I review a lot of books for the Jewish Independent. Over the years, that has included many children’s books. I do my best in these instances but, as much as I like to let my inner child run free occasionally and as much as I’d one day like to create a children’s book or two, I’m a grown-up. What do I really know about how enjoyable the single-digit-age set will find a publication? Well, for my latest two reviews, I turned to a couple of experts for advice.
With COVID-19 causing the shutdown of schools, my youngest nieces – Fae, 8, and Charlotte, 6 – were suddenly available to be put to work. With their parents’ blessing, nay, encouragement, I scanned and emailed them two recent books published by Intergalactic Afikoman (see jewishindependent.ca/new-publisher-set-to-launch). The assignment was to read Asteroid Goldberg: Passover in Outer Space by Brianna Caplan Sayres and illustrator Merrill Rainey and Such a Library! A Yiddish Folktale Re-imagined by Jill Ross Nadler and illustrator Esther van den Berg. As my nieces were new to the reviewing world, I gave them a handful of questions to answer: What did you like about the books? What did you not like? What did you learn? Would you recommend the books to your friends?
Their mother, Deborah Weiss, sent me summaries of their answers, as well as Fae’s handwritten responses – I’d asked her to be the family’s scribe for the job.
They started with Asteroid Goldberg, which features Asteroid and her parents on their way home from Pluto for the Passover seder. When the family gets to earth’s orbit, they are not allowed to land (for an unstated reason), so they must make alternate seder plans on the fly (pun intended). A few of Jupiter’s moons for kneidl, a piece of Saturn’s rings for matzah, the Milky Way as their pantry. Who to invite? Family members close by, including Grandma Luna, who was biking on Venus, and Uncle Cosmos, who was hiking on Mars. When they come to the Mah Nishtanah, Asteroid asks, “What makes this night so different?” to which the answer is “Everything!” Caplan Sayres couldn’t have known how relevant her Passover story would be this year.
Both Fae and Charlotte loved the story and the artwork. Even though Charlotte found it a bit too long, Fae recommended it for kids 7 and under.
“I like this book because it was a rhyming book and because it had lots of play-along words,” wrote Fae, who explained to her mom that “play-along words are words with multiple meanings.”
As for lessons learned, Fae “did not learn anything.” However, her sister, who can be a pistol, said she learned that one should “never go on a rocket before Passover.”
As for their mom’s thoughts, Deb said, “I really liked this book. As we get ready for a Passover that will be very different this year, I loved reading about a family that had to change their Passover plans and still had lots of fun and found new ways to celebrate. This really resonated with me!”
Deb and the girls also enjoyed Such a Library! “I thought this was a really clever and imaginative take on a well-known folktale,” said Deb, who noted, “Both girls liked the funny text, the story and the artwork. We also liked the clever name of the librarian.”
In Such a Library!, Stevie heads to the public library to read his book – “With three brothers, two sisters and a baby at home, Stevie’s house was never quiet.” As he starts to read, though, he hears pages turning, computer keys tapping. He tiptoes to the librarian, Miss Understood, and says, “This library is too noisy.” He tells her, “It’s like a party in here.” Thinking that a party sounds like a wonderful idea, she opens a book: “Hundreds of colourful balloons flew from the pages, followed by party hats and horns.”
Each time Stevie goes to Miss Understood to complain, she opens another book and the library becomes a zoo, then a circus, as the characters jump out of the pages of the books she opens and take over the library. Only once the characters are all returned to their books can Stevie enjoy reading his, to the relatively quiet sounds of the pages turning, computer keys tapping.
Such a Library! is an interpretation of the Yiddish folktale about a man who thinks that his small house is too crowded with his wife and many children. The rabbi recommends that the man also bring into the house the family’s cow, chickens, goats, geese and ducks. When the man can’t take it anymore, the rabbi tells him to kick out all the animals, after which, the small house seems quite big and spacious.
Fae would recommend Such a Library!, once again, to kids age 7 and under, while Charlotte really liked it and would recommend it to anyone.
As for what the girls learned, Deb said, quoting Charlotte, “We learned that, if you’re looking for a quiet place to read, to not to go to the library when it’s full of acrobats!”
The National Film Board of Canada (nfb.ca) offers a selection of some 4,000 short and feature-length films, whether you’re looking for animation, documentary or fiction. Explore the Cartoons for Kids section for the latest releases.
Enjoy searching the many choices available from the NFB, Jewish-related or not. Recently added titles include Where the Land Ends, a documentary feature by Loïc Darses, about the places that created Quebec, exploring the historical narrative, as a group of young people who were not old enough to vote in the 1995 referendum express their views; Ice Breakers, a documentary short by Sandi Rankaduwa on the Black athletes who helped pioneer modern hockey, through the story of Josh Crooks, an African-Canadian player; and The Great List of Everything, an animated webseries by comic book artists Cathon and Iris Boudreau, as well as Francis Papillon.
New films are being added to nfb.ca all the time, and they’re always free to view.
From the page before the opening of Moishe Rozenbaumas’s incisive, heart-felt memoir, we already feel the pain that will inhere in much of his story. Even before we begin reading this autobiography, we see a photocopy of the author’s dedication, handwritten in Yiddish, to the memory of his mother and three brothers, with the dates they were murdered by the Germans’ Lithuanian collaborators in August 1941, in Telz, where Rozenbaumas (1922-2016) was born.
Many people know Telz as the name of the famous yeshivah that was located there, but The Odyssey of an Apple Thief (Syracuse University Press, 2019) by Rozenbaumas – translated from the French by Jonathan Layton and edited by Isabelle Rozenbaumas – takes us into the city, depicting a vibrant Jewish culture, zeroing in on housing, way of life, learning and sports. The title comes from little Moishe’s sneaking into the bishop’s orchard next door and nabbing apples, and the author gives us an historian’s sweep of an area, with a memoirist’s penchant for detail.
For instance, his description of a middle-class household’s Sabbath meal. Although Jews lived “in poverty, hand to mouth,” middle-class Jews had munificent Sabbath meals. Typical to Eastern European towns, the housewife prepared the cholent pot at home, then brought it to the baker, whose oven was heated all Friday night long throughout the Sabbath. Then, around noon on Shabbat, the woman would go and pick up her cholent. Most Jews didn’t have the sort of meals that Rozenbaumas describes, which are at odds with the reigning poverty in Telz.
When the Germans occupy Lithuania, Rosenbaumas accents the avid cooperation between the Lithuanians and the Germans, who murdered 90% of Lithuania’s Jews. He writes that the situation of the Jews in Lithuania was no worse than in other countries; they weren’t loved but they were tolerated. However, in the very next sentence, we read that once, when the president of Lithuania addressed an antisemitic rally, he said that nobody should be stupid enough to slaughter a productive cow while it’s still giving milk.
Rozenbaumas provides what he considers a needed reassessment of the yizkor bikher, the memorial books that survivors of various towns assembled after the Holocaust, which always accented the people’s “piety, purity and morality,” even though there were all kinds of individuals. What is often omitted from these yizkor bikher, Rosenbaumas states, is the miserable poverty of Jews who lived in lightless cellars, had only black bread dipped in powdered sugar for food, froze in winter, and dressed in rags.
