The other day, I went looking for a friend I met during my university days, one I had lost touch with after years of companionship. I looked him up on the internet and discovered to my dismay that he had passed away some 11 years ago. I was too late to hear his story from his own lips. I was too late to tell him my story from my own lips to his conscious mind. I felt robbed of something I felt I was entitled to. Up until the moment I learned of his fate, he was very much alive for me.
Recently, an acquaintance of my Bride’s, someone I had gotten to know through her, a person we had been visiting because of an illness, died in hospital. She unexpectedly took a turn for the worse and, in the space of seven days, had changed from someone we had been conversing with, to a mere body. I am not a stranger to this phenomenon, having lost a spouse similarly to a lingering disease, but I was shocked at this sudden transition.
I am long since retired from being an active presence in an enterprise. I recently gave up being an active manager of my own financial affairs. What I have evolved into during the last decade or so is being a teller of stories. I am still very busy at that. One of my greatest pleasures is to hear from one of my correspondents that I have expressed for them their very thoughts, if only they had put a pen to them.
All of us have stories we want to tell. We all have lots to say, lots we wish to say. Often, we do not go to the trouble of communicating our thoughts and experiences. Too often, our stories die with us. I think that is a pity. I am trying my best to ensure I am not guilty of that.
It has been a long time since my thoughts have been shared with millions of listeners. It has been many years since mine was a household name. Little matter! Though my stories, as of late, have been shared with only a few, my pleasure is gained in the telling. And in the rare responses of some of my fellows. And in the continuing hope that I leave some residues of thought here and there. That is my immortality. (Not true, of course, as I have been blessed with progeny, but you know what I mean.)
These days, death stalks us with every breath we take. The “us” I speak of are those among us who often have more stories to tell than our younger companions, by virtue of our having been around longer. We seem to be more vulnerable to the rampant virus seeking a place for replication in the air we breathe, and this vulnerability is a reminder of how important it is to take the trouble to share some of the riches many of us have dearly accumulated. The stories we have not yet told die with us.
I am highlighting this part of our mission in life. We have held a job and hopefully it contributed something. It gave us a livelihood, which may have allowed us to raise a family and accumulate something material to pass on. We may have shared things and thoughts with others, publicly and privately. We may have enriched our own lives and the lives of others. We have stories to tell. Wouldn’t it be a pity not to share them with others? Surely there are valuable secrets in that treasure chest! Even the things you may not be proud of may have paid off in valuable lessons that you made good use of.
There is a reason for us to survive the dangers around us a little longer. So, please, more masks, more handwashing, more social distancing! We need to hear your stories before you go. You owe it to your public. You owe it to yourself.
Max Roytenberg is a Vancouver-based poet, writer and blogger. His book Hero in My Own Eyes: Tripping a Life Fantastic is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.
Then-mayor of Jerusalem Nir Barkat and Nomi Levin Yeshua at the Jerusalem Foundation of Canada gala in Toronto in 2014. (photo from Nomi Levin Yeshua)
This article is the first in an occasional series about people with British Columbian roots having positive impacts in Israel and elsewhere.
When Nomi Levin Yeshua went to Israel in 1990, she wasn’t committed to staying there. Almost three decades later, the Vancouver-born and -raised woman can look back on a career that has impacted the face of Jerusalem and Israel.
Thanks to a chance meeting over Shabbat lunch with her grandmother’s former neighbour’s sister – “You know Israel,” she said, laughing – Yeshua had barely arrived in Israel when she got a job as assistant to the assistant to Teddy Kollek, Jerusalem’s mayor – but the job was more than that.
Shula Eisner, Yeshua’s new boss, had been working for Kollek since 1965, just before he began his 28-year run as mayor. Kollek was chairman of the Israel Museum and, before that, had served 11 years as director general of the prime minister’s office under David Ben-Gurion. In that role, Kollek effectively created almost all of the government agencies in the new state.
“One of the things he believed was that there had to be a national museum,” Yeshua told the Independent recently while in Vancouver for a milestone birthday of her mother, Shanie Levin. “He went around raising money to start the Israel Museum. He had an office there and [Eisner] was originally hired there to work with him with all the foreign donors. Then he was elected mayor and he kept to the Israel Museum office.”
In 1966, Kollek founded the Jerusalem Foundation, where Yeshua now works.
“That was his way of creating a forum for supporters of Jerusalem around the world, to be part of creating a new vision for Jerusalem. Then, a year after that, with the Six Day War and the reunification of the city, suddenly everything was just multiplied,” she said.
Yeshua acknowledged that Kollek’s multiple roles as mayor, head of the national museum and leader of a major foundation would probably not be sustainable today, but that was a different time.
“For him, it was all fluid,” she said.
To accommodate his different hats in the era before email or even fax machines, there was a driver who shuffled between offices, taking papers back and forth.
When Eisner moved over to another foundation, she handed her baton to Yeshua, who worked with Kollek through his last years as mayor and continued until a few months before he passed away, in 2007. She continues to run all donor relations for the Jerusalem Foundation and she personally handles Canadian fundraising for the organization.
The Jerusalem Foundation was started by Kollek because he saw that Jerusalem was a very poor city.
“A lot of religious institutions that don’t pay taxes at all are in Jerusalem, so he knew that it was always going to be a challenge for the city to have a balanced budget, to expand the city, to develop the city, to provide for the citizens of the city, so he knew that he was going to need to raise money,” she said.
Kollek pioneered a fundraising model that is now almost universal across Israeli and Jewish philanthropy.
“He connected every donor to a specific project and they knew that their money went to that project and they could come – and now their grandchildren come – and see those projects. To this day, they can still track the money. The Jerusalem Foundation was really at the forefront of that movement of changing the way people were giving to Israel. Now, it’s taken for granted, but it wasn’t back in the late ’60s and early ’70s at all. That was Teddy,” she said. “He wanted people to feel personally connected to the city, to the project, to the place.”
The foundation emphasizes “shared living” and is now focused on a vision for 2030.
