The Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre and the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver were among 125 partners presenting a global commemoration of the 77th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising recently.
Beginning and ending with stirring renditions of the “Partisans’ Hymn,” the online event, which also commemorated the end of the Second World War 75 years ago, featured a long list of singers and performers from Hollywood, Broadway and elsewhere, including Dr. Ruth Westheimer, Mayim Bialik, Whoopi Goldberg, Adrien Brody, Lauren Ambrose and dozens more.
We Are Here: A Celebration of Resilience, Resistance and Hope, which took place June 14, was produced by the Museum of Jewish Heritage: A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, Sing for Hope, the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene and the Lang Lang International Music Foundation.
“Zog Nit Keyn Mol” (“Never Say”) is generally called “The Partisans’ Song” or “The Partisans’ Hymn” in English and is an anthem of resilience amid catastrophe sung at Holocaust commemorative events. Written in the Vilna Ghetto by Hirsh Glik after he learned of the six-week uprising by Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto, its stirring concluding lines translate as, “So never say you now go on your last way / Though darkened skies may now conceal the blue of day / Because the hour for which we’ve hungered is so near / Beneath our feet the earth shall thunder, ‘We are here!’”
Other musical performances included a Yiddish rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” adapted and performed by pianist and singer Daniel Kahn; “Over the Rainbow,” from the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz, composed by Harold Arlen with lyrics by Yip Harburg, two friends from the Lower Eastside of Manhattan, against the spectre of a darkening Europe; and “Es Brent” (“In Flames”), a musical cri de coeur written in 1936 by Mordechai Gebirtig after what he viewed as the world’s indifference to a pogrom in the Polish town of Przycik.
Andrew Cuomo, governor of the state of New York, spoke of his father, the late former New York governor Mario Cuomo, who helped ensure the creation of the Museum of Jewish Heritage, the world’s third-largest Holocaust museum.
One of the other presenting partners, the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, is the longest continuously producing Yiddish theatre company in the world, now in its 105th season. It was founded to entertain and enlighten the three million Jews who arrived in New York City between 1880 and 1920.
Sing for Hope, another partner, believes in the power of the arts to create a better world. Its mission is to “bring hope, healing and connection to millions of people worldwide in hospitals, schools, refugee camps and transit hubs.”
The Lang Lang International Music Foundation aims “to educate, inspire and motivate the next generation of classical music lovers and performers and to encourage music performance at all levels as a means of social development for youth, building self-confidence and a drive for excellence.”
The program, which runs approximately 90 minutes, is available for viewing at wearehere.live.
Mary-Louise Albert was not only a dancer in the first-ever Chutzpah! Festival, but its poster model (see image below).
As the 19th annual Chutzpah! Festival approaches, ready to embrace its new season – no longer a spring festival but a fall one – it will have to loosen its embrace on its artistic managing director, Mary-Louise Albert. After 15 years heading Chutzpah!, this is her last. Albert is moving on to the next part of her creative and personal journey, and the Jewish Independent spoke to her about the festival, its legacy and what might lie ahead for her.
JI: What do you think the main impact of the Chutzpah! Festival has been for the Jewish and general communities and the relationship between the two?
MA: Presenting and facilitating the growth of professional performing arts is an exciting and multi-layered approach to uniting communities. I am very proud that we have brought the festival to a point of national and international recognition, as well as being one of the flagship Jewish festivals in North America.
Through the insistence of high standards and by supporting new work, the festival has increased an understanding and appreciation of programming that embraces an eclectic range that is Jewish arts and culture, in particular from a Canadian perspective. Expanding on this programming, Jewish and non-Jewish artists share our stages, increasing our ability to bring many Canadian and North American premières to Lower Mainland audiences. Seeing, over the past 15 years, audiences from all walks of life and backgrounds embracing the festival is particularly rewarding.
JI: Have you accomplished what you set out to do when you took over the festival 15 years ago?
MA: Yes, which feels very satisfying to be able to say. I wanted the festival to not only survive but thrive in a very competitive local and national performing arts scene, which is tricky given a cultural umbrella. This meant attaining an international standard – not just a couple of high-profile shows, but across the board. It also meant the dance and music programming had to expand, which has in particular allowed for funding opportunities and artist growth.