During the financial crisis in the late 1920s, his father’s successful fabric shop began slipping. Rather than declaring bankruptcy, the father ran away to Paris, where he had sisters. Despite continuing promises, the father never sent any support to his wife and children, and was unaware of what happened to his family until after the war.
Without a father, the author’s mother and her four boys slowly sank into poverty and hunger. Rozenbaumas becomes an apprentice to a poor tailor with 10 children who live in squalid quarters. Soon, he is the sole breadwinner for his family. But, when the Germans invade, he flees eastward to the Soviet Union, just like his father had fled westward. But the author doesn’t notice the irony of the breadwinner again fleeing alone. True, Rozenbaumas asks his mother to come, but she refuses; he doesn’t ask any of his brothers to join him in his flight.
In the Soviet Union, life wasn’t easy. First, Rozenbaumas served four years on the front, undertaking dangerous reconnaissance missions; he was wounded and decorated several times. He regrets that Jewish former soldiers from other lands never mention the half million Jews who fought with the Red Army, including hundreds of Jewish generals and other high-ranking officers.
When Rozenbaumas’s unit liberates Lithuania, first thing he does is go to his house in Telz, where he finds Lithuanians occupying his now-emptied home. He learns where his family was massacred and longs for revenge, which soon comes. After volunteering as a translator for the Russians, he gets the satisfaction of hunting for the Lithuanian murderers, finding them, watching their trials and immediate executions. He even found the murderer of his youngest brother, Leybe, “who may have been,” Rozenbaumas adds, “his playmate.”
When Rozenbaumas finally decides to leave communist-controlled Lithuania, he describes the nightmare of leaving, taking the great risk of paying an exorbitant fee for forged papers that would guarantee his exit. He makes it, finally, across the border into Poland, with suspense and fright accompanying him like a second skin. It was not until he got to Vienna that he could breathe freely.
One day, Rozenbaumas met a man who knew about his father in Paris and thus was able to find him. But the father-son relationship was uneasy. The father never expressed a word of emotion regarding the murder of his wife and his three sons.
Coincidence also plays another crucial role. Rozenbaumas, by chance, bumps into his old girlfriend, Roza, and later marries her.
Rosenbaumas concludes his touching narrative with the hope that the stories of the European Jewish civilization that was brutally erased from the face of the earth will not be forgotten.
Curt Leviant’s most recent novel is Katz or Cats; Or, How Jesus Became My Rival in Love.
Musician Myrna Rabinowitz, left, and Jewish Senior Alliance’s Shanie Levin. (photo from JSA)
The theme of this year’s Jewish Seniors Alliance-Snider Foundation Empowerment Series is “Be inspired!” and the first of four sessions was called Be Inspired through Story and Song.
Held at the Peretz Centre for Secular Jewish Culture on Nov. 29, Gyda Chud, co-president of the JSA, introduced the two presenters, referring to each as “a gift to our community”: storyteller Shanie Levin, who is a member of JSA’s executive board and on the editorial board of JSA’s Senior Line magazine, and singer-songwriter and guitarist Myrna Rabinowitz.
Rabinowitz opened with the Yiddish song “Abi Gezunt” (“As Long as You’re Well”) and the audience echoed enthusiastically the refrain, “As long as you’re well, you can be happy.”
Levin followed with a story by Kadya Molodowsky, the first lady of Yiddish poetry. A House with Seven Windows is about a proud, strong heroine in the mid-19th century who embraced the dream of “normalizing” Jewish life through a return and settlement in the land of Israel.
Other songs by Rabinowitz included the Yiddish translation of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” as well as “Sleep Little Boy,” a Yiddish song that she wrote eight years ago for her first grandson. She ended with the Yiddish rendition of “Sunrise Sunset” from Fiddler on the Roof (Tog Ayn Tog Oys).
Tall Tamara by Abraham Karpinowitz, both sympathetically comic and painfully tragic, was another inspiring story of Vilna’s poor and the unexpected dignity available to one woman through a chance contact with Yiddish literary culture.
Levin also shared Ted Allan’s Lies My Father Told Me, about the relationship between a 6-year-old child and his grandfather that transcends the differences in ages with deep connection. This story was made into a Golden Globe-winning film of the same name.
The last story Levin read – If Not Higher by I.L. Peretz – was about a rabbi who demonstrates that doing good deeds on earth may be a more exalted activity than doing God’s will in heaven.
Chud thanked the performers and urged the audience to attend upcoming JSA events, the next one being the screening of the movie Music of the Heart, starring Meryl Streep, at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver on Jan. 15.
Marilyn Berger, who initiated the Light One Candle project and designed a card to help JSA celebrate Chanukah, encouraged the audience to spread the light and make a special donation to help JSA continue its peer support program, as well as its advocacy work.
One of the family cards, produced 100 years ago, that is currently on long-term loan in the folklore department of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, on Mt. Scopus. It is from the Chaya and Chana Gitelman Collection.
Not too long ago, I was flipping through a collection of old family cards, all of which were produced 100 years ago in Eastern Europe. On the cover of one card, a young girl sits at a table writing in a notebook. Her mother stands over her, looking on. From a modern perspective, there is nothing unusual about a woman knowing how to read and write. But less than 200 years ago, this would have been considered somewhat revolutionary.
Just how revolutionary? In the article, “The History of Jewish Women in Early Modern Poland: An Assessment,” Prof. Moshe Rosman reported that, at the end of the 19th century, more than half of all Jewish girls could not read, not even in Yiddish. Rosman noted that not only was limited attention given to educating Jewish women, but that those who first wrote the history of this period, deemed it hardly worth dealing with the subject.
In early modern Poland, education for Jewish girls and women was largely designed to make them into faithful Jews who would keep female rituals. For the most part, their education was informal and conducted in Yiddish. Brenda Socachevsky Bacon states that a learned woman was an aberration and considered outside the norm. In analyzing Shmuel Yosef Agnon’s story “Hakhmot Nashim” (“The Wisdom of Women”), which was published in 1943, Socachevsky Bacon says a woman’s very presence in the beit midrash causes the men to be uncomfortable. “They view the realm of Torah study as their own, even as their own hypocritical behaviour belies their dedication to it,” she writes. “The men will not allow this discomfort to continue, even if it involves transgressing the Torah’s commandment not to embarrass another person publicly.”
Fortunately, this was not the whole story of this period. Rosman explains there were secularized school settings in which Jewish girls learned both Yiddish and European languages. The objective of these schools was modernization and general knowledge. Girls read classic European literature. In this instance, the scorn was sometimes transferred, with traditional Jewish literature viewed contemptuously.
According to Prof. Eliyana Adler (“Rediscovering Schools for Jewish Girls in Tsarist Russia”), private schools for Jewish girls were a crucial ingredient in transitioning Russian Jewry into modernity. She reports that, from 1844 to the early 1880s, well over 100 private schools for Jewish girls opened in cities, towns and shtetlach throughout the Pale of Jewish Settlement.