“This is a city that is completely about how to exist together in this space that we share. It’s not just Arabs and Jews. It’s also secular and religious, it’s poor and rich, it’s all kinds of divisions that exist in the city,” she said. “But how do we share and how do we understand each other better?”
One major project is Hand-in-Hand School for Bilingual Education.
“Bilingual education is something that Canadians completely understand but Israelis less so. This is a school that teaches in Arabic and in Hebrew, in mixed classrooms. The rest of the Israeli education system is – we don’t like to use this word but it’s the truth – segregated,” she said. “There are Jewish schools, there are Arab schools and then, even within the Jewish schools, there are religious and nonreligious. This school brings together all of the different population groups and at all times there is an Arabic-speaking and a Hebrew-speaking teacher in the classroom.” There are now six such schools around the country.
Another area of the foundation’s work is helping the most vulnerable populations in the city, through projects such as Springboard, which develops programs primarily through the education system to push gifted kids into opportunities their financial situation might not otherwise permit.
The Jerusalem Foundation is also the city’s second-largest funder to the arts, after the municipality.
“We really believe that a modern and thriving city should have a good cultural scene. Culture is not just for one population group. All members of the community should be cultural consumers. But you have to create culture that is appropriate for those people,” she said. “For example, there is a dance troupe for ultra-Orthodox women. They only perform for women, of course, because otherwise that wouldn’t work for them. But they’re really doing amazing stuff and giving these ultra-Orthodox women who want to dance an opportunity to have a really high-level, professional dance troupe within the system that works for them.”
The foundation is also building a new Hassadna Conservatory of Music.
“They help kids ages six all the way through high school with classical music education and they also provide a special program for children of Ethiopian descent who don’t necessarily have the financial means to get musical training and they have a special program for special needs kids that’s integrated,” she said.
Yeshua credits her Vancouver upbringing as foundational to her worldview and accomplishments. She grew up in the Habonim Dror Zionist youth movement and was a camper, counselor and camp director at Camp Miriam. At home, her Jewishness was nurtured in a pluralistic way.
“In terms of how my mother brought us up, Jewish identity wasn’t limited to our religious identity,” she recalled. “National identity was something that was acceptable, cultural identity was very much encouraged. I think growing up in the very open community of Vancouver – to me it always seems that way, at least – it allowed me to be Jewish in a way that I felt good with and it wasn’t only one way to be Jewish.”
Yeshua acknowledged that “many people feel somewhat alienated from Israel today.”
“I want people to understand that there is a way to engage with Israel, to support Israel, and not contradict your own value system or what you think is acceptable,” she said. “What we do with the Jerusalem Foundation is something that people can respond to, relate to, understand – to protect Jerusalem as a city that is for everyone.”
The cast of Tara Cheyenne Performance’s The Body Project. (photo by Wendy D. Photography)
Among the more than 20 choreographers and companies from across Canada, Brazil and Korea that are participating in this year’s Dancing on the Edge Festival are local Jewish community members Alexandra Clancy (Soleful Dance Company) and Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg (Tara Cheyenne Performance).
Soleful Dance Company’s Where the Music Begins will take place July 12, 8:15 p.m., in the Firehall Arts Centre courtyard, and Tara Cheyenne Performance’s The Body Project (working title) is part of Edge 5 July 11, 9 p.m., and July 13, 7 p.m., at the Firehall. DOTE runs July 4-13. Click here to watch the festival trailer on YouTube.
* * *
Where the Music Begins, created by Clancy and composer and musician Mike W.T. Allen, was commissioned by Dances for a Small Stage for its Summer Series.
“Mike and I had played music together but never officially constructed any works for stage,” Clancy told the Independent. “Throughout the rehearsal process, there would be a back and forth of ideas; sometimes I would have a rhythmical phrase of tap dance and Mike would then create a melody over top, and sometimes Mike would compose a phrase of the melody and I would choreograph specifically to that part of the tune. After some give and take between our prospective instruments and ideas, we solidified a melody and then decided upon the structure of the tune. Some of the tune is improvised, some is a conversation, and some is very set and predetermined. We both enjoyed the collaborative process and found a harmonious way to create music and dance together.”
Clancy grew up in Vancouver and has always been involved with the Jewish community. “I was raised Jewish; attending Hebrew school on Sundays, becoming bat mitzvah, and participating in holidays and traditions,” she said. “After going on Birthright a few summers ago, I was re-inspired by the beauty of the culture and have tried to stay more engaged in the community by attending Axis events and other social gatherings, as well as going to synagogue when I can. I am grateful for the support and familial kindness that I have received from the community, consistently reminding and encouraging me that I am capable of whatever I put my all into.”
And she has put her all into a lot, having trained in all genres of dance, studying at Danzmode and the Vancouver Tap Dance Society. She was a member of Tap Co., a pre-professional youth tap dance company, and has trained and performed across North America.
“After graduating, I lived in Austin, Tex., and was a member of Tapestry Dance Company in its 25th season,” said Clancy. “I then moved back to Vancouver and have been performing and teaching ever since. This past year, I taught at the Arts Connection, Dance Co., and the Pulse, sharing my love and passion for tap dance and educating the next generation of talented dancers.
“As recital season comes to an end, I am currently in a creative residency with Dances for a Small Stage, where we are developing works for our Summer Series and exploring digital literacy in dance. As well as preparing for DOTE, I am also in the studio rehearsing and creating for our upcoming performance at Jacob’s Pillow later this summer. In the fall, I will be moving to Calgary to attend the training program at Decidedly Jazz Dance Company.
“My goal,” she said, “is to broaden my toolbox to assist in expressing myself and telling stories through dance. This upcoming year, I hope to continue to collaborate and create through Small Stage, develop more new works with Soleful Dance Co., film a concept video, and share dance through as much teaching and performing as possible.”
Jacob’s Pillow is located in western Massachusetts in the town of Becket. Clancy auditioned for and then attended the inaugural tap dance program at Jacob’s Pillow in 2010 and returned two years later (again with an audition) for a second summer of learning and dancing. “My time at the Pillow was the most influential training thus far in my life and it has always been a dream of mine to perform my own work at the Pillow,” she said.
