Newcomer to Vancouver and longtime National Council of Jewish Women of Canada member Rachel Ornoy, left, cheers the Purse Project volunteer gang on.
Members of National Council of Jewish Women of Canada, Vancouver section, under the guidance of Cate and Jane Stoller, stuffed purses with cosmetics, toiletries, comfort candles, chocolates, gift cards, pyjamas and other useful items on the morning of Sept. 27 for partner agency Atira Women’s Resource Society, a not-for-profit organization committed to the work of ending violence against women.
Thank you to everyone who dropped off purses, helped fill the bags and collect their contents – more than 100 purses were delivered to Atira. Also thank you to Jane Stoller for putting together the hostess table with coffee and Timbits. It was a lovely pre-Kol Nidre morning mitzvah and it was great to have a socially distant visit with our NCJWC Vancouver friends.
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This year’s Project Isaiah campaign required Jewish Family Services (JFS) to change the way it looked at the traditional food drive. From Sept. 8 to Sept. 29, JFS ran its very first virtual community food drive, ending with a COVID-19-safe drive-thru drop off.
Despite the needs being greater than ever – more than double compared to last year – this year’s Project Isaiah campaign has been the most successful food drive in the past 10 years. Thanks to donors, the Jewish Food Bank will be able to feed 700 clients (up from 450 last year) over the next four to six months; recipients include 175 children and 118 elders within our community.
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Carolyn Digby and Aaron Klein were wed in a romantic ceremony, surrounded by family and friends, Nov. 9, 2019, at VanDusen Botanical Garden in Vancouver. The couple resides in Toronto, where both are pursuing studies, Carolyn in a clinical psychology counseling master’s program, and Aaron in aerospace engineering, doctorate program.
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The Peretz Centre has appointed Liana Glass to lead the centre’s pnei mitzvah program. The Peretz pnei mitzvah – pnei (faces) rather than b’nei (“sons of”), to reflect a gender-neutral descriptor – is a two-year program in which students meet once every second week for two hours, culminating in a group ceremony. The next intake period is this fall.
Glass, who has earned a master’s of community and regional planning at the University of British Columbia, has considerable experience in teaching and facilitating groups from diverse backgrounds, most recently as a research intern with Vancouver’s Social Purpose Real Estate Collaborative.
Glass’s path to secular Judaism was not a straight one. After studying Yiddish at the Vilnius Yiddish Institute’s summer program in 2017, she found that “Yiddish opened up a secular avenue for me to explore my Judaism and connect with it on a different level. It allowed me to reexamine Judaism in the larger context of my life and as part of my cultural identity. The prospect of helping pnei mitzvah students find that sense of connection through the various subjects we’ll explore in class is extremely exciting.”
“In our search, we indicated that we were looking for a candidate who is dynamic, enthusiastic and firmly committed to secular Jewish ideals and learning. Liana brings all that and so much more. We’re looking forward to working with her and seeing where she’ll be taking the program next,” said David Skulski, Peretz Centre general manager.
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Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver elected its 2020-2021 volunteer board of directors at its annual general meeting Sept. 30. New directors, elected for a two-year term, are Hodie Kahn, Shay Keil, Kyra Morris, Lisa Pullan and Stan Shaw. Each of them brings a background of community leadership and past contributions to Jewish Federation.
Kahn is currently chair of Jewish Federation’s Jewish Day School Council, whose work addresses the ongoing enrolment and financial stability needs facing the day schools; she is also a member of the Community Recovery Task Force. Keil is chair of major gifts for the Federation annual campaign and a member of the Jewish Day School Council; he is a past co-chair of men’s philanthropy. Morris is the new chair of the Axis steering committee, which oversees Federation’s programs for young adults. Pullan has lent her fundraising and leadership expertise to Federation for many years, including chairing women’s philanthropy and serving on the board in that capacity. And Shaw has held several leadership roles with Federation; he co-chaired the Food Security Task Force and is now bringing his cybersecurity expertise to the new cybersecurity and information protection subcommittee.
Returning directors elected for a two-year term are David Albert, Bruce Cohen (secretary), Alex Cristall (chair), Jessica Forman, Rick Kohn (treasurer) and Lianna Philipp. They join the following directors who are in the middle of a two-year term, and will be continuing their service on the board: Jim Crooks, Catherine Epstein, Marnie Goldberg, Candace Kwinter (vice-chair), Melanie Samuels and Pam Wolfman.
Joining or continuing to serve on the board are Sue Hector (women’s philanthropy co-chair), Karen James (immediate past chair), Jonathon Leipsic (campaign chair), Shawna Merkur (women’s philanthropy co-chair) and Diane Switzer (Jewish Community Foundation chair).
At its Oct. 14 annual general meeting, the Vancouver Holocaust Centre Society confirmed the society’s board of directors: Rita Akselrod, Marcus Brandt, Jeremy Costin, Michelle Guez, Belinda Gutman, Helen Heacock-Rivers, Philip Levinson, Michael Lipton, Shoshana Krell Lewis, Jack Micner, Talya Nemetz-Sinchein, Ken Sanders, Joshua Sorin, Al Szajman, Robbie Waisman and Corinne Zimmerman. For more information, visit vhec.org/who-we-are/#board.
For eight days, Aug. 2-9, the Peretz Centre for Secular Jewish Culture will be transformed into a hub of Latin American culture as it hosts Festival Judío, a multifaceted celebration showcasing Jewish artistic work from Argentina to Mexico. The festival, revived after its original 2004-2006 run, is expected to be the largest of its kind in terms of scope anywhere in the world.
“There is so much material to choose from that there could easily be separate festivals for Latin American Jewish visual art, books, films and music,” said organizer David Skulski, who also spearheaded the previous festivals.
Among the highlights of this year’s event is a show featuring Mauro Perelmann, who fuses various Brazilian styles with Israeli and klezmer music.
“My aim is to stir emotions through my music. I want to be evocative and create an atmosphere. It is more important for me to get a reaction from people than to play what is written,” he told the Jewish Independent from his home in Rio de Janeiro.
The samba was invented in the same Rio neighbourhood that later became a Jewish enclave, and there have always been links between Jews and Brazilian music in the city, he said. “With some modification of the scales,” he added, “I am able to turn familiar Brazilian tunes into sounds that resemble klezmer.”
A known composer and choir conductor in Brazil, Perelmann is no stranger to Vancouver audiences, having performed here in 2015 and 2016. His Festival Judío appearance on Aug. 8, as part of a nine-piece musical ensemble, will be preceded by a samba dance lesson.
