Despite its flaws, most Canadians are proud to call this country home. And most of us would leave it at that, and not delve too much into why we feel that way. But a recently published book asks 20 scholars to consider the question, “Has there ever been a better home for the Jews than Canada?” The result is a compelling read that raises many more questions than answers.
No Better Home? Jews, Canada and the Sense of Belonging, edited by David S. Koffman of York University, was published by University of Toronto Press last year. While many of us may not rush to pick up an academic publication, for fear of its denseness and potential incomprehensibility for laypeople, this one is surprisingly readable. Not every essay will be of as much interest, as the book is Eastern Canada-centric, but many of its ideas will help us in determining for ourselves what we mean when we say Canada is one of the best places in the world to live. And some of its discussion will prod humility – for example, the reality that many immigrants to Canada would rather have been able to stay where they were, but had to flee persecution, war or other circumstances, is a sobering reminder. As is the fact that the situation in Canada has not always been good for Jews or other minorities.
An exact measurement of “best” is elusive and subjective, of course. As editor Koffman notes in his introduction, “Canada may now very well be the safest, most socially welcoming, economically secure, and possibly most religiously tolerant home for the Jews than any other diaspora country, past or present. Jews in Canada today enjoy (1) high rates of voluntary religious participation at all denominational in-points; (2) relatively low rates of nonviolent forms of antisemitism; (3) high degrees of Jewish literacy; (4) the capacity to exercise political power unfettered by antisemitism; (5) institutional completeness for Jewish communal needs; (6) thoroughgoing social acceptance; (7) significant cultural production; (8) public recognition; (9) comparatively low intermarriage rates; and (10) economic opportunities unrestricted by their Jewishness.”
That said, the matter is not so easily determined, as the other contributors to the volume delve into Canada’s past, into other countries that offer good homes for Jews, into the accessibility and affordability of Jewish education, into Canada as a point of arrival for Holocaust survivors, into Yiddish not only as a language but as a link to family, heritage or tradition, and into many other topics.
The situation in Ukraine makes Jeffrey Veidlinger’s essay particularly interesting for anyone wanting to know more about that country and the influence of its history and its emigrants on Canada. For instance, Canada’s multiculturalism policy was a concept introduced in the 1960s by Ukrainian Canadians, “who, in turn, adapted it from the notion of ‘national autonomy’ that Jews had introduced to early 20th-century Ukraine, where Jews were conscious of securing rights as a minority group within a largely binational (Russian and Ukrainian) state,” writes Veidlinger, who is at the University of Michigan. “Ironically, when multiculturalism made it to Canada in its new form, it was met with skepticism and even outright rejection by the organized Canadian Jewish community.” Some of that rejection had to do with this vision of multiculturalism being “premised on a common Christianity,” he says. As well, the Jewish community had learned to navigate between the so-called “two founding races” (French and English powers) and there was concern that diffusion of power would make it harder to do so.
More than one writer touches on the French-English dichotomy, as well as where Indigenous peoples fit in those narratives. In his essay, Koffman considers the question, “What have Jewish-Indigenous peoples’ interactions looked like? How might we think about Jews’ home in Canada refracted through the prism of the interactions between the placed and the displaced?”
The only local contributor to No Better Home is Richard Menkis, a professor at the University of British Columbia. The way in which his essay on museums fits into the collection is encapsulated in the two questions he poses: “What kind of home would it be if the narrative of the Jewish community were not considered ‘Canadian’ and included in the national experiences depicted in state-sponsored exhibitions? And the corollary question is: How comfortable are Jews, in this home, telling their stories, including the stories of the marginalized (the poor) and the ostracized (the criminals)?”
Menkis looks at three exhibits on Canadian Jewry – Journey Into Our Heritage (1970s), A Coat of Many Colours (late 1980s) and narratives at the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 in Halifax since it opened in 1999. He concludes that, in the two exhibits, as groundbreaking as they were, Canadian Jews were comfortable only in sharing their achievements and contributions (ie. worth) to Canadian society at large. These exhibits omitted people and activities that could be more controversial, such as Jews involved in the union movement or in radical politics.