That dream will become a reality this summer.
“Jeffrey Dawson and I co-choreographed a piece for an online competition Jacob’s Pillow was running this year, and we were lucky enough to be chosen as Top 6 and then voted Top 3, meaning we will get to perform our work live at the Inside/Out stage on Aug. 17,” said Clancy.
In addition to choreographing and teaching, Clancy established Soleful Dance last spring. She and some other dancers “felt we needed a name and a clear avenue to share the work we had started developing. Based in Vancouver, this company is a platform to express ourselves and tell stories through the music of tap and the movement of dance.
“Although under my direction,” she said, “Soleful Dance Company is rooted in collaboration. Our ultimate goal is to make audiences feel something. All of the members of the company’s primary focus is tap dance; however, everyone brings a versatile background to the creative process, spanning from contemporary dance, to acting, to playing music and more. We hope to continue to grow and create more works to share with audiences in the near future.”
Clancy described tap dance as “a magical art form that allows one to not only express through movement but connect and emote through sound.
“This traditional American art form has a rich and complex history that is intertwined deeply with jazz music and culture,” she explained. “There is a sense of community that I have always appreciated about tap dance, and I feel a great amount of respect and gratitude that I get to perform and participate in its culture. It just feels good to get to move your body and dance and then, on top of that, creating and connecting with music opens endless doors of expression.”
* * *
The Body Project is a new interdisciplinary performance created from interviews, symposiums and roundtables.
“I started research on and around the theme of ‘female body image’ about a year ago,” Friedenberg told the Independent. “Part of our research/creation process has been interviewing female-identifying and non-binary people (many dancers and actors). To date, 35 people have generously participated.
“In the studio, I have been mining my own complicated and unhealthy relationship with my body as a dancer in a female body with the help of my amazing collaborators/performers. The process so far has involved exploring how the forms of stand-up comedy and dance can express this difficult, and often absurd, story of struggling with body image that many of us share.”
The performers – Bevin Poole, Caroline Liffmann, Kate Franklin and Kim Stevenson – came into the process shortly after Friedenberg began her exploration of the topic.
“We are working very closely with intimate and difficult material so, although I am leading the process, it is essential that all the voices/bodies in the room are present in the work. For example, there is a section choreographed by Kim Stevenson – much of the gestural language has been created through our own gestures as we’ve spoken about our personal experiences with body image.”
About the creative process, Friedenberg said, “These are very busy people, so we have had times when we are all in the studio and other times when it’s just me and one collaborator. Making room for people’s lives and demands, including parenting and caring for parents, is an important part of our feminist practice.
“Justine A. Chambers is our dramaturge/outside eye and Michelle Olson will be involved in the project as a consultant and possibly a performer in the next phase of development.”
As professional dancers, the performers/creators have shared some common struggles and coping mechanisms regarding body image.
“The pressure to fit a very narrow ideal of the ‘dancer body’ has been difficult and complex for all of us,” said Friedenberg. “There’s the pressure to be very thin, small, more muscular, or less muscular. Pressure to fit an oppressive ideal of beauty. We each have found ways to navigate these limiting ideas. Sometimes we have had to remove ourselves from certain arenas in order to survive. Sometimes we have found power in defying the stereotypes of what a dancer should look like to the euro-centric patriarchal gaze. But I keep coming back to the effort and energy required to bare these expectations and what we can transform with that energy instead.”
She added, “It must be noted that the many voices, words, time and contributions from the people we have interviewed are alive in the work through our bodies and presence. Their names will be listed on our website. Although the work, at this early stage, is a version of my story, it is also very much a result of being together in conversation about body image, in a circle, speaking, listening, moving, supporting and sharing with many powerful female-identifying/non-binary people – ‘the personal is political.’”
George and Tamara Frankel at Masks, Revelations and Selfhood, the spring forum of Jewish Seniors Alliance, in partnership with the Louis Brier Home and Hospital, which was held May 26 at the Peretz Centre. (photo from JSA)
Since August 2018, Louis Brier Home and Hospital residents have explored themes of personhood and creative expression, crafting masks, narratives and original dances with expressive arts therapist Calla Power and choreographer Lee Kwidzinski. The whole process was filmed by Jay Fox for a documentary.
Power, Kwidzinski and Fox, as well as Louis Brier resident Jennifer Young, who participated in the project, shared their experiences with guests at Masks, Revelations and Selfhood, the spring forum of Jewish Seniors Alliance, in partnership with the Louis Brier. The forum was held May 26 at the Peretz Centre for Secular Jewish Culture.
The four presenters brought with them many of the masks that were made by the Louis Brier residents, which they placed on tables near the audience. Everyone could examine them up close and try them on. This allowed people to experience the changes one feels when masked, hidden from others.
JSA president Ken Levitt welcomed everyone and spoke about JSA’s motto, “Seniors Stronger Together,” noting that JSA’s free peer support programs – which require the financial support of the community to continue – exemplify the power of older adults assisting other older adults. He then introduced Power, who has been working with residents at the Louis Brier for about five years.
The Masks Project lasted seven months, culminating in a program that includes masks, stories, poems, drama and dance. In her summary of the history of masks, Power said the oldest masks, dating from the Neolithic period, were found near Jerusalem several years ago. She explained that masks are used in many cultures as part of religious and/or spiritual ceremonies. In a slide presentation, she showcased masks from different cultures, including African, Indian and local indigenous cultures. Frequently, she said, those wearing the masks would represent “the gods” and be a conduit for messages from above.
Ginger Lerner, Louis Brier recreation therapist, had approached Power about making masks for Purim, obtaining a donation from the estate of Frank and Rosie Nelson that facilitated the project. Power did some research on Purim and discovered that many of the characters were masked; for example, Esther, who masked her origins, and Vashti, who refused to be unmasked. As residents engaged with the project, they discussed such topics as what parts of ourselves do we keep hidden behind a mask.
Kwidzinski, who specializes in dance movement, has 30 years of experience working with older adults, mainly those with dementia and those who are in wheelchairs. She has a dance company in Mission, and the dancers worked with the mask makers to create movements related to the masks and the residents’ ideas. The dancers became the bodies of the mask makers, who chose the movements and the music. The mask makers came on stage with the dancers for the performance.
