I have more years behind me than most of you. I remember what seems to me all the big events. While prominent in my mind, I do try to pay more attention to the daily round. Today, for example, I bought some plants to fill spaces in my garden in the sky, seeking yellows and oranges to harmonize with the bountiful presence of the red geraniums, fully in their flowering. We ate breaded chicken for breakfast, a gift of our Jimmy, Cookie’s son, while watching the Tokyo Olympics results – Canada is doing great! I spent Saturday morning at the community centre, playing with clay, creating fantastical faces I would not hope to meet on my street.
I think it’s important that we pay lots of attention to the minutiae of daily life, glorying in the simple things that fill our present, appreciating how they add to the pleasure of living. But I also worry about losing the detail about my life in the past, the bits and pieces that brought elements of that life into the now. It takes some work to ferret things out. I’m rummaging about in the closets of memory, poking into the corners to see what I can find.
Can I remember what it was like when I was a kid? I was the only boy, being raised with sisters. Didn’t I get the feeling that I was favoured as the male, as my older sister was called upon to help my mother with the housekeeping? My youngest sister was nevertheless the spoiled one, being considered the most vulnerable to mistreatment. I recall how I tried to keep my room neat and tidy, so that was where we had our family meetings. All this might be a figment of my egomaniac’s self-image, and the facts would have to be checked with living witnesses.
Can I remember what it was like to be the only Jewish kid in the neighbourhood when the family moved to Jarvis Avenue in Winnipeg? The kids next door tried to make our lives miserable by throwing stones at our windows, and parading in front of our house with catcalls deriding my mother’s Jewish names for us. How many times did I fight with Mikey, down and dirty in the mud? And Tony and Danny, from three houses over, scrapping in the schoolyard? And Eddie, who knocked me unconscious in front of a crowd, in Grade 7? I survived the blemish on my brain, and Eddie, too. Didn’t my tiny sister protect me when Big Harry on Dufferin was going to beat me up on our way to school? What did it smell like outside our house, with the coal yard in front and the junkyard at the back?
And yet, it felt like we, my family, lived a totally peaceful, private life inside our home there. Dad had his job shoveling coal at the Cold Storage Co. down the street. (He would end up a graduate engineer after years of home study.) We ate our three squares a day in our rented home, and went the four blocks to Aberdeen school each day. We celebrated the Sabbath every Friday with a special bread and the best meal of the week. I frequented the library every chance I could – maybe escaping the then-current world – and often spent the night reading by flashlight under my covers. We went to the neighbourhood synagogue for the High Holidays. I remember eating chicken in the back lobby on fast days. And, there, I had my bar mitzvah, wearing a suit and with a fedora on my head.
Somehow, I don’t remember much about greenery, though Winnipeg had a reputation for trees. I do remember holding my arms round the trunk of one when we played Buck, Buck, How Many Fingers Up? I remember sucking the honeysuckles I gathered off the hedges for their sweetness, and holding dandelions, which were so plentiful, under our chins to see the yellow there. I remember we liked blowing the dandelions’ heads off when they were ripe. And collecting bulrushes from the ditches, where they grew in the gathered water. Winnipeg had some of the deepest ditches. Winnipeg was famous for its lilac bushes, I remember their heavenly scent.
In the summer, gangs of kids used to gather on the street corner, I think it was Powers Street, and play road games far into the night. Sometimes, we’d end the night raiding summer vegetable gardens and have fights with the tomatoes we stole. And, yes, I do remember the mosquitoes.
Winnipeg was a city with a diverse population. There seemed to be large communities of people from a dozen different origins, from Iceland to the Ukraine, from France and, of course, England; Russia, Germany, the Middle East and Asia were all represented. While city government was initially in “English” hands, it changed over time to represent other ethnic communities.
What I remember above all was how active the Jewish community was, and how every political viewpoint and every internal community need was represented by some Jewish organization. I got the feeling that, although I lived in Canada, I could in some way be living within a totally Jewish environment if I so desired. It dispelled the feeling of isolation that I felt in my younger years. And, when I launched myself into the wider world, when I left Winnipeg, I felt totally at home in my Canadian persona. I really only appreciate that now in retrospect.
Digging into the roots of memory and coming up golden!
Max Roytenbergis a Vancouver-based poet, writer and blogger. His book Hero in My Own Eyes: Tripping a Life Fantastic is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.
Launching within hours of each other in May, the Canadian Jewish Record and TheJ.ca come at journalism from different perspectives.
Like print media as a whole, Jewish newspapers worldwide have been struggling in recent years. The coronavirus, with its economic impacts, was the last straw for Canadian Jewish News, which announced its closure in a message to readers April 13, with the words: “Everything has its season. It is time.”
From the ashes of that flagship media outlet, though, has emerged not one but two new ventures – and rumours of a possible revival of CJN itself.
Launching within hours of each other in May, the Canadian Jewish Record and TheJ.ca come at journalism from different perspectives and the people behind them think there’s room for a range of online voices, even if a national hard-copy print media option isn’t in the picture.
The Record is the brainchild of Bernie Farber, former chief executive officer of the now-defunct Canadian Jewish Congress, and Ron Csillag, a longtime reporter and editor with CJN, whose writing has appeared in the Jewish Independent. TheJ.ca, which has been in the planning stages longer, was started by Winnipeggers Marty Gold and Ron East. The editor is Dave Gordon, a Torontonian whose writing has appeared frequently in the Independent, as well as scores of other Jewish and non-Jewish publications.
Farber and Csillag admit they don’t have a business plan beyond getting writers and editors to work for free – and they see their online venture as a stopgap that would probably cease or merge were CJN to return. The individual rumoured to be considering a rebirth of the paper opted to not comment for this story.
Farber, who was with CJC from 1984 until it was subsumed by the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs in 2011 and served as its head from 2006, said they launched CJR on the fly, trying to fill a need in the immediate aftermath of CJN’s demise.
“Our goal is not to become a new Canadian Jewish News,” he said. “When and if they were able to come back up … we would find some way to amalgamate. Nothing is written in stone…. We expect to continue into the fall at this point, hopefully.”
The online news and commentary site operates under the auspices of a nonprofit organization and has no money to speak of, other than enough to cover registration fees and miscellaneous costs, said Farber.
“Everybody who wrote and who is continuing to this day to write for the newspaper is doing it pro bono,” he said. “These are skilled, professional journalists who are, for the most part, people who are used to being paid for their work and have chosen to do this as a donation at this time to the community. It really is a grand mitzvah, Canadian Jewish-style, and it’s working.”
The platform got 22,000 hits in the first week, said Farber, who serves as publisher. “It’s going up from there almost exponentially.”
The model upon which their editorial approach is based is akin to CJN, he said, with a range of opinions represented.