At the Canadian Museum of Immigration, the historical summations eventually became more nuanced about Canada’s immigrant communities, and recognized them as having “enriched the cultural mosaic.” This is a grand improvement from the attitude in 1945 of the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada when it was asked to recognize the country’s first synagogue. Menkis begins his essay with this point, citing a member of the board, who said “he was not particularly interested in the commemoration of Jewish activities.” The board member had a similarly dismissive response to the suggestion “that there be a commemorative marker for 400 African Canadians who lived on Vancouver Island before 1858,” notes Menkis.
Every contributor to No Better Home? offers a different perspective. One that seems sadly true is that of Jack Kugelmass of the University of Florida. “My point,” he writes, “is that good places for Jews have a lot to do with robust economies, with stable governments and a consensus in which difference is at least tolerated and immigrants welcomed because they’re good for business.” He recommends: “Enjoy the good times while they last. Nothing is forever. Right now is certainly Canada’s time, as it is for Canada’s Jews.”
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 University of British Columbia’s Prof. Richard Menkis has received two honours recently: the 2018 Louis Rosenberg Canadian Jewish Studies Distinguished Service Award and the 2018 Switzer-Cooperstock Prize for the best essay in Western Canadian Jewish history.
The Association for Canadian Jewish Studies established the Rosenberg Award in 2001 to recognize the significant contribution by an individual, institution or group to Canadian Jewish studies. In announcing Menkis as this year’s honouree, the association noted his “long and very distinguished career as a strong advocate for and practitioner of the scholarship and teaching of Canadian Jewish studies.”
Menkis won this year’s Switzer-Cooperstock Prize for the essay “Two Travelers and Two Canadian Jewish Wests,” which emphasizes the multiple expressions of interwar Jewish life in the Canadian west, and studies how two rabbis – Chief Rabbi J.H. Hertz and Rabbi Y. Horowitz – traveled through the region to promote their different visions. Hertz offered a modern acculturated Anglo-orthodoxy, while Horowitz promoted a traditionalist orientation shaped by Chassidism.
The Switzer-Cooperstock Prize, donated by members of the Switzer family to honour their parents and grandparents, is awarded biennially by the Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada. Past winners of the prize are Theodore Friedgut (Hebrew University), Lynne Marks (University of Victoria), Chana Thau (Winnipeg independent scholar), David Koffman (York University) and Esyllt Jones (University of Manitoba).
Menkis received his PhD from Brandeis University in 1988 and for many years held a position in the department of classical, Near Eastern and religious studies with a cross appointment to the department of history at UBC. He is currently associate professor of medieval and modern Jewish history in the history department at UBC. In addition to the surveys of medieval and modern Jewish history, he has taught advanced undergraduate courses on the Holocaust; Canadian Jewish history; fascism and antifascism; the historiography of genocide; and Jewish identity and the graphic novel. He continues to supervise both MA and PhD student theses at UBC and has served on PhD committees at other institutions.
Menkis has published widely on the cultural and religious history of Canadian Jewry. His articles have appeared in American Jewish History, American Jewish Archives, Canadian Ethnic Studies, Canadian Jewish Studies and in a number of edited volumes. Menkis was co-author, with Harold Troper, of More Than Just Games: Canada and the 1936 Olympics (University of Toronto Press, 2015), a seminal work in the field that presents an investigation of the responses and reactions of both Jewish and non-Jewish Canadian athletes and their communities to participation in the games. He is continuing the research for a publication, begun with Gerald Tulchinsky (z”l), on an aspect of the Canadian Jewish garment industry.
Tikva Housing has hired Alice Sundberg as director of operations and housing development. Sundberg has more than 30 years of nonprofit housing experience, including housing development, organizational and project management, and sector leadership. Most recently, she was involved with the development of the Co:Here Housing Community and the creation of Home Front, a collaborative initiative to make homelessness in Metro Vancouver rare, brief and one-time. Her knowledge of and contacts with both provincial and federal levels of government will assist Tikva Housing greatly as the organization moves forward with current and new project developments.