Young, one of the mask makers, expressed how moving the entire experience had been. She said the group became close, even though they hadn’t known each other well before.
Young said she had been reluctant about the dance aspect but felt that the dancers were extremely supportive and, at the end, she said she found the movements liberating, as if she were also dancing. She said she gained energy and willpower from the experience, and thanked Power, Kwidzinski and Fox for giving her the ability and opportunity to “get up and keep going.”
Fox has produced award-winning films, documentaries, music videos and public service announcements. He was involved in the Masks Project from the beginning. He felt that the journey was as important as the film and the art produced. The film was screened at the forum, and can be viewed at youtube.com/watch?v=YspYE6juiy0.
Gyda Chud, JSA first vice-president, led the question-and-answer session. Members of the audience expressed their appreciation for the information and the beauty of the project. It was suggested that advocacy was needed to have this type of project adopted by other care homes and adult day-care centres.
I wrapped up the afternoon event with a thank you to the presenters, which was followed by snacks provided by Gala Catering.
Shanie Levinis an executive board member of Jewish Seniors Alliance and on the editorial board of Senior Line magazine.
The Torah portions at this time of year, in Leviticus, are sometimes described as a hard sell. Leviticus’s detailed narrative about what is pure and safe, what’s diseased or leprous, and how priests can tell the difference isn’t light reading. It can be hard to interact with this kind of text.
At the same time, these details saved us as a people on numerous occasions. Keeping things clean, considering what was healthy, diseased or spoiled – historically, these things may have protected us from scourges like the Black Death. Analyzing the details of something difficult and complicated helps us find greater truths or safety, which are not always obvious from the outside, just as we continue to wrestle with diseases or challenges we don’t understand today. Whether it’s something described in Leviticus or a new kind of virus, smart people have to work to figure these things out.
In order to keep myself “working” and intellectually active, I do lots of reading and thinking about things I encounter. However, I don’t have much time to do this while juggling my household, kids, dogs and work responsibilities. I listen to audiobooks while I do household tasks. This gives me a chance to think about something bigger than, for instance, chopping salad or changing bedding. We all have a lot of boring waiting, obligations and chores to get through. Engaging my brain and listening to a book makes me feel a lot better about this grunt work.
I used to think I had to finish everything I started, but if it’s too violent or scary, I now shut it off. I recently found a new category of book to “shut off.” It doesn’t have an easy label, like “mystery” or “non-fiction.” Maybe it should be called “superficial.” Here’s what I mean.
I was listening to a memoir that contained recipes. In itself, this was a quirky choice for an audiobook, but I like food and cooking. Beyond that, the premise was larger. The author had been editor of a publication that had gone out of business. The memoir was supposed to describe how she found new direction through her cooking. I don’t write mean book reviews, even when I’ve been asked to review something, but I just can’t recommend this book.
I got very nearly to the end when I had to give up. Why? The primary reason was that the author is described, in her biography, as a Jewish person. However, her book rhapsodized about the food she made for Christmas and Easter and, even further, about the true glory of pork and shellfish. OK, I figured, maybe her husband isn’t Jewish. But I did more research. He was.
I could live with the idea that this writer didn’t keep kosher. Heck, lots of Jews don’t. I could even live with the idea that she’d decided, for whatever reason, to celebrate Christian holidays, if only there had been some explanation of why. She rhapsodized about matzah brei (but why?!) and yet she didn’t tell her readers why she ate it in the springtime. After awhile, I even started to feel cranky about how she used way too much butter in every recipe. Time to shut it off!
At its heart, I told myself that, while using the majority culture’s touchstones, like Christmas and Easter, might make a book more saleable, it seemed like a betrayal far worse than cooking with non-kosher foods. When I thought about it longer, I concluded that the whole thing was vacuous. She’d never actually explained how the cooking had helped her heal or get over such a big professional loss. At that point, it didn’t matter how the book ended. I was done.
Awhile back, I had a writing gig on a national platform. My proud husband boasted about it to our Montreal friends. The articles paid less than what I published locally and were poorly edited, but my earnest “voice” came through. That seemed OK. Then the editor told me that she would only get in touch again after she assessed how my previous posts had done. (The ones that, while earnest, had been poorly edited.) I never heard back. I guess they weren’t successful in her eyes. Instead, I saw parenting posts on that platform that celebrated Jewish writers who extolled how they proudly chose to be secular or why they weren’t comfortable investing in their religious or cultural identities.
All around us, hate crimes are rising. Minorities – like Jews – are being harassed. Just because it hasn’t happened to you yet doesn’t mean it won’t. So, why not ask Jewish writers to dig deeper and figure out what that identity actually means? When the Gestapo killed Jews during the Second World War, they didn’t ask, “Are you assimilated? Secular? Do you celebrate Christmas?” No. Why not embrace or at least learn about your real background?
I felt angry. My time is so limited that I hate wasting these spare moments on reading something so intellectually lazy. In between raising kids and walking dogs, figuring out our taxes (in two countries) and the rest of life’s details, well, I might as well get more sleep instead. If an entire memoir, written by a well-known figure, sounds so tone deaf, it bothers me that she makes a living selling these books.
Worse, my articles might have been seen as too earnest, too religious and too detail-oriented, and were tossed in favour of someone who was happy to express his apathy and ignorance about his Judaism. It’s like the (non-Jewish) editor said, “Well, gee, we want the Jewish perspective, but only if it isn’t too Jewish.”
Leviticus is a hard slog. Yet, every year, we go through all of the five books of Moses and we try to dig deeper to find something new. There are many commentaries on Leviticus. Some explain it, and others try to give modern examples for how to relate to its narrative. These are all worthy intellectual exercises, much like choosing to listen to books while doing mind-numbing chores.
What’s not worth it? Let’s not waste time on empty-headed accounts from people who determinedly embrace their ignorance. If you want to stay committed to your identity – Jewish, political or other – keep learning and growing so you can express it with pride.