The educators who opened and ran private schools for Jewish girls pragmatically balanced their ideological motivations with very real concerns about funding and retaining communal goodwill. Thus, those who ran private schools offered a variety of student tracks. Rich Jews (like their wealthy Christian neighbours did elsewhere) could pay to board their children. Many schools offered weekly instruction in both music and French as paid electives.
Adler goes on to say, “at the same time, families of modest means were offered tuition payments on a sliding scale. Noteworthy, poor students were actively recruited for scholarship positions. Other schools offered less sophisticated fee scales, but clearly worked within the same framework. The rewards for having a robust student body became clear as both the government and certain private and communal bodies began to award subsidies to successful private schools.”
These private schools for Jewish girls designed Jewish studies curricula to meet the expectations of the Russian Jewish communities from which they drew their students. The curricula had to be modern and useful without being radical. Thus, efforts were made to introduce training in practical crafts; that is, crafts that could be put to use in the marketplace. In 1881, the first trade school for poor Jewish girls opened in Odessa. Thereafter, both trade schools and sections within other schools that offered more in-depth training in such skills as sewing opened with increasing frequency.
By the end of the 1890s, in Odessa alone, more than 500 girls studied in four communally funded vocational schools for Jewish girls. Jewish educators responded to the growing interest in interaction with the surrounding society by opening their private girls schools to Christian girls and by offering to teach courses in the Jewish religion in Russian schools. Prayer served as the common denominator of religious courses – the major focus of religious education was on prayer.
The teaching of Jewish history rather than simply the Torah allowed for an unprecedented degree of interpretation and even mild biblical criticism. Hebrew reading was also offered in many of the schools. Almost all Jewish girls schools offered penmanship and arithmetic.
Every private school for Jewish girls in the Russian Empire required extensive instruction in the Russian language. It was not uncommon for all general studies subjects to be taught in Russian.
Examples of the above educational transformation may be found in the bigger cities of Eastern Europe. In Plonsk (located some 60 kilometres from Warsaw), for example, toward the end of the 19th century, organizations such as Kahal Katan (literally, Small Community), educated the poorer strata of society. Also during this period, the city (which had a Jewish majority) opened a primary school for Jewish children, where some 80 pupils, mostly girls, studied in Russian. (See yadvashem.org/yv/en/exhibitions/communities/plonsk/jewish_education.asp.)
Vilna is another example. In 1915, the Association to Disseminate Education established three schools – one for boys, one for girls and one mixed – whose language of instruction was Yiddish. Also in 1915, Dr. Yosef Epstein established the Vilna Hebrew Gymnasium (high school), which was later renamed after him. The informal educational system included literature, drama, music, industrial arts and other courses. (See yadvashem.org/yv/en/exhibitions/vilna/background/20century.asp.)
According to Dr. Ruth Dudgeon (“The Forgotten Minority: Women Students in Imperial Russia, 1872-1917”), Russian women, aided by sympathetic professors, created educational institutions that evolved into universities and medical, pedagogical, agricultural and polytechnical institutes for women. Moreover, in 1916, the Ministry of Education overcame its bias against preparing women for public activity, rather than the home, and mandated the equalization of the curricula in the boys’ and girls’ gymnasia.
In the 1870s and 1880s, Jewish-Russian enrolment in the courses for women was between 16% and 21%. The imposition of quotas in the 1880s, however, reduced the number of Jewish students. But, in places where the quota was lifted, the number of Jewish women in the courses soared.
In the restricted Pale of Settlement, young Jewish women wanting to study did everything to establish residency elsewhere. The “everything” included registering as a prostitute. According to Dudgeon, one brother found out about his sister’s actions and then drowned himself in the Neva; the grieving sister, in turn, ended her life by taking poison.
As circumstances for Jews in the Russian Empire deteriorated in the 1880s, those Jews who stayed in that part of the world came to embrace new ideological solutions to the situation. In an atmosphere of violence, deprivation and brutally strict quotas in education and professions, Russian-Jewish parents wanted their children enrolled in schools where the course of study offered some hope for the future.
By the turn-of-the-century period, educators were no longer opening private schools for Jewish girls based on the old model. The schools they opened – whether they were trade schools where Zionism was taught, religiously mixed schools devoted to full acculturation, or Yiddishist schools committed to inculcating socialism – promised more than basic literacy.
In Poland, Gershon Bacon writes, “the education of Polish Jews in the interwar period was characterized … [as] the ‘victory of schooling.’ The compulsory education law of the reborn Polish republic had brought about in one generation what had eluded generations of prodding by tsarist officialdom and preaching by Jewish maskilim (people versed in Hebrew or Yiddish literature). Whether in the public schools or in the various Jewish school networks, Jewish children in Poland were educated according to curricula that deviated in almost every respect from that of traditional Jewish education. [Notably,] religious families had no objections to sending daughters to secondary schools, even though they objected to exposing sons to secular education.
“What is most striking,” continues Bacon, “are the differences in enrolment figures in institutions of higher learning. There was a much larger proportion of Jewish women students among female students as a whole (36% in 1923/1924), as distinct from the percentage of Jewish men among male students (22% in 1923/1924). It would seem that we have here but another example of a phenomenon observed in other countries, where Jewish women entered institutions of higher learning earlier and in greater proportion than their non-Jewish counterparts.” (See jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/ poland-interwar.)
So many factors about these educational statistics still need to be explored. Nevertheless, one can observe that an outcome seems to have been the creation of a modern Jewish Eastern European woman who “opened her mouth with wisdom.” (Proverbs 31:26)
Deborah Rubin Fieldsis an Israel-based features writer. She is also the author of Take a Peek Inside: A Child’s Guide to Radiology Exams, published in English, Hebrew and Arabic.
During the Goldene Medina exhibit this past summer, the documentary Leah, Teddy and the Mandolin was screened. It will be shown again on Dec. 8 at Congregation Beth Israel. (photo from Steve Rom)
I have a bad case of South African Jewish envy. This condition developed when I moved to Vancouver from the North End of Winnipeg. I can’t remember meeting even one South African Jew while growing up in the Prairies – the majority of Jews in my hometown were from Eastern Europe. However, I met oodles of South African Jews when I moved here in the early 1990s and I was impressed by their knowledge of Judaism and their commitment to Jewish life. There seemed to be something unique about their community and it seemed exotic compared to Winnipeg’s. Many of them became my good friends, perhaps because, as a Litvak (my last name literally means a Jew from Lithuania), I share a common ancestry with my South African co-religionists, who predominately hail from Lithuania.
When I first moved here, my South African friend Geoff Sachs, z”l, two Montrealers and I organized Tschayniks, an evening of Jewish performing arts at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver. It was at the JCC that I met another South African friend, Steve Rom, who was working there at the time, and helped us set up our events. About a month ago, Steve brought a fascinating exhibit to Congregation Beth Israel. Prior to being mounted in Vancouver, the exhibit, Goldene Medina, a celebration of 175 years of Jewish life in South Africa, was displayed in South Africa, Israel and Australia. Thanks to Steve, Jews in Vancouver got a taste of South African Jewish life, as well.