Buenos Aires-based bandoneonist Amijai Shalev will present the lecture Tango: The Jewish Connection. “Jewish musicians and songwriters were very involved in the creative process of tango,” he explained. “The style of the violín tanguero is that of a Jewish violin arriving in Rio de la Plata (Argentina and Uruguay).” His Aug. 5 discussion of the parallels between tango and klezmer will examine the habanera rhythm (heard in George Bizet’s opera Carmen) that is present in both tango and klezmer. He will also trace the Eastern European origins of the bandoneon, a concertina that is a fixture in tango music.
On Aug. 3, Argentine-Canadian mezzo-soprano Andrea Fabiana Katz’s performance will cover several works by Jewish composers. “People associate tango with earthiness, passion and emotion…. The texts are very, very rich and full of metaphor and deep emotions, mostly about love, especially old familiar love. The poetry is always wonderful,” said Katz, who lives in Metro Vancouver.
The evening will be a milonga, which can be taken to mean both a musical genre and a tango party. Prior to the concert will be a tango dance lesson, and Jewish foods from Latin America will be available.
Among the festival’s offerings are five films. An Unknown Country employs firsthand accounts in following the lives of Jews who escaped from Nazi Germany to Ecuador, and shows their contributions to the economic, artistic, scientific and social life of their adopted country. Director Eva Zelig will be on hand after the film, on Aug. 7, for a question-and-answer period.
Other films at the festival include Los Gauchos Judíos, based on an Alberto Gerchunoff novel portraying the thousands of Russian Jews who came as farmers to Argentina in the late 1880s and 1890s; and The Fire Within, a documentary chronicling the integration of Moroccan Jewish settlers with the indigenous women of rural Peru in the late 19th century.
Two dramas, the bittersweet comedy Nora’s Will (Mexico) and the slow-burning thriller The German Doctor (Argentina), complete the cinematic line-up.
Lectures and artists
The Song of Lilith, an Aug. 6 talk by visual artist, filmmaker and Jungian therapist Liliana Kleiner, explores the ancient myth of Lilith found in the Talmud and in kabbalah, its incarnations through the ages, and how this legend relates to the present day.
Additional events include a writers workshop led by young-adult author Silvana Goldemberg and a presentation about the reality of the situation in Venezuela, led by Jack Goihman, who was an agriculture engineer when he left his home country of Venezuela because of its political instability. Arriving in Vancouver in 2014, Goihman completed a master’s in business administration and now works as a project manager.
A visual art show and sale will exhibit works by local and internationally shown and collected artists, including Miriam Aroeste and Kleiner, as well as a mural by the late Arnold Belkin.
A book sale, primarily of selections from the University of New Mexico Press, includes Oy, Caramba! An Anthology of Jewish Stories from Latin America, edited by Ilan Stavans, and Yiddish South of the Border: An Anthology of Latin American Yiddish Writing, compiled by Alan Astro, with a introduction by Stavens.
“Festival Judío is a double celebration of Jewish culture and Latin American culture,” observed Shalev. “Both are expressions of the richness and diversity of humanity.”
Prof. Norma Joseph (photo from Association for Canadian Jewish Studies)
On June 2, the Association for Canadian Jewish Studies is holding a day of lectures in the Jewish community that will be topped off with music from the Vancouver Jewish Folk Choir, the granting of the 2019 Louis Rosenberg Canadian Jewish Studies Distinguished Service Award to scholar and activist Norma Joseph and a talk by Franklin Bialystok on Canadian Jewish Congress.
“We offer a community day every year, and it’s always the opening day of the conference,” co-organizer Jesse Toufexis told the Independent.
“The motivations for the community day are plentiful,” said Toufexis. “Firstly, we receive great support in a number of ways from Jewish communities all over Canada, so this is an excellent way not only to thank them but to show them what the scholarly community is up to.
“Secondly, the Jewish community is interested in the topics we cover, from history to sociology to literature and art. So, coming from fields where we work on such minutely detailed projects, it’s fun to engage with a community that gets excited about the topics we ourselves find exciting.
“Thirdly, I think holding a community day is just part of a tradition that fosters togetherness. We aren’t scholars out in the ether, doing our own thing and keeping it to ourselves. I think of us more as a branch of a much larger Canadian Jewish community that includes all the various roles and aspects of Jewish life in this country, and I think it’s something of a duty to share what we’re constantly learning about our common past, present and future.”
Prof. Rebecca Margolis, ACJS president, praised Toufexis and co-organizer Prof. Richard Menkis on having “put together an amazing community day together in partnership with a team of local organizations that have gone above and beyond to make this day a success: Jewish Museum and Archives of B.C. and our host, the Peretz Centre for Secular Jewish Culture. As a member-run organization,” she said, “we value opportunities to collaborate with local organizations in order to produce exciting programming on the Jewish Canadian experience.”
The first panel session of the day is Jewish Space in Literature and Popular Culture, followed by Antisemitism and the Holocaust. At lunch, a panel discusses the topic Archives Matter. The two afternoon panels are Media Studies, and Challenging the Status Quo. Joseph’s talk in this last session is called No Longer Silent: Iraqi Jewish Immigrants and the CJC.
“I’ve been working on the Iraqi Jewish community in a bunch of different ways and my most recent publications are about their food and what we can learn about their cultural history and immigration patterns through studying their food,” Joseph told the Independent in a phone interview from her home in Montreal. “But I’ve also looked at, through the immigration pattern, the traumas they suffered by the expulsion from Iraq and the processes through which they had to escape from Iraq, as well as the ways in which they adapted to life in Montreal.”
It is only in the last decade or two, said Joseph, that Iraqi Jewish community members have “begun to present their memoirs and talk about how awful the experience from the Farhud in 1941 was. So, then I began to gather their stories.”
Joseph is particularly interested in the transition of the community from being unwilling to talk about their experiences to talking about them. “And also,” she said, “in the process of [preparing for] this year’s conference, which is celebrating 100 years of Canadian Jewish Congress, to figure out in what ways did Canadian Jewish Congress help or not help this community migrate or emigrate into Canada, which was, in fact, to Montreal. And that’s where I’m doing research right now. The Iraqi Jews themselves say, oh no, they didn’t help us … we came alone, we found our way on our own and nobody ever helped us. We didn’t ask for help. We weren’t refugees…. End of story.”
This perspective, as well as the larger Jewish community’s focus at the time on dealing with the impacts of the Holocaust, contributed to the silence, said Joseph.
“I wanted to go behind the scenes and say, OK, but in what ways that they [Iraqi Jews] might not have known was Congress working with the Government of Canada to open the doors, because we know that the doors of Canada were closed to Jewish immigration during World War Two but, afterwards, in the 1950s the doors open…. Did anyone in Congress help Middle Eastern Jews come? That’s my question. And that’s what I’m researching now at the archives, interviewing some people.”
Joseph’s interest in the Iraqi Jewish community comes in part from her and her husband Howard’s experiences.