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. See more about her at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.
It’s sunny today as I write this, and there is a lovely breeze fluttering the leaves on a tree outside my window. I am reacquainting myself with myself, pleasuring in the solitude. Writing this story for you (and myself) is a minor distraction.
Knowing ourselves can be scary, but we can get over that. We are not so bad after all. Look at all those good things we have done (rah! rah!) despite the weaknesses we know we have, and how they compare to the aspirations we have had for ourselves. It doesn’t mean we don’t have to try to be better, to achieve more, but facing our failings can make us be kinder to others.
My bride feels that I am amazing in my capacity to forgive myself for my errors and weaknesses. But I know, and I have told her, that she, and most people, are too hard on themselves. I believe it has something to do with the constructs we build up in our minds as to what we believe is success, the goals we set. Then, given the unpredictability of life, we are disappointed when we don’t realize all of them.
But these things we dream of are not real. They are something way out in a potential future. Only the now is real, only the now is what we can change. Often, when we get to the anticipated future, we no longer want what we aspired to. We have changed our mind as a consequence of our life experiences. Our pleasures may really arise from the incidentals we realize on our path, what we encounter in our nows. They may turn out to be what we treasure above all.
So, I forgive my errors as lessons learned, and aim for my goals as a spectrum rather than a single point. And I forgive my blunders as an excess of enthusiasm. I know my enthusiasms can be fierce, as I believe that we really have to want what we want to have some chance of getting there.
We all know that people are watching what we do. A lot of what we think about ourselves is motivated by what we believe other people think about us. And we worry about that at times. It can seriously affect our behaviour. As I have gotten older, however, I find that I am not so much worried about that. The person I am more concerned about is me – that’s the guy I have to come to terms with.
We cannot fail to develop in ourselves, unless we are sociopaths, some ideas about what are the right things to do in life. We absorb it from our parents, what we read or see, what our friends have said or done, and the “inner us” watches and measures everything we do, and passes judgment.
We know when we have violated what our inner judge has said is the right action. Nonetheless, we sometimes, thinking or unthinking, follow our own selfish self-interest. But, often, we are motivated to act in opposition to our short-term interests and according to the larger values we have absorbed.
When we do the wrong thing it stays with us. Our judge is difficult to escape. He or she is there every time we encounter ourselves in our thoughts. We have many ways to distract ourselves from what it is telling us, and that escape may tempt us powerfully, but we cannot know ourselves if we are not in touch, fully acquainted, with that inner self. We cannot be at peace if we are not in harmony with that inner self or judge.
We all know people who publicly espouse the public good and privately pursue the private good. We see examples of that every day on our television and internet screens, our newspapers and magazines, our trips to the grocery store or the community centre. Could we live with ourselves if we were that kind of person? Does it take self-delusion?
Most of us aspire to being the kind of people our children could respect, and we have taught them the lessons we believed would help them on their way. We all have had our aspirations to achieve positions and places, situations in life that we feel are appropriate for the kind of people we truly are. Hopefully, we are happy with the portion that we have earned and been given (as no one makes it on their own, or without some luck).
It is only in our solitudes that we truly confront the people we are, without pretension. Some people are able to be more like their real selves in public, but most of us present to others the person they believe others want or expect to see in us. How fortunate we are if we have those in our circle with whom we feel free to be the person we really are.
Deep in our heart of hearts, we know of all the compromises we have made with the principles we truly believe in. They weigh on us. We have corrected where we could along the way. For what remains undone, which cannot be fixed, we have to find in ourselves the generosity to forgive ourselves, and others.
This moment is the “there” we have arrived at, even if it is the life we did not necessarily aim for. This incidental is the real thing. We are really alive only in the now in which we find ourselves.
Max Roytenbergis a Vancouver-based poet, writer and blogger. His book Hero in My Own Eyes: Tripping a Life Fantastic is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.
Makeda Zook, left, and Sadie Epstein-Fine, editors of Spawning Generations. (photo from Demeter Press)
Sadie Epstein-Fine and Makeda Zook will be in Vancouver for the Jan. 17 launch of Spawning Generations: Rants and Reflections on Growing Up with LGBTQ+ Parents (Demeter Press, 2018), which they co-edited.
“It is really important to us that this book
was written and edited by queerspawn. So often our stories are told for and on
behalf of us by researchers, journalists and academics,” Epstein-Fine told the Independent.
“Our intimate, personal family lives have been under the microscope for our
entire lives, proving to the world that we turned out all right. By curating
stories from our community, including our own stories, Makeda and I ensured
that we were not, as we like to call it, airbrushing our stories, but that we
were allowing our contributors to tell the nitty gritty, the details of their
stories that they have never been able to tell.”
In the book’s introduction, Epstein-Fine and
Zook explain that the term queerspawn to describe someone who has one or more
LGBTQ+ parents was coined by Stefan Lynch, the first director of COLAGE, an
American “network dedicated to connecting and supporting queerspawn,” which has
one chapter in Canada (in Toronto).
“By giving a name to our identities and
experiences, he laid the foundation for connecting and politicizing queerspawn;
Lynch gave us a term to organize around,” they write, acknowledging that the
term “is not without controversy. Although some people feel empowered by
reclaiming both words (‘queer’ and ‘spawn’), others do not like the association
with ‘spawn of the devil.’” Another term, “gayby,” also has its proponents and
its critics, those who “find it infantilizing and only representative of people
whose parents identify as gay,” note Epstein-Fine and Zook.
Ultimately, the editors chose to use queerspawn
for the anthology because it is “unapologetic and bold.” As well, it is “the
word most often used in Canada and the United States and, as such, it helps us
find each other; it is a common word we can rally around. We often feel highly
visible in straight communities and invisible in queer ones. The term
‘queerspawn’ creates a space for us, and helps us to feel strength in numbers
and a sense of belonging at times when we feel all too visible. When we feel
invisible, naming ourselves as queerspawn tells the queer community that we are
still here, even if we have grown up.”