An area I’m very proud of is connecting urban and rural communities through creation residencies. Many B.C.-based Chutzpah! artists have had creation residencies in both the North Island region and in the Norman and Annette Rothstein Theatre, resulting in world premières, with these productions going on to tour nationally and internationally. For example, this year, Geoff Berner, T.J. Dawe, Toby Berner, Tallulah Winkelman and Jack Garten will be Chutzpah! artists-in-residence for a week in Sointula, Malcolm Island, where they will perform as well. Chutzpah! will be sending UNA dance company from New York City to perform in Sointula, Port McNeil and in Alert Bay with the N’amgis nation directly before their Vancouver performances, which is a rare and meaningful opportunity for all involved. Sharing artistic wealth with underserved regions of B.C. is and has been an important aspect of the festival for the past few years. It is also in keeping with the times.
JI: In a couple of interviews I’ve read, you speak about how your training and working as a dancer was helpful to you in running Chutzpah! Could you speak a bit to that?
MA: I was trained in ballet and contemporary, danced professionally for 20 years and, within this time period, became a mother of two children. I was 45 when I stopped performing and, through support from the Dancers Transition Resource Centre, embarked on a new adventure of being the oldest “kid” in the class for a few years at Capilano U and BCIT’s Business School.
I was then hired by Gerry Zipursky [then-executive director of the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver, which is home to the Rothstein Theatre] and an inquisitive hiring committee (who I will always be grateful to) … and embarked on this job where I needed to come in running and move things forward. All this took stamina, tunnel vision, a somewhat sharp brain (and elbows), nerviness, flexibility and passion – things that a combination of dance training and a professional dance career prepares you for.
JI: In relation to Chutzpah!, what are one or two of your “I’m most proud of” moments?
MA: There are so many that I am proud of, but I would have to say the festival has been a trailblazer in presenting Israeli artists – and often in their first Canadian or North American appearances. Artists such as the Idan Raichel Project, Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company, Batsheva Dance Company, Balkan Beat Box, Yemen Blues, Idan Sharabi, Roy Assaf, Avishai Cohen Quartet, Itamar Borochov Quartet, Dudu Tassa, Diwan Saz, Maria Kong, Baladino, Victoria Hana, David Broza and Mira Awad, A-WA and many more. And continuing this year with AvevA, Yemen Blues, Guy Mintus Trio, and Rami Kleinstein.
As well, I’m very proud of the growth of the dance and music programming and how this growth has affected positively and in a multi-faceted way the artistic development of many artists.
JI: What’s next for you?
MA: I live in both Burnaby and in Sointula on Malcolm Island. Development of contemporary dance, rural B.C. and social causes are beckoning. At 64, I still have a bit of “oomph” left to pursue.
JI: If there is anything else you’d like to add, please do.
MA: I’m honoured and thankful to have worked with so many excellent professional colleagues in the arts world and at the JCC in accomplishing the festival’s achievements, as well as working with some wonderful volunteers. However, there are two volunteers in particular who I want to give a special thank you to. People with integrity and grace who have stuck by me and the festival from the very beginning – Harriet Wolfe and Lloyd Baron.”
Kids on the Block uses a puppet show to teach kids about juvenile arthritis. (photo from Cassie and Friends)
Juvenile arthritis (JA) affects three in 1,000 kids in Canada, making it one of the most common chronic conditions affecting children today. Yet, JA is still relatively unknown and often misunderstood.
According to Jennifer Wilson, executive director of Cassie and Friends Society for Children with Juvenile Arthritis and other Rheumatic Diseases, “Arthritis has been mislabeled as ‘an old person’s disease,’ leaving kids who suffer from JA misunderstood for their differences and the disease’s complications.”
In 2006, David Porte and Debbie Setton discovered that their then-20-month-old daughter Cassie had JA.
“When Cassie was not quite 2 years old, she woke up one morning and couldn’t walk,” recalled her mom, Debbie. “I took her to the children’s hospital and, after X-rays, blood work and several visits by specialists over the next few weeks, we received the diagnosis of JA, a painful, lifelong autoimmune condition.