“We’re trying to have a big tent,” he said. “We already got into some hot water because we published a piece by Dr. Mira Sucharov. She’s a wonderful writer, she’s on the edge, people don’t like what she writes, but tough shit. People are allowed to have their opinions.”
JI readers will be familiar with Sucharov’s writing. As for coverage of Israel-related topics, Farber said they will follow a similar open approach.
“It’s not that we don’t support Israel,” he said. “We’re a news source, we’re an information source. We run opinion. We’re not going to [say] you can only write good things about Israel or good things about the Jewish community. We want there to be some spark to it where people can say, no, I disagree with that. We do have an option for feedback and we do get letters to the editor. That’s the Jewish community, right? They are vibrant, they come from all over the place and we want to be able to reflect that.”
Farber and Csillag are well-known figures in the Jewish and larger Canadian scene, which is one of the reasons, they say, that the president of York University reached out to them before releasing a much-awaited report of an investigation around a violent confrontation on campus last November between pro- and anti-Israel groups. The Record got embargoed exclusive access to the report before other media. “It demonstrates how, in a short period of time, we have become a reasonable voice in the community,” Farber said.
Csillag, the editor, said they chose, at the launch on May 21, to “flood” the site with stories to keep readers engaged and coming back. Now, the aim is to post two stories a day plus any breaking news.
“People are talking about it, people are complaining about it,” he said. “I got my first bit of hate mail, which is good. That’s when you know you’re making a difference.”
Finding writers to work for free has not been a challenge. “People have been coming out of the woodwork. I never knew that pretty much everyone on the planet was a writer,” Csillag said, laughing.
Challenges they have not ironed out, they admit, include finding reliable reporters outside Ontario and a steady source of news from Israel, since they don’t have the resources to pay for a news service.
If CJN is not revived, Farber said, “I think we have to get together with serious-minded people within the community and say the CJN is gone and we are here. We don’t have a real business model to be honest. What you see is what you get…. We would have to ramp up to a real business model.”
Farber added that Canada, with the world’s fourth-largest Jewish population at 400,000, should be able to sustain at least two national Jewish media platforms.
That confidence is shared by Gordon, who equates the situation to the old joke about the Jew who, when rescued from a deserted island, was asked why he built two synagogues on the island. One, he told rescuers, was his shul; the other was the one he would never set foot in.
TheJ.ca has been in the planning stages for more than a year. Gordon came on a few weeks before launch. Like the Record, TheJ.ca has little overhead, since everyone associated with it works remotely. They have a few investors and some steady advertising agreements. The online nature of the platform also means no printing or distribution expenses.
Gordon touts the diversity of the large stable of writers.
“One of the things that I think is our proudest asset are individuals from the widest array possible, individuals who are liberal to conservative, Jew and Arab, religious to secular,” he said. “We have four gay columnists, we have Jews of colour who are contributing, we have coast-to-coast contributors and, in that respect, I want to say that, not only do we deliver the unexpected, but we represent the previously unrepresented.”
On Israel coverage, though, they aim to determine suitability of opinions based on the “three Ds” formulated by Natan Sharansky to determine if criticism of Israel is antisemitic: delegitimization of Israel, demonization of Israel, and subjecting Israel to double standards.
“In terms of Israel, we’re not going to make it a secret: we’re very pro-Israel, very Zionistic,” said Gordon. “It’s a good read to say that we are centre-right. We will still strive to maintain a kind of balance in terms of Israel reporting … we will tilt from time to time liberal but not left.”
Their aim is to post a batch of new content twice a week.
While Gordon is based in Toronto, TheJ.ca was born in Winnipeg. Marty Gold, a longtime broadcast journalist and publisher, and Ron East, a former pro wrestler and physical education teacher who has also been involved in publishing, are longtime friends who were critical of existing Jewish media.
East is son of the late Israeli military commander, author and counterterrorism expert Yoram Hamizrachi East. When Winnipeg saw an influx of Israeli immigrants a few years ago, the father and son launched a Hebrew-language publication to help the newcomers navigate their city. The 500 copies were routinely snapped up, he said.
The idea for the new media platform came after Gold and East felt that the established Jewish media and communal organizations in the city were not adequately confronting anti-Israel activity.
“There wasn’t really a pro-Israel, Zionistic platform out there,” said East. “We found that our local media here in Winnipeg, as well as when we started looking at Canadian Jewish News and others, were giving more and more room … and more and more credibility to what we would describe as anti-Israel, anti-Zionistic and, in some cases, pro-BDS Jewish movements. Those voices became louder and louder and the Zionistic pro-Israel voices seemed to be drowned out. We felt that it was important to provide a platform that would allow for those voices.”
While TheJ.ca is an online media platform, they are mooting a print digest that might be issued a couple of times a year. They are also working on a way to format content so that it can be easily downloaded and printed for people who prefer to hold their newspaper in their hands. Also in the hopper are plans for region-specific landing pages, so readers in Vancouver or Halifax, say, could access both items of national and international interest, as well as local news relevant to them.
The design of their site, said East, is particularly aimed at reaching younger readers. They credit Gordon’s experience in the field for bringing together a diverse group of writers from across the country.
The Jewish media scene has faced unprecedented challenges in recent years. The emergence of the internet more than two decades ago has undermined print media of all types, with publications for small or niche demographics experiencing particular challenges as well as advantages. The pandemic, which led to an unprecedented global economic shutdown in March, had immediate repercussions. Much of the advertising in the Independent, for example, is for upcoming community events, all of which were summarily canceled. Non-essential retailers closed, making advertising extraneous.
The Independent has continued publishing on a reduced schedule.
Winnipeg’s Jewish Post & News announced in April that it was ceasing printing, but started publishing a print edition again at the end of May.
The difficulties nearly led to the dissolution of the world’s oldest English-language Jewish newspaper, Britain’s Jewish Chronicle, which was saved by a conglomerate of philanthropists. The rival Jewish News, which had also announced its liquidation and was set to merge with the Chronicle before the surprise bailout, will, for now, continue publishing independently.
In an article recently about the state of Jewish journalism, the Times of Israel reported that New York’s Jewish Week made a dire plea for support and a leader in the American Jewish Press Association – of which the Independent is a member – acknowledged that COVID has presented a serious challenge to an already struggling sector.
The world’s third-largest Jewish community, in France, is in a different boat. In the 1980s, the French government opened radio airwaves to private groups and Jewish radio stations play a role in that country similar to the role newspapers play in most other Jewish communities.
Ara Morris, principal of Brock Corydon School, left, and Naomi Finkelstein, co-founder of Parents Family Friends of Transgender Individuals. (photo from Morris and Finkelstein)
The Winnipeg School Division recently assembled a panel to discuss ways to best support trans and gender diverse children and youth, especially in school settings.