Sundberg is excited to be joining Tikva Housing and is already busy with the upcoming opening of the Ben and Esther Dayson Residences in Vancouver’s Fraser district. For information about Tikva’s upcoming projects, you can reach her at [email protected], or housing administrator Anat Gogo, at [email protected].
An historical photo of Line 41 blending into a drawing of the buildings and street. (photo by Marek Iwicki, drawing Tanja Cummings)
The Line 41 streetcar ran through Lodz Ghetto (Litzmannstadt). Established by the Nazis in 1939, 180,000 Jews and 5,000 Sinti and Roma were imprisoned there, in plain site of the streetcar passengers. As these travelers went about their daily routines for the next several years, 46,000 people died from hunger, disease and violence in the ghetto and practically everyone else was deported to Auschwitz or Chelmno extermination camps. By August 1944, fewer than 900 prisoners remained; the Soviet army arrived in January 1945.
The documentary film Line 41 focuses on the story of two men: Natan Grossmann, who survived the ghetto, and Jens-Jurgen Ventzki, whose father was the Nazi mayor of the city. It will see its Canadian première on July 11, 7:45 p.m., at Vancity Theatre. The screening will be followed by a discussion between Berlin-based director Tanja Cummings and Prof. Richard Menkis, associate professor of modern Jewish history at the University of British Columbia.
“I was interested in participating,” Menkis told the Independent, “because I am a Holocaust educator, quite simply. As such, I think it is important to engage the different ways of approaching the Holocaust…. I teach the course on the Holocaust at UBC, have published on aspects of the Holocaust and have worked on museum exhibitions. I am also interested in film representations – especially in documentaries – so I am glad to be involved. The film raises several important issues, especially about ‘bystanders,’ and I look forward to having a conversation about the film and its themes.”
Released in 2016, Line 41 has screened in Germany, Poland, Austria, Romania, the United States and Australia. The film took about nine years to make, with the initial idea for it coming in 2007.
“Everything started by reading the 1937 novel by Israel Joshua Singer, Di brider Aschkenasi [The Brothers Ashkenazi],” Cummings told the Independent. “It was this great novel that raised my interest in Lodz in the very first place and it made me travel there in 2008 or so.”
Cummings was initially interested in Lodz before the Second World War. “The history of Lodz was very much influenced by German, Polish and Jewish populations since the early 19th century,” she explained. “In a positive way, one could say that these groups worked together to transform a small village into a major European centre of textile production within a few decades.”
Known variously as “the Manchester of Poland” and the “Eldorado of the East,” she said, “Immigrants from all over Europe came to this ‘Promised Land.’ This term was actually coined for this city by [Nobel Prize-winning author] Wladyslaw Reymont in a novel of that title…. Later on, the famous Polish filmmaker Andrzej Wajda made a feature film out of it, with, again, the same title (or, in Polish, Ziemia Obiecana).
“So, it was Germans, Jews, Poles and also Russians who dominated the development of Lodz. Knit together – through trade, business, politics and bureaucracy – every group played its specific role, and made up what was and still is called ‘the Lodz man,’ ‘Lodzermensch,’ a ‘man’ of special wit of life and street smarts, so this fascinated me.”
Over time, her focus shifted.
“I tried to meet witnesses of German, Polish and Jewish background who, through their family background, would be able to tell me about these prewar times,” she said, “but, ‘naturally,’ all their stories circled around the era in which this world of the Lodzermensch was destroyed – by the invasion of the German Wehrmacht, the Second World War and the times of the ghetto. This is what their stories focused on, as they themselves had experienced it as young adults, teenagers, children. Through meeting these witnesses and hearing their powerful, shattering stories, it became clear that one must record them and their stories so that they would reach a larger audience. And, early on, it was clear to me that we should try to find witnesses – last witnesses – of these various groups: roughly, the victims, the perpetrators, the bystanders.”
Cummings said, “When you walk through Lodz today or through the area of the former ghetto for that matter, which formed a large part of this city, you realize that many of the buildings, streets, backyards, hallways and flats do not seem to have changed since the time of the war…. In many streets, time seems to stand still. The buildings still stand in their roughness, but the people of the ghetto of 1940 until 1944 (or early 1945) are gone. Yet, people live there today and seem to be oblivious to what happened in their streets, flats, courtyards.