A unique feature of the exhibit was that nobody was named or personally identified on any of the displays. This approach helped tell the story of all South African Jews, and made the exhibit simultaneously particular and universal.
Stories were depicted on a series of panels, and traced the South African Jewish community from its origins in 1841 – when Jews first settled in South Africa – to the present. On one of the panels, I recognized the son and daughter in-law of Cecil Hershler, who has South African roots and is well known in the Vancouver Jewish community as a storyteller. His son married a woman from Zimbabwe and the wedding in Vancouver, which I attended, was a joyous blend of South African and Zimbabwean cultures. Seeing the panel brought back memories of that happy occasion and gave me an unexpected personal connection to the exhibit (other than identifying with my Lithuanian landsmen).
Other panels depicted various aspects of Jewish life in South Africa. While I was fascinated by the differences between the South African Jewish community and my experience growing up in Winnipeg, the exhibit was really a microcosm of Jewish life in the Diaspora. For example, the panel on Muizenberg depicted the resort town located near Cape Town, where throngs of South African Jews flocked to during the summer. The photos of crowded beaches told a thousand stories. However, that panel also reminded me of the stories that my dad, z”l, told me about taking the train to Winnipeg Beach in the summer with other Jews from the city to escape the summer heat. Like at Muizenberg, there was a synagogue at Winnipeg Beach. I am sure that Jews from New York have similar stories of escaping the city heat by going to the Catskills. In addition, the Jews of America, like the Jews of South Africa, referred to their new home as “the Goldene Medina.” Ultimately, all three places – Canada, the United States and South Africa – represented a new start for Jews fleeing persecution in Eastern Europe.
The Goldene Medina exhibit gave me an opportunity to learn about Jews from the land of my ancestors in Lithuania, who were able to reinvent themselves on the African continent and create a thriving Jewish community, which, at one point, reached 120,000. This resiliency is a characteristic of Jews and Jewish communities all over the world. And this resilience was evident in the film Leah, Teddy and the Mandolin: Cape Town Embraces Yiddish Song, which screened at Beth Israel during the exhibit – and will be shown again at the synagogue on Dec. 8.
Using 10 years of archival footage, Leah, Teddy and the Mandolin showcases the Annual Leah Todres Yiddish Song Festival, which was held in Cape Town. The documentary features stirring renditions of classic Yiddish songs like “Romania Romania” and “Mayn Shtetele Belz,” as well as two original songs written for the festival by Hal Shaper, a renowned songwriter, which are sung with passion by talented South African Jews of all ages. The songs featured in the film evoke a yearning for a Jewish world that no longer exists in Lithuania and Eastern Europe and highlight the power of the Yiddish language and music.
While the South African Jewish community has shrunk since its heyday in the 1970s to approximately 50,000, it is still an important Diaspora community. In addition, South African Jews make important contributions to every Jewish community they move to, and bring their unique culture to their new homes.
Seeing the exhibit and the documentary cemented the kinship I feel with my South African brothers and sisters. A few of my South African friends even dubbed me an honourary South African Jew at the exhibit, an honour I gladly accepted. One day, I hope to make a pilgrimage to the land of the Litvaks to experience South African Jewish life firsthand. Until then, I will have to continue to learn about South Africa vicariously.
The Dec. 8 screening of Leah, Teddy and the Mandolin at Beth Israel takes place at 4 p.m. Admission is a suggested donation of $10. For more information, visit leahteddyandthemandolin.com.
David J. Litvakis a prairie refugee from the North End of Winnipeg who is a freelance writer, former Voice of Peace and Co-op Radio broadcaster and an “accidental publicist.” His articles have been published in the Forward, Globe and Mail and Seattle Post-Intelligencer. His website is cascadiapublicity.com.
Steven Skybell and Jennifer Babiak in the Yiddish version of Fiddler on the Roof, which is slated to run through January 2020 in New York City. (photo by Matthew Murphy)
It’s no wonder the current Fiddler on the Roof on stage in New York City has been extended several times since it debuted Off-Broadway last summer. The immense draw isn’t just the splendid choreography, the well-known beloved music, the compelling, stellar cast, the emotional dialogue – it’s the authenticity that strikes a chord. Based on a collection of vignettes by Yiddish literary icon Sholem Aleichem, this production of Fiddler is entirely in Yiddish, the guttural tongue that the people on whom the characters are based would have used in real life.
This is the first time in the United States that Fiddler is being staged in Yiddish. Directed by the venerable actor Joel Grey, it opened at the Lower Manhattan’s Museum of Jewish Heritage in July 2018 and transferred to the more commercial Stage 42 near Times Square in February 2019. It’s expected to run through January 2020. It has both English and Russian supertitles.
“When Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish first premièred last summer for a limited eight-week run under Joel’s vision, it was a show that moved people to tears and I knew it had to be seen by as many people as possible,” producer Hal Luftig told the Independent.
Set in 1905 in a Jewish shtetl in the town of Anatevka, on the outskirts of czarist Russia, Fiddler is centred around Tevye (played by Steven Skybell). He’s a poor dairyman with a wife and five daughters. Three of his daughters are of marrying age and the expectations are a matchmaker will find them a husband.
But, despite tradition, the strong-willed girls have their own idea of who they want to marry – and it’s all for love. Their marital choices give Tevye plenty of tsouris (aggravation). Eldest daughter Tsatyl (Rachel Zatcoff) marries a poor tailor in need of a sewing machine. Second daughter Hodl (Stephanie Lynne Mason) falls in love with a penniless Bolshevik revolutionary who winds up in Siberia. And though Tevye convinces his wife, Golde (Jennifer Babiak), that it’s OK to break from the matchmaker tradition, it is too much even for him when his third daughter, Khave (Rosie Jo Neddy), falls in love with a gentile – he banishes her from the family, declaring her dead.
Meanwhile, the political climate is very antisemitic. There are pogroms, and the czar is expelling Jews from the villages. At the end of the musical, the Jews of Anatevka are notified that they have three days to leave the village or they will be forced out by the government.
The original Broadway production opened in 1964 and, in 1965, won nine Tony Awards including best musical, best score, book, direction and choreography. Zero Mostel was the original Tevye. The music was by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick and book by Joseph Stein. The original New York stage production was directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins. In 1971, there was a critically acclaimed film adaptation that garnered three Academy Awards, including best music.
The Yiddish translation was originally performed in Israel in 1965. It was crafted by Shraga Friedman, an Israeli actor who was born in Warsaw, escaped the Nazis in 1941 and settled in Tel Aviv.
In the New York production, the set design, credited to Beowulf Boritt, is simple. The word Torah (in Hebrew) is painted across the main banner and is torn apart and sewn back together as a symbol of what the Jewish people have endured.
From the very start, the audience gets drawn in when the cast forms a circle and sings “Traditsye” (“Tradition”). Another familiar tune – “Shadkhnte Shadkhnte” (“Matchmaker Matchmaker”) has the audience moving in their seats. While most of the music and lyrics are basically the same, there are some changes. “If I Were a Rich Man” becomes “Ven Ikh Bin a Rothshild” (“If I Were a Rothschild”).