Ara Morris, principal of Brock Corydon School, was invited to sit on the Jan. 22 panel, which took place at Prince Charles Education Resource Centre. “Our school has been very active in talking about gender,” said Morris. “We’ve been making changes to our school as a result of having children in our school who are transgender. We want all of our students, all of our families, to feel included, important, and as equal members of our community and so, to do that, sometimes we have to reflect on the different ways that we are speaking, the different language that we are using.
“We know that many times children identify themselves in all different ways,” she said. “We want to be respectful of that. We have had a lot of professional development for our teachers and that has included programs from the Rainbow Resource Centre,” which offers support, counseling and educational programs for LGBTQ2S+ individuals and allies.
Brock Corydon has invited the parent of a transgender student to speak with school staff, and teachers have led sessions among themselves, as well as having had other teachers come to share how they work on being inclusive in the classroom.
“Our school division has a policy and it was updated in June 2018 for diversity and equity,” said Morris. “With all the research that our school division has been doing, I’d be surprised if other school divisions weren’t doing the same.”
Morris has received many phone calls from other principals asking for suggestions, and she works with parents to identify any needs, such as the need for a gender-neutral bathroom, which the school now has.
Even though full-time staff has been educated on the topic, part-time or causal staff also need to be informed about the proper way for teachers to speak at the school, including the use of gender-neutral language.
Naomi Finkelstein, a retired teacher and the mother of a trans child, was also on the event panel. Finkelstein was dealing with the situation 13 years ago and recalled having tried to find proper supports, which were lacking. She started a support group with another parent, called Parents Family Friends of Transgender Individuals (PFFOTI).
“I had a daughter and, when she was about 20 and a half, she came out and shared that she was transgender,” said Finkelstein. “I knew that this was something I was going to have to get support for, so I went to the Rainbow Resource Centre.”
PFFOTI started out with the two founding members and is now providing support to 170 parents. “Of course, that many do not come to all the meetings and, really, what happens is people kind of grandfather out. Their children are older now, they’ve made their transitions … maybe some have had surgery and they don’t feel the need to attend anymore. We’re always getting new people,” said Finkelstein.
“Our group is specifically for parents,” she continued, “because there are some parents who have just found out and they need the support. And there are always Kleenex boxes on the table. For some parents, it is a real shock.
“I was shocked, too, but I did my crying at home in the shower, which was really very good. There was something, I don’t know why, it was almost like being in a womb, feeling protected in there…. We want the parents to be able to share their fears and concerns; you can’t do that if a child is there.”
Over the years, Finkelstein has developed a list of do’s and don’ts for parents who suspect that their child might be trans.
The do’s list includes respecting your child’s identity and following your child’s lead and listening to them about what trans is all about. Each child is different and there’s no right way to be trans. As Finkelstein pointed out, “some go on hormones, some don’t, and some just dress in what they consider the gender’s clothing.”
The list encourages parents and others to learn about the difference between sex and gender – gender is a social construction, whereas sex is biological.
PFFOTI advises parents to start by helping and educating themselves so they can better help their child. “This involves reading and coming to support groups,” said Finkelstein. “And parents need to take into account if there are other siblings. There can be issues for the other siblings, and they need to be educated, too.”
If the children are minors, parents need to take the lead in setting up doctors’ appointments, buying appropriate clothing, getting haircuts, etc.
“Truly, the key to success is offering the kids your unconditional support,” said Finkelstein. “One of the support groups online, their motto was, ‘Fake it until you make it.’ But, we also talk about what parents need to do within the school system and that they need to advocate for their children. Although the human rights law says that they have rights, not all school divisions are on board. Winnipeg [School Division] 1 is totally on board and they have a process. We need parents to take part in the process and get the school to take part in the process.
“And a critical thing is bathroom talk,” she said. “You have to talk to your child before you go to the administration, so you’re both on the same page as to what the child wants to do. Some schools now have non-gender-specific bathrooms, which is great. I wish every school would have one.
“And then they have to talk to the administration about what their rights are. They should know those rights before they go in.”
Setting up a safe person at the school, with the help of administration, who the child can go to, someone who affirms their identity, if they are having problems, is also important, as is talking about the school’s anti-bullying policy and how that is handled.
“Past the age of 12 and up, you’re also dealing with all these hormones that rage through the child’s body,” said Finkelstein. “So, some kids are going to have to get on blockers to prevent their periods and their breasts from developing, and stuff like that.”
Parents and others must understand that a child’s identification as trans is not likely a passing phase. Although some children identify as trans and later change their mind, that is uncommon. So, do your best to avoid calling your child by their previous name, said Finkelstein.
Parents “really have to make an effort not to misgender,” she said. “Misgendering kind of denies their existence as a person, and that’s a big negative. But, as a parent, if you screw up, you just apologize. I think kids are very understanding about that. As long as you don’t deliberately misgender a child, they are open to the fact that, you’ve had them for 13, or 18, or 20 years, and, yeah, that other name is going to come out. It takes you awhile to reformat.”
Another PFFOTI recommendation is to never out your child – let them do it when they are ready.
“Statistics have proven that, [even] with children who are trans who get support from their parents and their family … four percent commit suicide,” said Finkelstein. “The statistics are much higher – about 45% – for those who do not get support. This past summer, we lost four kids (three in Winnipeg and one who had moved to Vancouver).”
Finkelstein regularly checks in with her son to talk about his mental health and to assure him she accepts him as he is.
Dr. Allan Becker has devoted much of his life’s work to the study of asthma and how it affects children who have it. (photo from Allan Becker)
As Jewish community member Dr. Allan Becker was starting his career as a general practitioner, his daughter was diagnosed with asthma. As a result, he has devoted much of his life’s work to the study of the condition.
“My interest really started when my oldest daughter began having a wheezing episode at about two years of age,” Becker told the Independent. “It was pretty obvious that this was an infection – something we call bronchiolitis, which is fairly common in young children.”
Becker was working in Dauphin, Man., at the time of his daughter’s diagnosis, in the 1970s, and was beginning to see more and more kids with asthma coming into the emergency room.
“Since 1980, when I returned to academics, I’ve been trying to understand why the epidemic started – what the developmental origins of asthma and allergies are,” said Becker, who is now based in Winnipeg. “And, really, they’re the canary in the coal mine when you think about the increase in chronic diseases.
“Asthma is by far the most common chronic disease in children and it’s the earliest to start,” he said, “but we’re seeing parallel increases of other chronic diseases, like diabetes, inflammatory bowel diseases, various forms of arthritis, and others.”
Over the course of a five-decade career, so far, Becker has seen chronic diseases become more prominent. And, while the reasons for this change remain elusive, it seems clear that it involves genes and the environment.
In the early 1990s, Becker and Vancouver-based Dr. Moira Chan-Yeung embarked on a study of ways to potentially prevent the development of asthma.