“In 1970,” she said, “we came to Canada [from the United States]. He was invited to become the rabbi of the Spanish and Portuguese congregation. He was their rabbi for 40 years. And the congregation has many different communities – it has Iraqis, Lebanese, Moroccan, some Iranians, and we love the diversity of communities, the cultural diversity was so exciting.
“I never thought of studying the communities that we were friendly with and that my husband was the rabbi of, but, eventually, at some point, somebody said to me, why don’t you study Canadian Jews? And I looked around me at all these wonderful, diverse ethnic communities of Jews and I said, oh, this is a great idea, why not study the people I know so well?
“And I was interested in gender. I started asking a lot of questions and I especially focused on the women. And it came out that they were willing to talk to me, especially about food, and food was an entree into learning about their experiences, both in Baghdad and the transitions to Montreal and how hard those transitions were…. They couldn’t find the right foods and they didn’t know how to cook and there were no cookbooks and how were they going to cook and where were they going to find the spices? That was very symbolic of life, the difficulties of life in Montreal for this community that didn’t like gefilte fish.”
Joseph is being honoured by the ACJS for attaining the “highest standards of scholarship, creative and effective dissemination of research, and activism in a manner without rival in our field of Canadian Jewish studies, as well as being a respected voice in Jewish feminist studies more broadly.” Not only is she being recognized for “her mastery of both traditional rabbinic sources and anthropological methods,” but her teaching, her work in documentary and educational film, being a founding member of the Canadian Coalition of Jewish Women for the Get, as well as participating in the founding of the Institute for Canadian Jewish Studies at Concordia University, among many other accomplishments. For more than 15 years, she has written a regular column in the Canadian Jewish News. In one of these columns, in recent months, she recalled a time “when the phrase ‘liberal values’ was not a dirty word.”
“I was raised Orthodox,” she told the Independent. “My grandfather was a great Orthodox rabbi in Williamsburg…. But my parents worked very, very hard to send me to one of the great liberal Orthodox schools. It was called the Yeshivah of Flatbush, where boys and girls study together and we were taught that boys and girls could learn, and girls were included in that equation. It was one of the best schools because I learned fluent Hebrew, which was very rare, and it was a Zionist school, beginning in the ’50s.”
She added, “It wasn’t our liberal values in the 21st century, but it was mid-20th-century values. We learned to love Israel. We learned about justice, we learned about equality in some very interesting ways. We were patriotic Americans, my country right or wrong, which, after Vietnam, we had to rejig, but we were there before Vietnam…. I’ll tell you another thing that’s interesting about my upbringing – we didn’t learn about the Holocaust. At that age, in the ’50s and ’60s, parents didn’t want their children traumatized by stories of the Holocaust.”
Between her own studies of Jewish law and those of her husband, Joseph lauded the insight and flexibility that can be found in Judaism. “My husband always taught me that, if you are a legalist, are in charge of the law … the easiest answer is no, because it means you don’t have to examine and search the law. The hardest thing, but most creative thing, is to find a way to say yes…. We have thousands of years of law – surely in all that precedent you can find something.”
As but one example, Joseph has used Jewish law to argue for the rights (and obligations) of women, and has seen progress on the feminist front.
“For example,” she said, “let’s just take the world of bat mitzvah. In the 1950s, there weren’t bat mitzvahs, for the most part. Even the Conservative and Reform movements didn’t want bat mitzvahs…. Today, 2019, there isn’t a community that doesn’t offer some form of recognition of a girl’s 12th birthday,” including Chassidic communities.
“That’s a transformation because of feminist critique,” she said. “They will never admit it. They will say we always did it. But that’s a big change, on one hand. On the other hand, it’s silly, it’s narishkeit; it’s small, it’s nothing.”
But even incremental change leads to larger change, and Joseph spoke about the “incredible historical research coming out – women [always] had strong ritual lives, but what’s coming out now is the need for public ritual formats for women in all sectors of society.”
For the full schedule of and to register for the ACJS community day, visit eventbrite.ca.
The Vancouver Jewish Folk Choir in a performance last fall at the Peretz Centre, led by conductor David Millard, with pianist Danielle Lee. (photo from VJFC)
As they say, nothing comes from nothing and so it is with the Vancouver Jewish Folk Choir of the Peretz Centre for Secular Jewish Culture. Officially, our birth date was 1979 – and that’s what we’re celebrating in the June 9 spring concert unironically called Freylekhe Lider: Yiddish Party Songs – but, when you come right down to it, we were in labour for around 25 years before finally coming into the world.
An early predecessor to the Vancouver Jewish Folk Choir was a group called the UJPO’s Vancouver Jewish Folk Singers. UJPO was the United Jewish People’s Order and it was a decidedly political organization that positioned itself somewhere left of Lenin. Its eight-member choir, though keen on socially progressive issues as well, was somewhat less political and more focused on bringing Yiddish and international music to the Vancouver community. Yiddish singer Claire Osipov, the choir’s founder and director, formed the group in 1956 and kept it going for six years. In that time, the choir performed at Peretz Centre events, as well as reaching out to the community beyond. On two occasions, the choir performed at the CBC studio and was broadcast over CBC Radio.
Everyone familiar with Claire knows she seems to have boundless energy when it comes to her love of music and so, to no one’s surprise, she took on additional musical duties and began a children’s choir at Peretz in 1959. The Peretz Centre had an active children’s education program under principal Leibl Basman and Claire’s choir drew on this group, bringing in children who ranged in age from 7 to 11. Noteworthy in this choir was part-time piano accompanist Gyda Chud, current president of the Peretz Centre.
Time and circumstance brought both those choirs to an end some time in the 1960s and, for a time, the halls of the Peretz Centre were chorally silent.
Then, a Peretz choir formed under the direction of Morrie Backun, an employee of Ward’s music. Little is remembered about this choir because Morrie discontinued the group after just one year. Tammy Jackson sang in this choir and one of her main recollections is not so much the repertoire and performances as the brilliant discount they got on sheet music.
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Searle Friedman arrived on the Vancouver scene 1978. He had been out of the country for a number of years studying music in East Germany. After his studies, he and his family – wife Sylvia and sons Michael, Robert and David – settled in Toronto, where Searle became conductor of the Toronto Jewish Folk Choir.
After a time, the family decided to move to Vancouver and Searle came here on his own initially to pave the way. At first, he taught at an alternative education program (called Relevant High School) that was based at what was then called the Vancouver Peretz Institute but, after a year, he parted company with that organization. Since his Ontario teaching credentials were not immediately transferable to British Columbia, Searle spent much of his time at Peretz and it was there that he had a conversation with Tammy, who suggested that he form a choir to occupy his time.