While most of the cast is Jewish, some are not, and very few of the actors actually knew Yiddish before the show. Jackie Hoffman, who brilliantly plays Yente the Matchmaker, grew up with some Yiddish in her home but was far from fluent in it.
“I didn’t learn the language for my role, I learned my lines,” admitted Hoffman, who grew up on Long Island, N.Y., in an Orthodox home and attended a yeshivah for nine years. “It was difficult, but when I’m hungry to learn a role, that helps a lot. We have great coaches who are relentless. I did hear Yiddish in the house growing up, my mom and grandmother conversed, and I’m now grateful for every word I’ve learned.”
Hoffman and the cast were taught the language phonetically. Many had seen Fiddler performed in English in various theatrical productions, as well as the film. “It feels bashert this is the first production of Fiddler that I have ever been in and it is clearly the most meaningful,” said Hoffman, who has been in dozens of television shows and films, including Birdman, Garden State and Legally Blonde 2. “It merges the Jewish part of my life with the career part,” she told the Independent.
It is hard to leave the theatre without thinking of the similarities between Tevye’s Anatevka and many parts of the world today, including the United States. Jewish traditions are often challenged and antisemitism is once again on the rise.
“I don’t think that antisemitism ever went away, but it is a very scary time now,” said Hoffman. “It is mind-blowing how current the piece feels in that way.”
At the end of each performance, it’s clear by the enthusiastic applause and the long standing ovations, that the audience feels they have experienced something great. “They seem blown away by it,” said Hoffman. “They are impressed that we’ve pulled off a three-hour musical in Yiddish and they’re staggered by how pure and emotional an experience it is.”
At Stage 42 on 422 West 42nd St. in Manhattan, Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish runs just under three hours with one intermission. For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit fiddlernyc.com.
Alice Burdick Schweiger is a New York City-based freelance writer who has written for many national magazines, including Good Housekeeping, Family Circle, Woman’s Day and The Grand Magazine. She specializes in writing about Broadway, entertainment, travel and health, and covers Broadway for the Jewish News. She is co-author of the 2004 book Secrets of the Sexually Satisfied Woman, with Jennifer Berman and Laura Berman.
The Vancouver Jewish Folk Choir in a performance last fall at the Peretz Centre, led by conductor David Millard, with pianist Danielle Lee. (photo from VJFC)
As they say, nothing comes from nothing and so it is with the Vancouver Jewish Folk Choir of the Peretz Centre for Secular Jewish Culture. Officially, our birth date was 1979 – and that’s what we’re celebrating in the June 9 spring concert unironically called Freylekhe Lider: Yiddish Party Songs – but, when you come right down to it, we were in labour for around 25 years before finally coming into the world.
An early predecessor to the Vancouver Jewish Folk Choir was a group called the UJPO’s Vancouver Jewish Folk Singers. UJPO was the United Jewish People’s Order and it was a decidedly political organization that positioned itself somewhere left of Lenin. Its eight-member choir, though keen on socially progressive issues as well, was somewhat less political and more focused on bringing Yiddish and international music to the Vancouver community. Yiddish singer Claire Osipov, the choir’s founder and director, formed the group in 1956 and kept it going for six years. In that time, the choir performed at Peretz Centre events, as well as reaching out to the community beyond. On two occasions, the choir performed at the CBC studio and was broadcast over CBC Radio.
Everyone familiar with Claire knows she seems to have boundless energy when it comes to her love of music and so, to no one’s surprise, she took on additional musical duties and began a children’s choir at Peretz in 1959. The Peretz Centre had an active children’s education program under principal Leibl Basman and Claire’s choir drew on this group, bringing in children who ranged in age from 7 to 11. Noteworthy in this choir was part-time piano accompanist Gyda Chud, current president of the Peretz Centre.
Time and circumstance brought both those choirs to an end some time in the 1960s and, for a time, the halls of the Peretz Centre were chorally silent.
Then, a Peretz choir formed under the direction of Morrie Backun, an employee of Ward’s music. Little is remembered about this choir because Morrie discontinued the group after just one year. Tammy Jackson sang in this choir and one of her main recollections is not so much the repertoire and performances as the brilliant discount they got on sheet music.
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Searle Friedman arrived on the Vancouver scene 1978. He had been out of the country for a number of years studying music in East Germany. After his studies, he and his family – wife Sylvia and sons Michael, Robert and David – settled in Toronto, where Searle became conductor of the Toronto Jewish Folk Choir.
After a time, the family decided to move to Vancouver and Searle came here on his own initially to pave the way. At first, he taught at an alternative education program (called Relevant High School) that was based at what was then called the Vancouver Peretz Institute but, after a year, he parted company with that organization. Since his Ontario teaching credentials were not immediately transferable to British Columbia, Searle spent much of his time at Peretz and it was there that he had a conversation with Tammy, who suggested that he form a choir to occupy his time.
The beginnings of the Vancouver Jewish Folk Choir were rather humble, comprising just a few members and a Russian pianist named Wolfgang. The roster at that time is only vaguely remembered but it certainly included Tammy (Searle’s niece) and Sylvia (his wife). It likely also included David Friedman (Searle’s son), Goldie Shore, Betty Ewing, Davie Cramer, Carl Lehan and Margie Goldhar. When there were no-shows at rehearsals, the standing joke was that the choir could at least consider the possibility of becoming a barbershop quartet.
In those early years, the choir performed informally at various Peretz Centre festival occasions and cultural gatherings. The repertoire was a potpourri of traditional Jewish folk songs sung in Yiddish, as well as some non-Jewish selections that piqued Searle’s interest – “Roosters Crowing on Sourwood Mountain” and “Martian Love Song,” to name two. Incidentally, Searle could never figure out why the “Roosters” song never sounded quite right, until one day he discovered somebody in the bass section was singing “roosters growing on the side of the mountain.”
But the choir grew rapidly. Searle was not just a brilliant conductor and arranger. He was very much a people person and had a charisma and affability that drew others to him. He had a knack for making his singers believe in themselves. Maurie Jackson, an early recruit, recalls Searle often saying to struggling singers: “If you can talk, you can sing!” In a short time, the choir grew to around 30 members, including me.
I had seen Searle’s choir perform and I thought about joining but my interest was kind of a passing thing. I was determined to do something Jew-ish but my real hope was to join a folk dancing class at the Jewish Community Centre. My job kept me glued to a desk most days. I figured folk dancing would be a good way to get some exercise, lose some weight and meet new people. As fate would have it, the folk dancing class was canceled, so I had to begrudgingly fall back on my second choice – the choir. It was a choice that I stuck with for almost 36 years and a choice that introduced me to Tammy – the remarkable lady I’ve been married to for 31 years and counting.
Tammy’s uncle, Searle, was inordinately pleased to know he had played matchmaker to two of his choir members. As often as Searle gave me pointers on singing, he also asked for updates on the state of my relationship with his niece: “Are you seeing each other after choir?” “Are you engaged yet?” “Do you have a wedding date?”