“Think about the environment in terms of things we breathe and eat … and things like pets in the home, like tobacco smoke exposure, like pollution, like bad nutrition, Western-style diets, etc.,” said Becker. “We started a multifaceted prevention of asthma program in 1994.”
While that study did not reap substantial results, it did eventually lead to a current study examining the environmental impact on expectant mothers in all areas, including the benefits of decreasing stress, which Becker feels may be the most important factor.
Information about the study, called Canadian Healthy Infant Longitudinal Development (CHILD), can be found at childstudy.ca.
“CHILD started in 2008 and is an observation study, because we don’t believe we know enough to prevent the disease as yet,” said Becker. “We’re now seeing the children at 8 and 9 years of age, and we’re looking way more broadly at the environment. We’re looking at stress very specifically, both for parents and children.
“We’re looking much more in terms of diet, but also at the microbiota, the bacteria and other organisms that live in us, with us and on us, and which are likely extremely important – maybe critical – in helping to shape children’s immune responses in early life.”
According to Becker, there are more bacteria in our gut than there are cells in our body, and microbiota are now being considered as the cause of and potential cure for all sorts of illnesses.
One of the biggest hurdles is trying to determine if a young child who is wheezing has asthma and should be treated as such, or if the child has a respiratory infection that causes wheezing. Becker said part of the problem is how to more accurately define wheezing, which is described as a whistling noise coming from the chest.
“The key thing is that it’s not just the whistling noise in the chest,” said Becker. “It’s also that tugging in, particularly tugging in under the ribs, with the tummy pulling in when breathing. That’s a very good indication that those airways are narrowed and that the child has to work hard at moving air, particularly moving air both in and out. That’s what we teach our trainees to work on with the families they see.
“And, obviously, any time a child is distressed – if they’re looking distressed, particularly if there’s a change in colour of the lips – those are urgent issues. And, some children have such severe narrowing of the airways that you don’t hear wheezing, because they’re not moving enough air, but they will be struggling to breathe. You’ll see them pulling in their tummy and you’ll see their shoulders heaving,” he said. “And you’ll often see toddlers and older kids with their hands braced on their knees, hunched forward, trying to get air in. That type of tripoding is really a worrisome sign, as is a change in lip colour – that’s an emergency. Those children need to be brought to emergency quickly.”
If it gets to the point that the child is given inhalers, Becker pointed out that blue puffers are for particularly bad episodes, while orange or red puffers are for management.
For a bad episode, he said, two inhales from the blue puffer should be taken. “An inhalation and a bit of a pause, and then a second puff and inhalation … in many cases, that will be enough to help control things,” said Becker. “If it doesn’t help make things better, then, in five to10 minutes, it should be repeated. If the child is still distressed, that’s an indication they need to be brought to a hospital.”
The blue puffer should not be used for asthma management, he warned, as the body will develop resistance to it. So, if the controller medications are not providing enough control, he said parents should talk to the doctor who prescribed the puffer to determine a solution.
“If people are needing to use the blue puffer on an ongoing basis, even once or twice a week, week after week, that’s really telling you that you don’t have control of what’s going on and is very worrisome,” said Becker. “There should never be a death from asthma. But, sadly, every year there are some. And, these deaths are – rather surprisingly – not necessarily in kids with the most severe, persistent asthma; they’re in kids who are thought to have mild asthma. But, in fact, when you look at it, if you are using the blue puffer and need to get a new one every month or two, that’s a big red flag … needing to use the blue puffer in the middle of the night, that’s a big red flag. Nighttime symptoms are really a worry – those are kids who need to be seen and properly assessed and, in most cases, they need to be using controller medication.”
Becker is proud of having led the development of a national certification for asthma educators in Canada – Canada was the first country to provide this type of certification.
“We have a children’s allergy and asthma education centre in Winnipeg attached to our children’s hospital,” he said. “It’s one of the only real free-standing ones in North America. The website is asthma-education.com.”
Left to right: Lisa, Jacob and Richard Hillman. (photo from Lisa Hillman)
“I had a fairly demanding and public position in the health system. I was president of our hospital foundation, had a very large board of about 25 people and a staff of about a dozen people. We were raising a lot of money to build a new hospital campus at the time, and so I was very public and very out and about. And, my fear was, as sick as it is to say today, that, if somebody would find out that my son had a drug problem, what would that say about me? What kind of mother could I be? What kind of person was I if I had a son who was using illicit drugs?” Lisa Hillman, author of Secret No More: A True Story of Hope for Parents with an Addicted Child, told the Independent.
“That was my feeling at the time,” she said. “I was not at all prepared to have addiction in my household. I was both ashamed and terrified at the same time.”
Hillman and her now-sober son, Jacob, shared their story at a Jewish Child and Family Service (JCFS) event at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Winnipeg late last year.
Lisa and Richard raised their family in Annapolis, Md. Jacob was in high school when they found out he was using drugs. With almost 40 years of experience in the healthcare industry and being the healthcare decision-maker for the family, Lisa was determined to help Jacob overcome his addiction, while also keeping it a secret.
Like many others, however, she learned the hard way, after a couple of years, that this was not something she could fix. Although she held out hope that Jacob’s use of drugs was just a normal coming-of-age rite of passage, like trying cigarettes or alcohol, and that he would return to being the high-achieving person she knew him to be, that is not what happened.
“At first, we had him evaluated,” said Hillman. “I asked him if he would see a psychologist. He said ‘yes.’ He had bi-weekly meetings with a psychologist. At one point, my son gave me permission to talk to him – Jacob asked me, ‘If he tells you I’m alright, will you get off my back?’ And, I said, ‘sure.’
“This was when he was still in his senior year of high school. I visited with the psychologist, who said to me, ‘I told your son to smoke a little less.’”
Jacob was arrested during a holiday week after graduation, and the situation became more serious. As the family worked to get Jacob help, he resisted it, as addicts often do.
“The question I always get is, ‘How do you get them to accept treatment if they don’t want it?’” said Hillman. “I wish I had an answer for that. What we did with our son is finally say to him, ‘Jacob, you have a choice. You can continue to use, but you can’t live under our roof, or Dad and I will pay for inpatient treatment.’ Fortunately, he accepted inpatient treatment.
“Keep in mind, I’m very blessed,” she added. “I had some insurance and other resources. We were able to afford to send him someplace, which I know a lot of families can’t afford to do. I’m very, very lucky.”
The Hillmans found a place in Maryland, because Jacob did not want to leave the state. The place seemed to be very lovely and spiritual. They were hopeful he would get better there. But, after 12 days, the Hillmans visited their son and Lisa knew he had been using. Sure enough, the next day, Jacob’s counselor asked them to come pick Jacob up, that Jacob could no longer stay there.