Epstein-Fine was born in Toronto in 1992 to two
moms, in an activist home, “surrounded by 11 other women.” She carries on her
family’s activist tradition and describes herself as a queer(spawn)-political
According to her bio, Zook “was born in
Vancouver in 1986 to her two lesbian feminist moms. She was raised in a
mixed-race family surrounded by anti-oppression politics and her OWLs (older,
wiser lesbians).” She works in sexual health promotion for a feminist
Epstein-Fine shared with the Independent
how she and Zook came to be the editors of Spawning Generations.
“Demeter Press approached Makeda and I to edit
the anthology because they saw a gap in their literature,” she explained. “They
mostly publish books about motherhood, through a feminist lens, and they
realized that, while they had a lot of literature about queer parenthood, they
didn’t have anything from the children. This is a trend in the majority of
queer parenting literature – we hear a lot from the parents, but rarely from
the kids raised in queer households.
“Yes, it’s true, Makeda’s and my primary focus
is not editing. Previous to editing this anthology we were both writers, which
is how we got connected to this book. Our (queerspawn) community is small and
disparate, there is not a plethora of options available. When Demeter first
approached me with this project, I tried to think of folks who could do this
project, and there was no obvious answer.
“Makeda and I learned to be editors in trial by
fire,” she admitted. “We always say that we didn’t just grow alongside this
project, but that this project grew us. After three years of working on this
project, we now feel confident in our editing skills, which we didn’t feel
And the pair has done a commendable job in
keeping the essays on point. The editing is such that each contributor
maintains their own voice, which adds to the book’s readability and interest.
Contributors range in age, from 9 years old, to teenagers, to 20-somethings and
older queerspawn. And the writers come from all over the world, from as far
away as London, England, and as close as Victoria; one was born in Vancouver
but seems not to live here anymore. While all the contributors have being the
child of one or more LGBTQ+ parents in common and have shared some similar
experiences, each story is unique.
“There was a call for writers, which we spread
as far as we could,” Epstein-Fine explained about how the essays for the
anthology were chosen. She said they asked COLAGE and several organizations and
people they know in Canada to publicize the call, which went out in the winter
of 2015, with a due date of May 1 that year.
“We received 25 submissions and we took every
single one,” she said. “We thought that each person had an interesting story to
tell and we were committed to helping them tell their story the way they wanted
it to be told. We initially thought that we wanted to be more selective and, if
we had received more submissions, we would have been forced to be. However, the
wonderful result of us taking everyone is that our book is not just filled with
works from professional writers, but we have contributors with a range of
experiences – from people who have never written a personal essay to
professional writers. It gives a real scope of our community.”
The Spawning Generations book launch takes place Jan. 17, 7 p.m., at Massy Books, 229 East Georgia St., in Vancouver. For more information, visit facebook.com/spawninggenerations.
Moving into a condominium forced the writer to modify how she approached the holiday season, including the purchase of an electric chanukiyah. (photo by Libby Simon)
For Jews, the celebrations of Chanukah arrive on Sunday evening, Dec.2, and close on Monday evening, Dec.10. It is also a time when many people struggle with dissonance between religion and Western values. I know who I am, so it was not a problem – except, an epiphany struck.
I had a dream some time ago. I dreamed I was in the lobby of a hotel filled with a patchwork of people of different colours and garbs reflecting differences in religious, cultural and ethnic backgrounds. My eyes scanned the room searching for someone, or something, the object of my search unclear. No one took notice as I wound my way through the crowd and exited the area into a corridor. Turning to the right, I entered a room through an open door. My eyes were drawn to a box gift-wrapped with blue-and-white Chanukah paper sitting on a table. As I picked it up, a feeling of warmth wrapped around me. Suddenly, a non-descript, dark, threatening shadow loomed overhead, momentarily startling me. With outstretched arms, I handed my gift over to this strange apparition as if to appease it, and was immediately filled with a deep sense of inner peace and contentment.
This dream was so close to the surface, its meaning became readily clear. I was fully aware of a recent inner struggle triggered by the Christmas/Chanukah season in which I felt the very soul of my Jewishness being challenged from an external source. It was a strange and surprising experience because, as an adult, I have never been particularly observant. Although raised in an Orthodox Jewish family, my personal beliefs led me to a secular lifestyle. Following dietary laws, for example, was irrelevant in determining the quality of good character. Traditions were important more for benefit of family than in any religious sense. Rituals, such as lighting the chanukiyah candles on Chanukah did not seem necessary. After all, I know who I am. I define myself first as a human being, who happens to be of Jewish descent. But, after a lifetime of working and living in a dominant, multi-religious society, why now had it become an issue? As an empty nester, for whom do I practise it?
The answer was surprising but simple: the condominium lifestyle. Who would have anticipated that this popular and accepted way of life would create such a fall-out? I had long questioned this concept in which total strangers of diverse backgrounds would make a large monetary investment and enter into a common living arrangement – an arrangement in which they become inextricably bound to one another in some very basic ways. They accept the premise and agree to give up certain freedoms in exchange for reducing personal responsibilities. In doing so, they turn their decision-making powers and independence over to others who may have different opinions, qualifications, priorities, intelligences and abilities. Nonetheless, this is what I bought into without realizing that, as important as these issues are, others would run even deeper – such as ethnicity, culture and religion.
I have grown up with the symbols and celebrations of Christmas. As a child, I participated in school plays and choirs and Santa never asked your religion when he warmly handed you a candy cane. Feelings of deprivation or envy never entered my psyche because the love of family filled my needs. As an adult, I have continued to take in the festivities, in sharing the spirit of peace and goodwill with non-Jewish friends, neighbours and colleagues.
But something changed. Tolerance, appreciation and participation were all possible when “The Season” did not infringe on my personal turf. In the spirit of goodwill, it is important to accommodate and respect these symbolic religious expressions. However, some individuals threatened to extend these decorations over my personal unit and warned that any resistance on my part could be crushed by a simple vote of the majority. Canada is a multicultural country supporting the values and rights of freedom of religion, thus protecting minorities. Such intimidation threatens to swallow who I am.
