in a 30-day period to save Jews trying to leave Poland and Lithuania. He was supported in his decision by his wife, Yukiko, who knew the price the family would pay for going against the government edicts. And a price was paid: career loss, humiliation and Sugihara’s self-imposed postwar exile to Russia for 16 years.
The play follows what appear to be two separate narratives that intersect in an unexpected way in the final scene. In 1986, Yukiko (playwright Manami Hara) is forced to revisit wartime when a visitor from Vancouver, Margaret Grant, born Shayna Schneider (Advah Soudack), comes for answers from Sugihara as to what happened to her father after he put her on a train out of Kaunas when she was 13 years old. She has resented her father through the years, feeling abandoned and betrayed by his sending her off alone; she is also coping with a difficult divorce and her own daughter’s hatred. Sugihara has recently died, however, and Margaret must turn to Yukiko for answers instead.
The play opens with Yukiko waking from a dream where she is visited by the ghost of her husband. Then Margaret enters her garden. She tells Yukiko, “I am a Sugihara Jew, Sempo saved my life.” The play then moves through a series of memory flashbacks, as the audience is transported back and forth between 1940 Kaunas and 1986 Japan.
Katherine Matlashewski plays the teenage Shayna and Amitai Marmorstein plays her father, Jankl. Jankl visits Sugihara (Ryota Kaneko) to plead for visas on behalf of the thousands of Jews who have been lining up every day outside the consul’s office. In a touching and poignant scene, something as simple as a shared cup of coffee gives you a sense of the integrity and honour of these two men as they strive to do the right thing. Kaneko plays Sugihara with a quiet intensity and Marmorstein portrays Jankl with dignity. The scene where he sees Shayna off at the train station is heartbreaking – he watches his only child (his “little mouse,” as he calls her) walk away from him, tattered suitcase in hand, in a fog of smoke and the eerie sound of a train whistle in the distance.
In many ways, the journeys of the two women are love stories. Yukiko grapples with the grief of losing her husband, moving through the stages towards acceptance, and Margaret comes to the realization that it was her father’s love that put her on that train in 1940. Both characters become conduits for the other’s catharsis. When Yukiko shares her husband’s journal from that time, Margaret says, “My father lives in that journal.”
All five of the actors do credit to their roles in this ensemble piece but Hara and Soudack’s performances are sublime. The play is particularly effective when all five actors are on stage at the same time in the memory flashback vignettes.
My one criticism is that there is quite a bit of Japanese dialogue between Kaneko and Hara and it would have been helpful to have either a reader board translating or a program insert with translations.
Hara has penned a lovely tribute to Sugihara and I, for one, am grateful to her for her work.