Rehearsals were a lot of fun. Searle liked to laugh and humour was always a part of our repertoire. I recall one day when Searle was working hard at getting us to blend our voices more closely. He wanted to hear the choir singing as one voice. After puzzling over how to make us understand this, he said, “I want all of you to try really hard to feel each other’s parts!” That did us in for most of the rest of that rehearsal, and even Searle had to take time to get back his concentration.
Searle’s one nemesis in rehearsals was his wife, Sylvia. While the rest of us were in awe of his talents and put Searle on a pedestal, Sylvia felt no such compunction. She freely advised Searle of proper pronunciations of Yiddish words and even was vocal about the pace of various songs when she thought Searle had got it wrong. The expression we often heard from Sylvia was, “In my village….” The expression we often heard from Searle was “Sylvia, who’s running this choir?” For fear of hurting his feelings, no one ever answered that question. Many a rehearsal degenerated into heated debates regarding Yiddish linguistics and the proper treatment of traditional songs.
As well as increasing the size of the choir, Searle wanted to increase our presence in the community and give us a focal point for our efforts. With that in mind, we performed our first annual spring concert in the spring of 1984. Our guest artists were the Shalom Dancers. In addition to the choir fans who attended, the Shalom Dancers brought to the performance their own appreciative followers. The result was a very large and lively audience. The pervasive feeling in the choir was, “We’ve got to do this again!” And so, we have, every spring.
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Searle’s energy and love of music had always made him seem like an unstoppable force of nature. We thought and hoped he would last forever. We were wrong. Due to a childhood bout of rheumatic fever, his robust exterior masked the effects of a damaged heart. When he was still a young man, his doctors basically told him not to take on any long-term magazine subscriptions. They said that, with the damage to his heart valves, he would not survive past the age of 40. Searle’s response was to get married, raise three sons, travel to East Germany to study music, get his Canadian teaching certificate and start a choir. When it came to living his life, Searle was not about to call it a day.
In September 1974, Searle had a heart valve replacement and got on with his life. After he founded the Vancouver Jewish Folk Choir in 1979, he was spending repeated stints in the hospital. Nevertheless, he pushed through his medical setbacks and always came back to us ready to lead the choir without a backward glance.
I had a conversation with Searle that pretty much says it all. I was visiting him in the hospital.
Me: How are you doing, Searle?
Searle: Fantastic! I’ve gotten some very good news from my cardiologist.
Me: (greatly relieved) Wonderful! What did he tell you?
Searle: Well, it turns out he sings in a choir and he’s not happy with it. He’s thinking of joining ours! And he’s a tenor!
Searle returned to us from that hospital stay and all of that seemed behind him. But tragedy struck on Dec. 31, 1990. Searle’s heart just stopped. He was only 64.
Just over a week later, we had our first choir rehearsal without Searle. We stood in a large circle and began our warm-up exercises, led by our accompanist, Susan James. No one’s mind was on what we were doing. After a few minutes, I suggested we stop so I could say a few things about Searle. I can’t remember exactly what I said but I spoke about Searle and how much the choir meant to him, and about keeping it going as a tribute to his memory. The floodgates opened. Every choir member spoke of how much Searle had meant to them personally. When it ended, we got down to the business of carrying on what he had begun. If we doubted ourselves, we only had to look at one of the choir members who stood in that same circle to warm up and sing with the rest of us – Searle’s wife, Sylvia.
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After Searle’s passing, Susan stepped up and became our conductor. She was a more reserved individual than Searle but a skilled conductor and her attention to detail was legendary. Nothing got by her and every note sung that was not to her satisfaction was drilled again and again until we got it right. And, sometimes, when the notes were right, we were still stopped dead in our tracks because the page turns were too loud. We worked harder during rehearsals, and we were better singers for it.
Susan’s tenure was five years. She was a devout Christian and the choir was composed mostly of a bunch of godless secularists. In her farewell letter to the choir, she expressed her sadness at not being able to share her beliefs with the rest of us. She left in 1995, after our annual June concert and our season had ended.
Again, a member from our ranks stepped up and helped us carry on. In fall 1996, David Millard – who for a few years had been a paid professional singer in our tenor section – became our conductor and, much to our good fortune, is still at it today.
Over the years, David has conducted, served as our resident Yiddishist, sung as a soloist, filled in on occasion as our pianist, written choral arrangements for many of our songs and led audience sing-alongs at festival celebrations. As we declared in one of our concert narrations, David is the Swiss Army knife of conductors.
In recent times, he composed an original six-part cantata based on a Yiddish translation of Lewis Carroll’s nonsense poem, “Jabberwocky” – “Yomervokhets,” in Yiddish. David’s interest was piqued when he read a Yiddish translation of “Jabberwocky” by Raphael Finkel. Finkel had apparently found a Yiddish-English dictionary that no one knew existed. In this dictionary, the “Jabberwock” translates as the “Yomervokh” and the “frumious Bandersnatch” is noted as the “froymdikn Bandershnits.” The hero’s blade that went “snicker-snack” as it sliced into the Jabberwock made a different sound held by a Jewish hero – “shnoker-shnik.” Who knew?
Translation issues aside, “Yomervokhets” is a brilliant original composition and an audience favourite. No history of the choir would be complete without it and it is to be featured at the choir’s 40th anniversary concert in June.
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Helping us sound our best over the years have been our piano accompanists. Some choirs sing a cappella (without accompaniment). Some choirs, such as ours, are community choirs that welcome enthusiasts of all abilities. For that reason, many of us welcome the guidance of an accompanist to help keep us on pitch. (Some of the choir still think a cappella is an Italian dish involving meatballs.)
Good accompanists are not easy to come by. They need to work closely in tandem with the conductor, often to the point of reading his or her mind.
Over the years, we have relied on many pianists to keep us in tune. Currently, we are accompanied by Danielle Lee, who joined us at the start of this season. But, Elliott Dainow stands out as our longest-serving accompanist – almost 20 years! Beyond contributing his talents at the piano, Elliott was a choral arranger and his version of “Oseh Shalom” has been performed by the choir many times. Though he grew to be a member of the family, to everything there is a season, and Elliott left us in June of 2017, in order to give more time to the renovation of his home on Hornby Island.
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Over the years, the choir has performed at countless venues, including the Peretz Centre, South Granville Lodge, Louis Brier Home and Hospital, Cityfest Vancouver, Vancouver Public Library, VanDusen Gardens, Cavell Gardens, Orpheum Theatre’s Parade of Choirs, the Vancouver Planetarium, the Israeli Street Festival and Victoria’s Congregation Emanu-El.
Sadly, one of our more recent choir performances was at a memorial service for our beloved Sylvia. Shortly after our June concert in 2016, she became ill and passed away that December. She was our last original choir member still active with the choir. In the program notes of our June 2017 concert, we wrote: “The choir dedicates this concert to the memory of our beloved Sylvia Friedman, who sang with us for all but one of the 38 years of our existence. Sylvia wanted to sing this one last concert before retiring. Her death in December 2016 prevented that, but, in our hearts, she is always right there beside us, singing as beautifully as ever.”
Under David’s able baton – figuratively speaking, since he really just waves his arms and hopes somebody notices – and inspired by the devotion to Jewish music of Searle and Sylvia Friedman, the choir is looking forward to its next 40 years.