“We brought him home to Annapolis,” Lisa Hillman said. “He entered the addiction treatment centre inpatient [program] that is part of my health system, where I was then and am still today, on the board. So, my drive for anonymity in this situation was about to crumble. The counselor my son was seeing said to me, ‘You have to tell somebody at work.’ So, I told my boss, the CEO of the hospital, and he was very empathetic and extremely understanding.”
Jacob went in for two weeks, after which the counselors suggested the Hillmans allow him to go to Florida for continued treatment, where he could live in a sober living house and continue to get outpatient treatment.
“The day he left, the counselor said to me, ‘Your son is going to have his program. What are you going to do for yourself?’” said Hillman. “My immediate reaction was that the counselor must have had 10 hits too many, because I didn’t have an addiction. I wasn’t the sick one, my son was the sick one. And yet, I realized I was crying all the time, I was obsessed with where he was and I couldn’t go to sleep at night until I knew he was home.
“I was isolated, I was depressed,” she said. “I wasn’t sharing anything with family and friends. So, I tried Al-Anon. And, from my very first time, I realized I’d [found] a home. These people understood me and were going through the same thing. I wasn’t alone anymore. I had people around me who got it and who were going through the same thing. Meanwhile, my son was in Florida and was getting better.”
Midway through that first year, Jacob had a minor relapse and told his parents about it over the phone. In that conversation, his mother said to him, “Jacob, we love you. Thank you for being honest and telling us. Please take care of yourself. You’re the only one who can.’ And Jacob replied, “Mom, thank you. That’s exactly what I needed to hear.”
Hillman recalled, “Pre-Al-Anon, I would have been on the phone screaming at him, angry. Fast-forward another six months, and he has another much more serious situation. We were told, ‘Your son needs detox.’ He was using heroin IV, a horrible scenario. So, we were asked to pay for a third inpatient treatment centre.
“I remember clearly asking the counselor, ‘How many times do we have to pay for this?’ And he said, ‘Tell your son that this is the last time.’ So, we did and, at the time, we did mean it, really. This was the last time we’d pay for him to have inpatient treatment.”
Although Hillman cannot say for sure that this ultimatum is what did it, Jacob stayed there for 100 days. After that, he moved, got a job and stayed for six months in a sober house. He kept the job for several years and eventually moved into an apartment. He has been active in AA ever since and has been clean for almost eight years.
Hillman has continued going to Al-Anon. She asked her husband to come with her and try it out at least once. They went to a different meeting than she had been going to. “We walked into the room and there were two couples who we know really well,” she said. “Both of them had children with similar problems and we had no idea. We’ve been going to that same meeting now for almost nine years, every Thursday night.
“That first meeting was a huge relief,” she said. “I couldn’t speak at the first meeting. I couldn’t open my mouth, with lips quivering as I cried. They let me cry. Other people at that meeting cried. And I heard a phrase that night, that I think really guided me: ‘Detach with love’ – meaning you have permission to detach from your loved one’s problems, that you’re not responsible for them, that you can’t fix their problems, but that you still love them.”
Hillman realized, over time, that Jacob would have to find his own way and that she couldn’t enable him by sending money or paying for things for him. “But, we never stopped loving him the whole way, the whole time,” she said.
As she healed, Hillman felt the desire to write a book about her experiences. She asked her son for permission to publish it.
“The reason for writing it was, I knew there were other families in hiding and ashamed, and that shame and fear just makes it worse,” she said. “It makes it worse for you if you love someone in addiction, and it doesn’t help the person with addiction. The whole purpose in writing this was to help particularly other moms and dads and sisters and brothers and boyfriends and aunts and uncles and grandfathers who I knew were sort of in hiding and had secrets and weren’t sharing – giving them hope that they can do it, too.
“Don’t hide,” she stressed. “Find professional help for yourself. My message is not to those with addiction, it’s to those who love people with addiction. My son says, ‘Mom, remind people that this is your story. Not mine.’
“If you have somebody in your life that is using or drinking, please go get help for yourself,” she said. “If one person in the family can get healthy and understand addiction, boundaries, and how to take care of themselves, then it will affect the rest of the family.
“That’s what happened in our family. I got stronger, my husband got stronger. Jacob saw that we were trying to understand him, that we were trying to get ourselves right again. He was getting better and we had a common language.”
Hillman said, “I think people who recover from an addiction and somehow live every day clean and healthy, year after year after year, to me, they are the most amazing, profound people. My son has become just an astonishingly profound young man and I’m very, very proud of him.
“I think that Judaism hasn’t helped us here today,” she added. “I think it’s getting better, but, looking back on it, part of my shame was that this doesn’t happen to Jews. We’re smart, educated, driven, are achievers, we don’t have addiction – but that’s not true.”
The Nov. 25 event with the Hillmans was sponsored by the JCFS and Gray Academy of Jewish Education. Panelists included an addictions physician, a therapist and an Addictions Foundation of Manitoba consultant on youth.
“Recovery is individual. There is no single treatment that works for everyone. There is no easy fix, like there is no single cause. It’s a combination of factors,” said Ivy Kopstein of the JCFS. “As a community, we need to end stigma and judgment, and replace it with compassion and understanding so we have no need for secrets anymore.”
Jamie Kinaschuk helps caregivers in various ways. (photo from Jamie Kinaschuk)
“When somebody faces a situation of becoming a caregiver, they can embrace it and see it as a sense of purpose for the person they’re caring for, or they can resent having to do it,” Jamie Kinaschuk, a social worker with A & O (Age and Opportunity) Inc. in Winnipeg, told the Independent.
“When you embrace it, you can feel that the tables have turned – from the time my parents looked after me to, now, me looking after them – and you can see this as something you want to do, are proud to do. That makes it easier.
“On the other hand, you can have a child or a spouse who’s just not ready and doesn’t want that responsibility. They may have been designated by other family members.”
In some situations, said Kinaschuk, the ultimate caregiver is the closest in physical proximity to the family member needing care and, as such, other family members expect them to carry the load of caring, not taking into account that the caregiver has their own life, family, job and/or other commitments.
Being a caregiver takes a toll in many ways, including that their life has to be put on hold to a certain extent.
“Somebody might become a caregiver with some resentment … or, maybe, the relationship between the caregiver and the recipient hasn’t been the greatest and it just happens that they live together,” said Kinaschuk. Regardless of the circumstances, “there is an impact on you physically, mentally, emotionally and financially.”
The care given varies by recipient. For some people, minimal help is needed – things like cooking, house cleaning or doing laundry and shopping. For others, assistance could be needed in bathing or grooming, getting dressed or using the toilet. Often, needs change over time and a caregiver is left to find ways to fill the new requirements of the person for whom they are caring. As a caregiver, one must learn to adapt.
“Maybe they have to locate a different doctor for a different health issue that has arisen,” said Kinaschuk. “Maybe they have to apply for home care, to locate medical supplies or transportation. Maybe it’s come to a point where they can no longer transport them, so they need something like Handy Transit.