The beginnings of the Vancouver Jewish Folk Choir were rather humble, comprising just a few members and a Russian pianist named Wolfgang. The roster at that time is only vaguely remembered but it certainly included Tammy (Searle’s niece) and Sylvia (his wife). It likely also included David Friedman (Searle’s son), Goldie Shore, Betty Ewing, Davie Cramer, Carl Lehan and Margie Goldhar. When there were no-shows at rehearsals, the standing joke was that the choir could at least consider the possibility of becoming a barbershop quartet.
In those early years, the choir performed informally at various Peretz Centre festival occasions and cultural gatherings. The repertoire was a potpourri of traditional Jewish folk songs sung in Yiddish, as well as some non-Jewish selections that piqued Searle’s interest – “Roosters Crowing on Sourwood Mountain” and “Martian Love Song,” to name two. Incidentally, Searle could never figure out why the “Roosters” song never sounded quite right, until one day he discovered somebody in the bass section was singing “roosters growing on the side of the mountain.”
But the choir grew rapidly. Searle was not just a brilliant conductor and arranger. He was very much a people person and had a charisma and affability that drew others to him. He had a knack for making his singers believe in themselves. Maurie Jackson, an early recruit, recalls Searle often saying to struggling singers: “If you can talk, you can sing!” In a short time, the choir grew to around 30 members, including me.
I had seen Searle’s choir perform and I thought about joining but my interest was kind of a passing thing. I was determined to do something Jew-ish but my real hope was to join a folk dancing class at the Jewish Community Centre. My job kept me glued to a desk most days. I figured folk dancing would be a good way to get some exercise, lose some weight and meet new people. As fate would have it, the folk dancing class was canceled, so I had to begrudgingly fall back on my second choice – the choir. It was a choice that I stuck with for almost 36 years and a choice that introduced me to Tammy – the remarkable lady I’ve been married to for 31 years and counting.
Tammy’s uncle, Searle, was inordinately pleased to know he had played matchmaker to two of his choir members. As often as Searle gave me pointers on singing, he also asked for updates on the state of my relationship with his niece: “Are you seeing each other after choir?” “Are you engaged yet?” “Do you have a wedding date?”
Rehearsals were a lot of fun. Searle liked to laugh and humour was always a part of our repertoire. I recall one day when Searle was working hard at getting us to blend our voices more closely. He wanted to hear the choir singing as one voice. After puzzling over how to make us understand this, he said, “I want all of you to try really hard to feel each other’s parts!” That did us in for most of the rest of that rehearsal, and even Searle had to take time to get back his concentration.
Searle’s one nemesis in rehearsals was his wife, Sylvia. While the rest of us were in awe of his talents and put Searle on a pedestal, Sylvia felt no such compunction. She freely advised Searle of proper pronunciations of Yiddish words and even was vocal about the pace of various songs when she thought Searle had got it wrong. The expression we often heard from Sylvia was, “In my village….” The expression we often heard from Searle was “Sylvia, who’s running this choir?” For fear of hurting his feelings, no one ever answered that question. Many a rehearsal degenerated into heated debates regarding Yiddish linguistics and the proper treatment of traditional songs.
As well as increasing the size of the choir, Searle wanted to increase our presence in the community and give us a focal point for our efforts. With that in mind, we performed our first annual spring concert in the spring of 1984. Our guest artists were the Shalom Dancers. In addition to the choir fans who attended, the Shalom Dancers brought to the performance their own appreciative followers. The result was a very large and lively audience. The pervasive feeling in the choir was, “We’ve got to do this again!” And so, we have, every spring.
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Searle’s energy and love of music had always made him seem like an unstoppable force of nature. We thought and hoped he would last forever. We were wrong. Due to a childhood bout of rheumatic fever, his robust exterior masked the effects of a damaged heart. When he was still a young man, his doctors basically told him not to take on any long-term magazine subscriptions. They said that, with the damage to his heart valves, he would not survive past the age of 40. Searle’s response was to get married, raise three sons, travel to East Germany to study music, get his Canadian teaching certificate and start a choir. When it came to living his life, Searle was not about to call it a day.
In September 1974, Searle had a heart valve replacement and got on with his life. After he founded the Vancouver Jewish Folk Choir in 1979, he was spending repeated stints in the hospital. Nevertheless, he pushed through his medical setbacks and always came back to us ready to lead the choir without a backward glance.
I had a conversation with Searle that pretty much says it all. I was visiting him in the hospital.
Me: How are you doing, Searle?
Searle: Fantastic! I’ve gotten some very good news from my cardiologist.
Me: (greatly relieved) Wonderful! What did he tell you?
Searle: Well, it turns out he sings in a choir and he’s not happy with it. He’s thinking of joining ours! And he’s a tenor!
Searle returned to us from that hospital stay and all of that seemed behind him. But tragedy struck on Dec. 31, 1990. Searle’s heart just stopped. He was only 64.
Just over a week later, we had our first choir rehearsal without Searle. We stood in a large circle and began our warm-up exercises, led by our accompanist, Susan James. No one’s mind was on what we were doing. After a few minutes, I suggested we stop so I could say a few things about Searle. I can’t remember exactly what I said but I spoke about Searle and how much the choir meant to him, and about keeping it going as a tribute to his memory. The floodgates opened. Every choir member spoke of how much Searle had meant to them personally. When it ended, we got down to the business of carrying on what he had begun. If we doubted ourselves, we only had to look at one of the choir members who stood in that same circle to warm up and sing with the rest of us – Searle’s wife, Sylvia.
* * *
After Searle’s passing, Susan stepped up and became our conductor. She was a more reserved individual than Searle but a skilled conductor and her attention to detail was legendary. Nothing got by her and every note sung that was not to her satisfaction was drilled again and again until we got it right. And, sometimes, when the notes were right, we were still stopped dead in our tracks because the page turns were too loud. We worked harder during rehearsals, and we were better singers for it.
Susan’s tenure was five years. She was a devout Christian and the choir was composed mostly of a bunch of godless secularists. In her farewell letter to the choir, she expressed her sadness at not being able to share her beliefs with the rest of us. She left in 1995, after our annual June concert and our season had ended.
Again, a member from our ranks stepped up and helped us carry on. In fall 1996, David Millard – who for a few years had been a paid professional singer in our tenor section – became our conductor and, much to our good fortune, is still at it today.
Over the years, David has conducted, served as our resident Yiddishist, sung as a soloist, filled in on occasion as our pianist, written choral arrangements for many of our songs and led audience sing-alongs at festival celebrations. As we declared in one of our concert narrations, David is the Swiss Army knife of conductors.
In recent times, he composed an original six-part cantata based on a Yiddish translation of Lewis Carroll’s nonsense poem, “Jabberwocky” – “Yomervokhets,” in Yiddish. David’s interest was piqued when he read a Yiddish translation of “Jabberwocky” by Raphael Finkel. Finkel had apparently found a Yiddish-English dictionary that no one knew existed. In this dictionary, the “Jabberwock” translates as the “Yomervokh” and the “frumious Bandersnatch” is noted as the “froymdikn Bandershnits.” The hero’s blade that went “snicker-snack” as it sliced into the Jabberwock made a different sound held by a Jewish hero – “shnoker-shnik.” Who knew?