For tickets ($18) to Freylekhe Lider June 9, 2 p.m., at the Peretz Centre, visit eventbrite.ca.
Adi Shapira brought home a silver medal for British Columbia in the 2019 Canada Winter Games. (photo by Peter Fuzessery Moonlight Canada)
From Feb. 15 to March 3, Red Deer and central Alberta hosted the 2019 Canada Winter Games. Among those taking home a medal was Adi Shapira.
Winning the silver in the archery recurve, individual female event, Shapira said in a Team BC article, “It is an amazing reward for all the training I have been doing and it is just an amazing accomplishment.”
According to the Canada Winter Games website, Shapira, “who had taken up archery following a school retreat in grades 8 and 9, fought hard in the gold medal match, but Marie-Ève Gélinas, came back to win the gold for Quebec.”
Shapira, 16, is part of the SPARTS program at Magee Secondary School, which is open to students competing in high-performance athletics at the provincial, national or international level, as well as students in the arts who are performing at a high level of excellence. Last November, she won the qualifying tournaments against other female archers ages 15 to 20 to represent the province of British Columbia in the February national games.
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Stylin’ Or Shalom on Feb. 20 was not just a beautiful evening: the event raised $1,600 for Battered Women’s Support Services so that they can continue their important work.
Models for the fashion-show fundraiser were Ross Andelman, Avi Dolgin, Val Dolgin, Carol Ann Fried, Michal Fox, Dalia Margalit-Faircloth, Helen Mintz, Ana Peralta, Avril Orloff and Leora Zalik. About 50 people attended and, between cash donations and purchases from the My Sister’s Closet eco-thrift store, this year’s show raised about $600 more than did the inaugural Stylin’ Or Shalom event held in 2017. In addition, many people brought clothing donations, which will be sold at the store, generating further funds for the organization.
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The Association for Canadian Jewish Studies has announced that Dr. Norma Baumel Joseph is the 2019 recipient of the Louis Rosenberg Canadian Jewish Studies Distinguished Service Award. Joseph brings together the highest standards of scholarship, creative and effective dissemination of research, and activism in a manner without rival in the field of Canadian Jewish studies, as well as being a respected voice in Jewish feminist studies more broadly.
Joseph’s scholarship is remarkable for her mastery of both traditional rabbinic sources and anthropological methods. Her work on the responsa of Rabbi Moses Feinstein, including an award-winning article published in American Jewish History 83,2 (1995), is based on a close reading of some of the most technical and difficult halachic texts. Her mastery of these sources is also apparent in articles on women and prayer, the mechitzah, and the bat mitzvah. She has used her knowledge of halachah in her academic work on Jewish divorce in Canada, including an article in Studies in Religion (2011) and is a collaborator in a recently awarded grant project, Troubling Orthopraxies: A Study of Jewish Divorce in Canada.
As a trained anthropologist and as a feminist, she realizes that food is also a text and she has made important contributions to both the history of Iraqi Jews in Canada and to our understanding of the history of food in the Jewish community. Her Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC)-funded research has resulted in recent essays such as “From Baghdad to Montreal: Food, Gender and Identity.” Her ongoing reflections on Jewish women in Canada, first appearing as early as 1981 in the volume Canadian Jewish Mosaic, are foundational texts in the study of Jewish women in Canada.
Joseph has chosen to disseminate her research and wisdom in a variety of ways. Her undergraduate and graduate students at Concordia praise her innovative student-centred teaching. Recently, she instituted a for-credit internship at the Alex Dworkin Canadian Jewish archives, which has been beneficial to both the student and the archive. She is in demand as a lecturer in both professional and lay settings. Her work in film has reached a wide audience. In Half the Kingdom, a 1989 NFB documentary on Jewish women and Judaism, she explores with sensitivity the challenges – and rewards – of being both a feminist and an Orthodox Jew. She served as consultant to the film, and was a co-author of the accompanying guidebook.
Since 2002, Joseph has also committed herself to public education by taking on the task of writing a regular column on Jewish life for the Canadian Jewish News. Her views are based on a deep understanding of Judaism and contemporary Jewish life and are worthy of anthologizing.
Joseph is a founding member of the Canadian Coalition of Jewish Women for the Get and worked for the creation of a Canadian law to aid and protect agunot. As part of her Women for the Get work, she participated in the educational film Untying the Bonds: Jewish Divorce, produced by the Coalition of Jewish Women for the Get in 1997. She has also worked on the issue of agunot, as well as advocated for the creation of a prayer space for women at the Western Wall among international Jewish organizations.
Joseph helped in the founding of the Institute for Canadian Jewish Studies at Concordia, and convened the institute from 1994 to 1997, when a chair was hired. She was also a founder and co-director of Concordia University’s Azrieli Institute for Israel Studies. In 1998, she was appointed chair of the Canadian Jewish Congress National Archives Committee, and has remained in the position since then, under the new designation of chair of the advisory committee for the Alex Dworkin Canadian Jewish Archives (CJA). In this capacity, Joseph has been a forceful and effective advocate for protecting and promoting the preservation of Canadian Jewish archival material and for appreciating the professionalism of the staff. She has lent her time and experience to multiple meetings and interventions at various crucial junctures in the recent history of the CJA, during which she has balanced and countered arguments that would have led to the dissolution or extreme diminishing of the archives as we know it. Her work on behalf of the archives has drawn her into diverse committees and consultations. Notably, she contributed her expertise to the chairing of a sub-committee convened by Parks Canada when their Commemorative Places section was in search of Canadian Jewish women-related content. Her suggestions made during the 2005 meetings have resulted in several site designations over the course of the past 12 years.
Joseph has had a unique role in Canadian Jewish studies and Canadian Jewish life, and is richly deserving of the Louis Rosenberg Award.
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In February, Janie Respitz of Montreal won the prize for best interpretation of an existing Yiddish song at the final Der Idisher Idol contest in Mexico City. She performed “Kotsk,” a song about a small town in Poland, which was the seat of the Kotsker rebbe, the founder of a Chassidic dynasty in the 18th century. The win included $500 US.
Respitz holds a master’s degree in Yiddish language and literature and, for the past 25 years, has performed concerts around the world. She has lectured and taught the subject, including at Queen’s University and McGill University, and is on the faculty of KlezKanada, the annual retreat in the Laurentians.
Respitz was among nine finalists, both local and foreign, who were invited to perform at Mexico City’s 600-seat Teatro del Parque Interlomas before a panel of judges and a live audience.
The competition is in its fourth edition, but Respitz only heard about it last year. She submitted a video of her performing “Kotsk” in September and received word in December that she was in the running.
A Yiddish song contest in Mexico City may seem odd, but the city has a large Jewish community, many with roots in eastern Europe, much like Montreal. The winner for best original song was Louisa Lyne of Malmo, Sweden, who’s also a well-established performer of Yiddish works.
– Excerpted from CJN; for the full article, visit cjnews.com
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On March 14, at the New School in New York, the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) announced the recipients of its book awards for publishing year 2018. The winners include Nora Krug, who was given the prize in autobiography for Belonging: A German Reckons With History and Home (Scribner). “Krug creates a stunningly effective, often moving portrait of Krug’s memories and her exploration of the people who came before her,” said NBCC president Kate Tuttle.