“This is especially painful if one can connect certain buildings with specific stories of people and families – through the narratives told to us; through historical literature and through diaries or other reports, for example, Berlin Jewish families whose deportation has been traced, the places where they ‘lived’ in the ghetto and what happened to them, which tragedies evolved, which terror was inflicted upon them there, or in the camps, such as Kulmhof [Chelmno] or Auschwitz.
“A key moment that shocked me deeply was when, in 2010 or 2011, a Lodz German in his early 80s – not the one whom we see in the film – walked us through streets of the former ghetto area and he showed to us the street where the streetcar line ran through, coming from the ‘free’ part of the city. This was the first time I had ever heard about this streetcar,” said Cummings. “And he told us he had been a passenger in this streetcar many times, and that the ghetto was plainly visible to him and anybody who took this streetcar – not once, many times. And, while he told us this, streetcars passed by. In Lodz, the past is very present,” as it is elsewhere, in places like Berlin, and all over Europe.
“Since that day with this elderly Lodz German (who, after the war, did not leave this city) I tried to find more witnesses from this period of the war who would tell their stories from their own perspectives: Jewish survivors of the ghetto, but also Germans and Poles who lived around the ghetto which was hermetically closed and isolated over the course of four years. Germans and Poles, what did they see, what did they know? What was told in families, at school? What was the atmosphere in the city back then?
“The ghetto was a different matter altogether, and the narratives very much circled around survival, hunger and nightmarish scenes, but also culture, resistance – so many efforts to stay human.
“As for the main protagonist, Natan Grossmann, who was a teenager during ghetto times, we also tried to find out – together with him – about the fate of his older brother. To Natan, since the day his brother vanished in March 1942 in the ghetto, he had no clue what had happened to him.”
In the main phases of filming, from 2011 to 2013, about 120 hours with witnesses was recorded, after which it was decided the documentary would focus on Grossmann and Ventzki.
“When we started, we had no clear vision of what [the witnesses] would tell us, or where we would go with them, where they would lead us – all these things developed in the process of filming – or what we, together with the protagonists, would find out, what we would learn from them,” said Cummings.
When Grossmann arrived in the British Mandate of Palestine in 1946, she explained, “he felt he was ‘reborn’ there and crossed out the past from his mind. He suppressed what had happened to him in Lodz Ghetto, in Auschwitz, other camps in Germany, the death march…. He crossed this out from his daily life and did not talk about it. He did not look for his brother Ber, whose fate was unknown to him, except one attempt, when he visited Auschwitz in the 1980s but could not find any records there on his brother.”
Only because Grossmann was persuaded “to travel with us to Lodz in 2011, visit archives and connect with historians there, did we, together, finally find out what happened to his older brother Ber.”
In the film, Grossmann searches “not only for his brother, but also for the graves of his parents, who were murdered in the ghetto, and for photographs of anybody from his once-large family, as he has none of his close family.”
Ventzki, the second main protagonist, is the son of Werner Ventzki, a Nazi official and German mayor of Lodz (then Litzmannstadt) during the German occupation. “So, the son goes on a journey as well,” said Cummings, “but from a completely different perspective – as son of a perpetrator fighting a silence, the silence in his family, and trying to find ways of dealing with the fact that his father was a Nazi perpetrator, and his mother, too.”
During filming, Ventzki and Grossmann were kept apart. “We traveled with them separately,” she said, “as we felt then it may be too intense and heavy for both of them. Only much later, [while the film was] in the editing room already, in 2013, we decided we should try to have them meet (and start filming again).”
The meeting took place at Ventzki’s home in Austria. “In the film, you can see their first-ever meeting, moments of this meeting, which, in the film, form the most powerful and, for some, unbearable moments in the film, towards its end. In fact, these moments were the starting point of a … deep friendship between these two men.”
The film isn’t intended to be “a ‘didactic play’ or tell audiences what to think,” said Cummings, “but rather to ask questions, as the film does…. I would be glad if this kind of curiosity and openness is transmitted to the audiences.”