Translation issues aside, “Yomervokhets” is a brilliant original composition and an audience favourite. No history of the choir would be complete without it and it is to be featured at the choir’s 40th anniversary concert in June.
* * *
Helping us sound our best over the years have been our piano accompanists. Some choirs sing a cappella (without accompaniment). Some choirs, such as ours, are community choirs that welcome enthusiasts of all abilities. For that reason, many of us welcome the guidance of an accompanist to help keep us on pitch. (Some of the choir still think a cappella is an Italian dish involving meatballs.)
Good accompanists are not easy to come by. They need to work closely in tandem with the conductor, often to the point of reading his or her mind.
Over the years, we have relied on many pianists to keep us in tune. Currently, we are accompanied by Danielle Lee, who joined us at the start of this season. But, Elliott Dainow stands out as our longest-serving accompanist – almost 20 years! Beyond contributing his talents at the piano, Elliott was a choral arranger and his version of “Oseh Shalom” has been performed by the choir many times. Though he grew to be a member of the family, to everything there is a season, and Elliott left us in June of 2017, in order to give more time to the renovation of his home on Hornby Island.
* * *
Over the years, the choir has performed at countless venues, including the Peretz Centre, South Granville Lodge, Louis Brier Home and Hospital, Cityfest Vancouver, Vancouver Public Library, VanDusen Gardens, Cavell Gardens, Orpheum Theatre’s Parade of Choirs, the Vancouver Planetarium, the Israeli Street Festival and Victoria’s Congregation Emanu-El.
Sadly, one of our more recent choir performances was at a memorial service for our beloved Sylvia. Shortly after our June concert in 2016, she became ill and passed away that December. She was our last original choir member still active with the choir. In the program notes of our June 2017 concert, we wrote: “The choir dedicates this concert to the memory of our beloved Sylvia Friedman, who sang with us for all but one of the 38 years of our existence. Sylvia wanted to sing this one last concert before retiring. Her death in December 2016 prevented that, but, in our hearts, she is always right there beside us, singing as beautifully as ever.”
Under David’s able baton – figuratively speaking, since he really just waves his arms and hopes somebody notices – and inspired by the devotion to Jewish music of Searle and Sylvia Friedman, the choir is looking forward to its next 40 years.
For tickets ($18) to Freylekhe Lider June 9, 2 p.m., at the Peretz Centre, visit eventbrite.ca.
From generation to generation: A Peretz Centre reunion attendee pauses to send a text while walking through an exhibit of archival photos. (photo from Peretz Centre)
On June 20, Vancouver’s Peretz Centre for Secular Jewish Culture held its first-ever reunion of alumni.
The enthusiastic crowd at the reunion, which took place in the Ben Chud Auditorium of the institute’s home on Ash Street, included those who had attended at each of the centre’s locations over the years. When it was founded in 1945, the Peretz Centre offered preschool and after-school classes in Yiddish and Yiddishkeit in the basement of the old Jewish Community Centre at Oak and 11th Avenue, but soon the members purchased a house on Broadway near Alder (now the site of a liquor store and a high-rise). It operated there for 15 years, and it had more than 100 students when it moved to its current location.
The Peretz Centre is dedicated to non-political, secular Jewish and progressive education. Speaking at an open mic, alumni, many now seniors, shared stories dating back to the early days. They recalled a warm sense of community and an education that lived up to the centre’s progressive ideals, including the principle of tikkun olam, the duty to work with others to heal the world. The reunion also provided an opportunity for many to thank the activists who established the centre and for years have dedicated themselves to sustaining it. Some of those first-generation leaders were able to attend the reunion, including Seemah and Harold Berson, Galya Chud, Arlene Jackson and Claire Osipov. Some alumni traveled from out of town to attend, from Winnipeg, Calgary and Denver.
Among the attendees were graduates from the Peretz’s secular B’nai Mitzvah Program, which continues to be one of the centre’s most important offerings. The program approaches Jewish identity through a range of topics, including genealogy and family history, Jewish history and culture, ethics, traditions, Yiddish and Hebrew language studies and more. Avrom Osipov, a Peretznik who in the mid-1960s was the first to complete a Peretz bar mitzvah, spoke at the open mic about the controversy the program caused at the time. The idea of a secular bar or bat mitzvah was new and challenging, he said, even attracting some attention from the local news media.
Reunion attendees enjoyed a display of archival photos from the old days, and Peretz graduates provided much of the entertainment, including emcee and magician Steven Kaplan (aka “the Maestro of Magic”), saxophonist Saul Berson and singers Lisa Osipov-Milton and Sheryl Rae. Pianists Nick Apivor and Wendy Bross Stuart accompanied. The reunion wrapped up with a rousing singing of the old Peretz Shule Hymn, the chorus of which is, “Yud Lamed Peretz a likhtiker kval / tsint unzer hartz on fun dor tsu dor / di tsukunft fun folk balaykht un bashtralt / es vinkt shoyn di nayer kayor” (“This school, our shule, may it blossom and grow / It was built with great effort and love / To teach all the youth who are placed in our care / About ethics and justice for all.”
Paul Headrick is a Vancouver novelist and short story writer. He attended classes at the Peretz Centre in the early 1960s.
Artist Paula Mines combines photography and abstract work whenever possible. This image by Mines is part of the current group exhibit now on display at the Peretz Centre until July 22.
The current art show at the Peretz Centre for Secular Jewish Culture is reflective of the centre’s nature – it is inclusive and eclectic. The group exhibit encompasses various genres and techniques: oil paintings and watercolour, photography, textile art and even animation. The artists participating in the show are as different as their art, their only point of connection being the Peretz Centre.
Of the eight artists featured in the exhibit, JI readers are already familiar with at least three: Colin Nicol-Smith, Hinda Avery and
Simon Bonettemaker. All three took part in the inaugural Peretz Centre Art Show in 2014. For all three, art has been a hobby: Nicol-Smith was a professional engineer, Bonettemaker was an architectural technologist and Avery taught women’s studies at the University of British Columbia before retirement.
Unlike them, Avrom Osipov built his life around creative endeavours. “I grew up at the Peretz Centre,” he told the Independent. “Started coming here with my parents when I was 5. It took me 65 years to grow up,” he joked.
At one time, Osipov made a living as an artist, producing his own line of handpainted clothing and T-shirts and selling them to department stores. “I’ve made 1,200 original T-shirts, never copied a design once,” he said.
Afterwards, he worked as an actor in film and television. “I have always been creative, but, before this show came along, I hadn’t painted in awhile,” he said. “I did some image manipulation on my computer. The show made me pick up a brush again, and it’s fantastic. Now, I paint every day.”