Krug’s drawings and visual narratives have appeared in the New York Times, Guardian and Le Monde diplomatique. Her short-form graphic biography Kamikaze, about a surviving Japanese Second World War pilot, was included in the 2012 editions of Best American Comics and Best American Nonrequired Reading. She is the recipient of fellowships from the Maurice Sendak Foundation, Fulbright, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, the Pollock-Krasner Foundation, and of medals from the Society of Illustrators and the New York Art Directors Club. She is an associate professor at Parsons School of Design in New York and lives in Brooklyn with her family.
The National Book Critics Circle was founded in 1974 at New York’s legendary Algonquin Hotel by a group of the most influential critics of the day. It currently comprises 750 working critics and book-review editors throughout the United States. For more information about the awards and NBCC, visit bookcritics.org.
The Cherie Smith JCC Jewish Book Festival starts this Saturday night (Feb. 9) with Joshua Cohen, author of Moving Kings and ATTENTION: Dispatches from a Land of Distraction. It continues for five literary-filled days at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver, and here’s a sampling of books you might want to add to your reading list, and authors you might like to meet.
Set in 1920, in the fictional shtetl of Golikhovke during the Russian civil war, Judgment, by David Bergelson (1884-1952), is a melancholic novel about humanity in a time of uncertainty, where different political factions are warring, each under their own ultimately meaningless banner; neighbours cannot trust one another, let alone strangers; and justice is meted out randomly by a cruel, indifferent force.
Stationed in an also fictitious abandoned monastery called Kamino-Balke, near Golikhovke, the sickly Bolshevik Filipov is in control of the area along the Ukraine-Poland border. There are smugglers who travel across the border for commercial reasons and Socialist Revolutionaries who travel across it in preparation for an uprising against the Bolsheviks. Jews and non-Jews live together in relative tolerance but political loyalties, ethnic ties and differing ideas of morality ensure a constant tension. All live in fear of being captured by one of Filipov’s agents, as guilt of a crime does not need to be proven for a person to be beaten, imprisoned and/or shot.
What makes this novel beautiful is Bergelson’s prose. Imaginative metaphors: “Large, invisible hands merrily picked up whole heaps of snow and just as merrily released them.” Animated objects: “… the coat lay there bent over, dejected, as if it had made a long, pointless, idiotic journey” and “The cannons’ muzzles – black, fat and eyeless – stared longingly in the direction of the forests around Moshne….” Humour: “Stone fences suited the inhabitants of Yanovo, for all of them were as stubborn as their stone fences: stone upon stone.” And empathy, in this case, for the undercover agent Yokhelzon, whose “eyes (which inspected everything, people said) had already taken in the horror of death – they winked joyfully, so that the horror would not show afterward.”
As should be obvious, Harriet Murav and Sasha Senderovich have done a masterful job of translating Judgment from Yiddish to English. They also provide a fascinating introduction to the novel, its historical context, the author and his other works (Bergelson was executed in 1952, on Stalin’s orders), the book’s title, form, themes and use of language.
Senderovich will be at the book festival on Feb. 10, 3:30 p.m.
Michèle Smolkin’s novel Silence, je tombe is a witty, philosophical novel that explores how people can become isolated from one another, including themselves. Told from the perspectives of a few protagonists, readers will likely relate to many of the feelings expressed.
The novel starts with a pregnant Tania, as she, her husband Paul and their toddler Margot are making the drive to their new home in “Manhattan, Kansas, The Little Apple,” from Vancouver. Tania’s disenchantment is obvious and she expresses her anger towards her husband – who, as a professor of philosophy, couldn’t find a job elsewhere – with vicious (and very funny) sarcasm, mostly in her thoughts, but aloud, as well. She had imagined a different life for herself – living in New York, the Big Apple, for one thing; and certainly not in the Bible Belt. As a Francophone Jew, she anticipates that fitting in might be a problem.
As the book progresses, we get to know Tania, Paul and a disturbed man named Kevin, plus a couple of other minor but important characters. Through them, we contemplate love, what attracts people to one another and what forces them apart, what happiness is, what actions might be unforgivable, how our childhoods influence our adulthoods, and, of course, the inadequacy of words for certain situations, and understanding why, sometimes, silence is the only possible response.
Smolkin’s talk – the book festival’s first-ever French-language event – will take place Feb. 10, 5 p.m. (Note: Festival program shows incorrect time.)
A River Could Be a Tree is, thankfully, not the memoir of a person who goes from believing fanatically in one religion to being swept away as unquestioningly into another, though it might seem like it would be, given some aspects of the press material. “How does a woman who grew up in rural Indiana in a fundamentalist Christian cult end up a practising Jew in New York?” asks part of the blurb on the book flap. Well, for starters, Angela Himsel seems to always have been an inquisitive person, and never an avid follower of Herbert Armstrong’s Worldwide Church of God. She was an obedient child, but is still struggling with understanding how her parents believed so much in the church doctrine that they didn’t give her sister the care that might have prevented her death at a young age.
A River Could Be a Tree is a measured, often humourous, always intelligent memoir. Himsel starts with a prologue that gives readers a very large hint as to what led her to ultimately convert to Judaism: she and her boyfriend Selig were, “just once … careless about birth control.”
But the journey to that point is long and more complicated, and Himsel takes readers through it with the benefit of hindsight, hard-won insights and a writing style that is serious, honest but unsentimental, and filled with initially unexpected levity. As but one example, a mere three paragraphs into Chapter 1, in which Himsel talks about her parents’ religious heritage, Roman Catholicism and Lutheranism, she writes about Martin Luther, that, at age 41, he “married a nun, a woman he had helped smuggle out of a convent in a herring barrel. While irrelevant to Luther’s religious beliefs, a nun in a herring barrel is always worth mentioning.”
And A River Could Be a Tree is well worth reading. Himsel will speak at the book festival on Feb. 11, 7:30 p.m.
There is so much information in Why You Eat What You Eat: The Science Behind Our Relationship With Food by Rachel Herz. And a refreshing aspect of the book is that it’s not written from a dogmatic, all-knowing viewpoint. Herz acknowledges that sometimes studies come to different conclusions, sometimes scientific progress means that what was once thought true is disproven, and that different people will experience food, exercise and other things differently. Readers looking for certainty might be disappointed, but those wanting to learn will learn a lot. Who doesn’t want to know, for example, why tomato juice is one of the most popular drink orders on planes? Does sugar really help the medicine go down, so to speak, i.e. reduce the effects of pain? And why can buying ethically branded or organic products make us less charitable?
But Why You Eat What You Eat is more than an amalgamation of trivia. Herz has compiled a very readable and relatively comprehensive resource that will, as the title promises, help explain why we eat what we eat; how all of our senses – taste, smell, sight, touch and hearing – affect how we experience food. And knowing these things just might make us feel better about ourselves, and make choices that would serve us better.
Herz will be at the book festival on Feb. 13, 6 p.m.