As neighbours on a street, such a thought would never even materialize. Yet, in a condominium arrangement, boundaries become blurred. Such actions deny my very existence. They render me invisible and impose a choice – assimilation or alienation. Neither is acceptable and therein lies the conflict.
However, the dream did offer a resolution. It led me on a personal journey through the chaos of diversity. I turned towards what was right for me – the box, wrapped in blue-and-white Chanukah paper, that confirmed who I am. By walking through the open door in my dream, I received the reward of self-discovery. I realized that knowing who I am was not enough. It was only in giving my gift to the “faceless figure” of others did I feel a sense of inner peace and contentment. The dream revealed not only who I am, but who I am in relation to others. Until now, my identity had been like a one-way mirror. I could see through the glass while the other side only reflected the viewer’s own image. If others do not see me, I will disappear like a ghost in the morning light. Still, I cannot ask anyone to extinguish their light, for that is who they are, only not to impose it on mine.
What was the solution? Instead of the customary, small, coloured licorice-like wax Chanukah candles whose symbolic message of freedom dies quickly in a muted puff of smoke, I purchased and placed an electric chanukiyah in my window. Through the sustained bright light, the “mirror” becomes translucent, revealing the beautiful cultural mosaic that is Canada’s proud tradition, one that allows each of us to be who we are.
And, perhaps along with the glittering Christmas lights, we will all be enriched, as, together, they cast a far greater illumination in recognizing, respecting, accepting and even appreciating our differences: Just like the mirror on the wall / Silvered coats reflect us all / Strip bare the veneer of hypocrisy / A window reveals you are just like me.
Libby Simon, MSW, worked in child welfare services prior to joining the Child Guidance Clinic in Winnipeg as a school social worker and parent educator for 20 years. Also a freelance writer, her writing has appeared in Canada, the United States, and internationally, in such outlets as Canadian Living, CBC, Winnipeg Free Press, PsychCentral and Cardus, a Canadian research and educational public policy think tank.
“The Triumph of Judas Maccabeus” by Peter Paul Rubens, between 1634 and 1636.(photo from Wikimedia Commons)
One of the richest statements found in the Talmud about the meaning of Jewish identity is the following: “He who does not feel shame and humility before others, does not show love and compassion or abundant kindness to others, such a person is not from the seed of Abraham.” According to this statement, Jewish “genes” are as nothing without Jewish ethics. To be counted among the seed of Abraham, one’s character structure must reflect the values by which Abraham lived.
Maimonides was fully in accord with the talmudic concern with action rather than descent, with purpose and commitment rather than race. He expressed it as follows: “The distinguishing sign of a child of the covenant is his disposition to do tzedakah.” Placing action at the centre of Jewish identity mirrors a fundamental characteristic of the Judaic tradition.
For Aristotle, the peak of human perfection was to be found in thought. Man perfected himself to the degree that the objects of his thought were perfect. God – the most perfect being – was engaged in thought upon His own perfect self. In the biblical tradition, human perfection was realized in moral behaviour. Not thought but action; not knowledge of the cosmos, but involvement in history. The prophets condemned the community not because of their failure to become intellectuals, but because of their failure to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the lonely and protect the socially vulnerable.
In the Torah, God is an active being. He creates the world, He feeds the hungry, He is involved in the drama of history. Typical of the Judaic worldview is the midrashic “question: “What does God do now that he has created the world?” (Such a question could never have been asked by Aristotle.) The midrash answers: “He arranges marriages!”
In the Jewish tradition, God is the creator of life, and His message to humanity is expressed in the language of mitzvah (commandment). His presence in the world entails human responsibility to improve the conditions of society and history. In the Jewish tradition, we live in the presence of God when we hear a mitzvah that obliges us to act in a particular way. Maimonides wrote that God gave the 613 commandments so that a Jew can find one mitzvah that they can perform with love and complete devotion.
One of the distortions of modern existentialism is the exaltation of the virtues of sincerity, devotion, authenticity, etc., irrespective of their specific content. The sincerity of the Nazis in no way mitigates their barbarity and depravity. Subjective attitudes are important aspects of human behaviour, only if their content is worthwhile and significant. It is ludicrous to celebrate Maccabean courage without appreciating their commitment to monotheism, mitzvah and the dignity of Jewish particularity.
In celebrating Chanukah, therefore, we should direct our attention to the problematic issues involved in the spiritual survival of the Jewish community within the modern world. Many traditional Jews believe that Jewish particularity is incompatible with modern mass culture and that Judaic bonds holding together the community cannot bear the stress caused by exposure to the cultural rhythms of the larger non-Jewish society.
Those who accept this assessment of Judaism in the modern world turn to social and cultural separation in order to secure Judaism’s survival. There are others who are skeptical as to whether this ghettoization can succeed. Modern communication makes it impossible to escape acculturation to modern “Hellenism.” It is, in their opinion, futile to resist. We should accept our fate and accommodate ourselves to the inevitability of our eventual assimilation.
A third option, which defines the philosophy of the Shalom Hartman Institute, rejects the defeatism of the latter point of view and also the separatism of the former. We question the belief that Judaism has always survived because of its radical separation from the surrounding culture. Chanukah does not commemorate a total rejection of Hellenism but, as Elias Bickerman shows in From Ezra to the Last of the Maccabees, the revolt focused specifically on those aspects of foreign rule that expressly aimed at weakening loyalty to the God of Israel.
Maimonides’ thought was clearly enriched by his exposure to the writings of Aristotle and Plato and Islamic scholars such as al-Farazi and Ibn Baja. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik was enriched by Kant and Kierkegaard. These two great halachic teachers are living examples of the intellectual and spiritual enrichment that results from exposure to non-Jewish intellectual and spiritual frameworks.
The major question that we must ponder on Chanukah is whether the Jewish people can develop an identity that will enable it to meet the outside world without feeling threatened or intimidated.
Can we absorb from others without being smothered? Can we appreciate and assimilate that which derives from “foreign” sources, while at the same time feel firmly anchored to our particular frame of reference?