“Sometimes what adds to the difficulty of being a caregiver is, if you’re a male caregiver, having to do the personal care if you’re caring for your mom. That could be a struggle – dressing, bathing and toileting.”
Ideally, caregivers will have their own support system, people who can provide some relief. Staying healthy is the most important thing a caregiver can do, not just for themselves but also to not become a further burden on the family.
Kinaschuk, who started his career with Winnipeg’s Jewish Child and Family Service in 2000, runs a caregivers support group.
“In my group,” he said, “we see a lot of caregivers struggling to access resources or, because they don’t have any other supports, they’re really struggling with the situation. There are times where, I’ll give you an example, a caregiver is struggling because their sibling doesn’t understand what they’re going through; they don’t know how difficult it is. That other sibling may say, ‘You can deal with it’ and ‘That’s not a problem.’”
Kinaschuk recommends having a heart-to-heart conversation with the other siblings or relatives to inform them about what’s going on. If a conversation is not an option, a letter can work wonders in getting the message across. “This way, they can read it and hopefully not rip it up, and then read it again,” said Kinaschuk. “And maybe they’ll realize that, ‘Yeah, my brother or sister is going through a lot. I better start supporting them.’”
One of the concerns is that a caregiver may take their frustrations out on the care recipient. Good communication with other family members and their support diminishes this risk, as does attending a caregiver support group. When possible, a talk about boundaries could be beneficial for all involved.
“Both the caregiver and the recipient need to realize that there are boundaries,” said Kinaschuk. “They both have boundaries.” Caregivers, he said, have to be honest with themselves and the recipient – be up front about the fact that they can only do so much.
“The recipient needs to realize that the caregiver needs time. They can’t be demanding 24/7 care,” he said. “They have to be respectful, to respect each other. If the recipient is too over-demanding, it drains the caregiver.”
If all involved can embrace the situation and find the positives, such as having an increased sense of purpose, then, being a caregiver can be an uplifting, life-changing experience.
“From the support group perspective, it’s all about empowering,” said Kinaschuk. “When people attend the support group, first of all, that’s where you see that you’re not alone – you see that other people are experiencing similar emotional, physical and mental situations.”
In his sessions, Kinaschuk asks that people not give advice, but rather share their experiences, in the hope that others can take what information they need to find a solution that fits them. At some meetings, he invites professionals – from the regional health authority and groups specializing in Alzheimer’s and palliative care, among others – to teach the group about different aspects of providing care.
Operation Ezra in Winnipeg has expanded to include farming and selling local produce. (photo from Operation Ezra)
When the Operation Ezra committee in Winnipeg decided to produce a book about the efforts of Yazidi-Winnipegger Nafiya Naso and Operation Ezra, the local Yazidi community was very excited about the idea, about passing down their story in writing to future generations, as their tradition is largely oral.
Operation Ezra: Winnipeg’s Jewish Community-Led Interfaith Response to Survivors of the Yazidi Genocide was launched on Sept. 24 at the JCC Berney Theatre. The event included a few words from the author, Chana Thau, as well as from Operation Ezra (OE) leaders, and a panel discussion. The 71-page paperback includes photographs, interviews and various facts about the Yazidis and how OE came to be, among other things.
“When I first held the book in my hands,” said Naso, “it felt really special and I felt really proud of everything we had accomplished. Having it all in one text to give to people in the community and outside the community, to show what a small group of individuals was able to accomplish in the span of four-odd years, I’m very proud of it.”
Belle Jarniewski, director of the Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada (JHCWC), who has been involved in OE since its inception, said it was a grant from the Jewish Foundation of Manitoba that allowed the book to be published.
“By the time the book was written, there was so much more that we had done, but we thought it would be a nice way to let more people know about this wonderful multifaith initiative,” said Jarniewski.
Each of the families that OE brought to Winnipeg was given a book, including the most recent new-to-Canada family of 10, who had arrived just before the book launch.
Apart from OE’s ongoing efforts to bring more refugees to safety in Winnipeg, the endeavour has been helpful in settling the families already there. Both Nafiya and her sister, Jamileh, were invited to separate events in Europe over the summer to share the story of OE and some insight as to why it is so successful.
“We don’t really know if Operation Ezra can really be done anywhere else,” said Nafiya Naso. “Just because the community here is so welcoming and open, and it would be ideal if every city and every country in the world was like this … realistically, it’s not. Within the larger spectrum of the refugee crisis, a lot of people have very negative perceptions of refugees, without knowing the different types and layers of what refugees are, who they are, and things like that. So, even for us, education was a huge piece – letting people know who the Yazidis are and what’s happening.”
A group of individuals in Germany has been eager to incorporate some of the OE approaches. Naso said one of the main things that has made a huge difference is that OE is multifaith. She suggested that people wanting to undertake similar initiatives start by reaching out to faith-based communities and local businesses to find out who might want to become involved.
One of the more recent aspects of OE that has caught the attention of other communities around the world has been the farming project that started up two summers ago on a small plot of land.
“We had one of our volunteers whose father was a farmer with a lot of land, a potato farm, so some of the community went and helped out and got huge bags of potatoes after, and we had media coverage of it,” said Naso.
“The pastor from Charleswood United Church connected us to the owner of Shelmerdine Garden Centre,” she added. “He donated about five acres of land this summer and the community was harvesting it and they were able to sell some of the leftover produce and make money, and that money then came back into the community.
“This is not only a way for them to work and be involved in the community, but it’s also very therapeutic, especially for the women who have gone through the brunt of what ISIS committed and is continuing to commit.”
The land is located just outside of Winnipeg’s city limits. The families worked together and carpooled there to grow and harvest the produce and sell the excess at Shelmerdine, the Rady Jewish Community Centre and Charleswood United.
“Almost all of our families have vehicles, so everyone will go pick up a couple people, and that’s how we transport everyone,” said Naso. “A couple of times, too, we’ve used a bus, bringing the whole community out there – the kids and everyone – renting a bus or two to get everyone out there.”
“This has been just such a wonderful experience for them,” Jarniewski said, “because this is what most of them already knew, what most of them did in Iraq. Not only have they grown food for themselves, but they have been selling the produce. So, this has been a very positive project and we hope to expand it more next year. They will be able to feed the Yazidi community all winter with the kinds of vegetables you can put into cold storage, like beets and potatoes.
“Now, it’s an exponential growth. They really grew all kinds of things. I would see them here, at the Rady, when they were selling celery, beets, onions, zucchini, you name it … even mint and basil.”