While the film deals with historical issues, it does so, for the most part, through “the two main protagonists, who used to stand on different ‘sides of the fence’: victims and perpetrators. But the film is not about reconciliation, but rather about meeting and listening to each other. If audiences feel how important that is, or feel the power of what happens there or may happen there, that would be wonderful. And this reaches out beyond the ‘topic’ of the Shoah or Holocaust – there is something universal about it.”
For more information, visit linie41-film.net. For tickets to the screening and discussion, which is being presented by the Vancouver Foreign Film Society, go to viff.org. Vancity classifies the film as suitable for ages 19+.
Rarely has a book worked me up as much as More Than Just Games: Canada and the 1936 Olympics by professors Richard Menkis (University of British Columbia) and Harold Troper (University of Toronto).
More Than Just Games was published by U of T Press in the spring. I got my copy from Menkis, who, biases known, I consider a friend. Even so, it took me months to open. The cover image is of members of Canada’s 1936 Olympic team vying for Adolf Hitler’s autograph. Other than some high-quality archival images grouped in the centre of the book, the text is academic, looking almost as imposing as the topic itself. So I was surprised that, when I finally did start reading, I pretty much couldn’t stop. In just over a week, I had read the 230ish-page book, not counting the notes, bibliography and index.
That the scholarship of academics with the credentials of Menkis and Troper would be impeccable I had no doubt. What I hadn’t anticipated was the immediacy they could evoke with their writing. The amount of detail they provide, though on rare occasion overwhelming, serves to bring readers into the period leading up to Canada’s decision to send athletes to the Olympic Games in Berlin in 1936, when there could be no doubt as to the Nazis’ actions and intentions.
Through ample use of citations from letters, articles and speeches of the pro- and anti-Olympic forces, readers witness almost firsthand the debates that took place prior to the Games, they get a glimpse of the almost dizzying number of internal conflicts within the boycott movement, and they get an idea of the amount of propaganda that was being disseminated by Germany in Canada (and other countries). They even learn of some of the differences of opinion between the German Olympic Committee and the Nazi party as to the value of hosting the Games, when the event’s ideal – no discrimination on “grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise” – ran contrary to the Nazis’ belief in the superiority of the Aryan race, and their efforts to annihilate those they considered inferior.
There were a few outspoken people who tried to waken Canadians to the reality of the Nazi regime – notably journalist Matthew Halton and Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath – but their voices couldn’t rise above the Games’ advocates nor break through the apathy of most of the population. Canada, we are reminded, had closed the doors to Jewish immigration in 1923 – “In distinguishing Jews from non-Jews of the same citizenship, Canada predated Nazi regulations denying Jews and non-Jews equal status under the law by more than 10 years,” write Menkis and Troper.
This is one of the principal reminders of this book, which came out of an exhibit that the professors put together at the behest of the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre, and which opened several months before the 2010 Winter Olympics were held in the city. Canada might have become a model of multiculturalism, but it was not always so.
Another reminder that stands out is that it doesn’t necessarily take evil people for bad things to happen. Many of the supporters – including athletes – of sending Canadians to the 1936 Games sincerely believed in their position on the importance of sport above all, and seem to have been genuinely confused as to why anyone would disagree. Canada’s position was that of a good colony, following the lead of Britain, which saw no reason not to send competitors. It’s not even obvious in hindsight as to whether Canada’s absence at those Games would have made a difference to the Nazis’ progression of violence to war, to genocide.
Sensibly, Menkis and Troper don’t try to examine the issues with the benefit of hindsight. They present numerous viewpoints and historical facts, mostly without judgment. Their opinions, however, pop out here and there via their choice of adjective or use of sarcasm. I found this comforting because they generally reflected my mood at those points in the book. I would be getting all worked up about what was being said at the time and their jibe would make me smile, and not feel like the crazy one. Because that’s what it felt like reading about it – I can only imagine how people like Halton and Eisendrath felt, actually being there, trying to fight against such ignorance, selfishness, pettiness, narrow-mindedness, greed and indifference.