“Despite being a physician, I remember feeling very scared and alone, especially as Cassie’s disease progressed to involve more and more joints. Both David and I struggled to find information and support to cope with Cassie’s condition.
“About six months after Cassie was diagnosed,” she said, “David entered the Scotiabank Charity Challenge Run. We were overwhelmed with the support we received from family and friends, raising over $18,000 in a few weeks. We decided to do something long-lasting and create a charity that would help other kids and families like us.”
Debbie and David named the Vancouver-based charity Cassie and Friends, and it has been working to transform the lives of kids and families affected by JA and other rheumatic diseases locally and across Canada.
“Cassie’s disease has followed a pretty typical course of flares and remissions,” said Debbie. “At her worst, she had 16 joints affected (knee, ankles, toes, wrists, fingers). During the flares, she was unable to do the things she loves, like dance. In fact, at times, she found it hard just to walk or hold a pen. Thankfully, she is in a remission phase right now, on two different injectable medications to control the inflammation.”
According to Debbie, Cassie sometimes gets sad or frustrated because of her arthritis or its treatment. But, for the most part, Cassie is exceptionally positive and does not let her arthritis stop her. Further, Cassie’s condition has had an impact on her older brother, Ben, making him a more empathetic person after observing his sister’s struggles, said his mom.
“In the beginning, it was difficult for David and me, not knowing anyone else with a child with JA,” said Debbie. “But, now we feel like we have a whole community around us to share in the ups and downs of Cassie’s disease.”
To help kids learn about JA and other rheumatic diseases, David and Debbie created Kids on the Block (KOB) in 2009. And the KOB puppet show has been traveling, mainly around Metro Vancouver, to raise awareness about childhood arthritis, and to educate students and teachers about the issues these children face.
“The life-sized puppets – decked out in Cassie’s toddler clothes – act like real children,” said Debbie. “They help students understand what it’s like to live with JA and their skits illustrate some of the challenges a classmate with JA (or really any disease or challenge) might be facing: pain, isolation, depression and mobility challenges. Students have the chance to ask the puppets questions at the end of the performance. The puppets also help children feel positive about themselves, accepting individual differences and learning valuable personal skills.”
The first-ever performance of KOB was at Vancouver Talmud Torah, when Cassie was in kindergarten. With Cassie about to graduate from the school, the show was brought back for another performance earlier this year. Cassie suggested it would be more special and have a greater impact if she were to introduce the program with her own story. At the show, there were two other children in the audience with either JA or another rheumatic condition.
“It was my suggestion to bring Kids on the Block back to VTT on Jan. 24, 2018, for the younger kids, including my Grade 1 buddy,” said Cassie. “It was fun to introduce the puppet show to the kids. They all know me and I could explain it to them in an easier way, because I am a kid and they are, too.
“I also really enjoyed watching the show again, because I didn’t remember it from kindergarten. After I had done the introduction, I also got many compliments on it because it was in the weekly email.” (Cassie’s presentation can be seen on YouTube.)
“Arthritis in kids is much more than aches and pains,” said Wilson. “JA is a chronic autoimmune disease characterized by uncontrolled inflammation and pain that can occur in any and often several parts of a child’s body. Children with JA will spend countless hours treating their condition and are often confined to the sidelines in sports, school and even life – especially during painful flares.
“For many children,” she said, “JA will also involve complex medical interventions, such as joint replacements, surgeries and aggressive, immune-suppressing medications, like chemotherapy and biologics. There is no cure and there are few treatments that are safe and specific for a growing child. Sadly, that can lead to feelings of embarrassment, social exclusion and even bullying … for a child who is already dealing with a painful, chronic and sometimes invisible disease.”
KOB is 100% free to schools and is intended for students in kindergarten through Grade 4. The show travels to 40 to 50 schools in British Columbia every year. It is supported in part by the sponsorship of Mardon Insurance and Gore Mutual Insurance Foundation.
According to Wilson, Cassie and Friends is the only charity completely dedicated to kids and families affected by juvenile arthritis and other rheumatic diseases. For more information, visit cassieandfriends.ca or email [email protected].