Paula Mines is also a regular at the centre. “I’m from Montreal,” she said. “My parents and I arrived in Vancouver in 1953 and almost immediately became involved at the Peretz. They felt at home here, and so do I.”
She has always been interested in art, even as she worked in social services. She paints and draws but, since her retirement, she has been focusing on photography. “My place is too small for an easel and paintings,” she said, laughing. “Photography just takes a computer. I combine my photography and abstract work whenever possible. My images are semi-realistic. I take a photo, clean it, crop it, change things or add things from other photos. Not all photos lend themselves to this kind of transformation. Of every 1,000 photos I take, I might keep about 25. To turn out a good image is so exciting.”
Another member of the Peretz community, Natalia Bogolepova, is an immigrant from Russia. She worked as a doctor in Russia for 20 years, specializing in plastic surgery and cosmetology, before coming to Vancouver in 2011. “I always loved art, always painted, even when I practised medicine,” she said. “I participated in several amateur art shows in Moscow. My mother was a professional artist and, since childhood, I enjoyed the smell of oil paints.”
Even though Bogolepova couldn’t work as a doctor in Canada without a licence, she didn’t try to pass the exam. Instead, she switched careers and worked in security for several years. Fortunately, serendipity took a hand in her life. Her security post at the Vancouver Art Gallery pushed her back into the arts. “I observed the art and the people who visited the gallery,” she said. “I watched children as they drew inside the gallery. I knew I had to get back to my painting.”
Another Soviet immigrant, Karl Epstein, is a professional artist and architect. He graduated from Belarus Academy of Arts in 1972 and worked as an architect in his native Belarus before immigrating to Israel in 1990. In Israel, he painted a lot and participated in a number of exhibitions. His paintings can be found in private collections throughout Belarus, Israel, Canada and the United States. He kept on painting after he moved to Canada.
Rounding out the eight artists featured in the Peretz show is Lesley Richmond, the only one not previously connected to the centre. This exhibit will be her first appearance there.
A professional fibre artist, Richmond received her art teaching training in London, England. She taught textile art at Capilano University until 2003, when she dedicated herself full time to art. Private and corporate collections in the United States, Japan, Poland, Korea and Canada have some of her work on display.
The idea to bring eight wildly different artists together in one show was Nicol-Smith’s. “I wanted to have another show at the centre after the success of our first one in 2014,” he recalled. “I started talking about it at one of the Peretz events with food and music, and suddenly people at the other tables perked up. ‘I’m an artist,’ sounded all around me. ‘I want to be in this show, too.’” Nicol-Smith partnered with Lena Sverdlov, vice-president of the Peretz Centre for the past four years, and, together, they made the current show a reality.
The exhibit opens today, July 13, and will be on display until July 22.
Olga Livshinis a Vancouver freelance writer. She can be reached at [email protected].
Shelley Globman Osipov and Marty Osipov (photo from the Osipovs)
Can Marty and I be childhood sweethearts if we didn’t start dating until we were 26? But we did meet when we were 4 years old. It happened in September 1961 at the preschool at I.L. Peretz Shule in their original location in Vancouver, on Broadway near Birch – though neither of us remembers that encounter.
From age 6, we both attended classes at the shule’s current location at 45th and Ash on Tuesdays after school and on Sundays in the morning. For me, Marty was just another one of the boys in the class.
In our six years at the shule, we were taught Yiddish and learned about Jewish culture, initially from lehrerin Sarah Sarkin and, then, by lehrer Leibel Basman. In our last year at the shule, John Mate taught us Hebrew – lessons that would come in very handy for me.
On Sundays, we had choir practice. Little did I know that our choir teacher, Claire Osipov, would become my mother-in-law. I’m sure everyone who attended the shule remembers the big box of Bader’s cookies that was passed around to bribe us to sing. I have fond memories of the cookies, though not so much of the songs – and not yet of Marty.
We attended the same high school – Eric Hamber Secondary – but were in different social circles. We were never even in a single class together for the five years we were there, but we did say hello once in awhile as we passed in the hallway. Very obviously, we were definitely not a couple then either.
Fast forward to eight years after graduation – university and travel in Europe for both of us, and a couple years living in Israel for me. We meet, after all that time – having dated other people – at a Jewish dance at the Faculty Club at the University of British Columbia.
A few days later, Marty called and suggested we get together to catch up. I agreed and, as we’d known each other for so long, figured it wasn’t a date. With our courtship shortened at least a little, because we already knew so much about each other’s childhoods, we became sweethearts at last! This comes with the special distinction of being, as yet, the only Peretz Shule students to have met there and gotten married.
* * *
No doubt, many other wonderful stories will be shared at the Peretz Shule Alumni Reunion, which takes place May 27, 1 p.m., at the Peretz Centre for Secular Jewish Culture. Alumni and their friends and family are invited to the event, which features a display of archival photos; entertainment by Peretz alums Saul Berson, Lisa Osipov Milton and Sheryl Smith, and a bit of magic by emcee Stephen Kaplan; wine and light refreshments. Admission is $20. RSVP by May 20 to 604-325-1812, ext. 1, or [email protected].
Shelley Globman OsipovandMarty Osipovwill have been sweethearts for 34 years this September. They have lived in Richmond all that time and have two other sweethearts, their daughters, Shira and Liora.
I am 69 years old and I have been living with multiple sclerosis for the last 29 years. During that time, my disability has affected my spirituality, and vice versa.
I grew up with Orthodox Jewish maternal grandparents in the same house as my less-than-Orthodox parents. Spirituality is about love if it is about anything, and my earliest memories of spiritual experience are all tied up with my love for my grandfather and his for me.
I was very close to my grandfather, Shmuel (Samuel) Silberberg. He died when I was 12, but until then, for as long as I can remember, I sat with him in the synagogue in the rows closest to the ark. There was a sense of belonging – those old guys were connected. Looking back, it is funny that I had a strong sense of belonging where I definitely did not belong. Young girls were not wanted there. But my grandfather belonged, and it was clear to all that he thought I belonged with him. He was not argued with. Even my father, Moishe (Morris) Novik, sat with the other 50 regular guys in the middle toward the back. He sat where he belonged, which was not up front with me and the old guys.
After my grandfather died, there was no more sitting with the old guys in the synagogue. I got sent upstairs to sit with my mother and the rest of the women. It just wasn’t the same. There was one row of old women who had that aura of belonging, but the other women were chatting or moving around. My connection to Judaism drifted away.