More Than Just Games is an important contribution to Canadian history, and it is not only a must-read but a very good read.
There are some very talented writers who contribute to the Jewish Independent, so it’s not surprising that many of them have been published elsewhere. Here are brief reviews of six books that feature contributions from, or are authored by, freelancers who have written for the JI at some point.
Living Legacies: A Collection of Writing by Contemporary Canadian Jewish Women, Volume 3 (PK Press, 2011), edited by Liz Pearl, comprises essays from more than 35 women, including at least two who have contributed to the JI – Shoshana Litman (Victoria) and Ricki Segal (Winnipeg) – as well as three other British Columbians: Shelley Halpern Evans, Dale Adams Segal and Helen Waldstein Wilkes. In this most recent volume, Pearl has once again collected from women across the country stories that create connections, both spiritual and human.
In writing about her family and the role that food plays in their expression of love, for example, Evans touches upon rituals that are important to secular and religious Jewish life; the way in which a recipe passed down from a grandmother or the care that a parent or a spouse puts into making a meal brings family and friends closer. Litman’s Shabbat dinner at a friend’s home in Brooklyn offers her “[h]ints of heaven,” and also reconnects her to a woman she knew from Vancouver – these “divine encounters” not only make Litman “feel encouraged and uplifted,” but also, she writes, “The thin veil that separates me from others disappears, like overcast skies swept clean by spring winds to reveal the warm sunlight that is always there.”
In writing about how she’s been composing prayers all her life, despite her non-religious upbringing, Dale Adams Segal notes that she has “paddl[ed] down many rivers of growing up: of being married and divorced and married again, of birthing children and witnessing the birth of a granddaughter, of finding those whom I would love and losing those whom I have loved…. I share with you that this practice of writing prayer has restored me to life again and again….” And Ricki Segal pays tribute to her mother, who at the time of writing was suffering from dementia, in sharing some of what she has learned from her mother about love, attentiveness, tenacity, forgiveness and other important facets of life.
Wilkes’ essay is about her personal journey, from being made to feel ashamed about being Jewish by antisemitic classmates when she was a child to “com[ing] home” when she heard the Barchu: “I began to weep,” she writes. “Something deep inside me had been touched, and I knew that I had indeed come home.” She now sees Jewishness as a bridge that helps her “see aging as a purposeful process. Hopefully, the passing years will be accompanied by a growing measure of wisdom. If this means that I can be a role model to my children and grandchildren, then I will be blessed indeed.”
Role models would describe all of the contributors to this and previous volumes of Living Legacies – and this fact offers reassurance that there are many more women (men and children) who would also fit that bill.
Canada’s Jews: In Time, Space and Spirit, edited by Concordia University’s Prof. Ira Robinson, was published by Academic Studies Press in 2013. It is part of the Jews in Space and Time series which, according to ASP’s website, “brings together some of the best scholars in their respective fields to explore the histories of Jewish communities in different geographical areas and historical eras, deepening our understanding of Jews and the relationships that they forged within their host countries.”
Canada’s Jews is special for several reasons, including its dedication to two men who for a part of their lives called Vancouver home and contributed to several local institutions, including the JI’s forerunner, the Jewish Western Bulletin: David Rome (1910-1996) and Abraham Arnold (1922-2011). These men, as Robinson notes, also “broke new ground in the field of Canadian Jewish studies.”
For Canada’s Jews, Robinson has amassed almost everyone who is currently attempting to continue Rome’s and Arnold’s legacy. Local contributors are Jewish Historical Society of British Columbia historian emeritus Cyril Leonoff, who co-wrote the chapter on Vancouver with me; University of British Columbia Prof. Alex Hart, who contributed an extensive essay on Jews in English literature; and UBC Prof. Richard Menkis, who wrote two chapters, a revised version of a previous article on Reform Judaism in Canada, and a comprehensive look at Conservative Judaism, as well as Reconstructionism and Renewal.
In the preface, Robinson notes that Canada’s Jews “will be of interest to scholars, students and readers of Canadian and Jewish studies,” however, the essays are, on the whole, very accessible and most people will find something to engage them.