In order to determine what we can or cannot select, it is essential that the modern Jew gains an intelligent appreciation of the basic values of their tradition. Learning was not essential for our ancestors, because they were insulated by the cultural and physical Jewish ghetto. For the Jew to leave the protective framework of that ghetto, it is necessary for them to have a personal sense of self-worth and dignity.
In celebrating Chanukah, we remind ourselves that our Jewish identity must not be grounded in biological descent but in a heroic commitment to a way of life. Our past, the memories we bring from the home we came from, are only the beginning stages of our spiritual self-understanding as Jews. How we live in the present and what we aspire for in the future must be the major sources nurturing our identity as Jews.
On the holiday of Shavuot, we remember how our people pledged to live by the Ten Commandments. On Chanukah, we remember how that commitment inspired a nation to engage in a heroic battle against religious tyranny. Today, the battle for cultural and spiritual survival continues.
In the Western, free world, the battle is against indifference, anomie and cultural assimilation. In Israel, the challenge is to do battle against making nationalism a substitute for covenantal Judaism. For Jews who live in the different areas of the globe, the memory of the Maccabees can be an inspiration to persevere and believe that, ultimately, they will be victorious in their struggle.
Rabbi Prof. David Hartman(1931-2013) was founder of the Shalom Hartman Institute. This essay on Chanukah, one of several on the holiday, dates to 1984. This and other writings have been brought to light by SHI library director Daniel Price. Articles by Hartman, z”l, and other institute scholars can be found at shalomhartman.org.
The light of our chanukiyot must shine as a commitment to discovering a Judaism of ideas and values as an integral part of our journey. (photo by David Williss/flickr.com)
Chanukah is a holiday with an identity crisis. From the beginning, the rabbis had difficulty pinpointing what it was that we were celebrating. Was it the Maccabees’ or God’s military victory over the Assyrians? Was it a spiritual victory of Judaism over Hellenism? Was it the miracle in which one small jar gave light in the Temple for eight days? Or is it a holiday celebrating a victory of the Jewish people against religious oppression?
What we often do when we have many options is that we pick all of them. Instead of clarifying, however, this creates confusion and a lack of focus and a relegating of the holiday away from values to the realm of ritual observance alone. We light candles without really knowing why and celebrate without a clear understanding of the cause of our joy.
The identity crisis of Chanukah, however, comes from an even deeper source. Many of the above potential meanings for celebration are no longer compelling or meaningful. Military victories are wonderful, especially when one takes into account the alternative, but in a world in which Jewish power is integral to the Jewish experience, the celebration of a victory more than 2,000 years ago is not particularly compelling or meaningful. For a military victory to be memorable, its outcome needs to have produced a tipping point. The Maccabean victory was no such tipping point in Jewish history.
Today, however, we face an even more substantive issue. When Chanukah became a holiday, we lived in a world of dichotomies between Judaism and Hellenism, in which the lights of Chanukah symbolized a purity of faith and commitment to Torah free from Hellenistic influence and corruption. We spoke of Athens and Jerusalem as two alternative and mutually exclusive paths. One’s identity was either grounded in and nurtured by Jerusalem or was rooted and guided by Athens. Each creates a distinct and mutually exclusive identity. The victory of one is the defeat of the other.
The essence of the modern era, however, may be encapsulated as the period in which such dichotomies have come to an end. A modern Jew is one who has multiple identities and multiple loyalties. He or she is a traveler in an open marketplace of ideas in search of new synergies and meanings. What a previous generation would call assimilation – that is, the penetration of “outside” ideas and cultures within a Jewish one – the modern Jew sees as essential to building a life of meaning and a Judaism of excellence.
Whatever Athens or Jerusalem might have signified in the past, today they represent the notion that to be a Jew is to live in the larger world and aspire to create a new dialogue with that world in which both sides learn from and impact each other. As a result, Jewish identity has changed. We no longer see our identity as singular and unique, but as integrated and complex. Jews today see themselves as citizens of both Athens and Jerusalem.
What then does Chanukah mean? For many, it acquires special significance as a buttress to Jewish identity during Christmas season, when Christian identity shines. The chanukiyah is the antidote to the Christmas tree, and we can give our children presents for eight days and not merely one.
Far from ridiculing the above, I actually believe that therein may lay the beginning of a new meaning for Chanukah. Not, however, in its commercial sense or as an antidote to anything, but in its aspirations to create a space for Jews and Judaism within a larger world. We do not yearn to reject Athens or to go back to a singular identity. We celebrate the possibilities of engaging one of our identities with the other, one idea with another, to the mutual growth and benefit of each. The challenge, however, in a multicultural, multi-identity world is how not to descend into mediocre notions of common denominators and superficial syntheses.
If the real gift of modernity is the moral and spiritual consequences of having a complex identity and living in both the metaphorical Jerusalem and Athens, the challenge is how to sustain all the various features of one’s identity. Assimilation today is no longer the removal of dichotomies, but the abandonment of difference.
Our enemy is not outside but within. The purpose of lighting a candle is not to celebrate a miracle of yesteryear but to declare a commitment to ensuring that to maintain a Jewish identity is a part of my being. One is obligated to place the chanukiyah in a window where passers-by can see it and, in so doing, make space within one’s public persona for Judaism to shine forth.
A “good Jew” is no longer one who fights Hellenism but one who maintains a Jewish core within the multiple facets of his or her life. It was often much easier to be a Jew when we were fighting “them,” whoever “them” may have been. To maintain a Jewish commitment within a world in which dichotomies are gone requires a level of Jewish education and knowledge unparalleled in Jewish history. A dialogue between Jerusalem and Athens in which the value of each is maintained will only be possible if one knows what Jerusalem means and what values and ideas Judaism can contribute to living a meaningful life.
We are free today to light our chanukiyot, but the light must not only shine outside as a wall between us and them, it must shine within as a commitment to discovering a Judaism of ideas and values as an integral part of our journey.
Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartmanis president of the Shalom Hartman Institute and author of the 2016 book Putting God Second: How to Save Religion from Itself. This article was initially published in 2010, and updated and syndicated by Religion News Service in 2017. Articles by Hartman and other institute scholars can be found at shalomhartman.org.