Around 1978, I went to visit my parents in New York. To my chagrin, I realized that my children, ages 8 and 6, knew nothing about being Jewish and knew plenty about Christianity. Oops. If I didn’t give them a sense of being Jewish, our dominant Christian culture would move in. When I returned to Vancouver, I searched for a place our family would fit. For a single, lesbian, politically active welfare mother, this wasn’t easy. But the children and I persevered, and we found the Peretz Shul (officially the Peretz Centre), a progressive secular Jewish place of education and culture. Our Jewish identity was saved – we had an anchor. I came to see spirituality as the sense of belonging that I remembered and that I needed for my children. Every Sunday I took them to the Jewish school and, once a month, there was a potluck lunch following. The kids had secular bar and b’nai mitzvah, and all was well.
By 1988, the woods and physical movement were my spirituality. My son had moved out on his own and my daughter was staying with family in California, so I hiked, cross-country skied, and spent time in British Columbia’s backcountry. The woods and mountains were my holy places, my grounding and my anchor. I found it impossible to wander in the beauty and not feel in every fibre of my body that I was part of something so much bigger than I.
Enter primary progressive multiple sclerosis. In this type of MS, disability gets steadily worse, without pause or remission. And my world was – and is – turned upside down. In the midst of this chaos and uncertainty, where was my anchor now?
In 1989, I took a medical leave from the travel agency I owned and moved to an A-frame home on friends’ property in Mission, B.C. No electricity, no running water. I chopped lots of wood. My MS moved slowly. I could happily live in the bush while trying to sort out what it all meant. I was blessed to find a weekly aboriginal healing circle, through the Mission Indian Friendship Centre, that warmly welcomed and grounded me.
Back on the farm, I walked with the dogs to the waterfall and talked to G-d, the G-d who was and is very much my father’s G-d. He had a personal relationship with G-d and, as a kid, I learned from watching him. When we went to the cemetery, he chatted with his dad and mom. He would stand by their graves and have long, friendly conversations, and I would watch with awe how the talks were never solemn, just friendly and intimate. When he was done, he would always ask if I had anything to add. I would shake my head and he would smile. There was never any pressure that I should talk.
The important lesson I learned was that it is OK to talk to dead people. And they will listen – they are interested. I spoke about this lesson at my father’s funeral. When one of my children or I had a problem, some people would say, “I’ll pray for you.” My dad would say, “I’ll talk to my friend upstairs for you.” He was just a regular guy who spoke about his friend upstairs in the way he would talk about any neighbour. For me, as a child and even now, this relationship is soothing and comforting.
With the chaos that MS brings to my life, sometimes a breakthrough comes when I can step back from the insurmountable roadblocks and see them instead as stepping stones on my path. This is difficult for me. My first impulse is to kick, scream and deny every new loss. Yet it is crucial to see the stepping stones so I can move forward. I remember that from hiking.
In 1990, I was back on my porch in Vancouver and missing the aboriginal healing circle. I thought, “Wait, I have my own ritual.” Around this time, my son, who had just become a father, said, “Mom, it’s time to go to synagogue.” And I said, “I know where to go.” We went to Or Shalom, where I found much grounding and a sense of community. I told a friend at Or Shalom that I hadn’t been to synagogue in 30 years. She just said, “Welcome home.” And home it was to me, my son and my granddaughter. Over the years, people have asked, “How did you manage to get your son to come to synagogue?” And I tell them it was his idea.
A few years later, in 1994, I wanted a way back to the woods. I had heard of therapeutic horseback riding, and I thought that, with the horses, I could get there. My first lesson, just 10 minutes of riding, felt great. I was convinced that this was going to sort out my hip joints, legs and back. That happened, and the surprise was that my soul and psyche were also woken up. I always felt like I had just done something grand. I, who don’t often feel proud of myself, suddenly felt quite proud for getting on this obstinate horse, Brew. He was an elderly, beautiful chestnut gelding. But strong-willed, like me. Before I got on a horse, I would always have a minute where I thought, I am insane to climb all the way up there. But, as soon as I got up there, I felt wonderfully alive. The day I rode Visteria, a big 16-hand chestnut mare with an amazingly smooth walk, it was like gliding along on top of the world. My hips unlocked and I felt my spirit rising.
For a few years, those horses were my anchor, my connection and my strength. Riding gave me back the joy of moving. I began to realize again how much my sense of spirituality was connected to physical movement. Hiking, long walks, swimming and horseback riding put me in a place where I could be connected to G-d, where I could feel myself part of a larger whole. But, with MS, there was one loss after another. I went through several aids: cane, then walker, then scooter, then horses.
Before the MS diagnosis and the losses in mobility, did I talk to G-d? Not much. The first conversations I remember happened in my year in Mission, during my daily hikes to the waterfall, with G-d and the dogs my daily company.
Now, with my mobility much more compromised, I still find G-d time where I can. The conversations now centre on “meaning.” What does this new life mean? What am I supposed to be doing? And so often G-d answers, “Go write.” I complain about the endless health maintenance that leaves so short a day, and G-d answers, as she always has, “Go write.”
Can I say exactly where spirituality is in my life and what it means for me? I am still a tad confused. Primary progressive MS slowly and persistently takes stuff away, so, in the 29 years of the illness, I have reinvented myself over and over and over again. The long hikes are just a memory, and I don’t often get out of my house to my synagogue anymore. Now that my physical movement is so limited, will I find a way to grow more spiritually?
Still, when I need spiritual guidance, I ask my father to talk to his friend upstairs. My father smiles and says, “You can talk yourself now, you know.” We both know that I do have my own conversations. But I still like using him as my go-between.
Ellen Frankwas a writer, activist, mother, grandmother and retired travel agent, author of Sticks and Wheels: A Guide to Accessible Travel on the Lower Sunshine Coast (Ouzel Publishing, 2006), Taking the Reins (Kindle, 2011) and several articles published in anthologies and in periodicals, including the Jewish Independent. She lived with primary progressive multiple sclerosis from 1988 to her death in January 2017.
Sula Boxall will perform with Flamenco Rosario in Flamenqueando on Sept. 17 at Vancouver Playhouse. (photo by Tim Matheson)
The Vancouver International Flamenco Festival Sept. 10-20 features a lineup of local and international flamenco artists – including local Jewish community member Sula Boxall.
Founded by Flamenco Rosario in 1990, the festival is apparently one the few devoted to flamenco outside of Spain. It features both free workshops and ticketed performances by several different groups and, this year, “celebrates flamenco’s Spanish Gypsy origins with the Vancouver première of Mercedes Amaya Company (Mexico/ Spain).”
Boxall will perform with Flamenco Rosario in Flamenqueando on Sept. 17, 8 p.m., at Vancouver Playhouse. They will open for Mercedes Amaya Company.
“I am honored that Rosario [Ancer] asked me to be a part of Flamenco Rosario’s performance on Sept. 17. These types of opportunities do not come along very often in Vancouver,” Boxall told the Independent. “It is an amazing opportunity to grow as a dancer and be a part of her creative process and experimentation. To be dancing in the same performance as the renowned Mercedes Amaya is humbling and intimidating. Being able to watch other performers and learn from them is a chance for professional development; I’m looking forward to the other performances and workshops that the festival has to offer.”