The book has three parts: the first spans the history of Canadian Jews from the mid-1700s to after the Second World War; the second looks at contemporary Canada, beginning with a couple of chapters on general demographics and politics, followed by chapters on Jewish communities across the country; and the third comprises chapters on Judaism, Yiddish, literature and art, with the volume’s concluding chapter being a detailed inventory of the state of Jewish studies in Canada and recommendations for how the field might expand.
Canada’s Jews is full of factoids that can be gleaned on a quick reading. For example, “While almost all Canadian Jews in 1945 were Ashkenazi, today close to 20% have Sephardi roots” (Franklin Bialystock); Regina’s Jewish population in 2001 was 720, “about the same as it had been since 1951” (Debby Shoctor); and 2005 calculations show the average household size for the Jewish community as a whole in Greater Montreal to be 3.46, compared to that of the Satmar/Belz/Skver, 5.69; Lubavitch, 5.45; and Tosh, 6.37 (William Shaffir).
Because of how data are collected and the fact that such essay collections take a long time to put together, hunters for current statistics will be frustrated, as many of the survey and census figures are almost 10 or more years old. As well, the chapters on specific cities’ communities are quite brief in some cases and, while they provide a general overview and raise some issues for future research most – including the chapter I co-wrote – do not delve into any analysis, for example, of issues such as the effects of immigration on communal participation and/or fundraising. Perhaps the situation in small communities is similar – limited availability of information and little previous analytical work on which to build.
These small criticisms aside, the volume will contribute much to readers’ knowledge of Jews in Canada, and there are several in-depth analyses in the collection, including a couple of chapters that provide fascinating reading for anyone interested in the evolution of the mainstream Jewish community’s structure on a national level.
On the fiction front, readers of chick lit will appreciate Masada Siegel’s first novel, Window Dressings (Cupcake Press, 2012). It begins with the main character, Skye Silver, attempting – and failing – to manouevre her body into a position that her boyfriend Gregg wants her to try from the Palmasutra, a mobile operating system version of the Kamasutra. The trouble in bed is but one of the problems this couple is having in their soon-to-be over three-year relationship. Religion (Skye is Jewish, Gregg is Protestant), lack of communication and insecurity, among other things, lead to the betrayal that sends Skye into singlehood.
Despite a poor body image, sadness over her break-up and very high standards for the outward beauty of possible mates, Skye manages to find many suitors, and much of Window Dressings is about what happens on those dates. She is supported by two besties: Josh, a writer/editor, with whom “mutual attraction had turned into a strong friendship”; and Karen, an international model.
While Skye is getting used to her new status and trying to meet “hot neighbor boy” – both a real character and Skye’s ideal man – she loses her job at Xtremedream advertising. Halfheartedly looking for a new job, she takes on some freelance work, falling back on the journalism degree she got in addition to her master’s in business admin. With relative ease, it seems, she lands a job at the New York Times and, dream job in hand, life gets even better for Skye.
In Lost and Found in Russia by Olga Godim (Eternal Press, 2013), Amanda anxiously awaits news about her daughter, Gloria, who is in the hospital after a car accident. Amanda volunteers to give blood for the needed transfusion and, while the lab work is being done, we find out that Amanda is a linguist. A contract decades earlier had her teaching Russian to a group of Toronto journalists. She fell in love with one of them, Donald, and married him a week before they moved to Russia, where Gloria was born. For Amanda, it was Gloria who “filled the emptiness left after Donald’s death.”
When the blood work reveals that Gloria is not Amanda’s biological daughter, the doctor makes a comment about a possible switch at birth, and Amanda recalls that, 34 years ago, “Two red-headed girls were born on the same day in that decrepit hospital with peeling paint on the walls and one washroom for the entire corridor.” As she sits by Gloria’s bedside, Amanda resolves to find her other daughter: “Of course, Gloria was her daughter, her blood type notwithstanding. She just had another red-haired daughter somewhere in Russia.”