Operation Ezra: Winnipeg’s Jewish Community-Led Interfaith Response to Survivors of the Yazidi Genocide explains the background of the Yazidis, a monotheistic religious minority in northern Iraq that was displaced and persecuted by the Islamic State group in 2014. It also goes into the efforts of the Jewish community to lobby the federal government to bring Yazidis to Canada and to resettle families in Winnipeg via private sponsorship. Sales of the book ($10 each) support the ongoing Operation Ezra efforts – it can be ordered from Jewish Child and Family Service Winnipeg by calling 204-477-7430.
Belle Jarniewski, president of the Manitoba Multifaith Council, left, and Christine Baronins, public affairs director for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. (photo by Miriam Nucum / CJCLDS)
Earlier this fall, the annual Meditation for Peace took place at St. Boniface Cathedral in Winnipeg. Led by a group that is part of the Archdiocese of St. Boniface, the silent meditation was part of Peace Days this year and open to the general community.
Peace Days, which are organized by the Rotary Club and others, have existed for a number of years and there are all kinds of different events that take place, focusing on different segments of the population.
“Originally, a group of planners associated with the Archdiocese of St. Boniface came up with the plan and wanted to include it as part of the Peace Days lineup,” said Belle Jarniewski, president of the Manitoba Multifaith Council and executive director of the Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada, about the Meditation for Peace. The archdiocese group wanted to bring the Manitoba Multifaith Council into the event in order “to have representatives from all the different faith communities bringing prayers for peace as part of the event, and to take part in the water ceremony.”
The aim is to schedule the meditation not too far into the year, so that it could be held outdoors. “But, the last couple years, the weather brought us indoors,” said Jarniewski.
Despite being held on the night of the provincial election, Sept. 10, some 130 people showed up – people of different faiths, backgrounds, ages and genders. The event began with an introduction by the archbishop of the cathedral.
“He did a little introduction and presented tobacco to an indigenous elder, who also provided an introduction,” said Jarniewski. “We went into a 15-minute silent meditation with a gong player. There were a few circular gongs there, so everyone was invited to close their eyes, relax and meditate to the sound of the gongs. Then, we proceeded to the prayers.
“Then, I called up the representatives from I think it was 10 different faith communities, with each one presenting a prayer from their tradition. Sometimes, it was just something that they themselves composed and sometimes it was something like, for example, from the Jewish community, Dr. Ruth Ashrafi, who read out Oseh Shalom [A Prayer for Peace] and translated it.
“Then, after each person presented their prayer, they took a small glass of water and poured it into a larger recipient, symbolizing the unity of all humans and all traditions.”
Jarniewski heard from several attendees that they learned of the event from an article in the Winnipeg Free Press, by the newspaper’s faith reporter, John Longhurst.
For her part, Jarniewski said, “What I do is I reach out to my board members and I ask them if either they or someone they could designate from their community could take part in it. Often, they will designate someone else.”
The Manitoba Multifaith Council, which started up more than 50 years ago, began as an Ecumenical Christian group, which later broadened to include Jewish representation. “Eventually, it really broadened to include people of many different faiths,” said Jarniewski. Currently, there are two Jewish board members.
“It’s also important to know that some of the people on the board actually represent their communities. For instance, we have a Roman Catholic priest who represents the Winnipeg Archdiocese and we have Greg Barrett, who represents the St. Boniface Archdiocese. But, for the rest of us … we are members of those communities, but we’d never claim to represent the community, because that wouldn’t make sense.”
When Jarniewski first joined, Jewish Child and Family Service’s Al Benarroch was on the board. Now, Ashrafi heads up the education committee.
“I’ve been president,” said Jarniewski. “This is my second term. JCFS is a community member of the organization and are particularly involved. They have a representative on the spiritual health committee, which is involved with the spiritual health of chaplains in hospitals, care homes, etc. There are various committees, like spiritual health, justice and corrections, and education and community relations.”
Marshall Williams as Stefan Sokolowski and Laura Slade Wiggins as Rebecca Almazoff fall in love in the movie musical Stand! (still from the movie)
The film Stand! comes out in Cineplex theatres across Canada on Nov. 29. Locally, it will play at SilverCity Riverport Cinemas in Richmond. The story of how the independent film got to the big screen is as interesting as the movie itself. And both it, and the musical on which it is based, started with a simple conversation.
The idea for the musical Strike! came over a deli sandwich in 2002. Then-Winnipeg Free Press editor Nicholas Hirst suggested to Winnipeg composer, producer and writer Danny Schur that there might be some musical-worthy drama found in the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919. Schur – who already had two full-scale musicals on his CV – followed up, coming across a photo of Ukrainian-Canadian Mike Sokolowski, who was killed by one of the “special police” – the actual police force, who sympathized with the strikers, had been fired and replaced with thugs – in what is now known as “Bloody Saturday,” June 21, 1919. Being Ukrainian-Canadian himself, Schur was hooked.
He wrote 18 songs and the script for the musical Strike! by 2003. A workshop of it at the University of Winnipeg connected Schur to director Anne Hodges and writer Rick Chafe, who helped get the production ready for its première – first an abridged version, an outdoor show in 2004; then the full version in 2005. (Chafe is also co-writer of the film with Schur.)
“The idea for the movie first sprang from a conversation I had with Jeff Goldblum in 2005,” Schur told the Independent in an interview. “He was sitting beside me at the Winnipeg world première (he was in a relationship with our Winnipeg female star [Catherine Wreford], whom at that time had a Broadway career). After seeing the musical, he stated, ‘Big story, big ideas, it would make a great movie.’ And I thought, ‘If Jeff Goldblum says it will make a great movie, that must surely be the case.’ I naively believed it would take two or three years to come to fruition and it took 14. Shows what I knew!”
Those years would be filled with adapting the musical from stage to screen, raising the large amount of money needed to film a movie, casting the roles, finding a director, finding a production company, etc., etc.
The considerations in translating the stage production to film were legion, said Schur. “First, some songs had to go, because the average number of songs in a movie musical is eight; the stage show has 18. Some of the cuts were obvious – because some of the actors we cast were not singers. In all cases, it was a matter of what served the story best. What works on stage does not necessarily translate to screen. Rob [Adetuyi] was extremely helpful in this regard, having as much experience as he does with film.
“But the biggest change to screen was Rob’s doing: to make the film more diverse. Emma, the black maid, was a conscious change to reflect history better and have a more diverse film. So, too, was the case with the character of Gabriel [a Métis soldier who served in the war].”
When Adetuyi, the director of Stand! (whose mother is Jewish, as it happens), changed the maid character from being Irish to being a black woman who had fled racist violence in the United States, Schur wrote a new song, “Stand,” which became the title of the film.
Sokolowski is one of the main characters in both the musical and film. He and his son, Stefan, are struggling to earn enough money to bring the rest of their family to Canada from Ukraine. Among their neighbours are Jewish siblings Rebecca and Moishe Almazoff, the latter of whom is based on a real person. (Moishe Almazoff is the pen name for Solomon Pearl.)