Boxall was born in Vancouver. “My parents had moved to Canada three years previously from South Africa,” she said. “I grew up in the Kitsilano area, attending Trafalgar Elementary and the Prince of Wales mini school. I moved to Victoria to study at UVic before continuing my studies at UBC. Currently, I am an elementary school teacher in Vancouver and teach children’s flamenco classes at Centro Flamenco.”
She has always wanted to dance.
“Since I was able to walk, I’ve been dancing,” she said. “When I was in preschool, I would create performances in my living room for my parents. I begged for dancing lessons until my parents agreed to start me in ballet at age 5. I continued to dance for the next 11 years. After a nine-year break from dancing, I was drawn back into it with flamenco. For the last eight years, it has grown into another important part of my identity. Dancing is something that is a part of me and I am a better person because of it.”
According to her bio, Boxall studied ballet, modern, jazz and character dance at Arts Umbrella. When she returned to dancing in 2008, “she found a way to renew her love of dance with flamenco at Centro Flamenco” and Ancer’s mentorship was “an integral part of her development as a dancer.”
Boxall started Flamenco Rosario’s three-year professional training program in 2010, she traveled to Spain in 2012 and studied there, she regularly attends workshops in Vancouver and, in 2013, she had her first solo performance. She regularly performs around Metro Vancouver, and also participated in the Vancouver International Flamenco Festival in 2014.
“Flamenco is an art form that has connections to many cultures, including the Jewish culture. I feel that my love of the traditional Jewish melodies is closely tied to my love of flamenco music,” said Boxall about why she is particularly drawn to this dance form.
“Having the opportunity to move and feel through flamenco dance allows me to express myself,” she added. “Flamenco is incredibly complex and diverse and demands lifelong learning. It takes years of study to understand flamenco and, even then, there is always more to learn. The challenge is what draws me to continue and work on improving my skills and understanding.”
As for other aspects of Judaism or Jewish culture that play a role in her life, Boxall said, “When I was growing up, I regularly attended the Peretz Centre in Vancouver. Through the Peretz, I was allowed to explore different parts of Judaism and gain a greater understanding of my cultural background. The culture, traditions and history continue to be very important to me and my identity, in particular the elements of family and community. With my family and friends, I continue to celebrate the holidays and enhance friendships in the Jewish community.
“I’ve especially been drawn to the music and the way it moves my soul. My mother gave me a large book of Jewish music for Chanukah years ago and I continue to find joy in learning new songs.”
It is interesting to connect the secular humanist philosophy of the Peretz Centre with the way in which the weeklong flamenco festival is described on its website. Since it began, the festival has “grown to a mature understanding of Vancouver’s multicultural audiences by nurturing the form’s hybridized roots in Sephardic, Persian, Gypsy and Indian cultures, and by striving to reflect and connect its diverse sociocultural identity through work narratives underlining flamenco’s universal message of humanistic tolerance.”
The Peretz Centre is moving towards a renewed commitment to social justice, Yiddishkeit, the arts and building community. (photo from peretz-centre.org)
If you walk into Vancouver’s Peretz Centre for Secular Jewish Culture on a Sunday afternoon between September and June, you are likely to find a group of families singing Yiddish songs such as “Shabbes Zol Zayn” and “Az der Rebbe Tanz,” making latkes or doing arts and crafts, while learning new and unique approaches to being Jewish. Some of the children are “officially,” i.e. halachically, fully Jewish by birth, with a Jewish mom and dad, but many are “half-Jewish” (with the Jewish parent being either mom or dad) or “double half-Jewish,” with parents who themselves were raised in half-Jewish families.
This is the Peretz Family Education program, where adults and kids learn together. Bubbies and zaydies often come to visit, and there is song, story and food that is shared in a community of families eager for a connection to their roots (or half-roots, as the case may be) that is not dogmatic or religious. This program, now entering its third year, is a remarkable success, attracting inter-cultural as well as LGBT families and others who feel at home at Peretz.
“We had families coming to us for years, asking us to create a place for their children to feel connected to Jewish culture, as well as progressive humanistic values, that was not focused on religion,” said Donna Becker, Peretz coordinator.
Vancouver Jews may know of the Peretz Centre from its 70-year legacy as the home for Yiddish-speaking, secular Jewish education. Loosely affiliated with sister organizations in Winnipeg, Toronto and Montreal, Peretz was founded by non-religious Jews who loved the Yiddish language, culture and traditions. These founding members were more focused on humanism, social justice and activism than on ritual, prayers and liturgy.
For decades, the Peretz community boasted a school with hundreds of students learning Jewish cultural identity and progressive values. The hub of Yiddish culture in Vancouver, it hosted (and still does) the Vancouver Jewish Folk Choir, theatre groups, classes and study groups, and artistic events celebrating Judaism from a cultural perspective. However, as the only organization in the Vancouver Jewish community that spearheaded a secular humanist and progressive perspective on the Jewish experience, it was for a long time somewhat on the margins of the community.
Then came a period of contraction. With many of the founders gone, and with Yiddish increasingly becoming a boutique, intellectual study rather than a living language and tradition, Peretzniks were not able to sustain the school-age programs. Apart from a thriving secular b’nai mitzvah program, the focus has been on strengthening the Peretz community through adult discussion groups, seniors programming, lectures, concerts, the choir, plus alternative non-religious celebrations and observances to mark Rosh Hashanah/Yom Kippur, Chanukah, Passover and other important Jewish holidays.
But, once again, the Peretz Centre is going through changes. Increasingly, young families in Vancouver and the surrounding area have been seeking a place where they can raise their children with a secular Jewish identity resonant with modern concerns of environmentalism and reconciliation and healing from the trauma so prevalent in many Jewish communities.
The new family education program is the brainchild of Dr. Danny Bakan, a PhD in education with more than 20 years experience facilitating Jewish Renewal and secular Jewish education.
“When we started, I insisted that this be a family education program; everyone is here to learn together,” said Bakan. “We focus on creating a joyous way to be connected, staying away from the common narrative of being victimized as Jews.”
In the last two years, Bakan has been helping Peretz reboot. And, it seems to be working.
“There is nothing like it, to my mind, in the city: secular, progressive and filled with an incredible range of activities that appeal to all of us, ranging in age, I suspect, from 5 to 75!” said family education parent Greg Buium.
Now, with new young families flocking to join via the program, the Peretz Centre is moving towards a renewed commitment to social justice, Yiddishkeit, the arts and building community. New offerings for the fall 2016 session will include secular Hebrew for children and adults, a b’nai mitzvah boot camp for teens and adults, art exhibits and a youth open stage and coffeehouse.