Meanwhile, Sonya is steeling herself to kick out her drunk of a husband, Alexei, as she can no longer afford to support him, herself and their teenage daughter, Ksenya, on what she earns from working two jobs. The Russian family arrived in Canada two years earlier from Israel, where Sonya had been a dancer and a dance instructor, and they now live in Vancouver, where Alexei’s supposed musical genius is as underappreciated as it was in Israel. Sonya not only has to deal with an alcoholic partner and trying to scrape out a living, but with her daughter’s understandable frustrations.
The book follows Amanda’s search for her other daughter; along the way, she also opens herself up to life for the first time since her husband died. It also follows Sonya’s struggles with Ksenya, and their rapprochement. Godim writes authentic dialogue, and captures the intricacies of relationships, mainly that between mother-daughter. Most interesting, however, is the view of Judaism from a Russian perspective, not only how one self-identifies culturally, religiously or otherwise, but the prevalent antisemitism. The fairytale ending is over the top, and there are a few odd scenes that could have been replaced with more development of the main characters, but the writing style and especially the Sonya-Ksenya relationship, make Lost and Found in Russia a good read.
It’s hard to know what to think about Curt Leviant’s Zix Zexy Stories (Texas Tech University Press, 2012). Leviant is an excellent writer, he’s knowledgeable about literature, Yiddish and Judaism, among other topics, and he has what to say. But he has a weakness, or made a poor choice. In pretty much every one of the seven (not zix) stories in this collection, he features a young, blond, big-breasted, non-Jewish, beautiful, dumb woman who admires, lusts after or is married to an older, professorial/rabbinical Jewish man. Perhaps this is an intentional attempt to link the stories – with the trope of the shiksa goddess – but, if so, it doesn’t work. Better the Franz Kafka connection that ties at least four of the stories.
Zeven Ztrange Ztories would have been a better title, in that the collection successfully channels Kafka-esque absurdity, and intelligently considers existential matters. For example, in “From Helena; or, Sanskrit is Sexy Too,” a professor named Keller is introduced to a woman who is the object of many men’s desire, including the married man who introduces Keller to her. At this woman’s house, Keller runs into her professor father, who is doing kabbalistic research that entails cracking open walnuts to see if they’re all “built the same.” The father is dressed in a cloak and cowl. When Keller asks him why, he explains, “… A wise man, I believe it was Thomas Mann – you heard of Thomas Mann, I suppose – said that an esthetic worldview is incapable of solving world problems that cry for solution. Nevertheless, esthetics is crucial. Without esthetics we would be dogs barking at the moon. That’s why I don this unseemly garb. To put myself in the medieval mood. I am doing research.”
Throughout the collection, such thought-provoking passages appear. As well, Leviant is a strong storyteller. In “From Golden Necklace,” about an architect who travels to Italy to see a special collection of art, the tension is palpable when the architect sees the necklace his mother – who, along with his father, was killed in the Holocaust – on the woman escorting him around the palazzo. As another example, ignoring the object of Shmulik Gafni’s supposed affections (a shiksa), Leviant masterfully exhibits the ability of words to both accuse and acquit someone: none of the facts substantiates the rumor that Gafni is an adulterer, yet that very fact fuels it. All of the stories have something to recommend them.
On the inside cover, The Brothers Schlemiel by Mark Binder (Light Publications, 2013) is described as “… a novel of Chelm … being the reasonably complete adventures of Abraham and Adam Schlemiel, identical twins, born in the village of fools and confused from birth.” As most readers know, from Chelm – from dim-wittedness and confusion – comes great wisdom and clarity, along with, of course, much humor.
Binder has created characters with whom we empathize, not just Adam and Abraham, or Abraham and Adam, who can’t even tell themselves apart at times, but their parents, sister and the other villagers. He ably manages some fine balances: writing about silliness without the story becoming stupid, and evoking sentimentality while not becoming saccharine. There are parts of The Brothers Schlemiel that could even be called scary – encounters with Russian soldiers and gun-wielding robbers. As well, through the vehicles of comedy and fantasy, The Brothers Schlemiel touches on many serious topics, from poverty to racism, to ethics in business, to whom people choose to be, and more. At the end of the day, however, The Brothers Schlemiel is just a good story very well told.