Amid the harshness of life and their bleak future, Stefan and Rebecca fall in love. Schur told the JI that he based the interfaith romance on that of his aunt and uncle, “she the Christian, he the Jew.” Of course, the couple’s relationship isn’t welcomed by their families and respective communities. And, of course, the poor living and working conditions, the labour unrest, the threat of deportation and the violence are not conducive to love.
In a neat turn, the making of the film has led to changes in the musical.
“I always say, musicals are never written, they’re rewritten,” explained Schur. “So, where, before, the movie was substantially different from the stage musical, we have now edited the stage version to reflect the movie. So, now they’re pretty close. Having said that, the stage play has more songs.”
The music is certainly one of the highlights of the film. In this regard, and also another of the Jewish connections to the production, Schur noted, “Gail Asper is the hugest supporter of the movie, having invested in the stage show and the movie, and she convinced Montreal’s Sharon Azrieli to do the same. Sharon, who is an opera singer, sang the closing credit song, ‘Change,’ which I wrote for her.”
As for the feat of getting an independent movie a national release, not to mention deals for distribution in the United States and Japan, Schur said, “This is a truly indie release; in other words, there is no distributor involved. We went to Cineplex and said, ‘We have an audience. Please give us some screens.’ Where Cineplex could have given us a token, small number of screens, they provided screens from sea to shining sea, which is a testament to their belief in the film. I cannot say enough good things about the good people at Cineplex for giving us our chance to make a stand, especially in the midst of so busy a late fall season.”
“The movie is a unique opportunity to take the experience of the Jewish community in Canada circa 1919 and apply the lessons of the era to today, be those lessons for the community itself, or the broader community of immigrants,” said Schur. “In an era where discrimination is on the rise, the movie is a metaphor that teaches us that ‘love thy brother’ is the best way forward.”
As I get older, I look forward to my childhood memories of the High Holidays with my original family. This year, Rosh Hashanah begins before sundown on Sept. 29 and ends on nightfall Oct. 1, Yom Kippur.
My parents, four older brothers and I had moved to several rental houses after our arrival in Winnipeg’s legendary North End, but the one on Robinson Street is the earliest in my awareness as a preschooler. The neighbourhood was refuge for a host of other immigrant Jewish families who came from the same geographical area and shared the same culture, language and religion. This bond and kinship brought these landsleit together and they congregated around the Talmud Torah Hebrew Free School, where my father taught the children, and the Chevra Mishnayes Synagogue, directly across from our house, giving us the opportunity to attend services in a building that also acted as an unofficial community centre.
Papa attended all Shabbat services at the shul, which was the centre of many family weddings, bar mitzvahs and funerals. Since we observed the Orthodox Jewish religion, women and men did not sit together, so, while the men were seated on the main floor, the women were sequestered in an upstairs oval-shaped balcony overlooking the activity below. Not particularly interested in the liturgy, they tended to talk to one another about their children, their homes and other areas of interest, especially cooking on the High Holidays. This “noise” often interfered with the men as they recited the prayers. At some point, the shamas (the person running the service) would look upward, pound on the podium and shout “Schveig, viber!” (“Quiet, women!”) as if we were all one big family. Things subdued for awhile until the chatter swelled again, requiring intermittent reminders with more pounding, and a commanding, “SHHAA!”
Our old, wood-framed house had a screened veranda where I played and sometimes slept on warm summer nights. Once I was old enough, on Saturday mornings, I was allowed to cross the street to join Papa after a bar mitzvah celebration. There were always treats after the service, and he would prepare a small plate of schmaltz herring and chickpeas for me, and a piece of honey cake for dessert. I loved schmaltz herring and would devour it quickly while Papa looked on with a broad, proud smile.
But clouds of the Great Depression hung heavy over this North End community and there was widespread poverty. Most women did not work outside the home and, like many other men, my father lost his teaching job for a period during the Depression.
When I accompanied Mama to the grocery store or the kosher butcher shop, I didn’t understand why her face flushed and her eyes looked away as she stammered out in Yiddish, “I need food for the children. Can you put this on credit? We will pay you as soon as we can.” Her embarrassment and humiliation collided with my father’s shame, and resulted in many heated arguments between them over money.
The stress was particularly hard on Mama because she wasn’t well and had a large family to care for. She developed a “milk leg” while pregnant with my youngest older brother, Matty. It created a painful swelling of the leg after giving birth, which caused inflammation and clotting in the veins and affects some postpartum women. I vividly recall the too-numerous times when an ambulance came tearing down Robinson Street to our house with wailing warnings. Big men dressed in white would rush in, lift Mama onto a stretcher and take her away amid the shrieking sirens that were now competing with the high-pitched howls of her two frightened preschoolers, Matty and me.
Back then, children were not allowed to visit in hospitals, for fear of transmitting disease, so we could not see our mother for intermittent periods. On one such occasion, my father had enough money to take us to the ice cream store a few blocks away. Holding Papa’s hand on one side, with Matty on the other, I felt safe as we all walked together. And the tears subsided.
Canada declared war on Germany in September 1939 after Hitler invaded Poland, and, although my parents’ family was safe in Canada, their hearts and minds were with the loved ones they had left behind. Yet, our home was filled with joy and laughter.
My mother played happy, lively Russian, Yiddish and Hebrew songs at the black upright piano that held a place of honour among the flowery wallpaper and sagging couches of our living room. The eldest of the five children would lead us in a conga line with me at the other end, and we would dance from room to room, up and down the stairs, and all around the house. Sometimes, he would pick me up, throw me over his shoulder and call out “A zekele zaltz!” like a peddler. “A sack of salt, I have a sack of salt for sale! Who wants to buy my little sack of salt?” Or sometimes I was “potatoes.” Whether salt or potatoes, he would haggle with whichever of my other brothers offered to “buy” me.
Although I was still a preschooler, I knew that Papa was listening to “the news on the radio.” The worry was in his eyes, his face, his body, and his words expressed his extreme concern for our families back in the homeland. But the true catastrophic human saga that was unfolding, even as he listened, would not emerge until the war ended. We would learn much later that most of the relatives left behind, including my maternal grandfather, died in the Holocaust.
Even Papa’s fears could not have fathomed such destruction. The radio had become so much a central focus and source of news that, when the war ended in 1945, I recall asking, “Papa, now that the war is over, will they close the radio?”
“Why do you think they will close the radio?” he asked with a puzzled look.
“Because what else would they have to talk about?”
Libby Simon, MSW, worked in child welfare services prior to joining the Child Guidance Clinic in Winnipeg as a school social worker and parent educator for 20 years. Also a freelance writer, her writing has appeared in Canada, the United States, and internationally, in such outlets as Canadian Living, CBC, Winnipeg Free Press, PsychCentral and Cardus, a Canadian research and educational public policy think tank.